Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959)
He keeps hitting me. What can I do? Keep waiting for something to fall. Something to stop. Always another blow. Apologies and knocks. Thank the dear Lord. When he’s had enough.
Floor boards creaking. With wind and with wear. Trousers slung over an easy chair. That old man wore his Sunday shirt. And that awful curse. Spread those legs, girl! Was all that I heard. Didn’t care that I was ten years old. Someone should have been there. Someone should have heard. That wretched curse and those ugly words. Baths in cold water. And hot mustard.
Given a pillow. In The House of the Good Shepherd. Where Jesus kissed the dust off her face. Didn’t stop that tear in her eyes. That itch. That lament. That cry. Because no one knows. What the night had hidden. In her thighs.
With a knife. At your throat. Grinning while you’re scrubbing. And the soot would pour down her throat. From the bastards in brown trousers. Around their ankles. Down on her luck. Penniless. She sang one night in a barge. Brought the house down. Surprisingly, Billie wasn’t charged.
There was a trombonist. A pusher. A hit man for the mafia. All of them loving. All of them angry. Get on your back! Spread those legs! When they weren’t beating her, they were leaving her. Love will make you do things. You can’t sing about. (In a song.)
American pianist Alexander Kelberine. Programmed his last recital with pieces. In minor keys and melodic funereal lines. He then went home. And took. An overdose of sleeping pills. Made Billie laugh. Put the bottle of wine back on the shelf. And wondered if he had worn. His best suit. Then wrote a song. On some postcards. Of southern trees. And strange exotic fruit.
When Billie died she owned 70 cents. The crowds in the street. Read her name. On the Times Square ticker tape. The church bells vent. And the bums in the alley explained what they meant. To hear her sing was to see what monsters and what fools we could be. Made you want to laugh and cry at the same time. A last breath. Like a southern breeze.