Time I Heard Billie
There are summers days in Baltimore when the
humidity hangs like a wet curtain across
the town and the
windows of buildings are dark mouths open
and gasping for air—
These are the days when
cheap electric fans whine like giant
mosquitoes in small apartments but give no
respite from the heat.
In the evening, the souls of the city move
aimlessly from nowhere to anywhere watching
the street lights awaken slowly—pyres to the
death of sunset—casting dull illumination
on a town drowsy but
not yet asleep.
On the corner, I watch
an electric sign suspended above a small
shop in the near darkness. The laughter of
patrons inside spills out onto the cracked
sidewalk dissipating and swirling like the
smoke that seeps up and out of the city
They pass me without a
glance and run to catch their bus or open
the doors of their cars. What meaning do I
hold for them—one black boy in the halo of a
From somewhere above my
head, music escapes from an old speaker.
Behind the register, a white hand notices me
and waves me on. I hesitate and then turn
away but stop when I hear her voice.
In the school library, I once read of women
whose voices called ships to destruction on
the rocky coasts of
foreign lands. Their voices were said to
drive men insane.
But in her voice, I
hear a call to drown myself in the madness
of love and lay brokenhearted upon the shore
of an Island called Solitude.
If I would be allowed
to, I would stand here and listen to her
until eternity slipped into nothingness and
from the womb of nothingness the world would
be reborn again.
But the white hand inside is insistent that
I move on. And as I do, I ask someone in
passing do you know
her—have you ever heard that voice before?
“That’s Billie Holiday,
son.” The old man standing beside me tells
me with a wink. “I haven’t heard her in a
month of Sundays.”
At midnight, I climb up the steps of an
abandoned row house and enter a darkness
blacker than night. The acid smell of urine
lays thick in the air. A single street light
framed in the window—an
eye spying upon my destitution.
Still, Billie’s voice plays again in my mind
and I recall the tale the old man told me of
life and death. “But you can’t judge the cat
until you been in its skin,” he sighs as a
caution before he hands me the bottle in his
hand. “Get off these streets, son,” he
“The devil is out here
“What did you do today,
youngblood?” It is the gruff voice of Old
Teak coming from a corner of the room, Old
Teak the wounded warrior, Old Teak the
one-eyed street sage who took me in and
taught me his wisdom.
“I heard Billie Holiday
tonight,” I answer. “Her voice was
“Sounds like she
bewitched you, young blood,” Old Teak laughs
“I believe she did.”
“Don’t take it too
seriously, son,” Old Teak warns. “We all
feel like that the first time we hear
Amin Sharif 2009