12:30 a.m. on the morning of September 16th, after the
fastest drive from St. Louis to New Orleans in history.
Dear Salon readers, Internet freaks, computer hackers, listeners, readers, ships passing in the night.
And so we are home again. I sit in this upstairs room, and out of the magnificent speakers to my right pour the liquid brilliance of Leila Josefowicz's Tchaikovsky violin concerto in D. Having come down from Montreal and Ontario, through New York, Chicago, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, I am at last at my own keyboard surrounded in this vast 15-by-15-foot room with all the vivid accouterments of madness.
On a high bookshelf to my far right stands a glass-eyed statue of Our Lady of Fatima with an exquisitely modeled face -- purchased from the Carmelite Sisters at their recent auction. Also from this auction there is the Crucified Christ on his black cross, high above me, another lovingly fashioned religious symbol for which the modern day church seems to have no passionate use.
On the wall, I see my scribble: MUSIC IS AN ATTEMPT TO ORGANIZE MADNESS written by me in black Sharpie some months ago. In another place high on the wall I've written the words MORRIGAN ORACULAR to remind me of the Mayfair Witch books and
that they must continue. The word BABYLON is in heavy black on the middle of the white, wooden closet door, surrounded on all sides by other hand-written words, some merely beautiful such as LAMENTABLE or BASALT or LAVA or VESTIGE. In other places there are obsolete messages to myself which will never be removed, probably.
"Azriel lets you sing again as with Louis. A new tongue but encompassing much more language and poetry." On what night, I wonder, did I write that note to myself? Above the makeup station to my left, a dressing table with naked bulb lights like something in the back stage of a theater, are the words TO LOVE AND TO WORK, printed there by me in the familiar black ink in a moment of the most desperate despair.
On and on it goes, all around the room. "SAVE HIS SOUL" is written on the edge of the computer monitor, another rambling from early morning hours when I was too tired to write further. The violin is racing. The music is so rich it raises my pulse. It raises my courage. It makes me fierce, stubborn and impatient with anything other than the best from myself, the best I can give, the best I can say, the best I can smile, walk, talk, live, give and ultimately die.
Leila Josefowitz and also Alison Krause, the bluegrass singer and fiddler, keep me alive. It's too personal for me to ever exchange words with them. They live for me in the CDs and I will send roses, roses, roses -- beautiful echo of the song in Brazil that my guide sang to me as we drove in the Atlantic rain forest -- roses, roses, roses.
And then beside me on the desk, the huge bronze head of Beethoven stands, demanding excellence. Demanding it. As if he'll come alive like the Golem and curse me with more versatility and venom than Poe's raven.
There are white lilies in the room. My angels -- my secretaries, guardians and helpers -- have put these here for me, a lovely bouquet of Casablanca lilies, the ones I most love. When my best friend John Preston was dying, I sent Casablanca lilies week after week, three, four times a week, ordering my own for my desk so that we could look at these lilies together, though he was dying in Portland, Maine and I was staring in silence at these fragile supposedly meaningless flowers, weeping inside for a loss that was going to be too devastating to contemplate. John died.
But any Casablanca lily belongs to both of us. Its scent is for both of us. His handsome pictures are scattered about my room, with the delicate bisque statue of Jesus bought from the nuns, and countless wigs that I have abandoned in favor of letting my gray and dark hair grow out again until it becomes the sloppy mane of the "raving slut who tends the till" to quote Yeats' poem.
Bookcases rise from the floor to the ceiling, full of books on New Age
religion, out of body experiences, the archaeology of ancient Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, India, Biblical studies, studies of the Hasidim, every conceivable translation of the scriptures that I can find in English, books on nihilism, existentialism, Greek art and history, Cassiodorus, Boethius, ghosts and "how to be thin."
I'm not thin. I can't be thin. It is a private horror and does not bear
mentioning again. It just is, like this music surging out of Leila's violin, these intestines of the soul pulsing and contracting invisibly as she plays.
"Gertrude Stein" says a book high on the wall. My husband Stan's most beautiful abstract painting looms over the marble fireplace. Black roses, white roses, a poster of the beloved Arnie (Schwarzenegger) smiling at me, his arms folded and written over him in ink, my familiar thought spill: Paganini, origin of Lestat, a simple code message to me to remember that my 12-year-old crush on a legendary violinist long dead and defamed as diabolic probably led to my image of the man in the black cape, the man with the blond hair, Lestat with the wall of my husband, my husband's delicate hands, my husband's youthful mop of blond hair, my husband's cold blue eyes, his perfect mouth, all these details which have changed with age to make of Stan an elegant man with thoughtful, brilliant eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and mustache and a somewhat forbidding manner that still paralyzes me with love. Tall, imperially slim, as they said of Richard Cory. Violin fingers. The arms around me at home in bed.
My son has gone to college. There is no one to say, "Turn down the music." There is no one. But my son is 18 years old and brilliant and he is in paradise at school, making friends, trying out for a new play by a brilliant contemporary playwright, living life to the fullest as he has always done, and I miss him, but beyond that is sweet relief. He's made it to that New England college; he has his chance. He is a train ride from Broadway; he will make it. He has lived a life I only dreamed of. And he continues to do so.
I have my own dreams fulfilled. St. Elizabeth's Orphanage was spotless and shimmering tonight, as the big golden SERVANT OF THE BONES BOOK TOUR bus backed into the rear yard. Tony the driver is a genius. And as I walked through the ball room, the hallways, I had the thrill of showing my driver and his lovely wife to a mad guest room hung with burgundy velvet and equipped with a Jacuzzi, its walls brick, its ceiling made of raw beams, its television gigantic, its
bed a high-backed half tester. Ah, I hope they are happy there now.
I walked through the brick palazzo that Anne Rice and Nancy Rice and Karen O'Brien built, noting everywhere the dolls, the religious statues, the hundreds of chairs ordered from Europe, the saints on their pedestals (we collect and save saints). The chapel is a pure white concert hall and a place of prayer. It awaits another tenor like my Gerald Stroup who sang so beautifully there this spring. It awaits Leila Josefowitz if I can afford her and lure her here and hire the orchestra to surround her, so that I can sit there and see this miracle, see it happen, this alchemy called music, this universal language of everything worth being shared.
Coming home I step into the town house where the entire Mayfair family was born, like so many spiders hatched from a shining web inside my mind. I look at the soaring mirrors that have been here since 1867. I climb the 29 steps of red carpet to my bedroom and look at the gold draperies hanging from the ceiling, the gold draped four poster. I sigh. I think I am home, I am in some ongoing surround of heartrending, beautiful and lyrical extravagance. I am home.
Since August 2nd, we have been signing books, meeting readers, sleeping in luxurious Ritz Carlton bedrooms, begging for room service at 2 a.m. after saying good-bye to crowds of 2000 or more. We have lain back in the giant bus, as green fields pass us, comfortable in the soft velveteen upholstery and abundant pillows, listening to the deep, unmistakable and untoppable voice of Elvis Presley singing "Protestant" gospel music that I never had the pleasure of knowing as an old guard Catholic. Elvis sings and I hear my father's voice, for there was one song my father, a Catholic, did sing. "And
he walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own."
I am nobody's own. I am loved. I am blessed. I have books to write that cause me to lie awake on the pillow with my eyes like saucers, thinking of grandeur and florid verse, of heroic, unbearable agony without making it agony for the reader. I love my husband, my son, my house, my angels, my readers, my bus driver, my bodyguards, my beloved friends.
But I'm nobody's own. Nobody's own. When I watched my Uncle Teddy die, though the room was full of people, I knew that he died alone. My father, with five of us in the room, died alone.
And some states of awareness have the crystalline clarity of death. We are alone. We write so that we are not alone. But we are alone.
And being alone, I suddenly realize that everything I love belongs to me, my Beethoven who can never give me anything but ecstasy, my magnificent violinists, my capacity to stare at an ordinary street and see it as if it were a vision from heaven, a violet sky, plunged into twisted branches, houses dim with evening lights, the grass singing, the sky singing -- you know all the Rice cliches...It is all mine. It is mine to love.
This is wealth. To find in this song -- Leila is now playing Sibelius -- a coherent statement, to have the ear to let those notes go deeper and deeper. And naturally I think of Keats dying in his room at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, where I have only lately been, Keats dying of consumption, asking for the epitaph: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.
Never knowing, never knowing, never knowing at all that all the world would one day know his Odes, his rhythms, his utter surrender to the Nightingale and the Grecian Urn. "Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth." We are alone.
It was hot the day I went down the Spanish Steps to look at his house. This was three months ago. I drifted down all those white steps in Rome, and all around were the young and old, the characteristic Roman and European life outdoors, leaving its inevitable stains and wear and tear, but making of this grand public place a forum, though the ruins of an older Forum lie only a few
Rome. I brought it home with me. I brought it home with Venice and Florence, and then I set out to go on my book tour. I set out, to sit down at 40 different bookstore tables around the nation and answer questions: why do you write, what does it mean, what do you think about God, why do your readers line up like this for you, what is it about, what do you say to critics, did you see what they said on the nightly news, who are you?
With every question, the answer slips ever more surely into chaos, or perhaps I should say a deepening silence.
"We hold these truths to be self evident."
That sentence haunts me. We hold these truths to be self evident that writers can be mad, they can go to extremes, they can tell bizarre stories they can expose the heart of vampires, fairies, witches and take from that fantastic blood the means to shape some immutable truth -- and somebody, somebody in Kansas City or Oklahoma City or Little Rock will get it! Not just somebody, but somebody's son and somebody's friend, and somebody's mother, and on and on down the line. And books are piled so high they look like gold bricks made to build a wall in Babylon.
Am I alive? Is this a dream? Did this happen? That a child of porcelain beauty died before my eyes, all life escaping her small, drug-battered body, until there was nothing left but the puffed cheek, soft sleeping image of a child who had moments before been part of the human race and now a body soon to be prepared for an autopsy and frozen before it was sent to the funeral home in Berkeley -- that that could happen, and that I could be here in New Orleans, with the oaks surrounding my house like so many tender protectors, with the lawns green and moist, and that "Servant of the Bones" could be still up there, up there, up there, whatever that means, up there... that I could have come home tonight from the big tour bus in my long, black limo, drinking a cold Tab and letting the warm, wet air flow into the open window, that my house was there
glittering in the unfriendly blackness of the Garden District, that all this could be true... it is a tale which must signify something, which is entitled to its sound and fury. And in those dusty tomorrows there will be discoveries that will reconcile forever pain and beauty. We have to believe that! We have to!
The man with AIDS takes the book from my hand. I have signed it for him. He is almost too weak to remove it from the table. He says, "I will not live till December. One of my last wishes was to meet you." I am stunned and humbled, and the crowd waits behind him, two, three, maybe five hundred people. There is time to touch his hand and say, "You're brave." In his eyes is an acceptance the Germans calls Entsagung. He knows perhaps that he is immortal or will be at least until he closes his eyes.
This is my life. The girl with the tears in her eyes because I touched her book. The evil smiling man who said repeatedly, "How much did they pay you to say Tom Cruise was a good actor," as I repeatedly said, "Are you serious?" and then rose to hit him in the face but didn't. A verbal remark can not justify a physical assault. Yet I throw the book at him. And it is only a book.
Ministers come to our signings in Kansas. A man tells me he has gone back to church because he read my novel "Memnoch." A young girl breaks into tears giving me a bouquet of roses. Bored people smile as they accept the book, explaining they know nothing of my work, it's for someone at the office, but this line sure has made them curious.
And in the background, the crowd laughs and Alison Krause sings from a CD "I'd rather be in the palm of your hand" and I can't catch the next line but it's okay because I know it, and in the House of Blues all those drunks made so much damn noise I wanted to fire a gun through the ceiling.
What the hell is all of this? I know nothing common anymore, I know nothing pale, I know nothing halfway. Sixteen books she wrote, they say, 17 books, she wrote, they say. I don't know.
I only know it's not enough. Not nearly enough. Will never be enough. I have to write more, have to hone in on the pain, have to take the supernatural to its limits, to talk to God whom I take so for granted and of whom I have such total awe that He Has No Name, my God. My God is the voice that says, "Be unkind to that man over there and you will create a hell for yourself; you will know peace only if you reach out your hand."
Or am I the one saying those words? There is sufficient reason to question.
And "NBC Nightly News" vilifies me in my hometown, tells lies in a lead story, makes it sound like we're collecting church property against the collective will of a church parish, when nothing could be farther from the truth, nothing!
So what. No one really takes note. Smiling, the readers come through the line and say, "We love the reconstruction you're doing in New Orleans. Save those churches!" or "Saw that piece on NBC, wow, that was great, saw you climbing in and out of that coffin."
The tallest, biggest, hairiest men I have ever seen in my life live in the middle of the country. They live in Tennessee and in Oklahoma City, they live in Little Rock, they live in Lexington. THEY READ THE BOOKS. They take them to the Persian Gulf. They take them out to sea. The women take them home with the babies, and the drug counselors give them to their patients, and somebody asks me why and how can I tell anyone!
This is gratitude talking, don't you understand, this is bewilderment, this is the time of the night when nothing seems real but the violin, the violin storming at me, and the power of my fingers to move, some rote method learned years ago in high school to make my words on a blue screen almost as fast as I think of them.
Tell me this. Why in the Bible Belt -- in Oklahoma and in Tennessee -- why there do the reporters ask the most spiritual questions of me about my work? Why do they talk of God so directly and innocently? Why do they accept these novels as theological? Why there? I write pornography. I am a Democrat. I make no concessions. Why there? Why there, when the cynics at the New York Times dismiss the novels as though they were trash (alas, ladies and gentleman, would I mention them if they were not the newspaper "of record?" I did not read the review.)
Why is that -- after 2,000 people have gone home, after the room service table with all its heavy silver plate has been shoved out into a carpeted hallway, when the suite is stretched out in abundant damask and filmy, white curtains -- why then the crystalline loneliness, the sudden utter desolation, the sudden bitter desire to go out barefoot into the night and walk and walk as Lestat would walk or Louis would walk and find one human being with whom to be intimate, one human being with which to wrap arms in the dull,
glossing light of a beer joint as a juke box sings Johnny Cash or Alison, to seek that man perhaps on a dark street, and why the need to cling to the image, cling to it, in precious few hours of silence that precede the next bus trip, the next city, the next store, the next attempt to sign for six or seven to eight hours, to break a record, to astonish everyone?
What is that loneliness, that desperate incredible irrational moment in which I put my arms around my assistant Sue and say, "I am a good person, isn't that so?" And she being so perfectly good, through and through with eyes that know nothing of harm or meanness, or pride, or cowardice, smiles and tells me that I am. Why all that?
Is that the narcissism of rock musicians? Is that the narcissism and avarice of performers? Two thousand people and silence.
We're home for two days. Two days. As the bus speeds towards New Orleans earlier this evening, we watched "Braveheart." I have already called Mel Gibson's office and asked him to meet with me, briefly please, so that I can personally ask him to direct "The Witching Hour" from the script that is written by me and owned by Warner Brothers.
By tomorrow maybe I'll know that he's blown me off, ducked it, or said in some nice way, not interested. But for now, on the bus, it's "Braveheart," it's this heated masterpiece of love and honor and morality, this bloody and beautifully executed declaration that courage and freedom and goodness are important. The editing is genius; the script is brilliant; and at the core is the ever changing expression of Mel Gibson, director, star, hero, living up to the
simplicity, the humor, the utter zeal of Sir William Wallace.
Robert the Bruce betrays him. William Wallace's heart is broken. It's
broken. And there is romance and there is pain to come. And any of us of Scotch and Irish descent know who won the war anyway, we know what happened to our ancestors in kilts, to their "forbidden bagpipe" songs, and to their "forbidden plaids." We know about the centuries after Wallace, when the English will come and clear the Highlands, when there will be little left of the magnificent Highland spirit but the castles of the rich and those tenderhearted romantic scholars devoted utterly to the history of the clans. The fiery cross in the glenn is doomed. Sir William Wallace is doomed.
What is triumphant is the film -- that Mel Gibson made it, that we see the castle gates battered in, that we see the flail fly through the air, that we hear Gibson's final cry for freedom, and that the whole is so well wrought that there is not one bad line, one bad note, one bad face, one faulty moment. How can a movie be so nearly perfect, so rich, so full?
So I have called his office. So I will go out there. So I will ask, "Mr. Gibson, turn this genius on my work, please. Please."
Will he receive me for five minutes? Has he read the script which has been in his office for months? Is he justifiably in love with some other project and too short of time to say "hello"?
I'll know... in a matter of days. I'll know. I'll be out in LaLa land
anyway. I'll be doing "Politically Incorrect" and whatever other TV show my publisher arranges. I fear nothing anymore. I'd host "Saturday Night Live" in the wink of an eye if they wanted me, but why should they?
What kills shyness? Fame? Money? No, none of those things. What kills shyness is wisdom and despair. What kills shyness is a sudden realization that the fragmentation of the rising sun is utterly inexplicable, that liars will meet their own justice, that life is worth it, and maybe this is all you can know, all you know on this side, life's worth it, worth it, worth it, worth it,
The violin surges and rips. Did they poison the author of this concerto, my beloved Russian Tchaikovsky? Did they? Is such a horror possible that they killed the fount of this music, because the genius fell in love with a nephew of the Czar. Ah, could that really be true? All that remains of those "honorable" men now is dust and -- out of this machine rises the voice of the violin in such a monumental passion of silken perfection that one could dream of a coma, of a darkness into which nothing reached but the eloquence of music.
I am blessed. The books sell. The readers call. I love, I love, I love each and every hand I touch. God gave me that, to love, to wear the gold lamé and the gold tennis shoes and not care what I looked like, but think only of those precious moments with the readers, to look into their eyes and learn, "What did this book mean to you?" and to accept the weary wave of
the hand, the stony eye, or the sudden passionate explosion.
And then the darkness is total.
There is only this room. There is only Leila's climbing violin. We are
alone. We are alone.
There is no jukebox playing in a beer joint nearby where I can dance with a large man with a hairy chest and arms, and then kiss him on the cheek.
I love my husband, I love his paintings, I love his poems, I love his wild unique face with its burning eyes, and firm jaw and beautifully shaped pink lips, I love him. But it is like loving the North wind. It is like loving the river. It is like loving the Oak Tree. Thirty-five years it will be soon, a love so strong, it makes a mockery of any bond, perhaps, even those of blood. It is so steeped in blood and the shared joys, the continuity of understanding that embraces three decades. Love.
Alas, it is just a matter of loving one who is as strong -- and alone
perhaps -- as I am.
And then the thought: I too will die. I too will be in the earth, and these books, what will they mean then? Will some one cherish a phrase the way I cherish the deep expression in the Rembrandt self portrait, the look of Christ in Durer's self portrait, the riotous violence of Tintoretto's Crucifixion, a wall of fuming color in which Golgotha seems a place of madness as well as sanctified sacrifice. Flesh, why did God become flesh. For what?
We couldn't have sinned that much. That's stupid! Against whom? Why? Why did God come down here? Why do I have to, absolutely have to seek for God in every human being I meet? I will, I vow it. I'll fail, and again I will, and I vow it. I'll be 55 soon. God is there, here, everywhere. God is in every face. God lies behind any worthy obligation.
Good night, Salon. I fly to LA in two days. Wearing gold lamé to Hollywood, I fear no one. I am simply a flash of gold passing through the lobby of the Four Seasons. I am nothing. I am a mind with
gray and dark hair, and a body draped in gold because it shimmers...
And all that shimmers, shimmers. That much is certain.
Is God love? I have a terror that He is not love at all. I fear that He is
beauty. And that is why this violin carries me near to him, and that is why the eyes of the young girl reader who cries are so poignant, because God is beauty and we are the ones trying to get his attention and beg him please, please, please, be kind. We are the ones who understand what it means -- all of it. God is an eruption in the blood red of the rose, and the roar of the waterfall. We are the ones...maybe.
Good night, Salon. I will answer your questions tomorrow. Or later today. The music and I will now retire and leave the long dark house on First and Chestnut to the nightmen and the dogs who roam the clean clipped grass, and the silent streets of the Garden District where no one walks in the dark alone anymore, save the lone intrepid with a dog on a leash. I leave, and the New Orleans dreams wait, the dreams that have been gathering in my room since I left and are waiting to descend.
In memoriam: My beloved friend Austin Everett, young, talented, beautiful, died of AIDS on August 5th at 5:30 a.m. Same as my daughter Michele so many years ago on August 5th at 5:30 at night. Austin, I have your messages. The readers came with dreamcatchers like the ones you gave me, they came through with the Indian feathers like the dolls you gave me, they came through over and over telling me you had gone into the light.
2:55 a.m -- Alone. And Christ dies and dies and dies on the crosses in this room. And I shall carry them. At least for a while.