by Jefferson Navicky
From Fall 2017
I, Edison, am eternally grateful to the Maine Arts Commission for its generosity, and for destroying my life. A Good Idea Grant: $1500 for one project, and I took that money and ran up north into Washington County to collect folk songs from a small band of gypsies who harvested blueberries at the end of summer and lived, supposedly, back off-the-grid somewhere in the woods the rest of the year. My friend, Lazlo, an English professor at Washington County Community College and a folk music aficionado, served as my guide. He was a convincing enough guy to impress the MAC into believing his credentials, and I trusted him, too, maybe more than I should have.
He picked me up from the bus station in Bangor in his VW bus. “You’re lucky, Edison,” he said. “We travellin’ in style.”
“We will not be sleeping together in the back of this bus,” I said, as this was a very important thing to establish from the outset.
“Of course not. I brought a tent. For me.”
“Good,” I said.
Into the back of Lazlo’s van, I loaded my machine, a nearly prehistoric conglomeration of brass and steel, pads and nobs, needles and wax cylinders that would record the songs for posterity. I named the machine Father. Why? I could get into that, but why bother, you know? It’ll come out eventually. Father weighed a fucking ton and I could barely maneuver him on my own and that’s part of the reason I needed Lazlo. But I have to give Father credit: the dude could record music. The most beautiful, deep, rich, soulful shimmerings emerged from the wax cylinders when I played back the recordings. I mean, the shit could go Smithsonian. But I wasn’t in it for Museum Fame.
“I have some bad news for you,” Lazlo said as we drove and he sneaked a quick glance at me from the driver’s seat. “The gypsies are gone.”
That’s why I was in it. For the gypsy heritage of it. Before my mother died and my father left, they told me I was descended from gypsies, straight out of Romania, and off travelling the world. This was to be a heritage connector trip, or at least that’s how I pitched it to the Maine Arts Commission.
“What the fuck you mean they’re gone? The gypsies, are you talking about the gypsies?”
“Yeah, they are gypsies, you know. That’s what they do.” Lazlo reached into the center console, digging around for what I presumed was a cigarette. I looked down to follow his groping hand, which was rummaging through a pile of shit that included two bags of potato chips, a tape measure, a few grossly wadded up paper towels and, presumably somewhere in there, his cigarettes.
“Don’t smoke,” I said.
“What, like, now?
“Ever. Now. In here. You piss me off.”
“So I don’t get to smoke because I piss you off, is that it?”
“I should just let you rip away – rip those butts! – smoke’em as fast as you can so your sorry ass’ll turn into a spotted penumbra!”
“What the fuck’s a spotted penumbra?”
“You’re the English professor dude. You tell me.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“I’m allergic to smoke.”
“Since when? You never used to be allergic to smoke. I used to smoke around you all the time. You even smoked yourself, in case you forgot.”
“Well, now things have changed. I’m allergic to things. Especially from people who piss me off.” I almost felt bad for Lazlo. He’d gone to all this trouble to pick me up in his van, which probably got something like two miles to the gallon, and had agreed to drive me around Washington County for two days in search of folk songs. It was a thing only an ex-boyfriend would agree to. Or an ex-boyfriend who wanted to be a current boyfriend. So…yeah…Lazlo.
“Come on, Edison, don’t start the trip like this,” Lazlo said, and I could tell he was a little scared of me, which was good. “Besides, all is not lost. I got a back up plan for you.”
“You got me a back up plan. How ‘bout you just tell me where the gypsies have moved on to and then I can chase them?”
“Because I don’t know where they went. And I knew you wouldn’t come if they weren’t here. So I didn’t tell you.”
I let that last comment dry like rubber cement on my future. This was, indeed, the story of my pitiful life: I get something almost good, a lead, a break, a grant; then I for some stupid reason rely on other people (often ex-boyfriends) to help me get shit done; and of course those other people inevitably fall short because it’s not their life to live, leaving me stranded and pissed and continuing a long line of failings. Sound familiar? You probably know someone like me. I know quite a few someones like me and they all drive me absolutely bat shit crazy, most of all, myself.
“I’m going to take you to the King,” Lazlo said, like I was supposed to be excited or something, but I could tell he was even more scared.
“What King? Like fuckin’ Elvis or something? This is Washington County, not Graceland. Lazlo, don’t fuck with me. We can just turn around and I’ll take the next bus back to Portland.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “You’ll like the King. Just you wait. Trust me.”
I should tell you more about Father. The machine, not the biological progenitor, who’s not worth the time anyway. But Father, the machine, is a true thing of antiquated beauty. You know how your grandmother’s cast-iron skillet always seems to make better pancakes than any of your new stainless steel wedding presents? That’s how Father is. He’s been seasoned by eons of grease. He’s like your grandma’s cast-iron skillet rolled together with her sewing machine, her typewriter and her phonograph. And, on top of that agglomeration, he’s better! He’s a crank-turning, gear-grinding, toothed anthropological Pegasus! He’s got wheels and cogs and wax cylinders, which are the most important because they do the recording of the music, right? I actually don’t even know, but honestly, Father is a complicated, persnickety, temperamental soul. I’m still learning how he works, and works best, and I’ve been tinkering with him for months, ever since I bought his dusty mechanical self at an auction in a barn in Brooks. At the time, I couldn’t believe I’d just spent $2000 for, what the auctioneer called, “a rare antique recording machine that looks like it’s from The Industrial Revolution, or Mars, and weighs a ton.” That was a lot of money for me. In fact, that was indeed the lump sum of my savings, but I’d justified it, as I stood on the chilly auction floor raising my hand as the auctioneer ticked off a mild bidding war, by telling myself it was an investment in my future as a musical anthropologist, which I even knew at the time was bullshit. But then, I got this Good Idea Grant, and I suddenly felt legitimized, like this was the start of a new beginning, like I was leaving behind the long line of wreckage that was my life of waitressing jobs, bad boyfriends, fried food and too much beer. It felt good, better than I’d ever imagine, to take three days off work from the abusive, anger-management cesspool of a restaurant and travel north with Father’s bulk wedged below the bus.
My real father was a traveling musician. I guess I shouldn’t technically use the past tense when speaking about him, because he could be very much alive, but, you know, if the verb tense fits, use it. He was a kick-ass fiddler, the kind of dude who won awards and grants, not like that really mattered to, or affected, my mother and me. His name was Richard Cohen, but his stage name was The Flaming Dick. Just kidding. That’s what my mother and I called him. His real stage name, along with his band, was Ricky Golden and the Klezmer All-Stars. They toured New England.
“So when you gonna admit this is all about your search for your father?” We were camped for the night outside Cherryfield and had just fought about Lazlo setting up his sleeping bag outside. “I mean, come on, you call that antique bag pipe ‘Father’. You don’t need an English teacher to pick up on that symbolism.”
Lazlo was half way out of the van and it was obvious that he meant it as some type of parting shot. Framed in the van’s doorway like that, hunched over so I could see his back muscles straining through his sweatshirt, I had to admit Lazlo was a beautiful man, a handsome bear who knew how to spell. I could’ve done much worse than Lazlo and it would’ve been nice to have the company in the van on a chilly night, but then I remembered this new-found commitment to my career, to myself as someone who actually finished projects, not just someone who thought up cool projects, but never did them. I didn’t need the distraction, even if this particular distraction would’ve been good insulation.
“First of all,” I snapped back, “it’s your own fault for bringing that cheap-ass polyester sleeping bag. And” – I was revving up – “it’s your fault you’re a pussy.” I felt a little bad saying that last part, because I knew it wasn’t really true, would seem ungrateful and would hurt Lazlo’s feelings, but I strode onward in the name of ambition. “And furthermore, of course I know Father is a stand in for my real father! What do you think I am? Stupid?”
And on that last screamed word, I slammed the van door shut on the night. Unfortunately for me, and as unbelievable as it may be, I had not completely made the connection between Father and The Flaming Dick, but I’d be damned if I was going to let Lazlo point that out to me and get the upper hand.
The van that night was cold and lonely.
We didn’t talk much the next morning. I bought Lazlo a gas station coffee as we drove north, even though he didn’t ask for it. Around noon, after we’d had a few hours of chilly silence, Lazlo said that the King was a lighthouse keeper and that we were headed to his lighthouse.
“But we’re headed north, inland, away from the coast,” I said.
“Yep.” I could tell by the way Lazlo said it that he meant, unless you want to really piss me off, you better be quiet and trust me.
I decided I could do that. I could trust him.
It turned out Lazlo was right. There was a lighthouse in the middle of Washington County. It was actually on Nicolai (aka “The King”) Kundera’s farm. He’d had it built site specific, and it sat out there behind his house like a beached beacon whale. It actually looked mighty ridiculous, but what could I say?
“It all comes back to the lighthouses in New England, huh?” Lazlo said as we pulled into the rutted driveway and he hunched over the steering wheel, squinting so that he could fully see the lighthouse in its almost blindingly white glory.
“Have you ever been here before,” I asked.
“Yeah, once. Niki had a big contra dance one Saturday night in the bottom of the lighthouse.”
“Didn’t go well. Niki got pissed at everybody for having heavy feet and rattling the windows of the tower so bad he thought they’d bust.”
As we got out of the van, a one-legged chicken ‘ran’ toward us, if you can call it that. “This better be worth it,” I muttered to Lazlo as I fought the urge to kick the one-legged chicken.
A woman emerged from the farmhouse and stood in the dooryard. It wasn’t exactly a greeting. She was about as wide as she was tall, wore a soiled formerly-white apron and exuded an air of don’t-fuck-with-me-I’ve-got-a-pie-in-the-oven.
“Hello, Barta,” Lazlo called out rather timidly, I thought. Barta uncrossed her arms and pointed at the lighthouse in a way that communicated, “if you must, you must.” Then she went back into the farmhouse. The one-legged chicken hopped after her.
We walk down a path between high grass to get to Nicolai’s lighthouse, then we climb the extremely steep stairs from the ground floor to the second floor. It’s so small that I have a hard time imagining a contra dance in here not bringing down the whole structure. Nicolai sits in a folding chair. Before I can even say hello, Lazlo has whipped out a pair of cigarettes, Nicolai reaches, Lazlo lights and they’re smoking together so fast I feel like a bit of a prude.
As he exhales, Lazlo says, “She doesn’t smoke.” Nicolai shrugs as if to say, too bad, what do I care? Nicolai is toothless, very small, and wears faded overalls with a fuzzy red wool cap that I bet never leaves his head. He’s so skinny his overalls look like he tied a denim garbage bag around his waist, but forgot to cinch it tight. He coughs often and I imagine some organ inside him will soon fly from his mouth. Lazlo whispers to me that he has a bum lung.
Without warning, Lazlo and Nicolai start talking in some kind of foreign language I’ve never heard before, some kind of guttural timpani. I didn’t even know Lazlo speaks this language. I’m impressed. For a few moments, they talk, Lazlo clearly regarding the old man with deference. I’m actually relieved to be left out of the conversation, as it gives me a moment to take in my surroundings. The room’s only about fifteen feet in diameter and has a huge brass-plated and glass light that takes up the majority of the space.
Suddenly Nicolai is speaking to me: “You like my lighthouse?” I tell him I do, very much. “I had it built in Romany style,” he says, looking sideways at Lazlo to see if I get the joke. I laugh like an imbecile, pronouncing each word – ha. ha. ha. – to make sure Nicolai knows I get it. He looks pleased that I like his joke.
Lazlo says, “Edison came here to sort out her father issues.” I glare at him, and for an instant, I consider calling Lazlo a fucker, but I can’t really do that now in front of Nicolai, and Lazlo knows that. I owe him one. But to my surprise, Nicolai doesn’t respond, only smiles and shrugs, like what do I care. I wonder if he’s even understood what Lazlo said.
“You want chicken legs?” Nicolai asks in a practiced way, and from somewhere, I don’t know where, he pulls out a plastic plate of some kind of deep-fried sticks. “My specialty,” he says and smiles, that is if you can smile without teeth. The image of the one-legged chicken immediately comes to mind, but before I can do anything to resist, Lazlo is biting into one of them, and I know I don’t have a choice.
They’re crunchy, and taste like, of course, chicken.
There’s an awkward silence as we chew and Nicolai smiles without eating. For a minute, I think he’s saving all the chicken legs for us, which seems sweet, then I realize there’s no way he could eat one of these crunchy sticks without teeth.
Suddenly, and much faster than I’d expect, Nicolai jumps up and flashes the huge light directly at his farmhouse. “That’s our cue,” Lazlo says to me. I don’t understand. “Time to go get Father,” he says and heads down the stairs for the van.
By the time we haul Father’s metal bulk up to the top of the lighthouse, Barta is already up there, a guitar cradled in her lap. In this light, which almost seems holy, her skin is the pallor of garlic cloves. She also has a mason jar of whiskey, which she sips and passes.
I set up Father and now, with his bulk, the room is very tight. Nicolai and Barta eye the machine that will suck the songs out of their bodies with some suspicion, but they don’t say anything against it. I feel a little like a grave robber.
They start to play, and I record.
Nicolai’s fingers, that only a few moments ago looked like gold-ringed sausages, now danced over his violin strings, unspeakably light, scampering up and down the melody. Barta, by contrast, doesn’t know how to play the guitar, but she sure knows how to beat it to near death, which really does look imminent for her guitar, possibly the most beat-up, cracked thing I’ve ever seen, the neck held together by an old guitar string and not a fret in sight. I remember thinking it definitely came out of a dumpster. She hits that poor thing like she’s beating a rug hanging out on a clothesline, no chord changes, simply a rhythmic beating so savage, in comparison with Nicolai’s ribaldly skillful fiddle, it’s beauty and the beast.
Honestly, after a few minutes, I don’t know how long I can actually stand this music. Lazlo, on the other hand, leans back in his chair, closes his eyes and sips his whiskey, obviously ready to let the ages roll by. Even with my visceral discomfort, I can also feel the music’s transcendent quality. If one gets over the fact that an instrument is meeting its violent end, there’s also a carnal root stirring that signifies this music is from some deep source, long ago, and that it’s beyond the bounds of my admittedly poor pop-music sensibilities. This is soul music, my family’s music. Welcome home, Edison, my mothers say. We’ve been waiting so long for you to find us.
There’s this blissed out moment where I’m uncomfortable and I’m watching myself be uncomfortable and it feels good, warm and tingly. Then, in a moment, it all falls apart.
Sometimes I wonder, how the hell did I get myself into this? Why did I leave my entire life in Portland? But I did it and it was, honestly, easy. Now, around these parts, I’m known as the Queen. When I think back to those moments, those days, in which I became the Queen, despite my own disbelief and resistance, I think of rupture, and all the ways things burst. I think of blood, grist, all the violence of change as an act of aggression against the self. Mainly I think of Nicolai. The doctors said his lung burst, or at least I think that’s what they said. Is that even possible? Can you burst a lung? All of a sudden, as he played that afternoon, as he looked so happy, he began to vomit blood. There was no time for anything else. He died within the hour.
It takes a lot of time and effort, an inordinate amount of scrubbing, to remove blood from wood. Maybe Nicolai had special blood. Some of it seeped through the cracks of the lighthouse’s second floor, patterned and pooled on the floor below to create a much smaller version of death. The blood made an image of a lung. There’s so much space inside a lung, so spacious and hollow.
My own lungs work right now, crinkling up to exhale, filling up in a stretch expansion on the inhale. As I sit on the second floor of the lighthouse, Father behind me, I breathe and look out the light. Barta is gone.
When I play Father back, it’s the teeth grinding in the cylinders that release the sound of joy.
Lazlo says he’d like to come visit me, the Queen, but I say no, not now. I’m collecting myself. I like it that way.