Yeah, I knew Johnny. Sure I did. I knew him when he crawled out of the filth on twenty-third street, claiming from the start that he was the first one to do it. And I knew him when everybody knew him, when the wind whispered divinity at his back and the spotlight burned his scalp until he got so red we couldn't see him any more. Yeah, I knew Johnny.
I knew him when he melted the wax in a wintertime attic, and his breath was on the next train to Newark and I knew what he said when he lay there among the various flames and fortune-cards.
He told me to turn the spotlight off, because it hurt him; it made him miss the dark. And he told me that the wax had all dripped backwards in the end, that the candles and the museums were just flowing backwards to 23rd, and that he couldn't stop it because the fire always spreads. He said that there was something foul coming from far off, and the breeze that carried it would whisk him quicker than an envelope through a slot. Then he told me a story about a man who found out being big means being too big, and a sculpture that couldn't love you if you stole it from the bees in the first place; and he turned red and died alone, at midnight, just like he should have, only that he never should. Yeah, I knew Johnny.
But I knew Anna better
I knew Anna with her shirt tied up in a knot so her smooth brown belly looked you in the eye. I knew her in the countryside, up at the top of the Chinese Elm where she'd climb sometimes and push the leaves aside to get the sun just right. Up in the top branches where she'd sit with me, and pick the green leaves one at a time, smiling so wide when the sun hit her face that she'd laugh out loud an kiss the twigs, she'd tell stories about the old country, and her grandfather's trade, and the sea breeze that she'd replaced with a sapling.
I always knew Anna to have a stem behind her ear and a wisp of hair that covered her eyes just so. She'd cry and laugh at the same time, and let the ants run on her bare feet, and upset birds' nests without meaning t o or caring either way. The jewels in her tiara were only daisies, after all, and I knew her long before Johnny could make the daisies into diamonds, and the sunlight into candle-strobes, and the smile into something you wouldn't want to see.
I knew her inside and out, except that back then it was the same thing for her, just like a song in Portuguese, that she wouldn't translate no matter how much you asked. It's not an English song, she'd say, and she couldn't make it something that it never is. Her forehead hugged the sunlight when she threw her head straight back to laugh, and a rain of leaves below her wasn't worth noticing on a day like this.
Yeah, I knew Anna, too.
I introduced them once, at a picnic or the like, when Johnny's first gig finally showed him a check and a predatory smirk. He was moving uptown that autumn, mostly on founded confidence and charm, and he'd let me invite him all the way to the countryside for the sake of food and gathered folks. Anna had driven up purely on a whim, and she swung contented in a hammock that was hung too high for most of us to use, eating grapes and spitting the seeds where she couldn't see. Johnny saw her and asked me a question, but I didn't twice before I led them to each other's doors, and called Anna from her lazy perch to meet a friend.
Johnny was pleased to meet her, and Anna was somehow quickly sparked. She took his hand with greater force than he expected, and later let him pour her a Dixie cup of the red wine from the wicker baskets. He'd seen something in a shop window in the city that would make her beam, he knew, he told her, but then again Anna wasn't much of one for clothes or trinkets. He sipped and smiled and rolled up little sandwiches and ate them, and told amusing stories and explained his industry and cooed at her and laughed again. She sat comfortably close and traced the pattern of the sunlight through the trees, as it fell and made soft blotches on her dark naked thigh. Twice I saw her look away, and that said something more than anything else. Anna was never shy, but this new man was slick like a beach pebble, and you always want to pick up a pebble except when it's too hot. Five months later, Johnny would have been a torch, a scorcher, but I guess this day was just exactly right, as far as time ever concerns itself when Anna's involved.
Johnny bought her a gold watch and made her wear it, but the crystal chipped and she left it on a park bench. She liked the park that first month in the city, since she had to be in the city, and she quietly smoothed the leather of her gloves back so that it all looked one color. These were her first pair of gloves. There were men who walked by sullenly, and they knew the sky wasn't worth looking at because it was grey, but Anna kept her gaze there anyway, and once in a while a robin would upset the cycle of dim old pigeons, and the lot of them would flap and flap until a few got off the ground and into Anna's notice. She spent that month watching the fog gain weight and sifting crumbs through suede fingers until the pigeons adored her even though she couldn't care less for them; and when the sullen men paused on their way past and begged for her money she saw no reason not to give it to them. Five or six times the sun broke through and Anna's face lit up perfect, and then she sang in Portuguese and didn't care who listened or got confused. But that was only five or six times, an that's not many. if she'd been wearing the watch she could have counted the minutes as a handful, and she wouldn't have been late to dinner so often.
Anna used to eat when she was hungry, but it didn't work that way here. Johnny was playing the rising star, and he was always dressed, always ready to pose or please. The society magazines called him pretty names and made flattering conjectures, and they even printed a picture of Anna on his arm at a premiere, looking very beautiful and almost happy. He taught her how to order in French, and he kept her from putting sugar in her champagne, and she let him because the pebble was starting to burn her hand, and she couldn't drop it without searing her palm. It was a month of lobsters and credit in the big stores where clothes and trinkets were eventually examined, and if never fully embraced, at least accepted, out of boredom, because the parks had gotten far too grey now that fall was over, and the pigeons had all died or hobbled off. There were no sunbeams for Anna then, because you can't climb to the top of a cloud and brush it aside, no matter how strong your knuckles are, or how many branches you've balanced between your dark naked thighs.
I knew they thought themselves great lovers, each of them, which was their common trait. They invited me to the apartment to see how well they lived, all of a sudden, or at least Johnny did, because Anna was at the window when I cam, and only noticed me after she'd paid me a full greeting. Johnny walked over and stood behind her, clasping her waist in his cashmere arms and smiling with his eyes closed. Anna licked her lipstick.
All this was a while later, after Anna had discovered that city winters need fine fur to keep them at bay, and that if she gave her money to the sullen men it meant she had none for herself. Johnny by this time had the spotlight at his feet, and it was rising towards hi knees and towards his chest and towards his charming face on all the papers. Perhaps this was when I knew him least, although I still knew him, because he hadn't yet shown me to his attic. He might not even have built it yet. He was too busy insulating against the winter, not just to keep the cold out, but to keep his own blaze inside. He hadn't had time to worry about who was trapped inside with him and the flames. His agent shuffled the cards and laid them out just so, and he saw in them only what magazines had proclaimed, a hundred lines of yes, a single buried, waxen no.
A fire in a box burn hotter. It feeds itself. It consumes and eventually extinguishes itself, and the ashes are sealed forever. Winter stayed late this time around, as it does sometimes in the city, even uptown.
The spotlight finally hit Johnny right in the face, and he didn't even blink. It burned pretty bright, but the embers at his feet had kept him accustomed, and he didn't mind at all. He bought Anna another watch, so that she'd know when he was with her, quantification making every second more precious. The seconds were precious few, it seemed to Anna, whose closet full of silk had recently turned dark grey. A pocketful of empty ash, blowing on the wind of a winter that wouldn't let up. Spring was just a date on the calendar, and Anna couldn't drop a glove in the apartment without seeing exactly where it landed. Something about that began to seem very wrong. There's a difference between tree bark and rough silk, Anna wrote in her diary on her twenty-sixth birthday that March. One feels nice and the other feels right. The only tree bark in the apartment was in the fireplace, and that was artificial, licked with gas flames a failing to hiss or crackle. Just hot and perpetual, amidst fake, grey ash. She had me over that day, her birthday, to drink red wine that I brought in a basket and laugh about times that were scarcely old. I gave her three flowers at the door, with long stems, and she put them in a crystal vase by the window, pretending to smile when she looked at the watch and told me Johnny's schedule was tight. I knew she had expected him there, at the apartment. Some birds flew through the grey, outside, headed up above to where the blue must have been hidden, and Anna's gaze followed them slowly, distinctly. Anna asked to keep the basket when she said goodbye, and I let her although I knew she'd be disappointed to find no wings at its bottom.
The pebble was a tiny blazing sun, it melted her fingers together tight. It was the only sun she'd found in the city. But she began to realize the difference between a sun in the sky and one that you have to plug in. The pebble wasn't bright from lying on the beach; it was reflecting a spotlight. Her palm was starting to hurt, and the melting of her fingers had spread to her arm, softening, weakening. Johnny was busy now, constructing a little refuge, he couldn't see his statue melting in the house below.
She was gone. She'd taken everything from her closet and left the apartment, crying a little and not laughing at all. He wasn't even home that night, but the next afternoon he rode the elevator to the eighteenth floor and found a note from Anna, written in a seared hand. Goodbye Johnny. I've been missing you, and I won't stop, but goodbye.
Johnny phoned me with unusual tears in his voice but none, I thought, rinsing the charm from his face. I'd seen Anna the week before, heading south, stopping by, looking greyer than the city sky she was fleeing. She'd cheered a little at the fact that spring had already hit the countryside, and where she was going she'd find more of it. She didn't need much from me. She never asked if she'd made the right choice.
Then Johnny came all the way out to talk to me, and he wore a pair of black glasses to keep the new sun out of his face. He sat in my kitchen, sipping coffee, in his attic, begging me to come up with him and listen. The press hounded him. Anna was gone, had I heard? Or had I heard from her? His agent wouldn't leave him alone. At night his apartment was empty, it was too hard for him to turn the fireplace switch, too cold in the city not to. He couldn't have Anna, he saw that now, he could never have kept her, it wasn't right. And if he saw her again, he'd never ask for the watch back. Let her remember how long it had been. But did I see what they said in the papers? Relentless!
His attic was a dark part of his head; he kept it frozen so as not to attract the spotlight. But he'd built it over a bow with a fire in it, a white hot cube that was almost out of oxygen. The box burst upwards, because up reminded it of Anna. It burst up and began to devour the attic too; Johnny found himself trapped by dark carbon cinders and choking smoky ash. And the spotlight never wavered, it was brighter than a thousand fires, brighter than Johnny. It found the charred husk of a trapdoor and shone right through, onto Johnny's unshaded frown and unpressed tuxedo. It burned his face like the worst sunburn, right through the dark dark glasses, red as the dying embers all around. Anna had been gone three weeks now. Johnny could think of nothing else but being trapped alone with his own spurious ashes. Sealed, as in a coffin or an urn. That was about the last anybody knew of Johnny.
But I knew Anna, even after all of it.
I knew a different Anna, who had returned to the countryside to find that a silk rope can't be climbed at all. Not at all, you slip right down. I sat with her in a field and watched her eat crackers with cheese on them and sip white wine, and smile a little. The sun played on daisies and I saw her wishing they were in her hair, but unable to fit a stem behind her ear, or find a wisp for her eyes. She lay back and watched the birds fly up twenty stories higher than the little house she kept, and I heard her sigh that the breeze was too strong, she'd have to get a sweater from the house. A sweater on a summer day.
Later, for the sake of memory, we settled halfway up the oak at the edge of the field, and she used a pair of gloves because the bark was too rough; it hurt the scar on her palm. She wasn't going to go and open any old wounds. The late afternoon sunlight lit up her brown cheeks and begged for a smile, and she gave it willingly enough, if not at the very second the beam had shone. There were oak leaves on her sweater and she brushed them off. A contrived climb, and no songs in Portuguese, no tales. This was the last Anna I knew.
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