Act 3: An Act of War

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu

“War makes men barbarous because, to take part in it, one must harden oneself against all regret, all appreciation of delicacy and sensitive values.” Pavese

“If you aren’t skillful enough to sketch a man jumping out of a window in the time it takes him to fall from the fourth storey to the ground, you’ll never be able to produce great works.” Eugene Delacroix

Chaz diary entry:  No honor, except stop them by any means. The piercing din in battles comes from those that watch. I hear only a steady drip of mon sang as les Plagiats rob me and my words become batards. Maintenant, je dois agir; I must strike first. Quel domage, another soldier gone.

From Nora McGreer’s Baffling Bulb Blog: My curiosity burned like the cheap brandy I used to flame the Cherries Jubilee tableside at the hotel where I worked part time to supplement my income before I secured full time employment at the college. Unfortunately, my busy teaching schedule prevented me from further investigation of my mystery man’s untimely demise. Dorian had called as well and asked me to stop by. In stolen moments, when not teaching, grading papers, counseling students, or bartending, I skimmed through Chaz’ most recent journal. To say it was disturbing reading was an understatement.

For example, at the top of a page dated several months back, he’d copied a quote from Eugene Delacroix in red ink: “The outcome of my days is always the same; an infinite desire for what one never gets; a void one can’t fill; a yearning to produce, to battle as much as possible against time that drags us along, and distractions that throw a veil over our soul.” Did the two men simply share a surname or was there a closer link?

Chaz’ journal entry directly below the quote described a week of mounting frustration. His European music producer hadn’t contacted him. Chaz had completed the music to two new songs, but was struggling with the lyrics. He had bookmarked this particular page with a piece of folded over tape. At the bottom he wrote, mostly in caps, in English: ‘MUST RETURN to US ROOTS—CAPTURE dynamic importance.’ What did that mean—US roots of what? I surmised a reference to ‘another soldier gone’ referred to his finishing off another bottle of booze. I also suspected he was tipsy when he wrote many of these diary entries.

There were a number of loose items in the book, including a fragile, yellowed clipping detailing Cesare Paveses’ 1950 death by suicide in Turin. There was a glossy, creased photocopied picture of Fay Wray and King Kong, and a postcard with an exploding vermillion heart on one side and a lipstick smear in the place where one usually signed the post card on the flip side. It was addressed to Chaz in Santo Stefano Belbo, Italy, Paveses’ birthplace. There was no return address and only a brief message in a language that might have been Portuguese for all I knew.

Was Chaz doing research on Pavese? Why, what was their connection? I decided to build a timeline of the places where Chaz had lived. Hopefully, one of his earlier journals and other documents I’d pilfered would provide essential clues. So far, I’d learned from a press release he was born in the ancient village of Eze, sometimes referred to as the eagle’s nest. It sits high above the French Riviera. Curiously, the village motto is Isis Moriendo Renascor (In death I am reborn) and its emblem is a phoenix perched upon a bone.

His musical genius was discovered early and Chaz was awarded a full scholarship to the Conservatoire de Paris at age 14. Unfortunately, he left its illustrious halls before completing a degree. Paris was not for him. The sentient teen struck out on his own, wandered around Europe, stayed in Morocco, Jamaica, and the Greek isles for a time. He struggled throughout his twenties. Fortunately, he returned to the Cote d’Azure as French Rock and the ye-ye movement was enjoying its heyday. He composed the music and lyrics for three hit rock ballads that he sold to a few of the Euro stars of the moment.

From other sources, I learned his father died of a brain aneurism, the result of a war injury, when Chaz was 7. His mother was forced to become ‘la racoleuse,’ a streetwalker, prostitute, la cocotte. I wondered what sort of relationship he had with his mother, who died in 1967, when Chaz was 22? He appeared to have become bored or disillusioned with the French music scene. He booked passage for America. I consulted a Rock n Roll anthology that said he’d performed in the late 60’s at the Coconut Grove and similar venues in South Florida. Then Hollywood called and history was made. He composed music and lyrics for two Academy award winning movies and hung out with rock stars and movie royalty.

In the 70s, as rock morphed into other, less distinguished forms, Chaz still wrote, or co-wrote dozens of hit rock ballads. His unique style melded rock, folk, and blues music with haunting, poetic lyrics that hit their mark nine times out of ten. His ballads were seldom about peace and love. Many were about loneliness, betrayal, and anguish, and a few hinted at the esoteric and mysterious connections.

I surmised the reclusive composer formed the same conclusion about Hollywood that he did about his native musical scene. I could find no reference regarding where he’d been living since the late 70’s. He arrived in Key West about 1 ½ years ago, according to what I’d learned from Alma and Dolores. I found it strange I never met him, considering that both Dorian and Alma knew him. I would have loved to have interviewed him about the part he played influencing rock n roll’s history. I hadn’t written an article for the local paper in several months. Perhaps I could tell his story in serialized form for the paper.

Then again, I was oblivious to the fact that late, great playwright Tennessee Williams had a house on Duncan St, and frequented many of the same bars I did. I never met him either. He died in 1983, and although his death was ruled accidental (asphyxia), there was talk it was an intentional overdose.

Sadly, the words Chaz had written in his journal did nothing to persuade me he wasn’t a man intend on dying. Perhaps he did come here to end his life. Death comes in many sizes and disguises in the Keys. Not so long ago, yellow fever, smallpox, malaria, savage pirates and indigenous Indians helped up death’s body count. Or you could be caught unaware on the water when an unexpected storm or waterspout materialized. You could experience death by sunstroke, drowning, shark attack, moray eels, scorpions, crocs and gators, stingrays, barracudas…bar fights, overdose, or drug run gone wrong; lovers quarrels; boating, motorcycle, or car accidents…  

In the City Cemetery, there’s a grave marker for the unhappily forever after Griffins. In 1907, Mr. Griffin killed his wife and committed suicide. It’s rumored over 10 people jumped to their deaths from the roof of seven story La Concha Hotel, now the Crown Plaza. On New Year’s Eve, 1982, a hotel wait staff fell to his death down the elevator shaft. I recall Dorian telling me it was another of this favorite drinking holes, and he nearly spent that New Year’s there. Captain Tony’s, Dorian’s most favorite bar, and the original Sloppy Joe’s, has served as a brothel, cigar factory, and mortuary. It’s supposed to be haunted by the Blue Lady, who killed her husband and two sons, then herself. No, it’s not hard to find death here.

On Friday, I taught two morning classes, then I was free until the following Tuesday. I marched into the sheriff’s office Friday around 1pm and demanded to see Sheriff Hayes. The deputy in charge, Rodrico (Rod) Sanchez, was a guy I knew as a kid, when I’d come here with my parents. He was the only swimmer that could almost catch me. He used to call me mergirlina until some other local kids started calling me Melusine, the frog queen.

Rod smiled then shook his head. “Look around, it’s Friday mergirl. You know where Sherrif Stig is—at our favorite watering hole where you can pretend to fish while drinking like one. What’ya been doing?”

His dad still ran a charter boat service. Rod was a true conch, lived here all his life. The only time he’d gone away was when he’d applied to the US Coast Guard Academy. Though his grades were borderline, he was accepted and completed three years of training. He dropped out suddenly and returned to the Keys. He never said why and I never pressed him. 

“Let me start again, Hiya Rod, great to see your smiling face. I never did come up with a nickname for you. Hmmm… Look, I really need a copy of the sheriff’s preliminary report. You can do that, right? Then I promise I’ll get out of your hair AND I’ll buy you and your buddies a round next time I see you. After all, it’s your fault the kids called me toad girl Melusine.”

“No, they called you frog queen, and I’m truly sorry, but I see you still have those amazing webbed hands. Just who was this Melusine? You’re a professor now—you know all about stuff like that, don’t you?”

“I’m just a teacher at the college, never got my PhD. It’s a fascinating tale. She was…” I paused and weighed my options. “If I tell you, will you make a copy of the reports? I promise I won’t show the papers to anyone.” He nodded and I continued.

“Some say the legend of Melusine is of French origin; others claim she’s of Middle East or Greek extraction, a nereid and daughter of Poseidon, or spawn of Oannes, the Persian half man half fish god that brought civilizing arts to those that lived around the Arabian Gulf.” I paused for effect and continued. “Of course, a few trace her lineage all the way back to a slithering Eve or Lilith. I prefer the version that says she was a sorceress or sorcer-witch that fell in love with an ancient king of the British Isles, though in the French version, she founds an entire royal dynasty. Both versions end tragically.”

“In the isles story, her father forbade her from marrying this king. Her family were of the fairyworld and the king was a mere mortal. She also had quite a temper. She used her magic to entomb her father. Her mother, also a powerful sorcer-witch couldn’t prevent the marriage or unintomb her husband, however, as punishment, she could and did curse Melusine to assume a serpent’s form from the waist down two days out of every week.”

Rod held up a finger and handed a form to another officer, and answered a phone call. “So you were talking about her mother cursing her. Go on.”

“I guess her mother thought that would put her out of commission. But it didn’t stop our mergirl. She and the king marry on the condition that Melusine have weekends off and he never gaze at her while she was bathing.” Rod had another phone call and someone came in asking for directions to the Turtle Kralls. I was out of time so I told him that before I recited the rest of the story, he’d need to fetch the files.

Rod printed out about 15 or so pages and put them in a plain manila folder. While he was copying the pages, I racked my brain to recall more of the legend. I knew there was a Mergovian connection and that quite a few authors and playwrights had taken a crack at their own version of the tale/tail. Goethe wrote about her, so did Sir Walter Scott and a French Abbe, named Vergnaud, if memory served.

He handed me the file, which I shoved in my bag.

“So you were at the part where the king was forbidden from seeing Melusine bathing. Sounds like a marriage I could stomach. Keep going.”

I raised my eyebrows and nodded. “Yes, they lived happily for a time. She bore him several children and he kept his word. The kingdom ran like clockwork as it often does when the fae are in charge. There were also a few complications. Several of their children were born, shall we say deformed, and disappeared shortly after their birth. Melusine told the king the babies had died. He accepted her word but when it happened a third time, he was alarmed. He suspected she was of the faeworld and had special talents. He was concerned for his living children, though they seemed happy and healthy.

Then a great war came and he went off to fight. Melusine was pregnant again, and she told the king he must wear the talismans she made, which would protect him; she also painted strange symbols on his armor and shield. Rod, I have to stop here; gotta run. Catch me at Little Cuba or Birds of a Feather next week and I’ll buy you a drink and finish the story.”

I heard him say ‘but mergirl’ as I pivoted and high tailed it out the door. I was eager to read the police file and headed to my favorite gay bar. Once seated I used the house phone to call Dorian, hoping he’d join me, but got no answer. I loved this locals bar and the fringe element that frequented it. Though I wasn’t an official conch, I knew how to tell if someone was a permanent keys resident or a short or long term visitor. For example, there were little things we did to our Tshirts to send a message. We favored certain brands of sunglasses and locally made sandals, and perhaps most telling, you could easily tell who the conchs were in the cooler months. They were the folks all bundled up, while visitors from colder climes wore shorts and halter tops. The guys went bare chested, and either had pasty white or bright red chests and backs.

I sighed, the police reports were useless. Worse, I was sure Rodrico had given me a copy of the entire file—that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee. There were results of a partial tox report. The coroner declined to do an autopsy. He had listed both parents as ‘dead (no names), no next of kin.’ The body was being held the requisite number of days, then the county would have him cremated. I was beyond mad, I was livid, particularly at what wasn’t in the reports—any kind of an investigation.

The cause of death was listed as “asphyxiation and 3rd degree burns.” Traces of alcohol and barbiturates had been found in his blood panel. It was the investigating officer’s opinion Hilaire Chaz Delacroix had purposely set fire to himself—no reason given. The report noted an empty can of gasoline was found in his trunk. That seemed odd. I’d noticed a red and yellow can of gasoline in his shed when I was helping Delores. It was dangerous to carry a can of gasoline in the trunk of a car. Was he more afraid of running out of gas than of burning himself up?

York and I were listed as the people who’d discovered the body at about 8:20 a.m. Sunday morning. The landlady was briefly and promptly questioned and could only remember two people who had visited Mr. Delacroix. She described one of the two visitors as a hard looking, vulgarly dressed woman, with long and untidy bleached blond hair. The other visitor was a man, probably in his mid to late 40’s. He had a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard and wore a baseball cap. Mrs. Roland’s said the man stayed for about two hours.

Clearly, they had no idea who Chaz was—had been—how he influenced a generation of rock n rollers and was genius enough to write both hit music and lyrics—academy award winning music no less.  I wondered if Sheriff Hayes set a new record for closing a case. This meant war. I would show them, at least that’s what I recall thinking after finishing my third Bloody Mary, celery stalks and all. And I’d need to create a proper murder board.

The day went from bad to worse. I went home, drank a tall glass of cucumber and lime water and two espressos, and spread out some of the newly acquired material over the kitchen table. There was one gruesome 8×10 of Chaz’ charred corpse. I used fridge magnets to tape that photo and another 4×6 picture of alive Chaz to the door of the fridge. His driver’s license photo didn’t do him justice. The 4×6 photo showed a man with sharp, aristocratic features—a clean shaven jaw line, and lighter hair than what appeared in his driver’s license. It fell carelessly in straight lines across his forehead and page boyed under at the collar line. His eyes were deep brown and slightly hooded. In the photo, Chaz is wearing a powder blue shirt with a stiff collar and tan khakis. He’s sitting on a stone ledge, neither smiling nor frowning. He looked pensive. What I guessed was probably the Mediterranean Sea glittered in the background.

I got up and stretched, plumped some pillows in the living room, and put an album on the turntable. This singer had recorded several of Chaz’ songs. The music was heart rendering, the lyrics sublime. My body dipped and swayed like a breeze surrendering to the subtle, seductive power of the music.

From the kitchen, a voice roared, ‘what in bloody blazes is this shit in my kitchen?” York had returned. “Where’s my dinner? Where’s my damn food woman?” He grabbed a long neck from the fridge, took a swig, and eyed the pile of papers on the table.

I was in no mood to humor or placate him. “You’re living on the key grass built, so go eat some, you braying donkey. And take off those muddy boots.” I plopped down in the kitchen chair and picked up Chaz’ diary.

He was also, apparently, in no mood to humor me. “Yeah, well you’re a jackass Nora. I’ve been working hard in this (expletive) heat. I thought it’d be nice to eat dinner together for a change. What the hell do you think you’re doing with these police files? I told you to leave it alone. You’re asking for trouble and I don’t want it knocking here.  I wish I’d never found that crispy critter.

He took another snort of beer and ripped the photos off the fridge. York was about to throw them in the trashcan when I jumped up and grabbed them out of his hands. Startled, or addled, he drew back his fist. It wasn’t the first time.

I ducked and the blow intended for mid-jawline glanced off the side of my head. As I stood up, I landed a proper kick dead center between his legs. That is, I would have, if he hadn’t stepped backwards. I staggered and used the back of the chair to keep from falling. Then I launched at him verbally, reminding him this was my kitchen, my house, not his. He had to right to tell him anything. Further, I wasn’t his personal sous chef, and he still owed me for last month’s rent and groceries. If any of that wasn’t to his liking, he could hit the A1A highway. We had a few more animated exchanges I won’t bore you with.

Perhaps it was the three year itch or my inability to forget the first time he’d hit me, about six month ago, after we’d fought over our differing ideas of personal freedom. It was OK for him to stay out half the night, but not OK if I did. I’d been at the Monster, a popular gay bar; my friends had held an impromptu burlesque show under the stars. Two of the headliners walked me home, serenading me to the door. York had apparently been sleeping. He met me right inside the door and yanked me into the room by my hair. I cried out and we called each other a few choice words. I tried to trip him. He slapped me hard enough to leave an ugly bruise. I slept on the sofa in the living room and we avoided each other. A few days later, he apologized and brought me flowers. I forgave him.

I called him a braying donkey, and I suspected he saw me as a gift horse, despite calling me a jackass. There was an old story I needed to heed about two people going down the road in a horse drawn buggy. The horse stumbles, and one of the men gets out to look at the horses’ feet, which are fine. ‘That’s one,’ the man says. A bit later, it happens again. When it happens a third time, he shoots the horse. The man gets back in the buggy and the other man asks, ‘now why did you shot the poor horse?’ The other man says, ‘that’s one…’  

In my bones I knew this time York wouldn’t apologize. He muttered something about taking a shower to cool off and trotted into the bedroom, wearing his dirty boots and concrete caked pants.

I wasn’t sure what to do next, scream, pack his belongings, open a window and toss them out, or pour myself a carafe of whisky. Since I was bandying round horse aphorisms, I should mention this wasn’t my first smack down rodeo. That prize goes to a man ten years my senior, who obliged my curiosity about what sex was all about when I was a precocious 16, OK 15. In fact, he was then about the age I am now.

Perhaps because of my fondness for all things aquatic, I don’t stick a cautious toe into a relationship, I just plunge head first. I’d have to change my attitude, or grow a cautionhazardous man appendage. Why was York so outraged that I was looking into Chaz’ death? I felt responsible; why didn’t he?

In the mid 70’s they made a war movie called Apocalypse Now. There was a line in it spoken by Robert Duval I liked. I borrowed Duval’s words that night; I smelt whiffs of emotional napalm. It wasn’t looking good for York Landers. Would he be the next casualty of love, or would I? I grabbed a crab mallet from the drawer. I also wondered if Chaz had been a casualty of love and simply combusted? For now, I’d act like a firefighter and deprive York of the things that fuel a fire, food and air. He was cut off.

Before I had a chance to say a word, he emerged from the bedroom, his long locks still dripping water, soaking the freshly washed shirt he’d put on. He was carrying two duffle bags. One was unzipped and I could see his muddy boots on top. The other, I guessed, contained his clothes, some sheet music, and a ditty bag of toiletries. Without a glance my way, he said he was going to stay at his buddies crib. He slammed the porch door on the way out.

I was relieved, weary, and felt slightly battle worn. As I dumped a can of soup into a pan and made a grilled cheese sandwich, an essential component of the comfort food cookbook, I wondered if love was nothing more than a chemical reaction with an unstable formula. I locked up before retiring, put the air on low, and shoved chairs under the doorknobs just in case York thought about returning.

There are so many kinds of war and reasons for fighting. The 20th century is a prime example of wars fought to defend rights or the possibility of a foreign invasion, or to acquire things—oil, land, people, or retain a way of life. We fight because a government demands it, and our number was drawn. We fight because, as Randolph Bourne reminded, ‘war is the health of the state.’ We fight because a way of life becomes intolerable and lacks quality. That’s the same reason some people commit suicide. Was that what happened to Chaz? The toughest battles of all were perhaps those that raged within us. 

I read several more pages in Chaz’ diary, translating as I went—searching for a soupcon of solace. Wouldn’t you know it—what I found were some of the saddest passages in his journal. He wrote about lovers pretending, calling it phantom sex, which they used to maintain an illusion or to attempt to resurrect something long gone. He always learned too late his lovers were excellent at mimicking affection. That chilled him to the marrow.

Ironically, he also wrote about lovers leaving behind embers of feigned passion, hot coals he had to walk across—that left permanent singe marks. Indeed! How horrible, how perceptive. Tears pellmell’ed down my face. A few splashed onto the page and made the ink run. I dabbed at the wetness with a corner of my Save the Bales Tshirt nightie.

It was past midnight and there was much to do before Tuesday. I turned the page and recognized the words scribbled there in English. These were the feelings and words he put into one of his most famous songs. I hummed, trying to recall the melody of this hit, which had been recorded by multiple rockers and pop stars: “…that little death, she takes what I’d never give, never risk, to start a war nobody wins.”

Next: Chapter 4: An Act of Resistance…chaos in the keys