A Storyby Jayne Anne Phillips
Noon on, he worked in the grocery for his old man; they lived in the cramped apartment over the store. Every school day, three hours after classes, Leavitt worked for the old man. His mother cleared a shelf under the counter for his books, found a swivel stool with a back, told him to stay in it and do his homework if the old man wasn’t around. As he often wasn’t. She was the one who kept it going. Kept the radio going too, tuned low to Benny Goodman, Nelson Riddle.
She was all for that dreamtime music, played in ballrooms and swank clubs she’d never see. Leavitt learned clarinet in the school band, then played a beat-up cornet until she traded some junkie musician groceries and ice cream for his trumpet. You practice, Bobby, she’d say. Sounds nice, she’d tell him. After she died, collapsed on the floor beside the old man’s treasured refrigerator case, Leavitt refused even to enter the place. Sixteen years old, he used the separate apartment entrance and narrow stairs that bypassed the storefront until the old man changed the locks. Then he lived with friends or girls. Two years later, in ’45, he graduated high school with no family in attendance. Days, for three years, he drove a delivery truck for a liquor wholesaler. Nights he played with one band or another in bars and clubs, had a run of nearly a year with a white jazz band that played downtown and wore suits. But he liked playing the black clubs, where he learned more and made less, and the pros called him Whitey with tacit affection. He was good enough to patch gigs together but there was finally no reason to stay in Philly.
One cold November day in ’48 he enlisted on impulse and the Army bussed him South three days later; he took to Basic so hard the brass kept him on at Fort Knox for seven months, assisting drill instructors. Fort Knox billed itself as the “Home of Armor,” but Leavitt found he had no interest in driving tanks. They were dark, heavy, close inside, the men clutched together in a mechanized hole, breathing each other’s air. The tank crews loved the big guns and considered themselves invulnerable, but Leavitt saw tanks as coffins equipped with tracks and cannon. He wanted out, into Infantry, where he could see and hear and move on his own. He’d come in fit but he trained compulsively, embraced Army hierarchy and chain-of-command etiquette, pushed himself to attain firsts in every drill. He saw it all as protection, survival, his own invulnerability: if he attained perfect form, he increased his options while his mind-set remained his own, and the essential privacy he cultivated was assured.