Carl

One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, they’re all dead now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom would plead to bail him out. They would and the cycle repeated. Finally the old man put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.

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