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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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I sighed, breathed, thought of Ceely asleep in her dorm bed only a quarter of a mile from here. Was she lying there in the arms of young Rashid? What was it about him that I didn't like? I
pushed the thought away, and my mind drifted again along the shushing water pipes, the noise like drum brushes washing beneath a bass line, “Blues for F,” I was thinking, Billie, her face, her nipples, Ceely's…And then I admitted to myself that I couldn't stand Rashid because he was the same age as Billie's deadly last boyfriend.

I was lying there, simmering in my hate and despair, and I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember is the slamming of a door.

Where was it? Was I dreaming? I sat up and listened, muffled sounds coming through the wall behind the head of my bed.

A woman's voice, with a man's bass rumbling beneath it.

The woman again. Water running, shifting of furniture.

I lay back, sank back into the near-silence.

I drifted off again.

And then it began.

On the other side of the wall (her voice clear, his voice muffled throughout).

Oh, Jack.




Jackie, honey…

Got you…

Feels so goo—



So good…




Jack, come on…

I'm com—

Jackie, no, no…

Can't it…

More, more…


Now, now…

Oh, I…

Now, yes, yes…

Hold a…






Thumping, bumping, like animals tumbling between the walls. At first I listened with a sort of prurient sympathy, no more amazed at the noise of it all than if I had been a child awakened in the night by his parents' lovemaking. This was life in the raw, I said to myself, two people going at it in a room in the dark in an early spring New England night.




A long time went by, and my amazement grew, not just at the fact of it, but at their stamina. They were like horses, they were like lions, and they stomped and thudded and cracked and yowled on the other side of the wall like animals in the wild.

Except that animals deplete themselves almost at once. And this was now going on for a human length of time.



Please, please…


I jumped out of bed and went to the window, the sounds from the other side quieting a bit if I put my ear to the glass. I could even hear the buzzing of a street lamp outside.

But I couldn't stand here all night, and eventually retreated to the bed.

To hear more of the same combat on the other side of the wall.

Oh, Jack…

Yeah, you…

Oh, Jackie…

How long, Lord? I asked. How long? Without even knowing to what god I spoke. It didn't matter to me. I didn't care. I wanted them to finish. I wanted quiet.



Oh, my God…



Now I staggered out of bed, stood close to the wall, debating with myself about whether or not I should give it a good pounding.

No, no, I said, no, let them go on undisturbed. I felt tears running down my cheeks as I confessed to myself that nothing I had ever done in my own life had been this passionate.

(And without knowing what I was even doing, I forgave them, Jackie and his unnamed girl.)

2—The Dogs

I awoke at first light, basking in the luxurious silence that enveloped the room, the floor, the entire hotel, the street, the town, perhaps even the state and the entire eastern seaboard, the nation, the hemisphere, the world. The headache hit me just as I lay my head back onto the pillow, hoping for more sleep. I had clocked only about three hours, and I was suffering, and my compassion for the couple in the next room had evaporated in the night.

I knew my room number and from that subtracted two, and picked up the telephone and punched out that new number. Through the wall I could hear their telephone ring once, twice, and then I broke off the call. Three more times I did this before either of them could pick up the receiver. I could hear faint mumblings. I punched the number again. I got up, took a shower, and called the number again. Twice more, and then I got dressed. Twice more. And then I left the room.

The lobby was deserted, except for the young college boy behind the desk. He looked up at me as I passed by, but didn't speak. It was cool outside, and the hot coffee I found at a little doughnut shop on the main street filled me with warm cheer. After a while I returned to the hotel, called the room next
to mine several more times, and by then it was almost time to meet Ceely for breakfast.

She was waiting on the porch, smoking and staring into space, in a dark sweater and baggy jeans looking beautiful and fresh, which made me, in my nearly sleepless condition, feel as bad as I had ever felt. But Rashid wasn't there, and so I sighed a father's sigh of relief.

Ceely tossed away the cigarette and picked up a bag and carried it to the car.

“What about the rest of your stuff?” I asked.

“Rashid is going to put it in the storage room for me,” she said, settling into her seat.

“That's awfully nice of him,” I said. “That means you plan on coming back?”

“Father,” she said, as if that were an answer.

“Father,” she said again when I reproved her for ducking out of the breakfast place for a quick cigarette.

“You'll have to direct me to the dean's office,” I said when it got near the time for our appointment.

Silence for a while as Ceely sipped at her coffee. “I'm not going,” she said.

“Hey,” I said, “Charmaine is fixing up your old room—”

“I mean I'm not going to this meeting,” she said. “I don't want to talk to that lame bitch. She's the one needs psychiatric care. Lonely little dyke.”

I sighed and wiped my mouth with my napkin, looking around the room as if there might be something the waitress could do for me. That was when I caught a glimpse of Rashid standing outside the restaurant, leaning against a parking meter, smoking casually.

“Okay,” I said, “you wait here. I'll find the dean and come back to get you.”

Ceely looked a little unnerved because I wasn't applying any pressure on her to attend, and it gave me a secret pleasure to have outfoxed her even on this tiny point as I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek—she took it stoically, without blinking—and left the restaurant. Outside I asked Rashid for directions and went on my way.

This dean, again, I forgive her, was not what I expected.

Probably not even thirty, she was a lovely freckle-faced strawberry blonde dressed in a white blouse unbuttoned down to her sternum where a Star of David dangled between her rather fulsome breasts. Before she even opened her mouth, I was confused.

“You're the dean?”

“This happens to me a lot,” she said, extending her hand toward me across her desk. It was surprisingly cold to the touch.

“You understand why?”

She laughed, and I felt a splash of painfully pleasant body chemicals wash up and down my chest.

“Mr. Swanson,” she said.

“Tom,” I said.

She cleared her throat.

“Tom,” she said, and just the way she said it made her voice seem so familiar. “We all love Ceely here, you understand.”

“She's very lovable,” I said, wondering about where I might have heard her voice, and then letting go of the thought.

“She's suffered, that we know, too.”

“She has,” I said.

“Her mother was terribly gifted.”

“One of the rising young stars of jazz,” I said.

The dean smiled, cleared her throat again. “Not my favorite music. And rather esoteric these days, what with hip-hop and all that.”

“Do you like hip-hop?” I asked her.

She unfolded her ample lips in a smile.

“Would you believe that I've written about hip-hop? My field is psychology, and I did my dissertation on the effect of hip-hop on learning-disabled inner-city children.”

“That is extraordinary,” I said.

“But, now, Ceely…”

“Not a learning-disabled inner city kid,” I said.

“But in her own way disabled,” she said.

The telephone rang. She looked at me, and I looked at her and nodded. She picked up the telephone.

“Hello?…Uh-huh. Oh…Oh…” She looked over at me, and I looked away. “Oh…”

I looked back at her.


She looked back at me as she set the telephone on her desk. I looked over at her, wondering if I was going mad.


“I'm the one who's sorry,” I said, “I didn't get much sleep last night. Worrying about this, you know.”

“Certainly,” she said. The look she gave me made me believe she understood. “Where did you stay?”

I told her.

“Such a lovely place,” she said. “A little shabby these days, but lovely. I stayed there when I first moved to town, before I found a house. Sometimes, I like to put people up there. When I have an overflow of house guests.”

I cleared my throat. “I'd like you to send me a bill for the piano,” I said.

“We may be covered by insurance,” the dean said.

I shook my head. “I doubt it. I know a little about that sort of business, musicians willfully destroying instruments and such. Unless you have a specific clause…”

“I'll check into it,” she said. “Meanwhile I don't want you to worry about it. I want you to think about Ceely.”

“You've suspended her,” I said.

“Pro forma,” the Dean said, raising a hand to her mouth to mask a rather large yawn. “Oh, excuse me.”

“Think nothing of it,” I said. “Late night, huh?”

She stared at me, a tiny smile on her large attractive lips.

“A friend of mine came to town,” she said. “A…a girl I went to college with.”

“Oh,” I said, “and you stayed out late. Where do you stay out late in this little town, anyway?”

“You're showing your big-city chauvinism,” she said.

“You're the one who writes about inner-city kids and hip-hop,” I said, not sure what I meant. “So where did you go?”

“You really want to know?”

“Sure,” I said.

She stared at me, and stared a little more. She didn't know what was going on, I didn't know what was going on, but it was going on.

“We went roller-skating,” she said.


“That's right.”

“Isn't that amazing?” I said.

“It's just a small town diversion,” she said. “A small college town diversion.”

“What's your friend's name?” I said.


“Just curious,” I said.

“Mr. Swanson, I don't think my friend's name matters much in our current discussion.”

“You just want to keep your personal life out of this matter, right?”

“Yes, of course. Why shouldn't it be? Mr. Swanson?”

“Of course, of course,” I said. “I don't know what I was thinking. I'm pretty exhausted myself. Forgive me. Forgive me?”

The first real wave of fatigue—and there would be many that day—washed over me, and I suddenly wanted out of there. I told the dean that Ceely and I would talk on our drive home about intensifying her therapy.

“Tell her to call me if she needs to talk,” the dean said. “I'll give you my home number in case she needs to call me there.”

“I will,” I said. “And don't forget to send me that bill.”

“I'll be in touch,” she said, again offering me her hand, still cold as ice.

An hour later, and Ceely and I were rolling out of town.

“What's this?” she said, turning on the CD player.

I dwell deep in the hearts

of all being; I am the source

of memory and knowledge…

“Just some stuff of mine,” I said, clicking off the player.

Ceely immediately found the discs of her mother's music, and as we passed through Springfield, Billie's version of Mingus' “Better Get It In Your Soul” filled the space around us. All through Connecticut we listened.

Finally, I said, “I was hoping this drive would give us the chance to talk.”

But when I glanced over at her I saw that she had fallen asleep.

Driving back through New York City, and with Billie's music still in the air, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to talk to her about when she awoke and to rehearse how I might phrase it.

Taking a deep breath in my mind, this was how I began: Your mother and I got married very young. This sexual spark snapped between us when we met, I know, I know, you don't think about your parents and sex, or at least you don't want to think about it because you find the subject slightly disgusting, that's really the other side of the Incest Taboo, I think, and if you don't know what that is, I'll give you the short version and if it interests you, you can take an anthropology or a psychology course when you come back next term, whichever department they teach that stuff in these days, I'm not sure, and I hope you are planning to come back next term, meanwhile, we'll find you a good doctor, and maybe you can get a part-time job, at Starbucks, maybe, or at the bookstore, Politics and Prose, you always liked going to their cafe, maybe there's a job for you there, I know the owner slightly since I go in there a lot, I could go in and speak to her. But the main thing is the therapy. You've got me very worried, Ceely, setting that piano on fire, burning your hand, you might have done yourself a lot worse harm than you did to the instrument, and I know, I know how you must feel, not just the way your mother died but the way she lived, even when you were just an infant you were separated from her because when she was home she was out gigging until the early morning, and then you would wake up and she would be asleep, and so I would pack you
in that kid-holder and take you with me on jobs, Celia, Celia, I hold in my heart those first months of your life, and when she went out on the road we wouldn't see her for weeks, and I was the one who fed you the bottles and took you to the doctor and sang to you, though when she came home it was always a great little occasion, and she played for you and wrote tunes for you—“Ceely's Wail,” from her second album, and that incredible ballad, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know, “Dawn for Ceely”—let's put that on, unless it's just too difficult for you to listen to, though I know from your answering machine that you listen to her work all the time, there, oh, Lord, that melody pulsing forward, but never so fast that you miss the effect of the chords, a burst of beauty, like the nostalgia for all the days gone by that you'll never see again, and the melody picks up, filling you with such hope for the future—with your mother out on her gigs, in the city and then after the albums began to win her a national audience, out on the road, I knew exactly how you felt, thinking to myself quite a lot, you marry somebody and then you hardly ever see them they're working so hard and making such a success of what they do, you're happy for them beyond words, but regret creeps in, you begin to feel a little jealous about the other musicians who see her more than you do, and the audiences who get to see her in her best form in those mid-evening hours when her hands are warm, her fingers flying, her head zig-zagging to the rhythms of the tune, and the sound she's making out of that oblong box with strings filling your heart with such extremes of joy and despair that you wonder how you'll ever find the way back to real life. Sure, she'd be home every day she was playing in town, but she was sleeping a lot of the time we were awake, so even when she was with us she was apart, so we didn't so much as actually separate as kind of erode, like a beach washed away after one heavy
tide after another. I just remember, one minute we were all out in the park on a Sunday when she was playing a Jazz Summer gig, and the next thing I'm walking past the doorman into your grandparents' building with you in the pack on my back, tears in my eyes. I'm sorry, baby, that it happened, and it wasn't anything either of us did, just a kind of natural falling off of desire and affection—but what at your age do you know about such things falling away?—so that where once we felt like one flesh and one mind we later felt like the two people we actually were, not that I recommend being realistic over being romantic, for instance your step-mother and I got married because in a rational way we told ourselves that it made a great deal of sense for us to do it, given our common interests and admiration for each other, though right now I can't remember much about what those interests were and what we admired each other for, no, no, baby, life is just much too strange and inexplicable to try and figure out, and much too straightforward in its own way—you're born, you grow up, you get old, etc.—to think about in any kind of mystical way, either, at least, that's what I used to think (absolutely that's what I used to think, until I had my session with you, Erna), most people taking one side or the other, either the romantic or the rational, and never rising up to the even more troubling, puzzling level of the paradoxical where you hold both views in your mind at once, oh, I was going to say all these things to her, but she kept on sleeping.

BOOK: The Fires
13.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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