“What will they think of me when I’m dead? What torments my soul is . . .” Eugene Delacroix, leader of the resistance to academic art movement
“What an absurd vice, this obsession I have with suicide. I must resist. The closing years of life are like the end of a masquerade party, when masks are dropped.” Attributed to Pavase
Chaz Delacroix Journal Entry: The suicidal are alike in an important respect—they seek to turn death into beauty. I must resist the impulse, continue to wear the mask. Above all, I must resist them, and fight.”
“I know, I know. It’s a half shiner. I got mugged by six dwarves—not happy. Come on, that was worth a chuckle. I bet old Abe Sawyer would have laughed.” Abe, aka the General, stood 41 inches tall, and once made Key West his home. He even ran for mayor and gave lectures at the Crystal Theater. He died way back in 1939 and is buried in a full size grave in the City cemetery.
Dorian, all six feet of him, nearly turned his chair over as he stood up and hugged my five foot five and counting, 118 pound frame. “Who did this? Your ratto roommate, no? Cara mia, daglio un calico, how you say in English, kick the bastard out?”
“Calm down, you’re not wrong; it was time for him to hit the highway. York’s gone; that man was too much eye candy, and not enough meat n potatoes. Speaking of which, I’m starving. What’re we gonna order? Did you manage to translate Chaz’ journal?”
From Nora McGreer’s Baffling Bulb Blog: I’d arranged to meet Dorian for brunch Saturday at our favorite Cuban eatery after dropping off several boxes and bags of Chaz’ possessions at the Cayo Queso flea market. I left the items at the booth of an artist friend from Aruba. Suzy made more than seashell jewelry by the seashore (try to say that fast). She made delightfully quirky paintings that re-imagined a Key West with four robust seasons, instead of just one—endless summer. In her vivid watercolors, palm leaves turned red-gold and poinsettia bushes drooped with a thick coating of snow. Icicles hung from the lacy gingerbread trim of Key West’s most colorful painted lady homes.
Dorian, with his steel grey beard, swarthy features, and wiry, thick hair, could have been from any Mediterranean town. But once he started speaking, you knew he was Italian. You also instinctively knew he had a strong connection to the sea. Though he shared little about his life, I knew the sea was why he and his Greek wife divorced. He was gone too much and for too long. They had a son, Dmitri, whom he missed terribly and hadn’t seen since his ex’s death in 1980. Dorian’s wife had been visiting a cousin in the village of Conza, near Naples. She was caught at the epicenter of the worst earthquake in Italy in 70 years. Father and son became estranged after Dorian questioned his son’s vocation and career choices. He said the profession Dmitri had chosen made no sense. He’d hoped his son would become a ship captain; Dorian could teach him so much.
Dmitri, as his name implied (earth lover), didn’t share his father’s passions. He’d earned degrees in some odd combination of anthropology, art history, and antiquities, and while he’d held full time jobs as a Foreign Affairs attaché and did an internship as a Cultural Resource Associate, he preferred to hire out as an appraiser, a person who recovered stolen artifacts or acquired hard to find pieces for collectors. He was based in London and when he did travel, he flew or preferred to take a train instead of a boat. I’d been encouraging him to call his son and find out how he was for months. Father and son finally reconnected; Dorian was planning to visit Dmitri next spring.
The man old enough to be my dad, who had a son about my age, could be a might overprotective—and unyielding. Like York, he’d questioned my need to investigate Chaz’ death. Unlike York, Dorian was willing to be my partner in crime solving. Over a long brunch and several bottles of Cuban cerveza, he summarized what Chaz had written in what was an early diary, perhaps his first one. Dorian also shared he’d already bought a plane ticket to London.
I had to smile; I knew it wasn’t easy for Dorian to call his son and apologize for not understanding why he didn’t want to sail the seas. I wanted to show him I understood how challenging it must have been. I began relating a story with nautical elements that involved Irish writer Bram Stoker. “When Stoker was doing research for Dracula, he discovered, in Whitby, a sailing vessel had run aground several years earlier on the beach inside Whitby’s harbor. Only a few crew members survived.”
“The ship had sailed from Varna, an eastern European port. It was carrying a mysterious cargo—crates of earth. Rumors soon spread that a huge black dog had been spotted poking round the hull of the ship. It was last seen sprinting into Whitby’s local graveyard. The name of the ship was the Dmitri. Stoker appropriated the story for his fictional book, although he dropped the name Dmitri and replaced it with Demeter. In a preface of one particular printing of Dracula, Stoker said he was certain the events he described in his book really did occur, adding ‘however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.’ Stoker was certain the real facts had to remain incomprehensible.”
“So, I’m not a parent, but I imagine Stoker’s statement about ‘facts remaining incomprehensible’ might accurately describe the complicated relationship between a certain father and son, no?”
Dorian shook his head and laughed. “That made no sense whatever, cara mia, but I appreciated the sea reference. Order another round and I will explain what I learned in the diaries.
Chaz’ frayed leather notebook began shortly before his mother’s death, when Chaz was just 22. After years of wandering and struggling to attract the attention of the right people, he succeeded in selling three of his songs to several popular Euro rock bands. He had also attracted the attention of up and coming music producer/ promoter, Hugo Vitas, who saw a rare form of brilliance in the shy, nervous young man.
Vitas was dubbed, during the 60s & 70s, the man with the Midas touch. He discovered and signed dozens of performers whose albums went platinum. Hugo was a man known for doing whatever it took to launch the career of a bright new star. He hosted lavish parties on yachts that catered to event/venue executives, greased the palms of radio station DJs, carefully placed billboard sized ads, and occasional bribed industry gatekeepers on both sides of the Atlantic. But like the fabled King Midas, there was a downside to what Vitas touched and made famous. His rock stars rose, overindulged, and too often imploded. Hugo was determined that fate wouldn’t befall his golden hit song making goose.
Chaz posed both a problem and an opportunity. He didn’t openly seek fame and fortune. He could play multiple instruments and carry a tune, but his voice lacked range. He was attractive, but not what most would call Hollywood Handsome, and was awkward around people, especially women. To coax him from his shell, Vitas tried to convince Chaz to try a few trusted pharmaceuticals he always had on hand. Chaz resisted at first, but soon came to rely on the little black pills that kept him awake and alert for days. Then he’d crash and sleep for 24 hours.
He was indifferent to coke, hard dope, and other addictive medications. Weed was okay for relaxing, but too much made him feel paranoid. The only combo that removed his shyness and inhibitions was gin or vodka and a few dark bennies. He also tried acid, which resulted, according to Chaz’ diary entries, with 2 good and one bad trip.
After the death of his mother, his drug experimentation expanded, unbeknownst to Vitas. It seemed to coincide with his first of many romances and abrupt break ups. In Dorian’s opinion, the producer was at fault. Chaz needed a mentor, not an enabler. Vitas, however, was raking it in, managing four other Billboard ranked artists. He took his eye off his golden goose and sent him on a grueling US tour. It helped Chaz’ career, but did nothing for his mental or physical health.
Dorian said Chaz paid his dues; he played in everything from road houses to supper club circuits. His journal made it clear how lonely and grueling it was. He wrote there was a numbing monotony to the people, towns, stages where he played. His sets were often wedged between sets of better known singers. None of the roadies spoke a foreign language, and had their own argot to relay information to one another. In a few of the bigger cities, he found a smattering of French or Eurorock fans. Their words, in his native language, were encouraging.
Chaz was playing in a dive bar outside Chicago when one of his songs broke the top 40 on the radio. Other singers took notice, remarking how clever he must be to be able to craft both lyrics and music. They asked him to write songs for them, and he often obliged. In fact, there was a song he wrote, and others made famous, about arms, neither welcoming nor rejecting, and the sadness of furtive embraces in unfamiliar places. He hinted, in the song, about how the ‘promise of moving on made the business and bother of careless sex acceptable, and climbing onto another stage—reminded him of mounded graves.’ But perhaps he was revealing how he felt about the towns he passed through, that neither welcomed nor embraced him, but occasionally granted him a moment’s relief.
##### ***** #####
It wasn’t until we’d ordered slices of rum and honey oozing cake, and two large café con leches that Dorian switched the subject back to York and my half shiner. “Your moocher is handsome outside, grotesque inside, no? You should meet my son Demetri, just the opposite.
“What, you’re calling your son ugly? I’ve seen pictures in your houseboat. Your son is a fine looking man.”
“Ma no, his face is beautiful to me, rugged like mine, but imperfect, the nose, is slightly crooked, the chin prominent. His neck, it could be longer…”
“I think I know what you mean. A married university professor I once dated paid me the oddest compliment. He said Fibernaci would have been disappointed with my face—it was imperfecto. He said my lips should be a bit wider and fuller; my cheek bones were slightly asymmetrical; my forehead was a tad too rounded. My eyes, however, were a perfectly proportioned peridot shade of green—and my body was curved in all the right places. Likewise, any son of yours has to be a work of art—inside and out.”
It was hard to tell what Dorian was thinking. I suspected he was on the verge of another lecture about guarding my virtue, so I grabbed his hairy hand. I promised him York wouldn’t be invited back to my house or my bed. I would resist his pleas, and any potential bribes, like paying the back rent he owed. For good measure, I added that forgiving him twice was a mistake only an idiot would make.
As we hugged and parted outside, he handed the diary back to me. He’d added several index cards on which he’d scrawled diary translations and commentary. He said I should look at an inserted page towards the back of the diary marked with a tab. Cara mio, what he wrote does not bode well for your theory he met with foul play. It’s a poem or possibly a draft of lyrics for a song as there’s a few bars of music on the opposite side. He called it Cayo Hueso Blues. He wrote it at that bar on Front Street. I’m sorry cara mio.
After Dorian putted away on his scooter, I walked over to a set of swings on the beach and read the curious poem.
In a garden wrought with iron
And vines pea green with hue
I spied a solitary, sultry, singer of the blues.
The sign said ‘jazz’ above her head;
Yet even the bum across the street,
Resplendent in rags and dirty feet
Knew that voice bled a four part beat.
She burned a glow into the words
I’d written—so very long ago;
But had forsaken
For the language of birds.
Her singing sliced open wounds
I thought sealed and circumcised;
She sucks in air, I can’t breathe
She exudes pleasure, I feel grief.
How the singer does go on—
Using the wand of a guitar
To reveal how long until my star
Jasmine and sea salt waft across
The bum drifts off; tables empty, waiter’s paid
No, I can’t turn away; the last notes
Linger on: killing you kindly ain’t my way
Il faut payee—donner la mort—quel plaisir.
Dorian had drawn arrows to a few of the words: circumcised, grief, extinguishes, and he’d translated the last line: you have to pay—to kill yourself—what pleasure? He wondered if Chaz was struggling with English or if the words and punctuation were intentional. After reading it again, I wasn’t so sure the song was about dying. One thing that was true of artists was their ability to make art from pain and confessed sins, to milk feelings and bend and mold reality to elicit emotional responses from audiences. An artist’s life was his or her ghost child, a thing that could gestate for only so long—a thing that must be birthed—expelled. Why had Chaz mentioned the language of birds? How very esoteric. Who was the singer—was it Lydia?
There was a cross and several exclamation points next to language of birds. I was sure my superstitious friend had made the notation. It referred to a mystical manner of musical speech, a divine language linked to the sounds and behavior of birds. Musical anthropologists have long argued music came before words, and was used as a mating call, or to signal a tribe’s strength, size, or might. I tried to imagine the warbling of 1000 voices. Certain tribes imitated birds during times of war to disguise their messages. Twentieth century military and marching bands and Morse code were adaptations of these communications methods. Other experts, like Steven Pinker, thought music developed accidentally and perhaps shouldn’t be so highly valued. We may never know its origins; there aren’t any musical fossils. Those were the exact words I wrote in an article about birds of the Florida Keys about a year ago. I had to wonder—did Chaz read my article?
If not, why had he mentioned a piece of obscure lore in a poem about a blues singer that repeated words he once penned and tried to forget? Robert Graves wrote about the magical language of trees, and the enigmatic Fulcanelli thought coded instructions were embedded in the façade of Gothic cathedrals. Was Chaz saying he came here to commune with nature, not people, to speak an argot foreign to most?
There were several ways one could come to know the magical and practical semantics birds trilled: by eating a wise salmon or enchanted hare, or tasting dragon blood. And it’s been amply documented that ravens have led hungry animals to recent kills via squawks and swoops. Was there some other message encoded in Chaz’ Key West poem or in his music? Dorian thought it odd this poem, dated a little over a year ago, was found in one of his earlier journals. He didn’t like to talk about some of the subjects I gravitated to—unsolved mysteries and the supernatural. He didn’t want to discuss the language of the birds either and made that clear at lunch. I was on my own.
Dorian and I had an ongoing disagreement regarding the nine Muses. As a birthday gift, I bought him a piece of driftwood a local artist carved in the shape of Ourania, the Greek Muse of stars and sailors. She held a tiny compass in her right hand. He wouldn’t touch the wooden muse and pleaded with me to take it with me. He wouldn’t explain further, except to say he was sure the muses were witches—Strega was what he called them—the spawn of Titan gods. He called them deceivers and manipulators. He was half right. Their mother, Mnemosyne was a Titan. Their alleged father, Zeus, was an Olympian. I told him I was sure the original muses weren’t witches, but that some witches acted as muses. That didn’t help. The gift remained in a box on a shelf in my closet.
I read the poem a third time, noting other words like pea green, blues, and stars, which appear as white dots in the sky. Our local jasmine in bloom produce white flowers. Okay? I knew the jazz sign was neon orange and blue. He painted a colorful palate, described a real place, and observed a homeless man nearby. Circumcision was an ancient, and in my opinion, barbaric practice, a rite of passage or odd sort of tribal tattoo. Salt was often used to protect and people still burn jasmine flowers before bedtime to encourage prophetic dreams. I threw my hands into the air and slipped off the swing. A seagull cried and nosedived me, thinking the piece of paper I waved was potential food. I batted at it and it pooped on the sleeve of my coral colored peasant shirt. No, I didn’t analyze the poop as a Rorschach blot. I dabbed at the blot with a tissue, threw the journal in my bag, and headed home, exasperated and confused.
##### ***** #####
On Sunday, it rained. I stayed home, cleaned the cottage, and put the last of York’s personal possessions in boxes I stacked next to the back door. I was eager to read more from Chaz’ diaries and the notes Dorian gave me. While dusting, a book tumbled from a crowded shelf. It opened to an earmarked page. There were words underlined in red ink. “…it soothes me to express myself here. It’s like whispering to oneself and listening at the same time.” Those were the words Minna Murphy wrote in Stoker’s Dracula while musing about keeping a diary. How serendipical, I thought, not sure if that was even a word. It felt like I was receiving a message from beyond. But was it from Chaz or Bram Stoker?
Chaz existed then in two timelines, one in which he lived day to day, and one in which his past life was a recurring reverie, an enigma to fathom so the two timelines could merge and become one. The coincidences didn’t stop there. I was flipping through the local paper and saw an article from the Miami Herald about a body that had combusted inside a house. All that was left was a few bones and ashes. There was no fire damage except to the body and two small char marks on the chair in which the person had been sitting. There was no evidence indicating the person had been smoking, and no fire source was found. Had Chaz, overwhelmed by sadness, combusted?
Whoever wrote the article was dubious about the body in the house being an instance of spontaneous human combustion. The reporter started the article by saying no one has ever reported seeing someone walk down the street burst into flames, except in a horror movie or a Dickens novel. That indicated to the reporter there was a rational, scientific cause of death. An investigation was in progress as to whether there was a history of drinking, diabetes, obesity, or other illness that might explain the cause of death. I made a note to ask Alma if she knew any local firefighter that might be willing to talk to me. What sort of fuel did it take to so thoroughly fry Chaz’ body? Could gasoline alone have done it?
I placed the contents of a box I’d taken from Chaz’ cottage on the table next to the notecards from Dorian and uncorked a bottle of red wine, okay, it was 2 buck chuck, and poured a generous amount in an oversized balloon glass. From the counter, I grabbed a clean pad of paper and an assortment of pens. I listed the boxes contents. There was an envelope postmarked Cannes, France, which contained a letter that stated a royalty check for $2,000 was attached. There was a hand written personal note at the bottom in French asking Chaz to please deposit the other checks. New lyrics and sheet music were also requested. There were several other letters of a similar nature in the pile—all requesting a reply forthwith.
I put the books I’d taken aside, as well as the bottle of VSOP Cognac Dolores insisted I have. I had a habit of hiding anything I wanted to keep for a special occasion because York thought every day was special. Though he was gone, I wrapped the bottle in a hand towel and stashed it inside a metal cracker tin, which I shoved to the back of an open shelf.
I oohed aloud when I read a thank you note from a rock star, who reminded Chaz “he had an open invitation to the beach house in Antibes.” Carefully folded between a pair of cocktail napkins was a page of sheet music that contained lyrics for a song entitled “LOVELY and LETHAL.” It was a poignantly sad, beautifully twisted song. Was there a link between Lydia and this song, between Lydia and Chaz’ death? He must have loved her fiercely. Had she loved him back, or hurt him so much he no longer wanted to live?
One of the last items I listed was the contents of a photo album full of famous faces in familiar settings. There were neatly block labeled, handwritten captions beneath most pictures. Curiously, Chaz’ name didn’t appear beneath many captions. I made a note to read through the diaries for information regarding the album pictures and lay down on my bed, intending to watch a movie.
It must have been the full moon that woke me, or the zinger of a headache I got from drinking too much wine. I took two aspirin and chugged a tall glass of lime infused water. A headache once addled Nietzsche. In search of relief, he did a walkabout around Eze Sur Mer, Chaz’ former home village. The steep walking trails, Mediterranean climate, and sea air helped him immensely. He stayed there for a time and wrote the highly philosophical Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a novel about a sage that emerges from a cave after ten years of solitude and wants to share his wisdom about good/evil and value systems with everyone. Chaz wrote that few understood Nietzsche, so he concentrate his efforts only on those who were different, those who took unmarked paths.
The book Nietzsche wrote was required reading in my high school. I thought the part where Zarathustra discussed death was the best part of the book. It reminded me of Oliver Twist asking for more porridge, except that in the book, the narrator says the reply to death should be to courageously ask: Was that life? If so, then more please.
Chaz,’ why didn’t you ask for more life? Or did you, but someone else had other ideas? I had a long list of Chaz artifacts and a To Do List as long as a politician’s promises, so I forced myself to get up and take a shower before returning to bed. I needed to start tomorrow early; it was my last free day, and I hadn’t finished my lesson plan for Tuesday on World War II European resistance fighters. I decided to get that out of the way. Tomorrow, I’d start at the laundromat, drop off my dirty unmentionables, and grab an extra-large café con leche and a handful of Cuban pastries. I opened a history book and made notes that filled several pages of a yellow legal pad, then turned out the light.
##### *** #####
Around 9 am, I strode into the Sheriff’s office after squeezing my scooter into an already crowded stand. There was a woman I didn’t recognize at the sergeant’s desk; I demanded to see Sheriff Hayes. To my surprise, the woman paged him. Less than five minutes later, I was escorted into his office. He remembered me, but was puzzled as to why I was there. “The file was officially closed,” he barked. “The coroner ruled the death a suicide.”
“How is that possible? It’s been barely a week. He wasn’t a frigging Buddhist monk—no one sets a body ablaze on purpose. People visited him, cared about him.”
“He was just another Frenchie, another transient that lived one street over from Caroline Street. You told me you didn’t know the man. Do you want to change your story?”
“You need to put this unpleasant experience behind you missy. Mr. Delcroix did not meet with foul play; the case is closed. You’ve lived here long enough to know how many eccentrics are attracted to the Keys. Do you have any idea how many suicides we handle yearly? Mr. Delcroix is just another statistic. Good day Miss McGreer.”
Arguing wouldn’t help; I realized that and for once in my life, I shut up and left his office. Though I couldn’t help slamming the door as I exited. In the lobby, the female officer was gone and my old pal deputy Rod Sanchez was behind the desk. I smiled and waved.
He started to holler, “Mergirl, then changed his mind and said, Nora, what brings you by today? He motioned me over and in a lower voice said, “I’ve got a few minutes. Let’s hear the rest of your Melusine tale.”
I really didn’t have time to tell a tale or wag my tail, however, I needed an ally. “They are fascinating, aren’t they?” I smiled. “Just a few centuries back, what we now call tall tales were pretty credible. Merpeople were linked to ancient Babylonia, the Persian god Oannes, and an Assyrian goddess called Atargatis. A millennium later, the Greeks talked and wrote about nereids, sirens, Scylla, and two tailed mermaids as real beings that either helped or tried to destroy sailors and unwary beach goers. The Celts called them sylkies, and in the orient, they told stories about Suyannamaccha, a mer-like demon’s daughter.
For thousands of years, people drew elaborate pictures, carved mermaid likenesses in scrimshaw and wood, and used mermaid figures as protective good luck charms and on the mastheads of ships. It’s unfortunate that with the advent of photographs and movie cameras, people wanted solid proof of their existence. Circus peddlers like P. T. Barnum hired taxidermists in the 1850’s to stitch together the body of a fish or seal with the top half of a monkey, or worse yet, the cadaver of a child. You heard about the Feejee mermaid, right? That spoiled the myth. When people didn’t get their untampered with proof, they stopped believing.”
Rod’s eyes became as round as the large Hawaiian pizza special offered at a favorite joint off Duval Street. I chuckled. Had I touched a nerve that connected directly to the former altar boy’s heart? “Merpeople became a joke or mirage, something to gawk at. But some still believed. They linked merpeople to Aphrodite arising from seafoam, and legends of beings that could shed their tails and walk and appear as human were still appealing.”
“Naturally, the church got involved. They said mermaids were nasty, wanton, sexual creatures. Although, between the two of us, Rod, you gotta wonder how a mermaid has sex, right?”
Rod’s café au lait skin brightened and reddened. He glanced to his right, perhaps to check if someone was within earshot. “Keep your voice down, mergirl. I guess I did wonder a bit.”
I shook my head and tried to keep from laughing. “Ancient maps actually revealed where you were most likely to find merpeople. Scientifically minded folks began asking whether merpeople could actually be a seal, manatee, or dugong? And there it was—anyone differently abled was less than human, rather than human being plus. The irony is we’re all hybrids. No one’s proven what millions year old humans looked like. There’s a strong possibility we developed webbing during the Pliocene epoch when we went into the water to escape predators. The mythical Melusine, some speculate, could be a mermaid mutation.”
The phone rang and someone called Rod’s name. “Maldita, I have to go mergirl. Oh, before I forget. Here’s one other file for you.”
“Okay, to be continued. Thanks Rod.” My next stop was Alma’s but she wasn’t home or at the grocery store. I swung by several bars showing whoever was on duty a picture of Lydia. No one recognized her. Hungry, I stopped by my favorite gay bar for a bite and ending up drinking too many mimosas. The rest of my chores stayed on the To Do List. Friend and fellow bartender Bob aka Bobbi the Baritone was celebrating a birthday, and before long, the bar was overflowing with friends. I threw on an apron and helped Bob.
Before it got busy, I’d read the file Rod gave me. It provided additional background info on Chaz, who was born in Eze in 1946. His father died shortly after Charles’ birth; it didn’t say how. His mother raised and supported him by managing a hotel and bar. She died when he was 22 according to local municipal French police. Again, it didn’t say how. Charles had been issued several visas and had obtained a green card in 1983. The rest of the info I already knew. Sheriff Hayes had done a perfunctory job, and wanted to dismiss Chaz death without investigating further. I resisted that conclusion; I still wasn’t sure why.
Bob’s shift ended around 3pm and the party kicked into high gear. Bobbi the Baritone was a headline performer locally and well known in Miami. For a few hours that afternoon, I forgot about abusive boyfriends, careless cops, and Chaz’ death. Tuesday arrived all too soon.
To be continued, Chapter 5: An Act of Remorse…