Published on May 25th, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez0
“Cherry in Magnolia” – Part One: Who Died and Made You Elvis?
“It’s a kind of jazz-rhythm music
peculiar to the American Negro …”
– Long John Baldry
Jerome “Cherry” Terzina, the on-the-run pi-annah player with a maimed left hand—an incorrigible car thief partial to married women—was lying about in New Orleans the day after Elvis died.
August 17, 1977, the radio busy with slap-bass rhythm and good-God-in-Heaven-I-Can’t Believe-It.
Wise men say …
Bob Dylan: “When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was going to be my boss.”
An irritated black voice at the far end of a hallway in a waterfront flop house: “CHERRY!”
Cherry had his seaman’s papers, just about the only thing in his life that was in good order. A ship headed for anywhere but here was the way he cooled off the messes he created. But it’s not always the last bucket of hot water that wants to scald you. Sometimes it’s the one that’s been still for so long you’ve forgotten about it.
“CHERRY! TELEPHONE, GODDAMIT!”
And a moment later the teenager heard Ma’s voice for the first time in more than a year. How she found him he didn’t know and didn’t ask.
“Willie’s gone,” she said, frantic, biting the cord on the yellow kitchen phone a thousand miles away in Baltimore. “They’re saying Willie’s run off to Memphis.”
Ma had raised Jerome from about the age of six, the kid already taking things out of purses and cabinets. He’d dropped her postcards from here and there but hadn’t returned to Crabtown since the husband of the woman he’d slept with through high school shot her to death as she watered tomato plants in the backyard.
“Ma, slow down. What’s the big deal?”
And scratched the always-itching scar on his left palm—stretching the fingers he needed to rumble the bass on “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll”—as Ma blubbered.
He was about to tell her there was nothing he could do; that Willie—her flesh-and-blood, the younger kid with whom he’d grown up as brothers —was a big boy who’d show up when he got hungry.
About to say “I gotta go” when Ma said that Willie had taken the Monte Carlo and she had it “on good information” from Miss Bonnie that he was headed for Tennessee.
“That slut Charlene talked him into driving to Memphis for the funeral.”
And that’s how Cherry walked away from a regular gig playing Cuban jazz at La Casa de los Marinos (Toulouse and Decatur) and got swept up in The Bermuda Triangle of The-King-is-Dead-Long-Live-the-King between Baltimore and Memphis and New Orleans and back again.
It’s the longest road I know …
Cherry had about $100 on him in tips and the door from the night before. He shoved the bills deep into the pocket of his jeans and into a canvas satchel put his carefully wrapped concertina, a jar of peanut butter, and a .22 pistol. Leaving, he turned the three locks on his door, tipped the woman at the desk $20 to see that nobody tried to get in his room, grabbed the first bicycle he saw on the sidewalk, and pedaled seven miles to the seafarer’s hall across the river in Harvey.
Elvis Presley’s funeral was scheduled for the next day, Thursday, August 18, about 400 miles and some six hours away. Container ships were coming and going from the France Road Marine Terminal and Cherry thought about throwing in for a job on one of them before he saw a young wiper from Mobile. Cherry knew he’d sailed with the guy before but couldn’t remember his name.
With a wink from Cherry and the wiper responding with a nod of his head they were outside—91 degrees and humid—and the wiper suggested they sit in his car to smoke the joint. Elvis on the radio, a fat one going-back-and-forth and another in the ashtray of an institutional green Ford Maverick sporting vinyl seats in-laid with indoor/outdoor carpeting.
The wiper took a hit off the doobie, passed it to Cherry and tapped the radio dial: “People coming in from all over the world. Man said James Brown just showed up in tears.”
“Let’s go,” said Cherry, sucking up the weed.
The wiper thought about this for a moment. If he hung around the hall long enough, he might catch a slow ride to pay his bills through Christmas. If he went with this shifty white boy who’d just fished a squeeze box out of his bag and played a slow blues over top the drone of the newscaster, Lord knows where he’d end up.