Carlos came to tell me what life was like.
I was living then with Cathleen
in San Francisco. How many years
edged by, her beauty never in question,
that was the problem. She knew how
to lure men by simply looking at them.
Carlos was the expert on a woman’s
thousand ways to love bringing you to live
what you may not have known was possible.
Carlos said, Stop in and see Lafe,
he has stories that are too true to bear
once he stops–though he never says much–
or when you quit listening, but you can’t.
Lafe and Bethel had two sons and a daughter.
Sarah knew more than her brothers
Jim and Bo. She sang. Jim played sax,
Bo behind them both on piano.
Jim wrote poems and went to France
to learn French, and met Don Cherry,
the great young American horn man,
who said there was an axe for him to play:
Would he do Sweet Georgia Brown some night
with him and this Frenchman on piano
nobody but Herbie Hancock
had ever heard of. Jim did and stayed
as long as Cherry stayed clean in Paris.
Stateside, Bo sold encyclopedias,
then got religion, became a preacher;
his father never understood him,
Sarah said. Lafe naturally loved her most,
Carlos said. I drove north from Mexico
to meet the family. I stayed too long.
Lafe could only talk so long, then he drank
to take away his thirst for booze.
He drank too many sodas, smoked three packs
a day. Bethel loved him too much to look
away. Lafe told me to read Rene Char,
Henri Michaux, Jean Giono. The last
was first: The Joy of Man’s Desiring,
then A Barbarian in Asia,
finally Hypnos Waking. Giono
was new to me. I went on to Blue Boy
and Lafe recommended Henry Miller’s
essay on Giono. I knew Miller,
I thought. Lafe said, It’s not all wanton sex,
the American Francois Villon in prose,
the Marquis de Sade devouring life
instead of torturing, raping women.
His own country has a poor opinion
of Henry, Lafe said. He’s the only man
I know who takes life seriously enough
to live it and ask nothing in return.
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Villon asked. Sade said nothing was beyond
doing as long as evil was its end.
Lafe talked of his friend John Dudley.
A painter, Dudley was like the brother
Lafe never had. Dudley died. Read Miller’s
"Letter to Lafayette," Lafe suggested.
He didn’t want to rehearse John’s death,
we were driving to Big Sur. Miller lived
in a house overlooking the Pacific.
At the door he kissed Lafe on the lips.
He was overjoyed, ushered us inside.
We stayed the night, listening. Miller talked
while his wife, Yva, waited on us all.
She poured drinks, she served us dinner,
prepared horsd’oeuvres when Miller asked for them.
She was easily half his age. She was
from Budapest. She never stopped smiling
and I could not help but smile back.
We left early next day, Miller pressing
into my hands The Books in My Life
and The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.
In the first was his essay on Giono,
in the second "Letter to Lafayette."
I drove home not long after we returned.
Cathleen wanted to hear all about how
Henry Miller lived. Then Carlos came in
and told her what I couldn’t even say,
I was so entranced with Miller’s essays.
Lafe took Carlos there when Jim was in town.
Jim had never met his father’s old friend
but he had read all the novels,
beginning with Miller quoting Emerson:
These novels will give way, by and by,
to diaries or autobiographies–
captivating books, if only a man knew
how to choose among what he calls
his experiences that which
is really his experience,
and how to record truth truly.
Jim told Carlos a week’s worth of learning
that was better than Jim on sax with Bo
on piano, Sarah singing Body and Soul.
That’s why I went to live in France, Jim said.
Miller’s books sure as hell were not Flaubert,
but Mona the taxi dancer was
the wild woman Emma Bovary
wished she were, and Henry himself
a Frederic Moreau without scruples,
drinking life to its proverbial dregs.
Carlos listened to how Jim said what he did.
It was how Carlos meant to learn how to write.
He listened to the words everyone used
and how their words worked to say what they said.
That was his version of: Write like people talk.
That was his ambition. He kept listening
and wrote more and more, talking less and less.
He wrote so well after he learned to listen
that month he stayed on California Street,
Cathleen going to work downtown each day,
buying and selling to keep her boutique
bringing in the money, living the life
she had always dreamed of, she said.
I knew better. She sought a deeper life.
Carlos said we should go to Paris, France,
and launched into what Jim said he did there.
Cathleen came home and played her piano.
She wrote down all the notes she remembered.
She wanted Carlos to find the words,
I could sing them. She wanted to make music
at night. She wanted love and we made it.
The music stayed where and when we made it.
Carlos told her, Let Juan write what he wants
to sing; then left town. You know where he went.
Before he found New England oblivion,
Carlos would go where all the music breathed.
He so loved New Orleans, to leave it
again for Massachusetts was suicide.
Now I had done all I could in that city.
I was a day away from my lifelong love.
I had the keys Lafe gave me to the bungalow
long before he died. His children made sure
brother Juan understood he was welcome.
That night I dreamed of Bo on piano,
Jim on sax, Sarah doing Body and Soul.
When I woke I wrote: Sleep is only good
when you dream, and dreaming come back to life.
Each night Cathleen and I would make music.
It was like love, you understand, it was love.
(9 April 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander