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Hudson Lake
cover artwork by Bryan Shackelford.

 

 

In the summer of 1926, jazz lovers from all over the Midwest go where the weather is hot and the music hotter -- the Blue Lantern Inn on Hudson Lake, a rural Indiana dance hall where the season's resident jazz band features a young cornet player named Bix Beiderbecke.

 

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Hudson Lake

historical novel

 

Laura Mazzuca Toops

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

  Prelude

June 1926
Hudson Lake Resort
New Carlisle, Indiana

 

Her name was Joy. It was an assumed name and an assumed attitude, because joy wasn't something she always felt, or at least something she hadn't felt in years.

Once she was called it, she lived it – with her brassy bobbed red hair, wide rouged mouth and raucous laugh, the laugh that echoed all the way across the lake from her room on the third floor of the Hotel Hudson. You could hear her all hours of the day, with her wind-up portable phonograph and that laugh.

Every day that June, in the heat of the late morning, Joy would come downstairs in a bathing suit and robe and high-heeled slippers. She'd cross the road to the lake, go down to the pebbly shallows at the edge and stick her feet in, splaying her toes with their crimson-painted nails so the distorted image of her foot beneath the clear water looked like a squat, white starfish. She'd ease in up to her waist, squealing at the cold, the water dyeing the bottom half of her red wool bathing suit a dark maroon. And then she'd wade back to shore, light a cigarette, and crunch back along the gravel path to the little yellow cottage in the field behind the hotel, the one where the single musicians lived.

At twilight, when the dwindling sun dyed the lake the color of Joy's bathing suit, the little yellow cottage and the cottages along the shore began to stir. Lights came on; swatches of music, muffled conversation and laughter floated out across the water; screen doors squeaked open and closed on rusty hinges like a badly tuned violin section. Once it was dusk, Joy would emerge from the little yellow cottage, crooning some hot jazz song in a mournful contralto, cigarette tip glowing in the darkness, and stagger back to the hotel.

Back in Chicago some seventy miles away, streets intersected at uncompromising right angles, a glowing grid outlined by rows of streetlights connected like a string of pearls. Lines of autos headed down the lakefront in a serpentine dance from the north to the south, from the east at the beaches and the frenetic glow of State Street to the darkened bungalows to the west.

People went to sleep or came awake in hordes. They headed to the Loop, Boul Mich and Uptown cafes and hotels for a dose of the businessman's bounce, the sweet stuff, all oozing saxes and formal arrangements, played by respectable white men reading music from charts – Vincent Lopez at the College Inn, Fred Travers and His Orchestra at the bepalmed Terrace Garden in the Morrison Hotel, Ralph Williams and the Rainbo Gardens Orchestra on the North Side.

Or they'd pass the Loop and keep going South to the black-and-tans, joints with peeling paint and mismatched chairs, where the music ran from hot cornet to low-down gutbucket as purveyed by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, all sleek and citified in shiny black tuxedos and stiff wing collars.

All over town, from the swanky hotels to the lowest dives, dance floors were a crush of sweating and scented men and women, pressed against each other under layers of blue serge and beaded chiffon, spurred on and on by music and bootleg gin until the joints closed at two, at three, at dawn, or when the dancers dropped.

But at Hudson Lake, with frogs thrumming along the shore and a solitary duck on its black, glassy surface, it was usually quiet enough to hear Joy singing her sad song in the twilight – at least until eight p.m. every night except Mondays, when the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, led by Frankie Trumbauer and featuring Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, hit the bandstand of the dance hall.

And the music they played wasn't the businessman's bounce, wasn't the gutbucket of the South Side, but something else. It was something that drew all those Chicago musicians to hear them every Saturday and Sunday, something that made the most tone-deaf local Hoosiers cock their heads for an instant and listen as if a lover with the sweetest voice was calling them from a long distance away. It was something that made Joy smile, thinking how the notes oozed from the bell of a horn, viscous and golden as honey, tickling into her ears as she lay on the saggy mattress in her room at the Hotel Hudson, singing her own sweet songs.

 

Chapter 1

 

The Blue Lantern sprawled along the lake, ready to ooze music from its bank of windows facing the water. Clumps of loud, laughing people disembarked from the South Shore train stop across Chicago Road and meandered over.

Harriet Braun stared at the slick young men in flashy suits, some wearing tuxedos and toting instrument cases, as if coming from gigs of their own. Women in frocks that probably cost more than Harriet would make all summer were talking to each other in languid drawls, blowing cigarette smoke through aristocratic nostrils and looking around at the other clientele from under kohled eyes.

"Harriet!" She turned. Charlie Horvath, the manager who worked for Jean Goldkette, was sweating with excitement, slapping shoulders and steering groups of revelers through the balmy evening air toward the dance hall. He grinned at her. "So you finally decided to come out and hear the band. Is this your first show?"

Harriet smiled and fell into step with Horvath and the rest of the crowd. "Funny, isn't it? I mainly took the job because of the music, and this is the first chance I've gotten to see the band, although I can hear it loud and clear from across the road. Mrs. Smith keeps me so busy at the hotel I don't have much of a chance to have any fun."

Horvath rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh, Mrs. Smith runs that little hotel like a prison. Why couldn't a smart, pretty college girl like you find a better place to work over the summer?"

"Oh, it's not so bad. Anyhow, I'm going to have fun tonight."

"Good for you!" Horvath barked. "But watch yourself. Sometimes there's trouble." And then he was gone, busy ushering people into the Blue Lantern.

Funny Horvath should say that, Harried mused. It was just what Mrs. Smith was always saying, how the citified musicians from the Jean Goldkette band didn't belong here and were going to cause trouble. They didn't look like much trouble to Harriet. Although she hadn't seen them play yet, she'd caught glimpses of the musicians, mostly when they were lined up in the hotel hallway in their bathrobes, spindly white legs exposed, towels over arms, waiting to get a 25-cent bath before the big Saturday night show.

True, they didn't look like the Hotel Hudson's usual clientele – families from Michigan City and South Bend, with peeling sunburned skin and bland faces, alike as a herd of Hereford cows. The musicians were alike in a different way -- fast-talking, cigarette smoking, with rapid-fire city slang and flashy clothes, smelling of hair pomade and bootleg alcohol.

But they seemed harmless. Half of them were married, their wives smiling and complacent in beacon robes and pincurls, chatting among themselves on the cottage porches during the day. And the single ones didn't look much different from the boys Harriet dated at Indiana U.

As she pushed through the crowd into the brightly lit soda fountain up front, Harriet noticed that Ray Reynolds the soda jerk and his teenaged assistant were doing a booming business. People were jammed in shoulder to shoulder at the counter, and Ray's hands were a blur as he wielded dripping metal scoopers of strawberry and vanilla, fizzled seltzer into long, tall glasses, sluiced syrup over mounds of whipped cream and minted fragrant golden coins of banana slices.

Harriet eased her way through the crowd, inhaling the crush of sweat, smoke, powder and perfume, all underlined by the sharp odor of shellac that Horvath had administered to the wooden surfaces just last week. And another odor, faint but noticeable, emanating from the soda fountain -- the smell of bootleg liquor. It was an open secret that Ray dispensed shots of local moonshine into the bottles of Blue Bird cola and Orange Squeeze soda pop he sold. There had been a lot of big police raids in South Bend lately, with speakeasies getting chopped up and people thrown in jail. Harriet hoped Ray was discreet enough to avoid something like that at the Blue Lantern. Maybe that's what Horvath meant by trouble.

"Li'l sister! There ya are!" Joy was resplendent in a splash of glittering red silk, clutching the arm of a swarthy, bespectacled boy with a ribbon of dance tickets in his hand. He was chewing his bottom lip and gazing at Joy's breasts with an expression of undisguised lust.

"You look adorable, honey! Okay, the dress is a little on the Mary Pickford side, but what the hell, you're so cute it don't even matter. Harriet, meet Benny. He's here to see the band. This kid can play the clarinet like nobody's business, right, honey? Now, come on. I got us the best seats in the house, right in front of the bandstand, and I hadda fight Horvath tooth an' nail to keep 'em. Benny, go grab us our table, okay?" As Benny walked away, Joy linked arms with Harriet and immediately began whispering into her ear, her breath moist and urgent.

"Ohmygod, honey, I'm so glad you're here. I can handle Benny, he's just a sweet little puppy dog, but this greenhorn I danced with before has been followin' me around all goddamn night. He's as big as a house and I think he wants me to bear his children, for God's sake. And say, I got a load of how old Charlie Horvath was givin' you the eye. Honest to God, kiddo, men, you can't live with 'em and you can't shoot 'em..." She led Harriet through a set of French doors and into the dance hall.

The room was long and arch-ceilinged. Two aisles, open to banks of windows and arranged with tables and chairs, ran on both sides of the long dance floor. The end of the room overlooked Hudson Lake from a porch at the back. Amber bulbs flickered in bronze sconces on the walls between the windows, and the newly waxed and varnished dance floor reflected lights off its surface like the lake reflected stars.

Joy hustled them to their table and settled into a chair, glancing around the room like a fluttering homing pigeon finally at rest. "Benny, be a doll and run get mama a bottle of Blue Bird with, will ya? Here's some dough. Get one for you and li'l sister, too." The boy walked through the crowd and Joy leaned across the table confidentially. "I tell ya, that kid can play. He just landed a job with a big orchestra, and him only seventeen. In a couple years he'll be givin' a lot of these fellas a run for their money."

"How do you know all these musicians?" Harriet asked, glancing around the room at the well-dressed crowd that clearly wasn't local. I'm local, she thought, fingering the folds of her Mary Pickford number. She wished she'd let Joy talk her into borrowing her arsenic-green satin dress, the one cut far down the back that would have showed her shoulder blades.

"Why, from Chicago, toots. I told you that's where I'm from, didn't I?" Joy clacked her beaded handbag onto the table and dug for cigarettes. "Well, maybe I didn't. I seen little Benny play at the Hull House on the West Side, years ago, strictly yokel dances for the wops and the hebes. But I knew right away he had something." She lit up, her smile turning Cheshire-like. "Bickie took me."

"You mean the trumpet player in the band?"

"Cornet. Just like Louie Armstrong. I seen him, too. Oh yeah, we went everywhere. The Friar's Inn, Valentino's, the Rendez-Vous where Bickie played, even the Sunset and the other nigger joints on the South Side. We heard all the hottest bands in the city."

"I've seen a lot of bands, too," Harriet said, trying to sound worldly. "Rudy loves jazz. Last winter and spring we went to hear every band that came on campus, and we even went to Kansas City with Rudy's brother once to hear Coon-Sanders' Nighthawks."

Joy gave her a smile that Harriet interpreted as pitying. She puffed her cigarette, grinning, and leaned toward Harriet again. "These guys tonight are better than any of 'em. And you'll see why."

Benny headed back toward their table, carrying three pop bottles. Joy air-kissed him a thanks, and Harriet swallowed a mouthful, practically spitting it out on the table.

"God, what is this – "

"Aw, damn it, did Ray put in too much pop again? Benny, you know you have to watch him." Joy sipped at her straw. "No, it's fine. What's wrong, li'l sister?"

Harriet sniffed the bottle. "It's – "

"Not the best stuff in LaPorte County, but at least it'll get ya happy. What's wrong, don't you like gin?"

Harriet put down the bottle and laughed, pushing it toward Joy. "I don't drink much, that's all."

Joy lifted her bottle toward Harriet. "Your funeral, kiddo. Oh, here comes Itzy. That means they'll be startin' any time."

Harriet watched as a lanky man in a tuxedo with a long, lugubrious face and a nose to match mounted the bandstand and began playing notes on the piano, his ear inclined toward the keyboard to hear over the crowd. One by one, other tuxedoed band members followed him onstage, setting up music racks, tootling on saxophones and clarinets, tapping cymbals and drumheads and wooden percussion blocks.

Horvath stepped onstage and murmured something to a serious-looking young man holding a saxophone. They both looked over the crowd, as if searching for someone. And then Horvath pointed and grinned and the sax man turned to the other musicians, giving them a cue. Harriet turned to see the last musician stride across the floor and step up on the stage. She started laughing.

"So that's Bickie?" she asked Joy, who was pointing and laughing at the man in the rumpled tuxedo and crooked bow tie. "Bix? The guy you've been talking about all this time?"

"Hey, Beiderbecke, fix your soup and fish!" Benny called.

Horvath clapped for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the beautiful Blue Lantern Inn. I'm Charlie Horvath, general manager of the Jean Goldkette organization, and it is with great pleasure that I'd like to introduce tonight's entertainment – direct from Detroit, the fabulous Jean Goldkette Orchestra, under the direction of the renowned Frank Trumbauer on saxophone – " the wooden-faced man took a bow – "and on cornet, the incomparable Mr. Bix Beiderbecke!"

The man Joy called Bickie had his back to the crowd, arranging a chair for himself by the piano and the drum kit, not out in front the way you'd think a horn player should be. He turned and waved, more in dismissal than acknowledgement.

Harriet looked around, surprised to see that more than half the crowd was on its feet, whistling and stomping in recognition of this man with the incongruous features of a baby doll – small red mouth, snub nose, and eyes that seemed to be laughing at something. He was medium height and solidly built, and Harriet was reminded of Rudy and his fraternity brothers, the ones who played football. He sat in the chair between the piano and the drum kit and crossed one knee over the other, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and put the horn to his lips. And then Trumbauer counted to four and the band started to play.

They kicked off with "Nobody's Sweetheart," opening with the cornet player and his startlingly clean tones, then shifting to the sax man, who played out front with all the seriousness of a monk. It was a tricky part, replete with arpeggios and trills, and the band thumped along behind him, nobody stealing his thunder. But halfway through the tune, the saxophone and the cornet began exchanging licks in an intuitive call-and-response way that had the savvy crowd on its feet, some dancing, others at tables and up by the bandstand, just listening.

She sat there, mouth open, half-smiling, listening to the two instruments playing tag with each other. The sax would play a figure and coyly wait, and the cornet would follow suit, answering with an echoing phrase, twisted just enough to make it different. And then both instruments hooked up in harmony, like a couple of buddies out on the town with arms around each other's shoulders, escorting the tune to its end.

Joy slapped Harriet on the arm as the crowd hollered its approval. "Well?" she shouted over the noise. "Whaddaya think?"

"They're great!" Harriet said and before she knew it Joy and Benny had carried her up to the bandstand, Joy elbowing her way through the crowd of "alligators" hanging around the stage, and directly to the patent-leather feet of Trumbauer himself. Joy reached up and tugged at his pants cuff.

"Hi, Frankie," she said, winking. The dour-faced man glanced down, rolled his eyes and signaled the band, which kicked into a speeded-up version of "Dinah." This time the cornet player took the lead, driving the band like a getaway car. At the chorus he and the trumpet man were as tight as a matched pair of horses in harness and then the cornet took a solo turn, delivering an effortless arc of notes that had the crowd around the bandstand shouting for more.

When he was done, the cornet player just put his horn on his knee and sat there, lips pursed, as if pondering what he just said on his instrument and how he should have worded it differently. And then it was his turn for a solo again and instead of standing up to take it, he leaned over in his chair, the bell of the horn pointed at the floor, and let fly a whirl of sound, as easy as breathing.

Harriet felt a tap on the shoulder and before she knew it Benny had pulled her onto the dance floor, with Joy cheering them on. She let him lead her in an easy fox trot, one with the crowd, the music making every movement as fluid as swimming.

She stopped counting tunes and dance partners after that, only cried out song titles in pleased surprise as the music roared past and a stream of men from the stag line cut in on each other to dance with her. She never got a chance to try another sip of her doctored Blue Bird pop because she never got back to the table, until Trumbauer finally announced a break.

And then Joy shook herself out of the embrace of a raw-boned boy with the sunburned look of a farmer and dragged Harriet and Benny back to the darkened porch that was open to the breeze off the lake.

"That's him, the big rube," she whispered to Harriet, nodding toward the raw-boned boy. "I think I shook him. I told him Bickie's from Chicago, and a friend of Al Capone's. Think that'll hold him?" She laughed and pulled up a cane-backed chair. "The guys in the band always come out here on their breaks," she said, waving one of the Japanese paper fans that the dancehall passed out as party favors. Her red dress was dark with sweat under the arms, her wet hair sticking to forehead and cheeks in jagged spikes. She nodded. "Here he is now."

Bix had to stop about a dozen times between the bandstand and the porch to shake hands with people, but he eventually made it. A lanky, grinning young man who Harriet recognized as the band's clarinet player trailed behind him.

Bix slapped Benny on the back and sank down into a chair between him and Joy.

"How'd it sound?" he asked, pulling a flask from his breast pocket and offering it to Benny.

"Fuzzy's a little off tonight," Benny said, passing the flask to Joy.

"Yeah, and I am, too. That 'Suzie' solo was pretty rotten, I thought, right after I blew it."

"Aw, shut up, Beiderbecke," jeered the clarinet player. "We all know you really think you can walk on water."

"Here he goes, fishing for compliments," Joy laughed, tilting the gurgling flask to her mouth. "Sounded fine to me. What'd you think, li'l sister?"

Harriet felt her face burn as everyone turned to look at her. "Oh, I'm no expert. I just love good, hot dance music," she said. "I've heard a lot of bands at the University, and this orchestra is the best yet."

"Oh? Where d'ya go to school?" Bix asked. He had dark, intense eyes and a way of staring that made Harriet feel uncomfortable.

"Indiana U."

"Nice campus," he said, taking the flask from Joy and downing a deep swallow. "We played there with the Wolverines a couple years back, and for the junior prom just last month." He drank again and extended the flask to Harriet.

"Listen to Joe College," Joy hooted. "Here, she don't drink. Gimme."

The clarinet player cleared his throat. "I drink," he said.

"You sure?" Bix asked Harriet, shaking the flask. "Still half left. Good stuff, too."

"Oh, why not," Harriet said. "Thanks." She watched her hand reach for the flask, feeling a mild shock at her own daring. Not that she'd never had a drink before; she just didn't like it. But in the presence of this sophisticated group of musicians, refusing a drink just seemed too priggish, too local. She put the flask to her lips and allowed a shallow mouthful to trickle in, swallowing quickly so her eyes wouldn't water at the lingering burn.

"Hey, Beiderbecke, I said I drink!" the clarinet player called again.

"Yeah, yeah, Russell, that's a given. What's your name?" he asked, leaning forward, forearms on knees, eyes glittering up at Harriet in the half-light.

"Oh, I forgot!" Joy said, slapping Bix on the arm with her fan. "Guess I'll never make the social register. Harriet Braun, meet Bix Beiderbecke. Bix, Harriet Braun. And the stringbean who's so thirsty is Pee Wee Russell."

The clarinet player finally intercepted the hip flask as Bix leaned over to shake Harriet's hand. She felt a sudden tickle of sexual response between her legs. Why? she thought, resentful of her body's mindless reaction. He isn't anything to look at. His tuxedo isn't pressed right, and his hand's all sweaty, his ears stick out like jug handles and his hair's coming loose from the pomade he glossed it back with. She thought of Rudy's self-assured smile, wavy blond hair, athletic build. If Rudy played the cornet, he'd never ask anyone if it sounded all right, even if it didn't. It must be his eyes, she thought, that and the way he plays. It sure as heck isn't anything else.

Harriet reflexively jerked her hand away, then laughed to disguise the rudeness of the gesture, taking another shallow sip from the flask to cover her embarrassment.

"Excuse me."

They all looked up. The raw-boned boy in the wrinkled linen suit who had been dancing with Joy stood over them, weaving. Harriet could smell the fumes of bootleg hooch from where she sat. "I come to ask Joy if she wants a soda."

"No thanks, dearie, I'm already drinking," Joy trilled, white teeth gleaming. "Say, didn't I tell you I was with Bickie here?"

The boy's jaw worked under his sunburned cheek, as if he was grinding his teeth together. "That's not what you said before. We danced together three times and you let me buy you a soda. And walk out on the porch." The tone of his voice had changed from neutral to menacing, and Harriet was suddenly aware of his height and the width of his shoulders.

"Fade, you rube," Pee Wee said, standing, his fists coming up.

"You punks," the boy seethed, his hulking frame looking almost as if it was expanding with his anger. "Who the hell do you think you are? Think you own this place? Well, I got news. We live here, you don't."

"Hey, come on, nobody wants any trouble," Bix said, standing and putting a hand on the boy's shoulder. "We're all here to have a good time right? Relax, pal. Here, have a drink." He held out the flask to the boy, who knocked it out of Bix's hand.

"Get your hands off me, you goddamn fairy," he shouted, and suddenly Bix launched himself at the boy, grabbing him by the lapels of his jacket and yanking his face down to his.

"Look, you son of a bitch, I said we don't want any trouble, and what do you do? You try and pick a fight. Come on, Pee Wee, let's take him for a little walk down by the lake. And go get Dan."

"My pleasure." Pee Wee grabbed the boy under one elbow, Bix got him by the other and they half-dragged him toward the door.

"Oh, please stop it," Harriet blurted, surprised at herself for saying anything. Everything had been so fun up to now, the music and the talk. This wasn't the way anyone should be acting, not anyone halfway civilized, anyway.

Bix turned and looked right at her, his features bunched into a scowl, with a glare that said plainer than any words, Mind your own goddamn business. They continued dragging the struggling boy toward the exit.

"Now what's going on, fellows? More trouble with one of the customers?" It was Frank Trumbauer, with Ray Reynolds at his side, holding what looked like a length of pipe. He took a look at the boy and laughed.

"Oh, Mr. Trumbauer, it's just Howard Flaherty, he's a little addle-pated, always has been, everyone around here knows that, always has been," he chattered. "Now what the heck are these boys planning to do with him?"

"Bust his skull, what else?" Pee Wee mumbled.

"I told him to lay off, and he wouldn't," Bix said, his round face mottled with red. "He's harassing the women, and – "

Ray went up to the raw-boned boy and yanked him by the arm, smile fixed in place all the while. "Now, come on, Howard, look, you got all these people upset. Apologize to the ladies and let's get on home, all right?"

The boy stood staring at the pipe in Ray's hand and nodded, his face sullen. He mumbled something that could be construed as an apology before Ray led him to the door, gripping his arm all the way, the length of pipe waggling in his free hand.

Trumbauer stood staring at Bix and Pee Wee, his eyes fierce.

"He started it," Pee Wee blurted, breaking the silence.

Trumbauer pursed his lips. "All right, it's over now and we've got another set to play. Go on, Pee Wee. I want a word with Bix." With a withering look, Trumbauer glared the clarinet player back to the bandstand, then rounded on Bix in a hushed, furious tone. Harriet was close enough to hear every word.

"You want Jean to can you again?"

Harriet watched as Bix hung his head and jammed his fists into his pockets like a sullen schoolboy. Trumbauer went on.

"I hadda do a lot of fast talking last time to persuade him not to, and the sight reading's only part of it. It's the drinking and the hellraising. Don't you realize how many guys would sell their eye teeth to be in your shoes?" He stopped to take a deep breath and shot the cuffs on his shirt. "You better decide what's more important to you, drinking or playing. You can't do both. Come on, we're up again in ten." He and Bix walked to the bandstand, where they rearranged chairs and music stands for the next set.

Joy let out a low, impressed whistle. "Jeez, Tram really read Bickie the riot act."

Harriet turned to stare at Joy. "Does this sort of thing happen a lot? Fights like this?"

"Aw, that wasn't anything," Joy said, picking up Bix's flask from the floor and shaking it to see if there was anything left. "Bickie and Pee Wee are still sober. Otherwise it woulda been a real dust-up. Anyhow, the rube had it comin'."

And your friend Bickie has a little problem with his temper, Harriet thought, recalling how quickly his boyish face had gone from placid good humor to contorted anger, his fists knotted and ready to pummel the raw-boned boy. She thought of the wave of sexual feeling that had washed over her when he touched her hand and was suddenly embarrassed.

The band started playing again and Harriet and Joy went back to the bandstand. All through the set, Harriet felt Bix's eyes on her, but she refused to look at him. But after two choruses of "Royal Garden Blues," she looked up and saw him mouthing, "Sorry!" Then he grinned and pointed the cornet right at her before blasting his solo, and she knew she wasn't mad anymore.

The sound of the band was still echoing in her ears as Harriet and Mr. Traub and the rusty Ford jounced along the rutted road back to the farmhouse on John Emery Road, where Harriet rented an attic room with the Traubs. A full moon turned the mist rising over the fields a glowing silver, and the air smelled like cut grass and wildly growing weeds and the faint, lingering order of a miscreant skunk.

She leaned her head out the window and breathed it all in, pushing back her mass of curls, which had gone frizzy with the humidity. Bix Beiderbecke, she thought. Bix is a nickname, short for what? I should have asked him where he went to college. Anybody who played like he did probably had lots of experience, maybe even majored in music. And that kid should have never tried to bother Joy. Strange, how easygoing Bix seemed up until then. The thought of his temper, juxtaposed against his horn playing and his pleasant demeanor, had made her nervous, made her want to stand between him and the farm boy, to protect both of them. Strange.

"Had a good time, then?" Mr. Traub asked.

"Wonderful," she said, eyes closed. "How was your Grange meeting?"

"Can't complain. Won almost five dollars in the last pot."

They were silent the rest of the way, and she thought of how the musicians were just getting started on their Saturday night, according to Joy. Trumbauer and Doc Ryker and their wives were driving out to the Riverside Resort. Pee Wee and Sonny and Dan and Benny were going into South Bend to the Terrace Garden for Chinese, and then to some speakeasy on Indiana Avenue they'd heard about, where Joy and Bix would meet them later. When Harriet left, Bix had been sitting at the piano onstage, noodling around with some dreamy chords while the janitor stacked upended chairs on tables and swept streamers and confetti from the glistening floor. The piano echoed in the empty hall, sounding lonesome and eerie.

"You're not goin' home now, are ya?" Joy had hollered from her perch on the bench next to Bix. "We're just warmin' up. Wanna go to the Terrace Garden for some egg foo yung?"

"Yeah, your buddy Howard might show," Bix deadpanned as Joy messed up his hair. He shot a glance and Harriet and grinned, all temper forgotten.

"I can't, my ride's here," Harriet said, wishing she could stay with them.

"Next time Frank'll give you a ride home," Bix said, watching her with big, dark eyes as his fingers automatically moved on the keyboard. "Or Pee Wee, if we ever get the Buick running again. Thing's been sitting next to the cottage ever since the last time it died on us."

Harriet had left them there, Joy with an elbow on Bix's shoulder, humming along with his playing.

When they got back to the farmhouse, Mrs. Traub was waiting up for them, standing on the front porch with the light on.

"Harriet, a phone call," she said, frowning. She handed Harriet a piece of paper with a phone number written in heavy, meticulous pencil. "From Indianapolis!"

"Was it a young man?" Harriet asked, grinning.

"Oh, ja," Mrs. Traub said, shaking her meaty head. "Very serious young man. Nice, deep voice. You call him now, ja? It sounded so important."

Harriet stood at the crank phone in the hallway, rang up the operator in South Bend and gave her Rudy's phone number. The phone rang while the South Bend operator breathed on the other end. Finally, a click and a hello.

"Rudy? It's Harriet. Can you hear me?"

"Harry, baby, it's past two in the morning. Where the hell were you?"

She laughed. "I thought I'd finally make a night of it and see the band. They're really good, too, a Jean Goldkette outfit from St. Louis."

"Huh. Suppose the place is full of cake-eaters from Notre Dame and Purdue. They advertise that place all over the Midwest. Hey, stay away from those college sheiks, you hear?" He laughed, and Harriet pictured him at his aunt's house in Indianapolis, lounged on a sofa or leaning his long frame against a doorjamb. Good old Rudy.

"It's wonderful to hear your voice," she said. "Did you get my letters?"

"Sure did. How about mine? Get that clipping I sent you?"

"Yes. I'm so proud of you, Rudy. So they're really going to hire you after graduation?"

"It's a cinch. Salary's nothing to write home about, but it's the biggest architectural firm in the state. I'm learning a lot here. Say, it's an awful quiet town without you. I miss you, baby."

Harriet felt her face burn red. Mrs. Traub cleared her throat from where she was standing, right behind her.

"Oh, leave the girl alone, Ingrid," Mr. Traub muttered as he clomped upstairs to bed.

"Me, too," Harriet said into the mouthpiece. She could hear the faint breathing of the party-line operator. "So! When are you coming to visit?"

"That's what I called about. Fourth of July weekend. I get three days off. Think the hotel can put me up?"

"I'll talk to Mrs. Smith first thing Monday morning," Harriet said, beaming. "Oh, Rudy, I miss you," she blurted, ignoring Mrs. Traub, the party line and everything else. "It'll be wonderful to see you here. And we'll have fun, too. We can go swimming, go into town to see the movies, and there's this wonderful band here – "

"They hot?"

"The hottest! Even better than Red Nichols that time we saw them. In fact, the cornet player – "

"Say, how's your cousin? She showing you the sights? I'm telling you, stay away from those Notre Dame guys." He chuckled and his voice changed to the one she knew so well, the one he used in the darkness of his car, and on their long walks at twilight on campus at Indiana University, or when they were pressed against each other at his fraternity house dances. "Baby, I can't wait to see you again. Two more weeks. You know what I mean? Harry?"

A sudden tidal wave of homesickness crashed over her – for Rudy, for the Indiana U. campus, for her mother and sisters and their rickety old house on the outskirts of Indianapolis. She glanced out the front door at the black country night outside, a darkness that could have just as easily been on a distant, airless planet as in this little rural town.

The night that had been so fragrant and innocuous on the ride home now seemed like it was smothering her, as if it wanted to crush her into nothingness, the massive darkness and the depthless, burning layers of stars obliterating her as easily as pressing a flower into a book until there was nothing left except a pale, dry husk.

She clenched her eyes shut and laughed, trying to shake off the morbid thought. "Come soon, Rudy," she whispered, clutching the phone's earpiece hard enough to hurt her fingers. "And write, okay? Please write?"

"Every damn day, baby. I'll be there on Saturday. Be waiting."

"I will. Good night, Rudy."

"'Night, baby. Love you. You hear?"

"Me, too." She hung up and looked outside again. The foreboding mood had evaporated as quickly as it came, leaving nothing behind but the familiar Indiana night. Mrs. Traub was pretending to be busy rearranging umbrellas in the hall tree rack.

"Everything all right?" she asked, her smile turning sly.

"Wonderful, just wonderful," Harriet said, then laughed to hear what sounded like Joy's voice coming out of her mouth. "Just jake."

 

Hudson Lake Copyright 2005. Laura Mazzuca Toops. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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Author Bio

Laura Mazzuca Toops is a Chicago-area writer and teacher with three books in print: A Native's Guide to Chicago's Western Suburbs (Lake Claremont Press), The Latham Loop, and Slapstick (Amber Quill Press). She is a 21st century anachronism who doesn't belong in this time or place. A collector of vintage clothing, 78 rpm records and memories, she teeters on the edge of sanity by balancing her mundane present-day life against the vague memories of the fun times she had back in 1927 in New York, Chicago and another body.

TTB title: Hudson Lake

Author web site.

 

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  Author News

Feb. 14, 2007 - Chicago IL - launch party at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway Ave. 6:30 - 8:00 PM. More info in the press release.

 

  Reviews

"Toops' ability to capture the intoxicating mix of energy and danger that defined the early days of jazz makes Hudson Lake required reading for anyone caught up in the enduring Bix legend."

Reviewed by Bill Ott for Booklist.
 



"Hudson Lake is a vivid, poignant, sexy tale of the Jazz Age, built around one of America's greatest and most intriguing musicians. Laura Mazzuca Toops knows her music, and her history."

Reviewed by Kevin Baker, author of Dreamland, Paradise Alley and Strivers Row.
 



It's the 1920's in Indiana, during the throes of Prohibition. Jazz music is king, and "the notes oozed from the bell of a horn, viscous and golden as honey." Hudson Lake has its own little resort, a short distance from Chicago. Most of the time, it's a quiet, country-style place. On summer weekends, however, soul-stirring music pumps through a world filled with secrets, bootlegged liquor, the KKK, and the long arm of the mobster, Al Capone.

Joy is desperate to immerse herself in pleasure. It's her only chance to run from her past. Harriet Braun, the college girl doing summer work, eyes the scene with an analytical eye. Yet somehow, both are enthralled by a Bix Beiderbecke, a horn-man whose musical genius is sabotaged by his drunken despair. Fighting their own demons, the trio swirls together and apart. Each seems bent on self-destruction while yearning for salvation.

Ms. Toops' descriptive writing is both mystical and compelling. A quote from her book sums up its own style: " . . .a frantic narrative that ratcheted on like a stripped-down jalopy." Time and again, I was swept away by her rhythmic prose. I found myself murmuring phrases to myself, each phrase capturing a mood perfectly.

Hudson Lake is excellent writing. The characters are fascinating, and well drawn. However, the story can wear on the spirit, as it is one of almost unrelieved melancholy. Every moment of sweetness has its bitterness; every moment of pleasure has a sense of doom attached. I read this book in short spurts, interspersed by other tales-- but I always returned to Hudson Lake. Ms. Toops has a profound gift for winding an atmosphere in, around, and through every moment of her book.

Reviewed by Jeanette Cottrell, for eBook Reviews Weekly.
 



..."Hudson Lake," describes a time of gangsters, the "Klan," local corrupt officials, and young and restless people looking for a wild night out on the town. They came to Hudson Lake to party and hear good jazz. Chicago crowds, via the South Shore Railroad descended on the Blue Lantern, despite the objections of the local "rubes" that disapproved of their behavior but liked their money. Toops' also points out that while mob influences might have been bad for the area, local boot legging flourished under the guise of most authorities.

...Author Toops quickly establishes the main characters in the life of Bix Beiderbecke, including the two women who loved him, his colorful band members and the importance of the music that brought them all together to this tiny enclave of entertainment in Northern Indiana in 1926. Some might be disillusioned by the amount of sex and drinking described in the book that went on then, but this apparently was characteristic of many early performers who were destroyed by the vices that cut short their careers. The long list includes the likes of be bop sax man Charlie Parker who succumbed at age 33.

...Unlike many works, "Hudson Lake," summarizes and brings to a conclusion what happened to its characters including the sad epilogue of one of music's great performers. The book is a good read and promises a probable account of the times and tunes of this early jazz era.

Reviewed by John Russell Ghrist, the host of Midwest Ballroom, a Saturday radio program heard on WDCB 90.9 FM and worldwide on the Internet at www.wdcb.org from 5-7pm.

 

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