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Persons of Substance

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Winter came in cold this year; this December hadn’t seen last year’s early snowstorms, but the tile in his kitchen chills William’s feet all the same. The room is dark, lit only by the small light above the stove as he shuffles across to the coffeemaker and pushes the buttons of his morning. Anita had given him a fancy programmable machine for Christmas last year, and the graduate students had in turn appreciated the contribution to their student lounge, but he still likes the discipline of dragging your ass out of bed, the muscle memory of a water-beans-filter routine, and what passes for rigor in the hours around dawn.

He braces himself against the edge of the sink, stretching into the morning. Getting old sucks, no shit, but being 52 means he’s basically still in his 40s, with the exception of about 20 minutes every morning when he could swear he’s 65, and every time he hears the opening chords of a song he knows he’s going to be listening to over and over, when he still feels 15. Craning his neck to see the streetlight outside the window, silhouetted there he sees it – the busy whirling of the first flakes of winter. It’s been so cold that the snow is sticking, and there’s already a light layer of white across the pavement.

He groans; he has a final to administer at around noon, and just 48 hours to get the grades in after that, so it’s not even worth sending somebody else to proctor the exam. DC can’t handle snow for shit, it’s true, and he’d better figure out how much is coming so he knows how early he has to leave the house.

He may not care about a high-end coffee maker, but there’s a very nice radio and iPod dock sitting on his kitchen windowsill; he flips it on as he drags the carafe to the sink and catches just the tail end of a segment of Morning Edition before it moves into the measured piano and quiet, sleepy voice of Garrison Keillor. He leans against the sink and stares out the window and into the chaos of streetlight-on-snow, not really listening to the story or the hissing of the coffee machine, just waiting for the interlude to pass so the morning can begin in full. And then he hears,

It’s the birthday of Lester Bangs, born in Escondido, California, 1948, who wrote for Rolling Stone, Creem Magazine, Village Voice, an early rock critic. Died of a drug overdose in 1982, he was just 33. Lester Bangs, who said, ‘the first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious’.

The radio drones on with words about Sir Francis Drake and his failed exploration, a poem about Sandy Koufax. The voice is its own music, full of melancholy and remembrance, and it falls into the quiet kitchen, each syllable seeping into the darkness like mood music.

Lester had been hanging around the back of his mind anyway; Polexia had shot him one of her rare and characteristically brief emails from London when she was booking the afterparty for the Cage Against the Machine recording session and he’d replied simply with Lester’s words from over 35 years ago: 99% of what passes for rock-n-roll these days… silence is more compelling. Listen to Lester; Lester is never wrong.

That was bullshit, of course, because Lester had been dead for a long time and he had been wrong all the time; it was just that Lester had been wrong with such style and vigor that it hardly mattered because he had always been worth listening to. And at least it was something to say, a way to bring a smile to someone who had been in and out of his life (and, it was only fair to admit, his bed) for 30 years, the first woman he’d ever seen gently backlit as she rocked over him – luminescent, transcendent, incendiary.

Ironically, William had been in Morocco with Penny when Lester died. The trip hadn’t been all that he’d hoped for when he was 15 but so few things were, really. He had just finished his last final exam in college and Penny (it hadn’t ever really mattered what her parents called her; she was always, and still is, his lucky Penny) had appeared in Berkeley like a vision from his misspent youth, her New Romantic clothing combining with her loose hair and minimal makeup to make her into something like a grownup fairy. They’d been gone for two weeks and had laughed and eaten and danced and gotten a little too stoned on killer hash. They’d kissed for long, long hours and that was the week he finally let it go, the week he let himself just love her without needing to keep her. They’d finally come back to the States because his mother had gotten to Penny and they were all determined to actually see him graduate this time. During a brief stop at JFK before connecting to SFO he’d picked up a copy of the Village Voice and found Robert Christgau’s article, a keening and keenly written mournful piece of an obituary. Penny held his hand as his heart broke, holding him up like he’d cared for her when Sapphire had died a few years earlier. Drugs had been a gift to so many, and they were taking just as many away.

He’d thought of Lester often during his few years covering Seattle just after the 80s turned into the 90s; he would have found grunge hilarious and Kurt Cobain would have broken his soft and expansive heart all over again. The next time the decade turned he’d found himself channeling Lester after a few too many glasses of wine at an industry party, incensed by American Idol and the commodification of talent and the loss of all that glorious reckless abandon. But for the most part, William didn’t reach into his memory for Lester’s guidance once he realized that he was older than Lester had ever lived to be, and since he’d joined the journalism faculty he barely thought of him at all; this wasn’t the life Lester had mentored him for, this was something Lester could have never imagined. Lester had never had to imagine anything beyond his early 30s, after all.

Penny is living just outside Portland on a farm and vineyard, eternally hosting a farflung network of friends and artists and musicians who go off the radar for months and then turn up for a few weeks of sleep and fresh eggs and hot showers. Penny still knows everybody, she just knows herself better now too, likes herself better.

He pulls his phone from the radio dock and types out a message to her: Radio mention of my old mentor. The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious. First sign that life isn’t art? It’s still the middle of the night there and she’ll be curled up against her solid younger husband, hair strewn across the pillow and dogs at her feet, but he knows her need for connection with people, with the world, and he knows from long history that she’ll be checking her messages as soon as she’s awake; he knows nobody of their generation who’d taken to this kind of technology the way she had. She has people everywhere, she always has, and this kind of gentle tether suits her.

He’d spent last New Year’s with them and their funny patched-together family, sitting around a huge bonfire and drinking homemade Pinot noir. He’d picked out chords on a guitar as he watched Penny sway around her seated husband, her hips and bosom a bit thicker than they had once been but still used to great effect, a wine bottle in one hand, singing Mr Farmer let me watch your crops, Mr Farmer let me water your crops and dragging her hand through her man's hair while he grinned up at her. William was so glad to still know her and he would always be a little bit in love with her, but more than that, he was happy for her. Russell sat next to him, grizzled and grayed, and their eyes met with a small smile as Russell passed him a bottle of wine. It was funny to think of all that had passed between the three of them, the way Penny and Russell both had been loved and fretted over by his mother in the years before she’d died, the way he and Russell both had loved and been loved by Penny. They were made brothers by these two women, so very different but both with such incredible capacity for love. Russell’s buried two old bandmates and passed through two more wives on the way to settling into his approaching old age with a kind of gently happy turned-in grace; he’s difficult to get on the phone and has never had an email account, and it’s only serendipity that has the two of them turning up here at the farm in the same week.

Russell still doesn’t talk easily about himself, but William knows that he and Jeff are still in a kind of touch; Jeff’s work with the business end of the music industry somehow seems to have helped their long friendship, if only by allowing them to finally put their collective finger on their differences. Jeff makes the trip out to Russell’s house in Napa when he feels a need to reconnect with art and passion, because Russell is still the artist, only now it’s photography and painting he’s selling and his music belongs just to himself again. He loves it all the more to have it back. He’d finally taught William to play guitar 15 years ago while they were sitting vigil at his mother’s bedside and when his graduate students ask him where he learned his teaching style, playful and gruff and passionate, he never knows what to say besides, my family. He’d had so many teachers, all of them brilliant. He only hoped he could do half as well.

The radio finally obliges him with a weather report; the snow should be ending within the hour and it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be too intense. This is an enormous relief, and William shakes off the fugue with the first cup of coffee, returning his phone to its cradle. He showers, he gathers his gradebook and the last batch of clip files he needs to go through - he might as well make a grading marathon of the day. He steps out into the crisp cold of a snowy day just as a gust of wind blows through, blowing snow off the trees and his roof, and it drifts down around his ears and shoulders, like feathers in his memory. He pauses on the steps as his phone buzzes in his pocket, and juggles everything in his hands to pull it out.

Speak for yourself, William. My life IS my art, and I couldn’t be more serious about either one. Come back out for the new year, dance at my fire, and we’ll talk about assumptions.