Excerpt: The Lowlands of Heaven. Laurel, Meet Crazy
A Christmas excerpt from The Lowlands of Heaven: most of Chapter 24, in which Jack helps Laurel prepare for her journey from San Francisco to San Diego.
Jack and Laurel walked past Market Street’s shops, all gaily decorated for Christmas. Laurel lingered for a moment at a newsstand, somber, scanning front-page accounts of the London blitz.
The healthful effects of her communion with the street players were beginning to fade, and she struggled to keep up with Jack. Faint shadows again lay beneath her eyes, and she’d been wracked by occasional sneezes.
Jack, moving ahead, stopped in front of a pawn shop. He stepped inside, and after a few seconds poked his head out and waved for Laurel to join him.
He stood between two tables stacked with second-hand clothing. After sizing Laurel up for a moment, he began rummaging through the old clothes. Laurel picked through them too, only mildly interested, fashion decisions being of small concern to angels.
Her attention wandered, and then she spied something that did indeed inflame her interest. She made a beeline for the back wall of the shop, which was crowded with musical instruments, among them many violins.
She at once identified the best fiddle and the best bow—which is to say only the best of a bad lot. She plucked them off the wall, tightened the bow and tuned the violin. Now, what shall it be? Bach…but which? She remembered the newspaper stories of the London battles, which recalled to her the terrible scenes revealed in the pool at Branch 92. She shivered and her breath halted; she closed her eyes and, after a moment of perfect stillness, drew the bow. The somber Partita in D minor, Allemanda filled the shop.
Heads turned and people gathered. A supernatural calm fell over Laurel, and the crowd grew as she spun out the stately melody. At the end of the first theme, she looked up to see a throng of grave faces surrounding her. This won’t do…
She acknowledged the people with a nod, and then began “The First Noel.” She played a chorus and a verse, and a few among the growing crowd tentatively sang along.
She segued into the “Wexford Carol,” and a small, bent Irishman who had come to San Francisco in the previous century wept a little, as he always did when he heard the ancient melody. A woman who taught music admired the way the child added a stern, stepwise bass in the second verse and noted the way she suggested, as in the manner of Zen painters, the inside voices, just the well-placed note or two, to richen the music. The old teacher’s practiced eye knew the fiddle for the low, pawnshop relic that it was, and marveled at the brightness and élan she heard now, so like that of the young prodigies, and the smooth, assured gravity, so like that of the older masters that she had heard, when she could afford to, in the less expensive seats high in the back of the symphony hall.
Laurel moved seamlessly to “O Holy Night.” The crowd joined her, sounding finer than anyone could expect of a random gathering. Concluding the carol, she left the singers behind as she wove a handful of Christmas melodies into a shimmering tapestry, transfixing the still growing crowd.
She brought her improvisation to a triumphant climax, then reprised the individual carols. The gathering joined together with unbridled passion, sounding like virtuosi who had sung together all their days, and the dingy little space rang with their voices.
Soon, the pawnshop nearly burst with the crowd. More and more people flocked in from the sidewalk, listened in wonder to the extemporaneous chorus, and then joined it. At the middle of it all, Laurel, like the sun, anchored them like planets in their orbits. They were hers—but for one: a tall, pale man in a long dark coat who stood unmoving at the rear of the crowd, his face half-shadowed by the brim of his hat.
The shop’s owner, a florid, heavy-set man, a man not much concerned with appearances, emerged from a back room, astonished at the spontaneous concert that had taken over his rooms. He was a man who, from long experience, could shrewdly assess what sort of price a run-of-the-mill trumpet or banjo or fiddle might bring, but there was not so much as a speck of music in his heart. He was a businessman first and last—and yet he joined this glorious, ever-enlarging celebration of Christmas that had invaded and occupied his dingy little shop. For the first time in many years, he sang.
He’d sung only a few lines, though, before the tall, pale man pinned him in his gaze. His voice halted as a sensation as of ice water pouring down his back made him gasp. The spiritual gravity of Laurel’s music was powerful, however, and the heavy man found himself uncommonly stressed, as if he were a planet caught simultaneously in two mighty gravitational fields—Laurel’s sun-like influence on the one hand, and that of a black hole on the other. His mouth opened and closed like that of a fish drowning in air, but he couldn’t manage to produce so much as a syllable. His eyes, too, were fish-like, wide and blank under the baleful stare of the tall, pale presence across the room.
Laurel intended only the merest sliver of time between one piece and the next, but as she finished a carol, that tiny lull was all the pale man needed. In that slice of silence, as his eyes transfixed the heavy man, he raised his hand, so slightly, and made a fist.
Instantly the shop owner’s mien changed from mesmerized to menacing. He spun toward Laurel as she began “Joy to the World.” Stronger than ever, the joyous throng raised their voices in company with Laurel as the newly-mad man began to shove his way through them.
Near the front of the shop, Jack completed Laurel’s new traveling wardrobe. He set a pair of small boots on top of a short stack of shirts, socks, coveralls, and a few other odds and ends. Then he pulled a handful of coins from his pocket and counted. Should be enough. He started toward the counter at the rear of the shop—and found himself, like the others, compelled to join in the singing.
Suddenly, the shop owner stood glowering before Laurel. Eyes closed, soaring on waves of glorious music, she was oblivious to the threatening bulk before her.
Lunatic fire filled the man’s eyes as he roared, “Whaddya think yer doin’?” and snatched the violin and bow from Laurel’s grasp. Stunned, she could only stare at this unexpected nemesis.
The crowd went silent but for a few isolated murmurs. The unhinged man waggled the bow in Laurel’s face and raged, “This ain’t for kids, dammit! This here’s a fine old instrument! Ya keep yer little mitts…”
Laurel took a step back. The absurdity of the man’s claim about the violin, which he clutched as if it were a chicken he was about to strangle for his supper, stunned her.
“Fine?” she said at last, cutting him off, incredulous. She leaned forward. “It’s junk!”
The madman exploded. “You don’t talk back to me, missy!”
He had gone, in mere moments, from confused to indignant to possessive to enraged to apoplectic—some of hell’s proudest offerings to the human condition. His face was purple.
“You’re a runaway, ain’t’cha? Stolen coat ya got there, huh? Three sizes too big! Robbed a sailor, now you think yer gonna rob me too, do ya?”
Laurel took a step back. Madhouse…
The man raved on. “Well I’ll turn ya in, see!” He took another step toward her. “I’ll have ya locked up…like ya belong!”
With “locked up” he had her complete attention. She was at last wholly present, back from Music, and fully on guard.
Her mind focused. Locked up! …Kate…go…NOW. She shot a glance over her shoulder—and saw the way out. She took a step back. Huey’s wings buzzed within her cowl.
The poor bedeviled shop owner lunged. He grabbed air as Laurel hopped backward out of reach. Huey launched out of her cowl—straight at the man’s eyes—with a pulsing, menacing drone. The unexpected aerial assault broke the man’s thrust, and sent him reeling backwards, hands flailing to save his eyes. Laurel turned and ran for the door.
Jack saw most of this and, overcoming his astonishment, fired a deadly look at the madman. Inspired, he overturned a long table loaded with pots, pans and other assorted metal ware. The man whirled toward the deafening, jangling crash, dithered between that chaos and the rapidly retreating waif until he was overwhelmed by another series of fast, hot hummingbird attacks.
Jack scanned the shop, saw Laurel moving fast toward him. Their eyes met and he jabbed his thumb toward the door. In less than a second she was out and racing down Market Street. Huey zoomed past Jack like a winged bullet, out the door and after Laurel. Jack sprinted out last, clutching the bundle of things he had gathered for Laurel. The three hustled down Market Street for a couple of blocks before ducking into an alley.
Catching his breath, Jack eyed Laurel with grave concern. “That’s the second time you’ve gotten all carried away with your music. If Kate really needs you…well, you’d better try to get a grip on yourself.” Laurel’s gaze met his briefly, then she closed her eyes as she sank to the pavement, her head in her hands.
Jack continued, “He really could’ve had you locked up, you know, and as far as I can tell, you’ve got no help…no folks, no money, no friends. If the cops put you in the lockup, how are you gonna help Kate? See what I mean?”
She finally looked up at him, desolate.
“Let me tell you something…you want nothing to do with cops. Doesn’t matter that you haven’t done anything wrong. The best that can happen is they’ll slow you down. And you don’t have any time to lose, right?” She nodded. He smiled, trying to look more confident than he felt. “Well, let’s go.”