A WHOLE SUMMER LONG
I had never been to The Wall of Sleep, but I wasn't surprised by the interior. Black-and-red wallpaper, replicas of eighteenth-century furniture, silk curtains, The Empire Hideous playing on the speakers -- pretty much the average trappings of a NYC goth bar. Nor was I surprised when the bouncer said, "They're gonna love you in there, kid."
I have been informed by a number of women that I'm pretty damn handsome. I also stride with confidence in my black leather jacket and boots. Plus there's my long blonde hair. A combination of good looks, an air of danger and a wisp of effeminacy can really attract the babes. (And some men. I have been in lots of bars.)
I did find myself the current main attraction when I entered The Wall of Sleep. I returned the looks by examining the other customers. I saw the jittery young people wearing fishnet and smoking clove cigarettes (again, fuck you, Bloomberg); the customers having a Tarot reading as their bracelets jingled; the people playing vampires with plastic fangs and glasses of absinthe; the occasional mohawk and studded jacket. And I saw the cool people. Don't ask me how I know they were the cool group. Maybe it was because the oldest customer was at their center, smiling slyly as she sat in her chair and played with her necklace; maybe it was the way they looked at other people or at each other, measuring them against some invisible standard; maybe it was because one of them was wearing a tall black hat and nobody else in the bar was.
In any case they were holding court in their own little corner of the bar. When they saw me they had a quick conversation. Their leader nodded her pale head. The man in the top hat was sent to talk with me.
"Excuse me," he said in a tone which told me of the special honor I was receiving, "but would you care to join..."
"Sorry, I already see my group." I walked around Top Hat and headed toward a group of teenagers huddled around a couch. "May I sit here?" I asked them.
They were stunned at first, but then they eagerly welcomed me to sit. I thanked them and glanced over at the cool people. Their leader stared at me as if I had just peed into her absinthe.
There's one decidedly superior thing about schooling Below -- no cliques, no social hierarchy, no cool people. Having grown up in an environment where people truly accept difference, I have been appalled by the shit young people Above accept in order to fit in somewhere.
You might ask what were young people doing in a bar anyway. Well, The Wall of Sleep had a policy than, say, Knucklebones. The manager understood that there were a lot of lonely, moody kids in New York City who needed a place for comfort. That's why there was a group of nervous teen-agers huddled here. I decided to join them because they were more likely to give me information than would the cool group. And, at the risk of sounding like a charity worker, I figured that if I had coolness of my own, I might as well give it to the people who needed it the most.
"I'm Jacob," I said after I sat down.
A goth girl cleared her throat and said, "I'm..."
Ah, hell, I forgot her name too. And, no, I didn't fuck her in a bathroom. I can't remember any of the names of those teenagers I met. Not nice of me, but understand this -- something would happen which would overwhelm most of the memories from that evening.
I do remember how nice those goth kids were. Maybe I shouldn't refer to them as kids, considering that a few of them were older than I was. Let's just say that I had more experience than they had.
They told me about themselves, trying to make their words clear as Mike Hideous bellowed about heaven's raining bullets over the speakers. I gave them my full attention, even if I don't remember what they said. I remember the general feel of their words -- lonely and sad with sudden bursts of euphoria. Typical moody teenage stuff.
Eventually the topic turned to tonight's reading. It was going to be an open mike session where anybody could read their writings or someone else's. The goth girl who first introduced herself to me abruptly declaimed, "She's coming!"
"Who?" I said.
"There's, there's this lady who comes here every year, I mean I heard she comes every year, I've only seen her once, but, oh my god, she's amazing, she has the most awesome voice, she's incredible..."
My memory twisted as the goth girl babbled. 'She comes every year,' Russ had observed in his notes. He must have contacted somebody who had attended a previous reading. I couldn't get any more sense of this woman's identity from the goth girl, and decided not to press her on the topic.
Eventually the speakers fell silent, and a spotlight was aimed at a stage. A microphone and a stool took the light's glare. The club manager walked up to the microphone and asked who was first.
One after another, several people read personal writings. Mostly they were okay. By 'okay' I mean not good. The dominant style of the poems seemed to run myth and folklore through the William S. Burroughs wringer. Talk of fairies and angels segued to descriptions of rape and bloody fetuses. People applauded everyone who stepped up to the mike, though. Why shouldn't they have? The Wall of Sleep was where people came to feel accepted. During the readings there was at least a display of acceptance, even though I noticed that some of the cool people were tittering behind their hands. I felt an urge to carve up the top hat and make them eat the pieces.
But I got a bit weary with it, even though I applauded as well. After all, I was here to find a killer, not listen to the scribblings in an adolescent's notebook. After an hour of 'The pain feeds me like a mother's breast' and 'How I long for the light, either the glow of angels or the fires of hell,' I decided that I had followed a dead lead. I was thinking of the best way to excuse myself when...
It started as a whisper at the back of the club, then grew into cries of "It's her! It's her!" A man wearing eyeliner stopped in the middle of his poem. I turned to look, just like everybody else.
My first thought was "She's nothing but darkness."
My second thought was "How ridiculous."
Thought number three was "I'm going to kill her."
She was dressed in a black cloak with the hood drawn forward. Black scarves were wrapped around her face. Black was also the color of the gloves on her hands, the blouse under the cloak, the shoes on her feet and the glasses over her eyes.
I judged this to be taking the whole 'don't-touch-me-I'm-so-sensitive' look way too far. Then I realized that there was a glimmer of color besides black on her self.
The book in her hand was red. Red morocco binding.
She looked at the current poetry reader. At least, her head was aligned in his direction. It was hard to tell what those covered eyes were watching. The man wearing eyeliner quickly said, "Um, I'm done." He scurried off the stage. The woman in black walked toward there. She moved with steps that were cautious and graceful at the same time. It was as if she was walking in a minefield, but already knew where the mines were.
I noticed that she was of medium height, and that I could snap her neck in a second. Those were my thoughts as she started to pass me.
Then she stopped, turned and looked at me. Again, I could only assume that she was looking at me. I saw myself reflected in her glasses.
My violent thoughts suddenly disappeared to my surprise. Instead of rage, I now felt anticipation. I found myself wanting to hear this woman speak. I just sat there on the couch and stared back at my reflection.
She turned away from me and continued in her slow, fluid way to the stage. When she reached the mike, she lifted her head as a signal. A click echoed over the speakers as the mike was shut off. Some unseen hand also turned off the spotlight, returning the stage to dimness. My eyes could still clearly see her as she pushed aside the microphone stand, pulled up a stool, sat down and opened the book in her lap.
Then she reached up to the scarf around her mouth. She pulled it down just enough to expose her mouth. My eyes couldn't see anything specific except that it was a mouth.
She began to read. "Upon a time, before the faery broods/ Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods..."
Nobody moved for the next twenty minutes. I'm not sure if anybody breathed.
I've heard many fine voices -- the strength of Diana's, the warmth and wisdom of Grandfather's, the sometimes compassionate, sometimes thunderous music of Father's. None of them, however, had the same richness that came from this woman's throat. It was...well, Keats put it best. 'For so delicious were the words she sung/ It seem'd he had lov'd them a whole summer long."
That's from "Lamia." And that was the poem she read at The Wall of Sleep. And she was holding the book for which Russ Garner died.
I didn't care about that. Every inch of my being was concentrating on her voice. I didn't just hear those words. I lived them. When the 'ever-smitten Hermes empty left his golden throne, bent warm on amourous theft,' I could see the god as clearly as any person I had ever met. He was a magnificent being, but also absurd -- a god sneaking out of his house like a horny teen-ager. Speaking of horny, the woman seemed to raise the club's temperature as Hermes 'burnt from his winged heels to either ear.' I could hear him panting while he searched for the place where a 'sweet nymph prepar'd her secret bed.'
Then a new voice spoke. Even though it came from the same person, I was startled by its utterly different tone. "'When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!'" the woman in dark cried. She was no longer the narrator, but this pitiful character longing for 'a sweet body fit for life.'
The character was a snake -- 'a gordian shape of dazzling hue.' I feared her because she seemed 'some demon's mistress, or the demon's self.' I pitied her because her eyes did nothing but 'weep and weep.'
The woman told how the snake promised to guide Hermes to the nymph. In exchange Hermes had to turn her into a woman. Both fulfilled their part of the bargain. Hermes would find his love and the two of them would not die, 'as mortal lovers do.' The snake became Lamia, 'a lady bright,' and sought out Lycius whom she loved.
I hoped for Lamia and Lycius, but I knew how this story ended. I knew that Lycius would convince Lamia to wed him; that the philosopher Apollonius would expose Lamia with his hard stare; that love 'in a hut, with water and a crust/ Is -- Love, forgive us! -- cinders, ashes, dust/ Love in a palace is perhaps at last/ More grievous torment than a hermit's fast.'
When the woman spoke those words, she paused and, for the first time in her reading, raised her head. And her voice was cold. "'That is a doubtful tale from faery land,'" she told her audience, "'hard for the non-elect to understand.'" You silly little people, she seemed to sneer. You want poetry? You want dreams of faeries and elves and dragons? You'll get cinders and ashes and dust.
I flinched at that coldness, because it seemed so much like my own rudeness toward the tale of Vincent and Catherine, to their Bond, to the Bond I once shared with Father. I felt relief when the woman lowered her gaze and her voice regained its sensual tones. However, I flinched again when the woman asked, "'Do not all charms fly/ At the mere touch of cold philosophy?'" She talked matter-of-factly this time about heartless philosophers who 'conquer all mysteries by rule and line' and 'unweave a rainbow.' That was me. I was not Isaac Newton who proved that the rainbow was nothing but light through a prism. I was just trying to be Mister Reality, speaking about Catherine's death as if death was all which could be said about her. When she reached the blunt words of Apollonius ("Fool!"), I hated him and myself.
Then came the ending. Lamia vanished. Lycius fell down with 'no pulse, or breath' and a 'heavy body wound.' With those final words the woman in black closed the book. With the same careful pace as when she entered, she stood, walked off the stage and started her way to the door.
Nobody applauded. Most of us were crying. The rest were simply stunned. She continued on her way, not expecting anything from us.
I couldn't move at first. Then I thought -- Russ, Knight, the book. I also thought -- I must know this woman's name.
She had almost reached the exit when I sprang to my feet and chased after her. I could have easily caught her if it hadn't been for the wall.
That was my first impression when a shape blocked my path -- who put this wall here? Then I saw that it was a man in my way. He wore a simple gray suit and tie. His tall body looked like it had been carved out of a bank vault's door. He had colorless eyes that saw me without seeing me. I wasn't a person to him. I was simply there to be stopped.
Where the hell did this guy come from? my mind stammered. How did he get into here without me seeing him? Where was he the whole time?
My confusion became anger. I was ready to go straight through this man in order to reach that lovely voice.
But I couldn't do it. Not there. Not with her words still seeming to hang in the air like 'fifty wreaths of smoke from fifty censers.' I couldn't...I wouldn't desecrate that beauty with violence, with my 'animal movements.'
I didn't back up one step, but neither did I attack. I just gave the large man a look that said, "I'm letting you go...this time."
The man's expression didn't change. However, he did gradually turn away from me and walk toward the woman in black. She was waiting near the door with her hidden eyes turned in my direction.
Then she and her bodyguard left. I stood there, trying to deal with everything that had happened, trying to figure out what happened. I came here looking for revenge. Instead I had found beauty. And, not having a shred of evidence, I knew that the woman in black had nothing to do with Russ' death. I couldn't connect such a voice to evil.
A hand lightly rested on my shoulder. I turned and saw the goth girl. She smiled as tears dropped from her eyes. She knew exactly what I was feeling.
"Find her," she told me.
Best advice I ever got. Or the worst.
I bolted from the club.