The Sound of Building Coffins Excerpt

As we work to bring back the Eagle Saloon, we’re proud to share this excerpt from Louis Maistros’ The Sound of Building Coffins, a brilliant New Orleans novel that fictionalizes the lives of Buddy Bolden and a number of forgotten denizens of the Eagle Saloon and the Odd Fellows Hall. We hope you enjoy this wild scene, which Mr. Maistros has edited into a lean, spoiler-free Eagle Saloon exclusive. If you dig the excerpt, be sure to donate to the Eagle Saloon Indiegogo Campaign to receive a signed and personalized copy of The Sound of Building Coffins!

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Before the troubles, Malaria Morningstar had prided herself on being an early riser. Before the troubles, she’d witnessed each and every sunrise, had watched every morning fog lift with the rising sun. These were not things she missed now that she had discovered the drink.

The drink had turned her routine on its head—late to bed, late to rise. But also, the drink had protected her from the treacherous workings of her own mind. So much had been lost in one week, her family now removed from her completely. It was just too much.

Nearly noon, she stepped outside to discover a thick gray sky that retained a dim swath of orange; a gentle reminder of past sunrises, of who she once was. The same sky that had been wild and beautiful in the eyes of Marcus Nobody Special was unremarkable to her own—the inoffensive hue of an old dirty peach. What she did find remarkable was that the fog had remained kissing swamp so late in the morning, silently and stubbornly unlifted. The air was warm and moist against her skin, but she felt a dry chill. There’d been a time not long ago that she’d wished for a morning like this to come along; a morning that would begin a series of new and different mornings, no morning ever again the same—and she’d imagined that such a morning would be marked by unlifted fog. She shook the thought from her mind and went back inside. 

The home she’d loved all her life had acquired new weight in recent days that now pressed down hard upon her soul, and so she found herself frequently leaving early for work; parking herself downstairs at the Eagle Saloon for long afternoons, sipping short glasses of rye till five o’clock rolled around and her shift upstairs at Odd Fellows began.

Today would be no different. She methodically folded and placed her work clothes in a canvas sack—short red dress, black high heels, a pair of six dollar stockings (one of nine pairs left behind at the Arlington House by Diphtheria)—-then put on her mud-walking boots and left for the district, trudging through muck and unlifted fog, focused only on the thought of how wonderful the touch of a glass to her lips would feel once inside the bar.

She did not make note of static wind that scattered and swept away settled fog behind her as she walked, a wind that would soon erase everything she had ever known.

 

*

By twenty past five Malaria was stone drunk, the storm outside humming smoothly like a seashell in her ears.

“C’mon, papa. I’m good fer it,” she said with a flutter of lashes to the bartender who’d cut her off, a dapper fellow known to regular patrons of the Eagle Saloon as Gary the Gent. “Y’know I’m good fer it, Gary.”

“Yeah, you good, baby. But no cash, no flash. Can’t go runnin’ this tab straight up to the moon, now.”

“Hell, Gary, you ain’t no gent.”

“You know you love me, baby,” he laughed. “All wounds heal with time, as they say.”

A strong gust slammed something heavy against the side of the building.

Damn,” flinched Gary. “Don’t sound like this shit anywhere near ta passin’.”

Malaria wrinkled her nose nervously. “Guess I should get on up for my shift.” A flash of perfect teeth. “See you in ten hours, baby.”

“Knock ’em dead, sweetheart. Knock ’em right on out.”

“You know it.” Malaria blew him a kiss as she staggered towards the stairs, offering a drunken ass-wiggle to make up for not having tipped. Gary knew about Malaria’s hard luck this past week and so never-minded the stiff, but he did appreciate the show.

“Damn, baby,” he said with a grin. She smiled at the compliment.

At the top of the stairs she gave Black Benny a touch on the shoulder and a peck on the cheek. “What’s shakin’, sugar bear?”

Benny grunted. “What’s shakin’ is you been downstairs all day gettin’ yerself shitcanned and still can’t help but drag yer ass in late as usual.”

“Oh pooh,” she deflected with a pout, as she kept on towards the bar. Black Benny grunted once more before directing a worried eye to the pounding of water against glass.

Buddy’s band was up on the platform, sans Buddy, stomping out a lowdown gutbucket gospel blues called “Don’t Nobody Go Away” for a sparse crowd of degenerates and a scattering of whores that played cards and sucked back shots, defiantly hooting like hyenas each time the storm crescendoed menacingly outside with a slam or a bang or a wail.

Buddy had tried a few other horns since losing his old one, but when he couldn’t make any of them sing or shout the way he liked he lost heart and quit playing altogether. Sitting at the bar now with an early drunk on, Buddy winced into his glass at the noise made by some kid called Tig, his replacement, chosen seemingly at random from a legion of wanna-bees by that lousy turncoat bastard Frankie Dusen. Frankie had been Buddy’s longtime trombone player, a good old pal and partner for all those years, but had taken over the band a mite enthusiastically in Buddy’s opinion. Almost like he’d been hoping for the chance.

“Step it up, dammit!” Buddy bellowed from the bar. “I learned y’all better ’n that. Keep it poppin’. This ain’t no fuckin’ funeral.”

Frankie grudgingly obliged, stomping out a quicker rhythm till the band caught up.

Buddy spotted Malaria from the corner of his eye, turned to give her a timid smile and wave. She smiled back.

 

Malaria shoved herself quickly behind the bar to make change and pick up her tray. “Refill, Buddy?” she sang, noting his empty glass. But he didn’t hear her, his eyes staring hard toward the line of windows that overlooked Perdido Street.

A boom and a rumble like a runaway train gave the building a good rock and moan, drawing a long crack in the ceiling near the back wall on the Basin Street side. The train kept rolling as the gust failed to pass; angry water less like rain and more like waves as it shoved its way through unimaginable crevices between brick and mortar. The hall went quiet with worry ten seconds before the first window shattered. All but one female in the dancehall let out a shriek.

Wind and wet whipped through the hall through broken glass, creating havoc and a righteous mess of the place. The band played on, their tempo picking up with the pounding of their hearts.

Another mighty gust pulled and rocked the building further, shattering a second window and knocking Malaria to her knees while Jim crashed sideways to the rattling floorboards. The others had already scurried to the wall farthest from the window side, huddled together in the corner near the stairs. The wind inside was driving upwards against the ceiling now, widening the crack to let a torrent of water pour down upon the dance floor. The building adjoining Odd Fellows from the rear—a decrepit bakery called Manny’s, with cribs in the back and skank apartments on the upper floors—rapidly deteriorated then finally lurched and tumbled, crashing onto Basin Street and taking the back third of Oddfellows’ down with it. A large section of ceiling broke free and sailed above them into the terrible gray sky as the brittle screams of those still inside the apartments above Manny’s harmonized dissonantly with the continuous roar of the building’s collapse.

“Malaria!” shouted Buddy from the relative shelter of the building’s front end, terror coloring his voice. “Get yer ass over here! Stop fooling around!” The wall that Buddy cowered against held firm thus far, still maintaining a significant section of roof overhead. Malaria heard what sounded like a low rumble of applause behind her and turned to see.

Beyond the missing section of Odd Fellows lay an ocean, the streets of New Orleans obscured beneath a floor of churning black water that rushed over the fresh rubble of Manny’s Bakery, pitching the bodies of the living and the dead with absolute equality. She wondered briefly about the fate of her friend, Gary the Gent, who she’d recently stiffed for a tip in the Eagle Saloon below. Absently, she wondered how she might endeavor to settle that tab now.

“Wake up, now,” said Buddy Bolden as he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her from the precipice.

Buddy followed Malaria to the front of the building where the others had grouped together in a shivering clump. She pulled Buddy’s head down to her own, kissed his forehead and said, “Thank you, my God, thank you.”

Buddy pulled away. “Don’t thank me, Malaria. I owe your sister at least that much.” His eyes wandered briefly, searchingly. “You got no idea what I done.”

“I always thought so poorly of you,” Malaria confessed. “I never thought that you had it in you to—”

“If you want to thank me, just get through this.” Buddy glanced up at the deteriorating section of roof above their heads. “I’m afraid this old building about to come down altogether. Hope you can swim all right.”

“I can swim,” she confirmed.

Buddy smiled faintly and lifted Malaria’s hand into Benny’s. “Take care of this one,” he told Benny. “She’s last of the good hearts. The last of the Morningstars.” Then he turned to Malaria. “Your father’s house likely done and gone now. But you gotta make it through this so’s you can build it back up, make some new Morningstars and go on.”

“Okay, Buddy. All right, but—”

“Now, if you’ll pardon me,” he interrupted, “I got some business to tend.”

Buddy inched his way towards the precipice, staying close to what remained of the inside wall.

“What’s he doing?” Malaria’s eyes widened with concern.

“Hell if I know,” said Benny.

With cornet in hand, Buddy furthered himself across the narrow remainder of floor that led to the building’s missing rear section. A cast iron spiral staircase that normally led to the roof’s railed observation deck dangled loosely from the remaining side wall, and Buddy waited for a steady gust to help carry him across before attempting the leap.

Malaria screamed as he jumped, tried to get up and after him—but Benny held her firm.

Buddy clung expertly to the swinging stairs without dropping the cornet, then carefully ascended to the wall’s top edge. He crawled with his chest low, snaking his way to the flat roof of the adjoining building next door. Gradually making his way back to the Rampart Street side, he crossed back over to the Oddfellows’ building—positioning himself protectively on the section of remaining roof that hung over the heads of Malaria and the others. The decorative concrete railing that framed the front of the building like a crown remained wholly intact, and Buddy braced himself against it, pulling himself up to one knee.

The view from here was arresting. With fists of rain pelting his back, he watched helplessly as the storm ripped wood and brick structures asunder before him, nothing untouched or unharmed as far as the eye could see.

He watched the city disassemble and drown, but felt no despair at the sight of it. What went through his mind was not, “Everything is gone.” What went through his mind was, “How long to return?” What he saw before him was an open question, not a final statement. The question itself not a mere manifestation of hope, but a realization:

As the city dies, so the city is reborn.

Buddy held tight to his cornet, gave her a gentle kiss. Then he remembered why he’d climbed to this precarious spot.

“Can’t undo what’s done anymore than I can bring my family back, but maybe can have a hand in keeping things from getting any worse.” He held the cornet near his lips. “Now, if I can just remember that tune.”

The song came out.

The melody soared above him into the tumultuous gray, and he thought of Typhus, the youngest of the Morningstars, a man in the shape of a boy. Remembered his troubled eyes, the eternal longing in them. Buddy hadn’t known Typhus well, but he knew the meaning of eyes like that.

He blew on:

 

Jesus I’m troubled about my soul

Ride on Jesus come this way

Troubled about my soul

 

The notes came out two octaves higher than he had intended.

The notes held, dipped, leapt and crashed. But didn’t crash.

Saved.

 

The wind died momentarily, enough for Buddy to rise up on two feet before resuming play:

 

The devil is mad and I am glad

He lost one soul that he thought he had

Troubled about my soul, Lord

Troubled about my soul

 

Buddy collapsed across the roof, the cornet loosely in his grasp, the thing formerly ripped from his soul having returned in force—as a lost melody is recalled in time.

A ray of moonlight pierced the clouds, but the storm raged on.
*

From “The Sound of Building Coffins” by Louis Maistros.
Copyright 2009 by Louis Maistros, all rights reserved.