12 February, 2009
CHAPTER NINE: JAM AT THE LIGHTHOUSE
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Suddenly he realizes where he is. The tree-lined streets have given way to businesses, cafes with awnings and sidewalk tables; the sidewalk itself has turned to cobbled red brick. People are milling around. An armful of showy bouquets encircles a kiosk in front of an old-fashioned dry-goods store. Tattered flyers announcing sit-ins, drop-ins and be-ins are stapled several deep all around the kiosk.
Kitty-corner across the street from where he stands, he recognizes the building- the big, smoky, poster-slathered, plate-glass windows with the pole lamps shining inside, the carved wooden lighthouse above the entrance, the upstairs apartment windows next to it, and the small door in the wall, leading up to the apartments.
Of course he would come here. Doralina told him to. Half of the money belongs to that girl, she told him. But his decision wasn’t a conscious one.
A group of people are standing around the door, mostly younger hippies in clean, new hippie clothes fresh from the new hippie clothing boutiques, paisleys and bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks. There’s one old-school freak though, a woman, kneeling on the sidewalk under the big window, beating out a rhythm on a well-worn tabla. Her dress, stitched together out of Indian bedspreads, looks like she’s been living and sleeping in it since 1969. Her long brown hair is frizzy and multi-braided and full of interesting artifacts from nature. She might be in her thirties. A dusty mop of a dog wearing a red bandana rests at her side.
There’s a flutter of movement on the street, people dancing, or maybe just one person dancing and the other people moving to get out of her way. Wilbo feels his blood rush when he recognizes her. She’s wearing the same blue dress she wore yesterday, when they did their thing in the street. She’s dancing barefoot with her arms up in the air, spinning slowly, her eyes closed.
Perhaps she opens them when she has her back to him, and she catches his reflection in the plate glass window. When she turns around her eyes go straight to him, like she knew he was there all along. But even then she stumbles. It’s like her movements are one beat behind her thoughts and it causes her knees to buckle. She recovers quickly by swooping her arms down and bringing them up with a flourish.
“It’s Wilbo!” Her forward motion propels her toward him and she grabs at his hands awkwardly, nearly dislodging the concertina. “You didn’t forget me after all!”
Wilbo beams at her. “Well of course I didn’t forget you. We have some business to transact.” He raises the bag and jingles the coins. “Half this money is yours you know. You worked for it.”
She glances at the sack. She’s a little out of breath. “Oh, the money! Hey, I didn’t do it for the money, man. I don’t need money.” She glances at the sack again. “How much do you think there is?”
“Well, we need to count it. We need to go somewhere and count it and divide it evenly. That’s how it’s done in this business.”
Claudia nods her head at the open door to the Lighthouse. “Let’s go inside,” she says. “There’s going to be a jam tonight. And we can get something to eat. You’re hungry aren’t you?
God, yes, I’m hungry! he says to himself. But he doesn’t say it out loud. His head is spinning with thoughts. One image in particular keeps repeating itself, an image from yesterday, on the street, the first time he saw her. She grabs his hand.
“You are hungry, aren’t you? Come on, let’s go inside!” She pulls him toward the door but just before they go in she spins around. “You must think I’m really weird.”
Wilbo chuckles softly, pleased with her words. “That isn’t a problem, though,” he informs her. Then the image forms a ball of words, uncomfortable, uneasy, needing to be released. He glances around furtively at the crowd. He leans toward her to speak. “That man you were with yesterday. The one who hit you. Is he gone? Is he really gone? That was the guy, wasn’t it?”
She lifts her head and looks him straight in the face. “You are so old fashioned. You’re like somebody’s grandfather. Yeah, that was him. I won’t tell you a lie. But he’s gone now. He’s so gone. I didn’t want him to hang around me today. Finally I told him. Just now. It’s the end, man. This is it. You’re really cramping my style.”
“What did he do?”
“Oh, he got all teary-eyed and weepy, like he’s done before. It worked before, but it didn’t work this time. He’s gone. He’s gone like the last buffalo. Let’s not even talk about him, ok? Come on, Wilbo Hoegarden, let’s go in and transact some business!”
The Lighthouse door flies open and three happy people tumble out- two pretty girls flanking a young, longhaired boy sporting the mere fuzz of a beard and a silly smile on his face. Claudia slips in behind them and pulls Wilbo in after her. Just inside, she is recognized by several faces. At one table two shaved-head, tattooed men begin striking their coffee cups with their spoons and chanting her name, Claudia! Claudia! Claudia! as if she were some kind of major sports figure. A tall girl dressed in black, her hair in long black braids, jumps to her feet.
“Hey, girlfriend! Where you been hiding?” she cries. They embrace tenderly, almost passionately.
“Toni, I want you to meet my new friend,” Claudia announces, then she spots someone else in the crowd. “Hey, Jockomo! What’s happening? Hey, this is my new friend. A new friend! His name is Wilbo Hoegarden. He’s a street performer.”
Toni gives Wilbo a look of mock scrutiny. “He’s kinda old.” she says.
“Old and wise, Toni. Old and wise. Be careful, don’t hurt his feelings. Besides, he’s very good. He’s got an act you wouldn’t believe. It’s sort of a… well, it’s sort of like mime, and he’s got this accordion thing, and he draws pictures… It’s an art. An ancient art. It comes from Burma. Two people can do it. He’s gonna teach me. You have to practice naked in front of a two way mirror.”
“Well, that’s an act I’d like to see,” says Toni. But then Claudia breaks away and slips into the crowd. Bumping into bodies and tables, she blazes a path toward the man she called Jockomo. He’s got both his arms out and when she reaches him she delivers him a hard, aggressive hug, then knuckles the top of his shaggy head. Other people from other tables are reaching out for her. She grabs hands, plants kisses; one woman she slaps squarely in the face, which only makes the woman laugh. She stumbles over a few chairs and reaches the counter where a goofy, toothless man is smiling, wearing a dirty red apron. They exchange some words, he writes something down. Then she begins working her way back across the room to Wilbo.
“Claudia’s a real firecracker.” Toni informs him. “Of course I’m sure you know this already.”
Like a firecracker, Claudia explodes out of the crowd. “Hey, Wilbo, I ordered us some dinner.
You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”
“Good. Old Jimmy here makes the best Reubens in town. Comon, let’s find a table. We gotta count all that money.”
They work their way over to a little booth under a large poster of what looks like a Mediterranean city, white-washed stone buildings and cats, sitting on walls. The table hasn’t been wiped. There’s an amoeba-shaped pool of milky brown liquid and a scattering of muffin crumbs. Claudia grabs a napkin and stabs it through the puddle, brushing the crumbs onto the floor.
“You gotta clean your own tables around here.” she explains.
Wilbo presses his back against the wall and takes in the room. It looks like it was furnished entirely from thrift stores and garage sales. The tables and chairs are a hodge podge of styles, no two matching. Young men with long legs lean back on broken cane chairs or rest their elbows on formica-topped tables. Girls sit up straight on backless stools with vinyl cushions in primary colors. Miscellaneous people are cavorting about on threadbare couches of various design. As Wilbo watches, a coffee cup is elbowed off the arm and into the seat of a stuffed green chair. Nobody else seems to notice. He leans toward Claudia, feeling awestruck by her presence, searching for words.
“Where do you get these ideas?” he asks her. “Who writes your material, anyhow?”
“What do you mean, these ideas? What kind of ideas are you talking about?”
“I don’t know, the things you come up with.. like yesterday, on the boardwalk, what was that you said… psycho steepo socko… whatever it was.”
“What? You’ve never heard of Kinko Syncho Quinto? I thought that’s what we were doing. I thought you knew all about it. It comes from Burma. Isn’t that what I said? I’m not going to school for nothing, you know.”
He laughs and laughs. “I can’t believe you! Get out of here! Who are you, anyhow? Have I met my match, or what?”
“Well, we could try practicing like that. In front of a two-way mirror, like you said. I think there’s one in the funhouse. ‘Course they may throw us out if we got naked. But it might work. We could become really good. We could become famous.”
He stops chuckling. “Naa, you don’t want to become famous. Famous is not a good thing to become.”
“Aw, come on, where’s your sense of adventure? Just when I was beginning to think you weren’t too old for me.”
He’s quiet for a moment and he thinks, this girl throws way too many curves.
“Well, we could practice in front of a mirror, maybe. One of those mirrors. But hey, you know, we were really good yesterday. Really good. I don’t know if we could get any better than that.”
“So when are we gonna count that money?” she says, suddenly, loudly. “Aren’t you even curious?”
Wilbo shakes his head as if shaking off a dream. “Oh yeah, of course. The money.” He pulls out the bag, loosens the drawstring, and empties the contents out onto the table. It makes a loud clattering sound, much louder than he thought it would, and several coins fall to the floor. A few people turn to look but they don’t seem to be all that interested. It’s just a pile of money. Claudia cups her hands and corrals the cash into a pile at the center of the table.
“Here, let me help.” Claudia’s friend Toni has materialized suddenly in the one vacant chair at the table. “I love to count money.”
“Well, Wilbo can thank me for all this.” says Claudia. “I’m the one who made it happen. We were a team.”
They start out sorting the paper cash. There are several tens and even one twenty. At first Wilbo just watches but then he feels awkward, just watching. So he joins in, stacking up the quarters, the nickels, the dimes, even the pennies.
Food arrives before they can finish. Jimmy the toothless, smiling man brings it himself on a large serving tray. Standing at the table, holding the tray above his head, he looks down at the stacks of money and says, “Well, I’ve seen some generous tips before.”
Just then there’s a commotion at the door. Some people are coming in, carrying large black objects. “It’s the band!” Claudia cries and she jumps up from the table, nearly knocking down Jimmy and his tray. Observing the precipitous fate of the food, Wilbo and Tony quickly scramble to clear off a space for it. Quarters topple into the dimes, pennies go every which way. The tray teeters precariously but Jimmy manages to lower it to the height of the table top where he balances it on his upraised knee. There’s still no place to set it down.
“Maybe you’d better just take the plates off the tray.” he instructs them. Meanwhile Claudia is busy greeting the band, poking at the equipment, playing with the knobs and dials. Wilbo looks down at the array of food that has materialized on the table in front of him. It looks pretty good. There are three big sandwiches- each one sports a hefty slab of corned beef smothered in sauerkraut and melted cheese oozing out between two slices of dark toasted rye, freckled with caraway seeds. Each sandwich enjoys the pleasant company of a stack of thick home cut fries. There are three heavy stone mugs full of some kind of thick, creamy coffee beverage.
“Thanks,” Toni tells Jimmy, “Sorry about the confusion. This’ll do just fine.” Then to Wilbo she says, “Don’t worry about Claudia. She’ll be back. Let’s just dig in.”
They dig in. Jimmy gathers up his tray and starts weaving back through the crowd to the counter. Halfway through the sandwich, Claudia still cavorting with the band, Toni says to Wilbo, “But I still don’t get this act of yours. How’d you make all this money, anyhow?”
Rather than explain, Wilbo decides to demonstrate. He reaches for his pad and pencil from the bench.
“Wilbo Hoegarden, portraits and landscapes, Garamond or Scarmouche. I’ve drawn popes, popstars and postal patrons. Your portrait, ma’am. Only five dollars.” He rips off the paper and hands it across the table. It’s not a bad one. He’s made her look a little like Pippi Longstocking, but that’s because she does.
Toni laughs. A girl at the next table leans over, looks at the picture, and lets out a high little shriek. “Do me! Do me!” she cries.
Soon a small crowd has gathered around the table. Everybody wants a portrait. It’s an odd assortment of faces. They’re all young and eager and acting silly. Some are beaded or painted or chained or knotted; others are just preppy, with nice, respectable haircuts and brand name shirts. Nobody’s offering any money, but he doesn’t care. He’s glad to be doing something.
“I’ve drawn figure skaters on horseback, and cheese, standing alone. My specialty is farm animals. Also, I do lettuce. Iceberg or Romaine.”
It’s not long before Claudia, alerted by the shift in crowd dynamics, returns to the table. It’s obvious that she is delighted by the scene her new friend is making.
“Do the other part, Wilbo,” she orders. “Do the mime thing. That’s just part of the act. Play the accordion!”
Wilbo has whipped out nearly a dozen portraits by now. At the moment he’s working on a squirrelly little runt of a kid wearing a denim jacket covered with colored ribbons, and he has no idea how to segue into the “mime thing”.
Claudia jumps up onto a chair and starts into her gestures- all snake arms and spider legs.
“Like this!” she cries. But suddenly there is a blast of amplified sound from what is apparently the stage, a flat space of couches and pole lamps by the front window. The band is ready to rock, or at least they’re ready to do something. At first glance Wilbo sees no recognizable musical instruments. There’s a bank of speakers and another bank of amplifiers, separated by a long panel of knobs, levers and VU meters. Below the control board he identifies the shape of a lone keyboard. Then the drummer announces himself, a tiny cowboy of a man in a grey hat that covers most of his face, slapping a rhythmless chaos of sound out of a compact set of snares and toms. Beside him a black man in an African print shirt picks up a set of bongos and establishes a beat. The drummer quickly follows and then suddenly a tremendous burst of chaos leaps from the amplifiers, feedback and drone and something that sounds like the blast of a steamship whistle, up close. The ambience in the room changes at once. You might say it is flattened. Claudia jumps down from the chair, and most of the people who were standing sit down and turn to the band.
It looks like there are four people in the band. Who’s doing what is not exactly clear. A bleach blonde girl in an orange tee shirt is doing nothing at the moment, while behind her the two drummers are battling for rhythmic supremacy. There’s a lankly man with a red bandana, standing up, one hand on the keyboard, the other hand fiddling with the knobs on the amplifier bank.
Being a man of singular attention, Wilbo returns to his portrait of the young punk but the subject has already slipped out of sight. He looks about the room. All he sees are the backs of heads on shoulders slumped forward, facing into the blast of sound as if it were an approaching spaceship.
Except for Claudia. She sits on the chair in front of him, facing him, leaning toward him. Her long crimson hair is disheveled and spills out over her shoulders. Her top button is undone and her dress hangs open, affording a long and spectacular view down the landscape between her breasts. She sits with her legs splayed, her hands resting on her thighs, her hem riding high above her knee. Her eyes are full of fire and delight.
Wilbo is completely disarmed. His thoughts take a wild leap into forbidden territory- he has no control over them. He feels a million arrows of energy racing from all corners of his body toward his loins. Heat rises to his head. He is quite sure he is conspicuously glowing.
“Hey, guess what? We never finished counting the money!” she tells him.
He looks at the table. All the neat little stacks and bundles have been obliterated by a wave of instant entropy. Now there’s just a scattered pile of coins and bills, like something out of a pirate’s chest.
He leans forward, into Claudia’s radiant heat. “We’ll do it later.” He has to shout to be heard. She nods and her nod morphs into a dance. He takes up the drawstring bag and scoops the money into it, slowly, carefully, awkwardly. His hands tremble. He’s afraid of what they might do.
Claudia is on her feet. The music is shifting into new terrain, a steady, pulsing, hypnotic groove; the harmonic center finds a steady pattern, shifting between two minor chords, laced with odd little sixths and ninths. The bleach blonde girl begins to sing. Her voice is high, wordless, and full of breath.
Claudia begins to sway. She closes her eyes and her arms rise. People around her clear a space for her. Wilbo presses his chair back as far as it will go into the darkened corner of the booth, and fixes his eyes on her. What’s the point, he asks himself, of trying not to look at her? What else is there to look at? Hidden in the shadow, he gives himself over.
Soon other people are on their feet and moving to the music. Not everyone. Some still choose to remain at their tables, shouting their conversations and sloshing their coffee around. There is a lot of activity at the front counter, people coming and going, carrying trays of drinks and food. Toothless Jimmy is busy taking orders and making change.
The dancers are mostly solitary, but here and there, about the room, little communal movements form and dissolve. In one corner a couple might fold into something that at first resembles a formal ballroom position, then collapses into an embrace, then separates, like a piece of fluff blowing off a dandelion. Rings of people form like mushrooms and move in clockwise or counter-clockwise circles; or they might begin a rhythm of contraction and expansion, in and out. Sometimes hands are held; sometimes the connection is implicit. Sometimes a ring breaks into a line and the line becomes a snake, slithering through the crowd, growing longer as more people tag onto the tail, until it is pulled apart by its own weight. None of these movements are long-lived. They bloom and twinkle like fireworks. Solitude is the ruling force here. The movements themselves rise out of a sense of shared solitude, and the solitude gradually pulls them down.
Claudia is slowly drawn away from her place at the table until she is absorbed into the crowd. Wilbo keeps watching her but he can’t always see her. She appears. She disappears. She never looks at him. Her eyes are often closed. Sometimes she joins a ring of dancers; sometimes she starts a ring, grabbing hands, linking hands with hands, coaxing others to follow her dips and glides.
Wilbo gives up trying to follow her and just lets his eyes rest on the movement as a whole. His initial wave of lust has subsided and his thoughts begin to kick back in. Not complete thoughts, just little pieces of thought, like the thought fragments that drift in and out of your head just before sleep.
What is the difference between a crease and a seam? If a road leads into a mirror, how far will it go? Will it ever diverge from the source of its reflection? Something is hiding behind something else, like a road is hiding behind a forest, or a street is hiding behind a building. What starts these movements, these brief little communities of dance? And what ends them?
He begins to pay attention to the movements and analyze how they form, and how they disband. He identifies instigators and disintegrators, and he begins to track the movement of these people across the room. Soon he is able to predict the movements and their collapse. He is able to fix his eyes on one corner of the room and think now! and yes! a ring will form there. He gets to the point where he can predict which direction the ring will turn and when it will break into a snake, and which direction the snake will slide. Finally it begins to feel like he is not predicting the movements at all, but actually creating them with his thoughts.
This idea is much too disquieting. He drops the subject entirely, picks up his paper and pencil, and begins to draw people. He draws faces and bodies and people dancing in pairs and trios and circles. He draws profiles and faceless silhouettes, capturing only the posture, the attitude. He draws abstract impressions of flow and form. He draws Jimmy behind the counter with his toothless grin. He draws a couch. He draws a coffee cup. The tabletop fills with drawings. Nobody seems to notice.
Much later, close to midnight, he finds himself outside on the street with a group of people who have spilled out of the coffee house. He has brought his things with him, the concertina, the pad of paper. The band is taking a break, or perhaps they are done for the night. People are high and happy, laughing and talking. Claudia is a focal point. She’s making jokes and swinging her arms about, thumping people with her fingers, calling people by name. Suddenly she says,
“Wilbo, you haven’t played your accordion yet. When you gonna play your accordion?”
“Well, actually, it’s a concertina.” he explains.
“Play it! Play it! Come on, you guys wanna hear him play, don’t you?” She stirs up the crowd.
So he opens his case, pulls out the concertina, and begins to play- just the usual jigs, reels and hornpipes. He doesn’t really expect much of a reaction. These people are young after all, and they’ve just been through several hours of electronically induced trance. But for a little while something happens. The high and clear tones from his reeds penetrate so brightly into the night, even he is surprised. People begin dancing at once, a rowdy, silly, and somehow appropriate kind of dancing- linking arms, clapping hands, stamping feet, doing the do-se-do, the allemande left, the allemande right, the grand right and left, like maybe they’re copying something they saw in a movie, or something they remember from a dream. It doesn’t last long. After a few reels it falls apart, just like the snake dance or the mushroom ring. Wilbo sets down the concertina. Someone shouts, “Play some more! Play some more!”
“Naa, that’s all. We don’t want to wake up the mice.” Wilbo can feel the whole thing coming apart. He knows no little reed-sung fiddle tunes are going to pull it back together. He feels a little breeze pick up. It’s a late night street breeze, the kind that blows out of alleys and rattles tin cans around. People are buttoning up and zipping up jackets and sweaters.
Claudia shoves his shoulder. “Hey, man, we haven’t counted that money yet. Why don’t you come up to my place and we’ll count the money.”
The guy named Jockomo snickers. “Why don’t you come up to my place and count the money?” he repeats, suggestively.
“I forgot my pencils,” Wilbo says. “I left them in the booth. I’ll be right back.”
He steps back inside the coffee house. The place has pretty much cleared out. A few people are snuggling up on the couches. Recorded music is humming softly through the loudspeakers. The band members are rolling up their cords and snapping up their cases. Jimmy is standing behind the counter drying coffee cups with a dish towel. He grins and nods.
Wilbo goes to the table and finds his pencils scattered about on the seat. Some of them have slipped down the crack. He gathers them up and puts them back in their case. Just before he leaves the table he notices a small amber glass box filled with what looks like business cards. He picks one up. It’s got a picture of a lighthouse on it. The shaft of the lighthouse is candy-striped but the beacon itself is fashioned in the shape of a cross. The card says:
A Coffee-house Ministry of the First Baptist Church
“Let the lower lights be burning.”
Interesting, he thinks to himself. He grabs a couple more of the cards, pockets them, and steps outside.