I’m not a man of my times. I wander aimlessly through the modern world, a little distance away from everything I pass. Machinery confuses me, the flash and dazzle of bright lights blinds. I turn in horror away from the video arcade. The flicker of oil lamps, the slow fans of Egyptian summer nights, waxed wood and polished bronze, the blue of hashish smoke hanging in sunlight, these are the colors more suited to my temperament, dare I say soul, than the neon greens and fluorescent oranges of the San Francisco night.
I’m standing on a street corner, frozen by the wail of an ambulance nearby, pinned by its lights. A sudden whirring, clicking descends on me from above, and, frightened, I duck back into a doorway. Looking up I have to laugh. It’s one of Noel’s kinetic sculptures, still spinning and buzzing after these three years. It seems that the chains of coincidence that brought Salome and I together, then, follow me again, or lead, now that I’ve come back to the city. Noel, you see, brought me to the party where I first met her.
Noel had a habit of calling on me, on a weekend night, when he knew I’d be doing nothing, and dragging me off to a club or a party, often almost against my will. It was hard to resist his enthusiasm, his serious face at the door, already beginning a diatribe about art critics, complaining that the demands of professional status were compromising his integrity. He’d graduated to his “status” the previous spring, when he received a commission from the city to place his kinetic sculptures on various street corners and in several city parks.
The politics of such commissions is beyond me, but Noel had instantly become quite a social lion, and also, at least according to the standards of his, and my own, past, very well-to-do. He had completed, and been paid for, two of these pieces almost at once, but the remaining five seemed to be taking longer to conceive.
“I’m bogged down in the mechanical details, “ he confessed to me one drunk morning in The Stork. “I have a concept, but I don’t know how to pull it off.” He eyes narrowed; his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper; he leaned toward me. “The inter-connectedness of all things, that’s the key, and motion, yes, yes,” pitch rising in gleeful appreciation of some understanding that escaped me. “Motion, you see, when one thing moves so does everything else, everywhere. Don’t you see? And that’s the problem, that’s it right there.” dropping his glass on the table, suddenly dejected, spilling a little on his hand. “Maybe I’ve overextended myself. See, I envision, I contracted for, a piece with seven parts, one piece, you see. And a movement in one of the parts should generate a movement in the other six. Sounds great, only now I can’t figure out how to do it.”
Noel never let his artistic frustration interfere with his social life. He dutifully arrived that Friday night with his smile and invitations, embossed with our names, no less. “Real special gig,” he said, “Big deal downtown in a loft. Music people, movie people. Aw come on, Juan, you have to.” He had read my mind, or my face isn’t really the expressionless mask I usually imagine it to be. “It won’t be that bad. Good food, good drink, good pot. A band’s playing, and I hear a modern dancer is going to perform. Besides, you’re my date, it’s right here in black and white and gold,” shoving the invitation once more into my face. By then I needed no encouragement. My coat was on, and we stepped out into the bright city night.
At night a neon fog descends on San Francisco. The alabaster towers of downtown rise up out of the mist, illuminating it from above, so that people at street level walk in a phosphorescent haze, separated from each other by the swaddling, gauze atmosphere. On these nights it becomes an effort to walk, as if I’m moving through water, and have to struggle with every step to edge my way forward. Car headlights blast my shadow against the wall. Lead and mercury run in the streets. Old bums lurch out of the shadows, clutching bottles in brown bags, frowning at me. I’m known in the neighborhood, not good for even a nickel. They don’t bother to ask.
Noel and I crossed the Panhandle, wrapped in a similar fog, up the hill past Haight to Broderick St., where Feline and Ray had their place. It was the top floor flat of a three story Victorian, a tall thin building set back from the street. Out of one fog and into another. The cloud of smoke that constantly filled their apartment was not tobacco. Feline hated tobacco and wouldn’t let it be smoked in her presence, ever. On the street, she would ask perfect strangers to put out their cigarettes; I never saw anyone refuse.
“It’s Don Juan and the Art Fart himself, come on in. Hey Noel, did you know your name is a Christmas carol? I just heard it on the radio.” Feline never had trouble thinking of something to say.
“Glad you’re in the right spirit, I’m bringing you two bozos to a Christmas party, a genuine art fart bash. See if you can wake up Ray. Look, both of you, personally invited.” He waved two more invitations in the air.
“You must have made those things, or stolen them.” I said. “Is this for real?”
“Of course, of course it’s real.” He flapped his hands in the air, as if chasing flies away from his face. “I know the woman who lives there, she asked me to bring some of my interesting friends. Come on, Feline, wake up Ray. Let’s call a cab, come on, we’ve got to keep moving, moving.”
Ray wasn’t sleeping. He stood beside Feline in front of us at the door this whole time. It’s just that he almost never spoke, and always moved so slowly the movement was nearly invisible, like the hour hand on a clock. Noel had recently begun giving him grief about it, perhaps sincerely trying to inspire action, perhaps just sensing an easy target. Ray didn’t respond to this salvo except to cast what I took to be a hex sign and an evil eye in Noel’s direction, and to drift across the room to the phone, through the clouds of sweet smoke, stepping over the bodies of several people on the floor who apparently were sleeping. Ray was just one step up from the street, a kid from somewhere back East, full of secrets and silence and voodoo magic. His home was always crash pad for street people, dealers, and young, strung-out hippies down on their luck, meeting place for a large circle of strange friends and even stranger strangers.
He and Feline were reverse sides of a coin, a perfect team. She stood five feet ten, with straight, wood-colored hair to her waist, a large, plain face, soured by years of sarcasm. He was smaller, more beautiful, drawn into himself, light hair falling in tangled curls around his face. We smoked some, waiting for the cab. I always scored my pot from Ray, he always had the best in town. The doorbell rang, and we walked downstairs, Noel for once as silent as Ray, and fog phosphored and fluoresced around us again.
The loft was downtown, on Minna St., an old warehouse that Noel’s friend, Jerody, had converted to a live-in studio. I must have looked nervous as we walked up the steps, toward an oak door with an enormous bronze casting of a man’s face hanging on the outside, because Noel touched my arm and said, “Look, don’t worry. Just say you’re an editor, you won’t have to explain. Or don’t say anything, everyone will think you’re an artist, artists are always withdrawn. You look the part, anyway.” I worked, at the time, as editor for a trade magazine that dealt exclusively with running shoes, and was distributed only to manufacturers of the same. I always felt a little out of place when Noel took me to parties, but I still went, hoping to meet women.
“Looks like your friend collects heads,” Feline said, at the top of the stone stairs. “Don’t worry,” Noel quickly responded, “She wouldn’t want yours.” He rapped once with his knuckles on the forehead of the casting and it rang like a Chinese gong. The door swung open and we were swept inside by a thin, intense woman, Noel’s friend, Jerody. Introductions, inanities were exchanged, and a long kiss between her and Noel that seemed anything but inane, and she left us, to greet other arrivals at the door.
We stood in a huge, palatial room, probably a hundred feet long, with a ceiling that arced twenty feet above us. Several small rooms were framed off at either end, and the rest of the great hall served as gallery to a collection of bizarre paintings and sculptures, and several more of the bronze heads. Jerody’s work. The room was full of people, in pairs and clusters, distributed as stars are across the night – as I write this, back in the Marin hills, after dark, another bottle empty – admiring the works of art, drinking, smoking, talking, silent, tapping feet to insistent jazz from the band in the corner. Feline and Ray headed straight for the music. Noel and I wandered, examining the art and the people equally, finding enough similarities to amuse ourselves. I exchanged only the most perfunctory conversation with strangers, saw no one I knew. When Noel spotted Jerody again, and took her arm, I politely excused myself, picked up a drink from the open bar, and drifted toward the crowd that surrounded the band. A sculpture covered with a white sheet stood beside them. This was to be an unveiling.
The band was playing a very up-tempo version of Silent Night. When the sax took a solo he broke the melody into pieces and flung the pieces across the room. Trying to pick them back up he discovered that he had segued into Take 5. The rest of the band realized what had happened, and, after some slight confusion, followed him there. Finally, they finished milking that old number, and the bassman spoke into the mike, “Take 5,” and the band decided to do just that.
Conversation swelled in volume to fill the space abandoned by the music. I sat down on the arm of a couch near a group of people that included Feline and Ray, and a middle-aged, heavier man, a friend of theirs I knew by sight only, King. He was their main source for the good pot and other substances with which they filled their lives. I’d never met him personally; he doesn’t like to meet people. But that night he seemed jovial enough. A mirror lay before him on the table. His jowls shook as he talked animatedly with an older man, gray-bearded, professorial. When I joined the group, King swung his head to look at me, and Feline spoke up. “Hey, King, this is our friend, Juan Bautismo. He’s alright.” King met my eye, and nodded, then turned back to the gray-bearded man, who hadn’t stopped talking.
“…That despite her obsessions, she is a truly great artist. That’s a part of her problem. If she could accept less than perfection. She drives herself so hard. She’s pre-occupied with motion to the point she fears if she stops moving she’ll die. She can’t sleep, worried she’ll never wake up.”
“But Doctor Siems, dance is motion, and dance is her life. She has given herself over fully to her gift.” As King spoke I realized they weren’t talking about Jerody; they must mean the dancer Noel had mentioned earlier. And Dr. Siems, I sensed, must not be a real doctor, or he wouldn’t speak so openly about a patient.
“Yes, yes, that’s true,” Siems cut in, “And if she could have gone on as she was, not sleeping, living on the cocaine and speed you provided her,” gesturing toward the mirror, “she would never have come to me. But she collapsed at a rehearsal, and instead of going to a hospital decided, if she could just sleep she’d be all right. I’ve tried, through hypnosis, to plant a deep enough suggestion to overcome her fear, but it hasn’t worked. I’ve embarked on a program of counseling and depth analysis to try to loosen the psychic blocks enough to break down the dam, so to speak.”
“I understand that from what she’s told me, but will it affect her work?”
“We shall soon see,” Siems replied.
Just then a clanging rang out, cutting off all the clamor of the buzzing room. People stationed at each of the bronze heads were hitting them with wooden mallets in an unsynchopated rhythm that arrested conversation, brought almost everyone to their feet. Jerody appeared beside her covered statue, and Noel came up to the group of us. “I’ve already seen it,” he said, “It’s beautiful, beautiful, her finest piece.” The gonging heads had done their work; every eye was focused on Jerody. She made no speech, but cried out, in a voice surprisingly strong from a person so small, “I call it The Dancer!” and she pulled the sheet away. It was, perhaps, not a masterpiece, but it was certainly far superior to any of her other work. A graceful spiral of polished bronze, abruptly turning back in on itself at the top, reemerging from the inside as four chaotic tendrils, presumably legs and arms, that seemed blown in the wind created by the whirling spiral. The contrast of grace and awkwardness recognizably human, with a single specifically identifying characteristic. It surprised me with its power.
Jerody didn’t let the moment pass. She cut off a ripple of applause just beginning with her loud voice once again, “In honor of this unveiling, the dancer who inspired my piece. This is Salome.” A door to one of the side rooms opened and a woman emerged, dressed in white. Her costume fit tight at the ankles and wrists, opened up across her chest to reveal both bare breasts, and flowed behind her like a trail of smoke. She glided out into a space that opened for her in the crowd, and stood, long enough for me to see her eyes. It was the woman from the laundry, the woman I’d seen again on the bus that morning. At the instant of my recognition she dropped in a heap. Slowly, so slowly, she swelled and rose, and collapsed again. Three, four times she repeated this gesture, until we were all entranced. And then she began to dance.
A fountain of flame erupted in the desert, the spray of light soaking us to the bone. People were thrown back from that unleashing of energy, and Salome had a larger space in which to move. She filled it instantly, with leaps and rolls. Music began- I barely noticed- but she matched its deep rhythms perfectly, beat by beat, like the heart of the world.
I’ve always been awed by dancers. Their kind of beauty seems to exist surrounded by an invisible barrier, which shields us from the ecstasy that moves them. Like witnessing religious frenzy, one sees only the visible manifestation of an ineffable mental experience. There is always something holy in this union of body and mind. Salome became the seasons and the wind, the water that dissolves rock, the leaping clouds and vibrating light. Her dance seemed to gobble time, as a starving man would a sandwich. It surrounded our lives with a noose of roses and pulled it tight. She distorted space, so that each of us saw her from the same angle, and I felt as though I were looking at her through everyone’s eyes at once.
What we wanted of her we could have. Any man who watched knew she was his for the asking. But the cost of fulfilling that desire was also clearly delineated in the geometry of her dance. For she tip-toed the knife edge of death; she swayed like a willow in the wind of death; she stroked her breasts and shook her hips like concubine of death. To love her was to love death, the black diamond in the heart.
She began to whirl, incredibly fast, around a single point, arms outstretched, trailing her body. This movement was the source of Jerody’s sculpture. The spin increased speed, from whirlpool to tornado, the spin of the galaxy, and the planets, and the nucleus of each atom. I wondered what force could drive her so fast, so long, without visible effort. And, as the thought entered my mind, she suddenly collapsed upon herself, like a star overcome by its own gravity, and curled in a ball on the floor. She began the rising and falling that opened the dance, three, four, five times, and then, swelling once more like the last summer of the world, she fell and the dance was done.
© Ken Zimmerman, 1985