A Wolf, a Bison and a Grizzly
“We’re not particularly pursuing a straight shot, are we?”
Mickey cranks down the perpetual opera. “Did you enjoy the Delaware Gap?”
“Following the arc of my logic?”
“This is not the efficiency tour so much as the… postcard tour.”
Skye watches as a billboard for cheese approaches and disappears. “Are you certain that this is all right with the diva?”
Mickey gives a sly smile.
“You didn’t even tell her, did you?”
“Maddie and I have an agreement that we will, when the opportunity presents itself, live large. Inherent in that agreement is an obligation on my part to occasionally surprise the hell out of her. She’s in London this week, after which I’m supposed to meet her in San Francisco for Otello. Imagine her surprise when her husband pulls up in the family limo.”
“You’re an evil genius.”
“‘Bout time you figured that out.”
They’re headed southwest on 81 toward Knoxville, Tennessee, having spent the night in Bristol, Virginia. The road takes a sudden sweep to the right, crossing over a river. Mickey pulls into a turnout.
“How’s our patient?”
Skye peers into the back. “Snoozing, as ever.”
“I’m working on a twenty-year memory, but I seem to recall that the next ten miles are fairly incredible. Why don’t you prop her up so she can see?”
“I don’t know,” says Skye. “I hate to wake her up.”
“Skye. Our entire mission is to wake her up. Stop being so nice. Is an alarm clock nice?”
“But if the alarm clock doesn’t do its job, you’re screwed.”
“So. Do your job.”
Skye tightropes into the back, where they have fitted the Caddy’s spacious interior with a small mattress. He kisses Rachel into the shades-half-drawn stare that passes for wakefulness, then pulls her up to the bench seat. After belting her in, he gives Mickey the high sign.
The road enters a narrow canyon, framed by walls of blue rock, and snakes back and forth over the river. The water runs like glass through the channels, simmers along the shallows, and boils white over the rockfalls. Skye cradles Rachel with her face toward the window, in the hope that some of it will get through.
He manages to get Rachel interested enough in St. Louis to kneel on the mattress and see the Arch, but soon she’s back to horizontal. They call it a day in Columbia, Missouri, at an intriguing hotel called Samuel’s Inn. The namesake turns out to be Clemens – the Mark Twain Forest is just out of town. The exterior is full-on log cabin, and the lobby centers on a fireplace fashioned from beige river rocks. The opposite wall features the taxidermied head of every imaginable North American mammal, including a wolf, a bison and a grizzly.
Mickey handles the arrangements while Skye sits with Rachel on a cowhide couch. Getting her to their room is surprisingly easy, no worse than propping up a drunk. She quickly disrobes and heads for the clawfoot tub.
Skye settles into a burgundy leather armchair to continue the Gershwin biography (the Girl Crazy pit band included future stars Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey). He turns the page to find handwriting. His initial response is anger – who would mark up such a beautiful book? But then he spots the vandal’s signature: Gershwin. Followed by three measures of handwritten music.
“Holy motherfucking shit.” He phones Mickey.
“I’m sorry. The chauffeur has retired for the evening.”
“Mickey. Seriously. I have got to show you something.”
“Okay. Lobby, ten minutes?”
Mickey arrives with two beers. Skye waits on the cowhide couch, like a hen sitting on a golden egg.
Skye shows him the cover of the book. “Biography of Gershwin, a gift from my zombie girlfriend. Published 1931. Could you please set down that beer?”
“Sure.” He takes a sip and sets his bottle on the coffee table. Skye opens the book and hands it over. He watches as Mickey’s eyes scroll the page and get big.
“Jesus Mary fucking Magdalene.”
“‘Dearest Emily: Cannot thank you enough for your constant encouragement and inspired library services. You are an angel. Cheers.’ George freakin’ Gershwin. Where the hell did she get this?”
“A bookstore in Alphabet City. Any idea what the music’s about?”
“Holy crap. Well, there’s a way to find out. Hold this.” He hands him the book, takes a swallow of beer, sets down the bottle, takes back the book and heads for a upright piano in the corner.
“I forage.” He sets the book on the music holder and feels around for the notes, throwing out the bad ones, starting over, a half, pair of triplets, a series of tied eighths descending in an offbeat staircase. Finally, he runs off all three measures at a steady clip and smiles.
Skye taps a hand on his temple. “God! I totally know that. What is that?”
“That,” says Mickey, “is the opening theme to Rhapsody in Blue.”
They finish their beers and try to have a casual chat, but the book sits there, glaring at them.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” says Mickey, “we can find a suitable holding case.”
Skye returns to the room. Rachel lies on the bed, looking much more peaceful than in her daytime haze. He takes a ring of her hair and runs it around his thumb.
“Darling, that book you gave me is much more than you imagined.”
Her long, slow breath fills the room.
“Good night, Rachel. I know it’s hard, but I hope you come back someday.”
He turns off the light and tries to visualize sleeping. The book glows white on the nightstand.
Photo by MJV