In the Chelsea Hotel he sat with Sara who was sleeping, pregnant in the bed. In the early morning dark, alone, who else would remember what was happening, would know what his feelings were really about? He began to hum the song. It sounded like a torture instrument. Everything he had settled upon to write out was in the song writhing in the throes of love or death, heaving with life. He felt relief that at least that much had worked. He crossed the room and kissed Sara on her cheek but she didn't wake. At the time the gesture had been a lazy distraction but in recollection, it was more like a sign of something else, another attempt to get inside of his own life. But maybe he knew even then, his life wasn't there, wasn't heading in that direction, had gone on without him.
'I suppose,' he began thoughtfully, standing in the dark hallway with its gilt-framed mirrors and plush crimson wallpapers that made the mirror look like extinguishing lanterns - the whole scene was like out of a Western, ' someone'll reward me, maybe Albert will, with his stolen silver,' he went on grinning, '… but only if I save it before it gets passed on to somewhere I can't get to.'
'You hear that?' he asked, startled. Don Carlos Gould looked like an avenging angel, standing by the stair banister.
' Bobby, you'll be givin' me the heeby-jeebies rolling your eyes like that. You look as if you've seen a ghost,' he laughed, but it was a laugh that sounded like he'd found it in his pocket. Robert Allen shuffled forward and upon reaching Don Carlos he grasped the other fellow's arm and peered over the banister and down into the mean gloom of the stairwell.
'Some nights you hear things, like people walking but there ain't noone there,' whispered Robert Allen.
'Excuse me Bobby, but this is not the time,' smirked Don Carlos, breaking free and making as if to plunge onto the stairs and go.
'Some things are fixed and other things aren't. You know, some things happen and they get to be stubborn, nailed down so there's no doubt attached. Other times, there's so many ways to look at it there's something secretive and cruel in it. I tell you. I've seen some strange things. Like there was this time in a layby and there was this kid about to wander off onto the highway and this truck coming along. And the boy was going to walk straight out into the path of this truck and was going to be dead for sure. But someone yanked him off the road, yanked him back so his shoulders were bruised there was that much force. But I swear, there was no one there. The boy looked round and the layby was empty. He was all alone.
And then there was this other guy, he was in Canada ok. And he was working in one of those buildings where the air is pumped round, you know? So it's all artificially circulated yeah? Well, something went wrong and instead of pure air it was pumping round exhaust fumes, poison. And this guy he was working late and didn't notice what was happening. So he was getting drowsy on account of the poison fumes building up. And then he hears this Bang Bang Bang. At his door. So he jerks his head up and thinks 'What the hell's that?' and he goes to the door but when he opens the door to his office there's no one in the hall. So he's all for going back to his desk because he still hasn't figured out about the air problem. And then he hears Bang Bang Bang and this time it's down the hallway. And it's late, you know, real late so he's thinking 'Who the hell's out here this time of night?' but he stumbles down the hall that's now getting real thick with the poison and he opens the door out onto the parking lot. And it's a clear night and the lights are blazing so he can see right out. But there's no one there. No one there. But he knows that if he'd stayed at his desk he's have surely died.'
Don Carlos is still there, blank faced and brooding on the story, with a kind of wistfulness in him, as if he knew that this was all too much for him.
'Some strange things happen,' he said.
'Another time there was this house and when the new family were all set to be moving in they brought their grandmamma along because they were proud of this new step forward. And they walked the gardens and smelled the roses and admired the fields that were all around this house but when the old woman looked at the house she kind of froze. And the daddy, her son, he saw this and he rushed over to her and asked her, kind of freaking out, 'What ma, what is it ma?' and the old woman just shook her head and said she wanted a glass of water. And they brought her lemonade because it had been freshly made by the wife - like I said - they were trying to impress the old woman with everything they were doing. And then, afterwards they went indoors. They gave the grandma a tour of the house, lingering in each room so that the old woman could see how much more spacious it was compared to where they had come from, so that she could see how much there was to admire - but when they got to the top of the stairs she stopped dead and stared at a blank wall that confronted them and wouldn't budge.
'What is it ma?' asked the son again, but this time he was feeling a little annoyed because all this behaviour was spoiling the overall effect he was hoping to create.
'There's a room behind there. Won't want to go there now because it's a bad place. It wishes it wasn't there,' she muttered, her face pale and she was trembling from head to toe. And it was true. On the outside you could see a window all bricked up but on the inside there was no trace of this. Also there were yards of space missing on the inside which weren't missing on the outside. Like if you made measurements the inside and the outside didn't fit . So some months later the son tore down a wall and found the hidden room. The air in there, he said later, was hard and high, cold and separate. A hidden room, a space no one was supposed to look at again after what? Something bad or something? But although someone at some time had tried to hide it away and make it disappear there was no solution because, well, what is, is. Not even a death can make things disappear.'
Don Carlos fidgeted. It was nearly three in the morning and he was tired and a little drunk. His close-packed teeth showed all the time. He had no curiosity to understand anything when in this state.
'You saying there's no going back?' he mumbled, his words the kind that didn't pay attention so if they did develop a thought it was purely by accident.
'I'm so hungry,' announced Robert Allen suddenly and he leapt forward, in front of Don Carlos and scampered down the stairs. Don Carlos shrugged and followed him out.
'What I'm wanting is something German,' said Robert Allen.
'It's late man,' grumbled his companion who felt uneasy at this. He was listening to the night and he sensed danger. Not people, people weren't the threat here. It was in the air.
'Money makes us insane. All this shit, all this New York heh? Money driving even the air insane,' cried out Robert Allen, plunging on into the night, stomping the streets looking for German food.
'I toured Germany and we had this Black Forest food, you know, haunted food, full of poverty. That's the thing about the Germans. It's as if they're under a spell and when they buy their big Mercedes Benz's and BMWs it's just a way of trying to forget the spell. But it's there, and you can trace it in their crazy food. You know what their food is - all that omellete of bacon and potato, black bread with butter and bacon - you know what they call that - Carlos, heh, you listening up?' he called to the little figure following him through the night like dwarfish solitude himself.
'Yeah, yeah, I'm listening. Look, can you slow down a little. I'm out of breath,' Don Carlos grumbled. Robert Allen stopped and waited for him to catch up before he burst on forward again, plunging deeper into the city.
'Peasant's breakfast. That's what it's called. They eat all sorts of shit there because they are still looking East, even though they try, shit man, they try so hard, to look West. But you know what, they eat hearts and brains, they eat pork knuckles, shredded root vegetables in water, pickled leg of mutton, beans, like they'll marinate meat in vinegar for days, dried fruit, berries, mushrooms, they stick everything, even the cheap meats in lemon and peppers to hide the taste. You look at their stews and you see nipples floating in the gravy man. It's like someone just cooked their woman yeah. And pig's feet. Looks like you've caught the devil. Horse-raddish sauce, you ever had that? You ever had Wiener Schitzel? Tripe? Tripe's traditional man, it's, like, supposed to sooth the fear of dying and the fear of anger in the outraged. Tripe's always been there, in jars on the stove, waiting to calm things down. And eels with milk, mustard, parsley and boiled potatoes, bay leaf and a clove - again, you know that in the past there was this thing where you either eat this stuff or else you starve. And all the meat they eat, well, there's a kind of lie there, a secret to it because I know that in the past those meat dishes were all about not having meat. Kind of, you'd soak the bone and dress it up in stuff. Are you following me?' he called out as he dashed into the road and crossed on top the other side and then headed on down a sidestreet that Don Carlos hadn't even seen it was all happening so fast.
'Like goose drippings, and goose neck, and goose giblets, and goose liver pate and all that cabbage with it. You see what I'm saying. This is survival food. Curly kale is a winter vegetable see? So in the snow and the starvation peasants, they'd eat the stuff. Turnips and sauerkraut- fermented cabbage you cook with whatever you can get your hands on - apples maybe, pinapple, spices, potatoes and so on. And I love the sweet dumplings.'
'Are we there yet?' said Don Carlos breathless and flagging.
'There? Where are we? Hey, now Don Carlos, are you saying you don't know where we're going?' asked Robert Allen, pulling up sharply and giving Don Carlos a look that was half anxious and half amused.
'Fuck Bobby. Where are we going?'
'I guess we're heading East. The East that coughed up Attilla. There's something empty and menacing, don't you think, something about that direction that just breeds mystic fear. It's like a fear of your own opposite.' They both stood still, catching their breaths and reflecting on how they were going to scuttle back into the light, get back to the hotel. Or at least, Don Carlos was thinking this. What Robert Allen was thinking he said aloud.
'Great cheeses too. Even at breakfast you'll get these platters of different cheeses and thin rye bread and yoghurts. The spell hypnotises them all the time. It's about money, madness, the East, Tartery and tortery… you ever had sachertorte heh? It was subject to a court case once, you know, to decide who had the right to call their sachertorte genuine. It was all about whether you fill it with apricot jam or whether you just cover it. Crazy stuff,' laughed Robert Allen, clapping his hands to gether to keep himself warm. A rain was beginning to fall.
'So what do you do?' asked Don Carlos, irritated that he needed to know.
'What?' replied Robert Allen, having lost the thread of what he'd been saying only moments before because he was now preoccupied with the rain.
'Do you fill it or cover it?' asked Don Carlos crossly.
'Hmm. I guess you have to fill it if you want to be genuine,' replied Robert Allen after thinking for a pause.
Playing a round song, beating out the kissin' cousin rythms, it was like he was trying to repair some rotting old piece of furniture, and in his eyes he wasn't really seeing the session musicians, wasn't looking at anything at all. They were waiting for him. His pace became slower. If you're in a maelstrom the you go round at whatever speed's dictated.
'No one dead here,' he quipped over his shoulder to one of the older guys.
'No, there's no need to talk of dead men here.' Which was a strong line, a curt nonchalance.
Sunlight slanted into the studio and everywhere was hot and bright. The music pitched forward into it, tripped up against it. This was miles away from New York, this was him experimenting with electricity, like Ben Franklin, a less than middle sized, snuff-coloured little genius. Recall the joke about Franklin's call to be humble - imitate Jesus and Socrates! Sitting later, smoking a small cigarette and reading Stan Lee's 'Silver Surfer'. Jesus on a skateboard. The immortal soul might be a cheap insurance policy, might be something he'd be better getting Albert to look into. Where the fuck was Albert? Listen to Little Richard preaching whils't burning his own piano and fucking the racist pastor's daughters, where he's singing 'extirpate the savages in order to make way for the cultivators of the earth,' in reverse, singing that has each verse with theatre as a subset. Robert Allen drinking white rum in a square room and wondering how to understand how, if you must sit down with one of the God's, how to choose. He might have known someone, one of the old guitarists, would sit and talk into the small hours, either repeating or originating again Lawrence's 'Anger is just, pity is just. But judgement is never just,' and 'Never yield before the barren' and finally ' Benjamin tries to shove me into a barbed wire paddock and make me grow potatoes or Chicagoes.'
Walking the rainy streets of New York again, and all the time counting his own footsteps.
'Don Carlos, Don Carlos,' he calls out. The old guy shuffles out into the hall again. Same old scene, the mirrors, the dark crimson walls, shadows and the albatross white of the mirrors - hmmm. Ambiguities indeed. One long brain-muddled , soul-bewildered ambiguity without beginning or end, a labyrinth without a clue, an Irish bog without so much as a jack o' th'-lantern to guide the wanderer's footsteps - the dreams of a distempetred stomach, disordered by a hasty supper on half-cooked pork chops… a copy of the New York Herald draped on a side table like a veil.
'Someone, people, following me around,' whispered Robert Allen. Don Carlos sucked on his dope and kept his mournful face fixed on the little guy standing there, wearing black and acting like an Antic Hamlet, unwashed like an Apache, root-rich.
'Bobby…' he began but Robert Allen cut in excitedly.
'These aren't people right? These are kind of … evoked.'
'Yea. Like, it's a strange thing, but some times I get the feeling there's things creeping around. It's like a crazy sort of intuition. I thought instincts would keep me close up to others, yeah, but there are other things that haunt us too. Can fake things haunt us?' he said fearfully. Don Carlos wanted to laugh.
'What are you on Bobby? Come on, you should be inside your room with your woman. You should be comforting her. She's gonna have your child. You got to take care of her man. And her other child,' Don Carlos tried to insist.
'I have this idea,' blinked Robert Allen.
They found a small bar which was empty save for the old barman who didn't know who the hell Robert Allen was supposed to be, some big-shot music star whatever. He cleaned glasses hard, put his back into it, kind of like he was being strongly defiant in the face of fame, money and all that. So Don Carlos and Robert Allen pitched camp, sat with their back to the wall, facing the door in a far corner with a bottle of beer each like some green lit nighthawks out of Hopper.
'Things went wrong when human became human-interest,' sneered Robert Allen picking up a paper and then throwing it across the table.
'You're just pissed off. You'll be raving against conversation next. Shut the fuck up and drink your beer,' laughed Don Carlos. Robert Allen was over worked, getting stressed, was thinking like a paranoid. He was jumpy. Every sound, car horn, blow of wind, it made him start and his fingers drummed on the table-top.
'So what is it man?' asked Don Carlos after a while.
'I'm stretching out my songs on machines.'
'Strange way of talking Bob.'
'Some of them are still breathing, a few ain't. Most are though.'
'Bluegrass some of it. But some of it just plain different. New. So you get the shape right and sometimes you're just guessing because you've never heard this stuff before. And each song's got to have a punch-line or at least get close to one. Be so unfinished everyone knows what it would have been.'
'Maybe you should head on home.'
'It's one hell of a night, and I go and see the English guys, came from Mercy Side, and they're like men with fish in their mouths, washed clean and pale, like a ho's silk. That's what they seemed like. They were kind of scared when they met me. It was like going to the circus. They were harmless and had a great sound when they played. I loved some of the stuff they did. But it was harmless. Like toys, bits of pottery and blankets and home-made nick-knacks - I mean - no one was going to get cut. They were enchanted, lots of fake imagination, cold-creamed and clean despite everything. And I'm not knocking them here..'
'The hell you're not! They were really into your stuff. They heard it. They understood,' snapped Don Carlos.
'Yeah. I know it. What they had was a hell of a good sense of humour.'
'But what I'm saying here is that there are things we can't explain too easily. There are things creeping about.'
'What are you talking about?'
'Catch a train from the Hotel, get onto a road maybe, keep moving. But when you get fixed for a time there are things that come along, catch you up, find you out. So what I'm saying here is that I've been here too long for comfort. I need a railway line, need a road.'
'What are you thinking about?'
'I keep thinking about weddings and building a house where I could be happy forever.'
'Then I have dreams - you know, a rail yard in Tacoma, Washington, bluffs that rim the edge of Puget Sound, elevator ships in the water, a paper-mill on the Hiwassee River near Calhoun, Tennessee, The Climax Mine near Leadville, Colorado looking like the moon, or then again I'm on North Street in Boston near the waterfront along Atlantic Avenue, kind of early 20th century, in the rain suddenly , maybe outside the Lit Brothers Department Store on Market Street, Philadelphia, looking up at the palace walls and knowing the downtown was drowning, water rising up, everything under the rolling thunder clouds, exciting as hell, strange dreams, Don Carlos, strange dreams every night.'
'You should ease up and sleep better.'
'Some nights I just want to jump any woman I can see. You ever feel like that?'
'Why not go back to your hotel room?'
'What the hell's there? There's nothing there. Everything's sleeping there. I'm wide awake. Let's catch a cab. Let's find something that's going on.'