The Red Butterfly, Part Sixteen – Not For Tourists
She was right; there would be no dancing tonight. This was traditional flamenco. “This song is called Bulerias por Solea,” said Anna, “es muy antigua.”
This was the old stuff, what had come before the pomp. It was older than Agujetas. Older than the horse-faced old man. Older than the war that had killed my father, and Agustín’s father and had changed my mother’s life, irrevocably. This was something ancient that could not be defined.
Agujetas sang, but I could not follow, the words were beyond my grasp. It did not matter, what he said was conveyed to us all by the tone of his voice and the gestures of his hands. He sat on the edge of the chair, his body like coiled rope. Sheets of sweat poured down his granite face. He gathered himself, took in a deep breath, then released a roar, like some sort of hurricane gale, driving us all back on our heels. His fists, like gnarled wood, tightened on his lap, then opened, then grasped like claws. He growled, and yelled, and cried. He held our gaze in his deep dark eyes. I realized that despite the volume of his voice, there was no amplification; he did not need it.
I was reminded of the time when Chip took me to Chicago. I was very young, not yet teenaged, and I still thought of him as my father. We went to a small club in South Side. The streets were inky dark and deserted, the broken windows of the old dilapidated houses were like the empty eye sockets of a skull. They looked out on us with malevolent hostility. “Stay close,” said Chip, “You wouldn’t want to get lost here.”
At last, we arrived at the club, no more than a shack, really. “Doesn’t look like much,” I said.
“It’s an old Juke,” said Chip, “no place for tourists.”
We entered the small juke joint. Inside was just a tiny, crowded room with a dirt floor and small, beer soaked tables scattered about. Everyone turned to stare, then turned back to the blues band on a tiny elevated stage. Slumped on a chair, front and center, was an enormous black man. “That,” my father said, “is Howlin’ Wolf.”
He didn’t look like much, a crumpled old bear of a man in a cheap grey suit and black pencil tie. His head was as big as a cinderblock and his hands were as large as baseball gloves. He appeared to have fallen asleep, or perhaps he had died, right there, on the stage without notice. But then he languidly lifted his right hand, and snapped his fingers slowly- twice, grunting in between clicks- then four times, one-click-two-click-one-two-three-four and the band launched into a slow shuffle.
He became like a man possessed by some animal deity not seen before. Oh, Smokestack Lightning,” he bellowed, “Don’t you hear me cryin’? Ooh-oooh. Don’t you hear me knockin’, knockin’ on your door?” He howled, howled. He took a chorus on the harmonica, the tiny, rusted instrument barely visible in his large mouth; I wondered how he didn’t swallow it. He finished the solo and slid from the chair and crept off the stage and dragged himself to the center of the room on his hands, trailing his legs behind him like a seal, on the dirt floor. “Ooh-oooh, ooh-oooh!” Even in this position, his great head still rose above mine. He looked directly at me, but his shiny eyes did not see me and he howled some more. Then he grabbed a chair and turned the seat towards him and his pelvis on it, fucking it like a dog. He shook and shuddered and threw his head back and sprayed us with his sweat.
Agujetas was like this. No room was big enough for him.