Part Two of the Sehnsucht Trilogy
I met him at one of the city’s high-end jazz clubs, at the second set of a two-set evening, at a small round table pushed so close to the stage I could have touched the claw foot of the piano bench, the bell of the horn waiting on its stand. My usual table was further back, against the piano-side wall, under the big black-and-white photo of Charlie Haden. But it was Friday night, and the name on the bill—the crossover hit, the Grammy nomination—was the sort that grabs people who don’t usually go out for jazz. It was here or the bar; and the bar, all the way in the rear, beset by the noises of glass and ice and money changing hands, was out of the question. So I opened my book and, with the empty eye of the horn staring back at me, waited for the waitresses to finish running tabs and rushing out the stragglers, so they could begin to accommodate the new patrons, some of whom were still waiting outside in a line that stretched halfway down the block.
The hostess sat him across from me. He’d brought a book, too, used it as a shield, just like I did. Until, that is, our waitress mixed up our drink orders—his was a Shirley Temple, of all things—set them down in front of us, and moved on before either of us could say a word. Poor thing, she looked no end of harried. We had one of those I-think-this-belongs-to-you moments, like around the baggage carousel at an airport. If one of us—I can’t remember who—hadn’t made a comment about the decline in service, we never would have known each other for regulars. From there it was an easy step to the pandemonium of the evening, and then to the club’s recent mismanagement at the expense of the musicians and fans alike, the regrettable tendency to cut sets short on weekends to squeeze in a third—we both expressed surprise at the absence of a third set this evening—despite the great people who came through, who made it necessary to brave what he called “the feedlot.” I made some comment to the effect that at least the décor hadn’t changed—I was going to point to that Haden photo, probably taken in the late sixties—but he said, almost under his breath, “Well, not much.”
Just then the house lights dimmed, and the stage brightened, and the five musicians filed down what was left of the aisle—even some of the two-tops had three and four people around them—to a raucous welcome.
When the lights came up an hour later there was a long moment of silence, each of us, perhaps, waiting for the other to speak. At least, that was how it felt to me: like I needed to say something that would impress him; and this would mean, in part, not being overly impressed by the music. Maybe as a result, I found myself with nothing to say, and almost no recollection of what I had heard. For all I knew he regretted beginning the conversation in the first place, and was suffering the same pangs I was. But then neither of us had opened our books.
When at last he opened his mouth, it wasn’t to ask my opinion, but to offer his. He began by saying that he had followed this saxophonist’s slow rise over the years through other, smaller venues, and commented on the other eras of his career, and his fine work as a sideman. Eventually he wended his way back to a measured criticism of the evening’s performance, which, impressive though it had been, had lost some of the introspection and lyricism which had brought the player to prominence in the first place.
How could I hope to compete with that? It was all I could do to confess that I had enjoyed the set anyway, and go on to offer my own measured excuse on behalf of the artist: he might have been pandering to the crowd. If my friend noticed that I was pandering—by bringing the conversation back to the safe ground on which we had bonded, the way the common indignation of slogans leads one to become immediate comrades with the nearest marchers at a protest—he gave no indication. And if the arrogance with which I dismissed the audience was a bit too easy, I think he knew it as well as I did; and this led us to attack the subject with a self-conscious relish, and at a volume a little louder than was necessary. We looked back on a time when the club had been in danger of closing, before Lincoln Center had made jazz safe for the elite, fusion had burned itself out, the crossovers that invited the musical rabble into the temple had become commonplace, and venues like this had depended on the loyalty of connoisseurs like us, on whom, we agreed, it was now turning its back. Never mind that I only knew about these things from reading: it gave me an insider’s satisfaction, siding with him in this way, about a city where, ten years on, I still felt like a bit of an exile. When I tried to bring the level down a bit, by suggesting it might have been nice to have something to look at besides the musicians’ shoes, he seemed to take it as a signal that conversation was over, and started trying to flag down a waitress.
We shook hands under the awning outside, traded email addresses. And then, perhaps because it had begun to rain lightly, he offered me a ride home. I declined at first, but when he persisted, asking me where I lived, and then arguing that uptown would hardly take him out of his way to Queens, I remembered the Shirley Temple and agreed.
His minivan was parked near Washington Square. As we climbed Eighth Avenue, chatting about music, I began to form a clearer impression of my driver. He loved to talk, and he was one of those people with a head for stats, just applied to jazz instead of, say, baseball. He seemed to have seen everybody at one time or another, every legend who hadn’t died unreasonably young, and to have a story and an opinion about all of them. He called his favorite players “monsters”—a term I would come to adopt—and, when he was recalling a set that particularly impressed him, he would say the band had “played their butts off.” Our tastes turned out to be pretty similar, though I admit his forays into swing and boogie-woogie left me cold, while I tended to be more forgiving of the avant-garde, which he dismissed as “cerebral dissonance,” or, in a few cases, out-and-out charlatanry. It wasn’t his age; he couldn’t have been more than ten years older than me, and besides, a fair percentage of the crowd at avant-garde shows tended to be the full-bearded flotsam of the sixties. No, it was something else. The Shirley Temple. The lack of swearing, which, once I noticed it, made me conscious of my own bad mouth. The radio, tuned to BGO, the volume so low it barely registered. The minivan, of all things. And the way he drove! We could’ve taken the parkway, but here we were, on the avenues, and I don’t think we ever broke thirty. He would stop at yellow lights, braking heavily, as if we were narrowly avoiding a collision, wait for them to turn red. I was surprised a taxi didn’t rear-end us. I started to wonder how well he could see. And I decided that either he was actually quite a bit older than he appeared, or he was affecting great age, the way a boy might pretend to have a limp, because he believes it makes him look dignified in the eyes of his fellows.
The reflections of streetlights scattered on the wet pavement as we crawled our way uptown. At one point we made thirty-five greens in a row. I hadn’t realized I was counting until we had passed ten. At twenty-five I mentioned it to him, interrupting a monologue about Miles’s time with Bird. We counted the last ten aloud together, breaking into cheers when the yellow appeared at number thirty-six, and high-fiving after the car had skidded to a halt. Had he run that yellow, I thought, we would have made a couple more. Then again, we had caught up twice to a gypsy cab that was going much faster than we were, floating past it through newly-turned greens. Maybe there was a method here, a rhythm about the City that he understood, but which an outsider, who saw only the City’s frenetic pace, could never apprehend.
Anyway, whether because it was goodwill rather than disdain which had momentarily united us, or because, for the moment, it had been something other than music that caught our attention—whatever the reason, it was a kind of breakthrough. As he swung the car around to drop me off in front of my Morningside brownstone, I almost asked him what he was doing the following night. Instead, we shook hands warmly and promised to stay in touch. It was only as he was driving away that I noticed the Massachusetts license plate, and realized just how little he had told me about himself.
He was a native of Queens, but had lived for more than a decade in Boston. Whenever the opportunity presented itself—maybe eight or nine times a year—he drove down to the City and spent the weekend with his sister, who still lived in the old neighborhood, and took advantage to go out and hear as much live music as he could.
He told me this by way of apology, perhaps, as we sat side by side late one Friday evening at a familiar venue only a few blocks from the one where we had met, though a good deal more downscale: a basement shaped like a boxcar, with mirrors behind the bandstand and a bar with four stools at the other end. After almost two months and a few unanswered emails, I figured he had gone the way of most club acquaintances. And then, the previous night, a message had appeared, with nothing more than the name of the venue and time of the set, together with a link. I never responded; I didn’t make up my mind to go until late the following day. But he was there, waiting for me when I arrived, wildly flagging me down from the row of chairs closest to the stage, removing his jacket from the seat next to his, and making a point of telling me how the waitress had been throwing him dirty looks for the last half hour. It seemed like a natural segue from my tardiness to his two-month silence—or would have been, had he not suggested I get a drink, the set might start at any minute. It ended up taking me so long to find the waitress in the thick of the crowd that, by the time I sat down again, and managed to mumble something about not knowing he was an out-of-towner, I felt like I was being petty. Instead, I asked him what the jazz scene in Boston was like—to which he replied, without hesitation, “It isn’t New York.” And then a moment later, more cryptically: “They’re a little too smart for their own good.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate, and he didn’t offer, either about Boston, or Queens, or his sister, whom I imagined as a cross between Ella Fitzgerald and Edith Bunker, and wondered, idly, if she was married.
Once the music started, I found myself wondering at my own peevishness, and at my initial reticence about coming. It wasn’t that I’d been upset with him for not staying in touch—actually, I’d been pleasantly surprised by his message. It was that music was something I was accustomed to experiencing alone. Having him along, I thought, would be like wedging something between the music and me, as though I were being forced to listen through a screen, or from another room. Like the last time, I would be anxious about whether he liked what I did, or what was worse, have to account for my tastes. And yet here I was again, closer than I would have chosen to be, and with a much louder band than the last time. I could feel my ears callous with every blacksmith whack on the snare, every burst from the trumpet, every squeal of the alto. At such close range, the music bordered on disintegrating into a chaos of noise, the way blown-up newsprint looks like nothing but scattered pixels.
I looked for my friend in the mirrors behind the bandstand. They were intended to help those at the rear of the club see the musicians, and maybe this explains why I had such a hard time finding him, even though I found myself right away. But then he looked so different, there in the mirror—different but familiar: leaning forward with his eyes tightly shut, an almost pained expression on his face, head turned to one side, rocking slightly in time. Maybe it was his hearing, not his vision, that was going—maybe he was paying the price for sitting up front all these years, however many of them there were. Maybe it was all going, and this was the secret to the strange aura of his age. Only the longer I looked—and I looked for a long time, hardly anxious he might open his eyes and catch me—the older he seemed, until a shriveled, haggard old man I no longer recognized occupied the chair next to me. It was enough to make me close my own eyes, abandon myself to the music’s stormy harbor.
When the set was over we applauded along with everybody else, and then lapsed into the same silence as last time. Maybe he was waiting for me to talk, wary of monopolizing the conversation. But I couldn’t; I hadn’t yet found the distance necessary to formulate my experience in language. More than that, it was the same insecurity I had felt last time: I wasn’t qualified to speak. After all, though I was familiar with the leader, I had neither heard nor seen him with his working quintet before this evening. I was sure I had enjoyed it too much. There was nothing I could find to pick at. If I started gushing, I would only reveal my own ignorance, and my friend would recoil, and never invite me to go see music with him again.
After the silence had prolonged itself uncomfortably, and neither of us was getting up to use the bathroom, I made a meek little comment about how young all the other players were, or at least looked.
It turned out to be the opening he was waiting for. He started by lavishing praise on the bassist, remarking on how many melodically gifted and technically impressive “fiddle players” seemed to be coming out of music schools these days. About the leader, who was only slightly older than the rest of the band, he claimed that he was in rare form. Had I heard the latest album? I dropped my eyes and confessed I hadn’t. And he said—I’ll never forget this—“I envy you.” Envied me, apparently, for still having the opportunity to hear it for the first time.
He went on like this—about how comfortable the trumpeter seemed to be playing his own compositions, and how refreshing it was to find that he had the same flair for composing and arranging as for improvising, and so on—until I actually did have to use the bathroom. But then it was hard to find a pause to excuse myself. Watching the musicians pack their gear, my friend droning on, I started to wonder if they were listening to him, too. I’d forgotten how close we were to the bandstand, this though I was still half-deaf. Maybe I shouldn’t have resisted the urge to plug my ears. I had feared it would make me look like an old man.
And then I did something unusual, for me: I interrupted him. I actually talked louder and louder until he relented, just as he had done to me. It was only to suggest we get another round, and stay for the beginning of the open jam, which was supposed to start at twelve-thirty, but would likely start closer to one, it being almost twelve-thirty already. The suggestion itself was unusual. I disliked these Friday-night crushes, when the club was too dark to read in and everybody had to shout to make themselves heard. I wasn’t here to pick up girls, or make new friends, or rub shoulders with important people. I was here for the music.
At least, that was what I told myself. Some nights I would stay sitting at my table after the set was over, book closed, stirring the melted ice with one of those little red straws. Or I would sit down on the church steps halfway between the subway and home, and watch the groups of people just on their way out to the clubs. Back and forth, work to set to apartment, set to apartment to work. Every time I came home, the apartment was as empty as before. The next morning, my cubicle would be waiting for me, even emptier. Lying in bed, I would imagine my most recent outing as a pebble, carefully selected from a wide plain of such pebbles, and dropped into a container that resembled an aquarium. When the aquarium was almost full, just as I was about to add the last pebble, I would stop and asked myself: Why was I filling this aquarium with pebbles? All along it had seemed so important, but somehow I had never stopped to ask myself why. It’s not like I was the crow in the fable, trying to get a drink of water. The aquarium was empty but for the pebbles I put in it.
Tonight, though—tonight I felt energized. As if the music, the thrill of having it so close, had jounced me up to some higher state; and now, in the midst of falling, I glowed. And maybe he felt like I was trying to get rid of him, avoid riding home with him. It was true I’d taken him for an early bird, what with the Shirley Temples and the minivan. But no moreso than I was. In any case, he agreed without hesitation. I watched him for what must have been a very long time; he was talking again and didn’t seem to notice. He glowed, too; there was no trace of that face it had taken me so long to recognize in the mirror, the face that had aged before my eyes. I had a vague recollection of seeing it again, in the mirror, deep into that jam session. By that time he had bought another round, and a round after that, so that, when I got out of the van in front of my building a few hours later, I felt like I was stepping off a merry-go-round; and the only thing I remember thinking was that I’d left my damn book at the bar, before realizing, as I was trying to make my room stop spinning and just fall asleep, that I’d never brought one.
It always happened the same way: a couple of months of silence, then an email: tomorrow, name, venue, time. I wasn’t expected to respond, just follow instructions, wherever they took me. It was odd how much I trusted him, given how little I knew about him. As much as I trusted my few close friends, holdovers from college or high school, whom I saw a couple of times a year if I was lucky—or unlucky, as they were always loud family affairs where I ended up spending most of the time with their kids. And then he would always already be there, wherever “there” was, and no matter how early I thought I was, would flag me down like I was some long-lost friend descending from an ocean liner after a thirty-year absence. I guess you could say he never stood me up, though really the reverse is true. I did think about not going sometimes. Those emails, though: they might have looked like simple announcements, but I treated them like transmissions from my destiny.
I said I followed those emails wherever they took me, and in truth they took me further and further out, first into the nether reaches of Manhattan, then the boroughs—Brooklyn, usually, but occasionally the Bronx, and once even Staten Island. It didn’t matter how far-flung from the great state of Queens, either, he always gave me a ride home. It did me no good to protest. Riding the train out to the show, and sometimes the bus as well—it never occurred to me to ask him to pick me up, and he never offered—I would find myself wondering how on earth he’d discovered these places. Cafes and dinner clubs, the dining room of the Bohemian society, a plumber’s union hall. If they were actual music venues, they were invariably basements, mirrors for windows, giving the illusion of extra space and twinned people. Some of the more memorable ones looked like they belonged anyplace but the city, boroughs or no. One was a converted carriage house; I swore I could still smell the hay and horseshit. Another had rusty, rough-hewn farm relics—hoe blades, horseshoes—hanging uncanny as severed limbs on the wood-plank walls, and the mirrors were all set in quartered white frames. A third had a single long table running down the middle, where we sat like Germans at a beer hall, and the bartender handed drinks to the people seated at the ends, whose responsibility it was to pass them down. It got to the point that I started to wonder if I’d been fooling myself all along: here I thought I’d moved to the City, but it seemed like if you dug deep enough, it wasn’t so hard to turn up the arrowheads buried with the cobblestone. Just as much as the farm was a mask someone had hung on the forest. You could tell that the moment you walked far enough from the house that it set under the hillside, turning the world into another night; or you stopped working for a day, and just watched.
The musicians were as obscure as the venues, and they grew more obscure the further out from the center we went. Younger, too. I started to feel like we were on the trail of the Fountain of Youth; I kept waiting for him to take me to a high school gymnasium and proclaim that it was “the hottest ticket in town.” Then again, had he taken me to hear a marching band, I’m sure he would have had his reasons.
He must have some network of contacts, I thought. But if so, why didn’t anyone else ever come along—an old high school friend, say? I watched him down those Shirley Temples; he never ordered anything else. Once he held up his glass and said, “Signs of a misspent youth.” There was no other choice: I started to fantasize a dark past for him. Maybe he actually lived in Queens, with his sister. Some lost story by Poe: she was an invalid, there was a weird bond between them, etc. Maybe he didn’t have a sister at all. And then there was the matter of his hearing. We always sat right up front, as close to the music as possible—like I said, he always got there first, and always saved a seat for me. We got so close you could almost see the vibrations, the way raindrops makes a puddle quiver, or a breeze flutters a spiderweb. I remember one summer watching jazz in a park, and every time the pedal of the bass drum kicked, the membrane would flash, because it had distended in such a way as to catch the sun. It only lasted a few minutes; then the sun moved, and maybe the drum, too, from the kick of the pedal. Those nights sitting so close, I started to feel like I was the puddle, the spiderweb, or the skin of the drum: it was my body that had been stretched across a ring of metal, and was being pummeled into spent ecstasy.
But as for him—he had no past, so far as I could tell. About love, about politics—about growing up in New York during that seedy, thrilling time everybody my age wishes they had experienced, if only in a picturesque, arm’s-length sort of way—it was like these things didn’t exist for him. I got the idea, somehow, that he worked with computers. But who didn’t? I worked with computers, if you wanted to put it that way. Asking him anything directly was useless; his answers were always cryptic, if he answered at all. I had no idea, for example, what prevented him from making the trip to the City more often, besides the snail’s pace at which he drove. He didn’t wear a ring; but then I had overheard some of my coworkers talking about how they took theirs off when they were away on business, in case an opportunity presented itself. Once, on a ride home, I asked him where in Queens his sister lived. He told me I wouldn’t know it. And when I persisted: “Out by Throgs Neck. It’s not what it used to be. They should change the name.” And then he launched into some diatribe about the Louis Armstrong museum. I was tempted to ask him if his sister lived there, in the Armstrong museum. But I bit my tongue, and instead looked around the interior of the minivan—it always seemed suspiciously clean for someone routinely making a long-distance drive—for some revealing object or point of entry: The Angry Bird on the dash. The plastic troll hanging by its green hair from the mirror. The Red Socks key chain dangling from the ignition. The plastic Maverick thermos cup between the seats. The radio tuned to BGO, low.
Music, though. Here you couldn’t stop him. He would start with the familiar constellations, then build slowly outwards, ripples on a pond, to musicians of greater and greater obscurity, sidemen’s sidemen, though always just two or three degrees removed from a Miles or Duke. It wasn’t just that he knew so much more than I did, so many more names and titles and tunes. It was that he gave the impression that what he didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing. He seemed to enjoy bursting my bubble. Some of the players I most admired he claimed were imitators of earlier, lesser-known innovators. Once he even looked at me and said, “You know, jazz didn’t start with Bird.” I almost hit him. But it was hard to stay angry with him for long. Man, could he tell stories. You got the impression he’d been there, wherever and whatever it was, whether it had happened in 1920 or yesterday, like some jazz Forrest Gump. Maybe this was why I would always remember him as older than he was; and why I was always surprised to find, after a month or two without seeing him, an unaccountably young man flagging me down from somewhere near the bandstand—a man who, after all, was only a few years older than me.
There was hardly a musician he didn’t claim to have met at one time or another; and the way he would carry on, you’d have thought they’d grown up together. It was partly his habit of calling them by their first names—not just Duke and Miles, Wynton and Branford, but John, Horace, Art, Eric, and Sonny. And if you didn’t know which Sonny he meant, you waited for the context. Asking just elicited a polite stare before rolling on, if he deigned to pause at all.
I knew he hadn’t met half the people he claimed to, and that he was hardly on intimate terms with the rest. I knew, too, that, like me, the vast majority of what he knew must have come out of books, no matter how much he could make it appear otherwise. And yet, I didn’t mind it, at least as much as I maybe should have. I didn’t spend time looking for chinks in his armor, and was vaguely disappointed when I found one. A sax player whom he praised, for example, though he had dismissed the name when I had mentioned it some months earlier: I resisted the urge to call him out. No matter how much of a pedant he turned out to be, there was something endearing about him. I admit, I sort of enjoyed the idea that the name I had mentioned had become part of his repertoire. Maybe I just liked pedants, admired the mountains they raised out of something so insignificant as their insecurity. They had a peculiar majesty I could relate to.
It wasn’t friendship he was looking for. He didn’t invite me out anywhere else, or over to his sister’s place. When I offered him to crash at mine—to give his sister a break, I said—he demured, mumbling something about family obligations. Maybe I was the one looking for friendship, whatever that means. Sharing secrets, I guess. I don’t know why I was setting my expectations above the one thing we did share. Maybe I was looking for something I shouldn’t have expected to find. It’s funny, for a while I had been concerned about possible sexual overtones, probably because he was so opaque about his personal life. And yet here I was, craving something more, anticipating his coming to town, following his emails no matter what dark staircases they took me down, keeping my mouth shut despite thinking him a charlatan, so willing, eager even, to be his sounding board. For that was what he really wanted—not a friend, not a lover, but a cave in which to hear his own echo. And I, mute before him, never called him out. Not once. It was as though I felt the need to protect him. Or myself.
It was a little like he was pure sound, like he was made of all and nothing but the music he had absorbed over the years, and the information and experiences that had accrued around these, of which I was just one more encrustation. As if, were I to poke my finger into him, I’d find him hollow, he himself no more than the cavern for an echo, and the blare of a thousand trumpets would emerge from the hole, like that gag in the cartoons where someone yells into a paper bag. As though, were I to put my ear to his chest, I would hear the roar of a shell rather than the beat of a heart. When he drove off into the night, it wasn’t darkness he disappeared into, but silence, in which he dissolved like sugar in rain.
We went on like this for a couple of years: appearances and disappearances, nights spent in the lap of music, tall tales, rides home I hardly remembered from drink.
And then one night, as we were pulling up in front of my place, he made the offhand suggestion that maybe it was time for me to pick the next set. If it was intended as an admission or an apology, there was a barb in it; because when we went to shake hands, he added, “Don’t disappoint me.”
He must have known that I hadn’t grown up here. In fact, I was certain I’d told him as much: about moving to the city in my mid-twenties, about the way the sudden opportunity to hear so much live music had overpowered me, and about how, after more than a decade here, I still felt like a stranger. But for all I knew he didn’t remember, if he had heard me at all.
I should have resented it. I don’t have the stomach for the one-upmanship which passes for so much of male friendship. And yet, something inside me must have craved it—that, or I was just drunk enough to respond; because before letting go of his hand, I told him that I wouldn’t disappoint him. Then I watched him drive away.
I spent a lot of time over the next few weeks poring over the jazz papers and jazz blogs for a suitably obscure venue, and a suitably obscure artist who nonetheless had some pedigree, trying to pinpoint the time of my friend’s arrival by the calendar of his previous visits. I even went so far as emailing him my picks on the Wednesday before the weekend I expected him to show up. I never got a reply and, maybe as a result, never followed up on my own suggestions. When I finally did get an email, some three weeks later, it wasn’t a reply, or a query, but an announcement, like every other. Only it was cryptic even for him. The subject line read: The Amazing O. The body of the email had an address and a date. There was no venue, and nothing of a name but the epithet, and the apparent redaction.
This was on Wednesday. I wrote him back immediately, a much longer email than was necessary, reminding him that it was my turn—I actually wrote that—and asking whether he had received my previous email, and including a few new possibilities. Again I waited for a reply. I can’t say I really expected one, though I did spend the next two days at work checking relentlessly, and the rest of the time scouring the internet for anything I could find about this O—ridiculous, it sounded like the name of a magician you’d hire for a kid’s birthday party—or the venue, which I could do no more than pinpoint on a map. It was somewhere between the Rockaways and East New York. About this mysterious O, there was nothing—no website, no MySpace page, no videos on YouTube. A Google search turned up a vinyl cleaning product. By today’s standards, O did not exist.
Of course I went. An hour and a half on the train under the river, and then a twenty-block schlepp from the station. He caught me walking—I hadn’t quite reached the address, so far as I could tell—flagged me down from across the street, crossed it himself, skirting puddles. He said, “You’re here”—or maybe it was, “We’re here”—I couldn’t be sure which. A hint of doubt in his voice, as though for the first time he had not expected me to show.
I thought, almost said, Where? It was an old warehouse district, as yet unredeemed by lofts: a puddle-streaked alley of brick and opaque glass, the windows themselves stacked like bricks, the monotony broken only by an occasional corrugated metal loading dock, shut tight like the curtain in an empty theater. The avenues, though slightly wider, presented much the same vista in either direction.
He crossed the street again, and actually started back toward the subway. It was a moment before I followed. The rain had stopped, but the clouds had not lifted, giving to the night a gloomy, oppressive feel that augmented the dour abandonment around us. Odd that he hadn’t sent me the exact address, and after three blocks of silence I was on the point of asking him if we were lost, or if he had changed his mind, when he stopped suddenly in front of a black metal door. I realized that I must have passed it on my way from the subway, though I didn’t remember noticing it.
He pounded five times and waited. There was no noise but the distant hum of some highway.
“Are you sure about this place?”
I had no reason to whisper, but that was the way it came out. Again, it wasn’t that I distrusted him. He was too pure, too single of purpose, his deceptions too transparent and devoid of real malice. In the end, I think I felt a little sorry for him, and this—pity—was the real reason I had been able to follow him into whatever deep, dank hole he pointed me toward, and drink a little more than was prudent, and crawl into his car with the noise of the band still ringing in my ears. No, it wasn’t him I distrusted, but something else, in front of which he stood, with his back to it. Any darkness about him was just the shadow it cast.
I think he was about to answer me when a Hells Angel appeared, or everyone’s idea of a Hells Angel: bald, heavy-set, leather-clad and tattooed. Only this Hells Angel had bifocals pushed far down his nose, and a copy of the Financial Times folded in one hand—I recognized it from the pink pages. Now I wanted to ask what a Hells Angel was doing reading the Financial Times on a rainy night in some godforsaken warehouse in Queens. Only the way he grinned made my question moot. He might have been eating diamonds out of a popcorn bag.
He motioned us forward, and my friend nodded for me to go ahead. I looked back and forth between them and, after another moment’s hesitation, went inside. Here was the Angel’s stool and table, and a staircase leading down. It was as black as the door, glossed by red party lights that fanned out along the walls. A red EXIT sign glowing dimly below seemed to float in an abyss. I grasped for a railing and, finding none, started down, slow as an old man walking into a cold surf, my fingertips grazing the walls on either side. My shoes rang against the stairs—they were metal—and my friend’s joined soon after, syncopated with mine; and then, much louder, the door closing; and then only the crisp echo of our footfall. The whole staircase vibrated slightly with our descent. Soon a second vibration resolved itself: a thudding bass. It got louder the deeper we went, until the stairs started to buzz with it—until, when I had reached the EXIT sign, and the improbable door hanging beneath it—a door that might have been salvaged from a farmhouse, all wide, dark planks rotting at the edges, the wood grown around the nails like flesh around a sliver—that bass thudded like something pounding on the other side, wanting out.
It was much louder inside, though here the sounds of voices competed. Maybe it was the low, domed ceiling that amplified them, raised them to such a hysterical pitch; or the overall size of the space, though this was hard to gauge, riddled as it was with archways that might have receded into any number of alcoves, or communicated with other spaces entirely. It could have been a crypt, except that the gothic touches—the discreetly looming gargoyles, the vasefuls of wilted flowers—were countered by bucolic ones, such as the grapes hanging in bunches from trestles bolted to the ceiling. It was more like a dark bower, or fecund grotto. Although the dim light seemed to be provided by candles set on the tables and along the bar, and the clusters of votives in hardened white-wax cataracts around the archways, this was an illusion, something like the old movie technique where an actor lights a candle, and the lights on the set slowly go up. There were spots in bunches of thorny, blossomless stems throwing barbed shadows onto the low ceiling, and more around the gargoyles. The drinks glowed, too, as though neon bulbs floated inside the fluted glasses that waitresses carried back and forth on small, round trays.
It was only then that I noticed some of the waitresses were topless, and some of the patrons, too. One woman, who was quite short, simply walked around stark naked, like a toddler on the beach. I watched another, whose body looked like a Coke bottle that had been stretched in a glassworks, saunter by, pull a single grape from a bunch, and pop it into her mouth, all without looking around or changing her sullen expression. It was the same air of carefully-prepared apathy that hung over everything and everyone, extending to the easy nudity or the coiffed disorder of hair and clothing, as though the patrons and employees had all turned themselves into objects for some aristocrat’s picturesque garden.
I couldn’t decide whether I was overdressed or underdressed. I felt old; I was sure I was the oldest person in the room, my friend excepted. But no one seemed to have noticed our entrance, or to notice us as we started through the crowd, my friend now leading the way through all that flesh and noise. I had been on the point of turning around and asking him where the hell he had brought me—how it was I had wandered into this Star Trek fantasy of a Roman orgy—and whether the band was in a back room. But I had begun to suspect there was no band. For the first time I noticed the sampled moans on the speakers, around the thumping bass. In the corner of my eye, in the shadows of one of the archways, I thought I saw the rhythmic frenzy of a couple having sex—though when I turned to look there was nothing. I had a vision of all those empty eyes suddenly converging on me, full of rage and desire, and all these beings wandering about with the careless inevitability of celestial bodies all at once descending on me, like Maenads from the hills, and tearing me to pieces. The woman who had plucked the grape: I imagined her doing the same with my still-beating heart. I thought of all my pebbles. Life without them seemed terrifyingly weightless. And yet, I wondered if this wasn’t what I’d been craving all along.
A bead curtain struck me in the face. We were crossing under one of the archways, and a moment later we stood in a tall, narrow chamber, illuminated by a single white orb the size of a goldfish aquarium, suspended from a wire dropped from some murky nowhere above. The light was so weak, and the stairs so narrow, that only the first dozen or so steps were visible; so that, as my friend began his descent, he was slowly consumed by the black pool into which the stairs plunged. It was impossible to tell how much further down they went.
From the way the first stair gave, I guessed it to be made of wood; and this was confirmed once I had descended into total blackness, and the pounding bass was replaced by the sound of my creaking footsteps, and his footsteps somewhere below mine, together with the sound of running water, though I could not tell whether this was above or below. I went slowly, guiding myself by the damp walls; I was afraid of running into him, knocking him into the void. At one point I looked behind me, the way a swimmer might, to reassure himself that the surface isn’t further away than he remembered. A grey trapdoor of light somewhere far above, as though I had slipped into a mineshaft. I had dreamt about places not so different, although in my dreams they were always filled with water. I even took a quick deep breath, as though I expected to have to hold it.
It might have been an old subway station that some developer had finagled from the City. Only I couldn’t help feeling that we had fallen off the map, into some forgotten part of that system. I started to imagine the whole city was honeycombed with spaces like these, the subways just the tip of the iceberg. There was always a level deeper. Just when you thought you had arrived at the foundation of everything, there it was, another staircase. It was a world of staircases built on staircases; and everything that looked solid and eternal, steel and schist, was anchored in rotting planks like the ones we stepped on now, and perched over a void
Quiet knocking somewhere below. The sound echoed in the stairwell, which seemed to have grown narrower in our descent. I paused. The trickling, and, somewhere far above, the bass, barely audible, heard as though from underwater.
A second trapdoor of light appeared, and for a moment I hung suspended on an invisible wire between two lambent squares. A warm, almost rank smell wafted up to me, and carried upon it—a furious horn solo, a heavy swing, a ride cymbal going full tilt.
Jazz. It was the sound of jazz.
The rank smell turned to a heavy perfume, and I rushed toward it.
We were standing at the rear of a big, smoky room, the seeming antithesis of the faux mystery cult one long flight up. There were maybe ten other patrons, each sitting alone at one of the dozen or so tables. The band was a traditional fourpiece, trumpet-led, the piano an upright, which, together with the haze and the root-cellar environs, helped to create the atmosphere of a modern-day speakeasy.
There was one anomaly, or one more, though I didn’t realize it until after we had seated ourselves, for once at a table not nearest to the stage. The trumpet player was a woman. Maybe it was the way she brandished her horn, a sort of jazz Joan of Arc—and, truth be told, that horn, a twisted braid of dented brass, looked like it had been used to beat down a few infidels in its time. She was plain, a little dumpy, her hair cut short, dressed in black slacks and a red blouse open at the collar to expose a big wood-bead hippie necklace. Her ethnicity was anyone’s guess: skin a honey amber, eyes light, nose flat; when she cocked her head between lines, listening for a pick-up, a slight Asian cast fell over her features, then disappeared when she started to blow again, cheeks puffing out into cherry knots, fingers of her big hands dancing over the valves.
My friend’s voice, close to my ear: “The Amazing O,” it said. The voice seemed to emerge from and echo inside my own skull, though it was hardly louder than a whisper. I knew right away that he meant the trumpet, and that the bright, brash sound that had pulled me from the abyss of the stairs into this scourging warmth belonged to the leader of the band.
It was the ace in his sleeve, and he no doubt expected me to be impressed. And I was, to a point. But I couldn’t get over a vague feeling of disappointment. Was I supposed to marvel at the sex of the trumpet player, or the oddness of the space, or the temerity of the voyage? Women in jazz were rare enough, horn players even moreso; but this was a pleasant surprise, not a revelation.
He was looking at me expectantly, so I smiled, and nodded. And then he handed me a drink, and offered a silent toast.
Water. It was water, with a hint of a flavor I couldn’t place, a little sweet, and very cold.
I hadn’t noticed any waitresses. Turning, I saw no bar, at least from what I could tell through the wreaths of smoke that smelled less of cigarettes than a mild incense. It was likely used to hide that other ripe, loamy smell I had caught from the stairs. It would be difficult, I guessed, to keep such a smell out of a bunker like this—who knew what sort of ventilation it had, if any. Bunker didn’t quite capture it; it was more like a burrow, or a termite colony. The walls were the color of wet earth—might have been wet earth, for all I could tell. And then nothing was squared, the ceiling low and curving into the walls, so that the whole place resembled an earthen vault. The tables, all made of rough-hewn wood, scored like the beams of a cabin, were oddly shaped and unevenly spaced, as if they had grown where they stood. As for the solitary patrons, they were old, not just relative to the Lotus-eaters above, but to us, and male, every one of them. They reminded me of the barflies that hung around in the music pubs. Pale, downcast, with grey, thinning hair, they would get up and totter out just as the joint was beginning to fill. I imagined they had gotten trapped down here, maybe years ago. If this was a termite colony, they were the drones; and the being up there on the stage was their queen.
I had been a little distracted, I realized, by the novelty of the female horn player. Now I buckled down and started to listen—to forget the weirdness of the space, and the funny taste of the water, and the chorus of enthralled old men, and my friend’s expectations, and really listen. She was an impressive young player, no doubt about it. She’d taken her solo through a dozen choruses since we’d sat down, and showed no signs of slowing, or the band of reining her in. That said, in a city that seemed to sweat musicians of this caliber, and attracted the rest from all corners of the globe, she was one among many. She had the usual tendency of younger players to overquote or too-closely paraphrase; her style was lumpy with the sounds of older horns, the usual post-bop and contemporary suspects—Hubbard, Peyton, Douglas—though, like the younger Douglas, she wasn’t afraid to play out, sometimes verging into the territory of a Cherry, Bowie, or Ayler. The band was on target, giving her a nice combination of direction and space—but again, I had seen bands as good in far less exotic spaces, surrounded by far less mystery, without any of the cloak-and-dagger stuff of meeting on streetcorners and climbing down manholes. I started to wonder it that wasn’t all it was: a shaggy dog story, with me as the butt of the joke. The proverbial empty coconut shell, into which the duped yokel gazes slackjawed. Or maybe it was a test: he was the one who had come up with the “amazing” epithet, and was waiting for me to call it crap—a garble of post-bop clichés with the occasional Chicago-style “wrong” note thrown in to sound contemporary. And I was on the point of leaning over to ask him if that wasn’t his long-lost sister up there on stage, when I caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. All the eagerness had drained out of his expression; I recognized it immediately as that haggard old face I had seen in the mirror two years before. Something about it made me think of the barflies at the other tables, and the thought made the hair on my arms stand up.
So I turned back to the Amazing O, if for no other reason than to stop thinking the thoughts that had begun to creep up on me. There was still no sign of her slowing down or stopping—if anything, she had gotten louder, and the rest of the band with her; and they had picked up the tempo, too, though these things had happened on such a long arc I only realized them in hindsight. Some of her lines were so extended I wondered where she got the breath. I didn’t notice the puffed cheeks and flaring nostrils that would have suggested circular breathing. Besides, with circular breathing there was usually a corresponding drop in volume.
I can’t quite put my finger on when the change started. Time was hard to measure, without the usual beginnings and endings, shared solos, title announcements. No, it was a wall of sound, monumental and anonymous as a cathedral, and just as calculated to subdue. And I don’t know if it was she who found a groove she’d been looking for, or I who found the groove she was already in, or if it was the two of us, working in tandem. Regardless, I started to notice that her lines had a funny aftertaste. Not bad, like something spoiled. Just something I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t so much her unorthodox approach to phrasing, or even the unexpected enjambments and breaks—those halting, clockwork chromatic runs clipped off on notes most players wouldn’t have dared—as the way the phrases only revealed themselves once they were fully unfolded, and you contemplated them, for the fraction of a second before the next one started, as a totality. They lingered, those phrases, whether in the air or in my mind, as though they had found the natural frequency of either, or both. And then, some time later, who knew how long, I noticed that the bass had started walking less, stumbling more; the drummer mostly gave up on the ride; and O’s artfully-placed wrong notes turned into flurries, set off from each other by long, oddly-shaped drones. But the music didn’t descend into chaos; there was still a center, holding it all together; and that center, I decided, was her. Because her lines, no matter how sinuous or how jagged, seemed to cling to each other according to some broader vision: all those wildly swinging notes flying off in every direction appeared, with some distance, to form a straight line.
At first the change was just an intensely vivid elaboration on my earlier fantasies. For example, that she had gills, or some similar alteration in her biology—it was the only way she could play lines that long. That her horn and her body were fused, so that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began, what was flesh and what brass, or whether she was all some strange new alloy. I realize there’s no way to visualize these things except as monstrous; so how can I even begin to explain that it was beautiful? Maybe by saying it was only an approximation, my mind seeking some visual analog for a phenomenon that was entirely aural.
I know, too, how all this sounds. The funny taste in the water. The mysterious friend to whom I felt an inexplicable attraction. The loneliness, the ennui. Now the strangely ambiguous woman with the horn. Forget the possibility that it was all a hallucination, at least for the moment—there’s nothing less satisfying in a story. The natural conclusion is that I had fallen in love. But this begs the question: In love with what? With the music, or with the woman on the stage? Were they to be distinguished? It was not the woman of an hour before, if it was a woman at all. (An hour? I might as well say a day, or a year. I wouldn’t have been surprised to emerge from this hole into broad daylight, spring flowers. Only I wasn’t thinking of leaving, not yet.) Beautiful it was, the image, yes, of all I desired. I was just surprised at what I desired—at how I had come to desire so many things from which I had once recoiled in terror or disgust. I want to say it was a beauty so transcendent that it rose above all petty differences, enveloping everything and its opposite in a single web of desire. For the music, transform her though it had, had not acted like a fairy godmother’s wand. She was not the princess rising ethereal in a ring of purifying fire. Or not just. She was the spider suffocating its prey in silk, turning and turning it into a gossamar white mummy. She was offal steaming on fallen leaves. She was the river dammed by the bloated bodies of drowned pilgrims, colonies of mushrooms devouring the forest. And then she was the incessant sound of their chewing, the scream caught in the throat the moment the headsman’s ax falls, the eightfold stampede of the spider’s legs as it dashes toward its prey, if we could only be made to hear these things.
But I did. I did.
There was a point after which all such associations and approximations failed me. The more deeply I fell, the less audible the other three instruments became, and the more her presence was magnified, until she loomed before me, solitary and enormous. That star over my head, on which her gaze had so long been fixed, except in those rare moments when she cocked her head to listen, to breathe, her body swaying ever so slightly, something I was sure only I witnessed, I and the horn—it became her as well, at once penetrating and surrounding me. And then it was just she and I, both of us, or neither. Only not just: there was something else, some presence greater than either of us, to whose audience she had admitted me, and to which I, like she, was transparent (it was her transparency that became mine), and which coursed through and around us in a sort of vibrating sea. I might have been a pebble lost in that violently mixing element, or a hundred pebbles, each of them me, yet each unrelated to the next, all small and light enough to float. And even this diffuse me came apart, mingled with everything around, mixed and shaped according to currents of sound that seemed to emanate from nowhere.
In the end, hindsight became impossible; my immersion was so total that the music ceased to unfold in time. At some point I must have shut my eyes, and drawn my knees up to my chest, and curled my body into a tight little ball, although all these things were, like the relative position of my body in space, and the non-passage of time, difficult to ascertain. How can I possibly describe what I heard then, when I can’t even describe what I saw? And then again I only saw what I heard. All I can say is that when I couldn’t take it anymore, I fled—away from that table that was just a table again, empty, and past all those solitary occupants enveloped like desiccated flies in a web, up those stairs, and up again, past the shelter of the bacchanal, and into the bright hard city night. The clouds had lifted, and the streets shimmered, and I fell like a supplicant before the file of streetlights, one happily broken, as the concrete rumbled ever so slightly from a train passing below.
I never saw him again after that night, but her I did—saw her, at least, the way she appeared when I had first arrived. It was almost a year later, and in an entirely different setting. I had tried a few times to go back to that strange subcellar, but could never be sure I had found the right door; and when I believed I had, nobody answered my knock, or went in or out during my hours-long vigil. At the same time, whenever I went out to hear music, I would think I saw her—not the way she had appeared when I first arrived, but as she was, just before I fled. It always happened the same way: my eyes closed, I would hear something that sparked her image; my mouth would suddenly go dry, and my flesh pimple, and my heart start to race. I would open my eyes, and, for just an instant, actually think I saw her. It didn’t need to be the trumpeter—there didn’t even need to be a trumpet. One night it was the drummer. It never lasted for more than a moment. Either she was an illusion, or some greater, more thoroughgoing illusion had interposed itself between she and I. Once it had happened, I found I could no longer interest myself in the music. It was as though it were being played in another room, for other people. I would end up leaving early. This happened enough times that, for a period of several months, I stopped going out, and even stopped listening to music at home, at least with any sort of attention.
And then one evening I went out to a pizza parlor with a few of my coworkers, one of whom I had just started dating, if you could call going out for drinks a few times dating. The last time, I had suggested we go hear music—I had just started listening again with some pleasure, if not the abandon of an earlier time, and mostly at home. She had said she wasn’t a musical person, whatever that meant. Maybe it meant we were already through—if, that is, we had ever really started. Anyway, the place was more than a pizza parlor, it had expanded a few years back into a full-service Italian restaurant, with a wine bar to attract the after-work crowd, and live music on Thursdays and Fridays to keep them there. I was doing my typical one-drink dash, with the usual chorus of disingenuous disapproval when I lay my money on the table and excused myself, promising I would stay later next time, and agreeing that I was lame, all the while watching my ersatz girlfriend out of the corner of my eye. She had sat at the other end of the table and had not looked at me once the whole evening. Still, I couldn’t quite convince myself it was over. I knew I would regret leaving, tonight more than usual, that by the time I was home I would have stopped blaming her and started blaming myself. But regret had never been enough to stop me.
I had just managed to disentangle myself from the good-byes and catcalls and one sloppy hug, and was heading for the door, a little lightheaded, jacket in hand, when I saw her.
It was unmistakably her, her as I had first seen her, her and not-her. It might have been the same band backing her up, for all I could remember of the rest of the musicians. Except that tonight there was a fifth, a singer, who was clearly the main attraction. She—O—followed that singer’s lead like a circus dog, leaping through the smoke rings of her vowels, running up ladders and sliding down chutes, barking whenever the singer snapped her fingers, adding little pirouettes and other flourishes in the margins of her voice. At one point she took a four-bar solo and sat back again. I looked and listened, listened and looked, for something, for anything, that would remind me of that night. This was dinner jazz, part of the general conversation of the unwinding after-workers, who were completely oblivious to the fact that the Amazing O was here, breathing the air they breathed, poised to level the whole place, to raze it to the ground, to transform—and to transform them with her, if they would only give her a moment of their attention. I had imagined that, like me, she would have raged against this, been one great resounding No to everything it represented. And so I couldn’t understand how she could seem so content. She closed her eyes and swung a little while the singer sang, and smiled at the other musicians, who smiled back at her. When she took her solo, a few people at the bar applauded, and she nodded. I applauded, too. I actually counted the number of times my palms met.
And then her gaze lighted on mine.
I can’t really describe how she looked at me, or the feeling that came over me when she did. But I was sure that she recognized me, and that, when she raised her chin ever so slightly, and narrowed her eyes, it was meant as a threat. As though we shared some terrible secret, and this was what she would do if I told. And what was the secret? It was this: that the dumpy little quintet grinding out cheap standards for an indifferent after-work crowd was the real. That the only real thing was the chains holding us to our ugly little lives. That I couldn’t have her. That there was nothing to have but my own wanting.
For a second time I had to look away; and that was when I saw him, or thought I did, in the mirror behind the bar: standing amid the crowd but indifferent to it, focused only on me. He appeared as he had that first time I had seen him in the mirror, and again the last time, in the corner of my eye: haggard, wasted—old—the whole city settled in the flesh of his face, like its map had been impressed there, which was also a map of his past. But there was something else, too, something I hadn’t noticed before: an intense longing, bordering on despair. I was about to turn to him—I had no idea what I would say, except welcome—when the bar erupted into cheers and applause: somebody had scored a touchdown on the TV. It was then, because the noise startled me, because I flinched, that I recognized the face in the mirror was my own.