To some, the spectacle of a clean-shaven thin boy, as he zoomed into parking lots in a new Alfa, stirred sensations that had shrunk to a certain distance in time, and that were now like the conventions of mirth which adults invent to accommodate the joyful ways of infants in their midst. Yet whenever one of these fogeys, after a little thought, tried to indicate for a youngster what it all meant, the sense, rapt in a shawl of emotion, went mute: “Haven’t seen kids like him since the Allies captured Rome. Twenty thousand Americans dead, let’s not forget!”
Though there was something military in the level bearing of the shoulders, like a short beam, and in the straightness of the back and neck, like a toy mast (in fact the young man had, as they say, served): the limbs and head moved as if subject to a tapped-out elegance, like those of a count who’d been gassed in the trenches. This creature could not have been born from the pages of Pavese’s Dos Passos translations – though his was no pampered gauntness, even by Italian standards – because he spoke American English with such reserved finesse. Nor could he have strode off a smoky MGM reel; no frame ever contained his profile for long: he walked out on rooms, cars, pictures, conversations, rumors, scenes . . . .
It had taken him, however, ten days in the infirmary, and four months in population, to walk out on Rikers Island, and subsequently the USA. He played one festival date in Comblain La Tour, then went to Italy, where regular club work at the Santa Tecla and the La Bussola was punctuated first by frequent flights to obtain boxes of injectable Jetrium in Munich, then by a single “cure” each at the clinics Villa Turo and Santa Zita in Milan. Working one night, he met Carol, who left an announcer gig at the Olympia to travel with him. They lived together in a room at a pensione, the Villa Gemma. On the way to work one rare afternoon, driving a rented Fiat because his doctor was indisposed, he stopped to give himself a Palfium shot, and got pinched. A news organ knelt and proclaimed: CHET BAKER FOUND IN GAS STATION TOILET.
Josif replaced the chessboard and pieces in their box, then laid that between one short stack of books whose glue had dried, and another tall stack whose bindings were split or whose covers had torn. With forefinger and thumb he lifted a tin as if the squeak of its handle would attract attention. When he plugged this in, the bulb dimmed overhead. The two men glanced at each other. Josif went about his tomato paste and garlic, Chet resumed his horn. Softly he blew several tones, they passed unrushed through the air in a succinct phrase, the room’s objects stood forth in this sound, each one palpably itself; then, as it dissolved into a whir – which had been there before – they sank away. Chet drew notes on a staff. Josif wiped his hands, leaned against the workbench, and turning over a pamphlet from atop a pile of magazines, began, “To continue!” and read:
Opiates produce for a while the appearance of that quasi-ascetic self-discipline which alone conduces to artistic creation in decadent societies; but drugs soon prove debilitating and, before very long, fatal: they act upon the spirit much as an Elizabethan assassin’s poisoned dress would act upon the victim’s body, whose toxins become active and enter the pores through contact with the sweat of exertion.
“See that? Academic trash!” sniffed Josif.
This point was lost on Chet. During his upbringing in Yale, Oklahoma City, Glendale, North Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Lawndale, an exuberance of images had drowned out the ideological din. This had not happened during Josif’s youth. The volume of destruction in Europe had rendered the paradoxical nature of excess impossible to overlook, much less forget.
I’d better declare that Josif’s personality is an invention. In the memoir As Though I Had Wings, Baker merely calls him “a little guy,” and says he was Yugoslavian, a resistance fighter, chess player, and cook at their private dinner parties; that he worked in the bindery; and that he’d been held there pending trial for forty-four months. It’s hard not to think of him as weary, the realist, a foil to Baker’s pragmatic junky. I say he was a Serb, and his name was Josif.
I also say that if this pamphlet (another invention) – published in Communist, bourgeois, Catholic, post-fascist Italy – was prophetic, then Chet was a guest from the future, or a ghost of it. And: even as Josif impersonated military personnel, and sold stolen weapons to the highest bidder on the black market, which was how he wound up in prison (not an invention), he was a closet aesthete. For him, who cared so little about gray markets in life, an indistinct outline in art (or, as he would say, the matter of taste and style) was worth bloodshed. Unlike life-as-mere-existence, as everyone had known it in wartime.
“The Italian’s hard to follow,” Chet evaded. “I get what the fella means, though. He’s right.”
“You pretend to be impartial! Listen. We always say a thing, at home. It’s like ‘Hope tells Habit sweet lies.’ You understand?”
“Is that Serbian?”
“No, Morse code! What do you think it is?”
“Okay, man,” said Chet. “Except I prefer the twilight hours.”
“So you do. But that is only acquiescence. It is not a decision. Back home for example there were the occupiers – what does it matter where they come from? and their collaborationists too – and then, there was a resistance. No middle, not even in the middle of the middle.” He snapped a sheaf of spaghetti in two and laid both halves in the tin.
“Well, all I can tell you is, my fifteen months is nearly up, and I’ve written thirty-one songs.”
“Also your chess has improved slightly.”
At this the bolt clanked, and before they had risen to their feet Peccora stood in the doorway, carbine unslung. Chet put the horn down. Josif unplugged the hotplate and the light brightened and cooled.
“Come with me,” Peccora said.
Chet glanced back and went. Leaving the bindery at a formal pace they did not turn toward the warden’s office, but toward the visiting room, past a framed reproduction, torn from a cheap paperback, of a photograph showing swallows posed dipping in gray sky. Halfway there the lights dimmed again. At the door Peccora stood aside, locked the bolt after Chet, and snapped loosely to attention. He peeped in.
“Surprise,” Carol coughed.
“Get my letter?” Chet smiled.
“Yes, but good old Father Ricci did his usual number on it, so I pretended. How about you, did the cheesecake arrive?”
“Again without any pictures left, yeah.”
“Gosh, I guess this will have to do,” she said, and they got undressed.
The question whether their keeper’s eye was modest or not is better left open.