(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Joe Papp had not given up on my show. He brought in another director, who quickly put together a private workshop. Reducing the cast to two teenagers, a girl to sing all the girls’ songs and a boy to sing the boys’, the director eliminated any connective story and simply had the kids lying in their beds and delivering one song after another.
I didn’t much like his approach; I thought it was so stripped down and static that the show seemed slight, a cabaret revue. But Joe liked it. The director said he would mount the official production next year, when he got done directing another workshop of a little thing called “Pirates of Penzance” with Linda Ronstadt. (As it happened, he would be busy a lot longer than a year; he directed “Pirates” on Broadway and then the film version.)
Meanwhile I sensed that my grandfather’s presence had faded. Once he’d delivered the music, his mission was done. But I kept talking to him anyway. I preferred to imagine him there. Misery loves company, even if the company’s not actually there. “Dear Diary” became “Dear Grandpa”; I confided in him and he silently received all my drivel; and I was quite the addled package in 1978, with my show capsized, my heart broken, and my spirit sapped. Again I asked him, Why? What was the point of having me write all that music? I don’t mind being a pawn, but what’s the game?
I had no energy and, for the first time ever, no will to write. Yet I’d signed a contract for my second novel. My first, “Dry Hustle,” had sold well as a paperback (mainly in airport carousels). The idea for the next book had come to me a year before, when I was in a more fertile state.
Ever since my musical collaborations with Grandpa, in the hours of lighter sleep before dawn, I’d become more attentive to my dreams, because sometimes, after the usual wacky cavalcade of dream sequences, there might come some bit of creative help relating to my work.
Whether these helpful suggestions were sent by my unconscious, my grandfather or other heavenly mentors, was moot to me. I remember one time when I was writing a song cycle about (what else) sex, two titles were offered in a dream. The first, which I eventually did use, was “Biology And You.” The second, which made me wake up laughing, was a big front-page news headline: “GIRL, 29, ESCAPES REALITY.”
It was true that I did love to sleep. I was on the lookout for useful stuff. Dreams became a sort of transcendental scavenger hunt, which you won if you could recall your haul when you woke up, the messages and stories you’d picked up along the way. But remembering them was really hard, they erased themselves so fast. Before you awoke you had to remind yourself sternly that you were dreaming, that you had to stop and review and commit to memory what you needed to carry into the daylight. Even harder, you had to remember to remind yourself that you were dreaming, difficult when you were distracted by that giant snake growing out of your ear or the blender that was chasing you.
But once in a while I’d receive an image that glowed in brighter colors, as if highlighted, accompanied by a tacit command: “Remember this.”
The image that became my second book was simply this: a white-washed room, a window with no glass framing the turquoise horizon of the sea, and a tawny young man in silhouette. I was given to understand that the man belonged to me as property. He was my slave.
I wonder now if I was mistaken in taking this image as a suggestion for a book. It might have been a glimpse of a former life. Or a shred of ancestral memory, from when my ancestors were slaveowners.
It was only last year that I came full face to face with my family’s southern history. When clearing out Grandpa’s house for sale, my elder brother and I found two big boxes of the letters and papers of previous generations of Kernochans. We didn’t have time to read them, so we decided to consign the papers to storage (until this coming summer, when I’ll be able to peruse them). Just before sealing the boxes, my brother suggested we pick just one item at random to read. He stuck his hand deep into a box and pulled out a folded document.
It was a land deed dated 1855, written in an elegant scrupulous hand. The multiple pages were yellow and fragile; when we opened them, they clung to each other and threatened to tear along the creases. The contract deeded a sugar plantation near New Orleans to one Eliza Kernochan. The purchase included 54 slaves.
Each name (first name only) was noted in descending order of age, from an 89-year-old down to the babies. Many of the names were French: Christophe, François, etc. Fifty-four souls, who had now become the chattel of our ancestor.
We’d heard that a branch of our family maintained plantations in Louisiana in the 19th century. We assumed they probably had slaves, but it was an embarrassing detail we didn’t like to think about. Not until we read the physical document did we feel the full horror.
If I’d held that contract in my hand back in 1978, I might not have thought the idea for my second novel was the stuff of comedy.
Because “Dry Hustle” was so raunchy, my editor expected me to write another sexy darkly comic romp. I converted the mysterious dream-image of the young man at the window into the story of a woman who’s tired of American men, bored by their emotional cowardice and their “lying down on the job”; so she goes to an Arab country and buys a slave, whom she tries to teach to be the ideal boyfriend.
Or, perhaps the dream image was precognitive, because only six months later I stood in that same white-washed room.
I recognized it immediately. By then I was in the research phase of my book, touring North African and Middle Eastern countries – Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, the Emirates, anywhere I had contacts – to absorb the Arab culture and mentality. My last stop was Tunisia, where I’d rented a house in Hammamet for a week. The open-air bedroom window framed the turquoise Mediterranean. The house came with a male servant. He was the same young man I’d seen in the dream. When I arrived he said in broken English, “I am for you. You say, I do.”
I returned home only to pack up for a longer trip. I’d decided to live in Morocco while writing my book. It seemed like the safest of all the countries I’d visited for an unaccompanied woman to navigate.
It’s all very well to receive an idea from the ether. What you do with the idea, that’s the big test. The songs I wrote, the show, the novel – I was on my own after receiving the inspiration; failure or success was on my head. I would eventually learn that, if my grandfather was indeed my protector, he could not protect me from the consequences of my freely made choices. And I was headed for a bitch of trouble.
(To be continued.)
Causes Sarah Kernochan Supports