14 February, 2009
As I mentioned in a previous post, from now on I will post a new chapter regularly on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays until the book is done. This is Chapter Ten. There are 23 chapters so you are approaching the halfway point.
Thanks for staying with me!
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
The crowd has dispersed. Claudia stands alone in the street under a street lamp. When he sees her Wilbo feels a jolt, like an aftershock of the first wave he felt back in the coffee-house, back when it all started. It passes quickly but it leaves him breathless and shaking, fighting back an urge to stride boldly over to her, put his arms around her and crush her to his chest.
“Hey, you left me out here by myself with all this money.” she says. “I could have been mugged. I thought you said a woman needs protection.”
“Well, you had the concertina. Some people consider it an instrument of torture.”
She unlocks the door in the wall with a key that hangs from a long thin chain around her neck, and they enter to a flight of ascending stairs. Taking his hand she leads him up the stairs. Each step is painted a different color with the colors gradually shifting through the spectrum, from blue at the bottom through green and yellow and orange and purple to a hot pink at the top. The stairs creak, almost musically, and he gets the strange sensation that each step is tuned to a different note, the stairs as a whole singing him a melody, a hypnotic minor key tune like one that might be sung by mermaids on a rock just offshore. Claudia doesn’t say a word until they reach the door at the top of the stairs. There she lets go of his hand and produces the key from where it has been lying against her skin.
“Well, here we are,” she says, “My little hideaway.” She throws open the door and tosses the key onto the floor.
It’s one big room that fills up the entire second floor of the building. It looks like it might have been used as a warehouse once, or maybe a sewing room. Perhaps once there were dozens of tables with sewing machines in this room, and women, sitting at the sewing machines, turning out little smocks and bloomers. Or maybe there was a rug merchant here with rows and rows of tribal rugs, stacked from floor to ceiling.
Now it’s all just a big room and there’s not much in it. The floors are hard wood, polished bright and shiny. A few area rugs are scattered about. At one end of the room is a queen-sized bed with the covers thrown back. The only light in the room comes from a lamp with a red Chinese shade, on an end table by the bed. A collection of large, unframed art prints graces the walls, Monet’s Water Lilies, some Degas’ ballerinas, and one primitive painting of a band of Australian aborigines, raving it up at a coroboree in the outback. There’s a double sink under a blinded window, dishes in the sink. A small icebox. No stove. A small, round wooden table with a vase of flowers. Two chairs. A free standing wardrobe with the doors open, some lacy, silky underthings hanging from the handle. A record player sits on the floor by the wardrobe, the speakers separated. A burgundy loveseat with three or four embroidered throw pillows. A closed door- it must lead to the bathroom; a pen and ink profile of Bob Dylan on the door. That’s about it. There’s nothing else in the room. No books, no bookshelves, no stacks of papers. No food, except what might be in the icebox. No television. No mirrors.
“Well, what do you think?” she asks. “I haven’t been here very long. But I’ve got room to dance.” With this she leaps into the open room, kicking off her slippers and whirling through a series of spins and glissades that bring her back to Wilbo, gliding to her knees and folding her arms down like the petals of a flower at his feet. Then she’s up, tugging at his sleeve.
“Come on, let’s go to the table. We’ve gotta count that money.”
It’s dark at the table. There are no overhead light fixtures anywhere in the room. From somewhere Claudia conjures up a stubby little candle on a wooden candleholder. She lights it, places it on the table. She goes over to the stereo and pushes a button. A record drops. Claudia lifts the arm of the stylus and sets it down precisely in a groove. Music starts. Jimi Hendrix. Voodoo Chile. The long, slow version. They sit down to count.
They count silently, Claudia handling the bills, Wilbo doing the coins. He loses his place repeatedly. Her body seems to pulsate in the candle glow. He feels something like heat, but not heat, radiating from her, bathing his fingers, his arms, his face, his mind.
“I got a hundred and eighty three dollars here,” she announces, “What’d you get?”
“Uh, well, I think it’s uhh… maybe we should start again.”
“Oh, you silly man!” She reaches out and covers his hand with her hand. Wilbo lets his arm go limp and she guides his hand over to the money. She grasps his fingers in her fingers and squeezes them over each stack of quarters, nickels and dimes. Then when they’re stacked, she takes his forefinger and touches it to each pile, counting out loud as she does.
“Eighteen dollars and thirty five cents in change.’ she says when they’re done. “You do the math, Wilbo. Do the math! Don’t worry about the pennies.”
But Wilbo can’t do the math in his head. His thoughts are flying every which way. He looks around for a paper and pencil. That’s right- his drawing pad. It’s sitting at his feet. He picks it up and scribbles out the figures.
“Two hundred and one dollars and thirty five cents.” he says at last. He tries to think, Is that good? That’s good, isn’t it? But a value judgment expressed in monetary units is far from his mind.
“Whoa!” Claudia jumps from the table. “Two hundred one and thirty five!” She spins around.
“That’s very good, Wilbo. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s good, that’s…very good.”
“Draw me, Wilbo!” she cries suddenly. “Draw me while I dance!” And she’s off again, leaping across the floor into a whole new set of movements, always fresh, always spontaneous, always unrehearsed.
Wilbo picks up his pad but at first he can’t draw anything. He can only watch. His arms feel like stone. He searches his mind for some perspective that will free them. His thoughts go back to yesterday in the street, not so many hours ago, when they merged in an oneness of movement, and then he took the lead.
“Kinko Syncho Quinto.” he says out loud, and touches his pencil to his tongue. He clutches the pad and begins to draw.
She’s doing a cat dance, pouncing and leaping. In his first drawing she’s a cat, tossing a mouse into the air. He even draws a little mouse airborne in the top left hand corner of the page.
Then she goes into a spin, the force of the spin propelling her arms out like streamers. He draws her with candy stripes, and many arms.
The spin slows, then tilts, then wobbles into something else, a series of awkward, whirling leaps that threaten to fly out of balance at any moment. She throws her arms open wide and clamps them together as if she is trying to attract the forces of equilibrium. He captures her in a freeze frame, her arms together, her fingers grasping the toe of an outstretched foot. Her arms fly up and overhead, up and overhead, up and overhead; each arc is smaller than the one before. She’s lowering the roof, she’s bringing down the sky, she’s narrowing the possibilities. He draws her trajectory in a series of overlapping images, each one inside the other.
Like the nude descending the staircase, he thinks to himself.
It’s as if she reads his thoughts. Her descending arcs bring her to the floor where she remains for just a moment, her bare knees on the hardwood, her body prostrated forward, her fingers brushing the toe of his shoe. Then she rises as if rising from a lake. He can almost see the drops of water falling from her rising fingers. He grasps the pencil and tries to draw this image. But what she does next stops him completely.
Her arms descend from above her head, and with her lake-drenched fingers she undoes the top button of her dress, then the next, then the next. The buttons go all the way down. When all the buttons are open she lets the dress slip off her shoulders. It tumbles to the floor and she stands there, completely naked.
Wilbo knows he must not betray his pounding heart, not to mention his suddenly awakened and throbbing sex. He still has the pencil in his hand. Frantically he scratches out an image of her naked form. Perhaps it’s not the best nude he’s ever done.
She looks at his hands. At first he thinks she’s going to try to snatch the picture from him. But then she’s off again, whirling into a whole new dance, her naked dance. She does it with her eyes closed, her feet planted mostly in one place on the floor. She sways, side to side and front to back. She looks like she’s perched on the rim of a great precipice, courting its perilous expanse, daring it to catch her fall. She pulls back eventually, and begins a slow dervish twirl, away from Wilbo, toward the dark, hidden corners of the room. Her languid spin propels her arms up only part way, like petticoats below her waist. She keeps her eyes closed as if she’s still a little shy of her nakedness. Even so, she begins to approach him cautiously, flinging her arms in his direction while her body follows. She must be drawn by his heat, or by the candleglow on the inside of her eyelids. From the stereo in the corner, Jimi croons:
Well, my arrows are made of desire
From far away as Jupiter’s sulfur mines…
Wilbo draws in a frenzy. He’s thinking maybe the mental activity and the glancing away will keep him from exploding, but the pictures themselves excite him. His pencil becomes his fingers and the paper is her skin. He tries to draw her as something else, an object with less sensual power, a tree, a lamp, a vase. He draws her as a column of smoke rising from a stack. He draws her as a Chinese pagoda. But the woman keeps breaking out of the object and the sensuality keeps pouring out of the woman.
He has ripped out a dozen or more drawings by the time she makes her direct approach; gliding her bare feet across the polished wood floor, she must open her eyes now to keep from slipping on the scattered paper. The closer she gets the more clumsy her movements become, a great self-consciousness permeates them. Standing directly in front of him, within arms reach, she cannot maintain eye contact. First she casts her gaze down, then she closes her eyes completely and continues to sway, timidly in his presence. This genuine bashfulness only excites him all the more. The pad and the pencil fall helplessly into his lap.
Then he sees something he hadn’t noticed before. How could he have missed it? In all his mad scratching and scribbling, how could he not have seen? She’s wearing something around her neck. No, it’s not the key on the chain. She threw that on the floor when she first came in. It’s a thin black cord- a shoelace! and there, hanging between her breasts, a stone amulet, a carving of a harlequin-face, laughing or crying…
Instinctively he reaches out and grabs the talisman. “How did you get that?” he cries.
She pulls away. The stone slips through his fingers. Claudia suddenly regains her composure. She bursts into laughter.
“Well, I got it from you, silly. I got it from around your neck.”
Now she can hardly contain herself. “You don’t remember, do you?” she says. “Ha! I got away with it! I did it! Now it’s going to haunt you. I’m going to haunt you, Wilbo. I’m going to haunt your dreams!”
Surely this is not her intention, but these words completely break the spell. It breaks with an audible snap. He thinks, what a child she is! A foolish child! The whole thing… so absurd! The absurdity crashes like a wave and he feels the power of his will returning, all the crazy impulses of his body draining away into stillness. At the same time the music ends, Jimi’s catharsis shrieking and wailing to a climax and breaking into chaos with the final ricocheting bang of the snare. Wilbo shakes back his head and straightens his posture.
“Put your dress back on, Claudia,” he says. “I think I’ve drawn enough.”
Claudia is strangely acquiescent. She stops laughing at once. “Yes sir!” she says. Perhaps there is a tone of mockery in her voice but there is also an ample share of respect. She scampers over to the dress, lying crumpled on the throw rug. She pours it back over her body like a marinade.
But once dressed, she becomes playful again. She waltzes over to the drawings on the floor and gathers them up in her arms as if they were wildflowers.
“Let’s see what you did,” she says. “Let’s see what you thought of my dance.”
Wilbo isn’t thinking of the pictures. “Am I going to get it back?” he asks her. Even though it’s a question, there’s the power of authority in his voice.
She halts with her arm full of drawings. “Get what back?”
“The amulet you took from me. From around my neck.”
She drops the papers and fishes for the cord from inside her dress, knocking open the top button as she does.
“Amulet? Why do you call it an amulet?”
“Do you know what it is?”
“No, it’s a silly necklace. What is it?”
He takes the stone from her hands and she makes her body go limp and somehow weightless, like a piece of cotton, so that he draws her toward him with a tug on the shoestring.
“It’s Arlequino. He’s the Italian trickster, like coyote is for the Indians, or like the Fool on the Hill is for the Beatles. His smile plays tricks. You can’t tell if he’s laughing or crying.”
She reaches up suddenly and grabs his wrist. Her touch is gentle but firm. She coos, demurely,
“Wilbo. Do you have a girlfriend?”
He sighs. This question does not make him happy. He releases the stone but she does not let go of his wrist. He pauses, he sighs again. He doesn’t know what to say. What a silly game! He must not give in to this silly game.
“Claudia, do you know how old I am? Do you know how old you are? I’m nearly old enough to be your father.”
She drops his wrist. She pulls back. She looks hurt. It’s only an act, he tells himself.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Her voice has a whining edge. “If you were twenty-one you’d be old enough to be my brother, but you wouldn’t be my brother. The point is, you’re not my father, Wilbo. What difference does it make how old you are?”
He doesn’t say anything. He knows the answer but he has no idea how to articulate it. Mostly he wishes they weren’t talking about this. He wishes they were still back where they were before, and he was telling her about Arlequino.
She flops down into the other chair, crosses her legs and arms. “Well, I was just asking a question, anyhow. I wasn’t asking for a lecture. Just answer my question. Do you have a girlfriend, Wilbo?”
“No, I don’t.”
“A wife then?”
“No. No wife.”
“Well, you had a wife then. Or a girlfriend. You’ve got kids. You’re a homosexual. I’m just looking for information here, ok? Cough up some information. That’s not so hard to do.”
Wilbo relaxes. Offer up some information. That’s not so hard to do.
“Well, I’ve had lots of girlfriends. I came into puberty in nineteen fifty-five. There were girls back then. And then there were the sixties. Lots of girls in the sixties…eager, willing girls. But something happened to me. It wasn’t like something that happened all of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning. It was more like the fruit of many long ponderings…”
Wilbo stops himself and thinks, why am I telling her this? She doesn’t care! But when he glances up at her, it’s evident she’s listening, at least. She’s leaning forward on the chair, forearms resting on her spread knees, staring at him with her jaw slack. What she’s hearing, he’s not sure. But she’s listening.
“I have this brother,” he continues. “His name is Arno. He’s younger. He got married in nineteen sixty-two. He got married to this girl I used to go out with, but that doesn’t have anything to do with it. He talked me into going to college with him. San Francisco State. I wasn’t going to go to college when I got out of high school. I thought the world was about to end. Why go to college? The world is about to end! But then when Arno graduated he talked me into enrolling in college. We would room together, we would get high and have fun. Let the world end! Who cares? But then that summer he married Eleanor, out of the blue, he married Eleanor. That one year I lived with them, it was a nightmare. His life was already falling apart. He wasn’t looking at the big question. Marriage, family, career- they’re all related. They all have to do with that one big question. You know the one…”
You don’t know the question, he tells her in his head.. At your age…But he continues.
“You know the question- the big question. Why did we come here in the first place? Why didn’t we just remain scattered particles of energy, diffused throughout the universe? Why did we have to get organized into bodies and brains and appetites? And only for a short time. Then we just fall apart again, like we started out…”
“Like flowers that bloom and fade!” Claudia interjects, suddenly. The words come spilling out of her, like she’s finishing his train of thought, because he’s not doing it quickly enough. She’s leaning so far forward she’s barely connecting with the chair. Wilbo is taken aback by her enthusiasm, and by the simple, charming appropriateness of her response. Unsure where to go next, he tries a variation on the theme.
“Like uh... like the cacophony of the universe…uh… like a piece of music, folding out of silence, then falling back into silence again.” This is good. Let’s stop this psychotherapy bullshit. Let’s play word games.
Claudia smiles and arches her back. “Like a dance,” she says, “Because of the music. And it ends because the music ends.”
“Like a wave.” Wilbo responds. “On a flat, glassy sea. It rises and it breaks, and then the sea is flat again.”
“Like a thought!” she cries. “It comes into your head, you think it, and then you forget it!”
Like an erection, he thinks to himself. It comes from nowhere. It goes away. Eventually. But he doesn’t say this.
“Like a dream,” he says instead, “It’s in Technicolor, on a big screen. It scares you; it excites you. But when you wake up, it’s gone.”
Claudia stands up abruptly, effectively halting the flow of ideas. She walks to the sink. She turns on the water and rearranges the dishes with no obvious intent. She turns off the water and faces him.
“But that still doesn’t tell me why you haven’t got a girlfriend.”
Wilbo was enjoying the abstractions. He really doesn’t want to have to go back to the story. It’s just too much work, trying to tell it. He attempts another approach.
“Well, what about you?” he says. “I could ask you the same question. Why haven’t you got a boyfriend?”
“Oh, you know about me, already, silly,” she replies. “You met the guy. I’m in between. I’m on the rebound. I’m young. Young people, we’re always on the rebound. But you, you’re… you’re not so young. There’s more to it with someone who’s… not young.”
“Ah! So it does matter, then. The difference in our ages.”
She makes an exasperated expression. “I’m not talking about us anymore, Wilbo. Let’s just drop that one. Look, I put my dress back on, Ok? I just mean… when you got some years behind you, you’ve got some stories. There’s reasons for the things you do. Us young people, we just do things. We’re impetuous. We do things… just to see what would happen.”
He has to laugh. “It doesn’t really change that much.” he says. “When you get older. Except that you get into ruts, and your energy starts to run out.”
As soon as he says this, he can feel it happening- his energy running out. It’s not that he’s tired, not physically, at least. He could go down to the boardwalk right now, throw out his hat and pull out his concertina, set to work, if it wasn’t midnight. If the place wasn’t deserted. He’s got plenty of energy for the work. It’s just this talking, this intellectual sparring, this guessing and counter-guessing, this dredging up of explanations and excuses. Oh, he could introspect right now. That’s different. He’s got plenty of energy for that. He could sit at his bench and ponder all night long, until it was time to offer up the fruit of his ponderings to old John of Dreams. That sounds pretty good right now. That’s what he’d like to be doing.
She breaks his reverie with a hand on his knee.
“I can read your thoughts,” she says, “You’ve had enough of me. You want to go home now.”
He looks at her and sighs. There’s a sweetness in her voice that disarms him, not to mention the irresistible loveliness of her face as she looks into his eyes.
“Well, maybe for now,” he says, “But we’re not done. We’ll get together again. We’ll do some more of this.”
Her smile is full mischief. “Yeah, ok. And maybe we’ll do some more of that, too.”
This makes him blush, visibly- he can feel it, and it ignites a little tiny spark- a pilot light- that he knows is going to be burning there for a long time. He picks up his pad and his pencils. He picks up all the drawings from off the table and off the floor and files them neatly between the pages of the pad. She does not protest. He finds his concertina in the case, checks to make sure the snaps are secure, then starts for the door.
“Hey, wait a minute! Don’t forget the money!”
He turns back. There’s the money, still neatly stacked in coins and bills on the table.
“Oh, yeah, the money.”
He walks to the table, fishes out the sack from his pocket, and sweeps the neatly stacked piles back into the disorder of the bag. He leaves one pile of tens uncounted on the table. He nods to it.
“That’s your take,” he says. “For all your help. Thank you, really. Thank you.”
She beams a big, smile, childlike and guileless.
“Wow! That’s cool! Thanks, Wilbo!” She snatches up the pile of bills and begins to count them. He’s just about to leave when he remembers something else.
“Oh yeah,” he says, “This might interest you.” He pulls one of the cards from the Lighthouse out of his pocket and drops it on the table.
She glances at it perfunctorily, then continues counting. Before she completes the sum, he is out the door.