In 1936, a filmmaker named Oskar Fischinger asked 24-year-old John Cage to create a score for an abstract film. Fischinger, a student of Buddhism, suggested to Cage that everything in the world had its own spirit, which could be released by setting it into vibration. “That,” said Cage, “set me on fire.” The world of inanimate objects came alive, and the young man set about hitting and rubbing and scratching anything he could get his hands on. He formed a percussion ensemble, wrote a trio in which short motifs could be expressed as either sound or silence, and embarked on a lifetime dedicated to noise.
Scootie Jones was thoroughly acquainted with this story, and realized that his bouts with the Fetzle piano involved a certain level of witchcraft, a Frankensteinian desire to bring dead things back to life. He did not actually expect results, however, being entirely involved with the process, and had no idea what he would do should some spirit come to call.
Tonight’s experiment was to play chance passages within certain ranges, his foot firmly on the sustain pedal, then reach into the open instrument and play the strings directly. Like a teenager with a guitar, he soon found new ways of manipulating the sound. By setting a string into motion then muting part of its vibration with a finger, he produced a laser-like whine resembling amplifier feedback. By running a fingernail along the metal ribs of the low strings, he could bring forth the familiar jet-engine glissando of the acid rock era. By whipping the backs of his fingers against individual strings, he could conjure a harsh sforzando, a jump-start twang that died quickly.
This was not a voluntary performance. This week’s Pan-foot matchbox, from the Requa Inn on the Klamath River, contained a single fortune-cookie slip. The printed side read, A man who listens has many friends. The written side said, A good night for piano. Meaning two things: Scott Kross was back in town, and Juliana wouldn’t mind hearing his piano through her front windows. At the moment, in fact, as Scootie studied the lines of instrumental dust on his fingers, Scott turned away from the New York Times to ask his wife,
“Who is it that plays so late down there?”
“I think it’s Jackie Simmer,” said Juliana, tending her ficus tree. “I think she studied piano in college.”
“Perhaps she should have studied harder,” said Scott, and returned to his reading. Juliana suppressed a laugh.
Scootie was out of ideas, so he played the Tchaikovsky theme, a signal to his lady-love. Then came inspiration. Holding the sustain, he reached into the instrument with both arms and swept his hands over the strings, producing a shag carpet of white sound, then knocked out individual notes by pressing the keys just enough to dampen the strings. The awkward position placed his head just under the soundboard, filling his ears with a liquid buzz. With each dampened note the overtones shifted almost imperceptibly, the steady weave losing a millimeter of its texture. Soon it was down to two bass strings, a barely visible fuzz coating their long metallic bodies, a low, sobbing overtone hanging in the air.
But it wasn’t an overtone. It was actual crying, the kind of choking sob that comes after hours of internal swimming, when the hole is as deep as it will get and the only thing left is to find the navy blue circle above you and call out. Scootie straightened up and fixed his eyes on a lamp outside the window. It was coming from the courtyard.
He found her curled up next to Juliana’s bench under the wisteria, brown pods waiting to crack open at Indian summer. She sat on the ground in faded jeans and an old buckskin jacket, knees bent to her face, hands wrapped around her legs. She wore a Navajo blanket around her shoulders, a slice of moon settling into the moist half-circles of her eyes, and spoke in a creaking whisper.
“I got this blanket in Taos. Old Navajo woman at the rez. Said her name was Katie. She told me when I was sad I could hold it around me, and the weaving would drink up my tears. Then they would drop to the ground and sink through the earth till they reached the bank of a river. And a rainbow trout would come along, and the trout would take the tears and carry them away. That’s why rainbow trout are so colorful, why their scales shine like that, just thousands of human tears, making their way... to the... ocean.”
She had barely gotten out the last word before the tears came again, her face shaking with small tremors. Scootie sat down and placed his long legs on either side of her, trying to get as much of himself as possible between her and the world, then pulled the side of her face to his chest. He smoothed his fingers over Jackie’s hair and arched his neck, searching the dim squares of light atop Blaze Hill.
The full story would not come until later, after a cup of tea at Scootie’s apartment had lifted her out of the hole and set her down next to the entrance. She sat on the couch, still in the buckskin jacket, the Navajo blanket folded up next to her.
“I’ve been cryin’ all the way since last night, Scootie. I couldn’t even call in sick today; I was afraid I’d burst out blubberin’. So I just sat there, and cried, and when it got to be dark again, I was still cryin’. My sides were startin’ to ache, and my eyes felt like they were bleeding, and I literally thought I was gonna die. Not like Hank Williams says he’s gonna die, I mean I was beginnin’ to wonder ow long a body could keep leakin’ fluid like that before it just gave out, dehydrated, got a stroke or somethin’. Can that happen, Scootie? Can you die from cryin’?”
Scootie held the question in his hands like a stone. “I’ve heard of people dying from the hiccups.”
Jackie smiled, the first good sign. “Scootie, you say the oddest things. I’m sure glad you showed up, though. I just had to go somewhere, do something to stop the waterworks. So I went to Fetzle. Ain’t that funny? And I heard you playin’, but I didn’t think I could face another human being, and then I felt so pathetic I started wailin’ harder‘n ever.”
Scootie put a hand on Jackie’s arm. “Would you like some more tea?”
“Sure, honey. That would be nice.”
Scootie flipped on some classical music, then went to the kitchen and returned with a fresh mug. He was thinking about asking a question, but before he could speak she answered it.
“I shoulda picked up on it, Scoots. I’m too smart for this shit. But then, if I was smart, I wouldn’t be fallin’ for cowboys, would I?
“What gets me is the old man musta been in on it. Never bothered tellin’ me that cowboys don’t wear their weddin’ rings while they’re workin’, ‘cause they get tangled in the ropes. Oh hell, I guess the old guy was just scared o’ dyin’ and happy for the company.”
Scootie had a fleeting thought of his own adulteries but let it fade, urging Jackie on with an understanding grunt.
“I suppose Rex mighta... Rex, now what kinda butthole name is that, anyway? Rex and Tex, shitkickers from Montana. Hah!” Jackie was talking to herself now, lost in bitter thoughts that came at her like hailstones. She rubbed her forehead, clearing off the chalkboard. “What the hell was I talkin’ about?”
“You suppose Rex might have...”
“Yeah! He mighta got away with this shit for years, but I’m bettin’ the wifie found out, they always do. And then, like a good Christian Roy Rogers cowpoke, he declared his great shame, his intention to make everything right again. And the filly on the side gets a twenty-five-cent postcard.”
“Yes! Mount Rushmore. I’ll never be able to look at Abe Lincoln again. Three kids! Can you believe that? Son of a bitch. And he writes this out on a fuckin’ postcard so’s every postal worker ‘tween here and Billings can read it. They’re prob’ly waitin’ to see my response!”
Jackie let out a horse-laugh that sank into a weak smile. “Thank you for bein’ there, Scootie. You’re a good friend.”
“I was under orders.”
“And I finally stopped cryin’,” said Jackie. “Thank goodness.”
She leaned into the couch and closed her eyes. Scootie patted her hand, then slipped off to his room to see if it was clean enough for a guest. He returned down the hall, speaking out his thoughts. “Why don’t you stay in my room, and I’ll...”
She was slumped over sideways, fast asleep, her legs dangling to the floor. Scootie lifted them to the couch and covered her with the Navajo blanket. He turned out the kitchen light and returned to study Jackie’s worn face, finally at peace, looking for a spot through which he might enter her dreams, swim to her side, and take away her tears.
Photo by MJV