Excerpt from Aaron Cass, The Bosphorus Dogs (where I got the title). Copyright aaroncass.
The sniper positions were closer than they appeared on television. Not only were the emplacements on the hills closer than he’d imagined, but a line of ordinary apartment houses a few blocks away that looked to be a normal part of the neighborhood were across the line and had snipers in their upstairs windows.
Shurin pulled back around the corner and leaned against the wall. “It really is like shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it,” he asked Daniel.
“Much easier, ectually,” Daniel said, “because there is not the intervening refraction of the water. It can be done even without a telescopic sight, but they hev them anyway.”
“The world-famous Snipers’ Alley.”
“Das ding an sich.”
“And you want me to walk out there.”
“You will find that it is perfectly safe.”
“Fuckin hell, Furman. My first day in town and you want to put me through this?”
“Consider it an initiation. Unless you experience this for yourself—unless you feel it in your bones—you will not believe the rest of what I have to show you about what ectually is going on here.”
“Come out there with me.”
“That I cannot do. They know me personally, and will make an exception in my case and shoot. I have made enemies here.”
“You have a talent for that.”
“And I have exercised my talent, as a man must,” Daniel told him. “I hev made only the best enemies. I am hated by the bad people and loved by the good ones.”
“How convenient for you.”
“On the contrary: the bad people shoot to kill.”
Shurin pretended to examine Daniel’s girth. ”How convenient for them.”
“Shut up. And stop dodging the issue. I am insufficiently trusted by an old friend who should know better. I assure you that if you walk out there, no harm will come to you.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“You won’t know what hit you. At this range they will take you out with a head shot. Think of all the boring years this will spare you. It is a win-win situation.”
Daniel took off his official blue beret, pushed it through one of the epaulettes of his khaki shirt and wiped the top of his head with a clean white handkerchief. It was late summer. Somewhat wearily he recited again the facts of the matter: “If you cross laterally Snipers’ Alley at any point you must run and hope they will not shoot you. If you have gone mad or hev had enough and want to die, you hev only to take a stroll out there and it is done. But around this corner and for one block on this side of the street you can walk with perfect safety because it is the route to the moneychanger’s shop and it is an agreed safe zone because the Serb sharpshooters will do nothing to interfere with the black market business they conduct with people they otherwise murder daily. They collect bribes for every shipment, including from relief trucks, on every road in and out of Sarajevo and if you are going to the moneychanger’s you are safer than you would be in New York City. Nothing must interfere with business.”
“The charming customs of your native land.”
“I was fourteen years old when I left. My native lands are Jerusalem and the Upper West Side, but I love Sarajevo and I will fight for its survival. After you survive your walk to the bureau de change, tonight I will show you how people cross from zone to zone at night. It is even more amusing than changing money. You assemble a group at the airport, walk halfway across it, at which point you perform an about-face and assume the exaggerated pose of someone walking. Then you drop something loud on the tarmac, usually it is a cooking-pot, so that the UN troops will turn on their spotlights. Since you are facing in the ‘wrong’ direction, that is to say the direction from which you came, the troops come out and escort you through the lines the opposite way to where ectually you wanted to go. I tell you, Mischa, if you listen to me you will find Sarajevo an almost infinitely amusing place, a positive operetta city apart from the actual dead bodies, of which there are far too many. I will show you things which no other journalist even suspects are going on. You will have the truth practically to yourself.”
“I will not ask for even a penny of your Pulitzer. The only price of admission is this little ceremony of trust. Turn the corner, walk a half block to the moneychanger’s, go inside, change fifty dollars for credibility’s sake, come back to me and I will take you to lunch, introduce you to a number of unforgettable people including some very pretty Bosnian girls, and treat you to a glass of exceptionally fine slivovitz.”
“I’ll need it.”
“So nu, will you do it? Do you have the necessary two olives?”
“Oh what the hell,” said Shurin, turned the corner and walked purposefully forward, feeling tingling all over his body the eyes of sharpshooters assessing him down their sights or through their scopes from the not so distant hills and from the perfectly normal, domestic-looking apartment houses he could have sworn had taken one large step nearer while he and Daniel talked.
Absent a brief prelude in Sarajevo in 1993, this is the book’s opening, ten years later.
“Wait for it,” Shurin told his daughter.
He couldn’t have conjured a finer twilight if he’d had the power. Early evening had unpacked its pastels overhead and thumbed a band of oven red beyond the low trees and rooftops west. Gulls sailed in tangents from behind the minarets then high over the gardens of the Hippodrome: arched elegant script winging it across successive veils of indigo, magenta, lilac. Nearer earth diacritical swallows, peeping, hurried, pressed for time, circled down the day’s last dole of flies.
“Wait for what, old man,” Kim asked him. She had a light, effortlessly musical speaking voice—a gift from her late mother—but she’d been jabbing him with it since he’d met her flight that afternoon. This last thrust seemed lightened by a lilt of friendly irony, though perhaps only in his own fond wish.Shurin felt a guilty, splayfoot, fatal kindness toward his daughter and let the little punches land.
“Any second now,” he said.
He might have been mistaken, but he could have sworn he’d heard the click of the microphone switching on. No sound since, though, not here or from the other mosques scattered across the ancient seat of empire beneath that sky. He signalled a passing waiter for two more teas and settled back in his café chair. “Your first night in Istanbul I wanted you to hear the two best muezzins in town.” He indicated the Blue Mosque behind Kim to their left and the leaded dome of little Fıruzağa a distance across the darkling public gardens, right. “They do the call to prayer as an extended duet. Two of the greatest singers you’ll ever hear in your life. Take you halfway to heaven five times daily and they do it on the clock.”
“You’ve lived here how many years and you still essentialize these people?” his daughter asked him. “Tisk.”
Shurin managed not to reply, but his eyes swept the passersby—serious, moustached men in white shirts and sober jackets, women under kerchiefs or otherwise, all of them about a business, this early evening—as if one of them might help him out with this recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence.
He checked his watch. “Should be time,” he hoped, then heard the first far call in the west, beyond the Grand Bazaar, possibly Fatih with its unobstructed view of sunset, or the Süleimanıye on its eminence, then a thicket of voices twining to meet it in the air until the evening was threaded with the cries, and finally the definitive nearby crackle from the bullhorn up a slender minaret of the Blue. “Check this out,” he just had time to say before the voice began.
“Jesus, Dad,” said Kim as the lo-fi audio scratched at the bowl of heaven with its claws. “Don’t they have any better speakers than that?”
This won’t work at all, thought Shurin. None of it.
But then that voice unscrolled itself across the sky and he heard Kim’s breath catch.
“Holy shit,” she said, loud enough for local broadcast.
Shurin was late with the covering cough. Mercifully no heads flashing scimitar eyes had spun their way.
“God,” Kim added as the muezzin’s voice streamed forth an Allah of such improbable ornamental length it seemed a flag unfurled from here to the other side of sunset.
“Better choice of word,” Shurin could not refrain from saying, but Kim was not attending him.
“That is really something,” she said as the cry extended itself beyond all plausible limit. “How many lungs does this guy have?”
“Three or four I guess,” said Shurin as the waiter inclined beside their table, his lined face serious to the task, and set out from his tray a fresh pair of slender-waisted tulip glasses dark with tea and collected the empties.
“How long can he keep that note going?”
“God is generous,” Shurin told her, feeling a teensy bit smug, but then committed the solecism of actually listening for an instant and the sheer majestic reach and soar of it cupped his heart like a hand, unsettled and lifted it, beating, toward the sky: even after all the years and practice, the sensation was still unnerving: oopsadaisy.
After undulations all along its length, after successive bellyings and unbellyings of its fabric across the miles of twilight and many tremblings of subsidiary tassels and endpennants, the longflown end of that Allah snapped taut in the wind with a swift hu-ekber ending on an inquisitive upnote. Then, after a quick inbreath caught by the electrics, the voice launched yet another Allah around the globe.
“I thought it was akbar.”
“It’s pronounced more like ekber around here,” said Shurin, taking a careful sip of tea, then blew across the top to cool it.
“Means God is great?”
Shurin nodded. “In the superlative: greatest, most great, perpetually greater than one’s capacity to imagine or conceive.”
“With sounds like that no wonder they all want to kill us.”
The repetition was marginally shorter than the first cry, and after its affirmative cadence Shurin pointed into the plumcolored distance. He was pleased to watch Kim understand him: the shorter-breathed, thicketed voices out there had advanced much further into their calls: having twice affirmed the Singularity of God they were moving on in branching, somewhat atomised unison to proclaim Muhammad His prophet.
“Not that sheer lungpower is the point,” he told her as the Blue Mosque’s muezzin finally came to the end of his second akbar and fell silent.
“Got it,” Kim said, impatient already.
After a moment’s tact, the muezzin of Fıruzağa, its dome almost vanished now in the dark beneath the trees, with a trolleycar sparking by behind it along Divan Yolu, began his call while the Blue Mosque waited.
“Aha,” said Kim, smiling slowly wider. “They take turns. That is so cool.”
Shurin permitted himself another sip of tea.
Some moments later: “He’s good, right, but not as good as this guy here.”
“Close enough to jam with him. They’re buddies.”
Fıruzağa’s was a somehow more vertical voice, Shurin thought, streaking through the dusk like lightning reversed into its sky of origin, searing away everything that was not itself or its bond to the Oneness it said was so. Şimşek: Shurin’s favorite word in Turkish: lightning. He told Kim.
“Yess,” she affirmed with an avid little nod, then tuned him out.
Was it possible, even though her inheritance from him was so tenuous and nettled, so slender and green a shoot, that Kim would come to love this place the way he did? Shurin had been manic with a sense of homecoming for almost the whole of his first visit nearly thirty years ago, his three-month visa overstayed by weeks and his excitement still at full voltage when he was caught short of money to pay the fine at the airport. He’d razzed his way through, but the next time he showed up in-country people told him that on first encounter he had frequently been taken for a crazy person. Of course he’d calmed down since then. Maybe too much. But if Kim came to love Istanbul, she might also come around to him. Did he have enough energy left to deal with her? He hoped he did.
“And thunder: yıldırım,” Shurin said.
Kim’s index finger ticked the air to score the point, and Shurin heard the wooden clacket of the marker, the billiard sound, the ivory.
He watched her listen quietly for a time and then, as a young intellectual who had seized the salient point, lose interest and move on, pivoting her large square head to examine this or that passerby slipping by on worldly errands beneath the skyborne authority of the call. Her haircut: was it boyishly short or did it qualify as a girlish page-boy bob? How much did she mean it to signify these days? And did she always dress in black? Shurin regarded her hefty but classically cut profile—heartbreakingly, she had her mother’s fair and lovely skin and ebon hair: the memory of Caitlin’s longlimbed beauty shuddered through him as he sat beside their daughter, throwback to the warrior O’Connors, Caitlin shunted more than a year now under rude brown Colorado dirt—and he was glad, at least, that Kim had outlived her piercings: hanging from between her nostrils at the funeral had been a u-shaped item that created the effect of sterling silver snot, and from what he had seen so far the tongue-stud had also gone the way of all bleaah.
As the Blue Mosque affirmed its witness to the One Divinity and the thready voices in the distance, already done and most of them recordings anyway, began withdrawing from the sky a few at a time, Shurin turned toward Kim and decided to make a small attempt: as if examining the clear sheet of social ice between them for a hairline crack in its surface, he began, you had to start somewhere, with a slender, slidey, “Kim, look …”
“At what?” Kim asked him brightly, her radar perking, catching his intonation, dauntingly awake to his angle of approach.
“If you’re going to stay with me awhile—“
Kim favored him with a smile featuring marvelously white and uniform teeth and her eyes popped bright as daisies. “Am I?”
Then Shurin, relieved, but also unnerved by how unstable she might be, watched her presentation waver. If there was one thing he blamed Caitlin for, it was not that she’d done it—had it been him, he wouldn’t have waited for the tumor to ravage the rest of his brain either—but the way she’d done it.
“Simple kindness might do us both some good,” he suggested. “Anyway it’d be a start.”
“Sure,” Kim said, but sounded perfunctory, and it caught in her throat.
“Really, if it’s such a drag to see me,” said Shurin, “why come to Istanbul at all?”
“Because it’s so gol-dang scenic,” she said, affecting a cowgirl accent and brushing the scenery with an ironic sweep of arm, “and todally ossom. The domes, the minarets, all this fantastic hollering about a slaughterhouse God with red fangs and no exceptions.” An involuntary laugh broke from her. “I understand you’re still supposed to be some kind of mystic the way Mom was until she lost it for some reason or other. When you have a minute you really have to explain to me the beautiful order of everything and how it’s the complete opposite of what it looks like.” Kim shook her head clear and looked past him into miscellaneous Istanbul as the dark came on.
The voice of Fıruzağa launched an invitation to felicity and prayer as Shurin watched Kim’s eyelight cool, then fix on something and rack it into focus—not just the mobility of a young mind, he thought, but the thinness of its repertoire. Exactly how unstable was she, he wondered.
Sociable again, or pretending to be, for her own safety’s sake, she poked her elbow into his left arm, too hard, but let it be. “Hey Dad, get a load of that guy,” she instructed him.
Kim completed the indication with a thrust of her substantial jaw, and Shurin pivoted to see. Standing on the sidewalk scanning the tables of the next café to their right was in fact a remarkable, nearly preposterous chunk of male human being: not tall, but thick as a retired wrestler, and his belly seemed even more immense than the last time Shurin had seen him, when was it, ten days back? His untucked white shortsleeved shirt was sweated through in blotches, and since last sighting he had taken his fairly normal ginger-brown moustache and grown it into an outsized walrus sort of thing, twirled its ends to points and turned them up, and for a final fillip looked to have freshly shaven his large pale cubical head, its top showing a few interesting bumps if one could read the script. All the man needed, for Chrissake, was a helmet with a spike on top, if you could find one big enough or bang one out with a hammer in the field.
To perfect the absurdity of his presentation, he began to amplify his cartoon-blatant search of the café tables with a pointless vertical bobbing motion of his upper body that made him resemble an enormous grouse in mating display Shurin had seen on the Turkish nature channel a few nights back.
Maybe he won’t see us, Shurin hoped for a moment, before raising his right arm in wide semaphore.
“Ah, Mischa,” Daniel called with pleasure after blinking for a moment, then advanced bulkily, unevenly, along the pavingstones to stand facing them across the intervening rows of tables with the gardens of the Hippodrome and the evolving evening arrayed behind him. A thinnest sliver of crescent moon, Shurin noticed, had shimmered itself visible about twenty degrees above the darkening horizon.
Daniel raised a hand and finger indicatively in the air. Evidently he was in a festive mood.
I should never have mentioned even in passing where I planned to take Kim at sunset, though you would have thought the man would realize that on the night of my notoriously estranged daughter’s long-postponed arrival … Abruptly Shurin was overjoyed to see his old friend, and despite himself felt a grin split his face.
“You actually know this guy?” a nonplussed Kim beside him asked.
Daniel broadened his gesture to include the latest rocket of praise launching from Fıruzağa. “Yom l’yom yabiah omer, v’laila l’laila yekhaveh da’at,” he announced, then translated it into his crisp mittel-European English: “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.”
“For Chrissake will you cool it with the Hebrew?” Shurin’s exasperation seemed to please the man.
“The city is full of Israeli tourists, Mischa, some of them just now ordering kebab across the way,” Daniel said, flinging a hand across the indigo gardens toward the thoroughfare of Divan Yolu, and advanced upon them with something like a sailor’s landward roll, brushing heavily against one table and knocking sideways its little glass vase and one pink flower. His anomalously swift thick left arm struck cobra-quick and his fat, accurate hand caught the speeding vase before it could fall, and he set it back at the center of the table’s round black surface without, it seemed, having even slightly to look at it or alter the pace of his advance.
“Look,” Shurin said as Daniel pulled a chair out to accommodate his bulk, “it’s her first night in town and I thought …”
Daniel sat or rather heavily fell into the seat across from them with his back to the view. His lively, assessing eyes barely seemed to light on Kim before darting off. “Yes, where shall we go to dinner? I drove my car today instead of taking the ferry—I live in Üsküdar,” Daniel said, bowing atop his belly toward Kim, “which is a sort of Asiatic Brooklyn across the Bosphorus—and can take us anywhere we like. And if I may say so, Mischa, your manners are positively American. No wonder she is staring at me. This charming person I take it is your daughter, ah, um …” Daniel, looking excessively jolly in proportion to the premise, was fishing for the straight line, Shurin saw.
“Kim,” Kim obliged him.
“For Chrissake, Furman,” said Shurin, “she already knows the gag. I’ve told her she should go with Kimberley while she’s here but she won’t have it.”
“Kimberley sounds like an upscale brand of toilet paper,” Kim said.
“No, but rreally, how wonderful,” Daniel inserted sociably, “that your name should mean Who in Turkish. It’s so much more accurate, really, for who among us truly …” He puffed out air and caught his breath. His face seemed only lightly misted but his shirt was drenched and he was breathing hard while trying to disguise the fact. He picked up one of their glasses of alleged spring water and drank down half. “You and I have a great deal in common,” he told Kim.
“I don’t believe you,” Kim replied.
“We are each descended from a Jewish father and a Catholic mother.”
“But you look Jewish and I don’t,” Kim told him. “Not even slightly.”
“I have no Christian blood at all,” Shurin interposed, “except for the very little one gets from eating matzohs.”
Kim didn’t get it.
“And, um, your name is Danielle?”
“Shorter on that syllable please: Danièl, as almost no one but your father has the courtesy to call me.” In his accent, the eccentricities of the continental scholar were mustered into shape and sent packing by the sergeantry and punctilio of the man of war: his words issued crisply and in formation, arms at port, vowels tucked smartly into the puttees of his hardened consonants and tightly rolled Rs. “I exchange this courtesy with him by calling him Mischa, which he likes.”
Kim turned to regard her father with mild surprise. “Do you?”
“As a matter of fact yes. So when the hell did you shave your head?” Shurin wanted to know.
“Earlier this evening, in your honour,” he said, inclining dome to Kim. “Although I’ve had it shaved for a week now, as soon as the moustache achieved a fullness.”
“You looked almost normal two weeks ago.” Shurin turned to Kim to make his complaint. “The man has a full head of hair—”
“Not from here he doesn’t.”
“—a practically full head of mostly reddish-brown hair at the age of sixty-five,” passing a hand over his own balded pate and greying fringe, nine years younger and his knees already shot, “and he does this to himself and his friends.”
“You’re sixty-five?” Kim asked Daniel. “You don’t look it.”
“Thank you. Next month I will be sixty-six and plan to look younger still.”
“Furman, summer’s over. For fuck’s sake why shave your head now?”
“I think it is rather fetching.” He preened one spike of his moustache and smiled adorably.
Shurin blew air. “You look ridic—you look like the last of the Jewish Junkers. You look like the Rootin’ Teuton.”
Daniel sniffed and tried to look hurt. “I shall take the matter to a higher court. Kim?” he inquired.
“Bizarre,” she said, looking at him unblinking.
“And the moustache?” Daniel asked her.
“Then you may cut off the ends tomorrow.”
Shurin dug in the pocket of his chinos and placed a Swiss army knife on the table. “Let her do it now.”
Daniel shook his head firmly. “Tomorrow.”
“Why not now?”
“The scalp has reasons the heart knows not of. Kim,” he said, inclining, “you may cut the ends off tomorrow if you join me for lunch.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Although my specialty is Jerusalem I am an excellent guide to Constantinopolis.”
“He’ll talk you half to death but go,” Shurin told her. “Especially if he’ll let you cut off that ridiculous moustache.”
“The ends only,” Daniel was firm on this. “And not a hair of it shall she touch this day.”
“I don’t get it,” Shurin said.
“I don’t expect you to. À propos,” he said, his face assuming an exaggeratedly mild expression, “I won’t turn round, but did either of you observe anyone follow me to this café? Even if you did not, someone attempting to look inconspicuous would be worth pointing out—ideally someone pretending to read a newspaper in the dark. Do you see anyone palely loitering?”
“You’re kidding,” was Kim’s opinion.
“Not in the least. I hev already accounted for the tables in this café and those adjacent but I have long had a deficiency of vision from the back of my head. I repeat: do you see anyone loitering behind me?”
Kim turned to her father. “This is a movie gag, right?”
Gobsmacked by Daniel’s indiscretion, committed in the presence of his daughter, Shurin didn’t know what to say, and wondered not for the first time in recent months what in the marriage of heaven and hell was happening to his friend.
Daniel batted his eyes, mid-brown with indecipherable flecks of supplementary color, and assumed an aspect of utmost innocence while Kim, after checking her father’s reaction to what apparently was not a movie gag after all, not very discreetly scanned the view. “I don’t see anyone out there,” she reported.
“And Mischa, have you no opinion on the matter?”
“That you’re losing your mind.”
“Hardly. I have been pursuing my Greek enquiries.”
“Oh for Chrissake,” Shurin sputtered.
“It’s possible. One seldom knows the ultimate ends of one’s actions. One can only aspire.” Daniel cast his eyes briefly heavenward, then shifted in his seat to address a younger audience. “Kim, I hev begun a little adventure, which earlier today reached the terminus of its recon stage, and I am among friends who can see behind me, as I cannot. Three heads are better than one, even if mine is only blocking the view. Of course,” sulking toward Shurin, “if one of the three is not even interested to try …”
“So, what, you think her husband’s onto you?” Shurin suggested in a forlorn attempt to nudge Daniel toward a cover story.
“I am investigating a local church,” Daniel, ignoring Shurin and redeploying his armor, confided to Kim. “Or rather a government-licensed pseudo-church. The alleged patriarchate of the non-existent Turkish Orthodox faith.”
“Huh?” was all Kim could manage in response to this.
“I often chat with priests and lesser functionaries at the Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church beside the Golden Horn. We will visit after lunch tomorrow if you like. I go there to practice conversational and ecclesiastical Greek and to torment the fathers with obscure monophysite and heresies.”
“You’re such a card, Daniel,” Kim told him archly.
“Some of the good fathers are typical Greek sourpusses and fume about the false patriarchate on the other side of the harbor. I was not surprised when one or two of them began to tell me that the Turkish pseudo-pat was up to nasty conspiratorial business with unsavory elements in the army and the mafia, but I poked around its neighborhood and made a few enquiries and began to think they might be on to something. At any rate I think it is worth a try.”
Quite a lot has happened between the first excerpt and this one, though it’s only a few days later …
Two evenings later Shurin and Kim took an electric bus hooked up to loose-slung wires that twanged overhead around the grey bulk of the University then east toward the darker streets and warrens beyond Fatih.
“So it’s inner sanctum night, huh.”
“Medium. There are other places I can’t take you, but trust me, this’ll do.”
“And these dervishes are illegal.”
“Completely, even though the Prime Minister’s a friend of the house and goes there when he’s in town. It’s a funny country.”
The buildings stopped and Kim watched a band of parkland go past and the two-tiered ghost of a Roman aqueduct striding gigantic across the twilit gap of slow late summer fade.
“And they’ll feed us.”
“But no wine with.”
“Not a drop. We can go for a beer after, if you’re still standing.”
“Ha ha,” said Kim.
“Wait and see.”
The big street they were on lit up with cheap bright shops for about a quarter mile, then a large dark mosque menaced things back to shadow, and they were definitely in an old untouristed part of town, dilapidated buildings of wood weathered grey whose bulging second storeys overhung the sidestreets and looked ready to topple and crash or just slowly lapse themselves down.
“This is our stop,” Shurin said. “Kara Gümrük: Black Customs.”
“Oooh,” Kim replied sarcastically.
Actually she thought the district was kind of cool in a third-world Asiatic way combining poverty and industry, a crepuscular lived intensity, an intricate multitude whose native element was this granular near-dark of shops and stalls and carts packed in a maze of little streets, eggplants and tomatoes gleaming under hanging bulblight adjacent to miscellaneous electro-trash, then shoeboxes by the hundred, shadow people patrolling the near dark in a carpetworth of errands woven all secret and banal together.
“I’m trying to remember where the best fruit store is,” Shurin said as he led her away from the main stem deeper into the labyrinth. “Haven’t been here for a while.”
Or, or, Kim thought, this looks like the kind of neighborhood you get jumped and kidnapped in, they spill out of a dark doorway, there are others in the car and you’re bundled and gone without a ripple.
“I think this is the one,” said Shurin, and she stayed out in the street, while he went inside a bright shop to palpate melons before heading for the peaches, just to see if anyone would jump her—a bit of playacting, okay—and all that happened was a few huddly kerchieffed women excused themselves as they passed and a very slow old American car, big old thing with a flappy body-shape—a Packar, she finally read across the grille—pushed closer and closer to her without honking until it looked like it’d end up nudging her a little to get her out of the way. Male driver inscrutable under a fedora. As Kim stepped aside her dad was back with maybe two kilos of peaches globed and bulged into a near-transparent magenta plastic bag. Looked like they were already sweating in there. Yuck.
“It’s traditional to bring a gift for the house,” Shurin said.
The Packar dinoed slowly past, lightly dusting Kim with its parting haunch.
They headed up the crooked narrowing street and now people were smiling and waving to them, the peaches their ticket, a legible sign of where they were headed, or some word had been passed. The neighborhood had gone all sociable, all those threatening-looking men by the doorposts now our lifelong pals, teeth flashing not in threat but as friendly lightway, ivory and gold, in the gathering dark.
Shurin led Kim to a high wide rounded archway on the left side of the street with two barn-size grey wood half-doors in it, the left one pushed open inward. Kim touched its heavy black iron ring as she passed behind her father into an enclosed stone passage with five ironbarred windows spaced along the leftside wall. As they passed the first one Kim paused to peer inside at some sort of ornate ceremonial room so dimly lit it took her a moment to realize that the big tilted oblong shape draped in a green gold-embroidered cloth had to be a coffin. On its uptilted summit sat an outsized turban that looked as if it had been wrapped together out of swaddling bands, with a phalloform protuberance coming out the top of the windings. Kim pulled the hem of her father’s untucked off-black shirt. “Dad,” she pleaded.
“It’s not really a coffin. My mind is slipping … baldaquin, catafalque, I forget. The old Shaikhs of the Order are buried below that room, in the ground, like normal people. These are just … What is the word I’m looking for?”
“Perfect. I don’t know this first guy here but, come with me, the last window down the end.”
“Sorry, Dad, but this is creepy however you cut it.”
“It isn’t, really, but don’t get involved if you don’t want to. Just give me a sec …”
And she was obliged to stand back and watch her father pause before the last barred window in the passage, with a red-draped Empty inside it, when there was a small cool arbored courtyard with a fountain in its middle just ahead, but she had to wait here, or did she? Dad’s eyes were shut, head slightly bowed and canted right, hands crossed more or less atop his nuts, and you can’t get more ceremonial than that. Then a little shimmy or maybe shudder and he rocked back on his heels. Can’t wait to tell the kids back home about this shit.
“This man,” he started to tell her about the guy in the red Empty.
“I don’t want to know.”
“He was the Shaikh when I first came here in the old days. Enormous, wonderful, funny man. Looked like Jabba the Hut. I really liked him.”
“Fascinating. Can we move on?”
Dad surprised her by laughing in an uncreepy and basically generous way, saying, “Sure.”
The little courtyard was a relief after the Passage of the Empties but its little fountain made an unmistakable peeing-in-the-toilet sound and outside the little entrance door of the building on the left stood a totally cliché-meesteereeus guy with a thick black beard leaning against a pillar of the portico in a natty linen suit and loosened red tie smoking a contemplative cigarette. Darkly attractive: admit it, I felt a twang. He raised his head as Dad approached, a smile broke through the beard and the two men embraced, with backslaps: Turkish abrazos.
Kim endured the introduction and the man’s pro-forma delight at meeting her—it seemed like all the credit of having a daughter adhered to her father, the daughter herself being, okay, an asset, but basically an adjunct empty of intrinsic merit—and then they were past him and inside the front door handing their shoes, like they were going bowling, to a scrawny smiling old guy behind a beaten pinetop counter.
“This is where we part ways,” Shurin told her before parting a red curtain in a doorway. “Are you still cool enough with this?”
“Segregation by gender? Not really, but maybe I’ll find a babe up there, you never know.”
Through the curtain a large square carpeted room opened, space for a couple hundred in it, Islamic-script calligraphies in frames and on what looked like blue shields hung beneath crossed lances—square green banners on these, with Islamic squiggles: Kill for Allah, Kill for Peace, most likely—crowding the mildly dampstained offwhite walls. Some woman in a long floral-print cotton dress and of course a head-schmatte was just coming down a nearby narrow carpeted stairway, and “Safiya hanım ordamı?” Shurin asked her, and after a nod and some further muttering, “Peki,” and the woman walked back up the stairs without complaint.
Kim was being a good girl. She hadn’t even slightly rolled up the cuffs of the longsleeved French blue shirt he had ‘suggested’ she wear, but the place was stuffy and smelled of feet and old wool and she thought of rolling them up now.
An imposing woman wrapped in mostly black was coming heavily down the stairs. Once beautiful—still beautiful, but her hips having spread giving her a way-past-it look—with a dark serious face narrowing to a delicate chin that heartshaped her face, solemnly beautiful eyes so dark you’d swear they’d never brighten until they did, seeing her father and then Kim, at whom she actually really smiled personally—this was different, a first.
“Safiya, I’d like you to meet my daughter …”
“Kim?” said Safiya, who had already been clued in, and there was a hearty throaty laugh for you. “Kim? Who? Kim? Who? Hello, my love,” and Safiya stepped forward to embrace her: solid heavy breasts under those black wrappings, and she didn’t hold them in reserve either. “Your father has asked me to look after you this evening.” Her accent, heavy, sounded almost movie-Russian but obviously she was fluent in E.
“Into thy hands,” Shurin said. Kim noted that Safiya and her dad hadn’t touched in greeting.
Safiya extended both her hands to Kim. “Come upstairs with me, my love,” and ushered Kim to take the lead up the too thickly carpeted so be careful steps. Kim tested the first one with her bare right foot. Cushy-slidey, so get a grip, go prehensile.
—You can trust the women, especially Safiya, Dad had coached her.
—They won’t cook me and eat me?
—Only don’t accept an invitation to meet them at the Turkish bath tomorrow.
—Where they’ll boil me in a pot?
—Where they’ll insist on shaving you and’ll probably get their way.
Drolly Kim had rubbed her chin and checked for a moustache.
—Your twat, you twit.
“Bye-bye Daddy,” said Kim, “it’s been nice to know ya,” and started climbing.
A non-fictional treatment of the scene to follow can be found in the Excerpt from Harper’s 2004 elsewhere on this site. It appeared as part of an article entitled The Turn in the June 2004 issue of Harper’s magazine. The version to appear in The Bosphorus Dogs will be somewhat different, written from both Shurin’s and Kim’s points of view, among other changes.
It appears about 200 pages into the book.
Inside the secret dervish orders of Istanbul
By Rafi Zabor
L E T T E R F R O M T U R K E Y
Afew nights after my arrival in Istanbul last summer, I took myself to an undisclosable location. I left my shoes at the gate and padded indoors through the simple lowroofed rooms of the tekke, nodding to this or that half-familar
face on the way through the tea
kitchen, where I dropped off a
kilo of peaches I’d brought as a
gift to the house. On the whitewashed
back patio I parked myself
under a slender stripling tree
at the edge of the little patch of
garden and was ignored, until
eventually someone coming by
with a tray bent and doled me
out a tulip glass of tea. I sipped
and looked around. It was your
basic bunch of middle-aged
Turkish businessmen with
paunches and mustaches sitting
on the ground beside the back
garden smoking cigarettes, drinking
tea, and chatting as the summer
evening unpacked its pastels
overhead. Gulls coasted
through magenta fadeaways, and
a scattering of swallows circled
down the day’s last dole of flies.
There are only a few fully
functioning tekkes—or dervish
lodges—left in Istanbul, many of them
only partly functioning, some accessible
after brief acquaintance with a
member met by chance, others impossible
to find or enter without deeper
scrutiny and specific invitation. All
of them are illegal, though some years
find the state more tolerant than others.
This year they weren’t jailing anyone,
but my friends told me not to
write about the tekkes, please. Even or
perhaps especially with a crypto-Islamic
party in power, it was not that
kind of year. The elected government
was keeping to the secular side of the
redline for the most part, though
it made occasional sallies across
the wire, and the army emitted
nervous noises in response, with
unauthorized generals whispering
in public about the possibility
of a coup. I told my friends I
wouldn’t mention any names or
give an address, and that seemed
to be all right.
The dervish orders, or tariqats,
are only roughly comparable to
the Christian monastic orders.
“No monkery in Islam,” the
Prophet Muhammad is recorded
to have said, and in any case a
monastic withdrawal from the
world would not be in keeping
with his religion. The Jesus of
Christianity was an uncommonly
transcendent figure who
did not live a normal sort of life;
Muhammad worked, married,
and had to deal with the material
world. Accordingly, the Su-
fi or dervish ideal is to be “in
the world but not of it,” to live
the life of one’s time but to be
inwardly free of attachment to
its forms and lures. Naturally,
there are many ways of achieving this.
There were a couple of other Americans
on the patio and around the garden,
one an impressively large black
guy with cool intelligent eyes and a
wealth of sleek black beard. He was
wearing an approximately oriental get-
up—voluminous white shirt almost
caftan length, matching lightweight
cotton trousers and cap—that would
have gotten a Turkish man arrested if
he wore it out of doors.
When Atatürk created the modern
Turkish nation after the First World
War, he didn’t limit himself to installing
where the Sultanate had stood but reconfigured
everything from the orthography
to the dress code, often with
an anticlerical edge. For example, the
legislated substitution of the fedora
and workman’s cap for the fez wasn’t
only about looking European: the fact
is you can’t bow your forehead to the
mosque carpet if your headgear has a
brim. With his Macedonian coloring,
fair hair, and famously penetrating iceblue
eyes, the Father of the Turks may
not have looked the part, but he didn’t
miss a trick. He saved the nation
from dismemberment by the English,
Greeks, and French, then saved it
again by preserving it from the region’s
generic history of despotism, war, and
medieval religiosity. Wisely, since only
an unshakable leader could have
managed so massive a transition of so
venerable a culture, Atatürk enjoyed
the prerogatives of one-man rule while
he lived but created republican institutions
that survived his death in 1938.
It didn’t stop there. Atatürk’s laser eyes
and restraining hand continued to
check the drift of armed ambition from
beyond the grave: in the series of military
coups beginning in 1960, the
Turkish army, after rewriting the constitution
and bashing a few heads during
an interstitial period of martial
law, has always passed the reins of power
back to a civilian coachman while
retaining a supervisory role for itself
in the shotgun seat—a gesture that
has saved the republic several times
from the regional pastime of dictatorship
and civil war. Denmark it’s not,
but it isn’t Iraq or Syria or Iran either.
Outlawing the dervish orders in 1925
was a small detail in Atatürk’s virtually
unerring transformation of Turkish
life from the sixteenth century to the
twentieth, and although the tariqats
lost the political power they enjoyed
and sometimes misused under the Sultanate,
their way of life has gone on.
Turkey is at least as chock-full of religious
primitives as the United States of
America. Even in their necessarily subterranean
mode, however, the tariqats
have done a great deal to subtilize and
educate the fundamentalist impulse;
while secreted within the power structure,
sometimes at high levels, their
members have persistently labored toward
what a liberal Westerner would
recognize as enlightened ends.
“Oh yes,” I heard the black guy tell
someone near him in a mellow tone.
“More and more every year. Between
ten and twenty million have taken
shahada in America. It’s growing all
His pronouncement was gratefully
received by those around him. Serious
nods: oh yes, the future coming in
the form we know it must.
Jesus—did he think, did they think,
that what the world needed
was more Muslims? The other American on the patio
was in his late twenties, a wiry hippie
unit with beard and ponytail, wearing
an embroidered cap and black cotton
pants with a sargasso of black cotton
strips fronding from them to no apparent
purpose. Pants, cap, and ponytail
apart, he reminded me of myself at his
age my first time in-country, excited
eyes drinking the scene in, gestures
overeager, maybe a little manic. The
dramaturgy of his intake took one other
step mine hadn’t: he was speaking
English in a movie-Turkish accent,
with simplified grammar: a generic Iyam-
I had a friend, decades back, who had
picked up an accent living as a soul on
fire for a couple of years in Turkey,
Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but
this kid didn’t seem to be living all that
rough: his clothes looked clean and
pressed, and I didn’t see much road
dust on his shoulders.
In general, dervishes, or Sufis—although
no one calls himself a Sufi: it’s
too elevated an honorific—have been
presented in the West as freewheeling
poetical heretical souls well outside the
determinations of religion, and sometimes
that is so, but from what I’ve seen
in Turkey and elsewhere most congregants
do not experience the dervish
life as a departure from religion but as
a deepening of it; as a greater intimacy
with spiritual realities beyond category
and name, yes, but not something
that necessitates or implies a Westernish
break with inherited tradition.
The tariqat I was visiting that night
had its origins in a reaffirmation of relative
orthodoxy within the branchings
of Turkish Sufi orders in the eighteenth
century, but in my experience there
was little doctrinal rigidity in their
house, always an open door, no end of
welcome, and, on an average night,
experience beyond sectarian qualification
and cognitive limit.
The only visible signs of their specific
affiliation were two slight tics of
dress: white cotton caps of a slightly
different shape from standard-issue
prayer hats, and open-front tan vests,
never worn out there in the world,
that they’d put on over their street
clothes, which themselves were conventional
as could be: white oxfords or
polo shirts, gabardine slacks or chinos.
A scattering of youngsters apart, they
looked like a convocation of uncles
an unpracticed eye could have taken
for Jewish or Italian.
Unfortunately and atavistically,
from my perspective, the tekke’s women
were elsewhere, either working in
the kitchen along one side of the garden
or sequestered in a room upstairs.
After a longish stretch in which
no one seemed to have noticed my
presence except the man who had
bent to serve me tea, a gentleman
sitting near—earth-tone complexion,
handsome and graying in a settled,
prosperous way, dressed more
fashionably than most of his countrymen
in a textured gray linen shirt
and amply pleated slacks—pivoted
toward me on the whitewashed patio
surface and engaged me in conversation:
a definite choice. He wore no
ritual vest or cap, so was a visitor or
friend of the house like me. He asked
in unstrained English where I was
from and what I did for a living, was
I married and did I have children,
but then the conversation took the
first of a few curious turns.
I forget the particular windings
through the garden of our talk,
though my personal disclaimer of responsibility
for the not-quite-election
of George W. Bush may have
helped ramble us nearer the grove in
which we ended. It wasn’t long before
he wondered if I knew, did I realize
… “America, you know. We
Turks were in America six thousand
years before your people came.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, wondering
what he meant, exactly, by my people.
Turks, especially Istanbul Turks, have
lived peacefully alongside Jews for centuries,
and know how to spot them.
My people had reached America by
escaping pogroms in Russia and getting
out from under Hitler, and he should
have deduced at least some of this.
More to the point, I found myself trying
to visualize Bronze Age teahouses
in Minneapolis. “… six thousand years?”
“Yes. For one example I’ll give you,
Iowa is a Turkish name. And Susquehanna,
I believe which is the name of
one of your rivers …”
I nodded yes, it was.
“In Turkish means Quiet Mother.”
“Gimme a sec.” I worked my small
Turkish. Ana: mother. Sus: shuddup.
Uncharitably, my translation, granting
the connective “que,” ran Shuddup,
“Yes. Research and you will see it,
we Turks populated your continent six
thousand years before you came.”
“I did not know that,” I told him,
doing a pointless Johnny Carson,
wondering what he’d do with Winnipesaukee,
“Yes, we were in America before
you,” he said, drawing on his cigarette,
“and you took it away from us.”
I wondered if he was about to suggest
that it was time for me, personally,
to give it back, when, “Aah,” I said,
making the sound of his point dawning
upon my intellectual horizon. “Yes,
of course, across the Bering icepack
from Siberia and then south, the ancestors
of the American Indians …
but can you really call them Turkish?”
It took us a while to get the mental
map unfolded and trace the dotted
lines of migration, and I had to allow
that, yes, the extraordinary voyagers
who aboriginally populated the Americas,
like the aboriginal Turks, came
from the land north of Mongolia and
were, like the pre-Islamic Turks, in
religious matters shamanistic—which,
by the way, helps explain why Turkish
Islam is characteristically more
open and tolerant than the Arabic
and Persian versions: shamanism has
no dogma and relies on personal authenticity
alone—but even though
the man’s central point was sound, a
creeping unease began to warn me
that I might be about to learn that
the Turks had invented baseball, bebop,
the cheeseburger, and Ray
Charles. My eyes began scooting side
to side in search of an exit, and, aha,
found one in the shadow of one of my
“Oh, yes: and what do you do for a
living?” I suddenly wanted to know.
My interlocutor recomposed himself.
I grinned like Mr. Bones.
“For many years I sold shotguns, but
now I am retired from that,” he said.
He looked fifty-something and could
have been younger—most Turks age
faster than we do—a little early for retirement.
“What kind of shotguns?” I
“Shotguns of the finest quality,
made by hand here in Turkey, and
sold worldwide. Connoisseurs of shotguns
all over the world know that
they are among the finest made.”
I could smell the ink of his
brochure. “And they’re made here in
Turkey?” I asked hypocritically-politely,
still hoping to avoid hearing
how the first, best version of the
Brooklyn Bridge, when primordial
Turks beheld the East River in that
bygone dawn, had been lofted stone
by sacred stone into place.
“By our craftsmen, yes.”
“Of course,” I said, and by a rumpled
facial expression and an inclination of
my head indicated my lifelong respect
for Turkish craftsmanship.
“It was a good business, but I don’t
sell them anymore.”
“Yes. Now I sell RPGs.”
“Excuse me?” My mind boggled
slightly as I began to pass through
the looking glass. The images around
me warped and bent but then resumed,
“Yes. Now I am retired I sell rocket
“You do?” But to whom exactly?
Al Qaeda, resurgent Taliban, some
frothing righteous contingent in the
new Iraq, any stray bunch of mujahedeen?
“Yes. America has all the big
weapons but, you know, the little
man needs a means of protecting
himself. The little man needs his
“And isn’t it good,” this well-mannered
man asked me, “that North
Korea can use its nuclear weapons
that Mr. Bush must talk to them?”
“I don’t think Bush is much of a listener,
and how much d’you know
about North Korea?” I said. “Look, I’m
usually first in line when it comes to
sticking Dubya in the eye, but doesn’t
Kim Jong Il strike you as kind of dangerous,
maybe a little paranoid?”
My interlocutor reexamined the
specimen of spoiled American the
drift of circumstance had placed before
him. “Mr. Bush will have to talk
with them, you see.”
“Yeah, maybe he will. But still …”
“It is not good if only America has
“Yes, of course, but even so …”
The metaphorical dinner gong—a
miscellaneous bustle on all sides,
some blurred announcements, the
rustle of uncles rising to their feet—
spared us both.
“Is it time for … ?”
“Yes, I think it is.”
“Then let’s …”
I detached myself more radically
than I absolutely needed to, happy to
have escaped a possible lecture on the
virtues of Osama bin Laden and America’s
overdue lesson in humility.
Over the years I’d had a few jeezget-
me-outa-here conversations with
Islamic or nationalist fanatics of one
stripe or another, but never inside
dervish walls, where the talk generally
ran more tolerant and enlightened.
What troubled me most about
this man, though, was the thickness
of intellectual muscle behind what
he permitted himself to say, the
granitic solidity of his self-assurance.
I sidestepped a rush to set up a
table on the back patio and went inside,
where we were served by men
who bent to ladle portions of dinner
into our bowls at low round tables
around which we sat on the floor six
or eight to a circle. Each of us had
tucked an edge of tablecloth into his
lap to catch the crumbs of bread as
we spooned down good lamb-andeggplant
stew on rice, followed by a
sweet and sticky dessert.
When dessert was done I excused
myself to retrieve the light cotton
jacket I’d left outside, folded in a
corner of the patio, and—“Oh, hello!
Come!”—was invited for tea and
a second dessert at the shaikh’s long
table, set out beneath the baby trees.
I was relieved to be seated next to
an old friend, Yusuf, a man in the
import-export business, long retired,
whom I’d met my first time in
Turkey, in the 1970s, when he was
one of the few people in this circle
who then spoke English. Two shaikhs
of the order had lived and died, but
Yusuf was still here.
We asked each other how we
were, and told each other it was
good to see you, and it was.
We had a more characteristic, disarmed
conversation about the good
Muslims and the bad Muslims. The
bad Muslims, Yusuf told me—he had
a certain tendency to lecture—
sought political and military power,
whereas “good Muslims, like us, we
don’t bother anybody.”
I was happy to see him—a plump
man, mostly bald, with smooth teacolored
skin, and now that he was
retired and had gone on hajj to Mecca,
probably more than once, he was
letting his beard grow. It was improbably
sparse and wispy. I didn’t
have to work too hard to steer the
conversation away from the podium
into the ease of reminiscence.
“Aw, you know,” I told Yusuf after
a time. “I’m just a tourist.” This was
the tip of an iceberg that had been
floating through my mind lately: it
had occurred to me that in real-life,
grown-up, no-shit mysticism, Enlightenment,
Nirvana, call it what you will, is
viewed not as the end but as the beginning
of real development. Anything
before that, for all its abundant
interest, fascinating experience, and
transcendent sights, qualifies as
tourism, and for all the years I’d put
in, according to this consideration, I
was still just a tourist.
Yusuf laughed and said, correctly,
“We are all tourists in this world.”
He patted me on my shoulder.
I laughed and nodded yes at this
Privately I noted, around the
table, how young men I’d known
thirty years before had changed into
graybeards like me, and how handsome
strapping middle-aged digni-
54 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / JUNE 2004
taries had morphed into lined old
men with heavying tread and veiled
eyes in which the light was dimming,
exemplary of the common doom.
And then it was time, if luck or
grace or the night permitted, to take
a shot beyond its confining arc.
At the head of the table the
shaikh rose from his seat, and we
all stood, in ceremonial
respect. Ihad to wait for an open slot in
the ablution room, shuffle into a pair
of wood-soled sandals, clack across
the tiles to do the correct ritual
cleansing of hands, arms, face, nostrils,
ears, feet, then find my way
back to the main room of the complex,
with its green walls and Arabic
calligraphy both framed and frescoed.
This gathering was illegal, of
course, and the rite we were about to
engage in—zikr, from the Arabic
dhikru’llah, or rememoration of
God—was the central practice of
virtually all Sufi orders everywhere
in the world. If there was anyone of-
ficial or uncool in the house there’d
be prayers, a quick nod and exit from
the shaikh, and that’s all, folks. We
are licensed as appreciators of Turkish
folk music and traditions and
that is all we are, good night.
In the event, there was a long sequence
of normal Muslim prayers, or
raqat, during which I did the few
correct prayers I knew, which kept
me in step with the bows and prostrations.
After that there was a nearly
interminable session of unison
mevlut, long prayers of which I understood
only a couple of tag phrases
and so kept silent except for the occasional
amins, in the meantime observing
the large room, heavily ornamented
with Islamic calligraphy and
ritual objects, packed with men
kneeling, bowing, chanting their
way in strict unison baritone
through perhaps an hour’s incantation
in Arabic, a language probably
only a few of them spoke. Maybe
someone had died recently, or married,
or had had a child.
The women were sequestered behind
a veiled lattice along one side of
the room, where they participated in
the rites, but separately. There are
dervish orders in which women not
LETTER FROM TURKEY 55
only participate equally but have
been shaikhs, but this wasn’t one of
them. As the mevlut rolled on, half
an hour, then another half, apparently
forever, my knees were in serious
pain, and I began to wonder if I …
ah, finally, thank God, it’s over …
but would there be—I looked down
at my watch: getting late, buses gone,
probably find a taxi though—would
there be a zikr tonight at all?
A line of drummers entered the
room robed in black, their bendirs—
frame drums like oversized tambourines
without the jingles, the
skins tuned loose for depth—held
high as they made their way across
the huddled crowd. So, good: zikr
was about to begin. We were gonna
cook. I worked myself to my feet and
massaged my knees. I intended to
throw myself into the fire as far as I
would go, and then, who knows, I
might even apply myself seriously to
Most zikr, a practice resembling
mantra, lifts off from the primary profession
of the Islamic faith: La ilaha ill’Allah
—No divinity but The Divinity,
No God but The God—originally
a pointer for the polytheists of Mecca,
later the first principle of the new
religion and, taken esoterically, a
suggestion that there is no reality but
The Reality; i.e., nothing in manifest
or non-manifest existence but the
Divine Itselfness, and all subsequent
individuation therefore an itemized
declension, or, to cut to the chase,
there was only One Unique Being,
period, for Whom everything apparently
other than He is His particularized
self-expression, which does not
constitute an actual Otherness.
When these abstractions are put
into an intimate and active mode by
zikr, they can be quite a caldron to
toss yourself into.
If, back in my twenties, when I
was in serious existential trouble,
I had shopped around for a spiritual
tradition, I probably would have
plunked for something pacific and
nondoctinaire in the Buddhist or
Taoist line, though my big problem
there would have been that I can’t
sit still too long. When in my usual
graceful fashion I stumbled into zikr,
I found myself surprisingly at home,
and thought that for ultimate eschatological
encounter, for burning
away the lesser versions of oneself
and the world as given, it was even
better than listening to a Coltrane
solo—in its successive theophanies
and annihilations it was like living a
Coltrane solo—and decades later
here I was, at it again.
Time to live and die, with all the
terms laid bare.
We lifted off from a La ilaha ill’Allah
sounded in rapid unison near the
bottom of our massed male vocal
range. I knew this one: gradually
we’d take it up a Turkish minor scale
full of interior implication, increases
in tempo cued by the drummers or at
the center of our concentric rings by
a nod from the shaikh, and when we
had crested the gathering wave we’d
hit the turnaround for a swift plunge
down the laddering notes with a
sense of having stolen fire from heaven
or been blown the gift for free.
Atop this swelling and recursion of
primordial human surf a solo singer
would arabesque his way through a
skirl of prayer whose words I’d always
been too lazy to ask about. As we ascended
the scale we could feel the
energy rising, and we were off to the
races and flying for the light.
The only thing that bothered me
was that the sequence seemed a mite
short; we were going through it with
unaccustomed speed. Had all that
mevlut compressed the main event?
It seemed like maybe it had: we
were zooming through it. Here we
were already at the crest of the upsurge,
going over the top of it, the
tempo racing down and crashing our
assembled mortal vessels into the
blue-green and foam of fundamental
sea. It seemed a little rushed. The
initial movement of the zikr was
ending. That was quick. Hope the
rest of it doesn’t go by that fast.
I struggled to my feet, and as the
uncles and their nephews gathered
in concentric, heavy-fleshed circles
linked serially arm over shoulder and
began their sidestepping dance as
the tempo slowed, found traction,
held, then trod ahead, I chose the
outermost circle and found a place. I
recognized the unison underchant,
the ground bass of this tariqat’s zikr,
expressed deep in the chest and
throat with a sawtoothed aspiration
and complicated switchbacks of
breath; as we crosstepped clockwise
sideways in our circles, at whose center
the shaikh performed his rite of
focus, a song soared up from the
drummers and other choristers; lacking
the lyrics, I stayed, percussive in
my heart and lungs, with the collective
fundamental passacaglia of
Hayy, ya Hayy, ya-ah Hayy, the other
music rising around me, the voices
beginning their massive, hymning,
In this tradition, God in his aspecting
is said to possess Ninety-
Nine Most Beautiful Names, ninetynine
a synecdoche for an infinite
number of qualities—the Almighty,
Wise, Beautiful, Most High, Creator,
Designer, Attorney, and so on, plus a
few dread names mentioned only in
a whisper, since He must not only
create but uncreate, not only give
life but take it back—and the fundamental
note of this zikr was the
Hayy: Life, or God understood as the
Living. What typically happens if
you enter the Hayy at any depth is
that you tend to see the forms of the
world, your own not excluded, overwhelmed
and annihilate in the singleness
that animates them, their
outlines obliterated by a tidal signature
of primary light.
Some of this can be explained by
hyperventilation induced by the exaggerated
breathing pattern and its
consequent overoxygenation of the
brain, but I’ve checked, and unless
you meditate your way through the
terms of the zikr, using, if possible,
each repetition of the Name as an
occasion for the essential experience
of what is being invoked, all the superheated
huffa-puffa may get you a
little dizzy, but you won’t see a thing.
The Hayy answers wherever you
pitch the tent of your aspiration: visionary
states, momentary self-magnification
masquerading as surrender,
or perhaps, why not, the thing itself,
the Absolute Ipseity, since another
of His names, not much experienced
by intellectuals in the West these
days but abundantly available elsewhere,
is the Mujib, He who has obligated
Himself to answer prayer, so
that He responds in the form in
which His believer has invited Him.
The point of zikr, however, is not to
56 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / JUNE 2004
affirm Him in the form you subjectively
imagine but to ascend from
such limited affirmation toward the
unqualifiable and unconditioned Real;
and for that ascent zikr may well
be an unsurpassable instrument.
In the outer orbit of the wheeling
zikr my back caught on pictureframed
calligraphies along one wall
of the room; at other times my segment
of the line bumped against the
rank of drummers or tangled in some
collective lag of the pace; but then
we’d get unstuck and stumble on.
During one of our rounds I spotted
the young American with the tassled
trousers, about whom I’d let myself
get snooty on the patio, and saw him
immersed in the zikr, taking it as far
as his experience of himself and his
working definitions of the universe
allowed him and daring all limits
down, which is the best any of us
can do: affirm the reality whole and
transcendent and One, blow your
fictive self away, and see what’s left
in the aftermath. We were all in this
together, brother human motes and
moments, striving to get past ourselves
and all that through-a-glassdarkly
jive into the finally Real.
The rings of zikr spun Tassle-
Trousers around the bend, and we
plundered on indiscriminately
through the dust of worlds dying and
reborn, the shuttering and unshuttering
of existential film. For all the
drums and voices and occasional
cries of illumination, we did this in
an atmosphere remarkably free of
frenzy. Here and there someone came
audibly alight, a candle flame rising
up, then dimming with a shift in the
wind. The tenor of any particular zikr
owes a great deal to the taste and
temperament of the shaikh who leads
it; it can present anything from a deliberately
to a composure behind which all inner
fires are hidden. This particular
shaikh’s zikr smoothly combined power
and decorum; it was a thrumming
engine whose inner pistons worked
steadily and well, with no dramatic
roars from the tailpipe or squealing
tires when the rubber hit the road.
I usually find my way pretty easily
into ecstasies and visionary states—a
weakness, under certain considerations.
Ecstasies are the sugar candy of
the spiritual diet, and if all you do is
gratify your sweet tooth you’ll spoil
your appetite for dinner or, your
palate sugared over, won’t even taste
dinner when it’s served. Shortly I
found myself crosstepping to the
Hayy, one life of light from highest
starshine to deepest earth and myself
refined to mere shape, no more substantial
than a paper cutout, albeit
for the moment one of Matissean
grace, an instance of Divine script in
its motion through the Book.
And that’s when I experienced a
quiet shock of recognition, a shudder
of memory that delivered me to another,
prior shock that was its reflected
image: shortly after the overthrow
of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, the Shiites
were able for the first time in
decades to celebrate their rites of pilgrimage,
and I’d seen video footage
of them mass-chanting themselves
into trance and fever on the streets of
Najaf and Karbala, swinging rhythmic
arms and thumping themselves
on their chests as part of the incantation
and then, sure enough, because
they were Shiites with a cult of martyrology
dating back thirteen centuries,
slicing their heads open and
covering themselves in blood; but
the blood didn’t do it: it was the earlier
chant-and-thump, to which I reacted
like any scion of Western civilization,
with a kind of horror at the
gore and chaos such belief and practice
were likely to unleash—all that
Islamic heat—and several seconds
passed before I remembered that,
short of self-laceration, I liked to do
that kind of stuff myself.
That was the shock part of it. The
recognition came one tick later.
Unless you’ve experienced the
power and directness of what Islamic
practice offers, you just don’t know;
even evangelical Christians with
their whoops and faintings have to
contend with a characteristic Christian
schism between soul and body,
plus the confusing algebra of a trinity
and an intervening Jesus; whereas
here, in the Islamic alembic, in a
single heat animated by a single fire,
everything is cooked to singularity,
to monotheism taken whole in one
sweeping descent, the line gorgeous
as Arabic orthography, writing itself
through you in a slash that is at once
sword and script and healing balm.
Unless you’ve lived the sweetness of
that wound—as the Sufis might
say—you can’t really know what’s
animating all those fevered, incomprehensible
Muslims out there on
TV or in their bomb shops. There is
almost unlimited energy available for
the asking; and watching those
chanting thumping bleeding Shiites
on television and wondering what
fresh hell their fervency might unleash,
it struck me afresh, in a moment
of recognition, that what was
crucially important to such practice
was the understanding one brought to
it. If all you wanted was to affirm
your local sect, necessarily opposed
to other sects in the next county or
continent, or to fuel a sense of in-
flamed self-righteousness as a member
of the one true religion or its only
authentic subcult, why there it
was, all the high-octane fuel your vehicle
could possibly require. And if
the Hayy could blow away the particularized
forms of living beings in a
supervening wealth of metaphysical
fire, how large a step was it, for a
crudely stoked understanding, to the
obliteration of actual living beings—
those nothings, those mere apparencies
—by a fervent bomb strapped
around your middle or an RPG
bought from that nice gentleman
over there, if the channels of your
understanding of the sacred ran
down such gullies?
Back in Brooklyn in front of the
televised chanting Shiites, I’d felt a
self-critical shudder just for having
been, now and then, on the same
figurative carpet with them and had
felt compelled, for a provisional moment,
to wonder to what extent the
entire tradition was blighted, from
deepest taproot to its most refined
and esoteric leatips.
Now, here in Istanbul, caught in
the looking glass, as in the unmodulated
blast of fervency I stomped the
manifest worlds to dust and fought to
lose myself in their greater light of
origin, bingo: hauled onto the literal
carpet—carpets actually: once or
twice my stocking feet dumbled over
an edge, a seam—I seemed for a moment
the living form of the perplexity
itself, a one-man culture clash.
What was I involved with here?
Oh, I knew these were fine and
peaceful people I was stomping
through the universe with tonight,
and that dervishes are the antithesis
of militant abusers of the fundamentals,
and that Turkey was the most
forward-looking, future-friendly of
all Muslim nations. That wasn’t the
point. With unnerving suddenness
I’d been thrust into a jagged, unfamiliar
perception of my best-loved,
most spontaneously embraced spiritual
practice, and for a moment it
had shown the sharpness of its limits,
even, potentially, a honed sectarian
edge that could be put to lethal
purpose, if its gleam caught someone’s
eye that way.
This zikr, usually prolonged for an
hour or more, seemed to have
reached its climax due to the exigencies
of mevlut in fifteen, twenty minutes,
tops. Our turning circles
bunched together, electron rings collapsing
upon themselves as if to
compress some final atom of striving
human substance, which is to say
that several tons of jumping Turkish
uncle belted out a percussive Hayy!
Hayy! Hayy! that shook the walls
and floor until we almost audibly hit
the bell at the top of the night’s
available ascent and came down collectively
radiant; but to what extent,
I wondered, did the glow and smiles
and embraces of the aftermath savor
of accustomed orgasm reliably
achieved and not some fresh intellection
or intuition of the unmodi-
I looked around the crowded
happy room. Who’s to
This comes quite a bit later in the book. The Bear goes to a recording session; this is most of what happens theres.
“One thing,” said Jones while they were heading uptown in the van. “When we get to the Power Station, let’s not have a repetition of what happened at the rehearsal studio.”
“What was so wrong with that?” asked the Bear.
Jones looked sideways at him from the driver’s seat before returning his attention to the milling traffic headed north on Sixth—a lot of cabs out there, bright yellow carapaces competing with each other for a good spot in the swarm, accompanied by a major-league blowing of horns. Fifth-chords and thirds clashed with each other without, however, producing developmental consequences of much interest, and there was no universal system of tuning. Ives might have done something with it, thought the Bear, but the given day did not.
“What was wrong with the rehearsal?” Jones asked him incredulously. “You mean aside from it being just short of World War III and there was no blood on the floor when you left?”
Well, even the Bear had to admit, although of course not audibly, that the rehearsal had been a little strange. Sigbjørn Krieger had booked two consecutive evenings at S.I.R. in the West Forties and the Bear had said cool on condition that Krieger didn’t show. Of course Krieger, famous for his ambitions toward total artistic control of the recording process, had shown up, and of course Jones, still angling for a gig with the parent company Megaton International, had lacked the necessary two olives to keep him out of the rehearsal room. The Bear had hardly met the band, had hardly had the chance to say hello to Billy Hart again, a lot of warmth there, and to meet Charlie Haden for the first time—a pink-cheeked Clark-Kent-looking guy the Bear regarded as the greatest living bass player on the planet. And he’d hardly had a chance to meet the young pianist Billy had angled onto the gig despite Krieger’s objections and the Bear’s doubts: Rahim Bobby Hatwell, this kid in his twenties Billy said the Bear just had to hear to believe. Well, the Bear felt he owed Billy a lot and he had given in. And Steve Kuhn had turned out to be out of town that week. The Bear would have given a lot to play with Steve Kuhn. Maybe someday.
Krieger showed up as the Bear was eyeing Hatwell hello and the small but athletic-looking piano-playing cat was wondering if you were supposed to shake hands with a bear or what, and if so how. “Hallo, everybody,” Krieger had called from the rehearsal studio’s doorway while shucking a massive shearling overcoat into the hands of an attendant, and the Bear had shot an angry sidelong look at Jones, who shrugged in response and muttered something about how the guy owned the damn company, after all.
Back in spacetime present, Jones stomped on the brakes and barely managed not to crush the rear end of a Chevy full of Chasids. The Bear could see their sidelocks wobble. It was heavy traffic. It was daytime in New York. It was the world as given. “Naw,” he said, “it wasn’t all that bad, not really.”
“In the sense that Krieger didn’t cancel your deal on the spot I’d have to agree with you,” Jones told him. “Otherwise, are you kidding me?”
“I thought it went pretty well,” said the Bear, “musically speaking.”
“You hardly played.”
“It was enough,” said the Bear.
“You’re out of your fucking mind,” was Jones’ opinion.
“Nyah nyah,” said the Bear.
“Oh yeah? Nyah nyah back, with knobs on, double.”
While they sat in silence for a few heavily trafficked blocks the Bear wondered if he’d done the right thing at the rehearsal after all. His tactics had been based on the intuition that his music was doornail dead and the only way he was going to get a decent record made was to do it so fast he’d hardly have the chance to know he was doing it at all. That, and instead of getting into the intricate harmonic architecture that had absorbed his real attention lately, he would have to imitate himself, make believe, basically, he was the musician he’d been before his imprisonment: more simply impassioned, better possessed by naïve and suppositious yearning for freedom and release. He’d have to forget, as experience had taught him, how complex and unsatisfactory even a small degree of freedom could be, once achieved. Have to dodge his nagging sense of the ambiguity of all experience and pretend to burning unicity again. Appetite he might have, but passion, not these days, no, not really. He was still living under the aspect of annihilation, in the spaces between the atoms. The world as given tasted primarily of ash.
What he had to do in order to make the date was dodge his ego, or to put it simply, throw a whammy on himself so he wouldn’t be looking when the music got made, disguise his right hand from his left so one of them wouldn’t know what the other was doing. Get out of the way. Duck, you sucker.
He had walked into the rehearsal at S.I.R. with all these problems prominently in mind, had said hello to Billy Hart, met Haden for the first time, and had a looksee at the Hatwell kid. He’d passed out four of the five tunes he wanted to do on the date, rushed everyone through the heads, blew a couple of trial choruses, let Hatwell get a few licks in—Billy was right, he was gonna be just fine—heard the music starting to build and then, coolly certain that if he let it build any further there’d be nothing left in him for the recording session, he’d stuck his big paw in the air and called it an afternoon. Everyone said Huh? and that’s when Sigbjørn Krieger had made his entrance, expecting to watch the music brew and jell and move in the direction of the perfect record he wished to make. The Bear made it known, through Jones, that he hadn’t wanted Krieger in the room. Krieger then likewise made it known, through his own intermediary. that he was personally involved in every phase of every record he produced, and his sole concession to the Bear’s demand for privacy had been arriving at the rehearsal a half hour late.
They might have had a fullblown battle on the spot, but Haden had somehow got between them and had started telling Krieger about how he had to change his hotel room again—something about the damp, or a draft—and how he wanted the producer to talk to the management for him because they wouldn’t talk to him anymore. This enabled the Bear to get into his hat and trenchcoat and pack his alto before Victory-Bear Warrior, which was how the Bear roughly translated the producer’s name, knew which end was up and what was going on. When Krieger did figure out that his altoist was leaving he threw an intellectually restrained and cold-blooded tantrum at the Bear and told him to rehearse the date or else.
“You want to cancel?” the Bear had asked him, but cheated the moment, baring his teeth more, strictly speaking, than he needed to, and bristled his neck-fur in waves. “Fine.”
Krieger stared at him and the Bear put a gentle but still bearish paw on the man’s shoulder. “Fine?” Krieger asked him, his voice wobbling critically.
“Yeah,” the Bear told him. “On an essential level I don’t need to make a record, so if you’d like me to leave, I will no problem.” Then he let his voice modulate to something more reasonable: it was like performing an aria; in other words it was a hustle. “But I do want to make this particular record, and I’m doing it the only way I know how. Granted I’m a bit unusual. Eccentric even. A bear of mystery, sometimes even to myself. Live with it and we can make beautiful music together. At the moment it’s fine with me if the rhythm section wants to loosen up and get to know the material I’ve written for them, but purely for the sake of my ability to make the record, hello I must be going, dig?”
The Bear thought it was a pretty speech and hoped it had confused the shit out of Krieger. Anyhow it was all he had. As the Bear swept out of the studio all footstep and trenchcoat and elemental untamed force of nature—anyhow that was the impression he was anxious to create—Jones had stayed behind to wheedle peace at the producer, and Charlie Haden had followed him out into the corridor, a mischievous grin on his boyfaced middle-aged map.
“Oh man,” Haden told him in the tremulous tenor the Bear had read was a result of childhood polio of the throat, “I don’t know if there’s going to be a recording date this week, but it was worth a million bucks just to see you talk to Sigbjørn, man.” Haden doubled over laughing. “Whoo! I don’t think anyone has ever talked to Sigbjørn like that ever.”
“Glad you liked it.”
“I loved it. Um, are you sure you’re okay for the date, assuming it happens?”
“Charlie, you think I made a mistake?”
“It’s possible. You sure you don’t want to play some more today?”
“I’m saving it.”
“Well, you must know what you need to do.”
“That’s the general idea,” said the Bear.
“But are you sure?” Haden asked him.
“No. Unfortunately I’m not.”
“Has it occurred to you,” Jones asked the Bear, as he pushed the intercom button of the Power Station a second time and still no one answered, “that you might have loused things up enough with Krieger that he cancelled the date?”
“Someone would have called. You know,” said the Bear, “they should never have changed the name of this neighborhood.”
Jones pushed the intercom button again. “See?” he said. “Nobody’s answering. It’s all over. Fuck.”
“I mean, Hell’s Kitchen was such a cool name for a neighborhood,” the Bear continued. “But the realtors interfered and the city knuckled under.” The Bear sniffed the air, in which some tang of the waterfront remained. “I’d rename New York City Hell’s Kitchen if I could.”
“Still no answer,” said Jones, and actually wrung his hands. “When you fuck things up you fuck ‘em good.”
“Hell’s Brick Shithouse,” mused the Bear. “Nah, even I think that’s a little strong.”
“What are we gonna do now?” Jones asked the air.
“Hell’s Pay Toilet..”
“Bear, puh-leeze.” Jones pushed the button again and wiped sweat from his forehead despite the breezy cool of the day.
“Did you know this actually was a power station once?” the Bear persisted. Jones was so easy to annoy. “Some relay in the city’s early electrical system. Nice to know it’s not just another ego-of-the-music-business name like the Hit Factory. Have a little faith, Jones. Someone’s home.”
“I don’t think so. I really hate you sometimes.”
“I know,” said the Bear.
“Khoo zzit?” an electric voice rasped through the small square speaker-grid set in the concrete doorframe.
“Animal crackers,” said the Bear, leaning into the microphone aperture.
“Well, someone’s here anyway,” said Jones when the buzzer unlatched the door and he pushed it open. “If we’re not making a record maybe we can get up a game of poker. Maybe I’ll get lucky and lose you to an engineer.”
“That’s very funny,” said the Bear, and laughed. “That’s really very funny, Jones.”
“He said something nice to me!” Jones announced to a heavyset guy in a black T-shirt, old jeans and a Monster Cable baseball cap who was sitting at a table sorting goldtipped lengths of insulated wire. “You were a witness. He said something nice!”
“We’re the Bear,” the Bear told the guy in the cap.
“I guessed. You’re in Studio A, through there.” He indicated a way down the piney woods corridor past the equipment cases and the lounge. “Door on the right’s the control room, one on the left’s the studio proper.”
“Thanks,” said the Bear. “Nice cables you got there. Expensive stuff?”
“So you really are a bear,” the guy said, looking up, the cables bundled in his hands.
qq ART IN TH BLOOD, WATSON, SAID T BAR, IS LIABL TO TAK TH STRANGST FORMS.
“I thought maybe it was a nickname, but no, huh.”
“One morning,” the Bear started telling him, and put his alto case on the table, the better to converse, “I woke from a night of uneasy dreams to discover that I had been transformed into an enormous—”
“Yo, Gregor!” Jones was calling from the control room doorway. “We got some musicians here! Looks like we’re actually gonna make a record!”
“I knew this was gonna be a shitty day,” the Bear told the guy at the desk.
“There’s no avoiding it.”
As the Bear shoved his way through the control-room doorway, he took in the scene as if scouting the place for danger. None was visible. A thin, alert-looking guy in a plaid shirt and a neat haircut and beard was working a slider on a control panel that looked like it could pilot the Starship Enterprise, and the sound of Charlie Haden playing his bass came through the enormous speakers set into the wall above the big picture window that opened on the playing space. The Bear stooped to look through this window—it was set a couple of steps lower than the control space—into the studio and saw Charlie Haden’s back bent over his instrument—a French bass, the Bear understood, from the late eighteenth century. He saw Billy’s drumset in an annex past Haden on the other side of the big piney-woods assymetrical room—there was so much rawcut wood in the place the Bear could smell it clearly enough to know it wasn’t all pine: he distinguished at least two distinct other saps but could not name them with all that polyeurethane in the way, besides which he was a city bear and did not know the names of enough trees. He looked out there for Billy, but the drummer was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m James,” said the engineer, looking up from the control board. “I’m getting some levels.”
“Hi,” said the Bear. “So am I.” He felt sufficiently in place now to hear what Haden was doing. The bassist cycled his way down a series of triple-stops, the root in perfect tune and the higher notes slid infinitesimally sharp to lend his chording a questing tone. When Haden reached the bottom of the cycle he cut loose one of his core-of-the-earth tones from the bottom of the bass and bent it with some powerful fingerwork so that the note arched up out of the fundament into beauty and pretty much devastated the Bear’s by now wholly attentive heart. The Bear couldn’t quite believe he was really going to get to play with this guy.
“Hey man,” Haden’s voice came at him from the speakers. The Bear opened his eyes to see Haden smiling at him from behind the glass. “Killed anyone yet today?”
“It’s early,” said the Bear.
“Hold on, I’ll open a mike for you,” said James from his emplacement.
“Nah,” said the Bear, pulled open the heavy wood control room door and ambled into the studio proper. Haden was just laying his bass gently down on its side, cushioning it on a rectangle of carpet. The bassist looked up at him and smiled.
The Bear had seen a lot of people walk up to him over the years, but none of them had done it quite like Charlie Haden. Usually, especially on the first few tries, there was something freaked-out about them, whether it was covered over by irony or bravado or not, but Haden, as he had at the rehearsal the other day, walked up to him more simply than any other human ever had, a social smile softening his features and a look of interest in his eyes. Haden put his hand out and the Bear took it firmly in his paw.
“It’s really great to see you, man,” Haden said in his wavering tenor.
“I ain’t….” the Bear began to say, doing his usual riff, but then dropped it. “It’s good to be seen. I mean it’s good to see you too. Both. Whatever.” Haden was one of the few people he had met who had the power to disarm him more or less completely.
The prelims done, Haden allowed a devilish grin to break out and play across his features, waving a nearly visible flag, which alternated red and black. “I’ve played with a lot of animals, man, but this really is a first.”
The Bear joined him in the laugh without thinking twice. Our first duet.
Suddenly Haden was a trifle anxious: “I didn’t mean that in an offensive way.”
“No, it’s cool,” the Bear told him. “I got it. I knew what you meant.”
“I was afraid, hm, of having made what might be thought of as a humanist statement.”
The Bear had to chuckle. “That’s the first time I’ve heard the word used in that sense,” he said.
“Well it shouldn’t the last. I mean, I’m ashamed for what my, ah, race has done to your….people. Can I say people?”
“People is cool,” said the Bear. “And, yeah, there ain’t a lot of habitat left.”
Haden nodded yes with a certain meditative seriousness, as if he were conjuring up and enumerating empirical details.
“Stick ‘em up,” said a voice from behind the Bear, and something like a gunbarrel poked him in the back.
“Billy,” said the Bear, “if I didn’t recognize your voice I might’ve spun around and taken your head off. You got to be careful around me just now. I’m in no mood for another arrest. What’s that in my back, the butt-end of a drumstick?”
“Yeah,” said Billy, coming around front to say hello. “I wasn’t thinking. Sorry, Bear. How you feeling today?”
“Some days you eat the bear,” the Bear told him, “and some days the bear eats you.”
Billy shook his head. “I could think about that all next week and not know what you could possibly mean by that.”
“I’m a little wired. Where’s Bobby Hatwell?”
The Bear had to blink at the piano player. First he had not been there, then there he was. Where had he come from? “First there is no Hatwell, then there is,” he said. “Nice trick. How you feeling?”
“I’m a little wired,” the piano player said, like an echo-delay effect. Rahim Bobby Hatwell was a small medium-dark brown guy in his twenties with a bullet head, small ears tucked tight to his temples, a delicate mouth, an articulated Ethiopian nose with arched nostrils, and dark Persian-almond eyes that looked right at the Bear the way most people’s eyes did not. He was well-muscled, highly detailed forearms coming out from under the pushed-up sleeves of his charcoal-grey cotton sweater. At the end of these forearms, just the other side of a pair of delicate wrists, hung two enormous hands, veined and sculpted with extraordinary attention to detail. It had never occurred to the Bear before that knuckles could be beautiful, or digits precarious. “You’re looking at my hands,” Hatwell said.
“I’d, ah, rather you didn’t. I know I’m physically eccentric, but I’d rather you didn’t stare.”
“I think I can relate to eccentricity. I thought you were a little tense about playing with me because I’m, well, a bear.”
Hatwell took a deep breath before speaking. “Actually I kind of dig the concept, and this isn’t the weirdest gig I’ve ever played, if you want to know. One time I toured America with Tiny Tim, John Carradine, Pinky Lee and Zippy the Chimp. We did, like, Hadawank New Jersey, Fuckaduck P.A., Assawatchie OH, North Cookieapolis and St. Bump—the whole circuit. The tour was booked by this mobbed-up guy whose name I won’t mention if you don’t mind, so of course what we played was a transcontinental series of, you should pardon the expression, Policemen’s Balls. Mr. Tim headlined, but John Carradine did these really sweeping versions of The Raven, Now is the winter of my discotheque, and To be or not to be. Then, in his biggest hambone voice, he’d introduce The Lovely Karina and Her Young Charge. Karina’d come out to Katchaturian’s Sabre Dance in a spangly red costume swinging Zippy in a circle in the air on the end of a rope the monkey had in his teeth. It was a buffalo show. After Zippy did his shtick we’d get Pinky Lee in his check suit and derby hat singing Hi ho, hi hee, my name is Pinky Lee, and then Mr. Tim would make his entrance, showing all his strange-looking teeth and strumming on his ukelele, which was tuned like to R-sharp minor, telling us, ‘In the Key of G, gentlemen.’ And it would almost never fail: the bottle-blonde wife of some cop or other would come flying across the room to put a flying liplock on Mr. Tim and we’d have to spend the rest of the night trying to keep the cop husband from pulling out his rod and packing up his troubles right there on the spot. After that we’d go out to a Chinese restaurant and Zippy’d get up on a table, pull down his pants and moon the house before putting down a whole baked fish and a couple of noodle dishes. At the end of the tour they found the mobbed-up guy who booked it in the trunk of his Buick Riviera with a longnose .22 in the base of his skull. I also did an episode of The Love Boat on a ship off Italy in the Mediterranean and dropped my whole paycheck playing cards with, of all people, Polly Bergen. This woman is a lethal weapon when she’s got a deck of cards in her hands, just in case you ever happen to run into her. Last week I did five gigs in two days and lost money. I’m a working musician, Bear. You can’t show me nothing new.”
The Bear turned to Billy. “You didn’t tell me he did vocals.”
“How do you like the piano?” the Bear asked the pianist.
“This Hamburg Steinway Krieger got flown in by albatross, none of your New York shit, you kidding me? Look at that mirror-black finish. Listen to the way it sounds. When we’re done with the record I want to be buriedin the motherfucker. One more thing,” Hatwell said. “I’d rather you called me Rahim than Bobby, if that’s okay with you.”
“Rahim,” said the Bear. “The Compassionate. Are you a particularly compassionate man?”
“Sometimes you’re given a name because you already have the quality,” Hatwell told him, “and sometimes you get it because you need the quality. You speak Arabic?”
“Naw,” said the Bear. “Just a few of the Divine Names is all.”
Hatwell looked both ways at Billy Hart and Charlie Haden. “He’s unusual,” Hatwell said.
“Maybe for a bear,” Billy Hart allowed.
“So what did you guys do after I split the rehearsal the other day?” the Bear asked his rhythm section generally, as a change of pace.
“We talked to Sigbjørn a lot,” Charlie Haden said.
“We took his temperature,” said Billy. “We tried to cool him down.”
“Then the three of us played for a couple of hours,” said Rahim Bobby Hatwell. “We really worked through your shit, you know? got your pieces down. We figure if Krieger comes in and cuts you out we’re ready, the three of us, to record an album called Ha Ha Ha plays Bear.”
“Ha ha ha?” the Bear inquired.
“Haden Hart and Hatwell.”
The Bear slapped himself on the head as stoopidly as he could manage. “I didn’t realize. Thanks for working the material through.”
Another party cleared his throat. It was James, the recording engineer, being polite on the outskirts of their grouping, accompanied by Jones who, casting furtive eyes at the band, seemed painfully outcast from life’s feast. The Bear had to admit it, it was still pretty cool to be a musician.
“Jones,” said Charlie Haden. “It’s good to see you again, man.” Haden turned upon Jones the same interested attention he had directed at the Bear, and Jones responded like a morning glory that had sensed the sun.
“What is it,” the Bear asked the engineer.
“I just wanted to show you,” the man said quietly. “We have Rahim and Charlie playing on opposite sides of the main room here. We’ll close the door on Billy’s drums in the booth, and we’re putting you in this room over here.” He indicated a glassed-in chamber on the other side of the studio.
“I’m playing in a condo?” the Bear asked him. “I’m looking out at the band through a window?”
“Sigbjørn gets his sound by isolating the instruments,” said James. “Everyone does it. It’s standard.”
“We have a problem,” said the Bear.
“Then we have a problem,” said James, although he did not look upset about it. “What’s up?”
“Well,” said the Bear, “can I talk with you privately for a moment?”
“Sure,” James said, and let the Bear draw him aside.
“James, I don’t have a clue how to play in a situation like this. I’m used to being with the band. I’ve got to be in close personal touch. Isolated like this,” he gestured at the walled-in instruments, “how am I supposed to play? I know people do it all the time, but…Also, I’d have to use headphones to hear the band, right? One, they don’t fit my head—”
“We could customize a pair for you.”
“—and two, they hurt my inner ear intensely.”
“You understand I’m not producing the date,” James told him, “only engineering the sound. If it was just a matter of not wanting to separate the instruments you wouldn’t have a chance, but the headphone problem gives you an in. You’re not lying to me, are you?”
“Only a little,” the Bear confessed.
“What I suggest is that you take it up with Sigbjørn when he comes in, and if he goes berserk I’ll step in and suggest a way of recording the band in the main room. Meanwhile I’ll get my gear set up so I can make the switch. Cool?”
“Bless you,” said the Bear. “I’m still panicked but it’s cool.”
Sigbjørn Krieger swept in about fifteen minutes later, followed by his aide de camp. Krieger wore a dark overcoat over his shoulders like a cloak and then flung himself, as the Bear observed through the control room window, into the leather sofa in front of the glass and dropped his face into his hands. When told to expect a Dansker, the Bear had anticipated some sort of blond or at least honey-colored individual, but Victory-Bear Warrior—the Bear’s still unconfirmed translation of his name—was dark and sallow and hollow-cheeked and looked more like a suffering artist than any artist the Bear had ever met.
He watched Jones bend solicitously over the melancholy Dane, and after awhile Krieger nodded yes, shed the overcoat and rose, displaying dutiful fatigue. Nice dark turtleneck sweater, observed the Bear, lush corduroy slacks in subdued, almost indeterminate colors. Artist’s clothes. It’s the way I’d dress myself if I could manage the effect. Krieger acknowledged the Bear through the window and waved a weary hand hello, then headed for the control-room door, right. The Bear stood his ground, the alto hanging from his neck, and let the producer come to him.
“I understand we have a problem, the Bear,” Krieger told him, then looked down at the floor. Krieger was the only man who had ever used the definite article and called him The. “Something about headphones?”
“My ears are positioned funny compared to humans. See? They’re up top of my head.”
“I think we can modify the armature on the cans,” Krieger said, although he looked pained at the prospect.
“Well yeah,” said the Bear, “but they hurt my ears a lot. There’s real pain in there, damage being done. I can’t do a Beethoven scene in my old age. You ever see a deaf bear? Pathetic.”
Krieger had begun to resemble a close-up in an unsparing, middle-period Bergman film. The Bear was sure he was within an ace of cancelling the session. “I don’t know if we have time to reorganize the studio for you,” he said.
At this point James materialized on cue at Krieger’s elbow. “I think I may have a solution,” he said.
“How,” Krieger asked James.
Then the Bear listened to James lay it out for Krieger, pleasantly and professionally: “I can isolate piano, bass and horn with panels in the main room, bring Billy forward and baffle him left and right. We’ll put three ambient mikes high up to pick up the harmonics. Promise you, Sigbjørn, we’ll get something you’ll like.”
A long moment ensued in which Krieger pinched the bridge of his nose and the Bear wondered if he really cared whether the date went on or not. On reflection, it turned out he did.
After Krieger nodded yes and withdrew, it took about twenty-five minutes for James and the guy who had been sorting cables to set the panels up and reconfigure the wilderness of microphones that attended the musicians. Jones walked around the studio through the whole procedure looking obscurely supervisory and generally getting in the way.
The Bear sidled up to him. “How’m I doing in there,” he asked, and jerked his snout toward the control room, where Krieger sat brooding on the sofa.
“You’re just getting away with it,” Jones said. “I may have gathered from a conversation with the Krieger’s assistant, who deson’t like him much, that the reason you haven’t been shitcanned for misbehavior is not your ineffable charisma but because Megaton International is pressuring Krieger. BFD records haven’t been selling the way they used to, and you’re expected to move product and help keep the distribution deal in place.”
“You mean I have leverage?”
“Don’t push it, B.”
Preliminary levels took fifteen minutes, with James back in the control room asking individual members of the quartet to play a few notes for him. Then the band did a few desultory choruses of “Au Privave” and James said through the sound system, “I think we’re ready for a take.”
Here goes nothing, thought the Bear, not for the first time in his life. “Okay, guys,” he said. “I think we should start off with the uptempo blues.”
It was called “Vehicle”, only he wanted it pronounced southern-style, Vee-hickle, and now was thinking of changing its name to “Ha Ha Ha”. He had liked writing it, and felt he had come up with a bright idea. The line was nothing special, a wisp-and-fragment thing the regulation twelve bars long, but the first chorus was in the major, and the second a variation in the related minor. Wayne Shorter had done the same thing on an Art Blakey shuffle once, but “Vehicle’ was fast and seemingly casual in its architectonics, and the Bear had some ideas about how it could be played.
“What I’d like to see here,” he told the band, “is a sense that the major-minor alternation is there, but it’s also kind of optional. I might start off my solo with a chorus of one, a chorus of the other, but then if I feel like playing three minor choruses in a row that’s the kind of freedom the tune is written for. You guys have the same freedom of course. So we’ll have to listen to each other to see which way it wants to go. And if we feel like dropping the changes awhile, that’s fine too. Charlie, I know you’re familiar with this kind of thing. Everybody happy?”
Haden blew into his hands and said, “Uh-huh.”
Hatwell piped up: “So, what you’re saying, if we feel like it we could play some free jazz.”
“I was thinking more pay as you go,” said the Bear.
“One more thing,” said Hatwell.
“You can call me Bobby if you want.”
“Actually,” said the Bear, “we need all the mercy and compassion we can get.
Getting the nod from James, the Bear grunted a countoff at an energetic but not intolerable uptempo and the band came in like the pros they were. What a bunch of uplift, he thought as he launched into the head. I mean these guys start off as if they’re already in the middle of the thing, no touchy-feely probes into what the tune might be about. Immediate arrival. They start off at a level other guys might never reach after weeks with the material, if they were lucky. What sophistication. Hope I’m up to it.
Billy laid some assymetrical punctuation into the gaps in the tune’s head and implied some facets of the architecture the Bear hadn’t known he’d written. As the Bear attained the beginning of his solo over the bridge of a cymbal swell from Hart and a chord pile-up from Hatwell, he hoped again he was up to it, and remembering that he wasn’t, he resorted to a prior strategy. Because he knew he couldn’t play in time present and would have to imitate himself, for the first time in his checkered career he had worked something out in advance. He would do his first choruses in fragmentary fashion, playing some piece of thematic variation oddly placed within the barlines, then lay out for little stretches and let the rhythm section fill. This would extend the strategies of the written composition and, who knows, might pass for music among the uninitiated. Then he’d lay in more bits and fragments for awhile and try to pull them together with some long lines and runs for the finish so it would look as if he’d really done something with the solo. It was an inauthentic, connect-the-dots way of playing music but it seemed like something to go out there with for starters. He might just get away with it. It might just sound like something had really happened.
Accordingly, the Bear put his first bit of phrasing out there and laid back to listen. The band called his bluff with snappish responses from three directions at a deeper level of invention than he had proposed. Then they settled, waiting to hear what he had to say next. Oh shit, the Bear told himself, you can’t lie to these motherfuckers. But I’ll have to keep trying this stuff out till something better comes along.
His first four choruses kept to the regular major-minor alternation indicated on the page. Billy was producing rounded swelling waves of rhythm on the drums and cymbals, ocean-surges that overspilled the barlines while still kicking the beat at him—just the kind of drumming the Bear liked best, only he didn’t feel exactly equal to contending with it now. Haden was digging methodically into the rhythm while opening up, within an increasingly free harmonic field, worlds of implication in which the major and minor blues as given had begun to interpenetrate each other, almost, in a way, to cancel each other out. To make matters worse, the Hatwell kid was laying in all this large-scaled architectonic chording that kept upping the ante drama-wise on the Bear every every time he proposed a new bit of phrasing or line of thought. In essence they had seen his two preconceived bits and raised him more than he had in his wallet. He either had to fold his hand and forget the whole deal or rise to the occasion somehow. Okay, he thought, let’s pretend I can play. Let’s pretend I’m comfy and at home in the fire in which only truth does not melt down. If I were, if I could—soul of Jackie Mac, intercede for me—I might do something, uhh, I might do something like this.
The Bear successfully doubletimed his way into the next chorus, not an easy thing at this tempo, and thought: not bad, but there was still a lot of Cannonball in that. He didn’t know if his bid had succeeded, but everyone responded as if he was good for the amount, and from that moment on he pretty much lost track of the proceedings. Oh, he knew that Billy was really bashing it and that Haden had dropped strict timekeeping to wrench explosively placed doublestops out of the bottom of his instrument, the strings protesting bodily against the fingerboard—and once, Haden did that droning, rising pedal-tone thing, like a choir of basses, against what he was playing on the horn, and the Bear took it as a complement, since Haden usually only ran that stuff behind Ornette. He loved the way Hatwell was working his shit in—nobody out there was playing piano like that, laying out for awhile and then hitting the music’s uprush with this strong two-handed harmonically intensified blockwork, then giving him a bit of the usual connective chording before entering a repetition cycle that responded to what the Bear was playing and demanded that he think about it some more—but what he was aware of, mostly, was the feeling that he would have to sink or swim and that he was doing a bit of both. He wished Billy would give him a bit more breathing room—he was bashing those tom-toms pretty hard—and then, despite the fact that he knew he couldn’t play like this anymore, at last he began to dig into what the band was giving him, grudgingly at first, because he had no alternative and it was probably better than packing up the horn and going home, and so, despite himself he lit into the day’s offered music, streaked and ran and just generally behaved as if he could still tear things up. He stole a lick or two from Coltrane’s long recorded solo on “Impressions.” Ah well. If you have to steal, steal from the best. The music was either dead or alive or a bit of both, he figured, and the whole time, compounded of what remained of his talent and his frustration with its inaccessibility and limits, there was a kind of shuttered tumult in him, as if all this equivocal music were being generated by a drama taking place from behind the closed doors of a room somewhere deeper in the house of his nature than he could bodily reach, light gleamed around the edges of the doorway and occasionally he could hear some word of dramatic argument rise articulate in the air; but all he could do here, amid the covered furniture and general gloom, was use what he knew about music and the horn to make some sense and energy out of the echoes of real events that reached him. Occasionally he got into something real, but then it would slide away and leave him with whatever lay ready between breath and tongue and paws. He didn’t know how long his solo lasted, though he ticked off the major-minor switches when he felt like it and took note when the blues structure fell away entirely, but when he was finished he knew that a bunch of time had passed, that he was sweat all over, and it seemed he had drifted into an out-of tempo dialogue with Haden, Hatwell laying out and Billy flicking in some cymbal trills and mini-bashes on the outskirts. The bassist played beautifully, sounded the notes deep down in the Bear’s nature that the Bear himself would have played if he still resonated that deep. It was a kind of call, and the Bear responded to it in his current piecemeal fashion, partly able, due to Haden’s beauty, to forget how deeply incapable of music he was: in fact the issue of self fell aside, only provisionally and for the moment, but sufficiently far so that something living could get through the barbed wire and perimeter defenses at the prison’s edge. Perhaps it was something of himself, again, but why was the place such a battlefield? How had it gotten to be this way? How did I manage to do this to myself? This should be completely fucking simple!
There was a long section in which the Bear’s and Haden’s lines intertwined in diminishing volume. The Bear liked it while it lasted, and said goodbye to it with a dying fall, a breathy trill, took two steps back from the microphone and tangled his feet in a mess of cables.
That’s where Hatwell picked things up, lingered awhile with Haden in the stillness, rumbling around in the piano’s lower storeys, then Herbie-noodled his way back into tempo and got the tune racing again. Bass and drums sleeked themselves down and took off after him, low to the ground, running smooth and steady. The Hatwell kid had some ideas, thought the Bear, as he listened to the little bastard outplay him. The pianist built his solo out of long swift lines whose general curve was upward but which curled back into themselves before unloosing their charge of drama. As Hatwell homed in on his eventual destination, there were stops and starts, big two-handed chordal pileups that sometimes topped out with a bit of humor—the Bear heard a polytonal demolition of “Stars and Stripes Forever” ride one buildup in the treble. and a bit of “All You Need is Love” stumbling out of another climax in bits and pieces—and basically Hatwell’s solo was riotous and unpredictable and disported itself over the entirety of the instrument as if the keyboard were still an undiscovered country anyone with a sense of freedom and some soul and muscle could romp in ad infinitum. Nobody outside the outright avant-garde attacked the piano with quite this much abandon, and the Bear felt like shaking hands all around, packing up his alto and handing the album over to the pianist with his blessing. The solo ended out of tempo with Haden buzzing a repeated, slightly flatted triple-stop against the wood, and the Bear had enough sense to wave Billy off it: he’d always liked Haden’s solos best when they were unaccompanied and he had room to go wherever he wanted, in or out of tempo. Haden’s initial questings, once Billy fell aside in cymbal-whispers, gave way to some plummets into his instrument’s bottom range. The Bear closed his eyes and listened rocking as a series of would-be lyrical melodies rose, each of their notes nettled by minute variations of pitch and placement, as if they had entered a moral field under siege. Haden’s struggle, whatever it was, made the Bear feel less alone. The bassist seemed to turn upon his notes some ultimate degree of attention and to question them as if at any moment they might drop their masks, fess up and tell him the secret of his life. At that level of inquiry Haden’s secrets, whatever they were, were identical to the Bear’s, to anyone’s own. The whole band leaned in, listening, a palpable hush seized the room just in case appearances fell away and the world of unmeasured Meaning, from which music came and at which it was always pointing back, was of a mind to put in an appearance, against the odds, pull the scrims down and leave the stage bare of illusion and full of truth. It came close. At the end of his solo, Haden had shifted almost imperceptibly back into the tune’s fast tempo and Billy was playing quietly and looking at the Bear over the top of his baffle, eyebrows up. Did the Bear want to play again or should Billy take a turn?
The Bear thought a drum solo would be a pretty good idea just then, and to communicate this thought to Billy he put the saxophone to his snout and began to play a sort of prelude for him. One thing led to another, and without meaning to he was beginning a second alto solo. It had taken him unawares. Hatwell was laying out, there was plenty of room and, since the bassist and drummer were keeping the volume down, there wasn’t any pressure on him. As far as the Bear was concerned, he was playing a little intermission between main events and was only paying a sort of half-attention to the proceedings. His mind had a chance to slip the noose and wander awhile. Listen to these guys, he thought, hearing Haden and Billy’s accompaniments and insinuations, the flex of beat, the suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain. Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich verdant multifarious world, and if you went outside its visible parameters you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing obeisance to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play. All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together in potential, articulate and complete, and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of an unknown process. All you had to know was the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life, is all, no more no less.
They were still playing, Billy was laying back, and Haden was starting to get to the Bear—where he might have expected the bass to walk or run alongside him, there was this bup-bup-bup-bup triplet thing going on, pure comedy, and the Bear thought, Like what the hell is this? Hatwell was coming in with some spare, spaced octaves: tonic, dominant, nothing in particular, relative minor and lo, the music was starting to do what it was rumored or fabled to do, i.e. carry him right past the rambling catastrophe of himself into greater knowledge and release. He could not, because of his continuing imprisonment, enjoy it in the full amplitude of his essence, but he could sit there at the fountain and regulate the flow as it came out of his horn according to laws anyone with half a brain in a similar position ought to be able to acknowledge and a listener enjoy. In fact this is just what he had been looking for, the subtly right ingress or egress, the chance to know and not know what was going on. Right paw, left paw, note after note, who knows, it might add up to music. In any case, for the first time in living memory he was situated smack in the center of something more real than he was, still feeling nothing but awake enough to tick off the necessary moves and meanings and just generally let it flow.
Haden vocalized, letting out one of his well-known Whooos. Yeah, but what does he know? Dead-eyed but with his heart on some kind of slow-burning fire too interior to warm him, the Bear played what he knew from this equivocal position, rolling out his lines, chafing against the law of rhythm before consenting to its authority again, pulling on harmony’s ropes and hawsers, getting those sails up, winching a few of them down and sailing on into the body of the day. If he had wanted, in the interest of greater speed, to heft the full weight of his emotions into the music’s swirls and currents, he would have come up against the problem that for all the moment’s cold intensity he had no feelings really. This was still some sort of intermezzo between the weary self he lived with and the world he wanted to get to, so that it was nothing, really, in itself; and at the same time he knew that this was precisely the best he could hope to do with the moment and its current pawful of material. Just don’t think you’re doing something ultimate or important and maybe you can keep it up awhile.
When the Bear was done, Billy took a solo that rummaged around the set and exploded amid the cymbals, and then the whole band played the out head staggered and almost out of tempo due to some mutual unspoken decision they had made. At the end there were a few last thrashes from the hilltop of one instrument to the valley of another and then they were out. After a four-second pause for the reverberations to die away they looked at each other again. Haden was the first to laugh. Then Billy and Hatwell assented. The Bear did not. He was in some other, blank, terse state of mind and felt like maybe he could play for awhile today and that was the business at hand and there was not much of him left over for laughter or chitchat or camaraderie or whatever.
James’ voice came through the speaker: “You want to hear that back?”
“No,” said the Bear, his voice so loud it surprised him, but then it seemed that you had to hear it back and so the Bear excused himself. While everyone else listened to it in the control room, he wandered out of the studio and up a hall, found himself in a huge recording room they must use for big orchestras and heavy metal bands, like an indoor football field, or a place for a swimming pool, anyhow something cavernous and gymnastic. The Bear wandered through it, looking up at the dark hangings that could be let down or not for damping the sound. He clapped his paws a few times to check out the reverb. The light was dim, the place deserted. The chrome of microphone stands gleamed under the dulled-down service lights. Interesting. Wonder if they’re done listening in there. Give it another five minutes. Better safe than sorry. I don’t want to hear it at all.
When he got back it seemed that the musicians all liked it a lot but that it was seventeen minutes long—really?—and there was a certain amount of audio overspill that James was tending to between the gantries, baffles and mikes. Krieger wanted to do a second, acceptably shorter take, under improved acoustic conditions.
“No,” said the Bear. Nothing mattered to him at the moment, except getting on with it. He was pretty one-pointed about that, but even that did not count, not ultimately, he felt that cold and void.
“And the drummer was singing while he played,” Krieger complained.
“Because he was enjoying himself,” the Bear told him. “You’ve heard of enjoyment, right? Good. Now we have to play the next tune.” His voice was so level it occurred to him that he sounded hypnotized.
Some argument ensued but it did not touch him, and even though he contributed a few lines to the discussion, it took place at a great remove, in some pointless contingent non-time, and when things got real again they were ready to try the next tune. Which one should it be?
“‘Book the Hook’,” said the Bear, “and we can keep it short.” It was a jump tune built off a repeated riff spelled by a break figure, eight bars of A-flat 7, eight of B 7 (+11), an eight bar release in A 7 (flat 9 + 5), and then a last eight in B-flat 7 to close it. “If it goes on too long, the changes’ll start sounding like a trap. Under seven minutes it might be okay. So.”
The Bear counted off, a little slower than “Vehicle” but still up there.
They played it, and not surprisingly Haden found some variations to work on the repeated rhythm figures that underlay the piece and Billy made the piece’s foursquare structure tilt and stretch and rock itself silly. The Bear and Hatwell took their choruses, then Charlie and Billy found a way to share two in tandem and they finished in brisk unison.
“Cool,” Hatwell said. “That’s like half a record done already.”
“Charlie?” asked the Bear. “If we could play a duet on something slow and then we could all take a little break?”
“Funny,” Haden told him. “After we almost did that rehearsal the other day I wrote a ballad for you in my hotel room. You want to have a look at it?”
They played it together after three false starts in which the Bear couldn’t quite get a grip on the best way to phrase Haden’s written line. Once he had it loosened up right, the Bear let Haden’s lyric understrumming coax him into deeper seas than he usually travelled. Every time the Bear would play a line, Haden would find something larger to say about it on the bass and the Bear would have to submit to the authority of what he had proposed. Haden surrounded him like a choir of basses, lured unknown music out of his lights and vitals, and coerced his consent to a beauty beyond the rim of his circumscriptive troubles of the moment. Did the Bear play well? Possibly. Did he keep to the chord changes? As a matter of fact, the Bear thought he had. When the Bear stopped, Haden took a solo, strumming, caressing up from the strings a richness of melody that paid tribute to the beauty of the bass and his own deep human nature. Accordingly, when Haden finished his solo, the Bear played Haden’s written theme with unaccustomed literalness and modesty, and it was done.
“Oh, man,” Haden said after the necessary pause.
“Really?” said the Bear. “Was it any good?”
Everyone agreed, at least, that it was time for a break. Apparently someone had phoned out for Chinese food and Charlie wanted to make sure there would be enough vegetables. Did the Bear want anything to eat?
Various people were taking off for the toilet and the coffee-maker. The Bear wanted nothing to do with either. He noted that he had no physical needs: no hunger, despite the fact he’d had nothing since coffee and bagels that morning, no need for the bathroom despite earlier ominous gurglings and the amount of strong black coffee he’d swallowed down for breakfast. He seemed to have no needs at all. No discernible emotion either. Not a thing. No doubt if he didn’t have to play the horn he wouldn’t be breathing either.
Jones spoke to him but he couldn’t make much sense of the words.
“Interview,” Jones repeated.
“You said you’d do one.”
“Oh yeah. Of course.”
The Bear sat down with the interviewer on opposing armchairs in the anteroom. There was also a tall thin woman with frizzy black hair and cameras dangling. She circled around and snapped pictures, but the Bear shot her a particularly dark look and something went audibly wrong with her motor drive—did I do that?—and she went away for awhile. The interviewer, although evidently Jewish, looked a lot like Shakespeare—about midway between the Chandos portrait and the Droeshout engraving—and had an even more poignant air than Jones of being on the outside looking in. The guy also sort of looked like Anne Frank with a beard. “I’m not really a critic,” he explained into the microphone after he had set up the black cassette recorder. “—really a critic,” the machine repeated back to him, and, once the guy had refumbled his papers back into his lap, they were ready to go.
The Bear composed his paws upon his knees, not really knowing what to expect.
He found the interview process rather odd.
“I was born in a boxcar on a railroad siding on the outskirts of Chicago,” the Bear began in answer to the man’s first question, and then the interviewer interrupted the Bear to tell him about his own childhood and how he had always wanted to communicate with animals, particularly with the birds. He had wanted to convince the birds that he would never do them any harm and that they ought to be his friends, but they would fly away from him anyway. He had loved all animals really, and although social circumstance had prevented him from meeting up with bears, when he went to summer camp at the age of five in New Hampshire he…..Had the Bear ever been to New Hampshire?
“Never been further north than the Adirondacks,” said the Bear, “where basically I was hunting around for lady bears. By the way, it offends me that the human world calls them sows…..”
It offended the interviewer too, the guy assured him.
“You see,” said the Bear, “due to a whole bunch of unpredictable governmental and bureaucratic wrangles attending the defection of the Great Vichinsky, I wasn’t separated from my mother right away. In fact, we were together long enough for me to…..”
The interviewer commiserated extensively, with reference to the difficulties of his own difficult childhood, while the Bear remembered the horned figure of the Sears Tower on the Chicago horizon, red lights blinking on the ends of its antlers, while his mother conveyed what she could of the family lore to him. He remembered the taste of her milk, and her warm, anxious. enveloping love. Too soon gone, and a too-cold human world for aftermath.
“My father was American,” he said when the interviewer had finished his story, “snuck in one night to diversify the circus’ gene pool. My mother found him primitive but affecting. She took to him, I think, more out of compassion than passion, and there was a certain old-world condescension in her feelings for him. Even though, I was told, he was rather energetic as a lover he had little appetite for conversation in the aftermath, and however touching he was in his directness, it was felt that he lacked perspective and nuance….Anyhow I never really participated in the snobisme in which my mother’s side of the family indulged itself.”
The interviewer spent a lot of time telling the Bear how this story made him feel, particularly in view of how the two sides of his own family had clashed like cymbals, or symbols, and the next time the Bear found a chance to speak, the text was Bird, Ornette and Jackie McLean, but even on these subjects he didn’t get a chance to say a lot.
He did get off one thing he wanted to say, though. “I think that the only significance of all this activity—the musicians, the industry and all the hysteria that attends it—is that despite all we’ve done to mar and soil the world with our having been here—and I include myself in that, because I’ve been here long enough to know that what I leave behind me is less a mark than a stain—is that when you come right down to it we’re in love with beauty. The world’s been made so ugly you wouldn’t think that that’s what everyone’s actually involved with, but I don’t know what other significance all this fucking noise could be about, do you? And I think civilization, as currently understood, ought to shut the fuck up, lay off on all the peripheral shit and inquire more deeply into what this preoccupation with beauty might mean. If possible before it’s too late, you know what I’m saying?”
“Yeah,” the critic-guy said, “Of course I do,” but looked even more left out of it than before.
At this point other voices pressed in upon them. Apparently it was time for him to play some more music, whatever that was.
“Sorry,” said the Bear. “There wasn’t enough time to really….”
“No, it was fine,” the interviewer said, and pressed a sheet of paper into the Bear’s paw in place of a handshake. “This is what I really do.”
“Thanks,” said the Bear, and looked down at what looked like poetry.
“Thank you,” the guy assured him, and made a little bow.
“Hey hey hey hey hey,” said someone coming in.
The Bear looked up and couldn’t help but grin. It was Lester Bowie, arms spread wide to embrace him, followed by old Doc Friedmann, leaning on a stick, his face reddened by the effort of walking. “The two doctors!” said the Bear, and stuffed the interviewer’s paper into his trenchcoat pocket. “Glad to see ya.”
“Yeah, just blew in on the Tardis,” Bowie said, unwinding a length of scarf from his throat. “What the fuck is up? What we gonna do here?”
“He inzisted on picking me up,” said Friedmann. “Have you ever experienced this man’s driving?”
“No,” said the Bear.
Bowie was shaking the interviewer’s hand and asking hey, how was he. The interviewer seemed flummoxed, and Bowie, bending over the man’s armchair, from which he was ineffectively struggling to rise, began paying him elaborate, somewhat parodistic court.
“Sorry you had a rough time getting here,” the Bear told Friedmann, who had some trouble getting around the Bowie-and-interviewer tandem. Eventually, however, the Bear had a chance to embrace him. “How’re you doing, old man?”
“A couple of chest pains but no luck yet,” the doctor told him, wheezing.
“Puh-leeze,” said the Bear.
“I have come to feel that the last thing I had to do in this life vas to be of some small help to you.”
“You want to sing Ich habe genug on my record?”
“I don’t feel like singing, Bear,” said the doctor. “I feel like taking a good long rest. I feel like death.”
“They say it’s sweeter to stay on a couple of years after you’re done.”
“Akh. I don’t even vant to know vhich bunch of sadists may have said such a thing. But it’s good to see you looking vell.”
“I do? I’m feeling a little ragged today.”
“Your coat has a nice sheen. And you smell good.”
“Hey Bear, so tell me, what’re we gonna do?” It was Bowie, appearing over the doctor’s shoulder, twiddling one prong of his goatee and doing a little speculative bob-and-weave in the innocent air.
“That depends,” said the Bear. “You want to play right away or listen to us do one first?”
“Whatever,” Bowie said. “How’s the date so far?”
The Bear gestured over his shoulders. “The guys are in the control room. Ask them.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see Billy. How do you like the Hat?”
“Hatwell? He’s great.”
“Yeah, catch him while you can. See you in a minute.”
Bowie went past him, a door opened, and the sounds of celebration washed against his back. For all his grim existential concentration today, the Bear had to smile. Doctor Bowie was in the house.
They decided to do “Tengri” before they brought Bowie in for his cameo, and the Bear made a mess of it. He had written the tune out of an interest in its Asiatic feel and the laddering thirds and fourths of its melody, and had named it for the Mongolian name for heaven, although he held “Shaman You” in reserve as an alternate title. Out of all the possible chord changes that could be derived from the tune he had chosen the most complex for the working chart, and as he went into his solo on them he remembered all at once that this was precisely the kind of playing he was most interested in doing these days but that also he had so far been unable to make it work. So for two takes he nattered around within the confines of the harmonic structure, miscounted the twenty-bar A section and the thirteen bar bridge, and felt, more or less, like a railway stationman out there on the platform with his pocketwatch, hoping for the best but personally unable to make the trains run on time. The trains that did arrive had no living people in them. “Hey, guys,” he said, when he had waved the band to a stop for the second time.
“I forgot something.”
“I don’t really want to play these changes,” he announced, and a couple of looks passed between the members of his band. “Hey,” he challenged them, “you wanna do a couple of choruses of ‘Cherokee’ or ‘Giant Steps’ or something? I can run em. I’ll eat em up. I don’t feellike playing these particular changes just now for the purposes of making music, okay? It’s not in tune with what I want to accomplish at the moment. So. Another way to look at the tune is that the A section is in Dorian with some optional sharps and flats and the B section’s Phrygian with a G minor tag the last five bars. So what do you say let’s play it that way for a take and see how it works out all around.”
“Yeah if you can really count to five,” Hatwell piped up. “Cause if you can we could all make the end of the bridge together.”
“Good point, Bob. Thank you. Shall we try?’
Krieger seemed marginally happier, the Bear noticed, once they did three takes of the same damn if now somewhat reconstructed tune. The first one was still finding its way, the second was acceptable, the third a perceptible falling off, with definite signs of a loss of interest.
“Lester!” called the Bear.
“Come on in here,” the trumpeter’s voice came over the intercom. “Let’s have us a discussion.”
“You can’t play ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’,” Bowie told him when he had broken the news.
“Why the fuck not,” the Bear asked him.
“Because while you were inside, Michael Bolton recorded a version—”
“Who the fuck is Michael Bolton?”
“What used to be called blue-eyed soul,” Bowie said. “Anyhow he recorded it and damn near killed the thing.”
“It was everywhere,” put in Billy. “It was unavoidable. It was on all the radios. It was on the street. It was like Madonna.”
“Well I’m a talking bear,” said the Bear, “and in the general spirit of the violation of the laws of nature, I say let’s do it anyway.” He grinned and bristled at Sigbjørn Krieger with particular viciousness and watched the man give way in a series of conceptual shivers of reassimilation. It was an illegal use of fur, he knew, and a suspect invocation of nature red in tooth and claw, but what the fuck, it’s only a record. It’s only a way of getting by in the world.
It was a way, in short, he had hoped never to have to think of music, but it was the order of the given day and there he was.
After some fooling with the head, they did it in a take. The Bear and Bowie played the A section in rough unison and Bowie took the bridge alone, giving it his best parodic yowls and whinnies but also rocking nicely back into the cushion of the beat. Billy let his cymbal triplets flex a bit, and played the snaredrum backbeat fat. Haden picked the minimum number of clear, country-true tones, and Hatwell took it to church. It was just what the Bear wanted, and going into his two choruses he did exactly what he had heard himself doing in his head for about a week now. He alternated some rudimentary, comic-Rollinsish linking of the tune’s harmonic fundamentals with a repeated rising dotted eighth-note figure which he let unfold into some fairly Birdlike melodic development on the bridge of his second chorus and then, on the way out, tossed some Cannonball into his last couple of bars: a measured solo: situational improvisation: just once. Lester Bowie made the best of his choruses—his tone had developed a beautiful sheen and shimmer, a beautiful gleam of brass, and he used it in lovely lyric contrast to his usual clowning divagations from tonal orthodoxy, those yawns and yowls and sidemouth slurs. It also seemed to the Bear that Bowie’s phrasing was a bit more developmental than it used to be. The Bear liked that—good as Bowie is, he’s been working at construction, and his tone’s more gemlike and emotive than ever. Bowie’s solo was a moving piece of work that was all the more effective for its relative restraint. For his single chorus Hatwell picked up on Bowie’s reticence and suggestions, keeping things mostly chordal and nearly church-solemn. You could hear his youth pushing against this decorum from within, so that there was a feeling of a wave about to raise up and smash some houses on the shoreline. but no actual trace of whitecap showed on the surface. When trumpet and alto returned to repeat the tune’s written melody they played it as if with heads bowed. The Bear had the bridge on the out chorus and he elected to rip it with some traditional blues and gospel declamation, then hushed back down for the unison of the last eight bars. Bowie was lovely there, his tone retaining its glow even in pianissimo, and the tune ended in a saxophone whisper and the fluttering of Bowie’s breath through his horn.
The Bear had wanted this one for Iris and it had come out right.
These are the first two chapters of The Bear Comes Home. This may differ slightly from the published version.
It was a hot day and the Bear worked hard for his money, dancing to Jones’ harmonica, a disco cassette, a couple of Austrian marches and some belly dance music. He guzzled a bottle of beer and shambled around groaning and pawing at the air. He let Jones wrestle him to the ground and plant his foot on his deep barrel chest to let out a victory cry. He let himself be led around in a circle by a chain through the ring in his nose so that the shoppers could laugh at him and applaud. He rolled in the gutter twice without looking up. They made about forty dollars.
The Bear was a good act. He was a muzzy medium-brown bear who looked small enough to be safe when on all fours but absolutely huge when he reared up and stretched out his arms to get the oohs and aahs, that moment of awe without which no artistic production, even one that rolls itself in the gutter twice daily, can completely succeed. It was a small transfiguration, but it was sufficient unto the day, and it was probably what the people on the corner, after they had stopped laughing and wiping their mouths, took home with them when they left. Otherwise, the Bear knew his cues, never gave Jones any trouble on the job, and didn’t pee in the street. When Jones led him home toward evening, the Bear’s walk rolled him shoulder to shoulder, his head swayed genial and empty, his face was vacant and his eyes were glazed. Passersby were interested of course but seldom afraid. They may even have wondered more about Jones, a lean, almost spiffy man with lank brown hair and well-drawn, if subsequently smudged features, apparently attached by a chain to a dancing bear. The Bear knew how to behave in company. He had the social number down.
When they got home and upstairs—a narrow three-flight walkup with bare bulbs in the hall, cracked tile floors, old red paint and roaches—Jones undid the locks on the door and went in. The Bear came in after him, unsnapped the chain from the ring in his nose and dropped into the old green armchair beside the door. In response, fine dust whorled up from the upholstery as if seeking definitive formal arrangement in the air.
“Another day,” said Jones.
“Another dollar,” completed the Bear.
“Want a beer?”
“Whatever’s right.” The Bear started drumming his claws on the threadbare arm of the chair.
Jones opened a couple of cold Anchor Steams and sat down on the worn old circus trunk across from the Bear. “How you feeling,” Jones asked him.
“If I have to do another day of this shit,” said the Bear, “I’m gonna go out of my mind.”
“What’s the alternative? You think people are gonna accept you as you are?” Jones was getting shrill more quickly than usual. Maybe it was the heat. “They’ll put you in a fucking freakshow, a museum. They’ll stick your head so full of electrodes you’ll think you’re Goldilocks.” He took some beer. “Stick with the act. The act’s good, anyhow it’s the best we can do.”
“It’s undignified,” pronounced the Bear.
“Don’t I do it? Don’t I do it too? All the same shit you do?”
“Tomorrow,” the Bear told him, “I step on your belly and yell like Tarzan and you take the roll in the gutter.”
Jones composed an elaborate frown, then let it slide.
The Bear continued regardless. “You get to wear the chain in your nose but I still drink the beer…By the way,” he said more seriously, “I want to work another beer or two into the act. And I’d like them cold.”
Jones said nothing, with unusual clarity.
“Whatsamatter,” said the Bear.
“I worry,” said Jones.
“About?” the Bear prompted.
“About l’il ol’ me?” the Bear said with a servile grin and a little bow in his seat. “You think I’ll be an unruly beary-poo? Sexually or otherwise assault the clientele? Crap in the gutter? Go public and break into King Lear? Why ursine, wherefore base? Blow ye winds, crack your cheeks and break the molds that make ungrateful man? Y’all worried about me?”
“Sometimes,” said Jones, “you can be a real pain in the ass.”
“Whereas the rest of the time I’m just your bread and butter.”
“Bear…” Jones pleaded.
“One more lousy beer is all I ask,” said the Bear, “when I can drink you under the table four or five times over.”
“Bodyweight,” said Jones.
“Character,” said the Bear. “One more beer, Jones. I don’t think that’s so dangerous or temperamental. You see me playing the primadonna here? I don’t think so. Get real.”
“Drinking on the job,” said Jones, shaking his head and taking another swig of Steam.
“That’s the kind of job it is.”
“Exactly,” said Jones, and burped. “Which is why an extra bottle of suds or two is dangerous. I wouldn’t want to see you getting dependent on beer to get through the day. Remember, you had a leetle problem once.”
“I was a comic little cub back then. I fell down a couple times.”
“Bad precedent, man.”
“I ain’t,” said the Bear, “a man.”
A silence ensued. They drank their beers, which were ideally cold, and allowed themselves to relapse back into friendship, as they generally did after the ritual tiff about work. Sometimes they wondered if they had been together too long, but where else in the world could the Bear go and what, exactly, would Jones do in it without him? In any case, there they were. Again.
The Bear riffled through the fur of his chest and Jones wiped sweat from the pale skin of his brow and brushed a lock of his brown hair back.
It was getting twilight out, and the world was making twilight sounds: the calls and cries of a few kids in the street, cars prowling for a parking spot, Brokaw or whoever doing the news on TV, someone kicking a bucket around in the gutter, someone else whanging away at a streetlamp with a stick. The smell of frying chicken wafted in.
“What’s for dinner?” asked the Bear.
“Can you deal with spaghetti again?”
“I can deal with spaghetti.”
“I’ll get a can of salmon and some berries for you tomorrow.”
“Aarh,” said the Bear, “salmon’s only good fresh, and we probably don’t have enough cash on hand for a couple of pounds of that.”
“Not after I pay the overdue electric bill we don’t,” Jones confirmed.
“You got maybe some chopmeat?” asked the Bear.
“Then make me with it a nice steak tartare appetizer.”
“I was saving it for the sauce.”
“You make a very nice meatless sauce and I need a lot more protein than you. Make me an appetizer.”
Jones made a pass with his hands. “You’re an appetizer,” he said.
“Aarghr,“ said the Bear.
“You walked into it,” said Jones. “Fair is fair. You set me up. You said it twice: make me an appetizer.”
“Right,” said the Bear, swiping idly at the air, “you’re an appetizer too.”
“What kind?” Jones perked up. “Beluga?”
“You’re chopmeat, Jones,” said the Bear. “At the very best a can of salmon and a couple of very small berries.”
Jones and the Bear laughed at the tired old jokes and opened two more bottles of Anchor. Jones lit a cigarette and they sat across from each other as the summer evening came on outside, bringing the first cool breeze of the day in through the open window.
“Ah,” said Jones, and fanned himself with the TV section of last Sunday’s Times.
“Come with me,” sang the Bear, “if you want to go to Kansas City.” A pause followed, to accommodate the piano break.
“I”m feeling so sad and blue, and my heart’s full of sorrow,” sang Jones, who did not sing well and came in three beats early.
“Don’t know just what to do.”
“Where will I be tomorrow?”
“Got to go there,.”
“Really got to go. Really want to go there.”
“Really got to go there, sorry-but-I-can’t-take-you,” completed the Bear. There had been some omissions and mistakes.
“Heh heh heh,” said Jones. “And heh.”
“Heh. Make dinner.”
Jones got up. “All through thick and thin,” he said.
“Parker’s been your friend,” sang the Bear. “Man!” he almost shouted, slamming his clenched paw on the threadbare arm of the chair. “Charlie Parker!” The Bear beamed, a rippling wave worked its way through his fur, and there was a suggestion of a subtle glow about him from from top to toeclaw. “Bird!”
Jones busied himself with the steak tartare, grumbling at the inadequacy of the beef, and the Bear laid his case flat across his knees and unpacked his alto. He checked the reed, worked the keys and blew a couple of phrases. Satisfied that both he and the saxophone were in working order—although due to the humidity one or two pads had a tendency to stick, but they would play clear after awhile—he began to play “Parker’s Mood,” maybe the greatest blues solo ever recorded, with some of his own comments and emendations, making greater departures from the original as the solo advanced. After five good choruses, his eyes still closed with pleasure, he stopped and leaned back in the armchair. “You know,” he said, “I don’t even have to play a bunch of weird outside shit to be happy. There’s so much wisdom in bebop it’s enough for a lifetime, really. All the things you have to know just to make one chorus work right. You have to know life pretty good. Not to mention the horn.”
“You play all right.”
“I know I play all right. Not the very first rank maybe, not world class, but good enough to make a living in New York.”
“You phrase nice.”
“Of course I phrase nice. Bears are soulful and inventive people. We’re friendly, we’re creative, and we’re cool. But the world,” he told Jones, “knows us not.”
“I know you.”
“You. Yeah. You know me.” The Bear put the saxophone to his mouth and arpeggiated his way through a typically murderous late-50’s Coltrane turnaround—C major 7, E flat 7, A flat major to B 7, E major to G7, and finished on a resonant C, which he flatted slightly for emphasis. “You try that with paws, mutha. You develop an embouchure for a snout. Yeah, you know me. Sure. Could you do that?”
“Steak tartare,” said Jones, presenting him with a plate of raw chopmeat topped with a dusting of paprika and mixed with fresh green spices. “You’re in a lousy mood.”
“I’m sorry,” said the Bear. “I just get so frustrated. Which is no excuse. You want a hand with the spaghetti?”
“I could give you a hand with the spaghetti.”
“That’s all right.” Jones cleared his throat and put a hand to his collarbone. “I like to cook.”
The Bear played whole-tone scales while Jones chopped onions, garlic, dry red peppers and flatleaf parsley. Jones heated olive oil and put the spices in to sauté, reserving the garlic. The Bear switched to some legato phrasing in the Dorian mode and Jones eased ten fresh plum tomatoes into a pot of boiling water. “You want to go up to Woodstock this weekend and jam with Julius? Julius is cool. I could call Julius.”
“Yeah, Julius is cool,” said the Bear, lowering the horn, “but when a guest comes over I have to go out in the yard and act like an animule.”
“We could go.”
“And I think Julius is in Europe this month with the sax quartet.”
“Good for Julius,” said Jones, spooning the garlic into the pan and beginning to peel the tomatoes he had spooned from the water. He put a few of them into the oil and mashed at them with a wooden spoon.
“Yeah. Good for Julius. We got any decent wine in the house?”
“I think an okay Italian red.”
“Let’s hear it for an okay Italian red,” the Bear said dully. “Long may she wave.”
“Bored?” Jones asked him.
“To death,” said the Bear, and downed the mound of steak tartare in two large mouthfuls. “I mean, dance is all right, even street dance. It’s the poetry of the body, flesh aspiring to grace, or inviting the spirit in to visit. But music.” He shook his big head side to side. “That’s different. That’s one level more subtle. I mean, if the universe is vibration, and after Einstein who’s gonna deny it, energy sifts down matter and before gets there it manifests as light, then sound. So playing music—playing music well,” he corrected himself, “it’s like taking an active part in the unmade future…Jones? You with me here? Do I detect a glazed look about the eyes?”
“It’s a little obscurant for me,” Jones admitted amid rising veils of steam. “You been reading the wrong magazines.”
“Bears have a good head for metaphysics, Jones, but our feet never leave the ground. I know what I’m talking about.”
“Well that makes one of us.”
“You understand me all right.” The Bear licked his muzzle clear of flecks of beef and reattached the saxophone to his neckstrap. “You’re just afraid I’m gonna wig out and get unmanageable.”
“I just don’t want you getting any funny ideas.”
“Too late,” said the Bear. “I got a headful.” He got up and started walking around the living room, the saxophone steadied by a touch of his right paw. “Man I’m restless.”
“I could give Mirelle a call,” Jones offered.
“I’m sick of hookers,” said the Bear, “and they don’t dig me. The ones that do dig it, I think they’re sick. They wig out so much on doing it with a bear that I’m not even there, me. Later for Mirelle. Maybe we should go upstate and I could nose around in the woods.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Jones. “A she-bear from Big Indian.”
“A nice country bear,” the Bear chimed in. “No mind for ideas. A regulation roots and berries type. A hippie. But what’ll we have to talk about after? Never read Proust or the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, acts territorial ten minutes after the deed is done, and if you express an interest in the offspring she thinks you want to eat ‘em….This world gets dull, Jones. It’s a bad fit. I’m not from around here.”
“You know what your problem is?” Jones asked him, tasting a bit of sauce he had blown cool on an end of wooden spoon. “You’re too good.”
The Bear nodded vehemently. “Nail on the head. Too good. So often thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
Jones and the Bear had another little laugh on that one.
“Remember the days I used to jam up in Harlem with those guys out of Lionel Hampton’s band?” asked the Bear.
“Who could forget.”
“They didn’t know what to make of me, did they….Uh, where you, uh, from….” The Bear trailed off into laughter. “Wasn’t for Julius the whole thing would’ve been untenable. But I could play, couldn’t I? And I kept your ass safe in Harlem. 140th Street mind you, not just One Two Five.”
“The whole thing,” said Jones, “was a calculated risk.”
“I even made that record date.”
Jones, easing the stalks of spaghetti into boiling water, laughed softly, then mimicked the nasal voice of the Union man. “Uh, who is that artist with the ring in his nose? He uh plays uh alto? Alto saxophone? I don’t seem to see his name here on the list.”
Jones and the Bear cracked up.
“Julius walked up to the guy,” and here the Bear did Julius’ voice and towered down on the union guy to speak: “‘Excuse me but have you ever wondered how the Dogon knew without the aid of a telescope how Po Tolo does its dance around Sirius and perturbs its orbit? You might inquire of the ahhhhh gentleman wearing fur and as you observed a ring in his nose. He may be willing to share some facts with you. You never know.’ The Union man about died.”
“‘The wearing of fur,’” Jones continued in his own rendering of Julius’ deep slow voice, “‘signifies the putting on of primal power—’”
“Speaking of put-ons,” said the Bear.
“‘—an assumption of the ritual cloak of wilderness and night. Have you really never worn the mask of God? or do you only operate the external human form.’”
“God that man was stupid,” said the Bear.
“But persistent. All good things,” Jones said, “must come to an end.”
“Sometimes they got to begin again, don’t they? Life requires spice. Lord knows I got the itch to go out there again on some kind of flyer.”
“Just ‘cause you’re round and brown,” said Jones, “don’t mean everyone’s gonna take you for Arthur Blythe.”
“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms,” the Bear admitted. “There anything on TV tonight?”
“It’s Friday. We could pick up a rerun of The Rockford Files.”
“All right!” said the Bear. “Save my life. Let’s hear it for Big Jim Garner!”
“Dinner’s almost ready. You want to eat in front of the television?”
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” asked the Bear. “Present company excepted.”
“I liked the show better before they wrote Bev out of the script,” said the Bear, cleaning the last trace of sauce from his plate with a crust of bread, “but even in reruns it’s still about the best thing on the box.”
“Bev? Who’s Bev?”
“Rockford’s lawyer, dummy. A good actress, a nice presence.”
“Her name was Beverly. Or Bess.”
“Yeah,” the Bear said derisively, “Bess Myerson.”
“Myerson?” said Jones. “Myerson? You sure? Myerson?”
“You sure get stupid come evening,” said the Bear.
“I get tired. I’m getting middle-aged.” Listlessly he shook his empty wineglass. “I get tired. Leave me alone.”
The Bear regarded Jones’ mostly hairless white chest, on which his shirt had fallen open. “That was nice spaghetti,” said the Bear, thinking Poor Jones.
“Thanks. I like Angel,” Jones said.
“I like Dennis,” said the Bear. “Rockford’s friend Dennis Becker, the cop. Joe Santos plays him.”
“He looks like a bear,” said Jones. “That’s why you like him.”
“The hell he does,” said the Bear, “and the hell I do.”
“Nya nya,” said Jones. “I’m tired. I like Rockford’s dad. Lea’ me ‘lone.”
Poor Jones, thought the Bear. Poor weak Jones. Such slim resources. Life was down. Time was up. The Bear had to get out of there. He packed his alto—nothing out of the ordinary in that—then went to the closet, put on baggy khaki pants, a long flappy raincoat and a hat.
“What are you doing?” said Jones, sitting up and rousing himself, trying to be equal to the situation.
“Sorry but I can’t take you,” sang the Bear. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back around two, three the latest. We can work tomorrow but tonight I got to get some air.”
“Where you going?”
“Tin Palace maybe and jam. Maybe I’ll just do like Sonny Rollins, go up on the bridge and play. Stand there, suspended between heaven and the deep and wait for something to happen.”
“Wait up, I’ll go with you, run interference.”
“Not tonight,” said the Bear, showing teeth. “What I do I must do alone. Go quickly. Robert Jordan felt his heart beating on the pine floor of the forest. Gary Cooper. Ingrid Bergman. The End.”
“Don’t talk crazy. I’ll come with you. Wait up.”
“Look, if I go up on the bridge and play we might get a writeup or end up in a hi-fi ad or something. Which bridge was it?”
“Brooklyn. Williamsburgh. I forget.”
“Rainbow. The full spectrum. See ya.”
The Bear was already out the door and trundling down the stairway when Jones started buttoning his shirt and looking around for his socks. Shit. he thought, I knew this was gonna happen one of these nights. He’s going out there looking for trouble. Looking for it. Thank God he can handle himself in a fight but New York’s changed a lot since the last time he was out alone. Too many people out there carrying heat. Then it came to him—Aleph, Beth: Rockford’s lawyer Beth Davenport, as played by Gretchen…Gretchen….Jones found the other shoe and slipped it on. I’ve got to get a move on if I’m gonna catch him at all. He ran slapdash for the door and made sure he had the keys. As played by Gretchen Corbett.
But the Bear was already standing outside the rattling glass doors of the tenement, adjusting the brim of his hat. I may be wearing a hat and a raincoat, thought the Bear, but no one’s gonna mistake me for anything on the order of Paddington. I have always firmly rejected the cutesy-poo. And I am, objectively speaking, one heavy bear.
He came down the seven steps to the sidewalk and turned right, towards the Avenue. From behind he looked like an enormous, burly man in a coat, his body thick with power. The weight of the alto case did not affect his walk in the least. He didn’t roll, didn’t lean or sway but went straight in a line along the pavement.
Maybe, it occurred to the Bear, someone seeing me from behind might think: he’s carrying a gun in that case, or a bomb, or the secret of my life that I myself have lacked the courage to live completely, or the secret of this great and terrible city, or perhaps instead—something strange was happening to the Bear—an oblong, self-illumined emerald three feet by one by one-and-a-half that glows neither like the moon (silver) the sun (gold) nor the stars (diamonds) but like some inner, unsuspected, spiritual globe of light, of which man has hardly begun to learn the existence, the qualities, the name: an all-suffusing green gem with unprecedented powers: the key and catalyst to new emotions, attributes, lives and unifications, the secret of secrets, center of centers: the microcosm, the mandala for real, the obverse of the manifest and the key to all possible liberations. Perhaps, thought the Bear, someone behind him might have thought this, and perhaps for a moment, flickering wholly in and then wholly out, the saxophone case might actually have contained the sole and abiding principle, the locus of revelation—who knows?—but at the moment the only person behind the Bear was Jones, coming scattered and dishevelled down the seven steps to the street. His first impulse was to run after the Bear and bring him back, but then he thought better of it, dropped back and followed him at a distance.
In the meantime, the Bear had attained the Avenue, where blinding, brilliant traffic travelled like a line of light from north to south, as if between worlds. But it was Jacob who saw the ladder, wrestled with the angel, and obtained a birthright under false pretenses. The Bear had done none of these things. He pulled the hatbrim further down on his face and walked south beneath the vault of darkness, above him like guardians or heralds the electric signs of bars and stores—white, orange, yellow, gold, red, brilliant blue and green, occasional imperial purple—as if they were angels that had descended to earth only to hire themselves out as lures for business, possibly for reasons of pity. The Bear walked beneath them like a resolute and powerful man, the saxophone case at his side swinging like a cache of fate, love, gold or vengeance. When he realized that he could have his pick of them—that all options, attributes and possibilities actually were open to him, that he was, at the moment, exalted, liberated, free—he stopped walking for a moment, put down the saxophone case, looked gradually around him at the Avenue and the world beyond it, raised his snout and smiled broadly, and there on the pavement stretched out and aloft his great and inevitable arms. Aah. The night entered him like honey, and he began, so heartily and with such a depth of pleasure that it might have been for the first time in his life, to laugh out loud.
Despite the fact that the Bear weighed about four hundred pounds, carried a saxophone case and wore baggy pants, a raincoat and a hat, only a few people noticed him in the dozen blocks from his apartment to the Tin Palace. He was trailed by Jones and a remnant of grace. Jones bit his nails and wondered when to make his move. Grace kept the police cars on other streets and serious troublemakers out of the Bear’s path. Some people saw him coming from a block or so away, but even at that distance they were sufficiently impressed by his size and shape to cross the street and feel their heart hammering against their ribs until he was gone. They did not get to see him for what he really was. One young man came out of a tenement doorway and saw the Bear up close, but he had just come back from a year with the dervishes in Turkey and took the Bear for a curveball God had decided to throw him that night, either that or an elemental nature spirit off his turf. A second individual was merely confirmed in his opinion of what life in New York was coming to these days, and only an hour and a half later in the middle of a movie uptown did it dawn on him that he had seen a large and literal bear; he gripped the arms of his theatre chair and let out a little scream. The third human the Bear encountered was the inevitable wino two blocks north of the Palace who, the time-honored gag to one side, did not swear to give up drinking on the spot but offered the Bear half his pint of Night Train. The Bear took it. “I haven’t seen you since lemme see,” the wino said.
“Only you can prevent forest fires.” the Bear advised him.
The Bear came through the doors of the Tin Palace like a force of nature—well, more a force of nature than most customers seemed like anyway. The band, he noticed, was between sets and the house half empty: a long room sided by a brick wall onthe right, a long bar with a mirror behind it opposite, cheap wooden tables, a worn slat floor, and a diminutive piano and bandstand tacked on as an afterthought halfway back. He headed for the tables at the rear of the club, left, in the extension behind the bandstand past the end of the bar. Most of the people in the club failed to notice him in significant detail. The few that did were too wary of being uncool to say anything about it. A jazz critic sitting at a front table decided that since Lester Bowie was in the house the guy in the bear suit was Joseph Jarman stopping by to say hello. The bartender, a large man with Hemingway hair and beard, had taken the Bear in for what he was and checked his supply of ice.
It turned out that the band was sitting at the tables at which the Bear had aimed himself. Without nodding hello, he swivelled his enormous body into a seat up against against the wall and did his best to exude the air of being where he belonged. The first person to speak to him was the girl who worked the door, palefaced, dark-haired, dressed sleekly top to toe in black. She had been on the phone when he came in and had hurried to the table to ask him for three dollars admission. She looked at him just before speaking. “Gack,” she said.
“Gack,” said the Bear, and politely raised his hat.
Steve McCall, the drummer for the night and, it must be admitted, a large and bearlike man, was in the seat next to the Bear on the right. He had a large oval face, the bottom half of it covered by a beard, and wore round-lensed steel-frame spectacles. ‘It’s okay,” he told the waitress. “The gentleman is with us.”
The woman backed uncertainly away. She felt overwhelmingly sleepy, and wondered if coffee would help. Coffee would not help, but she would settle down in about an hour.
Lester Bowie, who was not on the bill for the evening but who had dropped by to sit in for a couple of sets, had meanwhile come out of the men’s room and was staring at the Bear with a wild, delighted grin on his face. His goatee was waxed to two fine points, he wore an immaculate white surgeon’s coat and a stethoscope hung from his neck. “Holy shit,” he said finally. “Ho-lee shit.” Bowie had recently come in from the street, where he had been smoking an unusual cigarette that rendered him peculiarly susceptible to hilarity and awe. “Hey,” he concluded. “I think I’m gonna like this.”
“Doctor doctor l got this terrible pain,” said the Bear. “Everytime I walk into a room people make a fuss and I feel just awful.”
Bowie’s grin became, if possible, even wider.
“Want a beer?” asked McCall.
“Sure,” said the Bear.
McCall raised a glass and waved to the bartender. who nodded back.
“I think I even love it,” said Bowie, and jolted himself into a seat across the table from the Bear. “And l know I’m gonna love it one hundred fucking times more when l find out what it is.”
“It’s a bear,” said the Bear.
“One…hundred…fucking…times…more,” repeated Bowie, with the kind of rhythmic variation for which he has been noted by a number of chroniclers and critics.
Jones had gotten hung up at the front door trying to pull three dollars out of his pants while watching with mounting panic the tables at the rear—it’s all over, it’s all over, he was thinking, it’s only a matter of minutes before someone calls the cops—but he had worked himself clear and now he lunged into the seat next to Bowie, and ran a hand through his sweat-soaked thinning hair, his fevered, fearful mind in tatters. “Now this is not what it looks like at all,” he said to the assembled company in a hurried voice. “My friend here is my friend here he’s okay and there is absolutely no need for for for panic. Right? Nobody move.”
McCall raised two fingers to the bartender, who already had one beer in his hand and nodded again.
“Who’s this guy,” McCall asked the Bear.
“My manager. My best friend.”
“How you doing,” McCall said to Jones.
“I’m a little edgy,” Jones told him.
“I see that,” said McCall. “Try to relax.”
“Look,” said Jones, “if he’s seen here, if anybody sees him, and the cops come in, or the scientists, it’s all over, I mean his freedom goes out the window, you know? It’ll all be over. It’s very dangerous for him here.”
“He’s right,” said the Bear. “He’s absolutely right.”
“Wait a minute,” Bowie said authoritatively. “If anybody tries to fuck with the Bear they’re gonna have to deal with us, with me, with Steve, with the management and with ev-ry fucking musician in this place, you understand? So you just take it easy, ain’t nothing gonna happen to him and ain’t nobody, no body, gonna fuck with a friend of mine while I’m around. Okay?”
The bartender brought the beers himself, put them on the table and nodded a discreet hello to the Bear. “Anybody tries to leave in too big a hurry,” he said in a low voice, “or has to make a sudden call on the phone, is gonna run into significant delays. Make yourself at home.”
The Bear nodded and took a first sip of his beer. Very, very cold. “Aah,” he said. “Well, I want to thank you all for your, um, hospitality, and while I’d really love to sit around and talk,” he went on, “what I really came in here for is to play. Would it be all right if I sat in.” Noticing the general look of incomprehension that greeted this speech, he picked up the alto case by its top-handle and set it upright on the table.
“Can you sit in,” said Bowie.
“Goes without saying,” said McCall.
“Where’s Fred and Hilton?” asked Bowie.
“Outside,” said McCall. “What do you say we all have another beer for a minute. And what do you want to play?”
“Say we start with a blues?” the Bear suggested.
At length and a few beers later, the band reassembled and regained the bandstand, although the Bear had chosen to remain in his seat, hat pulled low, until it was time for him to play. The blues the band had decided on was C.C. Rider, mid-tempo in B-flat, no customary shuffle this time out but Ioose-limbed, au courant, at its ease, a groove. The main thing that the Bear had failed to realize about the band was that it was Arthur Blythe’s date, and as the band finished the repeat of the head and the human altoist stepped forward to the mike for his choruses, the Bear marvelled at the fluency of his playing. It was a pleasure, as he remembered having read somewhere, to hear the alto saxophone played so well. I could never play like that, he thought, and took his own axe out of the case and assembled it, turning toward the club’s rear wall and warming up inaudibly. Working the mouthpiece down a final micron, he tuned it before returning his attention to the bandstand and Blythe.
He saw the short, round, brown man in profile, the golden saxophone held delicately out in front of him toward the microphone, each note coming out of it perfectly shaped and finished, as if turned on a lathe. The saxophone, as Blythe held and played it, began to seem less and less like a musical instrument and more like some part of a jeweler’s apparatus, something that might be used to cut and facet a precious stone. The Bear enjoyed Blythe’s approach, but it was far more polished and deliberate than what he personally felt drawn to, and although he knew he could not in some respects match Blythe technically—listen to those two-octave leaps, those cleanly articulated sixteenth-note runs over chord substitutions, the way he milks the reed for inflection—he felt a competitive edge rising in his chest, felt, for the first time as a musician in fact, his very bearness rising in him to assert itself against what he had always thought of as the merely human world. He felt a great mammalian warmth begin to fill his deep barrel chest.
“You sure you want to do this,” he heard Jones’ thin voice ask him.
“Abyssolutely,” said the Bear, feeling his great fur-covered body sitting like an original form of Power in its seat. Soon, this Power would act. Only I can prevent forest fires, he told himself. Only I can shape, harmonize and render generous and benign this rising conflagration. Do not forsake me 0 my darlin, he sang to his Muse, on this our weddin day.
Blythe was finishing up his solo with a series of fast runs that ripped repeatedly into the lowest octave of his horn and came up shining, then, no, he was returning to the poised, perfectly positioned blues figurines with which he had begun. The Bear, realizing that his moment had come, rumbled up from his seat and made his way to the stage, finding himself thinking with unusual rapidity as he did so. He was led instantaneously to consider, now that he was onstand with the demonstrably bearlike McCall and the smaller but equally ursine Blythe, whether there was some deep, even fundamental connection between his own species and that of the jazz musician in general. Bird had taken on some bearish qualities when he put on weight and years. Mingus was a grizzly. Jaki Byard. Jack the Bear. But Ellington was a tiger, everybody knew that, elegant too, down to the tips of his claws and his dangerous velvet voice.
Finding himself completely onstage now, with Blythe stepping discreetly backward, the Bear dismissed his thinking as frivolous and prepared himself to play. Lord what a rhythm section, he found himself thinking as he raised his saxophone to his snout and heard McCall’s unfashionably simple cymbal beat opening up a free infinity of time and space, Hopkins’ bass sinking deep shafts of darkness into the beat and Ruiz’ chords, even from that scandalous piano, feeding him strength and ideas from bar one.
The Bear proceeded to attempt a few things he had never really done before, partly in reaction to Blythe’s lapidary style but far more for reasons that overwhelmed him and which he could not all identify. He began his solo with violent, almost inchoate downward smears of sound—hadn’t Ornette Coleman’s early recorded solos always reminded him of broad smears of red paint?—which bled down over bar lines and the beat but stayed somehow within the statutory framework of a B-flat twelve bar blues. He heard someone in the audience call out “Yeah!” and this, surprisingly (since he had always thought such exclamations tasteless and out of place), spurred him on. He continued squeezing sound out of himself like paint out of a tube until it was gone and then, having established this crude, expressionist impasto for a few choruses, he began to raise up out of it fast runs that blurred past him like fireworks, like the streak of ambulances at night. From this he passed to something nearer the conventional blues with which everything had begun, as if he were riding the storm of what had gone before, but not entirely: the conventions, like the notes and phrases themselves, had been bent, bled, and burned away: they were collapsing houses and flaming cities of themselves, they were flying doorways and bursting lives, they were pretty damn good. This is all right, the Bear told himself as he played, this is really all right.
Hilton Ruiz played a last block chord on the piano and laid out, and in response McCall and Hopkins bonded their twinned sense of time still more indissolubly together and gave the beat such lean dark urgency the Bear thought for a moment that they had sped up. But they were rock solid, on the money, and sailing clear.
The Bear had never played with musicians like this. He reared his head back to take a larger breath, and had he been aware of the audience he would have realized that the sudden sight of his opened jaws—great white tearing teeth, livid purple gums and broad, slavering tongue—had made it collectively gasp and jump back a foot, where space allowed.
The critic had already leapt from his front row seat and made his rapid way to the payphone at the far end of the bar. He had already dialled the first four numbers of his photographer’s private exchange when the bartender reached over, dashed the receiver’s brains out against the wall and told him, “I’m sorry, but this telephone is temporarily disconnected.”
The musicians in the house—and David Murray, who lived upstairs, was among them, his lidded savvy eyes already calculating what use he might make of what the Bear was putting down—all found themselves most impressed by what the Bear took most for granted in his work: his unmatchable capacity for breath—just look at the chest on the motherfucker—the incredible volume he could get from the instrument without breaking up his tone. As for what he was playing, yeah, it was all right. Maybe there was a new musician in town, maybe not. One solo does not an artist make.
The Bear found himself doing a few more unexpected things, although there was precedent for one of them in Dolphy: he began incorporating ideas that had no proper place in the solo, stray thoughts, overheard sounds, freaks of inspiration, arguments played out rapid-fire in the dark theatre of the mind. He inserted them when he felt like it or when they obtruded sufficiently—he liked the idea, why shouldn’t the solo pick up on what’s going on outside it, why shouldn’t it interrupt itself to say something irrelevant and inspired?—but then just as suddenly he got sick of these abruptions and began playing as many notes as he possibly could, as if to blot them out and obliterate the divided mind in which an argument could take place, even an inspired one, and substitute for it the more whole and harmonious instrument that had been given him from above in the street on his way to the club. He became aware that the illumination he had received, fragmentary and unsatisfying to him now but wholly adequate to the needs of the music, was beginning to inform what he was playing, and his solo had begun to even out, to reflect, in the middle of what was still a tumult, a kind of peace. Yes, he thought, there is my true, eternal self and native song. How did I even begin to get interested in this other shit? And he attuned himself to what was most complete and timeless in him and tried to let its music through.
Something came through for a couple of choruses and floated above the demands of the time but also turned slowly on its own axis, doing its spherical take on the universe that ringed it, ticked with fixed geometries of diamond light, but then, even before the Bear was aware of it, he had lowered his saxophone and begun to walk offstage. His solo, apparently, was over. Trouble was, he wanted to go on. He raised his saxophone to his snout again but found himself apprehended by the Law of what he had already done. Ich habe genug, his spirit told him, and with uncharacteristic docility he nodded okay and left the stand. Lester Bowie came up past him and began a sputtering and electric trumpet solo. About halfway back to the table he felt the material New York world return to his consciousness with a crash. A sweat of terror broke out under his fur. Holy shit, he told himself, we got to get out of here. “Jones?” he said weakly.
“I’m with you,” said the man who was his friend.
“We gotta split,” said the Bear.
He made his way back across the nightclub through the blur of his mixed emotions and the unanimous recoil of the audience. He did not remember having packed up his instrument, although he had, and swabbed it roughly clean too. When he and Jones left the club through the two sets of doors and turned right, the Bear found himself facing the Avenue: it was a wilderness of human darkness and unnatural light. The Bear began to shake. “I can’t deal with it,” he told Jones. “I’II never make it home. I can’t do it, I’m caving in.”
“There’s only one way,” said Jones, and although the Bear saw little or nothing. he recognized in all the tumult of the street the sound of Jones unsnaking his length of chain.
“Right,” the Bear agreed, and began to strip. When he had gotten all his clothes off, Jones compressed them into a bundle he secured with the trenchcoat strap. The Bear attached the chain to the ring in his nose and got down on all fours. “Ready,” he said, and they started uptown.
The Bear applied all his attention to getting his brainless, rolling, after-work walk down, and was terrified of not being able to get it right. He found himself surprisingly near the verge of tears. Was it the emotion left over from his solo? Whatever. A sorrow was welling up from deep in his body that had the shape of his whole life to it, the captivity and loss, the quirks and pitfalls of character and fate, everything that had shaped him and he didn’t want to know about. Oh Lord, he thought, here it comes, the Big Sad, not portioned out but all in one gulp. I am about to disappear. “Be cool,” he heard Jones hiss at him severely.
“What?” the Bear asked hopelessly, and began to sink to the pavement on his belly, as if ready to vanish into the earth.
“That’s it, play dumb,” he heard Jones say. “It’s the police.”
The Bear was just able to stop himself from saying, The what? He was aware of a red light—ha, the lower worlds, he told himself, whirling in their profitless and eternal cycle on the roof of a car—and then of an officer shining a bright white light into his eyes, which began to pain and water in response.
He heard an unkind voice asking Jones a question: “Have you got a license for that animal?” No he’s not evil, the Bear reminded himself, only unfortunate, only bereft of his sustaining principle. How can people live like that? How did they manage to get that way? It’s all such an illusion.
“Of course, officer,” he heard Jones say, and then the unrustling of a thick piece of paper. The Bear felt his earlier sorrow change its shape, and sensed himself filling with something like compassion—he was having a busy night—and it came to him that he should stand up and heal the police officer’s sick spirit just by standing up speaking the truth to him. You must, he told himself, live the unconditioned life. You must adhere to the Real or consent to die piece by piece. If this night has taught you anything it must be that a life lived halfway is the deadliest thing on earth. You must be fully born.
“You know you’re not supposed to be out with him at night,” he heard the cop’s voice say. One day that man’s spirit had looked at him in the mirror and watched him walk away. “And what’s in the suitcase?”
“His things,” said Jones. “I had to take him to the vet in a hurry. Just look at him how sick he is, there wasn’t a cab that would pick us up on the way back, it’s night out, so we started walking.”
“What was wrong with him?”
“Hey, my dog had that.”
“Bear’s just a big dog,” said Jones.
“Whaddaya say, Jack?” said the policeman.
“I dunno,” said a similar voice nearby. The Bear heard a car door open and shut, then shoesteps on concrete. “I dowanna take him in, the animal shelter, the paperwork, it’s a drag. Man’s got a sick bear. It’s not my job, sick bears.”
“We can’t just leave ‘em out on the street, Jack,” the first officer reminded him.
“You’re right about that,” the second officer said.
“We’re a working team,” he heard Jones tell the policemen in a pleading tone. “A street act. Taxpayers. We just got written up in New York magazine,” he lied.
“A revival of a great old tradition, it said.”
“Oh. Hey. Hum.”
“Listen,” said Jones, sounding exactly as if he’d had a sudden inspiration. “How about if you guys gave us a lift home. It’s only a coupla blocks and we don’t wanna scare any people on the street. He’s cool in cars, won’t crap on the seat or anything.”
There was a moment of silence, for the sake of deliberation or its imposture, and the scales of justice were raised aloft to balance the possibilities of the moment. The night hung suspended. A cloud covered the moon. A bottle crashed to pavement half a block away and a stray voice cheered its destruction. “Okay, get him inna car.”
As the Bear shambled obediently into the back seat of the police car he was preparing himself to speak. Because it was time. All the world’s compassion, sorrow and love had gathered in his chest—well, maybe—not to tie itself into the usual complicated knots but finally to do its proper work. It was time, thought the Bear, for all that truth and feeling to flow out of him unaltered and change men’s lives. It was time to blow the quotidian categories, not out of egocentric glee but because the human world had trudged the circle too many times and it was getting hard for anyone in its ambit to wake up in the morning, sleep lay so heavily on one’s eyes. The moving finger had picked him out, on this night, in this ridiculous body, in this car.
Hey Bear, he asked himself, is this really you? Ain’t you getting a teensy bit heavy? Cause frankly you sound a little nuts to me.
Who knows? Maybe it was time to deal with the Horatio factor after all.
He had played his little solo and now it was time for him to have his little say. No big thing. Just another incremental set of recognitions, the straitjacket of hallucination and history worked a little looser under the arms. I’m only one talking bear, you know. If St. Francis had been a talking mule the birds would have heard him better than the menfolk anyway. It may be time to do it, nudge the epoch two or three degrees sideways into the light. Now’s the time, said Bird. The Bear would pick it up. Why have I been such a coward for so long? He counted off the tempo and got ready for his entrance.
When the Bear raised his head to speak, his eyes encountered the strong steel mesh that separated the back seat from the front, and he remembered, or foresaw, some more decisive encounter with everything that was wrong with the world, everything prematurely dead and heart-constricting that blighted the flower in the bud before you could dream the sweet of any future fruit. His spirit contracted, dampened, chilled, and resolved into a mire. Thus conscience, he thought. Doth make. Nothing of us all. Why? Why does this always happen? He had no answer. The Bear understood that his big night out was pretty much done.
“Howja get the bear?” he heard a voice ask Jones from an unbridgeable distance. No, check it out: from the front seat. We’re back. The clock is ticking.
“Won him in a poker game,” he heard Jones’ voice say, correctly.
“Wadja have in ya hand?”
“Full house actually.”
“Houseful of bearshit’s more like it.”
“Hey that’s a good one,” said Jones, and laughter was general in the car. The Bear joined in and Jones shot him a quick elbow in the ribs, but the cops seemed not to have noticed.
And then, the Bear observed, the cops forgot about him completely. They punched the siren a burst before pulling into traffic, then hooked the car through a wide U-turn and pointed it uptown.
The ride took five minutes, the farewell warning another two.
“Yes,” said Jones, easing out of the car when the driver popped the backdoor locks by remote. “Yes sir.”
With a farewell blip of siren, the police car pulled away.
On all fours at the end of his chain, a subdued Bear followed Jones up the stoop of their building, then up the stairs to the apartment. “When you see me coming raise your window high,” he sang on the second floor landing, “Parker’s Mood” again.
“When you see me going hang your head and cry,” Jones returned.
In the third floor hall Jones looked in his pocket for the keys. He opened the locks, they went in. The television was still on but they both sat down and looked at the floor.