Authors: Stacey D'Erasmo
ERE IS MY
father, sawing a train in half. This is the famous picture, the one they always use at the entrance to Roy Brundage retrospectives in New York or Mumbai or London: my father wide-legged on top of the still train, his long blond hippie hair blowing in the breeze, his bad foot curving inward, the silk vest over the T-shirt, the power hacksaw he holds over his head, his upraised arms, surprisingly muscular for one so slender and apparently frail, the pale blue sky that seems to be everywhere, excessive, promiscuous. His blue eyes: light-struck, wide, almost angry. As if he is looking at something no one else can possibly see, as if he has pierced the veil momentarily. He is thirty-two. It is 1972. He is crazed and beautiful. He is, though no one except him knows it yet, reinventing sculpture.
In the less famous picture that follows this one, he has on a thick pair of safety glasses and enormous gloves, and four men are on top of the train with him, arguing. It will take them five days to saw the train in half crosswise and even after they’ve sawed down to the rails, arguing the entire time and snorting speed to stay awake, they will have to bring in a massive winch to pry the train from itself, to open it up to that abundant pale blue sky, to topple the halved seats, to push the train’s divided weight over gravity’s edge until it gives, crashes, one half of the enormous machine twisting onto its side and sliding sideways into the field, one half remaining upright on the rails, gaping, as if waiting for the other’s return. This is the really famous picture, the one on the postcards still on the racks at MOMA: the twisted half of the train, torqued metal, the great mechanical beast down. At the same time, in the same frame, light falling into the upright half on the nonexistent passengers, the light like ghosts peering out the windows, wondering why they haven’t reached their stop yet. They are late. Where is the conductor? The peculiar, tympanic space between, the prairie in that in-between space, spreading out to the horizon.
Here is my father, in a picture no one took, lying down in that space, on the tracks between the train’s jagged halves. It looks dangerous: the weight of the broken train has to fall somewhere, doesn’t it? Opened up like that, the weight is wild. But it isn’t literally dangerous, of course; the train can’t run. The tracks had been abandoned long ago; they disappeared altogether about half a mile away. But to be in that gap, to lie down in that space—he said later that the old rails were burning hot, that they had absorbed the energy of the power hacksaws that had been going for five days—to put yourself in the center of the fresh injury, the broken metal, the weight, the yearning of one half of the ruined train for the other: that was dangerous. It was. And yet he lay down there.
I am in love with him in this moment. As if he is not my father, as if he is a stranger, a man I might be just about to meet, or have met, briefly, in the past. I see him as clearly as if I had been there, been hovering near him. His bad foot quivers. His hands sickle. He closes his eyes. His heart slams. His skin, pale on an ordinary day, is paler now. His eyelids flutter. He smells the seared metal, old cloth, earth, his own stink. The train, ripped apart, looming over him, seems to exhale heavily as it releases the winds of its mechanical insides, torn open by my father, who has dared to lie down in the terrible opening he has created. I am in that opening. I want to trace his face with my fingers. I want him to tell me what it is like to lie down there. I want to lie down with him, I want to feel the unspeakable weight of the torn train hovering over him in the instant that he’s feeling it. It is as if I were born twice: once from my mother’s womb, and once from my father’s mind, right then.
In reality, I was three at the time. I wasn’t there, nowhere near there. A small girl, in no danger. We were living in the Chicago house, of which I remember staring out a narrow window as the El rounded a curve. The smell of paint. A huge, dim closet, with one old brown ice skate in it, not ours. The cold; maybe that’s when I began to dislike cold so much. Did I know what my father had done? Did my mother explain it to me? My mother was an artist, too; she painted strangely ominous, strangely exposed, strangely linked groups of women on glass. I thought they were pretty. Maybe my mother told me what he had done, maybe she said, “Your father finished sawing a train in half today. For art. He has become a hero, though no one knows it yet.” I don’t remember.
And how would I have understood her, anyway? Trains were the wooden boxcars on a string I pulled
over the floors of the Chicago house, or the flash of silver as the El pulled away around a heavy curve. I understand the sawed-in-half train only as everyone else understands it, in retrospect, in retrospectives, as a photograph that exists and several more that don’t, as a moment in a field in Nebraska that, when it was happening, no one cared about at all. It wasn’t until later that anyone knew what he had done to sculpture. The moment that the train was torn open existed only for him, for the four other sweating, speed-addled guys, for a jackrabbit or two, for the astonished prairie: they felt the immediate impact. The rest of us have felt it as the endless sound waves of a moment we didn’t experience, didn’t know about when it was happening. We weren’t there, and we didn’t care. I pulled my wooden train
around the house, up and down the stairs; my mother was pregnant with Lila. The rough of her corduroy maternity jumper against my cheek, its gray-green. That I remember. I didn’t hear the crash, didn’t see the train go over, just as I didn’t know how the baby got inside, or how it would get out.
And yet. It tore me open, too, in its way. It made an opening for me. I have had the conviction for quite some time that if I could do in music what my father did in space by sawing the train in half, then I could solve the mystery of my life.
N ROME, THE
last time—he insisted it was the last time, the last time after the last time in Arezzo,
This has to be the last time
—the crash occurred in the silence. Simon was across the room, playing with the cord of the blinds. I was sitting on the bed. I had just told him, finally, what happened three years before, before we had properly started. That I got rid of it. What else could I have done? When it happened, I said, I thought I would never see you again. Anyone would have done the same. The only reason, I said, that I was sure it was you is that I had always been more careful. You were the one who wasn’t. I knew I was being cruel, because it was the last last time. Wasn’t it? He didn’t look at me. He shook his head. Three years composed of stolen days and nights that, all told, added up to perhaps a month. This was the last day of that long, long month. One half of whatever we were a heap of twisted metal, the other half still patiently, foolishly standing, eagerly peering out the windows, expecting to arrive at the next station. We were the only two people present at the moment the train fell open, the paint hit the canvas, the note sounded. For everyone else, for anyone else, the event is retrospective, the shock waves spreading out from a moment that is already past. Seven years of bad luck followed that quiet conversation. In Rome, I already felt the moment passing, I could practically see us, the too-tall woman and the too-short man, marooned on opposite corners of a hotel room, as if I were remembering it even as it happened. It could be the case that, for me, all art is retrospective as well. The ripples extend outward until they disappear.
ITTE LIGHTS THE
galaxy of little candles scattered over the floor. Here in the Bee Palace, in the green room that is actually painted black, the candles are white, star-shaped. Gitte is slender, wraith-like, barefaced, with deep-set eyes, in a long white woolen shift and motorcycle boots: she looks like some figure out of a fairy tale, the woman whose job it is to light the stars every night. The Bee Palace, like many structures in Christiania, is a whimsical wreck, not palatial at all; the roof hangs very low on one side, where two-by-fours are nailed willy-nilly to the outer wall as dubious braces. They look like weather-beaten drunks leaning against the building. Inside, it’s drafty, graffiti-spattered. Colder even than the apartment; I can feel my throat constricting. I need a scarf. From somewhere—where?—comes a sound that seems to be skateboard wheels on concrete. Pietr, my imaginary son with Mads. Gitte touches the flame to the waxy stars set here and there in the small, beer-scented black room. A little grouping on the floor, in a corner. She can make a match last through one, two, three, four, almost five candles. Is that a Danish thing? A Second World War skill? Gitte lowers the overhead lights, smiles lovingly at us, and, having prepared the room as if for our collective wedding night in a meat locker, leaves, saying, “Forty minutes.” I wonder if Mads is coming, now I want him to. I stroke my throat, blow on my fingers. I knew how to do that, but do I still know how to do this? They’re connected in some way I’ve never been able to understand, maybe never wanted to understand. Out of the corner of my eye, a flicker, as of something rustling in leaves. Though there are no leaves here, only a sofa covered in peeling black vinyl, a herd of star-shaped candles, and a plug-in coffeepot on an old folding table. I imagine for a moment that the hounds, Igor and Elgor, have followed me, or that their ghosts have followed me. I turn my head to see their long, grave, furry faces, but there’s nothing in any corner. I summon my breath, cough on the chill.
“It’s too cold in here,” I say to Boone, who is sitting next to me with an earpiece on, tapping on his iPhone, here on the peeling sofa in the green room that is actually black.
“I told them,” he says softly, tapping. “They’re working on it.”
“Are you growing a mustache now? What is that?”
“Stop.” He brushes my hand away from his face. “I needed a project. And it’s lucky. I’m going to have a full beard by Rome.”
“What does it mean, ‘working on it’? I can’t sing like this.” That flicker—what
it? I turn my head, can’t catch it.
Boone removes the earpiece and looks up from the iPhone, the surface of which is broken into at least four bustling squares; in one of the squares a bearded man is talking. “Listen, Anna, you know I worship you, but—”
Mercifully, Zach, Tom, and Alicia—my band, it seems—burst in, smelling of night air and cigarette smoke and garlic. They lean against the chilly, crumbling black walls, still laughing at some joke from dinner, eyeing one another, whether as allies or rivals or lovers, I’m never quite sure. The candles send their shadows far up the walls, unnaturally tall, like a premonition of their onstage presence. Who are they, I wonder. Who will they be by the time we’re done? I’ve known them only about a month. Boone put them together for me, like a hand of cards. Ten of diamonds: Alicia, with porcelain skin and platinum hair, plays the cello. At home in San Francisco, she is part of a new music ensemble called Minerva. Jack of spades: Zach, he of the shaved head and muscular arms, plays the bass. He’s toured with Beck, which he told us in the first breath of meeting him. Eight of clubs: Tom, squinty-eyed and wry, plays the drums. He’s probably in his late thirties, but he looks older because of his paunch and the stoop of his shoulders, the fisherman’s hat he always wears that comes down to his ears. He carries Purell everywhere he goes and applies it religiously. He is, in fact, applying it now, spreading it over every rounded finger with great concentration. Boone assured me that Tom was a brilliant drummer, and in fact he is, which is why he’s toured with so many bands over the years. The Purell smells like rubbing alcohol and lemon. Onstage, these three veer between listening too closely to one another and not listening at all. It doesn’t help that Alicia is high only nearly all the time. If she would stay high, the other two could meet her there, but as it is she’s always careening awkwardly halfway into sobriety about midway through the first set, like a car suddenly thrown from third into first gear. The entire band bucks. During our all too few rehearsals back in the States, I felt them behind me, jolting and choking; sometimes I turned around and made faces. It didn’t help.
“I have the set list,” I say, sliding the folded-up sheet of notebook paper out of my tight skirt pocket, and we all huddle around to look at it, by the light of the wax galaxy on the floor.
Zach leans forward, nodding. “Man, I feel like I’m back in high school. I played this shit until it wore out.” He pumps his fist in the air. “You’re a badass, Anna.”
“It’s a mix of new and old,” I say. “Denmark was always good for us before.”
“Right on,” says Zach, “Denmark!”
The others gaze at me, the light of their faces on the peeling black sofa glowing in the shadows. Boone glances at the time on his iPhone. It occurs to me that Boone does look ever so slightly like the White Rabbit, though with a scruffy brownish-reddish beard penumbra instead of whiskers. Always telling me I’m late, I’m late.
Alicia touches my knee. “How do you feel, Anna? This is such a cool moment.” Alicia likes to look like Tinkerbell crossed with a cancan girl from outer space, and most of the time she succeeds. Tonight she appears to be wearing a very short, Mylar, upside-down lily from which her white shoulders and platinum head emerge like a miracle; with the lily she has on hot-pink spike heels.
“I feel all right,” I say quietly. Actually, I feel much better than all right, even in the cold. I feel like the future.
“This is how it’s going to go,” I say. “‘The Orchids,’ ‘Waiting for a Sign,’ ‘Smoke and Mirrors,’ ‘Going, Going,’” and down the list I go until the last song, “‘Wonderland.’”
“You don’t think you should start with ‘Wonderland’ or maybe put it in the middle?” asks Boone. “It’s actually been getting some downloads here, and that’s the one Pitchfork posted—”
“No,” I say firmly. “‘Wonderland’ last. Always. We’ll do the cover for the encore.”
Boone bites his lip. “All right, Anna.”