Appears in Other Voices #45
Jim Croce stands leaning against the metal rail on the front steps of Chicago’s Art Institute. He is twenty-nine years old. It is August, 1973. He has a skinny build, a signature moustache, and two best-selling records.
While he waits for his manager, Jim Croce looks over the street, over the scene, through the dark lenses of his sunglasses. Two kids on roller-skates, in high white sweat socks that are striped at the tops, roll and spin on the sidewalk for a gathering crowd. One white, one black, they swing out from the bottom of the stone stairs to the curb, zip-turning away just as a bus lumbers past, and then they do a low, slow jive back, slapping hands to thighs, hands to knees, lazy in the rhythms of the whining disco track that blares fuzzily from the beat box held on the lap of some other, younger, kid.
A cab passes. Someone shouting from the back window: Go home, freaks!
The roller skaters circle and shimmy, their expressions as blank as those of the stone lions standing guard over the milling crowd. The rail has rubbed a sore spot against Jim Croce’s back. He sits. He gets tired of sitting. Plus it’s crowded, a Friday morning, and Ron might miss him if he’s low to the ground. Reliable Ron, who is at least an hour late, or so Jim Croce guesses. He never wears a watch.
“Hey man,” someone taps him on the shoulder. He flinches. Fan. Autograph. Sure, why not. “Give us a hand here?” But there’s no pen, no shy smile of recognition.
So Jim Croce takes the camera, snaps the shot. It’s some chick with her brother and her parents. She’s sort of O.K.-looking. Her father’s glance veers to the left just as the flash goes. Wary of the loud, longhaired gang camped on the lawn nearby, their heavy green jackets and homemade signs—Fuck Nixon, or Fuck Off!
If Ron doesn’t show, and it’s becoming clear he won’t, Jim Croce thinks he might just join the group on the grass. Hear some stories, pass the pipe. Head over to some cat’s place, put on a record… He sighs. This trip hasn’t gone anywhere near as planned. First off, the radio show just tanked. Amateur hour. They put him on after some local dude with a harmonica and body odor so bad the assistant producer made gagging faces from behind the glass. Then, in an attempt to be witty and original about Jim Croce’s biggest-selling hit, a ballad called “Operator,” the moronic DJ asked him at least six questions about actual phone operators, as in, You ever hear of the yellow pages, man? Har de har har. They introduced his first song as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” when Jim Croce knew the deal was supposed to be that he’d lead off with something new. So he played goddamn “Leroy Brown,” and seethed. Then the newer song, which crapped out. He somehow knew it would crap out, and it had.
But none of that compared to the gig last night. Jesus. He didn’t even want to think about it.
Nor had there been any good parties, only some endless queasy dinner—platters of oily fish, cups of thick whitish soup—that Ron dragged him to, and then promptly went off to a back room with several strangers, leaving Jim Croce to talk to some boozy old lady wearing a metallic tube-top that slid lower, and lower, as the night went on. Jim Croce kept hoping she would tug it up, or put on a sweater, but no. A real drag, the whole scene.
And now here he was, two more days away from home, his farm, where Ingrid was probably still stewing over his leaving just as her parents got into town, just as the kid was coming down with something or other. Even in summer, this kid caught every damn cold in the county. The morning he left, she was throwing wet clay around the studio so hard and fast the walls got spattered, and he’d had to go change his shirt. No sexy good-bye kiss. No kiss at all, matter of fact.
“You know what?” Jim Croce says out loud, to nobody, to Ingrid. To Ron, who’s probably forgotten all about the plan he, Ron, had been the one to propose: meet for breakfast, take a walk by Lake Michigan, hash out the direction of the new record, still unformed, still a jumble of sketches and wordless tunes and high hopes (Ron) and despair (Jim). “Forget it,” he mutters, and shrugs up at the Chicago sky, hazy and white.
He brushes off the seat of his jeans and starts to lope down the stairs. But then he passes this old couple, the man leaning heavily on a metal walker, and his wife, who waits calmly each time he steps one foot up, then the other, and then pauses. Jim Croce sees how he shakes with the effort, breathing hard.
“Can I—you need some help, or something?”
“What’s he want?” The old man pants. His eyes are rheumy, and strands of grey hair plaster his forehead.
“We don’t have any money for you,” the woman says loudly.
“No,” Jim Croce says, mortified. “With the stairs, I meant—”
“No spare change,” she says firmly, and the man nods, tottering a bit. He sets the four legs of his walker onto the next step up, and braces to rise. The woman meets Jim’s eyes, smiles, and mouths, Thank you anyway. They begin to climb again, slowly, determined, and her hand hovers just behind her man’s stooped back.
It occurs to him that some people, these people, have come from all over in order to get a good look at the pictures housed here, and Jim Croce, after thinking this through, finds himself joining the crowd massing toward the Art Institute’s front doors, and is soon in line to enter, taking his place amid the tourists, squalling babies and bums who all file raggedly into the enormous, dark front hall. He wonders about the fee, and hopes he has a few bucks.
Inside, it takes a while to shake loose that old familiar school feeling, the endless field trips to Philadelphia’s museums and monuments. The mimeographed assignments, the teachers weary and short-tempered. The sticky green bench seats in the long bus ride back from downtown. He was never good in school, though it brings him pain even now to remember those grim nights of asking his father to sign the C-filled report cards. His father, having an after-dinner cigar at the metal table in the kitchen, a forced smile on his tired face. He remembers cutting class more than once on those field trip days, and the lies he’d told his parents when they would ask what he had thought of the Liberty Bell, or of some old dinosaurs in some old hall.
Here, now, in this strange city, ambling through these fancy halls full of paintings and sculpture, he finds himself wondering why art class was so boring. Couldn’t they have studied this? Jim Croce stops in front of a painting that must be ten feet high, easy, its heavy gold frame twice as thick as his arm. Two old ladies consult their brochure, and together, the three of them study in silence the thrashing women, gowns torn, carried off in the middle of a battle by helmeted men on helmeted horses, men who have slung the women like feed sacks over their shoulders. When Jim Croce leans close to examine one of the soldiers, speared back-to-front, a guard in the corner loudly clears his throat. Jim backs off and he and the old ladies exchange glances. One of them rolls her eyes.
“Don’t get me wrong, man,” Ron had said. “It’s cool, it’s gonna be real cool. We just have to hash some details out. You know how it is.”
What Jim heard in this, he thinks, walking faster through the next series of rooms, all Jesus paintings, all looking the same, is that the new stuff just isn’t going to fly. It’s just a rough cut, he argues in his head with his absent manager. Rough rough rough! The tape he’d sent in, two months ago. For ten days he’d heard nothing from Ron, not one damn thing, and nothing from the suits over at ABC. Ten days of agony, back at the farm, sleepless nights, bad dreams. Ingrid had finally made him call, though he’d done it collect, and Ron’s putting him on hold and then hemming and hawing had said everything, in Jim’s opinion. So this Chicago trip was cooked up as some kind of consolation prize, a gig or two, a radio thing, and a big talk about his “next phase.” His “new direction.” These are Ron’s phrases, of course.
I just want to play some songs, is all. Jim Croce tells himself this, but knows in an instant its untruth. He wants more, he knows, now in front of a tall painting of a cherubic young boy and a monk, who looks puzzled and peaceful. The small sign next to the painting tells the story of Saint Romanus, whose tongue was cut out after he spoke too widely about the word of God. Jim Croce stares at what hangs limply from the monk’s tender hand: a small, brownish-pink piece of muscle.
His guitarist, Maury, hadn’t been a whole lot of help either, that night when Jim ranted, on and on, about all this. And had gone on and on about how didn’t they owe him? For saving their pissant label, for putting them back on the map? For touring all over God-knows-where, in the freezing rain, smiling each damn time he got on stage to shill songs for them that he was sick to death of hearing. And now that he’d gone and written some tunes that maybe had a little edge, maybe had a little something different—now he’s getting the cold shoulder? Didn’t they fucking owe him? Maury just kept strumming thoughtfully, Maury with his soft peach-fuzz sideburns and that infuriating calm. He’d waited, and said only, “More like—they own you, man.”
His sneakers are making a distinct slap-squeak but Jim Croce keeps striding through entire eras of art history, where the pastel haystacks and water lilies give way eventually to sharper, uglier images of angles and blots and a man’s screaming face. He swerves around mid-room sculptures, those dark bronze shapes on top of pedestals, and he pays less if any attention to the other museum patrons, those shorter and flimsier bodies that drift through the galleries with their thoughtfully arranged benches and who whisper, or cough, or say nothing, as Jim Croce brushes by. The light that fills each room is the same dull white glare as outside, let in through the skylight squares above. Soon the images begin to swim together in a confusing blur, though when Jim Croce catches sight of a Picasso painting called “The Red Chair,” he stops, joining a small group gathered nearby, who stare in amiable silence at the purples and greens, and the twisted form of a woman who seems to have two faces.
“He screwed up her arms.” This comes from a skeptical kid nearby, maybe thirteen years old, sporting a brownish fuzzy white-boy afro and a grimace. “Anyone can see it.”
“Stupid,” agrees his short sidekick friend.
They’re quiet for a minute. Then, emboldened: “What a scam. Big famous painter, yeah right. My baby sister could do better.”
“Mine, too! And she’s even younger.”
The kid who spoke first makes his pronouncements loudly, to the group at large. Jim Croce secretly grants that, though annoying, he has a point. But the older folks around them just smile, or move on.
Then a woman pushes past him to where the kids are. She’s short and rounded, with tangled curly hair spilling over her bare shoulders. They fall silent when she comes close, and all that teenage bravado vanishes instantly in her presence. She comes real close and puts a hand on the first kid’s shoulder; her fingers are long, her nails bitten.
“See my face? See my…neck? Look at me.” The kid holds still, and does. Is he scared? Is he turned on? The freckles on her throat, her bright unwavering gaze. “Now look there—look at the eyes of the woman he’s painted.”
Jim Croce does as she says, though she’s not talking to him, and in a flash he gets it—or thinks he does—the way the jarring contrast between real woman and the image on canvas flickers forth and then disappears, leaving only a whispering trace of a joke. Why re-make what’s already there? And around the room, each painting begins to give off its own kind of glow, and he’s in a room now full of strange and original beings.
“Shush.” She cuts the kid off. “No more talking. Just…look.”
She’s wearing baggy denim overalls, not a style Jim Croce much favors on a woman, but underneath them she doesn’t seem to be wearing much more—some kind of flimsy white cotton top: a brassiere? No, definitely no brassiere. In fact, Jim Croce thinks that at the right angle he might almost be able to see— But now she catches him looking, and he’s clearly busted, but this girl just gives him a slow, funny smile and then turns back to the painting, to the boys who are obediently staring at the canvas.
Inside him a ticking goes off, a buzzing hum that always signals he better pay attention—to the chords of a tune just around a mental corner, or a turn of phrase just out of reach. He’s stock-still in the modernist wing of the Art Institute in Chicago, and Jim Croce is suddenly on the verge of thankful tears because…there. Something’s there, in his mind, something to work on, a song, a way in—hell, even a title of a song. A key. He doesn’t force it, doesn’t even want to know this source of longing. He can go back later to find what it really is, and anyway the sensation is already fading, like déjŕ vu.
Last night’s show had been in a dingy old auditorium, in a bad neighborhood—an empty-street neighborhood, anyway—on the west side of the city. Ron had grandly called the funky stage a “theater in the round” when Jim had stared unhappily at the circular linoleum set atop another round layer of hastily-stapled carpet. He saw where the head tech guy was setting up his mike and tall wood stool on that shiny linoleum and knew that he’d look just like a lonely figurine stuck on top of a cheap, sad wedding cake.
“You stay put, it goes around and around, see?” Jim shrugged assent, and wanly gave the peace sign back to one of the younger roadies. “No such thing as a bad seat for these folks.”
The solo shows, when Maury couldn’t or wouldn’t go on the road, tended to be up and down. The crowd last night was light—Cubs game, someone said, and then the rain—and they’d stuffed all the people up front, so when Jim tried to do his usual soulful far-away gaze during the ballads he found himself counting all the empty seats in the back rows. Then, sometime during the second half—he thinks it might have started in “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)” but that could just be making the story too good—Jim Croce found himself getting a little seasick. The stage seemed to be revolving just an increment faster, or was he just imagining it? The lights, the faces spinning, blurry wet smiles—could anyone else see this? He tried to signal the tech guys. He tried to keep his face normal. Ron, in a red suede fedora, mouthed, yeah, man! and kept bobbing his head.
Jim Croce launched into “One Less Set of Footprints,” breaking a sweat now, spinning even faster—Jesus, was this thing out of control?—but the growing sensation of the theater speeding up threw off his rhythm and he cut the song short by two choruses.
“So—uh, I’d like to do another one of my love songs now,” he said, tuning up for “Car Wash Blues” and not listening to himself, not making sense. He tried to plant a foot solidly on the floor, but couldn’t reach because of the damn rickety high-runged stool. Two chicks in the front row gaped up at him, smiling expectantly. Jim Croce lurched into the song, feeling like the nights he’d stumble home from one bar or another and lie in bed with the room spinning. Sometimes Ingrid would help him into the bathroom—or just push him in there, disgusted—and say, Go ahead and puke it up, baby. That always helps.
But this made him panic. What are you, crazy? Thinking about that—now? Lost behind the song’s time and the verse-chorus shift, and in every minute more of his woeful strumming and just-getting-by singing Jim Croce tried to concentrate. Told himself, over and over, don’t think about puking, don’t think about puking.
Now the stage was somehow revolving even faster, and there was even a new grinding sound coming from under the carpeted level, and Jim tried to find a face in the crowd—those starry-eyed chicks, anyone, to get his bearings. He saw by the rustle of oh-shit movement in the control room that finally someone else could tell what was going on. Ron’ll fix it. Fucking fix it, Ron! Jim Croce caught the slightly worried, slightly amused looks from some audience members, and some murmuring, and told himself to hang on, finish the song—
But he couldn’t make it, not even close—breaking off just at the wind-up to the key change and big finish, and with his stomach heaving, bile rising, Jim Croce bolted off stage, knocking over his flimsy stool. He burst into the green room and fell to his knees. Retched into a small metal trashcan.
When Ron came in, all stutter and apology and ass-covering, Jim was sitting on the floor, propped against the wall. Weak, speechless. All he did was point at his manager, point a shaky finger, so it must have been something in his face that made Ron back away, with more solicitous apology, but back away fast, out of the room.
In the museum, Jim winces. What kills him more than the back-stage vomit session (hell, that can signal a good night!), or even that fake good-natured smile he put on, climbing back up on stage, the still and silent stage, screw those caught behind him now, for the warm and humiliating applause, and the rest of the set—what really does him in is the image of himself, earlier, pinned to his chair, spun around and on display. Singing for his dollar like a fool in the subway.
The girl is gone. And their small crowd has dissolved, though that first kid is still here, now sitting Indian-style on the floor where a guard is eyeing him unhappily, and he’s got some kind of notebook out and is writing furiously. Stopping only now and again to glance back up at the Picasso woman.
Jim Croce passes up the rest of this gallery, though he quickly checks every room. It must be getting on lunch, because the crowds have thinned. He’s about to give up when he comes around a corner and finds her waiting at the top of a stairway. Waiting for him, that much is clear, from the way she meets his eyes. Why does his heart lift so at the sight of this stranger, in her brown leather sandals, with her hands jammed into those overall pockets?
“You probably thought that was all bullshit,” she says, but politely.
“No,” he says softly. “I was thinking you probably converted that kid for life.”
She laughs. “Cool. I’m Laura?”
“Jim,” he says, though after a split-second hesitation. But she doesn’t say I know or anything that lets him believe she knows his music. Or anything about him. This is only a little crushing, though, because from the way they’re walking down the stairs now, together, under a painting of pale blue sky and bubbled clouds, and from how she touches his wrist and says “So—come on,” Jim Croce thinks maybe his day is looking up, just a little.
They backtrack through some of the first-floor galleries where Jim has already walked, and he likes the way this girl takes her time, leaving him for a moment to peer closely at the overlapping ridges of paint in one of those famous Van Gogh pictures, and the way she always then returns to his side. She stands looking for a long time at a painting of a pale mother bathing the bare feet of a child. She doesn’t carry a purse or any other kind of bag, and Jim sees how her hands and arms look empty, and naked, in the chill of the museum air.
He wonders if Ingrid would like this painting of the mother. Maybe he should buy her a postcard, to carry home. He wonders what makes Laura so quiet and thoughtful, here, now.
“Asshole,” she says finally. And turns to walk, fast, away from the painting. Jim hustles after her. “That painter, Mary Cassatt? She had a secret lover, another artist, Edgar Degas? Know him? Little ballerina girls?” Laura doesn’t slow down, though she looks impatiently to see that Jim is keeping up.
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, wishing she hadn’t said Degas in such a Frenchy way.
“Well, he screwed her over. Never gave her credit, publicly, never admitted she was his equal. Patronizing fuck. Painted some of the background in one of her own pictures, man! Can you believe that?”
Women’s lib. Figures. “I, uh…I just signed one of those ERA petitions,” is what he finds to say. Stupid!
“Good for you,” Laura snaps, swerving around a man in a turban. “Take care, friend.”
“Wait! Maybe she asked him for help? The lady painter, I mean.”
“Jesus. I should have known. Never mind.”
“No—what’s wrong?” They’ve come out by the entrance area, and Jim wants to stop her. “Was she married?”
“I don’t remember. I think he was.” Laura cuts him a look, but at least she’s not racing ahead anymore.
Jim Croce would like to say something smart, something to impress her. “Asshole,” is what he ends up with. She laughs and loops an arm through his.
“You’re all right, Jim. Let’s go smoke, huh?”
They work their way around to the back side of the Art Institute, and out onto a wide patio. Still, there are kids around, maybe some cops, so Jim Croce and this girl Laura wander south a block or two, where trees and bushes and the noise from the highway running along the lake can obscure their business. She rolls a joint, pulling papers and a small bag from one of those big pockets. They sit on the grass. A student comes by, and stops to bum a toke, which Laura shares agreeably. She gives him directions to the El train.
Jim Croce leans back on his elbows. He’s unbuttoned his shirt partway, and it’s fallen open, casually, he imagines, to show off the tattoo on his breastbone.
“So, where is she?” Laura says. “Back by the Monets? Meeting you later?”
He takes the joint back. Shakes his head on the exhale. “She—Ingrid. She’s at home.”
“With the kids.”
“Yeah. With our son. A.J.” Laura nods. “He’s a baby,” Jim explains. “Too little for traveling.”
“She lets you get around, huh? You’re far from home.” It’s not a question.
Jim has his head tipped back, watching the leaves flutter around against the white sky. He’s thinking of the time Ingrid wanted to make love, not long ago, and how he’d pretended to be sick, an unsettled stomach. It was the first time he’d said no to her, God knows it was usually the other way around, he couldn’t get enough—it was their running joke. Only sort of funny. But this night he’d said no before he’d thought it through, maybe only so he could see what that felt like, and he’s remembering now the way she said, Oh. And unwrapped her arms around him, from behind, Jim Croce at the dish-filled sink after dinner, how she’d gone back to the baby in his chair. And had started singing, after a minute or two.
“She’s cool,” is all he says now to Laura. “I have to travel a lot, for business.” This pleases him, both in its official-sounding manner and how he’s actually managing to keep up a conversation. By now he’s had quite a few tokes. He’s thankful when Laura pinches the ember off what’s left of the roach.
“Yeah? You’re in…sales, right? I can see that about you.” Her face is still, serious.
“Something like that.” Jim Croce is disgusted. Devastated. Is this chick for real? What about his chest tattoo? His beat-up Chuck Taylors? Is this what she thinks an office guy does, mill around some museum on a Friday afternoon and smoke pot with the first hippie girl who looks at him twice? Man. Jim Croce has never been so at a loss. He knows he’s no Bobby Dylan, but—Christ. For the first time he’s wondering if Ron has a point with all that talk about needing to “clarify” his “image.” Sales?!
Laura’s smiling slightly now, head cocked, like she’s waiting for something. He figures he better get the subject changed, or she’ll stop looking so good to him. “So are you an artist? A painter?”
“No. I mean, yeah. I mean—I guess I’m working on it.” She’s a little flustered now, even though they’re stoned. “Part-time. I was sharing this studio with a friend of a friend, but then the building owner found out and padlocked the door. All my materials were in there. Still are, I guess. I have to figure some stuff out.”
“Can’t you get back in?”
“Listen, do you mind if we not talk about this?” Now she leans close to Jim Croce, and her hair swings forward so that he gets a quick warm scent of her skin. “I have an idea. Let’s play this game. You’ve got some time to kill, right?”
“Then here’s how it goes.” Why does it sound so good to him, that glint of excitement in her voice? Would it be very uncool if he laid his head in her lap right now? He tunes in again only as Laura finishes whatever she’s been saying about art and the soul, two strangers, connecting. “So you first, or me?”
She’s hopped to her feet. “Like I said! Go to any painting or sculpture, and if I can find you, then—I win.” Laura cocks her head to the side and does a little curtsy.
“Or we could just keep on playing hookey,” Jim says, and puts on his most charming grin, not wanting to move from the warm grass.
“Live a little,” Laura says, and tugs him to standing. “Now go! Any piece you really dig, O.K.? I’ll give you a half hour.” She pushes him towards the museum entrance.
Jim Croce’s chilly, now, and his mouth is unpleasantly dry. What kind of crazy chick sets up some hide and seek just to get it on? Jesus. Is this undignified, or what? In the back lobby by the carts full of coiled poster tubes, he almost bails. But then he thinks of her smooth naked arms, and what those overalls might be hiding. And how he deserves this. Doesn’t he? For putting up with this whole dreary Chicago scene, and Ron’s no-show, and the cold shoulder from Ingrid…
Ingrid. He’s never been one to fool around on his woman, though God knows he’s had his chances, like any other singer who goes on the road. And yet he’s never cheated on her—not really, anyway. A few messed-up gropings after a show or two don’t count. Nameless, faceless chicks he may have even just dreamed up. But this would be the real deal, premeditated sex with a woman that he knows he wants. If it actually happens, that is. Christ.
“Hey, I lost my friend?” Jim sidles up to one of the guards near the African sculpture wing. “Short girl, with long curly hair…when she comes by this way, could you tell her I’m in the—Degas room?” Though the guard vaguely shrugs, Jim Croce is pleased with himself. He bounds up the stairs to the Impressionist section. “Hey, man. Tell this chick in overalls, you see her, that her friend’s in with the Degas paintings?” He passes these instructions on to at least four other bored guards, one of whom snaps back a salute. He tells a group of kids to be on the lookout for Laura; he asks the same favor of two old men, who become very concerned, and agree to help.
Then all he’s got to do is wander in the right room amid the painted ballerinas, who bend and bow and leap. He pretends to examine the tutus and toe shoes and wonders where he can get some rubbers. Soon enough, Laura’s there too. And she’s pissed.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“You cheated.” She’s not kidding around. “And fuck this, the Degas. Very funny.”
“Come on. We’re here, aren’t we? You found me.” Jim moves closer to her, close enough to lightly rest a hand on her waist.
“And how could I not? Jesus. Every other damn person telling me where to go.” But she’s grinning, a little, and doesn’t push at his hand. “One guy made me take his map!”
“Let’s get out of here.” Jim says this quickly, before she can pull away, before he can think better of it.
“No! Now it’s your turn.”
“I’ll pass. You win. Let’s go, O.K.?” She smells like vanilla and marijuana and Jim just wants to put his face closer to her skin.
But she twists away from him. “One last test.”
“Wait—now it’s a test? Fuck, I thought you said game.”
“O.K., O.K., yeah. Game. Now you have to find me, but it’s not going to be a cheat, like yours.”
“Laura…This isn’t really my bag, you know?”
She comes back and puts both hands on his wrists, and leans in to whisper, “I think you’ll think it’s worth it,” and then a few other things, her warm breath up close to his ear, the weight of her tilted against him and now Jim Croce’s hot all over and willing to put in another go at this kooky scene with the museum. But only once more. He’s got his pride, after all, no matter how wild in bed this painter girl promises to be.
Laura twirls once on her way across the empty gallery, and then backs away from him, smiling. “Give me half an hour lead time.”
“You gotta give me a hint, at least,” he says, panicky now. This place is huge!
“Just trust yourself, all right, Jim?” She slips out the door. He’s pained, for a sharp moment, by the word trust.
“Oh, and just in case…” Laura sticks her head back. “I do love ‘Time in a Bottle.’ Always have.” Her eyes are still laughing, but she’s suddenly looking shy. “I just didn’t want to come off as some kind of…fan. You know? And anyway, I’m really more into Cat Stevens.”
“Yeah, well,” Jim says. “Who isn’t?”
It had been sunny and hot on the day, years ago, that he’d sold all his guitars. A beach day. This has always stuck in his mind, probably because of the incongruity. Shouldn’t it have been mid-winter? The pipes frozen, fingerless indoor gloves, and no money for soup? Well, there hadn’t been money for anything, that summer, in any case. Some of the local papers had picked up on the story, singer-songwriter hocks vintage guitars for cash. Later, when “Don’t Mess Around” finally broke and ABC picked up his contract, it made more of the rounds, and had gotten turned into something like myth. It fit in nicely, that pawnshop last-ditch despair, with the Jim Croce truck-driver image. Army man, pool shark, jack-of-all-trades. And it worked with the ladies, and he never minded that. Funny thing, I once sold my collection of priceless guitars, tossed in the towel, and it was all for love…
Except it hadn’t been for Ingrid. It had been for three months of back-owed mortgage on the farm. And because he’d been disgusted with himself, with the very sight of those instruments, beautiful and mocking, all lined up neatly up along a wall in the mold-infested basement of the house they must have been crazy to think they could buy.
But all of the stringers had missed one fact, that being that he’d fucking sobbed that day, in the sun. He’d stood outside the music store; arms light, wallet fat, and he’d cried the hot tears of a child. When he’d made it home that night, as drunk as he could get, Ingrid had let him wail and curse and then collapse—dickless now, an empty shell, sore with self-loathing. But then she had knelt down by him prone on the couch, and talked steadily and calmly about how they were going to make it. On and on about how his music was true and wonderful, how they’d get those guitars back (though he never did—those bastards sold all of them, the Gibsons, Martins, and oh God the Nationals, in a month flat), how together they could tackle any problem, any hitch. Any sorrow, as long as they had each other.
Jim Croce would like to think that was the lowest point, his lost faith in his songs and in his basic worth as a man, let alone artist. What did artist mean, after all, with two roof repairs in six months, and a stack full of threatening letters from the bank? Just a lousy way to get out of a real day’s work, those hours in a hardhat he knew and hated—just a gutless way to pretend screwing someone else wasn’t low and cruel.
And he knows exactly where Laura is now. She’s at the painting of the mother washing her child’s feet in a basin, that Mary Cassatt picture that infuriated her. He knows this, and he’s entirely sure of her waiting there, waiting for him. He can picture her on the bench in that gallery, swinging one foot back and forth slowly, studying the painting and the faces of those who enter the room, and slowly he retraces his steps to that part of the museum.
“No, no—Philadelphia. I knew it!” From close by comes a loud whisper, and now Jim Croce knows he’s been recognized. Finally! He’s willing to take a moment, just one moment before going off to get laid, to sign an autograph and chat with some fans.
“Huh. Then where’s Van Gogh? Give me that map.”
It’s a son and father, and they’re not aware of him at all. The man carries a canvas book-bag and wears an easy smile. His boy is about twelve. Nerd type. Jim Croce stands a little behind them looking at a painting.
The boy reads slowly from the small printed sign. “ ‘Thomas Eakins, born in 1844 in Philadelphia—where he died in 1916—is considered one of the greatest of American realists. His unsparing portraits, though original, are—’ Anyway. See? Dad—you’re not even listening!”
“I am, I am. Go on,” the father says, strolling back from a statue nearby. “But Sam, don’t block this man’s view, O.K.?”
“Sor-ry,” the kid says to Jim Croce, who’s come closer to look at the painting. It’s of a solo rower paused mid-stream, looking across his shoulder. The water is gray and green, and the trees on the bank are beginning to bare themselves for winter. But it’s the river that stops Jim Croce.
“That’s the Girard Ave. bridge!” he says, out loud. “On the Schuylkill. I used to hang out down there.” With Arnie Mayer and the Sansone brothers. Smoking Lucky Strikes and pegging rocks at birds.
“Yeah?” the dad asks. “You from Philly?”
Jim Croce doesn’t answer. Max Schmitt in a Single Scull is all he can see. The oars, at rest, pull lines through the water, and the rower’s white shirt, bare arm, are mirrored in smudgy reverse in the reflection below. His gaze is cast down, as if he’s breathing hard after a race, as if he’s immobilized by the changing textures of the river stream. There are others on the river, sketched small in the background, but the man far ahead of them takes no notice, scudding lightly across the murk. Is it just Jim Croce, or do the rower’s receding curls and dark droopy moustache look…familiar?
“Have a good one,” the man says, and follows his chattering boy into the next room.
Jim Croce raises a hand, but stays in front of the Schuylkill, where the rower rests, and the trees make great dark shadows under the water. He stands there. The scull drifts. The edges of the painting fall away and there’s the full waterfront, the train tracks crossing Fairmount Park. There’s the reservoir, there’s Diamond Street and Lehigh, and the Market District. The row house where he was born and raised, one of dozens identical, tucked into an old neighborhood on the South Side, between the two winding rivers that cut an hourglass down the whole of his city spread suddenly here.
Inside that house, in the basement finished with fake-wood paneling, were his father’s records: Ma Rainey, Fats Waller. Old-time songs with jump and swing—dixieland, blues. There his parents gathered, with their friends—women in silk dresses and cat-eye spectacles, men in neckties and crew cuts—for whiskey and water, and singing along. With little coaxing, Jim Croce in short wool pants would play his accordion, for every party, and always “Lady of Spain.” He’d get a dollar or two, and lipstick on his cheeks. Later, he might even be allowed to handle the 45s, those glossy black disks, if he didn’t crumple their paper envelopes, or if his father—happy and sweating through his jacket—was busy at the bar.
Three weeks from now, from today, when the twin-engine plane they’ve chartered rises off the airfield in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and bucks, and plunges into a grove of pecan trees, Jim Croce will have time only to grip Maury’s hand, across the aisle, Maury Muehleisen of the sweet slow fingerpick, those oversized orange-tinted shades.
But right now Jelly Roll’s piano pounds away downstairs, beneath the bed of his childhood. Max Schmitt relives the race, a ripped callus on his palm. Jim Croce grins.
Then he’s jogging down the front steps of the Art Institute, surprised at how the late-afternoon air has cooled the day. His hotel, and his guitar, must be near by. He pauses to glance north up Michigan Avenue, then south, and then Jim Croce strides straight ahead into the streets of Chicago, where the overhead train rattle and the shine on storefront glass merge together with his ease here among the crowd, to become the very chords of belonging.