The midnight oil was burning. The band’s latest single, “Tourists At the Edge of Forever,” had reached the apex of a flight path out of the studio and onto the airwaves. People were comparing the contemporary disillusionment to Radiohead and the psychedelic melodies to The Beatles, an analogy that had kept the band out of the studio, on a perpetual tour, and warped their perceptions into dreams of a prolonged journey across a never-ending night. There were throngs of fans inside the airports, deliria of multiple varieties, and all the trivial debaucheries of traveling with too much money and too tiny an attention span. The name of the band was No Exits, and their lead vocalist Peter Sevim was sitting on a red-eye from NYC to Port-Au-Prince during the wee hours of February 4, 2004, unbeknownst to his band mates. Peter was beginning to feel as if the wick of his fame was about to be snuffed at any moment.
— Haiti? What have you been snorting Sevim? Did you know you were scheduled to play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Memorial Concert tomorrow? Did you know that I had to call Brian Wilson specifically so he could harmonize with you at the end of “Rubber Mystery Revolver?” Did you know Brian’s people hung up on me thirteen bloody times before I got a meeting? BRIAN WILSON, SEVIM!—
Peter sighed and adjusted the black and red speckled keffiyeh that hung around his neck. The regret of having called his agent sunk in rapidly. Taking stock of his reply, he pressed the fingers of his hand against his olive temple.
—Charlie, I know you arranged the song with Brian, but it’s not going to happen. I’m on the flight. I’m going to take a few months off, possibly a year. I’m going to Haiti and will return when the rhythms begin again in my mind.—
—Is it the dragon, Sevim? Because you know we’ve got clinics for that.—
—I don’t think the label, much less you, know what I need, Charlie.—
And then he hung up.
Incense was burning in the far corner of a shotgun shack the night before Charlie caught up to Peter. While the former’s bald head grew inflamed and scarlet waiting for a jet out of Cleveland, the latter’s grew dizzy under a miasma of intoxicants, finding himself at his neighbor’s house. z
The lone room inside the place was populated by a teeming array of rainbow-colored citizenry, a carnival around which floods of neon shone against the full-moon night. A steady beat was coming from the thumping of drums, and the room moved to their rumble, bass pounding in their chests. The humidity hung across the air and wrapped the revelers in a sticky embrace; sweat ran down bodies, and the unmarked bottles on the grimy bar refreshed them. There was friction between the sweat and the clothing, and Peter considered all the bright young things becoming pastels on the canvas of the bare wood floor.
Charlie’s later insinuation was incorrect: Peter was completely aware of the deposition of the Haitian president, and was celebrating with a hundred of his new best friends inside his neighbor’s house. News had traveled fast to Saint Michel and a local shopkeeper had tried to explain what had happened to Peter in rushed Creole, except the only words he recognized were “Aristide,” and “joyeux.” The neighbor, Jean—a man a good foot taller than Peter, a stone giant animated into life—had been the resident of the shack for ten leisurely years and had never heard of No Exits. A day later they had decided the best way to commemorate a momentous political shift was a party; that solid hundred had agreed with them, but around midnight the party began to bore Jean. Like he had for a decade, he found himself listless in his own home without any reason to leave, taking in the solitude of his home and perusing cardboard boxes of books left by the shack’s former tenant (a professor of French Neoclassical thought) which filled the attic of the place to its ceiling. Now that his house was whirling with action, he desired more than ever to escape, if only for a while, and once Peter asked if he knew somewhere to buy cigarettes he had his excuse.
He explained that the only place likely to be selling tabac at this hour was the night market away from the beach and into town, and they’d have to cross the Rivière du Limbè in order to get there. Peter, perhaps wanting to step away from the noise a bit as well, found that journey agreeable and the two stumbled exuberantly into the darkened, whispering palms, where the light of a beach bonfire was seen behind them only for a moment, and then was gone.
Two hours later Peter was confused: a hangover was starting to set in from the abundance of grain liquor, and thirst overwhelmed him. His feet were sore from walking, more than he could recall, and he didn’t know how Jean could peer through the dark and still tell where they were going. This madman had taken him into the jungle to kill him, or worse, hold him for ransom until someone coughed up. He could already hear Charlie tut-tutting on the satellite phone: silly Peter trying to find himself and ending up in captivity. No, he knew his imagination was orbiting too far out to make sense anymore; it was Jean’s silence he found most disconcerting. Peter wasn’t much of a talker but alone and somewhere still unknown to him, and craving a strong hit of nicotine, he could’ve used a few reassuring words in Jean’s well-spoken English. By the time they had reached a clearing, Peter had betrayed his taciturn nature and told Jean more of his life story than the man had probably ever wanted to hear, but he’d been a good sport and even laughed at the part when the band played a gig in London and Peter was so high that he’d flipped Tony Blair the bird.
The river frothed out from where they’d emerged. No longer hidden by vines and canopy, they could see its murky water gushing forth, all the silt and detritus from the bottom and forcing it, just below the surface. On a small dock was the ferryman, his fluorescent teeth shining, ready to take passengers in the still hours of evening. Jean requested passage while Sevim forwardly handed the ferryman ten gourdes, who maintained his cheshire smile, though he wished he wouldn’t. For all the noise there had been while they’d been walking, there was now only the conflation of voices from the river, and the ferryman repeatedly slapped them down with his paddle as he did every night, as if he pushed past the generations who’d lived and died on that river, and the generations yet to come. Though the moon was full as ever, none of the light reached under the boat: when Peter looked over, all he could see were tiny impressions of lapping water against the black.
For the hour being so late, the market was thriving. Peter’s nostrils were assailed by cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg, and just below that the unmistakable odor of fish flesh rotting. Vendors were hawking candles, large piles of sweets, and assortments of unrecognizable tchotchkes that didn’t interest him nearly as much as a pack of smokes. Yet while they were walking the cramped main drag of the market, a shop window jumped out at him. “TABAC SOLD HERE” said a large purple and green sign in the window; he practically had to pull Jean off the street in order to get him to look, as the other man was so distracted by the bustle hurrying on about them. As soon as they walked into the unmarked store he realized this was no 7/11. It was hot, stiflingly so, and the air redolent of pine thanks to the candles all along the shop’s perimeter. Every other space was occupied: books, dolls, rugs and tapestries with intricate patterns, a poster of “The Apostle’s Creed” in Creole. A tiny woman emerged from the back with her hair covered by a green bandana and told them her name was Mama Delphine, then asked how she could help them.
She explained to them that a pack of Pall Malls came with a free fortune reading. Lulled into acquiescence by the warmth and the pine, Peter agreed, while Jean examined the shop in greater detail. She asked politely that he come to the back of a shop and sit in a worn leather recliner, the temperature increased another ten degrees. The sweat leaked profusely from all of his pores, he could not remember why he’d come in here—why he was here. She dipped her hands into a jar of melted clay and began massaging his face, working it gradually into the stubble around his neck and cheeks. More was slathered across his forehead. She said the mold of the face was the key to his future, and she whispered in Creole words he didn’t understand. “Now give him a second mask,” she intoned while applying more clay. Her language made a shift into French as the volume of her voice increased, pushing deeper into his pores. The mask was slowly drying, caking around his still face. Peter felt so agreeable it didn’t matter. He couldn’t see, but only the whites of Mama Delphine’s eyes were visible. She said
“Vous ne mourrez jamais. Vous ne mourrez jamais. Vous ne mourrez jamais.”
He couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating. He was sure of it. Wrenching open his eyelids, he was in the sand on the beach, a carton of unopened Pall Malls jutting out of his pants. He ran his hands over his mud free cheeks. The bonfire, the people, and the party were all there. Jean stood over by the fire, staring intently past the licking flames and out to the ocean. He saw the bridge of luminescence form from the water to the moon, and jumped when Peter put a hand on his shoulder.
“Was any of it real?” Peter asked looking up at Jean’s dilated pupils, unsure if the Pall Malls were only sensory deception.
Without a word Jean gently picked up an object beside him. The contours were illuminated by fire, intimately familiar to Peter in shape. Jean handed it to him and he ran his hands over the clay face, two crumbled holes for the eyes and satin ribbon trailing behind it, the material rough in his hands. He drew it toward him and tied it on; the pair of them began to laugh at the absurdity. The beating of drums opened like thunder around the bonfire: Peter and Jean joined the dancing kaleidoscopic procession till morning extinguished the firelight.
He woke on the beach the next morning, alive. The sound of the waves came crashing into his brain, their foam spraying to the far corners of his synapses, the salt air invading his lungs and compelling him to breathe deeply. His fingers gripped at the land and found only tiny white grains to slide between them. Suddenly he was conscious of the wrinkles forming on his clenched brow, and the opening of his eyelids allowing for the entrance of the singular ray of agonizingly bright sunshine. The question was raised: Where am I?
Rising from the imprint of sand his body had molded, he shook the residual particles from his tight black jeans, and picked some unidentifiable material out of his scalp. He felt his calves in part to rub their much-too-warmness away and also to find his knock-off Versace sunglasses, which were hidden in his left pocket. Tempering the sun, he looked out to the Caribbean for what seemed the first real occasion. A hint of pine wafted from the plaid button-down bundled next to him, with a top note of accumulated sweat.
Wading out and diving in the water was the first time he felt at home since he’d left Venice Beach, playing run-down clubs whose floors were saturated with whiskey and cigarette butts. The relative poverty of his band-mates had seemed noble then, chasing the muse’s billowing skirt and waiting for a record deal or a blog to pick them up: anything to prove that they were doing something worth the sweat and the everyday shows without an audience. Howling at empty tables would have been the preferable option now, the cacophony from the amps being hurled out at no one in particular. He didn’t feel for those times without feeling the hunger too.
Paddling out, he enjoyed the mild burn in his arms, took the biggest swallow of air he could muster, and let himself drift to the bottom of the fourteen-foot deep. The neck-length strands of his curly black hair floated in the cold current that ran along his body and gave contrast to the rest of those warm waters. Then there was only the quiet. Arms at his side, he could listen for the tiniest disturbances in his surroundings, and finding none, hear the true rhythm of 4/4 time, the real thing. Songs ran through his head at that moment; maybe “House of the Rising Sun” or “Gimme Danger,” or maybe he was running down the labyrinth of Bitches Brew.
After repeating this process innumerably, on one rising he noticed a figure clad in a confusingly inappropriate business suit waving his arms frantically from the shore, the garish pink tie he was wearing stood out against the blinding white of the shore.
“Bedfellow Charlie what the hell are you doing here?”
“Splendid hello, really, do you think I’m here to give you a bloody Nobel? I’m here because you left Brian Wilson, your bandmates, and me. And to figure out whatever on God’s green earth is wrong with you.”
“I appreciate it, but that’s ridiculous and unnecessary in probably the most offensive way possible.”
“You’ve got people that care about you, and you think that me, flying out to Port-Au-Prince then driving to St. Michel to babysit you when I was supposed to be signing the remnants of The Beach Boys to our label is offensive? I drove through a revolution to get here! No, that was not a mistake. While you were bobbing about in the ocean, becoming one with solitude and nature and all that hogwash, there was an actual revolution in the capital! And you probably didn’t even know it, daydreaming about being immortal or something like that I imagine. All your ranting about people taking responsibility for their government, all your songs about the power of the collective voice, and you probably slept right through it. Remarkable. You, Peter, are a hypocrite and a charlatan and I refuse to tolerate it. Standing there all soggy like your sodding music.”
Charlie’s bald head matched the shade of his tie. His wayfarers slid down the edge of his nose. Fumbling in both of his pockets, he turned his back Peter, and, finding what he was looking for, began puffing furiously on a cigarette, muttering to himself:
“Diva…all of the bullets I’ve taken for him…passing out on the stage at Coachella…”
Jean approached the scene, addressing Peter:
“What’s with the suit?”
“He’s my agent.”
The end of Charlie’s cigarette was burning and shadows grew long as the sun fell into view from the window of the shack. Peter, Jean, and Charlie all sat on different sides of a small table inside. Jean and Peter looked like children who’d been caught trying to stay on the playground after recess is over. Mosquito nets obscured their hunched figures.
“Well, is there anything you have to say for yourselves?”
Peter took a drink and felt the words slinking from his brain and up his esophagus.
“I left you hanging back there in Cleveland…you didn’t deserve it, the band didn’t deserve it, but you have to understand there’s no point of me walking into the studio and onto the stage if I can’t dig up the soul to bring to the microphone, there would be no point in it. There’s a smell that hangs around the truth, Charlie, the stench of authenticity. In my life I’ve been convinced we were creating art, and you can’t fake that. The bridge and the chorus and the words would all be there but the scent would be wrong. You, the fans, and the label would pick it up on us like a pack of wolves. I want to breathe it in for the first time, break down the ingredients like a perfume and all the elation and frustration that come with it.”
Charlie’s expression betrayed his thought that this was the most incredulous load of tripe he’d ever heard, the cigarette dropped from his gaping mouth. All three men sat in resolute silence across from one another, until the remnants of Charlie’s smoldering cigarette ignited the nets around the table. They began to yell with the fear of men who think that they’re far too young to be caught in a burning house. Untangling themselves from the netting formed a web of fire across Jean’s living room. Jean briefly considered going down with the ship; a noble death to die among the books who’d kept him company for the last ten years, except he had no desire to die somewhere he’d been for such a long period of time, and realized that this was his opportunity to make an escape.
The three hurtled out the door and into the sunset. Peter’s body shook with tremors of laughter that could tear the world in two. In silence Jean gave a quick salute to his momentary companions and pondered the virtue of Istanbul. Charlie, convinced he was still on fire and screaming, had run to the water and stood there up to his waist in his tailored suit. The shack and the patches of time that accompanied it were being consumed in the flames behind them. They glimpsed the last vestige of twilight concealing the emerging stars they had yet to see.
Tom Minogue is a junior from Stafford, Virginia majoring in English. He would like to thank Dr. Fred D’Aguiar and Dr. James Osterberg for their guidance on this project. After graduation Tom hopes to attend law school.