I have lived alone among bookshelves, an eidolon of a former man more vigorous, certainly more vigorous, and perhaps more intrepid about the bigger picture, the world at large, you might say. I have lived with the musty smell of pages on my fingers and the somewhat airy countenance of a dreamer, a man in cloudcuckooland, though, really, I am more grounded than most men, I boast. I think I can make that boast.
Every story like this story begins with a dame. This is my story that begins with a dame but I make no claims for its originality. Though I am a man composed of folios and phantasm, I often offer my services in a slightly more lucrative, more risqué, some might say a more serious occupation. I find lost people.
Usually the lost people don’t want to be found. In Memphis, where I ply my strange vocation, there are many places to hide, places as dark as a thief’s pocket, flash coves, buttocking shops and hot water doss houses. I am known in these places. I am respected in some, loathed in too many, welcome in few. Yet it is where I know to go. My name is Charlie Main.
I have a small office over Club Millar on Beale Street. The sign on my door says only “Charlie Main.” I rely mostly on word of mouth business. Across the street from my office is the office of the recently deceased Mr. Honeywood Partridge, an extraordinary photographer: inside his office/gallery history crouches, gray and cold: the walls are festooned with iconic images of Dr. King, the Civil Rights marchers, Elvis, Sam Cooke. He was also, possibly, an FBI informer in the brutal conflicts of the 1960s. C’est la guerre. My associate, Anna Ford, says Mr. Partridge never pigeoned on anyone who didn’t need pidgeoning on. I don’t care. But I do trust Anna the way an animal trainer trusts his luck. She’s smart; she’s got head-splatter to spare. She’s as cunning as Becky Sharp. And she’s made of fine parts, which are put together well.
The dame, ahem, my new client, arrived one Friday morning just after I got to the office. My head was still full of Laughter in the Dark, the Nabokov novel I reluctantly left behind to assume my professional stance, one that required an office with my name on the door and an associate who is a wet dream’s wet dream. Anna was gone that week. I was not sure where. She might have been working in disguise at one of the clubs, emporia of blues and blue tape. She did this occasionally because she said she could drum up business. I think she did it so she could take strangers home and show them the inside of her clothes. Anna liked, equally, the shine of bar lighting in a shot glass of whiskey (a glister of fish-hooks, she called it) and moral depravity. Hell, it wouldn’t be wrong to say I loved her.
So, when a tentative knock arrived I shouted from behind my desk, “Come on in,” in a voice meant to discourage the time-wasters, the feebs, the people whose fifteen-year-old tabby named Cuddles, was AWOL.
She entered with an air. The air smelled like honeysuckle. She looked like a well-made dresser with all the drawers full. She was about five foot nine in her bare feet (later), had hair the color of tobacco and the kind of mouth that makes men want to drink there. She had skin the color of the Bosco I drank in short pants. She smiled like a kitten. A kitten with teeth like filed steel.
“Mr. Main?” she said. Her voice was made of a parasite’s silk.
It was a good enough way to begin.
“How can I help you?” I countered.
“I was told.” She stopped. She looked around like an actress in a melodrama. I waited. I’d done this interview before.
“I was told you find missing people.” She finished with a silvery period on the end of her statement. It could have been plate silver or something finer.
“I try. That is what I get paid for. Trying.”
She looked at me with a school teacher’s moue.
“I hear you’re better than that.” She let the tip of her tongue dot her eyes.
“Thank you, Ms. …?”
“Himes. Greta Himes.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Himes. Sit.”
She folded herself downward. It was worth watching.
“Do you know a piano player named Blue Positive?”
“Heard of him. Plays at Smith Wigglesworth’s place, right?”
“Sometimes he does. He used to, I should say.”