It’s been a NY minute (4/2021) since I published the last chapter. To catch up, read earlier Act of Ambition posts or this quickie: In 1980s Key West, Nora (jr. college instructor, bartender, fledging writer, mergirl) finds a horribly immolated body while snorkeling for lobsters. Body turns out to be famous song writer/composer Chaz Delacroix. Police declare case closed–suicide. Nora disagrees and gains access to his cottage and papers. She and friend Dorian translate and investigate. Chaz may be related to famous painter Eugene Delacroix and was fascinated with Italian writer/poet Cesare Pavase, who committed suicide. While evidence and some diary entries point to suicide, Nora trusts her instincts–despite the cost…
“The art of living is the art of knowing how to believe lies.” C. Pavase
“How can this world, which is so beautiful, include so much horror? One never paints violently enough.” Eugene Delacroix
“Life is a fairly well written play except for the third [and final] act, which is always—badly written.” Tennessee Williams
Chaz Diary: “days darken, beaucoup moonless nights, monotonous sameness, a patina of desperation for an ounce of glittery gladness. Pour quoi (what for)?” Immediately after which, Chaz pencils a quote he copied from Pavase’ journal: ‘The real affliction of old age is remorse.” Spare me.
From Nora McGreer’s Baffling Bulb: To say I was remorseful for drinking too much last night was an understatement. My Tuesday morning brain pain with a spiked metal halo also made me feel stupid for forgetting to take two aspirin and drink a glass of water before I stumbled into bed. Forgetfulness followed me like a bad habit the rest of the week. Snippets from a poem by George Ade also lodged in the tendrils of my liquor pruned mind…‘cocktails are pleasant drinks, mild and harmless, don’t you think? Last night I hoisted 23 of those arrangements into me…ah remorse.’
I’d learned a few new things by showing Chaz’ picture to other bartenders at Bobbi’s bash. The owner of Pelican’s Perchhad been questioned by the police. It seems Chaz was a frequent patron there. He often consumed an entire fifth of vodka (chased with an imported English brand of bottled fizzy water and limes). He was always well mannered and quiet—and he overtipped the staff. The owner thought Chaz lent a degree of “class” to his establishment. In Key West, there were few classy drunks.
I had accumulated pages of notes and a list of unanswered questions. There was enough information to write an op ed or celebrity bio, which would also be a welcome source of income since I’d lost York’s sporadically paid rent income. Thursday evening, I bartended at Lost Lagoon Saloon. It might have been fate, might have been dumb luck that Gregori Solovich, the owner/editor of our local news rag, stopped by for a few drinks. It was also 2 for 1 night.
I pitched my idea to him to do a human interest piece about a reclusive man that wrote beautiful rock ballads. Even after he banged down 3 ½ double Stoli’s on the rocks, he wasn’t buying what I was desperately trying to sell, a semi sad, semi rad tale with a woeful ending. So I switched my pitch. I asked what if I wrote one of those crime caper ditties: Whatever Happened to … or The Terrible Tale of the Terminal Tunester?
Gregori was a bald, bronzed naturalized Soviet emigre from Minsk, Belarus. He sported a large black signet ring embossed with a gold double eagle on his right ring finger, and always wore a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of expensive Bermuda shorts and loafers (no socks). His aftershave was a subtle mix of pine forest with a pinch of raw tobacco. His parents had fled Europe pre-WW II and settled in Miami, where relatives were already established as purveyors of fine caviar, Cuban cigars, champagne, and (it was rumored) counterfeit object de art. Gregori’s love of literature and a decent American college education led him in other directions. After graduation, he was offered a job as an international journalist and associate editor for a national media group. He grew readership by championing controversial writers but wanted more control of the content. The only way to do that was to own his own company.
With backing wheedled from a few relatives and money he’d saved, Gregori started his own magazine while still in his 20’s. Once it was making a profit, he sold it and looked around for something new. That turned out to be an old, struggling broadsheet circulated in Miami and the Keys. A healthy infusion of cash enabled him to modernize the equipment. He printed a Monday-Friday daily with glossy inserts in the Sunday edition that rivaled several big city newspapers. The paper also provided an ingenious method for his relatives to place coded messages via kitschy ads and a weekly Madame Zoula zodiac column.
I made sure Gregori’s glass was never empty. Someone had fed quarters to the juke box. An early 70’s hit by a band as well known for its drunken bare ass exploits and on stage guitar smashing as it was for its hard hitting music was playing. I placed my hand atop Gregori’s sun darkened, hairy paw, and asked him to listen to this song for a second. By the way his upper body and head was moving in concert, I knew he was familiar with the song and liked it.
Touch and sound are the first senses to develop—long before focused sight or smell. Babies floating in utero in their mother’s salty sea of abiotic fluid hear her heartbeat and the muffled tone of her voice. Sounds and rhythms are universal forces that connect us. A new born may overhear their mother’s plaintive screams and the doctor’s command to push harder, and then its own lusty cry. But what a baby long remembers is the soothing warble of a lullaby.
It was strange, then, that words in many classic lullabies were dark, dreary dirges, murder ballads, and mournful accounts of maladies and death. One is about a mother’s keening over a dead child an eagle has torn apart; another is about boughs and bones breaking, and things the singer will buy a crying child if only the babe will ‘hush.’ Are lullabies meant to scare or lull a wee bairn into submission or slumber?
As death approaches, amongst some cultures, the living sing the dying on their way. I’m not referring to New Orleans brass marching band tradition, or the Irish and Welsh singing Danny Boy or Amazing Grace over the gravesite of a dead loved one. Nor am I referring to swan or torch songs about the carelessly killed, like Elton John’s Candle in the Wind or Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. The people I’m referring to are called song or witness weavers. Some believe the warbling helps and hastens the soul’s separation from the body. Others feel it encourages a more serene passing.
Aboriginal Australians sing stories into existence. They remind us the real world was created from the dreamtime. When someone dies, they become djang or energy. The Yanesha of Peru also sing their history and pass ancestor stories down musically. The Irish hint, via the many spirals found on stones throughout the land, that time is mythic, layered, elastic, and tricky. Ireland’s mna caointe (wailing women) keen loudly and call out key moments from a person’s life.
What do other witness weavers say? We can’t provide the dying directions to a place entirely unknown to the majority of the living. Bon voyage is hardly appropriate. Is it better to say ‘I love you—goodbye’ or you were ‘the wind beneath my wings and will soon have a pair of your own?’ If we sing love ones on their way, can we also sing to those we don’t like—to hasten their day of departure? The Druids, it’s alleged, could rhyme sing a person to death in just a few hours.
My colleague, Dr. George, who taught Astronomy 101 and Chemistry, used classic rock metaphors and a boom box for impact. He’d tell his students ‘in the beginning, eons before Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald scatted; Ginger Baker syncopated; and Ricky Ricardo babalu’ed, there was more than serious celestial thunder sounds above. Someone in rock n roll paradise, more awesome than the Who’s Keith Moon, drumrolled a distant star. This was followed by a hellacious big bang. Before you knew it, my generation was echoing through the cosmos.’
I once read singing releases oxytocin into the brain and bloodstream. No wonder some stage chanteuses shout ‘I love you all’ to crowds that gather to hear them. Music does occasionally soothe a savage beastliness within us. The pleasing surprise of particular notes and harmonies delivers an emotional rush, stirring a stew of chemicals equivalent, some insist, to a micro dose of (the drug) Ecstasy. Could I dupe this dope into permitting me to write about a man whose music had gladdened so many people?
Competing with people chatter, Casablanca fans, the slapping of bug deterrent slats in the doorway, and 80+ decibels of sound issuing from dual speakers arranged at opposite ends of the bar, I shouted to Gregori to guess who wrote the lyrics and music of the song to which he was grooving. When he shrugged his shoulders, I screamed ‘Chaz Hillary Delacroix, that’s who, the very person I want to write the story about.’ I rambled off 3 or 4 other famous songs he’d written. Gregori’s eyes sparkled like a newly washed diamond glazed window pane.
I herded him over to a vacant rattan sofa clad in a wild parrot fabric and sat opposite him. He pelted me with questions; I played my coy card. I told him I’d drop by the next day with a formal proposal to write either a lengthy tribute/bio or a series of articles about his death and the evolving investigation. Never mind that Sheriff Hayes said the case was closed. Gregori didn’t need to know that bit of info. My piece would garner interest and put the spotlight back on what I was sure was suspicious circumstances regarding the demise of a legendary composer.
He liked my paraphrased Stalin quote about the death of a single person being more than a tragedy. I added Chaz’ death was both tragedy and travesty. I hinted the sheriff’s office was dragging its heels and a series of articles would put pressure on the investigation and focus where it belonged. Gregori authorized me to write a three part series about Chaz’ life and untimely death for Cayo Hueso’s Sunday edition. Part 1, upon his approval, would run in two weeks’ time as a glossy magazine pull out. Parts 2 and 3 would appear the following two Sundays. The pay he offered was impressive. More important, I was being billed as ‘special assignment reporter at large.’ Additionally, if the series helped sell more newspapers, he might give me a weekly ‘crime oriented’ byline.
I was anxious to relay the news to Dorian and stopped by his moored houseboat on my way to teach a Friday afternoon class. He wasn’t home. I rummaged in my bag for a scrap of paper so I could scribble him a note to call me or stop by The Lost Lagoon where I was bartending again. I was a teacher and writer but had nothing to write on. My hand retrieved something rectangular from the dregs of my bag. It was my old tongue in cheek Conch Republic Customs Agent card. It’s what prompted my parents to sell their house here and move to Hilton Head. It was a nod to the proud, rebellious skull and crossbones spirit that resides here. It reminded us some folks ‘seceded where others failed.’
Since I was driving, there was just enough time to swing by Delores Roland’s and giving her the proceeds from the flea market sale of Chaz’ stuff. I still had papers to grade and other errands to complete. Because I had nothing to write on, I made a mental note to frame a class around the infamous 1982 Border Patrol attempt to cripple our tourist trade and label citizens of the Keys enemy drug runners. A US Coast Guard cutter was bombarded with water balloons, and stale conch fritters and Cuban bread. The road block was lifted, but no one who lived here forgot what the Government tried to do.
Delores was surprised to see me; in fact, she seemed nervous. Was it my imagination or had she lost weight? Loose skin hung from the undersides of her arms like rooster warble. In an attempt to put her at ease, I launched into a five minute monologue about how busy I’d been teaching classes and polishing glasses, while avoiding telling her about my snooping or the expose I’d be writing. When I ran out of words, we both stood there awkwardly until I pulled out an envelope containing the cash earned from the flea market sales. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
Delores’ eyes brightened, and she relaxed. “This will help. I haven’t rented the cottage yet. I’m afraid word’s gotten round that the person that lived here killed himself. Never mind he didn’t do it here. I’m regretting ever renting the cottage out to him, though he always paid on time…”
I watched her idly prune a poinsettia bush and wasn’t sure what to say next. When we cleaned the cottage she confided Chaz had always paid the rent in advance. She said that was helpful as the money she got from Howie’s small pension wasn’t enough to support the two of them. I asked if the items she took to the antique dealer had sold. She looked confused.
Kirky streaked by wearing flip flops, red swim trunks, and a t-shirt with a ripped collar. His cheeks were bright red. In his arm he carried a rolled up beach towel. He blew me a raspberry and disappeared into the space between Delores bungalow and Chaz former cigar maker’s cottage.
Delores caught up with him as he was trying to climb their wooden picket fence. I trailed behind, concerned as her voice grew louder, shriller. I noticed the front gate sported a padlock. “You little imp, you aren’t going anywhere; you’re grounded. I’ve half a mind to… March into the house and clean up your room. You heard me. Go on.”
Flushed, she murmured I just don’t know what going to do with that boy and walked me towards the back gate. Her cloudy grey eyes got that crystal clear shine folks have right before they cry.
“I’m so sorry. Kids can be difficult. I was an only child too. When I got in trouble, there was no sibling to blame. I turned out okay.” I laid one hand on her shoulder and gently squeezed her other hand. A tear plopped on my arm.
She blurted, “Neighbors down the street accused my Kirky of killing their cat. Worse, they said he and another boy tortured it first.” Pointing, she said the old man lived in the green bungalow with his daughter and son in law. “He took a picture of the kids feeding the cat and chasing it down the street. The old man followed, said the other boy ran away. Kirky and the cat headed to Turtle Pier. By the time the old man reached the pier, Kirky had disappeared. He found his cat in some scrub grass. It was dead.”
“The neighbors demanded money, told me unless I paid them, they were going to report Kirky to the sheriff. So I paid them. They also made me promise to keep Kirky away from their end of the street.”
“You paid them? A picture of two boys feeding a cat doesn’t prove anything. Do you want me to talk to them—try to get your money back?”
“I don’t want any trouble. It was bad enough getting two visits from the sheriff when Mr. Delacroix died. My nerves can’t take getting involved with the police again. Well, thank you for bringing the money by. I got work to tend to. Goodbye Nora.”
Dolores pumped my hand and fled. She gazed back long enough to holler to me to ‘pull the gate hard when I exited.’ I had more questions to ask her, like why had she been so quick to pay the neighbors? How much had she paid them? Was Kirky a juvenile delinquent or just a kid with time on his hands and no dad?
I opened my car door and let the hot air rush out. I’d soon enough be sweaty since I was manning the outdoor tiki bar from 5pm-midnight. I used the side view mirror to tidy my hair and pull it back into a ponytail. I nearly jumped when Kirky appeared behind me.
“What did you want with my mom?” he asked. “What did you do with all of Frenchie’s stuff? Wanna see my bug collection?”
I wasn’t going to be interrogated by a 12 year old. I also suspected he knew more about Chaz and his last day so I chose my words carefully. “I’ll pass on the bugs. I came by to give your mom some money from the sale of Chaz things. I kept some books, sheet music, and a few odds and ends, not that it’s any of your …”
He interrupted me “That was my sheet music. Give it back or I’ll tell.” Kirky peered into my car’s back seat, which was empty, except for a backpack stuffed with school materials, tests, syllabus notes. “Where’s his books?”
“I’m confused, you said you didn’t like taking piano lessons. What do you want with Chaz’ sheet music or his books? Besides, most of them are in French or Italian. I gave a few items to my friend Dorian to translate. Your mom told me to donate his other books to the college. Do you understand French?”
“None of your business lady. I know lots of stuff. If you give me five dollars, I’ll tell you a secret.”
“What makes you think I’d pay to hear one of your secrets?”
“Cause it’s about Frenchie. He had lots of secrets.”
“Really? Okay, I’ll give you a dollar.” I held the bill up high. “Spill.”
For a boy about to receive enough money to buy a sweet treat or baseball cards or whatever it was adolescent boys craved, he seemed annoyed. In the past week, he’d cajoled over $5 out of me.
Kirky wiped the palm of one hand across his chest and made a face. “One secret for one dollar; Frenchie was writing a song about something my mom told him happened at the captain’s bar a long time ago. Mom was mad he was turning a sad story into a song. Guess he won’t be writing any more songs.”
Before I could utter a word, he snatched the bill and ran down the street. I remained speechless. Perhaps I should have reminded him his mom would be mad. I also debated letting Dolores know Kirky had escaped. Not my problem, I concluded.
The first thing I did when I got home that night was turn the garden hose on my sticky, liquor soaked sneakers and aching feet. Somehow I’d managed to give a rousing lecture to my students on the Jonah Complex, aka the fallacy of insignificance, and grade their mid-terms; run errands; and work a 7 hour shift at the Tiki Bar, earning over $70 in tips. I was exhausted and put the kettle on. Tonight I didn’t need any sleepy time tea. I opted for Darjeeling with honey and a slice of lemon.
Dorian had left two messages on my machine. The first one was brief, asking her to call him. The 2nd one was longer. I was too tired to listen, and it was too late to call him. I wondered if he finished translating the last section of Chaz’ diary. I’d call him first thing tomorrow.
In the shower, I wondered if Chaz had a Jonah Complex. Psychologist Abraham Maslow had coined the term to describe fearful people, those that fail to achieve full potential. The result is settling for less, looking back at what might have been, and making excuses. How many of us have had our own Jonah Complex moment?
An old Tyrone Power film was playing on late night TV. I don’t recall what I dreamed that night, but towards morning, I had a nightmare about people laughing at an undulating figure of a kid standing in a long alleyway between two buildings. The kid chases a mouse, which morphs into a rat, down the dinghy, seemingly endless expanse. He stops abruptly, scoops up a tiny kitten and bits its head off. I should have awoken at that point, screaming. Instead, the scene switched to a man sitting at a desk in a hotel. He’s laying out cards, Tarot cards, in an upside down U shape formation. To his right is a bottle filled with a dark liquid, and there are several small vials of pills near the bottle, some open, some not.
The face of the man isn’t familiar, but looks tortured, frightened. The outline of another person materializes in the shadows; he or she appears to be talking to the man, who is now emphatically shaking his head. After what felt like many minutes, the man’s shoulders shrug and he shakes pills from several bottles into his hand. There’s a bang, a popping sound, and the man shoves the pills into his mouth. He washes them down with whatever is in the bottle. The bang has caused a framed photo to fall over. The man picks it up and turns it face down. I catch a glimpse of a woman with long hair.
My attention is drawn to the card in the center. It’s not a Tarot card. It reminds me of the Get Out of Jail card from a Monopoly Game. It’s simply a picture of an empty, open cage. Below the cage I see the word CODE and the musical treble clef symbol. The man tries to speak and musical notes flow from his mouth like soap bubbles. His head freefalls onto the desk without a sound, covering the card I’d just viewed. The remaining Tarot cards flutter upwards and dissolve. I awake, arms flailing, grasping the air.
Someone was banging at my door. Wearing only an old Parrothead t-shirt, fringed in typical Key West conch style, I stumble to the door. It’s Deputy Rob Sanchez AND Sheriff Stingray Hayes. What in blue blazes?
Sheriff Hayes asks if they could come in. Too many words stack up at the runway of my mouth, leaving me tongue tied, but I’m able to gesture and usher them into the kitchen. I wonder if I’m still dreaming. Rob rushes over to me and blurts out, “I’m so sorry Nora. Your friend Dorian is dead. Let me get you some water. Whoa there mergirl, I got you.”
Act 6: Acts of Love and Courage, swimming your way this summer…