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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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So here I was, the traffic beginning to move a bit once I got on I-95 in the Baltimore direction, on the very trip for which I had bought that spiritual CD, without even knowing it at the time. But first, there was Billie. I kept a supply of her stuff in my glove compartment, and one of the first discs I pulled out of the holder was “Billie Plays Monk,” from that incredible series (“Billie Plays Basie,” “Billie Plays Ellington,” “Billie Plays Mingus,” “Billie Plays Miles”) that culminated with the posthumously released “Billie Plays Billie,” one of the all-time best-selling albums in the modern jazz repertoire. Holding the disc in front of me, glancing down at the photograph that made her look so gamine-like and vulnerable, I could hear her saying, “Not bad, for a lame white bitch, hey?”

All the way past Baltimore and on toward New Jersey, I listened to her out-Monking Monk. Hours later, I was still listening to her while skimming across the George Washington
Bridge and driving into the upper reaches of New York City, emerging from the wreckage of the Bronx on either side of the road as though from a dream I scarcely remembered.

Billie, I said to her in my mind, what did I know of you and what did you know of me?

It wasn't until I crossed the border into Connecticut that I thought of slipping in the Hindu disc. Normally, as I said, I would have put on some of the usual crap, the Clancy or the King or one of their second-tier imitators like Harold whateeverhis-name or Dean Koontz. But I had run out of that junk, and was left with the prospect of silence, or more Billie (and by that time I was, I have to admit, Billied-out), or the
Bhagavad Gita.

I probably should have chosen the silence, since because of my work, as I might have mentioned, it was often that state that I desired most. But instead, as if some larger hand were guiding me, I chose the
Gita.

If you don't know that story, and since you grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition you may not, it's easy enough to outline it to you. This hero named Arjuna is driven in a chariot onto a battlefield in a war between his clan and another and when he reaches the no-man's land between the two armies he refuses to fight. At which point his chariot driver (who is God in disguise) begins to speak to him about life and death and everything in between.

Good things to listen to while you're driving through Connecticut, which seems like a strange mix of country green and strip-mall white.

I am the taste in water,

the light in the moon and sun,

the sacred syllable Om

in the Vedas, the sound in the air…

Om, I said to myself as I rode along. Om…, remembering it, I think, from some Allen Ginsberg concert I had helped stage at Rutgers many years before.

I am the fragrance in the earth,

the manliness in men, the brilliance

in fire, the life in the living,

and the abstinence in ascetics…

“Om,” I was saying now quite loud, “Ooooommmm…”

A little further along, as I was turning north onto Interstate 93, God said,

Because most men are deluded

by the states of being, they cannot

recognize me, who am

above these, supreme, eternal…

“Om,” I said. “Ooooommmm…”

God said:

I permeate all the universe

in my unmanifest form.

All beings exist within me,

yet I am so inconceivably

vast, so beyond existence,

that though they are brought forth

and sustained by my limitless power,

I am not confined within them…

“Om,” I said, enjoying the sound no end, “Ooooommmmmmm…”

By that time I was approaching the little green Massachusetts college town where Ceely, still in the steel grip of grief, had set fire to a baby grand piano.

It was late afternoon when I checked into the hotel and was given what the young woman at the desk assured me was
the last available room. I called Ceely's number and listened to a fragment of Billie's tune “Jew-Bop,” whose title, when the album with the tune first appeared, had nearly started a war in the pages of the
New York Times
arts section. I left a message and then lay back on the bed. I was hungry, really hungry, but I didn't want to miss Ceely's call so I decided to close my eyes and stay put a while.

I dreamed a little, but I won't go into them here, since, like most dreams, they were fairly confusing and inconsequential and by the time I awoke to the ringing of the telephone I couldn't remember much of them anyway.

“Hello?” I said.

“Father.” (That's what she called me, like something out of an English drawing room, and I've never understood why, but I forgive her.)

“Honey, honey, about time,” I said, and told her I would meet her at her dorm in fifteen minutes.

I am the vital fire

in the bellies of all men…

The CD started up when I turned on the car and left the hotel parking lot. I turned it off and drove through the little town toward the campus. Students roamed the streets, as if looking for something that might put their wandering souls to rest. It was early evening, early spring, and I was hungry, and I was going to rescue my only child, and I had buried her mother (well, you know, she was cremated, etc.), my own parents had been dead almost a decade now but suddenly right there in the downtown street I missed them both terribly, and I was mostly indifferent to my wife's nipples, and I had to pee—I should have peed before I left the room—and I didn't know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

When I arrived, my daughter was pacing up and down on the porch of the student house where a few other young women sat smoking or leaning on the railings, while a bulky mahogany-skinned young fellow in a blue coat and cap appeared to be standing guard. As soon as she saw me, Ceely gave a toss of her beautiful long blonde hair and flicked her cigarette over the railing and came striding toward me wearing what I thought at first was one white glove.

I am not an extremely tall man, and Billie was by anybody's standards pretty much of a half-pint—until she sat down at the piano stool or, to be honest, when she climbed into bed in a romantic mood—so how we produced this tall blonde string-bean of a daughter I can't figure without putting sound aside for a while and taking up the study of genetics. Here she was, sleek and sylph-like, opening the car door and sliding gracefully onto the seat.

“Father, this is Rashid,” she said, and it was only then that I realized that the bulky guy in blue denim had followed her to the car. When he leaned in to speak to me I saw that the cap that I had figured for part of a security guard's uniform bore the inscription “Jumping Jack Flash” (and I forgive Rashid for that). Scrolling out from beneath the cap were tight dark curls and he had an appealing half-smile on his face that allowed me to see his sparkling but somewhat crooked white teeth.

“Mr. Swanson,” he said, sticking out his hand across Ceely's chest.

“Hi,” I said, shaking his hand briefly and then letting go. The faint odor of gasoline hovered in the enclosed air.

“He saved my ass,” Ceely said (so much for the English drawing room). “Or my arm, anyway,” she added, holding out her bandaged hand. “Rashid got me to the infirmary right away.”

That's how the three of us came to be seated in that Italian restaurant, the two of them talking me through Ceely's story while I wolfed down a large plate of thin spaghetti and tomato sauce and large chunks of bread and a salad. They had eaten, they could talk. And I let them, feeling both pleased and annoyed that it wasn't just Ceely and me, because she and I had grown quite distant ever since her mother and I had divorced (when she was three) and the distance had been compounded in an incalculable way by her mother's death. And while dinner for just the two of us would have been a rare opportunity for us to talk, a particularly important opportunity, I had to admit, since she had just committed that outrage here at school, I figured that we would have more than plenty of time on the drive home, and that Rashid deserved some reward for assisting her in her hour of need.

It became pretty clear that he was almost a hero. He was the one who followed her to the music hall when she had the gas can in hand, and he was the one who tried to wrestle it away from her, spilling gas all over his best new baggy jeans and hiking boots. And he was the one who, after she managed to splash the fluid across the top of the piano and flicked on a borrowed cigarette lighter and ignited the stuff, pulled her back from the flames and rushed her to the infirmary with her third-degree burns. (Though there was something about him that I didn't like, something I just couldn't put my finger on.)

“My God,” I said, “she could have burnt herself alive.”

“Father,” Ceely said, sipping the soda she had reluctantly ordered since she was not yet old enough to drink, “that was what I wanted to do.”

I listened in astonishment as she explained how she had planned the event, first going to the local Wal–Mart and buying a gasoline can, and then walking to the nearest gas station to fill
the can, as if she had just run out of fuel up the road, and then meeting Rashid, who helped her to sneak in to the concert hall.

“How could you have done this?” I said as much to him as to her. I knew how she could have, she was so despondent about her mother's death. But him? All I had to do was look at the way he gazed at her and it was pretty clear. He worshiped her. If she had asked him to help her burn the town hall or assassinate the president, he would have willingly gone along.

I forgive him. Because as attractive as she was, it wasn't just Ceely who lured him along. It was her mother. Young black college student, smart (you could see this in his eyes almost immediately), sensitive, raised on jazz (as he told me while I was making the near-fatal mistake of drinking a second coffee at the end of the meal), madly in love in a puppy dog sort of way with Ceely (and who wouldn't be? just look at her and your heart leaps), and when he learns who her mother was, his heart goes crazy, and he's attached to her for what he views as life.

He was almost a hero in all this. Almost, because without the pot that he had supplied she never would have gotten so stoned that she would have gone ahead with her cockamamie plan in the first place. But there he was, right at her side, not playing the part of the voice of reason and saying, Ceely, Ceely, this is stupid, this is wrong, but rather, in his stoned innocent way, saying, Yeah, this is a tribute, girl, a way to honor her, your mother she was so cool you'll make this real hot for the bourgeois bitches at the college.

I understood the pot logic of it all. Billie and I spent our entire short marriage stoned out of our minds. Pot brought good cheer into the world, it made some punishingly straight lines waver a little, it made you laugh.

But in this case I wasn't laughing.

I got the check and paid for dinner and drove them back to Ceely's house and told her to be ready to meet me at nine the next morning. And to be packed by then and ready to leave. It was a long drive home and I wanted to get started on the early side.

“Home?” she said, looking at me as though the word were in a foreign language.

“Yes,” I said. “Home. You're coming to stay with us for a while.”

And it was only then, when the light of the street-lamp near her house reflected in a funny way in her eyes, that I realized that she was still stoned.

“See you in the morning, sir,” Rashid said and then turned and led Ceely back to the house.

Women rule the world, don't you think? I mean, superficially it's run by men, but when you strip away all the crap there they are, the true law-givers and truth-makers. I was thinking that while watching Ceely walk away, thinking how mothers (unless they kill themselves with a hot-shot) keep their daughters all their lives, but men have to watch them walk away on the arms of reasonably pleasant but morally oblivious young college boys who supply them with the pot that keeps them calm while they try to burn baby grand pianos in honor of their mothers' death.

Nobody prepares a man for this, I was thinking as I returned to the hotel and got ready for bed. I was, as I mentioned at the start, fairly well exhausted.

After I had finished in the bathroom I called home.

Charmaine answered in her familiar sleep voice.

“I was dozing,” she said. “So how did it go?”

I gave her a short version of the events, leaving out the stuff about my own emotions and the drugs.

“She's coming back?”

Silence.

“Char—”

“I'm here. I'm just thinking.”

“What's to think?”

“Where will I put her?”

“Where she always stays, where else?”

“I mean, where will I put her in my head.”

I tried to talk her through this. But it didn't do much good. We both pretended to be happy by the time we completed the call. I was not happy. But I did expect that I would have a good night's sleep.

I had forgotten about drinking that cup of coffee after dinner. That gave me the sort of buzz, the kind that goes on for a while after you turn out the lights. I lay there a while. Then I got up. I peed. I drank water. I went back to bed. And since I'm a sound man, I lay there a while and I listened to what lay beneath the silence.

The faint susurration of water in the hotel pipes. Was it hot? Was it cold? My mind had calmed to the point where this seemed like an interesting question. A line from the recording drifted into my thoughts:
“I am the taste in the water…”
The elevator cranked its way between the floors and then stopped. Its door slid open…and then clanked shut. Footsteps. Fading. The music of the pipes hushed loud again in my ear, against the faint underbeat of my pulse. In the distance beyond the hotel, suddenly a siren, wailing loud, and then fading as a police car chased some local hot-rodders.

BOOK: The Fires
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