Illustration by Kelsey Dake
By Jeffery Renard Allen
—for David Henderson
“The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”
All day long the song has kept him thinking, a few clumsy lines scribbled on hotel stationery like black rivers rushing across the page. What imposters his words are. Music pays him to be. Music plays him to be. He sets the pen down on the table and tears off another chunk of hash. Having spent the better part of the day doing just this. See, the beautiful dried hashish in his hand. He puts it in the tall dazzling bong and lights it. Those sharing the table with him inside the café take turns, lips pressed against the long tilted rim of the pipe, then an intake of smoke, causing the bowl to start gurgling. Lazy smoke hovering about the room like gray birds. Four of them sitting at a round table with a mosaic top and heavy iron legs. His skull is filled with feathers, little sleep last night, but he swears that when he finishes this song, this moment will be in it. All of Tangier.
Some time ago he got it into his head that he wanted to get away from the unpleasantness of London, from the painful atmosphere of his enormous flat, and recover a little for a few weeks, so he had. How long ago was that? No traceable or steady answer, for after weeks or months his life in Tangier has grown firm in his body. Surely were he to ask those sitting with him at the table, one of them would know.
A shout crosses the café. Jimi hears Francis before he sees him, his loud easy laughter. Jimi takes another draw on the pipe before he waves at Francis, signals him to come over. Francis, a smile gleaming across the air, already a little loaded, a bit unsteady as if his body is being pulled along by the string of his voice like a safety guard guiding a kid through traffic. Francis opens his arms and squeezes Jimi into a hug, then sits down at the sun-dappled table with Jimi and the others, his elbows propped on the mosaic top, his forearms thick like bowling pins, his hands massive, each finger as fat as an eel. He has thirty years (more) on everyone at the table but doesn’t look his age, fits right in. Who can doubt that he’s one of them?
No way you’re really that old, Francis. How do you do it? Jimi remembers asking him.
Why, I just make myself young.
It’s too hard to speak in French when you’re high, Francis says. He puts fingers to forehead as if to keep thoughts from escaping and to push those that have already managed to escape back in. He is wearing slacks and shirt, pants pressed and creased, collar starched, his feet shod in respectable leather shoes, recognizable signs of bourgeois decorum and success. Except one eye is black and swollen. Everyone knows how he spends his nights, and no one has the smallest comment to make on the subject.
Francis orders a carafe of wine and lets Jimi pour him a glass when it comes. And so they are sitting across from each other again, drinking wine together again, Francis half turned toward Jimi, Francis a little slumped and clinging to his uneasy chair, talking constantly off the top of his head, easy words on his lips, his thick arms and hands moving the whole while with a certain youth and grace. Jimi thinks about the very first time they met three or four years ago, right here, at this very same café. They were polite and obliging to each other, but the conversation was halting. What did they have to say, to share? He had imagined that Francis, the famous painter, would speak wonders. I paint heads. That’s most of what I do. At least for now. But mostly he took it upon himself to chastise Jimi in forthright language for being quiet, shy. Once you reach a certain age it’s simply ridiculous to be shy.
The menu comes around. Francis orders some of everything and eats all of it, then pushes back from his pile of plates with a self-satisfied look. Long and carefully he wipes his mouth before cleaning each tooth with a fresh napkin, which causes Jimi to remember the way his grandmother’s yellowed false teeth kept watch on her nightstand, ready to savage anything within reach. He would keep his distance.
The food here is excellent, Francis says. He lowers his face, his chin propped against the table. Through the yellow wine in his glass he looks like a bee trapped in amber. But this wine tastes like shit, he says. Like human tears.
That earns a round of laughter.
Try some of this, Jimi says.
Francis sits upright, thinks about it. Why not, he says. I think cannabis is a good idea.
Cannibal? Jimi says, making a joke of it. He breaks off a chunk of hash and prepares it inside the bong for Francis. Soon, Francis is all in, smoke circling above his head, then he starts talking, tells Jimi about his favorite place—restaurant? pub? casino? brothel?—just outside Tangier. A wonderful old building under layers of wash and plaster and abuse and neglect. Frescoes coming off in giant flakes of paint like colorful moths. It’s very far away, he says. Takes about a half day to get there, if we travel by—
Don’t tell me, Jimi says. He takes a hit on the bong.
Wait, Francis says. Jimi can see that something is happening. Some kind of ballooning expansion. Francis struggles to his feet, but his shoes leave the floor. His cranium engorged with oxygen, he is lighter than air, drifts all the way up into thin atmosphere until he is nothing more than a black dot in the sky to those viewing him from the ground.
The next evening, they sit outside at the café and look across at the fields and unavoidable horizon. Just the two of them. Francis almost never thinks to sit like this, looking out at trees poised in the dusty light, light on every branch, light layered in the leaves. He can see all of the delicate twigs against the blue sky, and each leaf stands out separately on a branch, posing for him. Things in the distance take on more color. The fields end somewhere, but he can’t see where. Vain, natural life wants form. Some odor blows across the café. Francis coughs into his fist. His neck has been made long by the cannabis, but he is already starting to feel like himself again, only a bit sluggish from lack of sleep, or too much sleep.
Wow, Jimi says. It’s good to have you back. Yesterday . . .
Yes, Francis says. Hands are better than wings. He gestures toward Jimi’s guitar, which lies flat on the floor near Jimi’s bare feet. So isn’t that a bit cumbersome?
Jimi lights a cigarette. You never know, he says.
The café owner comes over to Jimi and Francis, urging them to enjoy some special luxury (apricot dumplings), knowing all too well that Jimi will decline his invitation and that Francis will accept it. Waiting for the treat, Francis sits with his chin lifted like someone driving a car, making it impossible for Jimi to tell if he is sober or drunk, not that it matters.
Jimi reaches down and fists his Stratocaster by the neck. He trusts the guitar, the wood and metal it is made from. Plugs it into a little battery-powered amp. Readies his hands, the strings taking up their touch again. Hands moving, strumming a few shimmering chords, raking through some sharp arpeggios, then slaps and snaps of percussive chunks of notes. Tries to put the lyrics to them. Too many meanderings, no holding pattern, in a never-ending song. He chords a four-fingered shape, then bends a string and keeps bending it, waiting to hear the bone snap, every finger broken. He unplugs the guitar from the amp and places it back at his feet, dark strings like a skeletal X-ray.
But so much of what you played is wonderful, Francis says. Francis being Francis drinks.
If you say so. Jimi lights another cigarette. Or better perhaps to go back to the bong?
Francis likes it when his friends keep secrets, likes the challenge of finding a way to expose the hidden. I daydream all day long about rooms full of paintings, he says. Tells Jimi about walking through a long narrow hallway lined with doors. Every door is open, but a colored curtain keeps whatever is inside hidden from view, each curtain moving a bit in a breeze but never enough for him to peek into any of the rooms.
That’s when Jimi sees something astonishing. A long ribbon of light travels from the sky toward Francis, hesitates for a moment, then bends around Francis’s body, avoiding his face, his entire torso, landing instead on the objects around him, Francis’s body now darker with the shadows, darker than the floor. The light moving here until the ribbon curls up into a ball and plops down on one shoulder, then a second ribbon comes streaming down, curls up into a ball, and plops down on the other shoulder, the unlikely light transformed into two gleaming epaulets.
The afternoon runs out. They leave the café together and walk through the streets of Tangier. Say good-bye inside the garden out front of the hotel where Jimi is staying. Immediately Francis’s breath starts to quicken with the pollen. He calmly wends his way along the road to his own hotel, feeling pollen sink to the bottom of his lungs. There is a thing that he forgot to say to Jimi. But what was that? He was almost expecting Jimi to invite him upstairs to his room, but Jimi simply lit another cigarette and waved before he went inside.
Once in bed he realizes that his room is layered in heavy blankets of pollen. The heavy fabric of each wheezed breath weaves a shape in the air that hangs in unused stillness. He is soon to die, each heartbeat a concern. He might as well tear open his chest and remove his worthless lungs, prop them like pillows under his head, and wait for Death to take him. So be it. We all have to go. But he knows his misfortune, that his life will be long.
He tries to picture Jimi in his mind but can’t hold the image. Can only see a shadowy figure with cigarette in hand, smoke sketching gestures in the air. Not so easy for an artist as most think given the object’s tireless need to be reimaged. Pondering until sleep loops him in.
He wakes in a clear tangible world. What to do now? Will he look for light in the flawed wine at the café? No. Already London is pulling at him. He decides to sit on the floor and draw. In fact, he draws figures all day, at one point actually reclining on the wooden floor the way the ancients painted inside the caves. The raw back of the wooden floor becomes his back.
His studio at Reece Mews still carries the smell of animals. Francis has always preferred to have his studio in a mews. The connection is too obvious, the smell of his father’s barn in Ireland traveling through memory. He has been over that afternoon again and again in his mind across the wide span of years between then and now, trying to recall all he can of that barn. The neat stalls. The scrambling chickens. Claw feather fur hoof and beak. The floor covered with random tufts of hay sticking up like hairy armpits.
How long did the flogging last? How many lashes did he receive? All he knows is that his father’s manservant, mouth sugared with saliva, had sweated through his shirt while his father stood and watched. It was the first time in his life that he felt someone else’s life being lived in his own body, his own head.
The pain should have passed by now, but all the muscles in his body keep their history. He would like to add a gaudy flourish to the memory. Even worse, a painting would only betray the simplicity of that moment and magnify its importance. What matters: he is grateful for the lesson his father passed on that day, the only thing his father gave him of value that will remain part of him forever.
So it is with painting. Something drops into his mind—he never asks why, nothing purposely planned, he doesn’t paint ideas—but the feeling holds for a day, a week, a month, before it is gone. That is the frantic worry hovering over him always. Like now: he is fashioning an image, but why isn’t it here the way he saw it before him one hour ago? It’s not so easy to bring back the dead. There are many deaths inside him. From time to time, in an effort to will something into being, he will drop in on an anatomy class at the university and take in the brown coloring of a cadaver and the tobacco smell of formaldehyde.
He bathes at his studio, leaves pigment in the tub like shed skin, dresses for the night, and leaves, making stately progress through the popping traffic sounds of Soho streets. Little firecrackers of applause greet his entry into the Colony. He’s seen them all before, regular patrons, even if their names break up in his mind. They reach out to touch him, but their hands pass right through him. Francis taking and giving speech away, full of attention to every detail in the pub. They stand as though standing’s what they came here for. And the wobblers, going two ways at once. Words find their feet here in pints and fingers, although the wider net of speech matters more than the speaker. There’s always more going on than anyone has the time or wit to notice. (Francis is there, trying to see. Needs to see it all better.) He watches the way a face will change, every word, every gesture, collapse. Almost as if the physical features were shaken like dice in a fist then tossed to random chance.
After a hard morning of work, he likes to feel himself in the crowd, holding on to the constant hum of sounds, Francis a sequence of flashes moving across mirrors in the sunken basement. This brightly lit world, a radiance of bulbs, the glow on glow with clinking glasses. After a time, he makes his way to a neighboring restaurant for a leisurely meal. The patrons show no apparent excitement at seeing him, but the wine is good. Off to another place he frequents that shines with pink and red wines. The constant shuttling from pub to pub, this consistency of routine, seems to make the image in his head clearer—at least some aspects of it.
Now someone is shouting at him across the whole width of a table. Francis turns at the sound, nods at a boldly oversized gangster dressed in a tailored Savile Row suit. Francis makes his way to the bar, orders the gangster’s favorite drink, then turns around and comes upon a brutality. (What else is there?) Watches as the gangster’s huge hands nudge a man, watches the man kneel down and lower his lips to the gangster’s brilliantly polished shoes.
Your sins are forgiven.
A wave of laughter. Francis laughs, too. (Why not? A good clown deserves applause.) Is the gangster doing it all for Francis? People are always looking for a way to get into his paintings. Of course, it is a scene that he could never paint. (Surely the mirror gets tired of telling the truth.)
Soon, Francis settles in. Drinks more bright liquor. Watches people come and go. Holds court.
My eyes are broken, he says. I’m going to give it all up.
And do what?
And do what? Why, I’ll be a mother.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do.
Midnight wine flows from a bottle. The night winds down, the pub empties out. Ah, but he knows another place where smoke waves through every inch of air like gray scarves, handkerchiefs. Nothing to be done but endure it, so Francis holds a serviette up to his face and breathes and drinks through the fabric. Each time he empties his glass, he feels new blood come sloshing through his veins. Spirits the only way to dull the brilliant clarity inside his head. Otherwise he will relive the whole day over and over again, and the day before that, and all his days. If he drinks enough, he can hollow himself, force his skull to dump everything.
Francis, don’t you think you’ve had enough?
Enough? Only too much is enough.
But there’s nothing left but the dregs.
But I love the dregs. The dregs are what I prefer.
Voices knock together like stones, men and women bargaining, arguing, making promises. So it is when he finds himself speaking in that language that he knows something in him has come loose. Now comes the storm of his leaving the pub. When he leaves, everyone feels it, or so he would like to think. The man he takes home to Reece Mews through early morning silence is the last one standing. He longs to be weighed down by this body on the bed, which looks like a long black canvas.
The man stumbles dazed into Francis’s skin again and again through the long tangle of the night. After it is all over, the man sounds into sleep, but Francis is too warm, too alive. He grabs a fistful of pills and swallows them. How heavy they are, like mercury, pressing his body down onto the sheets and into the mattress.
Up before daybreak. The man (whoever, whatever) takes a piss in the sink then is gone, fingers leaving dark smudges on Francis’s skin. Otherwise only a blank headache to prove that he has survived the night.
He pours a glass of morning champagne, takes the chill inside his body. So much is cheerful about this cluttered studio. He makes his way for brushes and canvas, borne up on a stagnant slew of objects covering his studio floor—books, photos, postcards, catalogues, movie tickets, scuffed shoes, rags, paint-encrusted socks, newspapers, maps that have been folded and unfolded many times, crumpled tubes of paint. Walks tracing the dead in every step. Hears or thinks he hears the distant crunching of heavy wagon wheels on a gravel road.
Now, energized with champagne, his hands move. Each separate form, each color, draws him in further. A guessing toward. More often wrong than right because every movement of the brush on canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. The thought that both informs and deforms what he sees inside his head. Then the thought too is gone, the image blooming at the edge of his reaching.
And then it comes, the new day bountiful, abundant, every object in the studio suddenly brightened and revived. The world hasn’t entirely lost its charm. In fact, it shines with defiance. He stands in a room caged in light. The thistles of the paintbrush in his hand are as thick as the hair of the lion he touched many decades ago in Africa. Years stretch in mute kilometers back to the long view of a savannah where he stood in dry heat with his camera, looking at a landscape that was too marvelous. Animals (zebras, elephants, giraffes, rhinoceroses, hippopotami) moving through screens of long grass that quickened around him and bowed as if in homage to him, hidden insects humming the landscape into motion. Others in his traveling party were brave enough to move through the hot grass under parasols, each umbrella like a second head that had mushroomed out of the first. Then the guide came and took him and told him that they had found and fed a lion and that he could touch the beast, a moment that would be captured on his camera. The guide led him over to the lion, but he just stood there for quite some time and watched it where it reclined at his feet. Then he kneeled down to touch the mane and pissed himself in fear.
He continues to work through the still bright hours of the morning until the description talks louder than the paint. (The canvas is always so eager to become story.) The picture has become clogged. He will have to start over, start again.
He douses the canvas in turpentine and sets it on fire.
They share a black taxi shaped like a human head. Jimi receives London as a moving cityscape. The light looks different streaking across the small cramped ancient streets, house upon house, corner upon corner, and tree upon tree. People jostling and hurrying about. The noise of these lives. He can hear the trains underground plunging through the tube like liquid through a syringe. He has already had enough of London.
The whole of England has ground to a halt, Francis says. Nobody wants to work, and the pound has gone totally to confetti. It’s all falling apart. Won’t be much longer now.
Jimi takes a pull on his cigarette but says nothing, the leather seat a startled space between him and Francis. Francis is always bitter and knowing, nothing new there. He thinks Francis wants to know if he’s really the kind of person Francis thinks he is, whatever that might be. He takes another pull.
I feel like a homosexual when I’m in London, Jimi says. Smiles. Anything to lighten the moment.
Oh, that’s no good, Francis says. Homosexuals are too tragic. We feel too much. Every little scratch is a genocide.
Not to worry. I’m a soldier.
Yes, you are, Francis says. Paratrooping through skies.
They are riding to where? And for what purpose? These few small frames of their existence. They seem to be enclosed in perfect silence until Francis turns to him and starts speaking his rage again in a small storm of his hands. Talking the way someone talks who has kept many things to himself and can’t keep them any longer. Jimi figures he should argue back at him—he can put his foot down when he has to—but knows that Francis is stubborn, so he just smokes and smiles through it.
By the time they reach their destination and exit the taxi, Jimi has put another cigarette in his mouth and lit it. Francis moves through the gallery, his whole neck encased in a stiff collar, with his fat face blooming out like a bouquet of flowers. Francis at ease among the photographers and journalists and politicians and important people. He smiles one minute, sidesteps someone the next, frowns and backs off, smiles again, gives a deserving someone the best of his words, then gives someone else a guileless wink. You would expect him to be in a better mood since this is his grandest show yet, dozens of his paintings on display in molded gilt frames inside a gallery large enough to warehouse the world.
It is Francis’s birthday and hundreds of well-wishers have sent him masses of flowers. Only a matter of time before Francis starts wheezing.
Do you want some of these? Francis says. I’m not the sort of person who has vases. I would just end up burning them.
Then he and Jimi start to look at the paintings together.
I really like this one, Jimi says. It smells like balls.
Jimi stands at the window of his flat and sees the rim of the sky catching fire, then in the distance the wall of hills catches fire. The smell of the sky and the hills rises from his skin. Something is burning inside him.
High crooked mountains receiving the first fruits of the sun.
Brother, listen, he got that devil on the run.
The notes flap up from the strings and fly right through the open window, migrating toward some lost continent. He tells himself, Don’t give up on the song. Don’t give up on the song. He won’t. He will strive for the fitting word, the joining melody. He unstraps the Stratocaster from his body and props it on the floor with the neck on the windowsill so that the guitar looks like some substance that has arrowed into the room.
Monika is already asleep in the bed. He lays a hand on her cool forehead before he lies down next to her. He smells smoke in his pillows, feels the mattress suck heat down through his neck, shoulders, back, and thighs.
Head in flames, he swallows nine white sheep and waits for sleep to come.
All along West 8th Street, trees bent like fingers. All of the little shops and dark knots of people going in and out of them yellow in the streetlight. Traffic changing gear. Metal and chrome shining. Townhouses, brownstones, and other small buildings ballooning up in a union of brick and sky. A sky in broken up pieces above Jimi and Francis, hard and soft, black and blue. Francis, black bruise around his neck, hot in a leather jacket and heavy shirt on a gorgeous early September night. Too much goes whizzing past, surprising flashes of things, but they take the scene on its own terms and stroll right through, seeing and listening (tangled stalks of words) on their way to eat at a little greasy spoon that Jimi knows. Jimi doesn’t go unnoticed. It is their right to approach him, singing his praises and touching him as they please in a New York that has grown foreign to the other life (London), that has become who he is, who he must be. Charitable and charming, he never tires of listening to them. Owes them that much. Perhaps that is why he chose to build his recording studio here in the Village, in America, as opposed to his adopted home across the Atlantic.
Once at the restaurant, he and Francis place their order, then sit down across from each other in a little booth. Jimi thinks about Monika—things keep getting in between them—then his thoughts slide on. Notices that Francis, eyes flashing, is looking at the cook bibbed in a spattered white apron behind the linoleum counter. The cook holds a knife against a large cone of fatty lamb meat that revolves slowly on a vertical spit. Shaves some curls onto one plate then more curls onto a second plate. That done, he cleans his hands on a small towel hanging behind the counter and prepares their sandwiches. Jimi can’t get past the idea that the cone of meat looks like one of Francis’s forearms. The cook brings their plates over, sets them down on the table just so, their modest meal. And they start to eat.
Francis finishes a little glass of Greek wine, then looks out the window at the street with his big quiet eyes. They listen for a moment to some music hanging in the air. Jimi thinks about Monika, that thing she does when she sits across from him sharing her thoughts, how she will keep her hands on her knees and her face tilted up, looking at some space above their heads, then will lower her gaze and look at him in understanding, rubbing her knees a little.
This really is the best, Francis says. He wipes his mouth with a paper napkin. Sees the way Jimi is looking at him. The cat’s out of the bag, he says. I’m just a cheap date who will fall for a greasy sandwich.
So now you must buy my silence.
I would only take advantage.
Jimi wants to impress Francis—that’s what friends do—so he wastes no time in getting them to Electric Lady, but concern rises up as soon as they step through the glass door. How will Francis handle this confrontation of industrial air and chemical dust? Poor delicate Francis. Days earlier, while Jimi was thick in the preparation for Francis’s visit, an idea, a silly one, took hold of him. He had seen photographs of Francis’s studio in some glossy magazine and thought he should somehow approximate that studio here, a little gag he was sure Francis would appreciate. Now he’s had a change of heart, thinks differently about it. Too late since every inch of the hall floor is covered with broken guitars, broken guitar strings and plastic picks, old Fuzz Faces and wah-wah pedals and phase shifters and Octavias, and stacks of Marshall amps and Leslie speakers and boxy little speakers. They wade through it all, but none of it seems to make any impression on Francis, perhaps because the studio is still in process, every wall lined with a metal forest of scaffolding and ladders, a growing into being that means so much to Jimi. Soon he’ll have to return to London, but overseeing the completion of this studio will give him reason to bounce back stateside on the regular and, down the line, for extended stays here to record or oversee the projects of others.
They both take seats in plush leather chairs at the control booth. Lights swim like little colorful jellyfish inside the bulbs on the console, blue and green and white and gold and red and orange and pink and pearl and amber freaked with purple. The room seems awash with sea. Jimi readies a reel—A new crop of work? Francis asks—and plays it for Francis, a song contrived in the correct shape but lacking the right feel. (Much to do.)
Francis sits perfectly still in the chair listening, his glistening white face reflected in the glass of the recording booth in front of them. (Move, Francis. Snap your fingers, tap your feet.) You’re fussy, he says. Precise.
Jimi hears the words, but what do they mean to him? Elsewhere in his thoughts, cut off, contained as if he were sitting inside a hollow tree and listening to wind whistle through it. Which ear must he have and why?
I suppose you’re right, Francis says, picking up on a conversation from earlier that night. (Throughout their little dinner, Jimi had wanted to talk more than they had.) These manager types will fight you over something weak, something they know you can easily defeat. Afford you a small victory to give you a false sense of power, to make it seem that you’re the one controlling things.
Yes, Jimi says. I mean that’s how it is with some of these old blues cats. They like being sad and lonely and crying. They see power in misery, think that’s where the good stuff comes from, but me, I’m like, Hey, cut me some slack. It’s a new day.
Strange business, Francis says. Don’t lose headway. Fashion says you should be moved by certain things and not by others. But art takes all of that out of you. He smiles. When I was young, I hurt people. Now people hurt me.
With a slide of his hand, Jimi brings the volume of the recording down. Fires up a cigarette. What puzzles him is what his friends find to say, both the friends who come to see him and those who don’t. Not that he’s keeping track. He has no mental catalogue of all the times he and Francis have been together. He reels up another take of the same song, fierce itching dazzle—he can scale back on that, keep it simple, since nothing is as direct as the blues—over a luxuriant foundation of drums. The words make light and shadows of themselves:
You know, baby, you can’t treat me like that
And you know, baby, the things you say they ain’t true
But guess what, baby, I won’t let you treat me like that
’Cause you know, baby, all these things I do for you.
Hearing something he understands, Francis moves two fat fingers to his thick chin.
So this must be the way he listens.
Jimi imagines Francis standing at his easel, legs apart, squeezing out tubes of oil paint in colors whose names he doesn’t know.
I long for people to tell me what to do, Francis says, to tell me where I go wrong. Who looks after you?
Odd question but Jimi doesn’t pause. My old lady, he says. Monika. Although there are always plenty of Band-Aids around to pick up the slack. Fill up the boring hours.
There it is. Those Band-Aids must serve some function.
Jimi removes his secondhand Moroccan vest and places it on the floor behind his chair, where it sits stiffly holding his shape or perhaps the shape of the man who wore it before Jimi, someone probably dead. He sits back down in the chair, lights another cigarette, a mask of smoke around his face. Jimi shirtless, his bare brown chest glistening with fire, his ribs all moving with his breath.
For a moment tired recognition gives way to hope. Francis wants to impart some element of himself to Jimi. Jimi’s belief burns so bright, although there is still something guarded about him, withheld, emerging, resistant like a lightbulb muted behind a lampshade. But what can he give? (So much remembered, so little to say.) I have always wanted to put over things as directly as possible, he says. I think we are alike in that.
Jimi nods, sucks some smoke in, blows it out his nose.
We are in very primitive times again, Francis says. One has only to observe things and know the undercurrents. Perhaps we may all go up in a sheet of flame. Who knows? And you, Jimi, you feel that you must do something, that you must make a difference somehow. But that is the wrong way to think, because you are the difference, you and I both.
Jimi’s hands are moving on the console, putting this in, taking that out, bringing this up, pulling that down. Fatting and trimming. Fluffing and flattening. This must be that place he believes is his home.
Francis wants to tell Jimi that the good held in common never lasts for long, that it can’t. That present and past boil down to much the same. A thousand years a city, a thousand years a desert. That the old fears still operate. Isn’t that what his music is really about? What never changes: War. Brutality. Jealousy. Injustice. Poverty. Greed. Famine. One thing living off another. One thing needing another. Death. And so on.
We Old World types know a thing or two about keeping up appearances, he says. Listen, there was this one queen who was long in the tooth, way past her prime, but her courtiers would paint her cheeks then compliment her on her healthy complexion.
Jimi finds that fact amusing, snickering smoke.
But why try and cover up death? It couldn’t matter less, Francis says.
Lights flicker on and off on the console, blue and glitter.
I have been to the caves in France. You must go. We must go together. It’s nothing like what you see in the picture books, the magazines. When you first step into a cave, you have no idea what you are looking at. Just this crowd of images. He tries to find words to explain it. Every inch of the ceiling and the walls dense with engravings of horses, bison, deer, felines, ibexes, and aurochs. The experts with their fancy theories and words have much to say about it all, but if I were to listen to them, I would be in continuous irritation. I subscribe to a simple explanation. All you have to do is look and realize that those painters in the caves many thousands of years ago were trying to best one another. As plain and simple as that, competition.
Sitting cross-legged now in his chair, with his hands in his lap, Jimi seems to be holding Francis’s voice like an invisible bird inside an invisible nest.
They certainly outdid everyone else, Francis says, those who they had to live among. You see, entering the caves is no simple matter. You have to go on hands and knees through many tight spaces. Few people would have done it. But those bold few who did, who actually ventured into the depths, might have come face to face with something now lost to us, devils and demons perhaps, or other creatures of the netherworld. Who knows. But the important thing is that there inside the cave, they acquired abilities not possessed by most people. And they began to perceive those new abilities, their new place in the world, even before they left the cave. Then they crawled back out into the world of those lesser others and had to live among them.
Thick light buttered on the wall behind him, Jimi is watching Francis, another cigarette lit, smoke spiraling up from his crotch. Wow, he says. Monsters. Mythical beings. Fantastic creatures. Right up my alley. You know we have to go there. He takes a drag on the cigarette, tip glowing. Go there and know there.
Now Francis realizes that Jimi has brushed it all aside. The words are a turn-off, or Jimi’s head is spinning, too much to take in, too many substances already consumed, or he thinks Francis is too old, too uptight, takes him for a fool. Why should it be any other way?
Sorry for flapping my gums, he says. It’s the disease of the old.
Come on, man. Why are you apologizing? We’re going to those caves. I’m telling you, we’re going to those caves. You make the arrangements.
Jimi places the lit cigarette onto a safe spot on the console, gets out of the chair and fishes something from one vest pocket, then returns to his seat at the console.
But what are you painting?
I’m on the edge of doing something good. I’ve found the way now, although I might need five hundred years to get it right. It’s the material really. I managed to acquire an entire yard of mummy-wrap, the real thing.
What? How did you do that? Your secret’s safe with me. Here, try some of these.
Jimi’s fingers work a vial of some sort.
What is it?
Don’t you know? It’s just a name.
Yes, why not? I think whatever this is is a very good idea.
You want a glass of wine to chase it?
Yes, for my thirst.
Jimi produces a bottle—good stuff, a Nero d’Avola—and two glasses.
Mick showed me the one you did of him. Was that mummy-wrap?
The pills are warm behind his teeth, flame under his tongue. Mick? Why I was just being a whore. I would never waste eternity on him.
That gets Jimi to laughing.
Why can’t they talk like this forever? Francis feels another kind of duty breaking through. He longs to stay alive for Jimi’s careful hands and humor and smoke. But then, before he knows it, his breath is spinning inside a glass bubble. Until he feels someone turn him upside down like an hourglass, all of his being spilling to the other end.
See, Jimi says. There you are. Stone free.
He steps through a doorway, smell of paint, turpentine, dust, and something else—sheep? goats? cattle?—but the pulsing heat is the thing to withstand. The air is steaming, feverish heat pushing his hair away from his skull. All things grow hot in this place. Francis keeps the furnace on high, perhaps to kill the London damp that can clog his breathing. They pass by a dresser mirror that is splintered in triangles of glass. Farther on, Jimi sees his body reflected from head to foot in a second large mirror.
Mirror mirror on the wall, he says.
Why you are, Francis says.
Something about the mirror causes him to remember the bottle trees that surrounded his grandmother’s house, both front yard and back colored with them, a necessary precaution to protect the family since his grandmother believed that the glass would catch and trap any evil spirits that tried to enter her house. He remembers how the soda bottles would stun the senses when sunlight struck them. Remembers the sound of bottles clinking when he threw rocks at them. He could never break one, not a single bottle, but that sound—ping—brings back other sounds. He can still hear surging grass and creaking bushes. Metal buckets clattering under pipes. Huge clouds rumbling like semi-trailer trucks during a rainstorm. Heavy wash hung out to dry, snapping and flapping on clotheslines.
Now things in the studio go crunching underfoot. It’s all worse than he imagined, frankly, a bit unkempt, nasty. And too closed in for his liking. But to each his own.
He and Francis sit down at a little table (more like a tall stool) covered with books. A few novels, volumes of verse, art catalogues, studies of Greek mythology, tomes in foreign languages, a thing or two about anthropology, but by and large cookbooks. Jimi picks up one and thumbs through a few pages. (Bread sauce with cloves . . . Grilled scallops with capers, baby carrots, and beach plums on a bed of devil’s apron . . . A man who touches a cabbage is seldom sorry.) Picks up another. Holds some pages up to the light, as if looking for something inside them. (A sheet of paper is too narrow a space for a song to hide.)
Can I tempt you with a meal? Francis asks.
It depends. I need a hamburger in the worst way.
Francis uncorks a bottle of claret. Pours Jimi a glass then one for himself. Holds his glass aloft. Here’s to you, he says.
Jimi raises his glass. The sensation of glass against teeth and wet earth on tongue.
When I’m alone, I never have a drink, although there’s tons of stuff here.
We should finish it all then buy some more.
And then do what?
Buy even more.
Slowly the conversation leaks back to fact.
You’re not much of one for writing letters, are you?
No, Jimi says. I’d much rather talk long distance on a public saxophone.
Just so you know, I did try. Although I don’t know a thing about any of it. Political causes are always lost on me. But if you say I should give money to that group, then I will. Just name the amount.
You’re a good man.
Possibly. But that’s not why I’m doing it. You see, I trust your judgment.
Is that the only reason?
No, but it’s the only one that matters. Besides, I say just burn it all and start over. Why not?
Jimi cannot find his tongue, not that he needs to say anything. Francis heavy upon the eyes with his sculpted hair framing his broad soft face, with his upright collar and black leather jacket.
Drapes cover the few canvases propped against the walls, and the canvases themselves cover holes in the walls, but Jimi can still hear air seeping through. Francis sees the way that Jimi, book in hand, is looking, taking it all in.
I can see that you want a peek. Put that book down and come look at this.
Jimi gets up from the table and follows Francis, the wide slope of his black leather shoulders. Little mudslides of debris move under their shoes and run ahead of their shoes. Francis stops before a draped canvas angled on top of an easel, and Jimi stops and stands next to him. Light slants in from the skylight in the ceiling above them, causing Francis’s face to become so radiant that Jimi can barely look at him.
Light on his hands, hands glowing, Francis flings the drape back.
What do you think?
Jimi takes his eyeglasses from the pocket of his Hussar jacket, puts them on his face, perfectly round gold-rimmed spectacles, adding up to two glass discs.
Francis looks at him.
Don’t tell anybody, Jimi says. Making a joke of it, he puts one finger to his lips to bond their secret. They want me to wear these ’cause I keep wrecking cars.
There it is, Francis says. So you would do well to look ahead. But first wreck a few more. We must have the freedom to burn.
Jimi can’t tell what’s exactly in the painting. An animal of some sort. With a fine edge of light gleaming around its body. The animal refracted in shadowy reflections of itself. Indeed, it is caged inside a room full of mirrors, a cage made from bulky white lines, bones instead of bars. And, as a whole, the scale in the painting is so cunningly manipulated.
He flips the glasses off his face, inserts one temple between his teeth, and stands before the painting, biting, wildly watching.
I’m particularly glad you like it, Francis says. Most people have no instinct for images. You have no idea how blind we really are.
Is that the mummy-cloth?
You can tell? See the texture? It makes all the difference.
Jimi slips the spectacles into his jacket pocket then lights a cigarette. Francis throws the drape back over the canvas the way one might sheet the dead. Passes Jimi a dented tin cup to use for an ashtray. Jimi taps a few ashes inside.
And now I will make you that meal.
He feels in the flesh of his forearms long, changing marks on the canvas, letting his impulses settle in so that each movement makes a difference. Francis wet and stinking of his own hours working, his hands strange to him now. Accustomed to thrashing out a solution with his body, huge lengths of movement, all of him stretched unbelievingly out, bones and tendons seeking a new configuration. You never see the pieces all at once. Straight and curvy lines together. Half of something, half of nothing. Then a vague shifting. (What color now?) Transformation, becoming, in the emotion, not the thought.
The furnace trembles heat into hearing, the sound of his own lungs a wordless echo in the studio above the noisy objects swimming under his shoes and the memory of Jimi’s voice, low ocean murmur in his mind.
Now in the window above him, the long pink line of dawn, sending new light down. How sweet when something you cherish arrives unexpectedly. A painting that is all of who you are and more.
He starts to remove the canvas from the easel but can’t, surprised at how heavy it is, heavy with the weight of history, the bodies of the dead, every painter from the beginning of time buried in thick knots of pigment.
At a party, Jimi gets into an argument with Monika—he believes in free love, she doesn’t—and she storms out, causing a scene in front of his friends. Not the first time. He goes after her.
The argument pushes the two of them along. The sky gets into it, too, and begins to color up, the late sun streaking across London for miles. He follows her for the slow length of a homeward mile until he loses sight of her, a steady vanishing into air. Summer warmth withdraws from the September evening. How else can it be? A day comes in a month, in a season, and you wish it were some other month, another season. (The days and their different lights.) A car honks twice. At him? His shadow slides along these white houses, a black blur, little structures that always look sad in the falling light of sunset. His shoes hollow up sound from the cobblestones. The cobblestones themselves look like the bald heads of monks. He rounds a corner and the street starts sloping downhill, cobblestones moving under him like an avalanche of skulls. And now the dark comes on, heavy pieces of the settling darkness locking in place.
The weather in the flat and the weather outside the flat are the same. Jimi makes a cold trek through the darkness to the bedroom. The telephone is ringing, but he lets the ringing go on while he searches for a cigarette, rummaging through clothes and closets and cupboards. He hears Monika take the call.
No, not now, he says. Tell them I’m not here.
Resumes his search. Not one damn cigarette anywhere. Imagine that. He’ll have to wait until morning.
Monika hands him a glass of wine, then kills the lights, and drops onto the edge of the bed, sitting there waiting to see if he will come. Perhaps he should. Then again, why bother? Unspoken things will divide them from now on. He’ll pick a fight with her in the morning to push her toward the inevitable. Better that way.
He sits down in a chair facing the window on the other side of the room and sips his wine in the dark. The distance between him and Monika throbs on his back. The bedroom doorknob glows like a lightbulb in the moonlight, and moonlight turns the bed a milky bluish white. Everything is still until the sound of his growling stomach interrupts Monika’s breathing.
Her voice releases into the night. Jimi, are you there?
Where else would he be? His stomach growls, something within wanting out. He should eat anything, whatever is here, take a few nibbles. He is too thin, his bones pressing against his papery skin. But his mind is on other things. Without trouble or searching, he can see what is inside his head set deep in a puddle of light, the most loved thing, the odd inner peak. He has ten fingers like candles to tell a story and he will, even if the searched-for sound simmers at a low volume, barely audible, barely felt.
He finishes the wine, undresses, and gets into bed, night sealed around him. Folds his fingers behind his head, pressing the weight of his wanting into the pillow. The light, vapory sound of breathing rises from his chest. Pure darkness holds up a ceiling flecked with light. He feels his lips move, he counts his breaths, but sleep streams away from him. Monika murmurs something and curls closer, her small nude familiar body cradled against his chest and thighs. Soon she is pulled back into a blank spell of sleep. Then he starts to hear the cry of a bird from far away. Another night bird answers, from far way. Little wing crying. Night bird flying. Something light in the long blue night. What has summoned them?
He gets out of the bed and goes over to the open window. Sits down on the windowsill facing a line of trees that ends a long way down the cobblestoned street. Studies the street gliding downhill and shining slick as a river. Nosy leaves outside try to look in. Okay, so look. He reaches down with his fingers, straps his Stratocaster to his body, and starts to play with no amp, doing all he can do. He starts to feel something and leans into the guitar, solidly on his own. He’s got the opening now and makes a mental recording of it, a song cut loose from his body:
Sweet angel so weary and weak in the blink of an eye
The story of life is how often we fail but how hard we try
Still the blood is strong and will abide even when we cry
So keep on pushing keep on pushing till the day we die
Keep on pushing keep on pushing, baby.
He unstraps the guitar and props it against the windowsill, moonlit wood throwing broken shadows against the wall. He finds the bottle of wine and fills his glass. Drinks it. Pours another. His fingers are a little stiff so he inserts them into the glass of wine, lets them root in the warm liquid for a period of time, pulls them out of the glass, then rubs wine over the strings before drinking what little is left. Pours another. Drinks, swallows, a backward explosion, intake of breath.
Once his fingers feel right, he takes up the guitar again, right hand shaping riffs and chords, left hand plucking the strings, as is his fashion. The notes take hold. The white dots on the neck of the fretboard look like seashells buried in sand. Hollow spaces where his touch can venture. He wants to put it all in the song—the way the party got off to a good start and how they were all having a great time until the argument, and before the party the jam back at the club—but that’s where his memory runs dry. Sorry, folks. We’re too stoned. We can’t make it happen tonight. Had he really been too high to play and just walked off the stage? No, no, that’s not how it happened. He had hit one song, two, maybe even a third before he realized that he was too fuzzy to focus. So then it must have been an actual gig, a concert, not simply a jam. Or is he confusing moments, mixing nights, places and times? So little to hang on. Doesn’t remember much except the flashing lights and the noise of sirens and his own voice sounding unreal and the way his fingers trembled when they touched the words of others speaking around him.
But what little he does remember he puts into the song, his hands composedly moving. He watches the song grow, full of wind and sky and dirt and water, coming and going, rising and falling—one heap of sound. He knows what inflections of the blues mean red house, blue rain, midnight lightning. Knows how to worry chords into the black shape of time. Knows how to anchor weight on a string and sink a barbed note into the muddy depths below, then bend that string and yank up a struggling catfish. Knows how to hoist the entire world to his ear, all that he is listening.
He plays until night blurs into dawn, the new sun turning the cool-breathing flat into a box of light. The light is better this way. Ordinary light. And so is Monika, a small white body trembling for balance in the kitchen, where she spoons coffee into a pot without the least thought of him. Maybe they will make it after all.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.