See that storm of a trombone player on stage? They call him Skeleton Man. They say his horn is made of bone and dipped in brass, the case made of alligator skin. What they won’t tell you is he won it in a knife fight down at the Dueling Oaks. They say he’s not dead but that he’s not alive either – that death is afraid of him.
Watch close – he pulls music notes from up his sleeve, then he lets them roll. If you’re quick, you’ll see them bouncing around the dancers’ feet like tiny pieces of ash.
He only plays here at The Spotted Cat. They say he vanishes like vapor when he steps off Frenchmen Street, but I followed him one night past Esplanade and into the French Quarter.
Shadows recoiled from him as he walked; streetlights flickered. They say he never takes off those tinted spectacles – that behind them, instead of eyes, are two smoldering embers. They say he shines his shoes with the tears of angels.
I followed him to Jackson Square, where he veered deeper into the Quarter, past Saint Loius Cathedral and the debauchery of Bourbon Street. What I saw then, I’d never seen before: Floating above the street was a large ship – tattered sails and a busted hull; big ropes tying it off to a shotgun house.
Skeleton Man walked up to the ship, and a woman appeared at the rail, hair and gown batted about by a wind that touched nothing else; her face carved with longing. She gripped at her heart, pulled out a fistful of gray music notes, and dropped them down to him. I could hear the notes as they fell – a heart-wrenching, meandering sort of jazz. He caught them in the open alligator-skin trombone case. The two exchanged words, but I was too far away to hear.
Their gaze was locked for ages. Then the boat vanished, along with the lady. He closed the trombone case and walked deeper into the Crescent City, his gait slower then before.
They say he shines his shoes with the tears of angels. But I know whose tears he really uses. They also say he both yearns for and hates the end of a song. He can see its death coming – and doesn’t know if his death ever will.
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This photograph was made in the French Quarter, located in New Orleans, LA
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