Rubicon

It was late, two a.m. when Hank finished a long session with a canvas. The painting had gone well. For months, his creativity had been missing in action, and then, the morning before, it was back, a high tide rushing over the wall of his resistance and drowning it. He stepped out into the Greenwich Village night shimmering with the lights of Manhattan in the distance. Tired, exhausted, yes, but also intoxicated with the exhilaration of the work. It was pointless for him to try for bed. It would be hours before he could sleep.

The excitement from the session was in his footsteps. He didn’t exactly stroll but walked briskly over one cobblestone street after another until he reached Albert’s, a cozy little bar only a few blocks from his studio. It had become a favorite haunt of his since he moved into the Village.

He went down the stairs and through the cellar door and into the tavern. A few regulars still hung around, some listening to the piano, some lightly filling the room with their conversations of broken dreams and false hopes. A thin haze of cigarette smoke from an earlier crowd lingered in the air. Pushing through the fog and making his way to the bar, he gave a nod to the only waitress working the room. She was the owner of the establishment and her name was Alice. She smiled a glad-to-see-you-back.

Above the bar hung one of his paintings, an oil dark brown, blue and green of a ferry heading in from Staten Island under a light purple sky, the first one he sold after he settled in the Village. The bartender said, “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee.” Rudy, a middle-aged man with a bit of a paunch, lived with Alice, had been with her for over ten years.

Rudy started the coffee and continued to dry the freshly washed glasses, facing Hank as he readied them for the next night’s patrons. “You been away for a couple of months.” It was more of a question than a statement. “Duchess was getting worried.” Duchess was his nickname for Alice.

“Haven’t been able to get it up for months,” Hank said. “That is, until yesterday.”

“Well, I’m here to tell you that you look like your old Hank self.”

“I go into the studio yesterday morning and boom, I’m back. Fifteen hours later, and you know what? I can’t figure where the time went. I haven’t been this psyched and ready for trouble for quite some time.”

“Fifteen hours?”

“When I get going, I go sometimes for days before a break. It’s like it’s raining and I don’t want the rain to stop. ‘Bring it on,’ I say. ‘Cause I know that if I quit I may never get that hard-on back. The muse, she don’t let you screw around. You’re either hers or you’re not. And, if you’re not, she won’t give you the time of day.”

Rudy sat a mug of hot coffee down in front of Hank, then left the artist to his thoughts. He knew his regulars. Some liked to sit and throw their troubles out and see where they landed. Others, and Hank belonged to this clan, liked to sit alone with their drinks and take things in.

Hank faced the woman at the piano finishing her set, doing a last song for the night. He had not seen her in the bar before. He enjoyed her playing enough to drop his thoughts about the session and concentrate on the music. It was Cole Porter coming from the piano. He wasn’t sure which Cole Porter but he was sure that it was one of his compositions. He had taken to the composer the way some men take to the sea.

Just the sound of one of his songs and he was off to his days in Paris. He and Cosette strolling along the banks of the Seine, families walking their dogs, mothers pushing strollers, boys chasing frisbees, kites rising above the landscape that was the City of Lights. The leaves falling on a perfect day. A man could drown in a memory like that.

Hank shook the memories away. It was time to let go of Paris. And Cosette. Three years was way too long to grieve for the loss of a marriage.

The woman at the piano looked through the dissipating smoke and over his way and smiled. He smiled back. Playing the last notes of the song, she said her goodnights to her audience.

The black cocktail dress eased her way across the room and next to him. “Scotch,” she said. Rudy nodded at her request. She leaned over and whispered into Hank’s ear, “Do you think people go to heaven? I mean, if they commit suicide?”

“When I do myself in,” he mumbled, then a little clearer, “I’ll send a message in a bottle back to you.”

“Think that will be any time soon?”

“Certainly hope not. But you never can tell,” he said, pulling a little away from her.

The pianist gave Hank that kind of look that people have when they come to a fork in the road and haven’t a clue which road to take other than flipping for it or using an eeny-meeny-miny-moe to make a choice.

The two went quiet, sitting at the bar next to each other, each settling into his thoughts, each losing themselves in their own subterranean world, each sipping his drink, each sitting on the brink of something about to happen, each waiting.

She took her lipstick out of a small, black purse and moistened her lips, touching them lightly with color. He watched, fascinated at the obscene thing she did with her mouth. Then she finished her scotch.

She leaned over toward his ear again and whispered another thing, a tinge of Brooklyn in her voice. “Want to do it?”

The soft, husky voice offering the invitation sent a thrill surging through his body. He wasn’t tired anymore, and Cosette was no longer anywhere to be found in his thoughts. If he wanted to move on, this was his chance. And it might be his last one, the grip of his Parisian life continuing to hold him with its vise.

“Is that an offer I can’t refuse?” he said, his face almost touching her face, his breath joining the rhythm of her breath.

“Why don’t you follow me and find out?”

She gestured to Rudy, and he passed her coat over to her. She started for the door, then turned to Hank and gave him her best Mae West, “You coming, big boy?”

He pulled himself off his stool and joined her, still hesitant but moving quickly to a decision.

Wrapping her arms around his, she kissed him, pushing her lips into his as if it was her last kiss. It was a Circe of a kiss that would make a man forget all his former loves and long for the bliss of it when it was a kiss no more. It was a deep kiss.

Her lips released his and her arms dropped to her side. He took several breaths to catch his breath.

“I’m Dorothy”.

“Hank,” he said, unable to come up with anything else to say. Her kiss had sucked all the other words from his vocabulary. He wasn’t even sure who this Hank was anymore.

“Hank?” she said, pulling her coat over her slender body.

“It short for Henri. I don’t like Henri but my mother did.”

Her face now had a question on it.

“She wanted an artist for a son. She chose Henri. Matisse’s first name.”

“Matisse, huh? Maybe you can paint my portrait. All in red and yellow. I like those colors.”

The two of them made it to the tavern door. Hank wasn’t sure how he got there but there he was.

“”You’ll be my first Henri,” she said.

He went to pull the door open and someone in the bar heard her say, “I have a good feeling about this. An old black magic kind of feeling.” Then she hummed the first bars of “Where or When.” The door closed behind them.

She looked up at the New York City night sky. Hank’s eyes followed her eyes.

“It’s going to be a bewitching, bothering and bewildering night.”

“What makes you say that?” He took her hand.

“’Cause the moon is full and it’s our time to fly,” she said, then she laughed. It was a laugh that said something is coming. She reached down and took his hand and felt his glove.

“You’re not trying to be Michael Jackson, are you?”

“No,” he answered, still struggling for words.

“Even so, maybe we can do some moon walking ourselves tonight.”

They began their walk back to the apartment above his studio. Hank had known love but he had never known sex. Least not the wild, uncontrollable sex they had that night. And the next night. And the night after that.

He was twenty-five; she was thirty. Within a week, she was his model. Within two weeks, they were living together. Within a month, they were married. Then the minute after they said their I-dos, he knew they had made a mistake. She knew it too. But neither of them were cowards. There was no going back. For better or worse, they had crossed their Rubicon.

R J and Euterpe

Robert Johnson’s birthday is on Sunday, May 8th. Happy birthday, RJ.

Headlights streamed through the bedroom curtains and hit R J in the eyes. He shook the sleep from his eyes, then turned to the woman at his side on the bed.

“Clara,” he said, then louder. “Clara.”

The pickup stopped in the driveway outside.

“What?” she said, angry at being woken from her dream.

“I thought you said that your husband would be out of town all week.”

The headlights went off.

“Oh, shit. R J, you gotta get out of here.”

R J was already out of the bed and in his pants. He grabbed his shirt and his shoes. He leaned over and kissed her thick brown lips. “Be seeing you.”

He shoved the window up and threw his clothes out into the back yard. Halfway through the bedroom window, he remembered Euterpe. He ran across the room and picked the guitar up. The front door opened just as R J went through the window.

He heard Clara call out to her man, “That you, Hon?”

The husband called from the living room, “Who else you expectin’?”

“You, baby,” Clara said.

R J had his shirt and shoes on. He sneaked past the side of the house and then headed out to the street. Before he knew it, he was three blocks away and out of danger. He checked his watch by the streetlight. It was still early. Only ten p.m. He had enough time to make the appointment he had been offered. He shrugged his shoulders with a why-not and headed on out toward the countryside.

A half hour later he left the town behind him, making his way down the country road. The night was dark, no stars and no moon. Only the blacktopped road guided his feet.

R J came upon a bit of a forest. He stepped into the trees. If things were dark on the roadway, they were even darker among the trees. What was he doing? He didn’t need nobody to help him play Sweet Euterpe. He played that guitar just fine.

As he progressed, the oaks and the pines turned gnarly. They gave him the willies, that feeling they were trying to reach out and grab him and squeeze the dickens out of him. It was as if the forest was haunted. There were owls. There were the cries of wolves in the distance. Each of R J’s steps crunched something that didn’t sound quite like leaves. He was not about to reach down and feel the undergrowth. He advanced quickly, pushing back branches and vines that hesitated his progress. Without warning, he stumbled into a clearing. He dropped the case holding Euterpe to the ground.

It was not just any kind of old clearing. This was a clearing where the four winds met. This was a clearing where wizards were known to gather. This was a clearing where the supernatural and the natural encounter each other. This was a clearing where magic was done, and black magic at that.

R J advanced into the clearing, and he saw that the moon and the stars had come out of their closet. In the center of the clearing, four roads met. The road to the north, the road to the east, the road to the south, the road to the west. It was as if they were the four rivers out of Eden.

At the meeting place of the four was a giant stump, a stump as old as the world may have been. Upon the stomp sat a beautiful woman. She wore a long dress of the whitest and purest satin. Her golden hair fell down around her body. The glow pouring from her face put the light of the moon to shame.

“R J, what you expectin’?” she asked from her place on that stomp. “The devil?”

“Y-y-y-yes.” His teeth chattered with fear. It was that kind of fear that came from the preachers when they stormed their congregations with visions of hell. He’d heard their sermons many a time and he knew all the way down to his toes that he didn’t want none of that hell.

“Do I look like an Old Scratch? Do I look like Satan?”

“N-n-no, ma’am.”

“‘Course I do not. I want you to know I have had my eye on you a long time. The way you play Miss Euterpe there. Well, it’s like you play like that Orpheus who lived a long time ago. He played so good, he got Mr. Hades hisself to surrender Orpheus’ one-and-only Eurydice.”

R J turned to look back to see where he dropped his Sweet Euterpe. It was not at the edge of the clearing. He looked down at his feet. There at the side of his right foot was the guitar out of its case and lying flat on the earth.

“Come and show me how you can play the beauty,” the woman’s voice beckoned him to the stomp.

R J did not hesitate. Any chance to show his stuff and he was ready. Euterpe flew out of the case and into his hands. He strode to the stomp. The woman offered him a place to sit beside her. He accepted.

Euterpe rested on R J’s lap and under his right arm, ready for the music about to be. Her master’s left fingers turned the tuning pegs a few notches, then the fingers made a run down the fret and toward the rosette and they returned to the center of the fret. It was then that the fingers on his right hand began their dance on the strings of the guitar. The fingers on the strings above the fret turned wild. The woman watched, her eyes growing larger than the moon. It was the midnight hour and R J was bewitching the witch.

She jumped off the stomp and her feet took her round and round, her hands cavorting above her body. The music grew wilder and wilder. Her dance too grew as wild as the wildest of things. The dress dropped to the ground.

Deep into the night R J played, his music frenzied, then dropped into a softness like a feather falling slow and peaceful-like to the grass below. The sound landed easily to a finale. The woman capitulated, surrendering to the gravity that held her to the earth. She lay exhausted on the ground, laughing, ecstatically laughing. She had been right to choose R J,  and this was the night to choose him.

Naked, she rose from the earth and walked to the Orpheus before her. She reached into the stomp and drew out a chalice and a dagger. The dagger’s blade pricked her finger and red blood dropped into the cup. She raised dagger and cup to the sky, then chanted the words of an ancient tongue.

Lowering the cup, she offered it to R J. “Drink, drink, my brother,” her voice commanded.

R J took the chalice and greedily quaffed down the nectar, draining the cup of its liquid. He went to return it to the woman. But she was gone. The moon was gone. The stars were gone. The clearing was gone. The chalice was gone from his hand. He was sitting on the side of the road, Euterpe on his lap.

R J did the only thing he knew how to do. That night and into the dawn, he soothed the sweetest blues out of his Euterpe ever heard by man or beast.

Tough Guy Makes Good

Back in the Very Old School days, there was a stock character. He was the Tough Guy. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood played that role. But there were few actors who could pull off the Jinxed Tough Guy the way Frank Sinatra could. From his performance in “From Here to Eternity” to “Young at Heart” to “Pal Joey”, Sinatra made us feel for this tough guy who could break your heart.

Sure, there were Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. But it was Sinatra who gave us the underside of the tough-guyness. He taught us not to envy those guys, but feel compassion for them.

Few movies capture the vulnerability and the sensitivity of this jinxed character than Young at Heart. From the moment that Sinatra shows up at Doris Day’s front door, there is doom and gloom written all over him. There’s no way this guy is good for an All-American girl like Doris. No way you’d let your daughter marry him, much less date him. Sinatra’s Barney Sloan steps through that door and casts his dark shadow over Doris’ sweetness and light for the rest of the movie.

There is one scene that gives the viewer the essence of Frank Sinatra. He is at the piano in a bar, singing “One for my baby”. This is a singer who gives us his loneliness and his vulnerability all in less than three minutes.

When I first saw this scene, I was hooked on Sinatra, and this is the Sinatra I continue to listen to. Nobody has ever given me a definition of loneliness the way Sinatra did in this one scene. In those few minutes, Sinatra just breaks your heart.

What is the hardest thing about being alone?

My dancing feet

Jumped out of bed
For the day ahead
My dancing feet
Wouldn’t let me sleep
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Out the door
And ready to roar
My dancing feet
Hitting the street
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Steppin’ out
Without a doubt
My dancing feet
HItting the street
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Rain or shine
Turn on a dime
My dancing feet
Kicking up a beat
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Show my stuff
Sure enough
My dancing feet
Seven days a week
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Day is done
I’ve run my run
My dancing feet
They’re dancing suite
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

Close my eyes
To lullabies
My dancing feet
On dreamland street
O-o-o-o my dancing feet

The Night I Saw Shannon Naked

I closed the book Dubliners, the words of the story “Araby” lingered in my mind. It brought back memories of my first love, maybe my only love, though I have loved several women since. Her name was Shannon after the River Shannon in Ireland. Though she was not Irish and had no Irish blood in her as far as I knew, still she was named for the river the Irish call Abha na Sionainne. I was in the fourth grade and she was my baby sitter.

She sat afternoons with my sister and me after school, watched over us and kept us out of trouble until my mother came home from her job in the cotton mill. Some afternoons she played the piano my mother kept insisting I practice on. Her fingers made their graceful way across the keyboard, giving voice to the notes Beethoven wrote. It was such a lovely sound that it always moved me, sometimes to tears, sometimes filling me with joy. Even today, I cannot hear Beethoven without stopping and letting my imagination recreate those moments when Shannon sat at the piano.

About six, Mother came through the door and hugged us, not once but twice, as if she was making sure we were real and not something from her imagination. Then Shannon gathered up her things and off she disappeared into the evening. The setting sun created a glow around her that made me think of the angel in the picture above my mother’s bed.

I returned Dubliners to its place on the bookshelf. My wife out of town and off tending to her sick sister, I had the house alone. It was getting late and there would be an early morning the next day. All that was left for me to do was let the dog out for one quick run around the yard, then it would be bed for both of us.

The night had turned chilly, so I ran with the dog to keep warm. Five minutes of this running and she was ready to come in for the night. I lay down in my bed with the Irish terrier at its foot. But it was not a night for sleep. It was a night for ghosts.

Not meaning to I had betrayed my first love. One night I sneaked out and followed her home. I was desperate to know her better. Where did she live? Who was her family? She walked a half mile or so until she came to a beat-up old trailer. It was unpainted and rusting, its door only half hinged to the front. I peeked through a window and looked into the interior. Only shadows made by the moonlight revealed what was inside.

She went to a cabinet and pulled out a glass and filled it with water. Slicing a loaf of bread, that was her supper. She got up and walked over to a nearby dresser. For the first time, I realized one leg was shorter than the other. Her back to me, she pulled the pins out of the bun on her head, her black hair falling, falling to the floor like an endless stream of water. She undid the necklace around her neck and laid it out before her. I watched, fascinated, yet also curious to see the real Shannon as she removed her makeup, rinsed her face, dropped her dress.

A fallen branch snapped under my foot. Shannon faced me. No, I couldn’t believe it. It could not be. It was her face, but it wasn’t her face. Horrified at what I had seen, I dashed home as fast as I could.

Though I never saw Shannon again, I am haunted by that night and how I broke the heart of the woman I loved. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up to the sound of music as her fingers touch the keys of my mother’s piano downstairs.