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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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And so I tried to listen to more of the Gita—

In this world, there are two persons:

the transient and the eternal;

all beings are transient as bodies,

but eternal within the Self….

And with New York City now behind us, I was thinking how it was once Billie's city, the place she loved as a child, for all
of its parks and museums, and a city of music, where she filled her heart and young soul with all varieties of concert performances, and then scouted the jazz clubs with fake ID when she had only just started into puberty, she told me all about this when we were getting to know each other, the way she conned the older brother of a black kid at her school to become her escort to some of the best jazz venues in the city, a business-like arrangement, a couple of feels for a concert, and she gave him money for all the cover charges and the drinks (though she didn't drink at all at the time). Lord, the night she went to Harold's and stayed around until closing, her escort zonked out at the bar, and everybody thought she was the daughter or the niece of the owner Mr. Primack, so when as the last set ended, and the drummer was packing up and all of the patrons were leaving or had left, she hopped up onto the stage, just the way a little kid would, and sat down at the piano and played the first few chords of “Blue Monk.” Everybody thought that the music was coming over the audio system, hey, somebody put on Monk, and it took a few minutes before anybody even noticed the skinny white chick at the keyboard, wailing, wailing on some old upbeat Bud Powell tune, and then, by the time the last stragglers and the bartenders and the drummer and bass player from the group that had just finished playing had gathered around the piano, Billie was already deep into a medley of Gil Evans tunes and wrecking, and I mean wrecking, any chance that anything else that had happened that night to anyone listening would stay in their memories. It wasn't like the way it happens in the movies. The bass player didn't pick up his instrument and start to lay down a line behind her, the drummer didn't set up his kit again and begin to kick her further along. They just stood there, until the sun came up, nodding their heads, and the next afternoon started talking
about her and what she had done. She was a freak, she was a skinny little Jewish bitch, she was a white girl with powers, she was underage, and when word got around about her impromptu early morning set, she became a mystery and a legend.

Her mother was the one responsible for her first union card. She had a client who knew somebody—a lot of her clients knew people who could do these things—and that somebody told somebody else to do something, so before she graduated from high school, before she could legally taste a drink in any of these clubs, Billie was playing concerts, and as soon as she turned twenty-one she dropped out of college before graduating—maybe I wouldn't talk about this part with Ceely—and started playing the clubs. Before long she had her own trio—that same bass man and drummer who were the first witnesses to her prowess that early morning in New York.

Her mother, your grandmother, well, I don't want to wail too hard on her, because I know you love her and your grandfather, and to be honest if they hadn't been there after your mother and I split I don't know what we would have done. Billie was out on the road a lot that year, she had a lot of international festivals to play, Osaka and Copenhagen, places like that, which is what brought everything crashing down on our heads. I don't know if she ever told you about any of it, and you were probably too young to digest much of it anyway. But she called me from one of her concert trips, from Amsterdam, to be precise. And she told me over the telephone, in a voice clear as a bell (and I knew she wasn't stoned or drunk), that it was over with us. I didn't want to think about where she was calling from, from whose hotel room, the bass player's? from the room of the young horn player they added for the tour? I could just tell that somebody was standing near her, though I never did know many of the
exact details, I didn't want to know, and to help me remain ignorant I started drinking a lot, and this didn't help you much, dear child, waking in the middle of the night crying for your mother only to be comforted by a father sobbing over you, spraying you with his whiskey breath. Just as quickly as she had taken up with me, she had broken off with me.

I don't know why she came to despise me so, and I guess I never really want to know. I forgive her everything, because she did try, as best she could, to be a good mother to you. One of the first things that happened after she called me was that her mother called.

“I heard,” she said.

It only took me a week to figure out that I had to bring you up there to Manhattan.

Your grandmother had already arranged for a nanny, Mrs. Griggs. Devoted to you until the day that she died.

All those years that you lived with them, with your mother coming and going like a bee back and forth from the hive, making her reputation, trying to raise you, thank God for your grandparents and Mrs. Griggs, right? I'll never know until you tell me what went through your mind, not anything anyone can really tell about until they get to a certain age anyway, at least I wouldn't have been able to talk about it, the way I felt when I was growing up. Here you were, an only child, living with your grandparents, though certainly never wanting for any luxury, let alone necessity, the best clothes, the best food, the best schools, fancy friends, all those musicians your mother introduced you to, the inner circle of the inner circle of modern jazz, concerts and festivals (and I know she sneaked you into a few bars, too, don't deny it). You had piano lessons from the best teachers, classical and jazz, you had dance classes, you knew the
best museums inside out, you got to know a lot about the criminal justice system, rubbing elbows at dinners sometimes with mobsters, sometimes with judges, and you got a little education in philosophy from your grandfather who talked to you about Aristotle and Plato and Kant and Kierkegaard as though they were men he saw at his club. (Yes, club, the money, the huge apartment on Park Avenue, Billie grew up the same way, with the best, nothing but the best.) But what it was like for you, what it felt like, that's what I want to talk to you about, because seeing you on my weekly visits I could scarcely get a sense of how you felt except that you seemed comfortable with everything, it wasn't as if you disliked the way you were living, but the feeling of it, that's what I'm interested in, that's the one thing we never talked about, because at first you were too young and then when you got older you were too busy, with friends, with school.

It's just that I never really liked your grandparents, a feeling that I picked up, I suppose, from things Billie said about them. Your grandfather, a brilliant thinker and one of the most handsome men, in his own short dark Jewish way, on the faculty, your grandmother, known in judicial circles as the Bitch, because if she had a case she wanted to fight for, and that was usually just about any case she took on, she went no holds barred against the prosecutors, sometimes the police, and every now and then a judge.

“Once she was cited for contempt,” I remember Billie saying, “that clicked for me. I held her in contempt for ever after that. Such a hypocrite, once I got to know who she was, I couldn't bear to be around her. The way she encouraged my music, until I turned to jazz. The way she upheld the rights of the downtrodden, if they could come up with a million dollar fee. And race, on race, she was a real bitch. All sweetness and light about the scholarship kids, which meant the dark-skinned kids, at school.
And then I started hanging out with them. Until that happened, I thought my father was pretty much a stand-up guy. I mean, he could tell you more than you wanted to know about Kierkegaard and Sartre and folks like that. Sometimes he would go off into his study and not come out except for meals. When my mother started wailing on me, he stayed in that study for days. I went in there one time looking for him and he was gone, I didn't even hear him leave the apartment. He went to teach, I guess. Or maybe some place else. I just happened to take a look at some of the things on his desk and found a couple of notes from another woman that scared the hell out of me. But then, I figured, if I was married to my mother, I would need somebody else to comfort me, too.”

(Your mother could talk for a long time about all the hurts, especially when she was high and believed that if she tried hard enough she could see a light behind the visible that wasn't always normally apparent. That's what made her music so special, that transcendental quality about it, even in the simplest tunes.)

But your grandparents were terrific with you after your mother and I split up, right up until her death. Of course they couldn't help with what you were feeling inside, though you wouldn't know you were so troubled, you sleeping so peacefully as we drive south, the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike now behind us as we rise up on the roadway of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, almost like soaring in a glider or small airplane, the hazy horizon stretching out on either side, the river below, it's been hours and hours, morning has become afternoon and now late afternoon, and I'm quite exhausted myself, the long drive up, the night rendered nearly sleepless because of the noisy couple in the next room. I could shut my eyes now, I should pull over and shut my eyes, except that I'm thinking about my own fatigue,
and suddenly I'm wondering if there might be something wrong with you, you slept through a stop for gas, you slept through a stop for coffee, and just as I'm really beginning to worry, as we pass through the toll gate and head south toward Baltimore you turn to one side and then the other, and then you open your eyes.



“You really went out.”

“This whole thing has made me exhausted. This whole life.”

“I'm sorry you're so upset, sweetheart.”

“Oh, it's nothing, just my mother, dead from heroin.”

“I don't think you should—”

“Should what, Dad? Should this? Should that? Should anything? I should have just set myself completely on fire and been done with it.”

“Like some Indian widow? She was your mother, not your husband.”

She gave me a look, and I had to look away, which was a good idea at the time anyway since I would have missed the right curve of the road off in the Baltimore direction. So though she was awake we drove for a while in silence into the thickening air of late afternoon. Delaware. The toll booth at the Delaware Turnpike. I paid the toll and we passed on through and drove a while longer.

Ceely seemed to be studying the scenery, the woods and fields, the sun which now was heading for a low point in the western sky, the sky itself. Then she turned to the dashboard and fiddled with the CD player.

Fire, light, day, the moon's brightness,

the six months of the north-turning sun…

“What is this again?”

I told her, adding that I didn't know much about it.

These paths, of light and of darkness,

have always existed; by one

a man will escape from rebirth…

Traffic all of a sudden seemed to be bunching up, though we were still traveling at a good sixty miles an hour. Tired as I was, I strained to keep my attention on the road.

“Okay, Father,” Ceely said.


“Let's talk.”

That was when this next thing happened, all the cars ahead of us jammed but not slowing down, something going on up ahead. If I just tell you what occurred in the time that it took for it to happen it went by as quickly as it takes for you to hear this. The dogs! Instant terror! And the falling off as they disappeared behind us. But I'll slow it down, so you can see the danger a little more clearly, a pack of dogs, four or five large animals running toward us between and alongside the cars, dogs running so fast and in such great bounds forward, shepherds, I think they were, but our glimpse of them was so brief that they might well have been some other breed, none of the cars swerving, ours included, just the dogs running forward between us—and then they were gone, leaving me shaking at the wheel.

“Jesus,” Ceely said, looking around behind us.

“See them?” I said, scarcely able to catch my breath.

“They're gone,” she said.

“We should all be dead,” I said, still fighting for air.

“But we're not, father,” Ceely said, “we're not.” And there was something new and terribly admirable in her voice that almost made me forget about my instant terror and the way that my breath became so difficult to rehearse.

3—The Exorcism

So, Erna, that was all several months ago, and a lot of things, mostly good, have happened since then.

Beginning with Charmaine waiting with dinner for us the night we arrived. And, after we had installed Ceely in the guest room and closed up the house, saying to me in bed, “I want you to forgive me for making you think I didn't want her here.”

“Nothing to forgive,” I said. I was still a little shaky from the road, still thinking about those dogs.

“I was feeling jealous, and I feel stupid about that,” she said. “She's not Billie. I shouldn't think of her as Billie.”

“No, you shouldn't,” I said. “I don't.”

“Of course not,” Charmaine said. “Of course not.”

I took a deep breath and tried to slough off all of the cares and tremors of the last day and a half.

“Tell me,” I said, “how did you come to see things this way?”

“I went for a healing session last week with an incredible woman named Erna, someone Dr. Gordon recommended to me.”

“A healing session? Maybe I should go to one.”

“Maybe you should,” Charmaine said. “But first we've got to help Ceely.”

So, the next day, we got Ceely an appointment to see Dr. Gordon, a psychiatrist whom Charmaine knew from the days of her herbal business. I don't know what transpired in their twice-weekly appointments, but something was going on. Soon after the burns on her hand began to heal, Ceely started talking with us at dinner, about all the love and misery of being her mother's daughter, about how sorry she felt for her grandparents, the way they lived—“all that money and all those brains, and they don't have a clue”—her love for certain courses at school, her insecurities with her friends, her doubts about her lovers and the possibility of love. I walked around the house when she wasn't there—she found a part-time job at a local coffee house—shaking my head in astonishment.

Rashid came down for a visit and that gave me all the more fuel for amazement.

In a miraculous burst of empathy, Charmaine and I agreed almost without discussion that we wouldn't say a word when Ceely took his bag into her room and assumed that they would share it for the length of his stay. In a miraculous burst of insight, Ceely told Rashid that he would sleep on the living room sofa and could use her bathroom in the guest room.

He didn't stay for very long. I never heard any evidence of discord between them—certainly not while lying in bed awake the first night of his stay, wondering what was going on downstairs, and absolutely not when I climbed stealthily out of bed and tip-toed down the stairs more than halfway to listen to their voices over the quiet insistence of the music from Ceely's stereo (the best I could build her, by the way).

“It's not that,” Ceely was saying.

“Then what was it?” Rashid's voice was up in the higher registers, a nervous voice, the voice of a fellow who has traveled some distance only to discover he's not going to get what he wants to get (in other words, a fellow I understood perfectly, as most men would, since I had been there before him, and so, despite my natural response to him, which was jealousy and anger for hanging around my precious daughter, I forgave him, I did, I did).

“I just need some time,” she said.

Rashid said something that I couldn't quite make out, but whose tone I recognized.

“I can't help it,” she said. “…what I've been through.”

“Sure, girl,” he said. “And what about me?”

Erna, could she have discovered so much insight into her life at such an early age? I never had it at that time of my life. I was so ignorant as to have proposed marriage to her mother, and her mother, for all of the tough exterior she acquired at such an early age because of her budding jazz life, was just as ignorant, and innocent. I forgive her. I may have said this before, but I'll say it again, I forgive her.

After a fairly pleasant dinner with all of us the next evening, Rashid was gone.

“Are you all right?” I asked Ceely after he went out the door.

“I'm fine,” she said, holding up her nearly healed hand for me to see.

“I didn't mean just that,” I said.

“This is a sign,” she said. “The hand. It stands for other things.”

That was lovely. Everybody was in good shape, healing. Charmaine. Ceely. Even her grandparents, whom she visited for a few days soon after Rashid departed.

“No trouble?” I said to her over the telephone.

“They're being very sweet to me,” Ceely said. “We had a nice dinner tonight. So what's up with you, Father?” She sounded so right, so normal.

“I wish I could explain.” Well, I didn't actually say that. But I was thinking it.

I couldn't get to sleep that night, dog after dog after dog ran between the lanes in my restless thoughts, and in my mind's ear, I could hear the sweet screeching of a violin played by that concertmistress from Seattle. My tossing and turning finally woke Charmaine.

“What is it?” she said.

I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

“What?” she said, taking me in her arms as though I were just one big baby.

“Everybody's getting better,” I said. “Except me. I'm fucking worthless. I can't get close to you. I can't get close to Ceely. Maybe I should just kill myself!” And I lapsed into another terrible round of weeping and sobbing. I shook. She shook. The bed shook.

“Look,” she said. It took her a while to explain to me what she thought I needed to look at, and a while before I could face up to what she said. But—and I mean this with no disrespect, because it was just the way that I saw things before I met you, Erna—I was so desperate I would try anything, and so she finally had me convinced. In the middle of the night I decided to cancel a trip to Seattle where I was supposed to do a check on the rock and roll museum and lay
about the house while Ceely spent another week or more in New York City.

I was lying on the sofa—it was the day you had kindly arranged for me to fill a hole in your busy schedule of treatments—reading the front page of the newspaper over and over again, Charmaine out at her shop, the early spring sun lighting the eastern part of the sunroom, when the telephone rang. I was wallowing in the terrible funk of a man too timid to admit that he was in desperate trouble. It was all I could do to get up and answer the call.


Woman's voice, low and familiar at the other end of the line.

“Good morning, Mr. Swanson.”

It was one of those moments, when the caller doesn't identify herself because she believes that you will know who she is.

“Hi,” I said.

“How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. It was maddening, I knew the voice but just couldn't place it.

“And Ceely?”


Ah, it was the dean! The dean!

I told her about Ceely's therapy, and that her hand was healing. She was making progress, yes.

“It sounds as though things are going well. Will you be bringing her back next term?”

“That's up to you, isn't it? Will you reinstate her?”

“We'll hold her place, yes. When the time gets closer, perhaps you can get her therapist to write a letter for her.”

“Okay. But what about the bill? The damage to the piano?”

“Oh, I think our insurance will cover that.”

“Thank you.”

“But you might call me to double-check about that. And come in to see me when you bring her back. I like to talk with parents face to face. You have my number.”

“Yes,” I said.

“You understand?”

I thought I did. So I said yes, I did.

But I didn't know if I did.

I walked—though it felt like crawling—back to the sofa where I had left the newspaper.

I picked it up and read the first section yet again. But a vision of me and the dean locked in a fornicator's embrace kept coming between me and the page. That odd smile of hers. A certain quality to her voice. I lay there wallowing in the fantasy, a tepid bath in sullied water.

And then it was time for me to go.

Erna, your office in the basement of the building where Dr. Gordon had his medical practice was wonderfully quiet, and that appealed to the technician in me. Once I arrived and closed the door behind me, the traffic on Connecticut Avenue was hardly a whisper in my ears. I listened to the flow and clicks of the room itself, to the unnoise made by the air and the light. You came in, wrapped in silence yourself, in your old blue sweater and peasant skirt, something that you probably wore for years while still working in Brazil. Your clothes and your quiet manner made it possible for me to stay calm in the face of what part of me understood to be an outrageous undertaking.

“You're nervous,” you said in your accented English. If I didn't know you were Brazilian, living here for about five years (Charmaine filled me in with the details), I might have taken you for Romanian or Hungarian, your voice had that sort of lilt and plushy swerve.

“Kind of,” I said, and followed your instructions, removing my shoes and lying on my back on the long treatment table in the center of the room. You dimmed the overhead lights and approached the table and began to speak. Your voice was low, and your breath tinged slightly with cigarette smoke.

“You have worries, yes?”

“I do, I do.”

“Tell me your worries.”

This was a little embarrassing. I said some cursory things about Ceely, and about Charmaine. All the while you were tracing my body with your hands a few inches in the air above me.

“And about your work, do you have worries?”

“Not so much anymore,” I said. “When I was younger, yes.”

“But now you feel secure in it?”

“Pretty much.”

“So it is just your family.”

“Yes,” I said.

“The living and the dead,” you said.

“Yes. What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” you said.

“Billie?” I said.

“Who is Billie?”

I told you a little about her.

“Yes,” you said, having known without knowing, and now knowing without having known.

It was at this point that I began to think this was either all a big hoax, or a big wonder.

“Are you ready now?” you said.

“I suppose so,” I said.

“Do you understand that I will say a little prayer before I begin? That is just the way I do things.”

“Yes, my wife told me,” I said.

“I call on Jesus. And I call on St. Michael and all his holy minions to come into your body, these heavenly entities enter you and cleanse you of the earthbound spirits that weigh your body down.”

“I see.”

“You sound fearful. You musn't be fearful. There is no harm that can come to you through this, only good.”

“I need some good,” I said, trying to laugh.

“You may feel things. You may see lights. Other things happen to other people.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And when it is over, you will make a list for me.”

“Okay. What kind of list?”

“Of everyone you wish to forgive for all of the wrongs and hurts they have done to you. Do you understand? You'll write it down and bring it to me.”

“I do,” I said. “I'll write it down.”

“Good. But you must also be on guard.”

“On guard?”

“The wandering earthbound entities, the ones who take over your internal organs and make for disease and bad thoughts and bad decisions, they will flee, but then they will also try to come back in.”

“I'll be on guard,” I said.

“You must,” she said.

“I will,” I said.

“Then we will begin.”

I swallowed, tried to calm myself. But my heart beat hard, and I blinked, and blinked, and finally closed my eyes.

“In the name of Jesus and all the saints,” you said. “Michael, Saint Michael, come to me and attend us, enter into the body of this man, down, down, down, with all of your helpers, and all of the hundreds, thousands of you, build the light about his head, build the light about his body, make it increase and flow and burn away…”

You talked, you chanted, you whispered, you said a crown of light would appear above my head, and I felt it, and it increased, and it ran down and up the length of my body as I breathed and breathed as hard as if I were rowing in a race, and you said that hundreds, perhaps thousands of entities would enter my body and cleanse it of illness and trouble and distress and worry and woe, down, down, down past the molecular level to the subatomic level and even beneath that, and you had me breathe harder and I rushed and I huffed and I hushed and I felt the heat from your hands hovering above me and I saw light gathering before my lidded eyes—and, sound man that I am, I heard horns, trumpets, I heard loud oaths and the clank and clash of metal on metal on wood and bone and I smelled burning wood and burning flesh, and my body began to tremble, as if I had a terrible fever, though I felt nothing but gentle fire and saw only a gathering of light before my closed eyes, and then I felt as though I were floating off the table, and then, like silk gently falling, settling back onto the table, and I heard the very noise of the molecules gathering and spinning and whirling and dancing. And these were worlds careening and turning in space without limits, and the
sound of the essence of existence was both grand and small, from the biggest boom of cataclysmic explosion to the tiniest whisper of the rustle of the fluttering eyelash or the sweet resolve of the falling leaf.

Oh, Erna, I knew my soul, and it knew me, and I had done bad things and I had done good, and time opened out to me now, the way a door opens onto a new room or a shade slips up and I could see, oh, I could see what I had done and what had to be done for this time and time to come. This was life, I said to myself in my own voice, this was life on Earth, on this planet turning endlessly in a solar system captive of a turning galaxy that was moving itself toward some goal grander than anything any of us might imagine. And I heard music, more music, drum and bass, and the piano coming up under it, flirting with the rhythms and then molding them to its own forward charge, angels playing jazz, angel jazz, and my heart sprung loose, and the blues poured out—Jew blues, black blues, Lutheran blues, half blues, all blues—and I wept, and wept, and more than wept, cleansing my soul, and wept again.

BOOK: The Fires
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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