Friday, April 19, 2013

The Case of Bob Dylan's Harmonicas

The original story follows, but I am just hijacking the start here for some absurd thing I'm doing in which you click here

Anyway, here's the story. Apologies to non clickers.

The Case of Bob Dylan's Harmonicas

A mere week and a half into it and I was ready to do the unholy: complain about summer vacation. My usually odd and hopping near downtown neighborhood was laid quiet by friends' ailments, family trips to Duluth, and journeys to fossil camp. If that wasn't enough, it was miserably drizzling, and my mighty little sister was even crabbier than me. When an enormous moving van pulled up in front of the derelict mansion across the street I was eager, no, desperate, for diversion.

I got a whole lot more than that, but I'm not complaining.

I sat in an upstairs bay window and watched, slack jawed for an hour, as a tiny, ferocious, blue-haired girl ordered around two fully grown moving guys until they were on the brink of collapse (and possibly tears) and the full contents of the truck had been emptied into the ruin of a house. She paid them, in cash, from a wad of bills the size of my head, went inside, and closed the door, alone. The men got in the truck and left.

Phoebe, my aforementioned sister, had joined me for the last half of this spectacle, and at the cessation of activity we rose as one and went to meet our neighbor.

I confess that as we waited at the door of the crumbling mansion for an answer to our knocking I was consoled by the protective presence of my sister. Yes, my sister, at a mere 11 years of age, is two years younger than me. Yes, she is also several inches smaller than I. But through some odd genetic twist she has the strength of, well, maybe not an NFL lineman, but definitely one of those moving guys. Actually I'd put it right around the level of a biker. This comforted me because there was something about the coiled energy of the blue-haired girl that made me fear for my life. Of course, I was in no real physical danger. My peril was of an entirely different, and far greater, nature.

“We should have a plate of cookies.” My little sister commented.

The door was opened by a small girl. Yes, she was small, smaller even than my sister, but even at that first encounter it was hard to think of her as small. She had blue hair which I have since come to believe is naturally so. Confidence steamed off of her like radiation off a broken nuclear plant. I received my first little lesson in how completely justified her confidence is.

“Henry, Phoebe” She said in greeting “Come in. Did you bring any cookies?”

“Ach, I knew it!” Exclaimed my sister.

“But you know our names.” I said.

“Oh, I know everything.” She said dismissively. Then she sort of looked us up and down. “You I know about.” She said to my sister, not without warmth. “Do you write?” She asked me.

“I thought you knew everything.” I replied placidly.

She almost smiled. “You'll do.” She said. “I need an Archie.”

“What's an Archie?” Asked my sister.

“Archie Griffin. Assistant to the fictional detective Nero Wolfe. A chronicler. A Watson.”

I got the Watson thing. He was the guy who wrote about Sherlock Holmes. “So you're a detective?” I asked, but I didn't keep the skepticism out of my voice so she didn't really answer. She just sort of hummed.

“What's your name?” I asked

“Wiki Magenta.”

“You on your own?”

“Outside my wits, my bodyguard, and my Archie...”

“But you're how old?” I asked, truly mystified.

She just looked at me levelly. “Help me unpack.” She said. And that was that.

Unpacking was surprisingly fascinating. The delivered furniture consisted entirely of shelving and there was plenty of it arrayed neatly along all the walls of the huge living room. Everything else was boxes, and most of them were filled with strange and mysterious stuff. One of the first boxes I opened had stacks of really old baseball cards, I mean huge stars from the 50's and 60's: Koufax, Mantle, Ted Williams, Willie Mays. They looked old and everything, but oddly they were all in sets of twenty.

“These are worth a fortune.” I said. I got that non committal hum for an answer.

Phoebe opened a box of fossilized skulls which was, well, amazing, but I found myself fascinated by two very well packed ceramic cups. They looked ancient and mysterious, but they were colorful and looked almost like they were covered in cartoons. Wiki noticed my interest.

“Inca Civilization. Late 1400's I think” She said.

I whistled and shelved it carefully. Then I had a thought. “How much of this stuff is for real?”

Wiki looked sideways at me. “Good.” she said with satisfaction. Then she went back to what she was doing. Just when I'd given up on getting an answer she replied without looking. “About half.”

Phoebe and I unpacked and Wiki occasionally answered our questions but otherwise did not help. She was busy on two laptops she had set up, and two cell phones. From what I could tell she was ordering; workmen, furniture, appliances, food, all with such great urgency and force that many of her calls ended with something like “Good, then I'll expect that by 5:00 today. My daughter will receive it.” Wiki didn't exactly sound like an adult, but I could see how on the phone no one could possibly believe anyone who talked like her could be anything but.

“Are you terribly rich?” My sister asked at one point. Wiki didn't answer, but I was already beginning to learn how inquiries worked with Wiki: Reasonable questions Wiki wanted to answer were usually answered with at least some measure of promptness, reasonable questions she didn't much want to answer were only answered if they were very reasonable and after you'd given up all hope of their ever being answered. Good luck with anything else. She did not seem to ascribe to the “There are no stupid questions” school.

Two large refrigerators arrived, an electrician, and a cleaning crew that was really a crew. There were seven of them. Having long ago given up hope on two of our questions Wiki answered them both from out of nowhere. “When you're on your own at twelve you need to be as rich as possible.” After a long pause she added darkly “This is not the best world.”

“It looks like there's a bit more to it than money.” I said. Wiki typed for five minutes and then hummed in a way I decided was pleased agreement, but might have had nothing to do with anything.

By seven everyone was gone from Wiki's new house but us. It looked clean but ramshackle and was half furnished with top-of-the-line sorts of things that bore no relation to each other. We invited Wiki over for dinner, but she declined politely, looking a little wistful, and said she'd see us the day after tomorrow at 10 as if we had already made careful plans.

Phoebe and I made sure to keep our Thursday completely clear, not that the world was so much clamoring for us, just, our summer seemed to be developing a lot of focus. My Dad had made some cookies for us to bring (at Phoebe's insistence) and we stood holding them at Wiki's front door at 9:57. We'd both been busy all day Wednesday, me with baseball and Phoebs with soccer, but clearly people had been swarming all over Wiki's house. On the outside the change was low key , but it was also dramatic to anyone whose memory went back a day or two. Nothing about the house seemed derelict anymore. The whole massive thing was freshly painted. It was subtly straightened and little broken bits fixed like they'd never been broken. The ratty yard was landscaped, simply and neatly, mostly grass, but enough full shrubs and hostas and flowers to make it seem complete. The whole look of the place was not so much that of a place that had been completely and professionally repaired, neatened and landscaped, but that of a place that had always been a nice, well-tended and average (large) house.

We rang Wiki's bell to see if it worked. It did. After a few moments we heard a woman call from a distance. “I'll be just a minute.” About 30 seconds later, through a little speaker, the same woman asked “Who's there?”

“It's Henry and Phoebe.” I said. “We're here to see Wiki.”

There was a short delay, then, “My daughter will be down in just a moment.”

Phoebe and I gaped at each other, then waited. Wiki opened the door. She was grinning. “C'mon in.” She said.

“You have a Mother?” Phoebe asked astonished.

“No.” Answered Wiki very plainly. I came very close to asking who the woman was then, but was saved by the sudden sense that letting Phoebe ask any questions if I could help it would always get me farther. I looked around as we walked into the house.

“But who was the woman?” Phoebe asked urgently.

“Oh, we're alone.” Wiki answered confusingly. “So, what do you think of the place?”

“It's paradise.” I said. And it was.

It was nothing like the outside of the house. It had no interest in being nondescript. It seemed entirely concerned with it's own utility and fun. Things still had no relation to one another, but it had all filled in to where there was something almost gleeful about it, busy but neat, full of lush, plush and colorful furniture, screens and computers perched randomly and scattered generously, glassed in refrigerators next to Greek statues and giant, rough-hewn cabinets carved intricately by hand, pool tables, enormous white boards with racks of dry erase markers. I think Phoebe and I would have been happy for weeks just exploring around in there, trying stuff out. But it was not to be.

“I'm glad you like it.” Wiki said, her mouth full of cookie. “Will you call a cab?” And she tossed me a cell phone.

I've never called a cab. I rode in one once to the airport and several times a few years ago on a trip with my parents to New York. I was sorely tempted to ask Wiki for guidance but also really did not want to. She was showing Phoebe something that was making her look astonished. I scrolled through Wiki's saved numbers. Airport Taxis. Excellent. I called it. “I need a cab.” I said to the person who answered.

“Is this a joke.” The person answered.”

“Uh, no.” I replied. “My aunt said call and get a cab. We're at... What's the street number here?” I called out to Wiki.

“2242.” She called back.

“2242.” I continued to the cab company “Groveland Terrace.” And that was that. They were there in less than ten minutes.

As we piled into the back of the cab the driver, a young Somali guy, said “You kids got money? It costs money you know to ride a cab.”

Wiki handed him three twenties and said “4400 Cedar, just north of the 62.”

“I didn't know cabs were so big inside. This is spacious!” Exclaimed my sister bouncing a little on the just slightly mangy backseat.

“What's the plan, Captain?” I asked Wiki.

She glared a bit. “My harmonicas are missing.”

“You play harmonica?” I asked. Even I could see that was not going to score a real answer.

“They're Bob Dylan's harmonicas.”

“I thought you said they were your harmonicas.” I said.

Wiki stared very hard at me. Phoebe stopped bouncing. I stared back. The cab got very quiet. I held up my hands.

“Look,” I said “I am never going to meet anyone a bit like you and this is all fascinating, but if you're not going to be my friend there is no point.”

“Hmmm.” She replied. “First of all, you're the one being all snarky, and, second of all, I have never had a friend.”

“I bet Phoebs would agree to be thrown in in a two-for-one deal. And I'm sorry I'm so snarky. If we can be friends I can be only sort of snarky.”

Wiki smiled a little. Phoebe said sullenly “Me and Wiki are already friends so you can't throw me in.”

“There you have it.” I said to Wiki “You already have a friend, so there's no precedent to break.” I smiled. I put out my hand. “Same side?” I asked.

“Same side.” She answered. We shook and began to experiment with trusting each other a little.

I looked searchingly at her. She looked straight ahead, but talked.

“As you saw, I had a lot of things moved into my new house. A small box of Bob Dylan's harmonicas did not make it. I believe one of the movers, Raymond March, found them irresistible. We are headed to his house.”

The cab pulled up in front of a small neglected looking one story house with sheets hanging in the windows. Wiki told the cab driver to wait for us and we walked to the front door. Wiki seemed to be taking an interest in everything. I wanted to ask questions, but had become careful of them, or noticed how interestingly they sometimes spilled their own answers around Wiki. We knocked.

A skinny blonde man answered the door in a dirty shirt. The smell of stale smoke greeted us, but the man didn't. He just looked.

“Yes, I know we're kids.” Said Wiki by way of introduction.

“Um.” Said the man.

“Is Raymond here?” Wiki sort of drew out the “Raaay” part of the name in a way that signified a slight hint of contempt. This seemed to win over dirty shirt guy because he snickered a bit and managed to vocalize.

“No.” He said.

Well, it didn't win him over that much because that was it.

“Look, Mitch,” Wiki said after the pause “I have a twenty for you if you can let me know where he is and if he has been excited about anything he recently acquired.”

“How do you know my...Who are you?” Mitch stammered out.

“Ray's newly adopted children. Twenty dollars.” Said Wiki flatly.

“Let's see the twenty.”

Wiki held one out in her two hands, not offering, just exhibiting.

“Ray was all hot on some harmonicas he got, a case of old ones he said Dylan played. They looked like crap to me, but what do I know. I don't know where he went, but I have a good guess for another twenty.”

Wiki nodded ascent.

“Positively 4th Street. It's a Dylan club he hangs out at. Boringest place I have ever been in my life.”

Wiki handed Mitch the twenty and started to leave.

“Hey! My other twenty!” Mitch demanded.

“For twenty dollars” Wiki said “I won't tell Ray you told me any of this. Deal?”

Mitch looked angry for half a second, then considered it and resignedly gestured at us to go.

The cab was still there and as we got in Wiki gave an address on 4th Street.

“That was thrilling!” My sister said enthusiastically. I was pretty high on it myself. What seemed deranged when Mitch answered the door now seemed like a very good way to spend a summer day.

“That was awfully nice, Wiki.” I added.

“It was good to have you two with me.” She said to my surprise. “I think our next stop could get even more interesting.”

Our next stop was in a neighborhood near the U. It was full of bookstores, coffeehouses, used clothes stores and restaurants. Our cab let us out at a set of stairs that headed down to ornate doors with a fancy sign over it that said “Positively 4th Street.” Wiki paid off the driver and we headed down.

The doors were closed so we rang the bell. A voice came over a speaker. “Yes, friend.” It said.

“I'm looking for Ray, Ray March.” Wiki announced.

“He might be here,” the voice said “But Positively 4th Street is for Dylan fans only. No exceptions.”

“You've got a lot of nerve.” I said in a nasally Bob Dylanish voice. 'You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend' is the start of the Dylan song “Positively 4th Street.” The speaker voice was silent, but the door buzzed open. Wiki gave me an impressed look and I shrugged humbly and said “My mom's a fan and it's been growing on me lately.”

“Well, well done.” Said Wiki as we stepped into the establishment.

I expected something of a basement dive, but it was actually pretty nice in there. It was a big room with little tables in the middle, an unattended old fashioned bar off the side and what I think was a stage concealed behind a large red velvet curtain. It was all fancy in a wildly out of date way, but not quite run down, just comfortable. The moment we were in we could hear one man's deep voice carrying above everyone else, all rich and professorial.

“Of course he deserves the Nobel prize.” He was expounding, “But it matters not. Caravaggio could do without a Nobel Prize, Mark Twain, Duchamp. Whatever ahhhwards” (he drew the word out disdainfully) “Pride and Prejudice” or “Catcher in the Rye” receive or don't receive they themselves are fixed points. Whole cultures revolve around them. The view faces one way before, another after. The consciousness of peoples alters on them, and because of them “

As this speech carried on the three of us approached across the room. The speaker was a very large fat man dressed in a white suit. He had a gray-blonde goatee he stroked as he pontificated. He sat in a great tall-backed chair that put one instantly in mind of thrones, but the men and one woman gathered around him seemed comfortable and independent. One was starting some kind of argumentative retort to this when we were noticed. The small group fell silent and the big man said “Welcome to our little club. Can I help you in any way?” He was surprisingly respectful and somehow knew to address himself mainly to Wiki. Perhaps like calls to like.

“I'm looking for Raymond March.” Wiki stated simply.

“And what is your relationship with Mr. March?” Asked the man.

“I am Wiki Magenta.” Wiki said and the man raised his eyebrows, but shook her hand and nodded.

“Thurs Gregor.” Thurs said.

“These are my colleagues, Henry and Phoebe.” We exchanged handshakes as Wiki continued.

“In the process of moving my family's belongings I believe Mr. March walked off with some valuable harmonicas of mine.”

“Harmonicas are not generally known to be terribly valuable or expensive instruments, nor ones highly sought after in a used state.” Mr. Gregor said.

“The value in these is less intrinsic and more historical. Bob Dylan played them extensively.”

Mr. Gregor stroked his goatee several times. “I see. Ray!” He called across the room.

A tall thin man in a stetson hat and jean blazer looked up and headed promptly over to our not insignificant group. He had a bag over his shoulder and a beer in his hand. I was thinking I sort of recognized him from my time watching him unload Wiki's stuff. When he noticed Wiki there was what appeared to be a ever so slight interruption in the flow of blood to his body and face, but it passed quickly and he studiously ignored Wiki as he approached.

“Thurs.” He said in greeting, but there was also a wary question in his voice.

“The young lady here claims those harmonicas we discussed belong rightfully to her. Have you a response to such a claim?”

Ray looked with disgust at Wiki. “Man, this is crazy. What kid, you hear me talking to Chris or something during the move?” He turned to Thurs. “I moved for this kid's family, but I never saw the family. There's something weird going on with this kid, but she's just trying to run some kind of con or something. You know I've been collecting for years.” Ray turned back to Wiki. He didn't seem to breathe. “I've been collecting for years, little one. I've seen Dylan over 200 times, had a beer once with Levon Helm. I have Dylan's own copy of the Pat Garrett Billy the Kid script, signed! By him! You're a five year old kid, where are you gonna get Bob Dylan's harmonicas?”

While I wondered what this guy was even talking about Wiki just stared at him. Thurs stared at him. Everyone stared at him so he just continued talking. “Greatest concert of my life! Dylan was on. He was awesome. Visions of Johanna that would blow your mind. He whips out these harmonicas.” Ray reached into what I thought was a laptop bag he was carrying and pulled out a wooden box. He opened it and lifted up an old, sort of crusty looking harmonica with great reverence. Then, moist-eyed, he continued. “Then Dylan plays Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Greatest thing I ever saw. Took me years to track these down. They meant something to me! They said something to me about my life. You though, you say these are your harmonicas. You tell me kid, how are these your harmonicas? Where did you get Bob Dylan's harmonicas?”

Ray paused again. For breath? For effect? I don't know, but this time Wiki spoke. Calmly, quietly and clearly she said “Bob Dylan has never played Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in concert.”

“Aw this is ridiculous!” Ray blurted, and he stormed off.

Only the weirdest thing happened. He didn't get anywhere. He struggled, but he couldn't get free. My little sister had him by the hem of his blazer and Ray just couldn't move. He got more and more frustrated until he rared back his arm to hit Phoebe. That's when we all rushed him.

The scuffle wasn't much and a few adults had a good hold of him in seconds. I was gratified to get a good kick in on his shin. He soon went limp and they let him go, but stayed close. One of them took the harmonicas from him. Thurs looked sadly into Ray's eyes.

“Bob Dylan has never played Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands in concert.” He affirmed, shaking his head.

“Fine.” Ray pouted. “Take the stupid harmonicas.” And he walked away. This time no one stopped him.

“Well done.” I said quietly to Phoebe. She beamed.

“Yes, well done to you all.” Thurs added. “Now, Ms Magenta, I'd be most interested in discussing a business proposition with you.”

“And I with you Mr. Gregor.” Replied Wiki.

It really was a great day, except maybe when that guy almost slugged Phoebe. I would have been delighted to see him struck dead in that moment. We hung out at the Positively 4th Street club for a couple hours while Wiki and Thurs conducted their business, We ate pizza and drank sodas and enjoyed some popularity. When it became known that I was a Dylan fan I was overwhelmed with attentions and by the time we left had, believe it or not, 37 burned CDS to bring home with me.

Thurs graciously gave us his chauffeur to get us home. Wiki did not leave with the harmonicas. She had a suitcase instead. I was unable to resist asking what was in it.

Perhaps one day she'll answer.

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