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From

The Night Show, Vol. 3:

Crackpot Visionaries

 

“Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.”

 

Herman Hesse

Demian

 

"The Revelation Sessions"

 

            The subject of drawing Jack out of retirement was heavily debated before anyone bothered initiating any attempts to locate him. The man hadn’t been seen in years by any who used to work with him; his whereabouts were the stuff of rumors and Where-are-they-now side-panels in the occasional music rags. Those who recognized the man’s significant contribution were lifelong fans, and by association entrenched in prevailing disappointment that such a magical talent was likely holed up in a bar somewhere in Mexico, living under a new name, or even quite possibly no longer walking the earth, buried beneath an alias likely chosen by Jack from the funny papers. The true believers, however, were other artists, who held no faith in burnout as a probable fate for one possessing Jack’s powers. Jack was simply too gifted to be off someplace squandering it.

            The ones who finally set the wheels in motion were idealists. They believed the preservation of the craft was tantamount to the continuance of civilization—a belief which might be refuted if any were asked directly, but their daily behavior would have said different. As always, the ones who finally found Jack were those driven by greed. At the forefront of this effort was a producer named Carlyle. The upside was a general consensus that, in this business, his zeal for financial gain was almost matched by his quality of taste. For a business drowning in self-serving aggrandizement, Carlyle was widely perceived as the last true benefactor of such quality, but cynics would argue this perception was nothing more than the brainchild of his publicist. Returning to the point: Carlyle not only found Jack alive, but delivering mail (!) in the epitome of obscurity—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The details of Jack’s return from exile were only revealed to the rest of the production team in cursory fragments, as though Carlyle were some kind of high-level CIA spymaster handing out information only on a need-to-know basis. The facts are these: that Carlyle personally flew to some sleepy airport in Michigan, hired a limousine, and found Jack walking along his mail route. What words he used to convince Jack to get in the car are unknown, since only one of two witnesses to this momentous occasion in the history of contemporary music are still available to ask, aloofness to passing along details notwithstanding.

The other has long since disappeared again. 

 

 

Day Thirty-two:

 

            What brought them was supposed to be a general interest bio piece about a legend coming out of retirement to write his last brilliant record. What has them out here still is a rumor that a pipe has burst inside this recording studio of world renowned notoriety, the entirety of which has been leased by those who hoped to ride the lightning onto Billboard’s Top 10. Despite the fact this "burst pipe" has not initiated a flood, only one engineer and Jack have deigned to stay behind when all others have quit or been fired, and now, told to evacuate. Meanwhile, there is no burst pipe except for the one, ha-ha, inside Jack’s imagination.

            That was the first part of the day. As of three hours ago, not even the engineer—lad name of Sylvester—knows what has become of the so-called legend. Sylvester had gone to the door to admit Carlyle, (who only had authorization to venture as far into the atrium as the marble fountain), and upon receiving the producer’s message, had returned to the control room, with its view of the recording bay and a whole lot of unused gadgetry.

            The absence of Jack’s endless noodling on his acoustic six-string, at first, only led Syl to believe Jack had paused to use the lavatory, or for some other reason equally mundane. For the sake of saving a bit of tape, Syl hit ‘pause’ on the overhead microphones, which Jack had earlier in the week ordered him to commence running continuously between the hours of five p.m. and eight a.m. Only through the intercom was he allowed to address Jack, who was in there somewhere amidst all that gadgetry like some kind of ghost. Furthermore, he could only address those questions which had been posed to him by Jack. In other words, Sylvester had authorization to speak only when spoken to. Gestures were to be used only in the event of an emergency. For gestures to be effective, of course, Jack had to be looking in the direction of the control room. Even then, sometimes they were insufficient to do the job.

Sylvester debated seriously the prospect of breaking protocol, taking the intercom phone in hand, and simply relaying the message. Toward his thoughts of the possible consequences, Syl could be comforted by the fact that there was no way to play as many as two instruments at a time (harmonica and guitar) and work your own boards. Sure, they could traffic different idiots in and out of this place every day until the job was done if Jack felt like spending his advance on airfare to a studio that was not right around the corner for most studio established engineers of the necessary caliber to work with this maestro. Despite this understanding, Jack’s strict behavioral requirements for those allowed into his proximity during the essential moments of composition gave Syl pause for another fifteen minutes.

If anyone was crazy enough to throw his advance to the wind if it seemed the necessary path down which to proceed, that person was Jack.

Ultimately, Sylvester elected to flip the coin anyway. When it landed on heads, he picked up the phone and called Jack’s name quietly into the shadows of the dimly-lit recording bay.

            For several seconds, he waited for some sign from the room’s darkest reaches, even those barely visible to Sylvester beyond the amplifier stacks, yet registered no stirring. The second time, he said the name a little louder. “Jack, I’ve got a message from Carlyle.”

            Standing orders prevented lights from ever being on at the back of the bay. Jack liked to sit back there in the dark and smoke pot, supplied by the caterer, who came on Wednesdays.

            “Jack, Carlyle says the studio’s gonna sue you and him both if you don’t show them something.” The studio had given time to record in exchange for a piece of the sales, but at some point, they wanted to know their investment would provide returns.

            Nothing.

            Syl reached over and opened the door into the bay, (another no-no without specific invitation), in the hopes of catching a whiff of something to confirm the legend was still in the building, but the air was devoid of any clue to divulge Jack’s presence. A little worried, Sylvester hit the master light switch. After that, ants would have been revealed. It was bright like a Kubrick set in there, and Jack was gone, unless he was hiding behind one of the Marshalls. Before setting off, Syl told himself, you can say you thought he had a heart attack.

The fire exit, partially concealed by the same amplifier stack Sylvester hoped was concealing Jack, wasn’t quite closed, and that was when panic started to shuffle around in the pit of Sylvester’s stomach. He took the obligatory look out into the alley behind the studio, unsurprised to find nothing there except blowing trash and newspaper. With a busload of reporters loitering out in the front lot, Sylvester knew better than to call out Jack’s name. Instead, he stepped back inside and headed for the phone in the recording bay instead of his cell phone in the engineer’s booth. Cell phone conversations coming out of this place could be intercepted, but the land line in the bay was likely bug free, unless they’d sent a ghost in to plant the thing.

            He was surprised to find the phone off the hook.

Nobody had the number to this room, so that meant Jack called out. Never one to deny potentially fruitless options, Sylvester picked up the phone and said, “Hello. Who’s there?” What he heard was nothing but the empty, dead silence usually following the intermittent buzzing when a phone has been left off its cradle too long. Maybe it can be traced, he thinks, two seconds before almost hanging up the phone. Could it still be traced if the line was killed? He had no idea, and elected to call Carlyle from the cell phone, intending to speak in code.

            Carlyle answered before the completion of the first ring.

            “Mr. Carlyle, I have some news. Your message was undeliverable.”

            “Don’t worry,” Carlyle reassured him. “Put it on top of his next pizza box, where he can’t miss it.”

            “Not that simple, sir. I’m afraid he refuses.”

            “He refuses what … to get sued? Fine. Tell him to cut some songs.”

            “There’s a bit of a glitch on that, sir. Um…”

            “Look. I’m two seconds from the airport. Is this … hey, are you talking on a cell phone, Syl?”

            “I’m afraid there was no other choice, Mr. Carlyle. Is there any possibility of your turning around?”

            “Sure, if I don’t mind pissing off Madonna.”

            “I’m not really sure how to say this, but…”

            “Listen, Syl, just pick up the phone and say, ‘lawsuit’. If he fires you, I’ll put you on Prince’s album.”

            “I can’t tell him anything, sir--”

            “Sure, sure, I know, but you’re no babe in the woods, Syl. You’ve worked with unresponsive artists before. He’s not going to listen to you, so sometimes you just have to keep saying it until it sinks in.”

            “There’s got to be something for it to sink in to, Mr. Carlyle!”

            Carlyle paused, gauging the enormity of the situation, then said, “Hang up now, and don’t call anyone else. I’m turning around.”

            Twenty minutes later, Syl’s phone rang again. The voice belonged to Carlyle, he knew, but the high, nasally pitch claiming to be arrived with a pizza delivery might just throw anyone listening in. On his way to the bay’s side entrance, (the same door through which Jack vacated the premises), Syl envisioned the pizza delivery getup Carlyle must be wearing as a disguise; probably not believable under close inspection but good enough for the vultures who would only see him through the windows of a moving car. To return to the studio so soon after leaving would spawn unwanted speculation.

            Picturing whatever vehicle Carlyle had requisitioned to use as a cover invited a whole slew of other bizarre mental pictures. Under any other circumstances, Syl wouldn’t have been able to suppress a chuckle upon opening the door, which was only accessible by someone opening it from the inside. The hat with the whirly-gig on top was a brilliant touch, and led Syl to wonder where on earth Carlyle had procured such a thing on such limited notice; forget the t-shirt which had a picture of a pizza on it. Standing there in the doorway with a pizza box Syl assumed was empty, Carlyle looked like Spanky from The Little Rascals. 

            Syl waited until the door was firmly shut before saying, “Jack’s gone. He took off while I was talking to you in the atrium. I think he called somebody; the phone back here was off the hook. I didn’t know if we could trace it from that or not, so I left it off until you got here. What do you think?”

            “Do I look like I know how to trace phone calls?”

            “You look like you deliver pizzas, sir.”

            “Good answer,” said Carlyle. “It’s from a place by the airport. Don’t worry. I’ve got some assistance on the way. He’ll know how to handle this.”

            Syl wanted badly to ask for elaboration, but Carlyle didn't appear open to conversation. He was investigating the area behind the drum dais where Jack had sequestered himself since early last week. There was an overstuffed armchair here, Jack’s favorite acoustic leaning on its stand, several notebooks, two ashtrays brimming over, three empty fifths of Jack Daniels, assorted other elements of self-destructive refuse, and the guitar’s mike on a table-surface stand.

            Leaving Carlyle to peruse all of this, Syl remembered that mike was still on, as well as the overheads. Just as he turned toward the control booth, the ramifications of what he’d just realized were enough to stop him cold.

“The mike was on,” he told Carlyle. “I just realized…”

“What?”

“I hit the pause button on the mike before I realized he was gone. If he talked to someone, the sound would’ve reactivated the tape—”

Carlyle, as though having discovered a clue in some treasure hunt, was already rushing toward the control booth. In his haste, forward motion caused the propeller on his hat to spin lazily. Syl, this time, was too excited to laugh.

The search to locate tell-tale sounds took less than two minutes. At high-speed ‘rewind’, they merely had to wait until a high-pitched squeal (kind of like what the Chipmunks on Mescaline might sound like) indicated sound recorded. Once the sound filling his headphones ended—indicating the beginning of whatever had been recorded—Syl froze the tape and indicated Carlyle should don the second pair of headphones. Once these had replaced Spanky’s propeller hat on Carlyle’s head, Syl hit ‘play’ again.

What they heard, at first, sounded like shuffling papers. There was no sound of a ringing phone prior to Jack’s voice apparently answering a phone call: “Hello? Thanks for calling back so fast.”

Syl glanced with concern at Carlyle.

Jack’s voice, in the headphones, said, “How have you been … Really? Me, either … You know, I could really use your help.”

Syl and Carlyle looked to each other, again. Carlyle shrugged.

“One more time,” said Jack. “What do you say … I mean: I need you … I’ll never call you again. I promise.”

Syl and Carlyle heard a noise through the headphones that might have been Jack setting down the phone receiver, but not in its cradle. Both men kept listening, nonetheless. Less than thirty seconds later—time filled with various unidentifiable sounds almost imperceptible to the closest microphone—they both heard the whoosh of the bay’s side door being opened by Jack, prior to his departure, and followed only by dead silence.

Syl kept the headphones cocked to the side on his head, so that one ear was engaged in listening to the remainder of the tape while the other ear was free to hear Carlyle, standing beside him, ask how Jack had gotten away from here without any of the vultures outside seeing him go.

Before Syl could form any hypothesis, Carlyle countered his own observation by vocalizing the reasons how this couldn’t be possible. “He left his jacket and his cell phone. He doesn’t have a car.”

“Maybe whoever he called was close by, and they picked him up.”

“Go look for him. Drive around the block. I have to wait here for our friend.”

“Jack?”

“No, Syl, the friend who’s going to help us find Jack, if you can’t. Now, get going.”

Syl had his hand on the doorknob when Carlyle said, “Wait. Put this on.”

In horror, Syl took the whirly-gig hat, receiving it with all the enthusiasm of being handed a diaper which needed disposing of. He was not surprised to see Carlyle removing the t-shirt he wore, either. Between having to wear Spanky’s hat on his head or a picture of a pizza on his t-shirt, Syl figured the shirt was the lesser of two evils.

“And take the car I used to fool the vultures,” said Carlyle. “It’s parked out back. If Jack sees anyone he recognizes, he might try and give you the slip.”

From Carlyle’s index finger dangled a single key attached to a keychain with the picture of a clown’s face on it. Syl took the key, and didn’t ask questions.   

*****

 

            Those who appreciate the work of an artist will often marvel at the processes which play in the mind of somebody who creates something which will be admired by millions of people. Many prefer to assume the instigating elements of this process to be something singular to the individual, such as the processes employed by someone clairvoyant, as opposed to something possessed by everyone. Alternatively, the cynical mind might suggest it’s all merely a matter of clever theft; their belief being that you can find the greatness of any current song somewhere in the history of all the other great songs which came before it. In truth, both camps are close. Were they to merge, the single party would be as right as rain.

            The trick is focus, but not the type which compels one to re-confirm points of study in preparation for taking a test or to break a habit of forgetting to feed the goldfish; the level of focus implied here is only derived within a mind for which the rest of reality has ceased to exist—barring concern for the few basic needs relevant to the perpetuation of existence: eating, sleeping, the removal of fluids and waste. Only these should distract the imaginative mind during productive creativity.

Things like personal hygiene frequently fall by the wayside, and it is because of this sad symptom of the overly-productive mind that Jack was able to walk out past the many congregated vultures and sycophants loitering outside the studio, hoping to catch any glimpse of their favorite hero from the vast mythology of rock-n-roll, should he choose to emerge even briefly. They’d never seen Jack appear in the guise of Rip Van Winkle on any of his album covers, and therefore took the real McCoy for a homeless vagrant. That is, those who noticed him at all. At the end of the street, the bus driver almost didn’t see him either until Jack broke into a run, waving his arms for the guy to see him before closing the folding door. Out of breath, Jack made it just in time.

Two blocks further up the road, he saw a cab with its parking lights on at the side of the curb, with the sign on its roof indicating an unoccupied vehicle. Jack got off the bus as it stopped to let on two African-American women wearing nurse’s scrubs, and took the cab. Prudently, he put himself in the backseat before the cab driver could get a good look at him or his shaggy countenance and mistake one of the world’s greatest living songwriters for a degenerate who couldn’t spring for a cup of coffee, let alone pay for a cab ride even as far as the next intersection.

Through the bulletproof glass separating the backseat from the front, the driver saw his fare’s hundred dollar bill held up for easy observation by the rearview mirror, and said, “Where to, sir?”

“Just go,” said Jack.

“I need an address, sir.”

“I only know it’s outside of town. You can keep the change.”

The driver half-turned in his seat to gauge just how crazy this guy was, as though the rearview might conceal this information somehow. To someone in the profession of transporting random clients, appearances are equated with value more quickly than they might be for one who doesn’t work personally with the public, and in this case, such green usually wasn’t logically forthcoming from someone with such a shaggy demeanor. Nevertheless, green was green, this was America, and this driver wasn’t sitting behind the wheel of a cab ten hours a day for his health.

By “outside of town,” he realized soon enough, his disheveled client meant almost all the way to the next one. Seeing his profits dwindle by the mile, the words “There, on the right,” when finally emitted from the backseat, had never sounded sweeter, and he veered off quickly into the parking lot of a watering hole so rinky-dink it could only be identified by a neon sign for Budweiser in the window in lieu of a proper name or sign above the door.

“Painting the town red, eh?”

Jack ignored this attempt at humor while vacating the backseat of the cab; his sole focus, like a man in a dream, was to enter this bar with no name. The driver, for his part, did not let his mind linger over questions of whether his attempts at humor were appreciated, or even heard. After all, green was green, this was America, and those who traveled with friends like Andrew Jackson were not required to laugh at their cab driver’s jokes.

Inside, Jack was met by bad lighting, cigar smoke, and country music. Right away, he felt at home. Eyes straining, he tried to see the booths at the back but couldn’t, so he took a stool at the bar to wait until his eyes adjusted better to the shadows. The place was almost devoid of patrons; those who were present looked like they’d been here longer than the wallpaper. The bartender was a young girl, perhaps working her way through college. She waited on him, despite the allure of repetitively wiping the bar’s surface.

“I’m waiting for some … one,” said Jack.

“You have to order something if you’re in here; house-policy.”

“Okay, a beer,” said Jack. After she procured the bottle, he dropped a bill on the bar, the amount of which he didn’t bother to acknowledge.

“Um, do you know you just gave me a hundred bucks?”

“Keep it,” said Jack, and slid off the stool. At the back of the bar, there were five booths built into the wall, all of them empty. He was early. Taking a seat with his back to the door, Jack quietly drank, smoked, and waited. Over the bar, CNN on a mounted TV was trading on a general interest story about Bob Dylan being mistaken for a vagrant by city police and arrested. Jack looked down at his own unlaundered countenance and prayed he, himself, would get away with it, just long enough to get this done.

Right at the designated moment, he felt someone take a seat in the booth behind him, facing the opposite direction. Jack waited for the other to make introduction, but no such allowance was made. Instead, the raspy voice, when it spoke, carried a tone that implied familiarity despite the content of what was said. “I wondered if you’d ever call.”

“You have to help me get back,” said Jack, lighting another cigarette nervously. There was already one burning in the ashtray, but appeared headed for an unnoticed dissipation into oblivion.

“What do you think you’re going to find there, Jack?”

“What I forgot,” he answered.

“And you think it’s still there, waiting like a puppy tied to a fence? There was never any loyalty in this, and you were foolish to think there could be. It moves on, Jack. It finds someone else. You were lucky enough to see it the first time.”

“I can see it again. I know it, if you just give me the chance. Please.”

There was silent consideration happening in the adjoining booth, and Jack prudently afforded the wheels to turn as languidly as they chose. There was no other choice, on his part, but to stare at the table’s surface and wait.

 “You know the rules,” his contact said finally. “You look at me once and I’m gone. Never turn around.”

Something, in Jack’s heart relaxed, and he stabbed his cigarette out in anticipation of leaving.

“You will do exactly as I tell you, and if you look directly at me, I’m gone forever. Do you fully understand?”

Jack agreed that he did.

“All right, then. Let’s go. You’ve might’ve wasted too much time already.”

 

*******

They boarded the plane without incident, and landed four hours later. At the destination airport, Jack boarded a cab and slid all the way over in the backseat to accommodate his friend, careful to aim his eyes in any other direction despite all contrary temptation. With renewed vigor, and palpable anticipation, Jack gave an address and forked over another hundred dollar bill. It was something just to be in proximity to the source, again. In another hour, he'd know whether there was any chance of success in this impromptu mission, or if his fellow traveler’s negativity reflected reality’s imminent outcome.

They rode without conversation; Jack immersed in memories, both desired and otherwise. The highway hadn’t changed and likely never would. Out here, the land was still bleak and barren. The rest-stop was still where he’d left it, some ten miles prior to their exit; the one where he used to play requests for tourists while he waited for his bus into the city. After asking if the 6:15 still made a stop there and being told it did, Jack told his driver, “Drop me off there.”

“You from around here, sir? You seem familiar to me.”

Jack admitted he was from the area, “but I left many years ago.”

The place was moderately busy, and there was no scrawny kid sitting near the visitor’s entrance playing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs on a beat-up hollow-body Gibson. Instead, there was a Coke machine. The map of the interstates behind Plexiglas had been replaced, as had the Plexiglas itself. The building, however, was the same: unpainted brick. Utilitarian, not a place one wanted to inhabit longer than it took to relieve oneself. Waiting here back then, he used to engage enough favorable attention to merit money for a sandwich in the city after his weekend gig at Rosie’s.

“Something’s different,” he told the contact. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Nothing but the Coke machine. It used to sell cigarettes.”

“That’s not it.”

By the time the 6:15 arrived, he still had no idea. It wasn’t the same bus, unremarkably. The driver didn’t greet him by name; didn’t even look at him—of course, it wasn’t the same guy anyway. Jack sought his old seat, anticipating that lived-in upholstery serving the traveling asses of this county and the next. It used to be awkward to slide in with his guitar case but that wasn’t an issue on this trip. Maybe that was it. He’d never been to this rest-stop without his guitar, or on this bus … except for once. As soon as he thought her name, the bus lurched forward, as though his memory was some kind of cosmic gas pedal for this earthly machine. Nonsense, he thought; just like all my other emotions toward her. All the same, the memory illuminated his next formal destination, and he whispered it to his colleague without looking over. “It’s your dime,” was the only response he received. “Spend it however you want.”

Rain began to fall as the bus passed over the city limits; drops which turned into a curtain that lashed Jack’s side of the bus unmercifully and thereby turned the passing sights into a dream-like mirage. He saw some from memory, could tell others were new, and realized that some were gone. He pondered the location of cross-streets as they passed and tried to remember their names, intermittently successful, remembering sometimes a story that went with this one or a bad memory arriving from another. Back then, he used to come back from the gig downtown completely drained, sometimes elated by how it had gone and other times, deeply blue. Back then, he would let his mind wander through song lyrics; some his own, others not. “Tripping Daisies” was written on this bus. “Gone Home.” “My Last Impression.” Songs for which his agents still fielded cover-requests from other musicians. Dreams of the future would sometimes collide with these poignant but fleeting phrases about love, and longing, and pain, and he would envision himself on the world stage. Those dreams, unbelievably, came true. Unfortunately, so did the truth in those phrases.

If there was no one on the bus, he would just play his guitar quietly in the back row and decide where he would lay his head down that night. He would hypnotize himself, though not in the literal sense. He would transport himself, while going nowhere at all. Now, he turned his thoughts back to where he’d caught the first bus in town, the one which took him to the rest stop, where he'd catch a connection headed downtown, passing the time playing "This Land Is Your Land" for pottying tourists. A nonsense life, and yet every moment seemed to be weighted with gold.

When the bus pulled into its final destination, the contact, seated beside him, stepped out into the aisle so Jack could rise and head toward the front. Should he go by the house he’d grown up in after the place he intended to go first? Should he stop here and eat at the bus station, where he used to count out nickels for a cup of coffee just to get rid of his change. Street musicians are constantly trading on other people’s discarded coins. It was funny to realize that today, he owned eight houses on three continents, but had no change of any kind in his pocket. His financial structure kept three accountants in full time, well-paid employment; “the three rats,” he called them, because their efforts spun an endless wheel of propelling royalties and dividends into various investments. It was a wheel long vacated by the god responsible for enabling it. There was almost limitless method by which to re-release the work of an artist these days, and for this reason, Jack was able to spend his years of maturity roaming around places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula without a care in the world.

From the bus station’s drop-off area, he used to sip his coffee and wonder which girlfriend to spend the night with, wondering which one of them might actually make it out of this town with him. Whichever she was, she would have to be crazy about him, and also just plain crazy. Now all those answers, my friend, were so much chaff, blowin’ in the wind. No more important than the least interesting topic in the world. And yet these moments had made him. These decisions had once seemed as much a part of him as an arm or leg. On most nights, he’d chosen Arlene. The others had fathers he would have to avoid. Arlene’s mom was usually too drunk to realize he had ever been there.

In the rain, he was glad he didn’t have a guitar case with him now. Back then, he’d have had to wait for a ride. “I don’t know what you’re hoping to find,” his contact wondered aloud. “What do you expect to see?”

“The things I used to,” Jack told him. “That’s all I want, and nothing more.”

“You’re in for a shock, I’m afraid.”

There was a cab stand nearby and Jack took to its backseat, peeling off another bill for the driver, who nodded as though acknowledging Jack had just bought the car, itself, or at least the privilege of navigating it anywhere in town he wanted. “The street is Serenity,” he said, and they started to roll. Thus began their trip into the interior of something which cannot be named. Although, at that moment, Jack still believed it could be.

To soft Latino music on the radio, Jack squinted at the street names they passed, and found himself agitated by the fact that he couldn’t quite read any of them. By now, twilight was fading into night but he couldn’t believe not even one was readable. The driver wasn’t scamming him; at least he remembered enough to know that much. They passed through the proper number of intersections, as Jack passed through an appropriate number of recollections. That alley—a story, that donut shop—a rendezvous, that corner—where a certain bit of news had been received in a phone booth that was no longer there. These shadows weren’t even the same. Back then, they had served as silent reminders that he would make his life meaningful, or die trying. That feeling was gone. He had made his life meaningful and hadn’t died trying (or even after success, like so many of his contemporaries: Morrison, Garcia, Joplin.

“You used to see your mission out there. Now that the mission is accomplished, what are you looking for?”

Jack didn’t quickly answer his companion, still squinting at those street names, as unreadable as ever: Lov—, —adness, —piration, Fea—. He asked, “Is she still there,” with a tone that suggested he already knew the answer.

“You’ll know soon,” he was told.

The cab made a left at the next intersection, traveled a block, and made a right. Jack said, “Stop here,” and “Wait for me” to the driver when the request was honored.

The streetlights had come on at some point Jack hadn’t noticed, and their reflections in the puddles of Serenity Street seemed to be whispering something to him he couldn’t translate, despite the fact he'd once been unable to shut out their voices, able to see whole meanings in them. You’ll make it out, they used to say. You’re not wasting as much time as they say. The gig went better than you think.

She loves you. She can’t wait for you to knock on the door.

His companion asked if there was some reason they’d had to vacate the dry back seat of the cab. Jack ignored the question, but only because he didn’t have an answer. There was a sense of motion in him that he hadn’t felt in years; too many years when he’d elected, instead, to stay in the “warm backseat,” too afraid to get hit by the raindrops. Somewhere in his head, there was a voice telling him this was correct, that he had no hope of finding what he’d come for unless he was willing to be exposed.

The houses were the same. It was four more up the street, five? This small one was where an old lady used to live who his mother checked up on all the time. The next was a two-story where a kid used to live (Rory Larson) that he watched whenever the parents went out bar-hopping on Friday nights. There was a light on in the upstairs room where he used to softly play instrumentals to the Rory with his hollow-body six-string, until the kid fell asleep. The house after that had been occupied by a perpetually-drunk steel worker who used to beat his wife. Jack remembered the cops were there so often you would think they lived there, too.

There was no house past that, and there should’ve been.

“Where is it?”

“Torn down for about a decade now” came the answer, somewhere behind him. “The street was widened. By then, the people were long gone, anyway.”

From the skies above, a bolt of lightning chose then to fully illuminate the anticlimactic absence of something so essential, as if to rub it in that a piece of his history had been erased. “I lost my virginity in that house,” Jack admitted.

“Yes, you did.”

“If not for that house, I would’ve been out on the street more times than I care to count.”

“One hundred-fifty-seven nights, to be exact. Did you think you’d just go and find your next album waiting for you?”

Jack held up his hand for the cab, now half a block behind them, and watched the headlights approach. His companion, climbing into the backseat behind, said, “So, Jack, where do we run to now?”

 

 *******

There was a strip mall with a Chinese restaurant where he and she would frequently go to drop out of the world and eat buffet for $2.99. When Jack walked in, he was too busy absorbing the immense relief of its survival to notice the price of the same buffet had increased thrice its value from those days.

In his mind, providence suggested it was no mistake that corner booth was open just for him; the place, itself, largely unoccupied, as though one of his sycophantic handlers from the early days of success had “called ahead.” Somehow, implausibly, the same music was playing quietly over the sound system: a muzak-version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. Somehow, all these years hence, the owners of the place still hadn’t replaced the cracked vinyl that covered the seats of the booths.

It was in this booth that Jack had written that line that would someday be etched on his tombstone; the one everyone could sing from his most famous song, whether they knew much of his music, liked it, or not. Go to a rice paddy in Viet Nam and pull out a farmer—he can probably relate that line to you if a few bars are hummed for his recollection.

It was in this booth that she told him about the baby that didn’t make it.

It was in this booth that he broke up with her the following year.

It was from this restaurant he’d called a cab to take him to the airport the weekend he signed the contract.

He hadn’t returned since.

This was the address he’d given the original cab driver, the one who’d taken him from the airport an hour ago to the rest stop where he’d caught the bus. It was an address etched into his memory from seeing it painted on the door he’d walked through so many times. The address was 1122. The street was [Name].

As Jack slid into that booth, he noticed the vinyl was cracked in exactly the same place. It always stopped him from sitting with his back against the wall, crooking a leg up on the bench as he liked to. So many years had gone by between now and then, he’d forgotten that the cracked vinyl was the reason he started to sit on the opposite side. She’d sat on the cracked side because she didn’t sit on the bench like he did, keeping her legs fully under the table. Sitting there wouldn’t work this time, because his companion was in the booth backing up to his own; back-to-back again like they’d been in the bar some five hours ago.

The sensation he felt provided a strange surrealistic quality to his mood; it was as if he was staring at a ghost of himself in this booth, sitting across the table from him, forty years younger, leather jacket, body angled into the corner of the booth, smoking one cigarette after another, left leg crooked up on the bench beside him. He used to inhabit the full length of the bench he sat on.

“A Chinese restaurant. An ex-girlfriend’s house. A rest stop outside of town. One street or another. Are we having fun yet?”

Jack ignored the haze of sarcasm around his companion’s verbal wonderings.

“You told her you couldn’t raise a baby. You told her you were not throwing your career away over a mistake. And here you come crawling back. Perhaps hoping to make the decision again. Would you do the same?”

He would, Jack knew. Things would’ve been too different had he made any other decision. The three rats would’ve never found his perpetual wheel, wearing out their little rat-feet spinning it in ever-lasting circles so that he could go off to Michigan and deliver mail just because he was off on some weird, hermetic trip. Spend all that effort to become larger than life only to spend an equal amount returning to obscurity.

All the while propelled by some illusion that any of it mattered at all.

“But maybe it did,” his companion assured him. “You don’t how many people have found enough strength to do what they needed to do while hearing your music. How many writers have crafted that elegant passage that satisfied them, with your lyrics spinning around in their heads? How many lonely hearts have found comfort from your kindred spirit?”

Jack waited for a waitress that never came. In the old days, she had been the niece of the owner, who wasn’t present in the evenings. She used to let him strum when there were no other patrons in the place, which was most of the time.

Even from that crack in the vinyl-covered bench, he had drawn inspiration like water from a well; a well he had never thought would go dry. Eventually, all of us find the bottom, no matter how high we rise, he thought, or was it vocalized by his companion? It was too hard to tell anymore.

The waitress never came, and the rain never stopped falling. Rainy nights made the world feel like a dream. Should he be writing this stuff down? Was any of it ever worth writing down? The rats sure thought so. His ex-wives, too, and the kids who barely talked to him. After all, how could they know a ghost intimately enough to call it father? He’d been as much a ghost to them as his younger version was to him even now, sitting there smoking, knowing that gargantuan album was still to come, knowing his success was more important than anything else. That ghost, that little son of a bitch, was still alive inside him somewhere, still behaving as though everything he did mattered more than anything else—more than anybody else.

“It’s a good thing I wasn’t hungry when I came in,” his companion stated. “I don’t think there’s any waitress here of any kind. Avert your eyes from me, I’m gonna get up.”

Jack did as he was told, and heard his traveling companion slide out of the adjoining booth, heard him walk away, heard him come back a minute later. “There’s nobody in the kitchen,” he told Jack. “Somebody left half a pizza, though. And this hat. Check it out.”

Jack’s eyes didn’t rise to see his companion modeling any hat. Despite having no real reason for calling on the assistance of this person in the first place, he was aware just the same that his companion’s presence was crucial. He was not about to dishonor the one rule: You look at me once, and I’m gone, so instead, Jack waited for his companion to drop the hat on the table.

It was a multi-striped yarmulke with a propeller sticking up from it, like Spanky used to wear on The Little Rascals. It was the hat worn by the pizza delivery guy who delivered to the studio, three states away from here where he'd started, the hat Jack remembered buying off the kid with one of those hundred dollar bills from the roll in his pocket, the hat he'd thought would look funny if he wore it on the album cover—the album he couldn’t seem to write without boarding a plane and flying away, without visiting the street on which he’d lived so many years ago, without visiting the Chinese restaurant that time forgot.

“It’s double cheese,” he was told. “Isn’t that your favorite?”

Jack stood and brushed past his companion without looking up, leaving the pizza, leaving the hat, leaving the restaurant altogether. This was not the world he remembered, but some type of bizarre facsimile devoid of its original integrity.

Not angry but filled with an abruptly gathering desperation, he rushed out into the rain again, looking for a cab although he didn't expect to find one. He was altogether amazed when he did. Despite sending the driver away once they’d gotten here, the cab was still parked, over there at the end of the strip mall, as if waiting for him still. He was looking at it, the bleary shadows of this night soaking wet and glimmering in the background, out of focus, like him. “Keep moving,” said the voice behind him, but it didn't belong to his companion.

It was younger, full of finely-honed rage, full of power. “Walk toward the cab,” he was told. “Walk past it. We’re going around behind the building.”

“Who are you?”

“Don’t worry about it, old man. We ain’t pen-pals.”

Most of the other businesses in the strip mall were closed for the night: an H & R Block (rats spinning countless wheels), a pizza place (where the employees all wore funny, propeller hats but never looked up at him as he walked past), a bail bondsman (the sign on the door stating numbers to call if the place was closed), an ex-video rental place foreclosed and devoid of visual escapes. They walked in front of the cab but the windshield wipers were off and rain washing down over the glass obscured the face of whoever was driving. Jack found himself wishing he’d made more of an effort to remember the guy’s features. They passed its front grill, reaching the end of the strip mall, and Jack took the left in order to follow the shadows into the darkness beyond. He was about to get robbed; that much was obvious. The only question was whether these were his last minutes of life.

“Stop,” said the voice behind him, and Jack did so. “Give me the roll.”

“What roll? We just passed a Chinese restaurant. They might have rolls.”

“The roll of bills in your pocket, you old goof. Nobody gives a cab driver a hundred dollar bill in this town unless he’s got ten more in his pocket. Cough it up or I’ll cut you and leave you for dead.”

Jack reached into his pocket but the money was gone. How could that be? He’d had at least a grand rolled up just like this punk bastard wanted. Had he dropped it?

The kid told him not to make him look for it.

A new voice broke in to wonder, “What song are you gonna write to get you out of this one, Jack?”

The kid, however, didn’t appear to hear this. “All right,” he said. Right then, Jack felt the blade slide through the skin of his back and pierce something within that sent crippling, shooting pain through every fiber of his body. He called out but his own amazement stifled it. As he sank to his knees, a body moved in behind him and broke his fall backward. With admirable precision, a hand found his pants pocket, realized no roll awaited searching fingers, and then shifted him to the side so that another hand could search the opposite pocket. “You had a single hundred dollar bill, gave it to a cab driver, and that was all you had? I don’t believe that, no fucking way! I guess this guitar might be worth a few bucks. It better not be a piece of shit.”

Guitar?

“Come on, Jack,” said the familiar voice of his companion, “there’s an inspiration in here somewhere. It’s your job to find it. That’s what keeps the rats running.”

As he sank to the dirty, rain-puddled pavement, he saw the legs of the assailant running toward the cab. He watched them argue at the driver’s window, saw the kid take off, saw the cab back out of its parking spot. After that, he saw a different set of legs step into view. “What guitar?” he asked. “I didn’t bring any guitar.”

“You brought everything, Jack. You always do.”

“Am I gonna die out here?”

There was no answer and Jack rolled over onto his back, staring up into the perpetually falling rain. At some point, his face fell to the left and he saw someone in the distance, standing under a streetlight at the end of the parking lot. A woman holding a baby, bobbing it gently on her hip as she stared into the darkness in an effort to see him.

“I’m gone,” he said, maybe to her, maybe not.

“Write the song, I don't care how much it hurts,” said his companion. “After all this fooling around, at long last, will you write the god-blessed song already?”

“There’s nothing to write anymore…”

“Then she was wrong about you. I was wrong about you. The three rats are gonna have to stand on the bread line …”

“I don’t care about them! I don’t even care about myself!”

“Write the song, Jack…”

“You write the fucking song, I’ve just been stabbed!”

The night was fading now, the rain fell without opinion about what shape he was in, his life was sliding away without any opinion on his part.

The woman holding the baby had stepped forward, squinting into the darkness at him and Jack tried to raise an arm to get her attention. All he wanted to do was go home. All he wanted to do was start over again. This time he would stay with her, he would save the baby, he wouldn’t be worth robbing.

“Help me!” he screamed out to her, raising one arm with the last of his strength. “Save me!” It was only in the echoes that he realized he was actually screaming, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Eventually, the bus arrived, pulling to the curb, and he watched her board, still bobbing that baby, and the bus took them both away.

“Help me,” he said to the legs of his companion, the one whose face he dare not look upon.

“I don’t care about your apologies, Jack. The song, just write the song. Write me so I can save you. Just like I always have.”

Jack closed his eyes against the futility of it. He felt the raindrops soak his face and the blood flowing out of his body and the darkness close in to swallow him. Only then did he, or could he, completely let go.

When he opened his eyes again, the night was gone.

 “Wow,” he heard Syl say over the intercom. “I don’t know where you went, but I like what you brought back. Carlyle is gonna kiss your face, brother.”

He was hungry, he was drained, he was horribly blue, his body was sore. And he felt wonderful. They both knew it was right, and Jack sat forward, setting the Gibson back in its stand. He stood on legs tired by age, but strengthened from walking four miles daily to deliver mail for the past (#) years. He gave Syl, in the control room, a thumbs-up and stretched by placing his hands on his hips and leaning backward, bobbing slightly, then leaning forward and doing the same.

“I knew you could do it, man,” said Syl on the intercom. “You deserve a night out, once we listen to the playback. You haven’t left this room since we got here.”

Jack didn’t answer, but knew the logic was true. It was time to depart for real. Feel the sun. Stretch his legs. Forget the darkness. Until the next time he sought the revelations of the future, he was content to leave the clues of the past. And Jack stepped out into the sunlight to meet the din of those who’d been waiting so long for him to find himself, so that he could impart it to them, so they could do the same.

 

 

 

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