You’re Not To Blame
Roulette. A game. The Russian version has a bullet loaded in the chamber.
This is his game, Russian.
Estella, his wife, ignores my call at first and then she accepts it her voice dripping with condescension. How would I know? How could I understand? She has everything under control and most definitely doesn’t need my help.
I saw last night’s video of his show, his eyes wild, his words slurred and I knew.
Once he was everything to me, sun, morning, moon, night, sleep, love, love, endless. It’s still there, beating heartbeat, blood.
I fly to Memphis hours before his show. I pay an atrocious amount for a front-row ticket, money I can’t afford, not these days anyway. But I also can’t afford a world where he isn’t in it.
I arrive early. I wear the brightest shirt I own, fuchsia with yellow flowers, guaranteed not to be missed, although he won’t see me unless lights fall on the audience.
The opening band does what it’s supposed to, but not much more. I remember that life. I remember opening for him. I remember hugs and kisses and songs written for me and me writing songs for him. I remember us singing together. I remember us loving, bodies slick with sweat and passion. I remember us singing always. He indulged my penchant for 60’s and 70’s songs. There is a video of us singing “Just Walk Away Renee,” a song I don’t think he would have been caught dead singing otherwise. Dead.
I’ve never loved anyone else, not like this. I met and fell in love with him before he married. Two arguments suggested to him that we weren’t suited, but my heart felt otherwise. He married her eventually because she was foreign and beautiful and knew nothing of him. He liked the anonymity.
Finally they take the stage. He’s gaunt, his velvety blue eyes wild, his hair unkempt. I swallow hard. There are edges to every precipice and this is one I am seeing.
He sings the first song like an automaton. His voice sounds good, but he looks unsteady, his eyes wander. He nods and shakes and does grunts in the song where they’ve never been before.
I’m here. I think. Just look at me. But his eyes are on some distant horizon, beyond this arena, beyond this earth. He’s got to come back.
There’s a pause.
“Just Walk Away Renee!” I shout so hard that I think I feel my vocal chords rub together.
He jerks, his eyes swing in my direction.
“Renee!” I shout again.
His eyes narrow. I step toward the stage and lift my arms upward, but a security guard is on me almost immediately.
“Jefferson!” I yell, while the security guards grab my arms and try to drag me backward.
“Let her go,” he says into his microphone.
I look up into those eyes that are like sueded sapphires. The guards release me and he, Jefferson Murphy, hauls me onto stage as if it’s nothing and everything and every day. His left hand rubs my back.
“Once upon a time,” he begins. “I was famous.”
The crowd erupts and laughs because he has never been more famous than he is now.
“I met a red-haired girl who sang the hell out of every song, savagely, but because she always managed to piss off the record producers she never reached the acclaim she should have gotten. Her name’s Mary Archer. If you know music, you know she’s Archlady. And, if you know music, you know we may have sung this song, me sometimes badly.”
He strums the chords to “Just Walk Away Renee.”
I cling to his bicep and he grins down at me. It’s almost like it used to be, but there’s something missing in him, some glow that once culminated in the essence of Jefferson. I pinch his skin, hard. His eyes widen. He looks at me curiously.
I sing and then he joins in. I listen to him intently, his phrasing, wanting to see, make sure. Still it’s as if he is only half here and half somewhere else.
When the song ends, he turns slightly away. I am not leaving here, not now. I may look like a clingy wannabe, but something tells me I need to stay.
He glances at me, his eyes semi-in-focus.
I grab a microphone. “Do you all mind if I sing something to Jefferson?”
The crowd erupts again. Their gestures: love.
He stands there watching me as if I am something extraordinary, an aphrodite alien. There is one song with one verse that means something to him.
I walk back to Neil the guitarist and whisper in his ear and then repeat the same to Dix the drummer.
Immediately the sounds of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” stream outward.
It’s not normally me, but I cling to Jefferson as I sing. He smiles, but he’s distant. Whatever drugs he’s taken are trying to remove him, not only from me, but from this earth.
When I sing: “I simply love you, more than life itself.” I touch his face.
His eyes meet mine. “Mary,” he says as if it’s something new upon his lips.
I continue singing, holding his hand.
When I finish, he hugs me, tightly, his face buried in my throat. I hold him against me, feel his boniness jab into me, stark, making me bite my lip to keep my emotions controlled. He places his palms on either side of my face, smiles and then kisses me, hard on the lips. It’s an instant and I think it’s everything.
The rest of his performance is different, as if the evil has been banished, exorcised. He’s brilliant and funny and insightful and his singing his full. His shakiness is gone.
I am off-stage when Estella appears. She sweeps in like a goddess. She’s in a sparkly black dress with a slit that rides high upon a very sculpted thigh. Her lipstick is blood-red. Her nails are long and drenched in burgundy. She duck lips at everyone.
When the show is over and Jefferson bounds backstage, she is swept up in his embrace. He closes his eyes and speaks sultry words I don’t know into her forehead. With his every whisper, a part of me attenuates.
I don’t wait around to see what’s next.
I don’t wait to see if he looks for me.
I grab a cab and find an empty hotel room.
I open the minibar and drink almost every ounce of alcohol in its confines until I am swimming, anesthetized. I open the bottle of Macallan’s I bought on the way and then the sleeping pills. I pour a handful into my palm. I toss them back with the Scotch and close my eyes. In darkness I sway, hearing his voice, his beautiful powerful voice, his fingertips a memory of love I’ve kept so near, for, oh, so very long although we’ve been apart for, oh, so very long. I kept him alive, for now. My love spills outward, long tendrils seeking. I feel his lips on mine, until I don’t. In some distant memory, like gossamer strands of something silky like his tongue on my nape, I hear us sing, “just walk away…”
I can almost hear him say: …Mary.