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Who You Been Grapplin’ With?

Who You Been Grapplin’ With?
by Bill Pronzini
Art by Mark Evans

He was sitting on one of the anteroom chairs when I came into the agency that morning. A rather shabbily dressed black man well up in his seventies, thin and on the frail side, with a mostly hairless, liver-spotted scalp, rheumy eyes, a long, ridged upper lip, and the kind of slumped posture and pain-etched features that indicate failing health. At first glance you might have taken him for one of San Francisco’s legion of homeless street people, but only at first glance. His jacket and slacks were frayed and threadbare, but clean, he wore a tie over a patterned shirt, and his seamed cheeks looked freshly shaven. On his lap were an old brown hat with a faded red band that might once have had a feather stuck in it, and a battered case the size and shape of a trumpet. I had never seen him before.

The door to Tamara’s office was open and I could hear her rattling around in the back alcove where we kept a hotplate. Getting coffee for herself and the visitor, I thought.

“Morning,” I said to him.

“Mornin’.” His voice had traces of a Southern accent and was stronger than the rest of him looked, with a gravelly quality that made me think of Louis Armstrong. “You Miz Corbin’s partner?”

“That’s me.” I added my name to confirm it.

He said his name was Charles Anthony Brown, and we shook hands. His palm was so dry it had the feel of fine-grain sandpaper. “Heard of you,” he said then, “what you and Miz Corbin willin’ to do for poor folks. That’s why I come here. Times, they sure do change.”

I didn’t need to ask him what he meant by the first and last statements. The first referred to the advertised fact that we took on pro bono cases now and then, mainly for minorities who otherwise couldn’t afford detective services—an estim-able idea of Tamara’s when the agency began to prosper under her direction. The second referred to our partnership—computer-savvy, street-savvy black woman in her late twenties, old-school white guy with forty-plus of his sixty-five years in law enforcement and detective work. It was the kind of alliance that would not have been possible back when Charles Anthony Brown was young, particularly if he was originally from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

There were footsteps and Tamara appeared in the doorway. “I thought I heard your voice,” she said to me.

“Just getting acquainted with Mr. Brown.”

“He’d like us to locate his niece for him.”

“Robin Louise,” Brown said, nodding.

She smiled at him. “Coffee’s ready in my office. Be more comfortable talking in there.”

He nodded and got up slowly, the hat in one hand and the trumpet case in the other. Tamara’s glance in my direction was an invitation to join the interview. Brown followed her into the office, moving in a shuffling gait that had everything to do with age and infirmity and nothing to do with the old racial stereotype, and I followed him. She indicated the client’s chair nearest her desk, the one within easy reach of the steaming coffee mug she’d set there.

“Milk and three teaspoons of sugar, right?”

“Always did like it sweet,” Brown said.

While he was lowering himself into the chair, I went into the alcove and poured myself some coffee and then came back and sat down in the client chair’s mate. Tamara was tapping away on her computer keyboard, getting a case file started. Brown sipped from his mug with one hand; the other continued to grip the trumpet case.

He saw me looking at the case. “My horn,” he said. “Never go anywheres without it.”

“Are you a professional musician?” I asked.

“Most of my life.” He tugged at his ridged upper lip as if offering proof, then his mouth stretched in a small, mirthless smile that revealed missing and neglected teeth. “Too old and broke-down to play in a band. Outdoors now, when the weather’s good.”

Street musician. There are a lot of them, men and some women of all ages, spotted around the city: Embarcadero Center Plaza, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square, Civic Center, the entrances to BART stations, on random corners—anywhere there is heavy foot traffic and the likelihood of somebody willing to part with dollar bills or coins for a few minutes’ entertainment. It may be a form of panhandling, but it’s considerably more honest than the direct, too-often aggressive solicitation. Those who possess a reasonable degree of talent can make enough to get by, if they don’t spend it all on alcohol or drugs. Brown didn’t seem to have any of the telltale signs of either addiction.

“But I don’t sleep outdoors,” he said, “I ain’t homeless. Got me a room and a job cleanin’ up at the Blue Moon Cafe on Howard Street. Got a little money saved up to give my niece when you find her.”

“There’s no need to explain—”

“Just wanted you to know.”

Tamara said, “What’s your niece’s full name, Mr. Brown?”

“Robin Louise—” slight pause “—Arceneaux.”

“How do you spell the last name?”

He spelled it for her and she typed it into the computer file.

“When did you last have any contact with her?”

“Long time ago. Way too long.”

“How long, approximately?”

“Fifty-one years,” he said. “Summer, nineteen sixty-three.”

Tamara and I exchanged glances.

“How old was your niece at that time?” I asked him.

“Seven years old. Born in fifty-six, April eighteen.”

“Have you had any contact with her since then? Phone conversations, letters?”

“No.”

“Tried to locate her before now?”

“No.”

“Mind if we ask why?”

Brown didn’t care for the question; it showed in his rheumy eyes. But he said, “Just lost touch, that’s all. Lot of reasons. Travelin’ around the country, workin’, playin’ my music.”

“You realize she might not still be living?”

He didn’t like that one either. A muscle jumped in his cheek. “She’s alive,” he said emphatically. “Got to be.”

Tamara asked, “Who was she living with in nineteen sixty-three? Father, mother, both?”

He sat for a few seconds without answering. Then his face suddenly bunched up and he was seized by a fit of coughing. He fumbled a handkerchief out of his pocket to cover his mouth until the spell passed. It left him wheezing and with a sickly gray undertone to his dark features.

Tamara asked if he was all right. He said, “For the time bein’. Comes and goes. What’d you ask me before?”

“If your niece was living with her father, mother, or both in nineteen sixty-three.”

“With her mama’s sister Jolene and her man. Jolene and Bobby Franklin.”

Tamara’s computer keys clicked again. “Where was this?”

“N’Orleans.”

“The city itself or a suburb?”

“French Quarter. Dauphine Street.”

“Do you remember the number?”

Headshake. “My memory ain’t so good anymore.”

“What about the girl’s parents? Something happen to them?”

“They both died.”

“How and when?”

Another headshake. He didn’t seem to want to answer the question.

“Last name Arceneaux. What were their given names?”

Or that one. It took him three or four seconds to say, “Don’t matter. Robin Louise, she with Jolene and Bobby Franklin, like I said. They raised her up.”

“All right. What did the Franklins do for a living?”

“Jolene worked in one of the clubs, don’t remember which. Bobby, he was a drummer. Good one, too. Real good chops.”

“Play with a particular band?”

“Don’t remember.” Brown seemed agitated now. “Listen, ain’t I already told you enough so you can find Robin Louise?”         

“The more information we have—”

A second bout of coughing struck him, not as intense as the first. He covered his mouth with the handkerchief again, and this time I could see flecks of blood on the fabric.

When the fit passed and he had his breath back, he said, “Already told you all I remember. Find her from that, can’t you?”

“I think so. Do our best.”

“Got to be soon,” he said. “I ain’t got much time left. You can see the kind of shape I’m in.”

“Are you under a doctor’s care?” I asked.

“Can’t afford no doctor.”

“There are free clinics—”

“Charity. No, sir. Wouldn’t do no good anyway. Man gets to be my age, he knows when his time’s near up. Be playin’ a duet with Gabriel pretty soon now.” The wry little mouth-stretch again. “Or maybe Old Scratch, if I end up down below.”

What can you say to that? Tamara and I were both silent.

Brown finished his coffee. “I got to be goin’ now,” he said, and used the corner of the desk to shove up onto his feet.

I walked out with him. On the way he stumbled once and I caught hold of his arm, but he shrugged my hand off more or less gently. Didn’t want to be helped. Pride.

At the door he clamped the battered old hat on his head.  “Don’t know where I’ll be rest of today,” he said then. “But tonight, any night after six o’clock, I’ll be at the Blue Moon Café. All right?” He waited for my nod, and then he was gone.

 

Tamara had other, pressing business to attend to and had only just started on the Robin Louise Arceneaux trace when I left for the day. Now that I’m semiretired, my time at the agency is generally limited to two nonconsecutive days a week. But I had some leftover work on an insurance-fraud case to finish up, so I went in again the following morning.

My partner is a workaholic and as usual she was already at her computer. What wasn’t usual this morning was that she was humming as she worked, something I had never heard her do before. The tune had an old-fashioned bluesy rhythm. Jazz is my favorite type of music and I’m fairly knowledgeable, but this was one I didn’t recognize.

“What’s that you’re humming?”

She hadn’t heard me come in, hadn’t realized I was standing behind her. She broke off and swung around in her chair to look up at me. There are several different mood-driven personas occupying her plump young body, most but not all of them pleasant; younever sure quite which one you’re going to face on a given day. The one I was looking at this morning was Glum Tamara. Curious. As bluesy as the tune had been, it had also had a lively beat that didn’t fit with the Glum Tamara persona.

“Old jazz song,” she said.

“I gathered as much. What’s it called?”

“‘Who You Been Grapplin’ With?’”

“Catchy title.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard it before. Sounds Dixieland.”

“It is. New Orleans club band called The Sweetmeat Five cut a record of it in ’fifty-nine, but it didn’t get much play until the early sixties, after . . .” She let the rest of the sentence trail off and said instead, “Pretty much been forgotten since.”

“Where’d you come across it?”

“Internet,” she said. “And a dude I know collects old jazz records.”

She surprised me again, then—twice. First by closing her eyes and starting to sing softly, something else she’d never before done in my presence, and second by the low, smoky, Billie Holiday quality of her voice.

 

“Who you been grapplin’ with, ba-by?

“While I been away.

“Who you been grapplin’ with, hon-ey?

“Every night and day.

 

         “Who you gonna grapple with, ba-by?

         “Now I’m home to stay.

         “Who you gonna grapple with, hon-ey?

         “Every night and day.

 

         “Well, I’ll tell you, sweet dad-dy,

         “The way it’s gonna be.

         “Yeah, I’ll tell you, sweet dad-dy,

         “You better grapple with me.

         “Every night and day—nobody but me.”

 

Tamara let out a long, sighing breath. “There’re more verses, but those are the only three I remember.”

“I didn’t know you could sing.”

“Yeah, well, mostly in the shower.”

“You ought to do it more often—you have a nice voice.”

The compliment didn’t seem to cheer her much. Her smile was fleeting. “Wish I could get the damn song out of my head.”

“Why? It has a good beat.”

“You think so? Bet the man who wrote it doesn’t anymore.”

“No? Who would he be?”

“Moses Arceneaux.”

“Arceneaux. Related to Charles Brown’s niece?”

“Robin Louise isn’t his niece, she’s his daughter. Charles Anthony Brown’s real name is Moses Arceneaux.”

“Oh,” I said, “so that’s it.”

“That’s it.”

“So why did he lie to us? Why the false name?”

“Man’s a fugitive, that’s why,” Tamara said. “Been a fugitive ever since nineteen sixty-three. . . .” 

 # # #

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"Who You Been Grapplin’ With?" by Bill Pronzini, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.

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