Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A night like this (January 7th 1974): short story

Phil awoke, cold and stiff. He was alone, still clothed. He must have dropped off where he sat. The scent of tobacco and dope smoke engrained in his crumpled clothes competed with the unfamiliar apartment's own odour of damp and decay.

From the stereo speakers in the corner came the repeating click and hiss as the needle followed the circling groove around the label; on the floor lay the shiny album sleeve, disfigured with stamped warnings: the review copy of Planet Waves which he'd picked up yesterday at the gig. It wouldn't be in stores for a few days. Outside, dogs barked in the street.

He patted his pockets for cigarettes, found none, and coughed instead. He looked around the room, taking in the glasses, ashtrays, and bottles. And books. His memory nagged at him; there was something important he'd found out last night.

He'd first noticed the chick in the crowd at the Maple Leaf Gardens arena, while standing in the darkness of the auditorium waiting for Bob Dylan and The Band to come on stage. She stood with her eyes closed, arms part raised, ringed fingers extended, rocking and swaying gently to some silent rhythm. As the concert started, she opened her eyes and stared at Bob intently, following his every move. As the crowd shifted over the next half hour, she ended up alongside Phil as he lit up a joint; in response to her questioning look he passed it to her.

Then, as Bob ended 'Just like a woman' with a magically inventive and expressive harmonica solo, their eyes locked and they nodded in recognition of the artistry they had witnessed. Putting his arm around her shoulders seems a natural response, and by the time the lights went out on the encore of 'Most likely you'll go your way and I'll go mine', they were kissing passionately. Things were looking good, he thought.

They stepped into the cold hard air of the night. Toronto was quiet to his ringing ears.

'Where do you live?' he asked.

'Not far, McGill Street,' she replied, 'although it's nothing much.'

They settled on her place; his was nothing much either. Being a music reviewer for a small alternative magazine wasn't a job for people interested in material success.

They crossed the street to the empty sidewalk and went down an alleyway between two tattered billboards, emerging in a back street. As they mounted the spidery lattice of the fire escape, she turned towards him.

'He's great, isn't he? Bob? So complex.'

I revealed the treasure in my bag.

'I know,' she said, 'I saw you get it at the gig: I can't wait to hear it!'

She squealed and ran up the steps.

They settled down on the sofa as the music started. She sat up with a start as 'Tough mama' began, shaking off his hand.

'Wait,' she said, 'I'm listening.' He listened too; it counted as work, after all. When the track finished, she stood up and repositioned the needle to start it again. She picked up a battered notebook, opened it to a fresh page, and wrote down notes as she picked out the key phrases. When the song ended, she let the album play on, but only because she was reaching up to a book shelf.

'New morning was about the Abrahamic God as Father,' she said over her shoulder, 'I think this is changing to the female principle - don't you see? Goddess - angel - beauty - mama.'

Phil nodded dejectedly. She took down a Bible, its pages interleaved with Tarot cards used as bookmarks.

'Cities of the plain,' she muttered.

Phil felt he should make some contribution, what with being an English major and professional critic and all.

'There's a Eugene O'Neill play about drug addiction - Long day's journey into night - I'm sure he's alluding to it with 'night's long journey',' he said.

'Of course,' she replied dismissively, 'or it's re-birth: that would fit better, wouldn't it?'

And so the night had gone - research, theory, listening, reading. He was eventually overcome by exhaustion and boredom.

He yawned, stretched, and stood up. He went to knock on the bedroom door, but it swung open to his pressure. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, still dressed; it was concealed benath a mat of paper, books lying open, and closely-written index cards.

'Oh, hi,' she said distractedly. 'You fell asleep. I feel like I'm getting somewhere.' She gestured at her notes. 'The number nineteen is the key, you see.'

The walls were covered with posters of Dylan, newspaper cuttings, occult symbols, and handwritten transcriptions of lyrics.

Now Phil remembered what it was. She was crazy. Not crazy like a crazy mama, or crazy like a fox. Call-the-nut-wagon, straitjacket, padded cell crazy. What were the chances of him picking up someone like that?

As he retrieved the album and crept out of the building, he realised that the chances were quite high, all things considered.

Author's note

A night like this was devised after seeing Dylan live for the first time recently. I had looked around the audience and noted the preponderance of male fans; most of the female fans had come as part of couple. 'What were the ones who came alone like?' I wondered, and realised that I knew, or could guess. The story's setting is as true as research can make it, although normally I wouldn't count that as a particularly important question: credibility is more vital than accuracy. Dylanologists will enjoy spotting references to songs in the text.

This story is included in the new edition of File under fiction.

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