From Crepuscule W/Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press, November 2014)
JZLM16 (Monaural Master / Take #12)
Monk plays and John listens. It is all new, but Monk’s playing most so. Monk’s new composition commences with an entirely impromptu blue lick played almost into parody. Its tonal center almost splits into a clash as the notes descend the mournful length of the prefatory melody. In it, John can hear the cast iron plate hovering over the piano’s tonewood, the spruce he used to conceive of as the instrument’s soul, only now he feels his notions diverting. Wouldn’t a body, even one unseen, resonate more? His new tenor, does it take to its idleness? Monk paces out the lick again, bending every note. And John continues, not knowing how or what to play. And John is lulled even more, by this start of song but by the haze accentuating the proximities of dusk within the apartment. In a sudden something, there is a crashing of pitches, then Nellie pushing back the door.
Oblongs of wan illumination cross those richer shades that have been filtered through the glass of her window onto stacks and crumbs. Nellie is entering—and the riff is just then spiked with unpremeditated dissonance. John sees Monk jolted out of his hands at the sound of the apartment’s aperture choking open to admit his wife, a scent whose pungency John cannot quite place (although he knows it is clean), the hall, the not-so distant clamor of Monk’s neighbors also coming home. Yet Monk’s muff somehow makes sense, it is not hectic, rowdydowdy, John can sense that immediately. Monk plays it all—the oddment of blues, the hesitation, his wife’s aleatoric contribution—again, halts, and suddenly turns sideways on his bench, craning over in a scramble for quick notation. Monk upsets some funny pages pooling with Silly Putty and a steel-strung ukelele with the white hibiscus painted on its face so that some outer petals and the tip of the stamen brush the sounding hole. He reaches not his portfolio but a glass-less picture frame, the kind you stand up on a dresser or mantel, that at first appears to be empty. But Monk pops something free. A card, not the icy blue of SOCIAL SECURITY, but orange, and with Monk’s name nearly obscured by an almost legible brownish smear reading REVOKED. Monk takes the card and places it on the piano’s otherwise vacant music rack. The cardboard backing in the frame now shows, and to John, where it is untouched, which is all over, it is raisin-y, speckled. Monk fishes a yellowish-brownish (“Maize”) crayon out of his inside breast pocket as Nellie approaches the near wall. She rips down the calendar. She does not pick it up either, from where it plops face-down on the green warp and blue weft, overlapping in midnight checks, of a bathrobe’s incidental tartan, piled there between the calendar and the floor’s defiling. Monk writes, and keeps writing, and John tries not to be startled, but he is.
Nellie drags towards the kitchenette. To put leftovers on? Nellie has no energy to scowl as she glances back, roughly in their direction. (John wonders what direction really means in Monk’s apartment). Monk still scribbling horizontal lines, John wisely—so Nellie agrees—swallows his greeting. I’ve seen you in your night clothes. Damn. Haven’t I?
Monk props up his notes. Nellie has returned along her supper-ward route and now takes her routine place at the window, waiting for this urban sunset to finish off the warm, dry day that has finally come. Monk hums his stuttering line once, nods with cute finality, stares up at John with a prompting roll of his eyes. John takes his eyes off of Nellie, his only eyes. Monk pushes John’s horn up to his mouth.
— Fractional. All of it. Bear in mind, bearcat. Fractional.
John opens. Monk hammers out that down-in-the-dumps contraction. This time, Monk slows the aspects down. John plays those first five notes, and his version struggles to lift off in a momentum appropriately contra- Monk. Repeating, Monk includes—too rapidly for John yet, who blats a tenor pejorative — that jarring ba-da-da-DOMP in the progression. The ba-da-da-DOMP is reiterated, Monk accents the composite of beats by wobbling his head at a reduced rate, his lips pinioning his tongue fast. ba- da-da-DOMP: Monk plays it so methodically, in a sort of non-tempo, with such misanthropic clarity that salad bowl clatters quietly against the tall glass mottled cream inside with the dehydrated foam of the Ballentine that Monk favors but Nellie will not buy except when it has been put on special, and a fork unglued from mayonnaise crustings makes a sympathetically sterling echo in the recess of a plate. Monk stops, hands raised, just as John licks the corners of his mouth.
— Hold up.
Monk budges his head back, as if he were canting some immobile feature straight to the ceiling. But John feels Monk is leaning back far enough to look at his wife. Just briefly.
— OK. All right. Hold up.
Still leaning like so, almost in a pose of rapture or supplication except his eyes are wide, Monk plays what must follow the ba-da-da-DOMP. He builds down or backwards ( John can’t decide, not like this, still getting acquainted with this tenor, on the spot) to where the first phrase might have led until Nellie exerted her abrupt concision upon it. Monk comes again to a now- modified ba-da-da-DOMP. This rhythmic anomaly is now all the things this tune could have been had Monk sought it—John hears it, I hear it, man, I hear [italicize this “hear”] it—sought it and impelled its aberrations towards other resolutions. Monk plays again, easing. Monk topples forward and balls up the aluminum hulls (and this is what John estimates) so their sympathetic tingles (both visual and aural) won’t distract either man. But, as he does crumple—and with his left hand now striding, strolling alone, at an absurdly low octave—Monk essays the melody so far once again. Monk lets the whole thing, this new song, stoop its way into a melody so wordless it must be a lament, and it does lament, this a melody which cannot be freighted with any words because its rhythms do not meet the mouth. So John marvels. It is very long, this line, with no feeling of approximate resolution. ba-da- da-DOMP is ba-da-dada-DOMP suddenly, but this expansion is no ending. Solo piano like this, and almost rubato, John knows the tune sounds right but positively stripped, clumsily disrobed, shiveringly tense with attempts to cover itself, but unfurled somehow, maybe hesitantly but all the same.
And the dim reddish light of an awareness reaches John from a nearness that yet stands utterly outside his suit and his skin.
I thought I was. All this time, how I thought I was the one watching them. But no. It’s not that there’s no one. It just isn’t me.
JZLS16 (Stereo Master / Take #17)
Nellie is not really listening. Absently, she has brought with her into the living room the fat, sauce- and defrost- coated spoon that has just scampered in four separate pots. On the yet-untidied floor, there is a fan of brown- tinted and chestnut-backed photographs. Some of the pasteboard has been handled too often, the layers of pulp and inlaid ink proceeding to unattach and hint at all the information behind the studio’s and photographer’s imprint, and behind the members of Nellie’s pre-Monk family as well, in all their permutations—Sunday dress, overalls, step-fathers, aunts, nephews, sisters, Big Papaw sporting a dickey and holding his cantankerous mandolin on his thigh, his brother standing in a posture of shy pride, with his arm sweethearting the eyelet of a long wooden propeller, all four feet and who knows how many pounds of it canted 1 to 7 rather than 12 to 6, but expertly carved all the same, and the little girl, not so little she should still be clutching a doll, raggedy and eyeless, a little girl Nellie has convinced herself grew to be Effie’s mother—posed and portraitured, as though their tempers were one temper: imperturbable. These families disappear and reappear around split corners in the heap, frontispieces, looking like themselves or not in the stack dispersed when her husband dashed them to the ground. Nellie has not yet marked them who and when, and she may never get around to it. She will not look at them; she already knows what looks out of them at her.
Somehow, I’ve cheated on Monk. I’ve taken his confidence and promised him something. But I’ve been a busybody and now it doesn’t fit him anymore. I’ve missed the ways in which he grew, and I don’t think I’ll ever account for them.
But Nellie, she had mentioned nothing to that Hippocratic vivisectionist, that silver-haired impresario, that Teutonic whatever he was. She had rehearsed so diligently. Oh, but she had only rehearsed under the assumption that, when the farce would being to flounder into its momentum, she would be writing all the punchlines. Knock-knock. Humble Nellie, Tame Nellie, she had answered, had practiced how to command a mutability so forthright as to neutralize anyone’s aspersions. Nellie had decided that, if the inevitable asking did come, she would talk about her history as if who she is now had always been present in her life, like some guardian angel. She confirmed it to herself: most people would find that comforting, but this Doctor, I bet it would just gall him. That had been wager. It was a strategy not terribly elaborate, but, Nellie had credited herself, it was a self-conscious strategy. If only it had not disappointed her.
Monk plays, and Nellie is not really listening. But she knows what in media res means. And don’t some of Monk’s piano stories—the stories he tells in playing what he does—speak to you in just this same way, telling you as much about what you’re not going to hear as they tell you everything else?
That Baroness, pretending to be a matchmaker for a man and woman who’ve been married all these years.
My goodness, what is he doing now? What is that racket? I bet Brahms never made such racket.
Maybe, Nellie lectures herself, if she was ever sure of what her husband was thinking or feeling, she could rest. Has she ever, say, in even one overwrought minute—of ecstasy, of rage, of aspiration, of reliance, of shared event— known Monk? Really known him? Is it even possible? Nellie does not want to control Monk, not like she does. But she is compelled to wonder: what is he thinking? Is his thinking feeling? Can’t I ever be vigilant enough?
John has—and he doesn’t know how—determined just the right time, fleeting anyway, to blend his tones with Monk’s. Playing, harmonizing, John tries to chip against a certain sharpness in Monk’s diction, yet the tenor’s unfamiliar timbre keeps him apprehensive. Jesus, he hasn’t played a horn this big since the days he subbed on baritone, sandwiches at breakfast- lunch-and-dinner, chewing on only one side of his mouth, marking time on the G.I. Bill in Black Bottom. So it’s funny, so-sad-it’s-funny, that the lid of Monk’s piano is strewn just like the bars he strolled and moaned on then, an organ shouting his march on. John has to snort a chuckle up through his nose and the glottal into which his saxophone translates the aborted humor results in a unity of line that John, catching up without thinking to, realizes makes the song.
BA-DA-DA-DOMP. John sees Monk sneak a less facetious backwards glance at Nellie. His wife, her own looks are fixed outside.
The blues section picks up steam, a vamp slinking more like the blues John more often resists. He flexes his diaphragm. The song’s earlier breadth of general caricature has slimmed to something specific but sensual. Now the helpless, cat’s-tongue-rough luxuriousness of the larger sax’s voicings— John’s new voice; courtesy of Bean, he gets it, he’s being offered a second chance at puberty, and thus at exiting it a more auspicious man—John can’t help it, but his own sound that he’s hearing suggests to him Nellie’s shape as she sits alone, twi-lit, in that damn window. What is she looking at? Is she looking for something? No, she’s not yearning for her freedom, not so much, she’s just looking. I know that look. She’s just looking for all those places from which she will have to gather her thoughts, gather them here. She’s already found that place. Perhaps only when her eyelids droop and she’s run the gamut of her household occupations, maybe later, then Nellie’s looking will become a looking for Monk. John turns back to Monk. John looks at Monk, maybe for further direction, but he sees Nellie without looking at her, and no other images are superimposed on this reality: Monk, making conclusions. John’s upper lip pops off the tenor’s mouthpiece as Monk repeats his ending. John is convinced, he always was… these are Nellie’s nights in these rooms, her “Where are you?”s broadcast soundlessly back at herself from all over the city.
There is no solo by either man. The theme is played over and over. Each refinement and modulation of the tempo, the abnormal precision of the syncopations that bridge the short A and the long, long B, the elisions of the flats in the second measure, and goddamn if those aren’t more parallel sixths (John recognizes the Monkish apothegm), all of this will be remembered because it’s happening now will be made to leave such a heavy, such an unshakeable trace. And that limbering, stout dissonance, the sketchy ba- da-da-DOMP… ba-da-dada-DOMP… it becomes the pivot of the piece, it is what keeps the chromatic line so well-proportioned even as it stretches. And this crucial chain of events can still be exercised only by Monk hands, criss-crossed and pacing with fallen arches.
John does not have to hear himself anymore. But he needs to hear and not see Nellie. Even if it’s only with recalcitrance, he needs Nellie to acknowledge her song. Now? Now? What’s she doing? Fey John tilts his horn, moving it fully out of the attention his eyes are focusing towards: Monk, and piano, and song, John needs to feel her. Come on, Nellie. The music he’s participating in, it seems gradually to coil out from the center of the dirty room, wreathing, finding its embracing way around the accumulated, unsorted, and blunted—or is it, John asks himself, soft? Tender?—clutter of these two lives lived together. Here. The windings, they trace another apartment the exact dimensions of the one inside of which they are propagating. The windings, they touch this woman with a grandmother’s hump gestating in her back, they touch her enough, John can see it even through the song’s blindfold, a phantom massage, they touch her enough to make her slowly swivel her harshly-shorn head around.
Receiving the imagined gleam of Nellie’s eyes, John fluffs a note. Breath tumbles out his mouth as his teeth’s grip on the horn’s mouthpiece slackens. A microphone would hardly detect the l
eakage, or take it for the half- roundhouse pull of a brush against a ride cymbal, but the suddenness of this song that wants to lose John knows the noise and knows it as a glaringly convenient excuse to stop its reel and start all over without him. John looks to Nellie. She hasn’t noticed. Or she doesn’t want him to fuss over how she has noticed. How much. John plays the hushed coda to his fumbled exhalation: he sprains up to a ramrod stance and, still looking to Nellie, asks too much.
— Monk, man, where are we, does what we’re playing even have a name?
Nellie yanks her hair into a painful bun and holds it in place at the base of her skull, her knuckles bulging whitely. John, please stop staring at me. I’m too ugly. Too ugly for that. Nellie and her skinny legs. Nellie, his wife, she has half a mind to think her own long immobilities with Monk, inadvertent or not, keep her from knowing—feeling—whether she has really moved at all. Her other half tells her her self will stir when Monk makes the move her stillness begs him to make.
Without taking his eyes from the keyboard, pulsating black and white, nicotine and caffeine, the salon piano’s damping pedal so loose that it makes it look as if the whole apparatus is inhaling and exhaling as he prods, Nellie’s husband sings.
— Fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens
Is he singing? Is it John? No, it is Monk, Monk alone singing.
— When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, oh, abide with me. Point me to the skies, earth’s vain shadows flee. I’ll triumph still, if only you’ll abide with me.