I thought I saw Jeff Buckley in the river that night. I waded out in the wake and was but a few strokes from catching up with the ghost.
He was out there—of this much I am certain—and in pursuit I looked back to see the girls walk down to the water, peering out into the darkness, looking for us. It was a bastard current brought me back to the beach, but that which has returned is but half of he who ventured out; I was cleaved by a current in opposition. I emerged from the dark water, newly amphibious, feeling my feet planted firmly on solid ground, while part of me remains aqueous and swims now with my dream brother.
The man danced the Tango in the evenings. At six o'clock, he dressed, combed his hair into place, and in the foyer he put on his coat and his hat. The man's son was sixteen and played guitar in a band which rehearsed in the adjacent room. Before he left one evening, the man stood in the foyer and watched his son, and a smile of contentment was born on the man's face. For not so long ago, the man had been a boy. He too had played the guitar in a band, and he remembered watching his father dress by the door in coat and hat on his way out to dance in the evenings. The man stood watching his son, who looked up from his music and to the man, suddenly unsure of himself and his instrument. As the band played on, the man smiled lovingly at his son, and approached him to whisper into the boy's ear:
I remember sitting on the windowsill of my apartment in the Dogpatch, listening to the train roll on. Some six months previous, at a strange gathering in the fog, I'd made the acquaintance of an old opera star by the name of Claude Margot. He was a man of immense talent and grandiose vision, and from a Castro victorian he had created and coddled an eccentric community of artists starving for the soul of the world. I was taking a crack at making it as a singer/songwriter in San Francisco, and Claude had sold me on a path to stardom, which I'd always felt destined for in a funny sort of way. Claude's studio pianist was a fellow named Jackie Molineaux. Jackie and I were fast friends, and when we weren't working with Claude we took to composing together in his basement flat beneath an old mansion on Webster Street. Jackie is a brilliant artist and a tortured soul; in tandem with his delirium is an oblique grace. He was embroiled in a torrid love affair with Ray Gentry, another SF piano man with whom he studied and fucked for two hours each day. Immediately prior to their liaison, Jackie would experience a particular psychasthenia which saw him a veritable wreck, scurrying around the basement and cursing Ray, sliding intermittently onto the piano bench behind his fingers to hammer out lines of great harmonic and rhythmic complexity...Naturally, it was during this time when our work was scheduled.
Jackie introduced me to Ray one evening outside a bar we'd been playing. Ray sat on the hood of a '64 Impala, parked in the red, a Camel cigarette dangling from his lips. Jackie was a skiff in Claude Margot's turbulent seas, tossed around at his fickle beck and call---but Ray was an ivory-tickling hustler with a uniform gig. He played the Stratford Hotel, six nights a week, made very decent money for it, too. But such was Ray's genius and generosity that---excepting his chariot---he paid absolutely no mind to keeping up appearances. His suits always looked slept in, and though Jackie had told me of various properties he owned along the coast, he holed himself up in a tiny street-level studio on Polk Street. Ray and I quickly hit it off; I loved his earnest and neurotic demeanor; he was kind and inspired---and one helluva musician. I began splitting time between his place and Jackie's, as much for the study in character and contrast as for the musical tutelage.
Whereas Jackie's flat was tidy and immaculate, Ray's place was in shambles---and this was the way he liked it. The place was packed---floor to ceiling---with records, music books and scores, cassette tapes and CDs, arranged in precarious towers, along each wall and winding into dining nook. In the center of it all sat a Steinway Grand. It was clear that he resided in this space---yet I never saw a bed, futon, or anything else suggesting sleep. If his mistress was his music, his consort was his kitten. Her name was Dulcinea. He tended to her with no fewer than eight food dishes, placed arbitrarily around the apartment, and cat food is scattered on top of piano and ground into rugs, and on account of this the stench of feline greeted me upon arrival and trailed on me as I departed each day. I'd ring the bell (at least thrice) and Ray would dash out in bare feet, pulling up pants perpetually wanting for a belt, let me in and then rush back inside ahead of me to fiddle with a tune or refill Dulcinea's dishes or tend to something on the stove. There was always something cooking, and frequently boiling over.
It got even more interesting when he'd shelter struggling friends, such as Alvin Yen, a willowy fellow pianist with long hair and exceedingly delicate features. Alvin's presence invariably triggered Jackie's biting jealousy, and when Ray would pass off a gig to Alvin at the hotel, Jackie made a point to pop into the hotel to complain about the tasteless floozy at the piano. When Alvin stayed with Ray, he was accompanied by a pair of weimaraners. But I never heard Ray say a coarse word about any of it. He blithely accepted the storm, sat in the eye of it, and played on.
Autumn at last, to subdue the southern summer, bloody summer of 2016. Out on the back steps as evening falls in Central City, New Orleans, taking another crack at it. If I could just shake the time---beginnings, endings, present, past---well, it all becomes a bit easier to get down...
Keith says we're drowning in the jungle. I've spent enough time battling the current; I want to make like the Moken and be one with the water. I've got 31 years under my belt, and not a whole lot to show for it, excepting what's actually under my belt. But you know how it is. Seeing is believing, so they say, so I guess I'm still looking for someone to believe in me. Someone to be leavin me ;)
I've proved thus far to be a fickle human. It’s not something I'm proud of, but it's served, if not always to move me forward. Consequently, I'm sitting here, drinking beer and scribbling. It's been curious, this past decade and change: Sometimes I feel as if I've lived seven lifetimes, and then sometimes it's all a blur. I've had the good fortune to have been raised well, by kind and luminous humans, and I live each day by their example, in wonder and with gratitude. But excepting all this, I'm still toiling in filthy, low-wage jobs; debt is piling up; my famously dark hair has another gray each day. I've always thought potential to be a curious concept---but I've got to actualize something here.
I concede that change takes time---is inevitable, even; it's a wayward hustle that's my fodder here. Above all, I know that I am fortunate. But I still look to the night sky and say a prayer to Polaris. One fine morning---
So I beat on, south of sin. It's a practical matter when you get down to it. Bound or blogged, from inside the amber, to write and to live, to walk that line...
In the garden, sipping the blood of the Earth, Chateau Rombus 2010 Merlot. There is nothing but life, imbibing itself in gravitational revolutions, rhythmic cyclones whirling on into the abyss of Time.
The garden, the womb revisited, paradise lost---and the apples have about two weeks to go, my father says. Out of work? Never! Like the apples, I am only just ripening. If you think I'm good now, just wait until you taste me this summer. She whispers this to me from Valparaiso. She whispers it to me from Memphis. She whispers it from Jerusalem and Vilnius and Nairobi.
She whispers it to me from Mariposa. My Nonno heard it back in '55, and from a small village in Northern Italy he went West with his young family and settled in my hometown. I say ciao to the gaggle in the garden---my mother Mariella and father Hank; my aunt Nini and uncle George; my sister Callie and our beloved mutt Bacchus---and slip out the garden gate. Charlie is back around again, staying at the house in his latest attempt to get clean and go straight. In the side alley, sitting on one of Hank's woodpiles amidst the flowering jasmine, he drags deep on a Camel. Don’t tell on me, he says and grins sheepishly and I giggle and hop on my bicycle. It is summer in California and I am off to see my girl.
She was the Castle Road princess, and I have loved her at least since our first remembered acquaintance, at seven years old, in the forest at summer camp. I was the wastrel from the wrong side of the tracks. Her parents smiled politely and even extended her curfew to midnight---but when the Debutante Ball rolled around she was advised to set her sights higher and look elsewhere for a date.
The family home was a gargantuan compound in the foothills, bordered by tall black gates and garden walls which I'd scale in the dark to sneak to her embrace, or else she'd hop them to come to me, but some nights we'd just lay on the hood of her classic Mercedes in the drive, daring her daddy to make a scene.
I ride in the moonlight alongside oaks adumbrated, garages and lumberyards, across the railroad tracks, through the park and up into the hills. I turn into the service alley along the rear of the property and rest my bicycle in the ivy covering the garden wall. She's taken up residence for the summer in the guest apartment above the garage, just inside of the back gate. From the shadows of the alley I look up to the well-lit kitchen, ceiling fan spinning, Wes Montgomery wafting out of the open windows. Just as I had so many years ago, I scoop up pebbles from puddles of moonlight and toss them gently up at the glass. She steps to the window, sentimental, incredulous. The gate is unlocked, she says flatly. I bite my lip and drop my head, kick rocks to the gate and scramble over it anyway, ripping my t-shirt on the dismount.
Amos Bankhead is a writer and deckman in an Uruguayan fishing village, contributing pseudonymous work to various publications.