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August 01, 2022

Zanzibar

By Rose McCann

-1-

It's early Saturday morning, the Halloween party ended hours ago, and before his overnight guests begin to stir from their drug- and alcohol-induced sleep, William de Vere discovers a letter that the landlady has slid under his door in the middle of the night. With growing alarm he reads the letter several times. Because he is a musician Will is able to detect a lunatic cadence in the words, something manic and vulgar, like the lyrics to a grotesque polka played on a rusty squeezebox, "Who Stole the Keeshka" hummed by a corpulent hobgoblin in a ratty green robe who yearns to dance with him, feverish with lust. The demented melody rings in his head and makes his two-bedroom apartment seem like a demon-haunted music hall, complete with dripping faucets, squeaking hinges, inexplicable pockets of icy air that whistle through the bare rooms. Unlike the other notices that demand immediate back payment of rent, this one simply informs him that he has twenty-four hours in which to vacate the premises -- the police will be summoned otherwise -- and at the bottom of the page, scribbled in red ink, are the explicit and unalterable terms of an offer that will allow him to stay on for another month.

Like a subdued child, Will slumps on a folding chair near the big bay window and gazes at the street below. Hard bullets of freezing rain strike the dirty panes of glass. Dead yellow leaves gather around the twisted trunk of an ailing chestnut tree, their coarse-toothed edges disintegrating into muck. Above the nearby shipyards, coppery clouds of coal-fire soot circle the sky and then jab suddenly at a row of abandoned brownstones like the practiced fingers of a magician performing sleight of hand. But in this forsaken quarter of the city, where the hapless denizens have resigned themselves to the maddening routine of minimum wage work, the only real magic comes in the form of a pint of stout at the local brewery or a cup of espresso at the café where the lovely and exotic barista anticipates a stunningly horrific demise -- or is it a blessed cessation? -- to all of her woes.

Will smashes the notice into a ball and considers holding a match to it, but this goes against his nature. He is a showman, an entertainer. No matter his mood he greets his guests with a cheerful smile, and all around him now the costumed figures are coming to life. They struggle to their feet, the nuns and priests and red robed inquisitors. Some scramble for a functioning toilet that will accept their piss and vomit. Others search for a glass of water, a bottle of aspirin, scraps of stale bread to absorb the whiskey and beer sloshing around their bellies, anything that might alleviate the agony of another crushing hangover.

Of course, in this apartment medicine is always close at hand. Will cracks open a warm beer, fires up a joint, turns on the TV. A marauding band of B-movie mercenaries appears out of the wobbling dust spouts of a vast desert plain. With the creak and clink of saddles and the high wild cries of pillage and slaughter the horsemen sweep through the post-apocalyptic streets of a war torn city. The camera zooms in on a machete-wielding maniac with sinister yellow eyes, his teeth filed to sharp points. Murmuring a deliciously foul prayer to the gods of war and conquest, the man pursues a little boy down a dark alley and hacks wildly at his scalp. He seizes the child's limp body, raises the bubbling chalice of the skull to his cracked, leathery lips and slakes his desperate thirst on blood thick and black as crude oil seeping from the cracks in the earth.

On the couch the drummer rubs his crusty eyes. He coughs and moans and after digging under the cushions and around his bare stinking toes finds a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He watches the movie with interest and erupts with shrill laughter. "Now that is totally cool! Look! The guy is eating the brains like a big bowl of custard! Jesus, what a sick bastard. Turn up the volume, would you?" The drummer regards his dwindling pack of cigarettes and says, "Hey, man, you still got that credit card?"

More screams. A cackling black bandit decapitates a one-eyed cat and devours its dripping innards.

"No, I already told you," Will answers, a bit embarrassed by how shaken he sounds, "my parents are tight with a dollar these days. They're delusional, they're like children. They think they need trips to Paris to visit the catacombs. Excursions through the Belgian countryside to buy cases of beer from Trappist monks. Hell, just give me a little mystic and my guitar and I'm cool, I'm doing alright."

The drummer snorts. "You and your goddamn personal problems. Where's your dedication, man, your fucking dedication. When are you gonna find us another gig? We haven't played a decent joint in weeks. And you haven't written any new music in months. Maybe you should stop being such a little bitch and get to work, figure out a way to raise some cash."

Will shrugs. At the sound of approaching footsteps, he turns to see the figure of the great muscled Minotaur coming through the hallway.

"Good morning, sunshine! Care for a little hair of the dog?"

The Minotaur, pale and sweating, manages to shake his head and points to the letter in Will's hand.

Will tosses it to the ground. "Another eviction notice. So how'd it go last night?"

The Minotaur rubs his temples, blinks back his pain and stark incomprehension of the world, but before he can summon the willpower to stumble down the stairs and into the freezing rain, he leans heavily against the doorframe and takes several deep breaths.

"Everything went real good," he rasps. "Helluva party."

"Well, I'm awfully glad I could be of service."

Like so many of Will's acquaintances, the Minotaur inhabits a parallel universe where there rages an intellectual Dark Age absent of books and music and challenging ideas. His head has been bashed and battered so many times, has sustained so many concussions, that it barely responds to anything other than the harshest external stimuli, the most severe pain and pleasure.

Eager to have a bit of fun, Will decides to torment the beast.

"You do know what day it is, don't you? It's the first of November. The Day of the Dead. A day to build altars and shrines honoring the souls of the dearly departed. A day to drink and laugh and join hands in the Danse Macabre. Because no matter one's station in life, the dance of death unites us all. Yes, we all dance to the same tune."

The Minotaur smiles, sputters something unintelligible, and then bolts out the door.

Will leans forward in the folding chair to watch his guest stumble through the desolate streets. Along the windowsill the soot and grit of the city collect into thin pools of color, tinting the world with what looks like thin trails of blood spilled by the movie mercenaries who drag their prey back to a lonely desert hideout where the gruesome feast continues with wild abandon until the film's final frame.

-2-

The small apartment at the Zanzibar Towers & Gardens has become Will's last refuge. After months of what he thought were empty threats, his mother and father have kicked him out of the house once and for all and, maybe because they are so fond of melodrama, have even vowed to disinherit him, their only child, just for good measure. Not that there's much left to inherit anyway. Like many members of the nouveau riche, they enjoy the finer things in life and seem to derive a kind of perverse satisfaction in impressing sycophantic acquaintances with their largesse -- holiday soirees, benefit dinners, annual galas; it's paying for it all that gives them so much trouble. His mother's fashion sense, faux haute couture, and weekend shopping sprees to the downtown boutiques, not to mention his father's fondness for absinthe, hand-rolled cigars and occasional peccadilloes in lavish hotel suites with distraught divorcees and young, money-hungry strumpets, aren't exactly indicative of people who possess much in the way of self-discipline. They're big believers in debt management and the holy sacrament of confession, but if they attend Mass on Sunday mornings, murmur "forgive us our debts", it's only because they have confused their prodigal spending with piety. To atone for their sins, they help finance a new chapel and commission a local artist to design its giant stained glass window of Jesus, the boss's son as it were, who looks with indifference upon the ruined city where drunks and whores and madmen wait their turn to get into Paradise.

For years his parents sought happiness in these petty status symbols. Will has seen the bills and bank statements piled high on the kitchen counter, a Mount Vesuvius of delinquent loans with the whole works about to go up in one great cataclysmic bang, threatening to suffocate them all under a noxious cloud of lawsuits and criminal investigations. The phrase "misappropriation of funds" is one that he has heard with increasing regularity from his father's den. Since the outstanding balances are so insurmountable Will feels no guilt about "borrowing" (as he later tries to explain it to them) one of their credit cards. He takes out a hefty cash advance to rent this modest apartment for weekend parties; treats himself to the steel-string guitar made of Brazilian rosewood that he has had his eye on for a few months now; buys a dozen shots of top shelf Tequila for the band after a gig one night; purchases sodium lights and bottles of mineral solution in order to cultivate his little garden of hydroponic dope, bright green and fragrant as a meadow at the height of summer, the kind of shit that makes you forget your troubles for awhile, provides inspiration for your inner genius. Writing songs for a death metal band requires loads of inspiration, after all. Will has to consider tempo and key changes, at what measure to include tremolo picking, blast beats, alternating rhythms, grunts, growls, snarls, wailing harmonics. There are subtleties, techniques of composition, craftsmanship is required, and good strong weed helps assuage the serious bouts of writer's block that have started to afflict him of late.

His parents find his musical aspirations contemptible, liturgical music is what they like best, a mollifying melody strummed on guitars by two Poor Clares, and after they discovered his larceny, his parents flew into a rage. With deadly talons his mother clamped onto his mop of greasy black hair and shook his head with such uncharacteristic force that she chipped a nail and dislodged from the prongs of her ring the two-carat marquise-cut diamond -- the envy of the parish ladies. Letting out a sharp cry of alarm she slumped to the floor and ran her fingers frantically over the carpet.

"Well, don't just stand there! Help me, goddamn you!"

This argument erupted just as his father was leaving on another "business trip." From the old man's suitcase wafted a fragrance so alluring that it must have belonged to a woman many years his junior, perfume so expensive that it had to be bottled by the ounce and dispensed with a medicine dropper. Why his father didn't bother to disguise the scent remains something of a mystery to Will. More mysterious still is why women find him so appealing. Maybe it's because he has an authoritative presence that intimidates subordinates, especially those confused and emotionally distraught assistants who shudder as his corrupt fingers dance like the legs of a millipede along their naked flesh. Though outwardly kind in the presentation of gifts (or bribes, depending on the circumstances) his father is also capable of inflicting pain, and at the sight of his son brazenly smirking at him the old man tightened his fists and lowered the boom. "You're no son of mine!" he shouted with each blow. After awhile his mother joined in the refrain until together their voices sounded like a church choir belting out a demented Kyrie.

Will cowered on the floor, and through his swollen eyes he could see the family portrait hanging above the mantle in his father's den. Unlike his parents, Will is not lithe, tall, athletic, statuesque. In fact, he's quite plain, homely even. He has a weak chin and a thick lower lip that makes him look like a fish in profile, a wounded walleye flopping in life's cold waters. His legs are short and stocky, his nose flat and wide and speckled with blackheads. The photographer tried to disguise these unfortunate features with the dramatic use of chiaroscuro light, but Will, now spitting blood and choking back tears, could see through the shadows and fog, could distinguish between the freckles and unsightly acne scars. He doesn't belong here among these fine people, has never really belonged. He is not a part of this family. He is a bastard child, a monster, a freak of nature.

-3-

Before the landlady can either chase him from the apartment or seduce him with an offer of rent free accommodations, Will hastily collects his things, stuffing whatever he can into his book bag: his favorite t-shirt with the grinning skull, the rock wool and plastic trays he uses to grow his weed, a faded show bill tacked to the wall with the word "Zanzibar" printed in bold black letters set against a background of blue and green. There is nothing striking about the poster or about the band of the same name. Dozens of death metal bands compete for five or six hot spots in town, and many club owners insist that Will's band, in order to distinguish itself from the competition, come up with a gimmick to draw larger crowds.

"You should wear masks and capes," suggests one club manager from behind a makeshift desk of plywood and sawhorses. "Run around the stage with chainsaws dripping with blood. And you should definitely think of a new name. Zanzibar. Sounds a little fruity to me."

Things may be bleak now, compromise can't be far down the road, but regardless of his desperation for cash, Will still clings to his vaguely defined sense of artistic integrity. He is unwilling to turn his music into a ridiculous circus act, and he is too attached to the band's name to change it, believes there is something auspicious about the solidity of its syllables, the repetition of its hard consonants, Z, that superfluous letter, "Thou whoreson Zed," mathematical symbol of unknown variables. He recalls hearing an ad on the radio, the narrator's baritone, soothing and earthy like cinnamon and cloves, beckoning him to escape to an island paradise: "Zanzibar, home of Sufi mystics, munificent sultans, wise viziers." When he found an apartment at the Zanzibar Towers & Gardens he knew right away that it had to mean something.

No one will book him at a the big venue so he settles for playing small, concrete pits that smell of urine and beer, dreary places conducive to hard drinking, gambling, fighting, fast and furious fucking in filthy toilet stalls. His most recent gig is at the local brewery where a dozen or so customers, merchant marines and longshoremen from the shipyards, heckle him as he screams into the microphone. After the band finishes its last set, the bartender slinks over to the makeshift platform and, smiling sheepishly, doles out a few dollars, slips Will a couple of joints, some big blue and yellow pills. "Horse tranquilizers," he says with a wink.

Sitting alone at the end of the bar a man in coveralls and steel-toed boots turns to Will and says, "I been there, buddy."

"Where is that?" Will asks, not really caring.

"Island of Zanzibar. Real fucked up place these days. Islamic fundamentalists run the show."

Still blinded by the stage lights, his eyes stinging with sweat, Will finds it difficult to tell what the man looks like, whether he is tall or short, lean or fat. His voice has a certain richness and depth, like the low chords of an old church organ that has survived an air raid and is now in need of careful restoration; it's the voice of someone who has participated in the nightmare spectacle of the world, has used his wits on some occasions and fled in naked terror on others. Before speaking again the man gulps down the rest of his beer and then wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. His right index finger looks like it has been sawed away with a dull blade.

"I once seen a group of clerics in white robes take this poor sonofabitch out to the public square and hack off his cock and balls with a machete. Don't know what he did to deserve that kind of treatment. Probably tapped someone's old lady, I'm guessing. Well, that's the way of the world these days, ain't it, brother?" The man stands up and moves closer to Will. "Shit, man, you look just like Freddie Mercury. Anyone ever tell you that? He was a Zoroastrian, wasn't he?"

Furious that someone would dare compare him to a homo pop star, Will announces that he has to take a leak. He gathers his share of pills and dope and then storms away, refusing to return until the man has left the bar.

-4-

With nowhere to call home Will takes to the streets.

During the course of his wanderings he sometimes sees himself as either a runaway from a particularly cruel Dickensian workhouse or the sole survivor of a long forgotten war, an exile bound for a glorious but still unknown destiny. He has his doubts, of course, especially during the dreary November afternoons when his friends have gone off to their part-time jobs at the factories and fast food restaurants and rendering plants. Like everyone cursed to live in this dying city, he worries that he has no talent for rising in the world, that he expects more from life than is reasonable, but because he prefers self-righteousness to self-pity he becomes convinced that only by living like a nomad on the brink of total destitution can he find the elusive artistic Truth he's been seeking ever since he first picked up a guitar, and so homelessness becomes just one more part of his burdensome quest, another kind of suffering, sublime in its ability to wreak havoc with his already badly eroded confidence, but one that offers the potential reward of adoration from millions of fans willing to wait in long lines to see him play in stadiums and arenas. Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story, and on that glorious day when he grants Rolling Stone an interview he will proudly boast of his misadventures on the mean streets of this wicked town, how he survived on cans of cold soup and bottles of warm beer and how he turned down solicitations in public restrooms from nervous, middle-aged men in suits and ties.

For a few days he crashes with the drummer, then with the bass guitarist who staggers drunk and irritable through the back door and slaps his girlfriend until the police show up with their truncheons and tasers. Those who offer him shelter don't want him around for very long, maybe because like a highly contagious pathogen there is something viral about homelessness, more abhorrent than the medieval plague. Every time he passes a mirror he sees angry pustules of defeat spreading across his face, leaving an indelible mark like the acne scars that cover his cheeks.

Will quickly commits to memory a new list of rules that for pure soul-stifling masochism surpass all of those pages of thou shalt nots from Leviticus, a turn of events that he finds ironic since he has spent the better part of his eighteen years circumventing rules of any kind. Regardless of where he stays the rules remain the same: never take food from the refrigerator unless you're invited to do so first; the same goes for cigarettes and dope -- don't touch them or you'll soon find yourself back on the streets; and if anything goes missing, anything at all -- a comb, a guitar pick, loose change scattered on a kitchen countertop -- suspicion immediately falls on you. Not that Will is beyond petty theft. Around every corner there lurk new temptations, and he must continually remind himself that there are dire consequences for disobedience.

-5-

He spends most of his time at the Stone Town Café.

Sitting in a far corner near the fireplace with his back pressed against the exposed bricks for warmth, Will strums random chords on his guitar, struggling to write new material for the band. Despite his best efforts he can't discover an original melody, a satisfying rhythm, a memorable riff. He's beginning to think that he has finally hit rock bottom, but while things look pretty grim right now, he fears there are still greater depths of despair and misery yet to be explored. Unless Fate intervenes, and does so soon, he may find himself plummeting down a mineshaft of mediocrity from which there is no escape. Briefly he considers walking next door to the pawnshop, getting whatever he can for his instrument, but he is prevented from doing so by a group of overserious, middle-aged poets who engage him in rambling conversations about art and god and their own unrecognized genius.

"Always remember," they tell him, "the muses cannot be summoned through sheer willpower alone. Patience defines the true artist. You may have to wait for years, for decades, and even then you may never garner recognition from the unlettered herd."

They're positively committed to self-deception, these failed scribes, and while they go on waiting for inspiration to reveal its grand metaphysical vistas and invent clever excuses to put off writing for another day, they bide their time by lecturing Will, their sole pupil, in tones so utterly patronizing and devoid of insight that their voices, like the voices of all teachers and solipsists the world over, begin to sound like the steady hiss of the gas fireplace.

Only the barista treats him with respect. Each day she brings him unusual drinks and confections "on the house." The poets resent him for this. They've never been offered a free drink, not even a discounted one, and they see it as yet another injustice. Some of them are so offended that they refuse to speak to him again.

"That's espresso cubano," the barista tells him with a little laugh when Will's eyes widen at the taste of its sweetness. Later, she makes him a cup of ristretto, which is bitter, and a café coretto with two shots of cognac. She keeps a bottle hidden behind the counter, "survival gear," she calls it, and sometimes pours the cognac straight up into his empty mug.

With the approach of evening Will locks himself in the restroom, fires up a joint, the last of his stash, inhales deeply, and with the same black magic marker he uses to jot down forgettable and poorly arranged chord progressions in his notebook, he draws abstract patterns on the toilet stall, pretends he's charting his way through a treacherous maze of strange, cyclopean dimensions. When he emerges from the restroom the barista is standing at the door.

"I am sorry about the fumes," she says, peering inside. Her eyes remain incurious and distant. When she speaks her lips barely move. Will doesn't know if she's angry or amused. He finds the atonal quality of her voice mysterious, her thick accent difficult to read. "I just painted the walls," she continues. "Maybe you noticed. Chartreuse. It sounds fancy. But it looks green to me. Except it's not. No, not quite. There is a little yellow in there. Maybe I am colorblind. The paint was on sale so I bought it. I don't know why I bother. How many men notice the color of the walls in the restroom? Of course I have my fair share of critics. They always find something to complain about."

Although he is a bit paranoid right now and has never been especially courageous around respectable women, Will manages to focus his bloodshot eyes on the barista's fine features, studies the tattoo of a brightly colored bird on the side of her neck that she playfully conceals with her long hair and small lively hands.

"My name is Salme," she tells him.

"I'm Will," he croaks. His throat is dry, raw. He can't remember the last time he drank a glass of water. For five days straight he's been living on espresso and weed.

"You attend the Jesuit high school, don't you?"

He shrugs in a noncommittal way. He hasn't been to school in weeks and has no intention of returning. He is eighteen now, and no one can make him go back.

"You play in a band? Zanzibar?"

"I used to, but I haven't seen the guys in a few weeks."

"There must be a connection between us. I knew it when I first saw you." She moves her hair aside, deliberately, so he can get a better look at the tattoo of the red and black bird on her neck, its head cocked, its eyes shining. "You don't recognize it, do you? I thought maybe you would. It's called a Zanzibar bishop. It's song is strange and beautiful. Like your music. I enjoy listening to you play."

Will, who isn't used to compliments, feels his cheeks begin to burn.

"Would you have any interest in playing here? I can pay you. Forty dollars a day. Under the table, of course. I wish I could give you more but it's all I can afford."

Will listens carefully to her proposition, he is down to spare change, a handful of nickels and dimes, but what if this woman, with her immigrant schemes and duplicitous smile, is up to no good, what if she is luring him into some sort of trap? He understands that she isn't simply offering him a job, she's reporting the facts, and the facts are these: he lacks the talent and persistence and, most important of all, the luck to become a successful musician. A gig at a coffee shop is the best he can do, another proving grounds, another clear indication of his creative paralysis.

"You have big dreams, yes, but you should give my offer serious consideration. Please, come with me. I wish to show you something that may intrigue you."

Off they go, past a swinging door, through the tiny kitchen, then down a creaking staircase into the basement. Above them, hanging precariously from the exposed beams, a twisted highway of rusted pipes and heating ducts groans and sighs. Black spiders and silverfish scurry into dark recesses. Swirling tempests of dust shimmer through a shaft of opalescent streetlight that struggles through the glass block window. A single light bulb dangles from a frayed wire and swings gently back and forth like a man from the gallows, casting a faint yellow glow across dozens of wooden crates stacked one on top of the other.

"This is my husband's domain," she explains. "As you can see he has turned the basement into a warehouse for his plunder."

"You're married?"

She nods. "For ten years. Ever since I was a young girl, younger than you are now. I was very naïve when we met. He is a merchant marine, a free spirit, and sails the world on a cargo ship. He will never change. And I do not possess the power to persuade him to settle down." She runs her fingers across the tops of the crates. "Twice a year he returns home with odd things, items he finds in bazaars and opium dens and brothels. I have warned him. One day I will toss his treasures onto the street. But I cannot drag these crates up the stairs on my own."

Will sighs. He knew there would be a catch, a reason for the free drinks, but it's too late to think of an excuse.

"Okay, which crates do you want me to haul to the curb first?"

"Usipime, baga sosi! If I actually did something like that, my husband would kill me. He would kill us both." She slides against him, touches his shoulder, squeezes his hand. "Do you live nearby? Do you have a place to stay? If you do not mind the mess, there is more than enough room down here for you. An extra bed over there in the corner ..."

But Will barely hears her. When it comes to matters of chance and coincidence he has always been a skeptic, but suddenly he sees an irrefutable sign that his life is about to change yet again. Like a genuflecting penitent before the sacristy he kneels down in the dust, glides his trembling fingers across the splintered wood of a crate, and though he's never had the ability to interpret omens and doesn't really know what this one means, he whispers the improbable name that has been seared into the slats of wood with a hot iron.

"Zanzibar, Zanzibar, Zanzibar ..."

-6-

The following afternoon he starts on the job.

Eager to attract a mainstream audience, he forgoes the death metal riffs and plays the bouncy pop tunes one might expect to hear in a small café, standards and ballads from Tin Pan Alley, a jazzy number by Billy Joel, but he learns that success is just as elusive in a small coffee shop as it is on the big stage. After each song he is greeted not with polite applause but with the rude slurping of cappuccino and the ornery rumbles from the poets who cough and wheeze and drum their chests.

He is grateful when Salme closes the café for the night, and he can retreat to the basement despite the gloom and solitude and faint odor of chemicals, a sour smell that reminds him of those high school lab experiments he once slept through -- the fleshy bull frogs pale green to the point of translucence bobbing around in big glass jars of formaldehyde like things half-remembered from childhood dreams. In time the basement becomes a kind of sanctuary, shielding him from the whirlwind of disappointment and failure and his own needling ambitions that await him at the top of the stairs each day.

In the corner there is a utility tub with running water where he brushes his teeth, washes his face and armpits, what the street people call a whore's bath, and below the window there is an end table with a lamp and a pile of travel magazines, the pages yellow and brittle with age like the delicate parchment of an ancient codex. And of course there are the big wooden crates stacked three and four high like the turrets of a medieval fortress, protecting him from any possible intruders who might slink through the darkness and do unspeakable things to him.

Out of sheer boredom, he randomly selects a crate and pries it open. Initially, he is mystified by the curious artifacts buried beneath the straw -- peculiar wooden idols with grotesque leers, jars packed with spices, leather bound volumes written in indecipherable and ancient tongues, waxes and oils and containers filled with mysterious dust. The ashes of forgotten kings, revered mystics?

Inside the crate marked Zanzibar he finds a glass hookah pipe with a half dozen hoses that reach out like tentacles to caress his cheeks and a canopic jar made of alabaster depicting an Egyptian god -- Aten? Horus? Ra? -- stuffed with fragrant hashish the color of desert sand at sunset. He packs the bowl, lights a match and takes in the curative smoke that coils in thick purple plumes around his head. The stuff makes him feel disembodied, divorced from reality, in a vague state of turmoil. Strange sounds fill the basement, spectral shadows along the dirty cement floor. His mind is adrift in an incalculable waste, his thoughts gather like the heavy drops of moisture that collect and fall from the groaning pipes, thoughts so small and scattered that they quickly evaporate and merge into the mossy cinderblock walls.

He removes his clothes and waits for Salme to join him in bed. Will attributes their affair to the obvious -- she is lonely. But her eyes hint at something deeper. They are enigmatic, spectral, shrewd, ringed by dark circles that make her appear both weary and excited, clever and naïve, intelligent and dull, creative and destructive, reasonable and deranged.

"Oh, it has been such a long time," she whispers, stroking his arms, his chest, his pale stomach. She straddles him with the ferocity of a famished she-wolf about to eviscerate its prey, and if she has any thoughts of the merchant marine whose ship even now may be sailing through the perilous straights of faraway lands she gives no sign. It's an arrangement that pleases them both.

-7-

During the whole of that long, brutal winter they spend the nights buried under a warm cocoon of musty blankets.

For Salme, Will's presence comes as a welcome distraction. Business is slow, and she worries that she won't be able to keep the café afloat for much longer, that the IRS will audit her, that the authorities will deport her to Zanzibar. Will refuses to accept her money, and in the afternoons, as the ornery writers sip their tea and grumble about the weather and make nasty insinuations, he sets aside his guitar to help her with the day-to-day chores -- he mops the floors, washes the dishes, cleans the toilets. She is grateful and always shows him her full appreciation. Then during a crippling blizzard, when the snow piles up so high that it dulls the ghostly blue streetlights entering the big picture window, Salme locks the doors early and instructs him to wait for her in the basement.

He stretches out on the bed and reaches for the hookah, but Salme doesn't come down to join him. For one troubling hour he shivers alone in the cold and listens to the shrieking wind that with the approach of midnight starts to sound more and more like a heated exchange, a deadly confrontation, a muted plea for help. He props himself up on an elbow. His body tense with paranoia. He attributes these savage noises to the potent marijuana and raging storm. Salme is a smart woman, tough, experienced, she can probably handle any trouble without his help, but he feels compelled to investigate.

He creeps up the stairs, presses an ear to the door. A deep voice demands to see the thing that she keeps penned up in the basement, the sniveling creature, the worm, the insect. After a long silence Salme says, "The café is now closed. Permanently. Gone out of business. No one is allowed in. Listen to what I am telling you. You must leave. You must --"

But her words are abruptly cut off. There is a loud struggle, the boom of shattering glass, the crash of an overturned table, the terrible gasps of strangulation, a wire pulled tight around the throat. Will races down the stairs, stumbles over his own feet, nearly cracks open his skull on the claws of a pry bar. He searches for a closet, a crawl space, an alcove, but in this clammy pit there are few places to hide. Finally, he turns off the lights and in the liquid dark crouches behind a stack of crates. He tries not to breathe, not to think.

At the top of the stairs the door creaks open. A wedge of white light slashes across the cement floor. The heavy thud of steel-toed boots resounds in the basement like the steady beat of a kettledrum. Near the bed stands a man whose shaved head and pronounced cheekbones remind Will of those B-movie bandits that slobber with inhuman and pitiless rage, a man who has known exile, driven from society time and again like a thief and forced to hide from marauding warlords in wadi-channels and cliff-hollows, burying his stool in the sand, burning scrub-brush for warmth, slitting the throats of pack-animals for sustenance, slipping across porous borders by the light of a gibbous moon, disappearing into towns reduced to ashes where children feral and skittish observe him from the shadows of mud huts, ancient cultures acting out the final cataclysmic scene of their long history and he the last observer of the drama.

The man stares at the crate marked Zanzibar, sees that it has been pried open, its contents scattered around the room. Calmly, he lifts Will's guitar from the corner of the bed, plucks a string or two, and with one mighty swing shatters it against the cinderblock walls. Tiny shards of wood fly in a hundred directions.

"Come out," the man says.

Will raises his head. "Please ..." he whispers.

"So, it's you. Freddy Mercury." The man smiles with grim satisfaction and tosses the busted guitar neck to the floor. He takes a deep breath, then points not to the crate exactly but to the darkness inside.

"Get in," he says.

Will backs away. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean."

"But why?"

"You know why."

"I haven't done anything wrong."

The man wipes his bloody knuckles across the back of his jeans. "I'm not a very patient person."

Will nods, knows that it is useless to deny his guilt. He climbs inside the crate, crouches down, tucks his knees against his chin, curls into a tight ball. He accepts his fate, which is malignant and unconquerable, resigns himself to it totally. In an instant all of his fears vanish, and he feels a sense of tranquility.

The man goes to work. He slams the lid down and, using the pry bar, hammers it shut with a handful of rusty nails. The wood splinters at the corners of the crate and gouge the soft pink flesh at the back of Will's neck. Grunting and cursing, the man drags the crate across the floor and up the stairs. Will's head bounces violently against the sides. He moans, cradles his legs, rocks back and forth. The café door opens, and through the thin slats of wood he feels a sharp stab of icy air. He considers screaming for help, but in this neighborhood who would dare come to his rescue? At this hour even the police are reluctant to get out of their cruisers.

The hinges of a tailgate open, a truck engine rumbles to life, and in a reassuring voice the man speaks to him, tells him that the loading docks of the shipyard are not far from here, all is well, all is well.

-8-

Will sleeps and dreams of a strange, new melody in the dissonant twelve-tone musical scale. There is no middle C, no starting point from which to center his consciousness. He envisions himself writhing on his deathbed, suffering from some unnamed affliction, one that utterly baffles a group of doctors who with perfect impassivity listen to the final beats of his heart and watch his body go limp; the plaintive motif turns into the lamentation of his grieving parents as they stand before an open casket at the funeral parlor to view his corpse, his eyes glued shut, his lips wired together, his broad features dulled by the artless application of makeup, his fingernails manicured and positioned in an unconvincing imitation of repose. "What a misguided boy," they say, "what a terrible disappointment." During the funeral at the chapel, the one his parents financed, the band members reunite a final time to play a dirge, transforming the motif into an insidious danse macabre, but they shed no tears for their fallen comrade. For them this is just another gig, another way to buy more dope and booze. Their performance is rushed, lacks passion and conviction. Out in the blizzard, two gravediggers wait by the door, whistling the tuneless melody, shovels at the ready.

At some point Will opens his eyes, though he can never be entirely sure if he is awake or still dreaming. In the darkness of the crate it's hard to tell. He hears the crashing surf and sees seeping slowly from his lips the wraithlike quarter notes of his dream song. He worries that he'll be forgotten in this box, just another amusing curio, mummified and leathery like a thing dredged up from a haunted bog. But there may be a fate worse still. In time the lid of the crate will surely fly open, and instead of the overcast skies of home he will see the bright blue sea that surrounds the faraway island of Zanzibar.

Article © Rose McCann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-11-01
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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