Jukebox Man, 2020 Third Place Adult Division

By Eric E. Wallace

Jukeboxes.

All polished chrome, flashing colored lights, faux ivory buttons and curving tailfin flanges, a jukebox could look like a miniature T-bird, rearing back on its hind quarters, souped up, ready to roar down the drag strip.

But these beautiful, shiny machines were about music, not cars. They made you tap your feet, swing your arms, snap your fingers to Bill Haley and his Comets and the other up-and-comers of rock and roll. Or made you try to pivot your hips with Elvis, the kid from Tupelo who was taking the charts to the heavens with hit after hit.

For all of this, you needed only to pop in your dimes, your quarters or your half-dollars, press a couple of buttons and get ready for the 45s to spin, the tubes to hum, the speakers to vibrate, your ears to sigh in pleasure.

Mo Dixon hadn’t planned on it, but jukeboxes had become his life. Traveling from town to town in southcentral Idaho—to diners, restaurants, soda fountains, bars and clubs—Mo restocked records, read play counters, collected the jingling tumbles of coins and did all the repairs.

There were about 750 parts in the average jukebox. None of them fazed Mo a bit. Growing up on an Idaho dairy farm, he’d repaired everything from barn fans to separators, from pulsators to heat exchangers, not to mention fixing the radios he loved to listen to, sometimes using them to serenade the cows in their stalls.

But it’s much easier to fix a broken jukebox than to fix a broken life.

Before the war, Mo had everything going for him. Brains, good looks, fine mechanical and electrical skills, and a sweet, strong voice everyone said put Bing Crosby to shame, a voice which might just propel Mo, along with his soul-touching song-writing abilities, out of dusty little Jerome County and into radio, the recording industry, the national limelight.

But along came Pearl Harbor. Mo was drafted. Trained as a combat radio operator.  Sent to Tunisia, then Italy, finally shipped to the Pacific Theater. Somehow he remained relatively-unscathed until the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted 82 horrific days.

On day 82 his luck ran out.

Mo was cocooned for the long term in Letterman Hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco. His ravaged leg meant a lifetime of limping. His burned and shattered face meant strangers constantly averting their eyes, the girls no longer eager to flirt. Worst of all, the damage to his larynx meant his voice would forever be a rasp, a croak, a shadowy whisper. Bing Crosby could relax.

Fate seemed to pile things on.  During Mo’s long rehabilitation, his father died of a heart attack. His mother lost the dairy farm, had a stroke and died soon after. Mo’s high school sweetheart, Gail, tried to stick by him, but each time she came out to Letterman, Mo picked a fight with her and pushed her away. One day she stopped coming entirely.

At least he no longer had to deal with seeing the pity in her eyes.

In the next jumble of years, there were stays at the state hospital in Blackfoot—”for his nerves,” as people were told—semesters on the GI Bill at the University of Idaho, where he majored listlessly in animal husbandry, and a return to Jerome County to work at a commercial dairy farm. Though he was good at everything, from operating the surge bucket systems to doing all kinds of repairs, he couldn’t settle down.

Eventually Mo stumbled into the jukebox job. He was hired by Cal Young, an entrepreneur who owned jukeboxes and cigarette machines all over southcentral Idaho. Cal was the father of Mo’s former girlfriend. Gail had married and moved to Montana, but she’d put in a compassionate word for Mo.

So now here it was, early summer of 1956. A beautiful, warm, Idaho day, Mo in his boss’s blue ’49 Chevy truck, bouncing down the potholed road to Twin Falls, where a clunky art deco Wurlitzer at Crowley’s awaited his ministrations.

Bugs kamikazied the windshield. The sweet tang of newly-cut grass drifted through the window. Tiny purple flowers smiled from gray-green alfalfa fields. Far off, Mo could see the hazy mauveness of the high, aloof Sawtooths.

Something demolished the tranquility. Closing in, a monster dust storm was churning the earth, triggering memories from hell.

Mo’s breathing jitterbugged. He swerved onto the bumpy verge, caught in the constant black, the blood-pounding whirl of artillery and mortar shells shredding the muddy Okinawa soil and roiling the air with screaming dirt and darkness.

Such triggers were everywhere. Thunder booming over the farmlands could make him tremble uncontrollably. Some smells were dangerous: Mo tried to avoid driving past cattle feed lots, and he stayed clear of the Burley slaughterhouse. Even the sour odors from the cheese factories might set his pulse to jumping. And not from hunger.

Humans could be triggers. One afternoon at Gerry’s Diner in Jerome, Mo was adjusting a Select-O-Matic wall unit when a small, uniformed Jap popped up from his hidey-hole, ready to swing his shiny shin guntō sword. It took Mo all his willpower not to fling his toolbox at the enemy and dive for cover.

As it turned out, the man was coming up from behind a pastry counter, his uniform a white apron, his weapon a silvered tray of strawberry-cream donuts.

Gerry Inglewood hurried over and introduced them. She told Mo she was following her dream of having an in-house baker.

“Mr. Okimoto is very experienced,” she said. “He owned a bakery in Portland…” She paused. “Before…”

Mr. Okimoto bowed slightly, his eyeglasses glinting. His smile was thin as a corn silk. Mo noticed the man didn’t flinch at the tortured face before him. Very rare not to have a reaction. What had this Jap seen—or done?

“Poor Mr. Okimoto,” Mo’s aunt said the next evening, after she’d convinced Mo to come for supper. “One of those Japanese-Americans they stuck away in that internment camp in Minidoka.”

Aunt Harriett had given Mo a place to stay, a small mobile home on the back corner of her property outside Jerome.  His aunt knew everything about everyone.

“That poor man,” she went on, ladling stew. “Born in Oregon, American citizen and all, but they locked him up anyway. He lost his bakery. His wife and child died in the camp. TB, I think. Took the life out of him.”

Mo nodded. “Dealt a bum hand.” He aimed his fork halfheartedly at a piece of potato.

“Like so many.” Harriett squeezed Mo’s arm. “He went away after the war, but last month he turned up out of the blue, got the job at Gerry’s. Now folk are coming from all over for a taste of his huckleberry tarts.”

Mr. Okimoto knew more than how to bake incredible treats. One evening, as Mo was leaving Gerry’s, he heard lovely but mournful sounds coming from the alley. He limped round, and there, sitting on a large wooden crate, was Mr. Okimoto, blowing on a yellow bamboo pole about two feet long.

Mo stood, listening, forgetting that encountering a Japanese ought to be pushing his stress buttons.

“Ah, Mr. Dixon,” Mr. Okimoto lowered the instrument. “Forgive my little bit of noise.”

“Jeez, no. It’s killer-diller stuff. But what’s that thing?”

“A shakuhachi. A very old kind of flute. Would you like a closer look?”

“Uh, not right now, thanks.”

Mr. Okimoto nodded. He looked unblinkingly at Mo’s mangled face. “I understand you write songs, good ones they say.”

“Once upon a time.” Mo’s cheeks burned. He turned to leave.

“Perhaps again?” Mr. Okimoto asked.

Mo gestured vaguely and moved away, unsure if that question was about writing songs or about having another chat. He couldn’t do the first, wasn’t sure if he wanted the second.

But he felt sorry for the guy. Aunt Harriett had described Minidoka. Thousands of Japanese-Americans. Little privacy. Barracks with paper-thin walls. Hot and dusty summers, cold and drafty winters. Barbed wire. Guard towers. Small wonder some folk called it a concentration camp.

Mo lit a Camel. He thought about his song-writing days. He’d had the word skills of a cowboy-poet. Lickety-split he’d made up nifty tunes on his vintage Gibson. And his singing? People said his voice was more honeyed than Sinatra’s, but edgier in a way that made them tingle. He was about to make a demo record when bam! Greeting. FDR wanted him.

The cigarette smoke made his eyes water.

1956 moved along. The U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb over a Pacific island. Egypt grabbed the Suez Canal, warred with Israel. Eisenhower signed the interstate highway bill, and there was excited scuttlebutt about new Idaho roads. Elvis Presley dominated the charts, leaving the rest of the pack in the dust.

Jukeboxes were bringing in serious money. Mo rushed around, getting the hottest recordings into the machines. The days were long and tiring, but he liked having all that music in his head.  For the first time in ages, he was thinking less about what might have been.

Evenings, he took to going over to Gerry’s, where he and Mr. Okimoto would talk over coffee and pastry fragments. Mo slowly opened up and described the dairy farm, his former girlfriend, his music, his dreams.

Mr. Okimoto was born and raised in Portland. Studied culinary arts.  Married Chiaki. Had a daughter, Keiko.  Inherited his parents’ bakery, was making it a real success when…

Camp life was very hard on his wife and child. Both died in 1944.

“What brought you back?” Mo whispered. “Ain’t this a sad place for you?”

Mr. Okimoto nodded. “I returned to Portland and worked for others. But eventually I needed to be here. Every week I visit the cemetery. Sometimes I go up to the camp and just sit. I play my shakuhachi. I meditate on things like freedom, on dealing with injustice and loss. I think I’m slowly healing.”

He fixed his dark brown eyes on Mo. “It is possible, healing.”

“So I’m told.”

Coins clinked at the jukebox. In slow three-quarter time, the Ames Brothers began singing the title line of their new hit, “It Only Hurts for a Little While.

Mo snorted. Mr. Okimoto stared at the ceiling fan.

“Ain’t it something?” Mo rasped as he sat with Aunt Harriet on her front porch. “The Japs blew my future to hell. Now a Japanese drinks joe with me and tries to cheer me up.”

“He’s American.” She lowered her needlework. “And look what this country did to him.”

Mo took a pull on his cigarette. “Seems like one big snafu.” He coughed, his face contorting.

“So is it working—him trying to cheer you up?”

“I dunno. A little. Maybe.”

Aunt Harriett beamed. “Hey, have you tried his lemon puffs? Little jewels.”

Fall came soon enough, the heat dropped to tolerable, hay trucks rattled down the roads, Jerome High won five football games, and Elvis Presley had another hit, “Love Me Tender.”

“Gonna be huge!” Cal yelled to Mo over the jangling of the coin sorter. “Set it as A-1 everywhere!”

When he listened to the song, Mo was soon awash in the worst depression he’d had in some time. The simple, heartfelt words, the old Civil War tune, the unadorned guitar accompaniment, the soft choral hums, and particularly Elvis’ warm, languid singing, with its unstudied vibrato—all overwhelmed Mo, not so much with envy or with sentiment, but with the reminder of where he might have gone but now couldn’t possibly go.

It wasn’t fair. Even Mr. Okimoto seemed to be turning things around. With Gerry Inglewood’s help, his breads and pastries were being sold in three other towns under the brand OK Bakery.

One evening at Gerry’s, Mo played “Love Me Tender” again on the big Seeburg M-100A. He let it torture him with loss and despondency. In full stereo.

Abruptly, from outside, reverberating booms chased loud metallic crashes, overlapped with shrieking whistles and angry explosions.

Mo gasped, crawled under a table, pursued by bright flashes, sharp bangs, nasty whiffs of gunpowder. Panic tried to strangle him.

Suddenly, surprisingly, his brain engaged. He recognized the high school football celebration, the parade, the cymbals, the bass drums, the fireworks.

Grunting and half-laughing, Mo dragged himself into a chair. But his laughter gave way to weeping.

Elvis warbled the final refrain.

Mo remembered performing his songs to big crowds at county fairs and homecomings. Remembered kissing Gail under the bleachers. Remembered his great plans.  The war cost him so much. There was nothing tender about any of it.

He was still resting his head in his hands when Mr. Okimoto sat beside him.

“Can you imagine,” Mr. Okimoto said softly, “all those years ago, I played flute in a marching band? Miles of gold braid, a tall, silly, tasseled hat and sweaty white gloves. One day, a cheerleader threw her baton high, and it came down on me like a bolt of lightning. Knocked off my hat, made my glasses dangle, got me huge hoots of laughter from the crowd. But I played on, the goofiest-looking kid in Portland.”

Mo straightened. “Trying to cheer me up?” he rasped.

“Of course.” Mr. Okimoto pointed a flour-whitened thumb at the jukebox. “I don’t hear much cheering up coming from that.”

Mo stared at the Seeburg. Stared harder. His focus softened, diffusing the reflections into kaleidoscopic twinkles. He gazed at nothing, everything.

Outside, a final drum boomed, a piccolo shrilled, and the parade was past.

“Holy Moly,” Mo said at last. “Maybe I’ve been seeing it wrong.”

“Wrong?”

Mo limped to the jukebox. “Know how many tunes are in those things?” His raw whisper was edged with excitement. “They can handle a hundred or more. One new model plays 250.”

“250 tunes?”

“Right! An’ you know what that tells me?” The words tumbled out. “They need music. It ain’t only about the singers. They need lots and lots of songs. Someone’s gotta write ’em.”

“Someone…?”

“See, lots get written by someone else, not by the singer. Even Elvis don’t write very much of what he sings…”

Mr. Okimoto sat back. “So that’s where you come in? A ghostwriter?”

“No!  A songwriter. In my own name. Words, music, maybe both. Someone else can perform ’em, but those songs will be mine.”  Mo fingered his ruined face. “This mug ain’t gonna win no fans, but inside I got…” He let out a deep, almost exultant breath.

“…got things in your heart people might want to hear?”

“Reckon so.” Mo nodded. “Many things. Lotsa songs.”  He tapped the jukebox. “One of these days, maybe you can put in a quarter and spin a Mo Dixon tune or two.”

Mr. Okimoto stood up. “I’m counting on it.”

They shook hands.

“You’re the most, Mr. Okimoto.”

“Please call me Kenji. Or Ken. Or…”—a warm laugh—”…just call me OK.”

“OK?” Mo grinned, his scars folding comfortably into each other. “OK, then!”

copyright©2020 Eric E. Wallace