Nothing Dies

Chapter 2

I wake up with the dream in mind--a memory of the dream. I recall the vivid images in sequence, examine them repeatedly, clarifying, verifying details. I can still envision it. I can see Fidel soaked with sweat. Ramonís voice stays with me--the way he said, "Muy bien amigo, Keith."

Turning in the darkness, I run my hand under the cool linen bedsheet, reaching for the warm spot where Dawn sleeps beside me. She stirs as I touch her thigh. Her rhythmic breathing moves the quilt covering her shoulder. I wonder if sheís dreaming.

The red digits of the alarm clock beside her remind me of the control panel in my dream. I can still hear Fidel as he yells out, "Aiee! Ciení treinta y cinco! No bueno."

I want to wake Dawn. I want to tell her I had this dream of Keith at the mushroom farm. More than that, I want to go back to the dream, to continue it, to know what happens next. A sensation something like supernatural belief comes over me.

Iím lying in bed at 3 a.m. and Iím thinking it was just a dream constructed from memories, fantasies, my subconscious mind. I am also thinking that this dream could have actually occurred in some way. In reality--not simply inside of my head. A part of me does not believe this at all. Another part of me dwells upon the notion that Keith might have been trying to reach me from some life-after-death dimension. I decide to try going back to sleep to revisit the dream.

Come morning, the memory of the dream is still with me. I slept but I donít remember dreaming again.

Dawn rises.

"I had a strange dream last night, baby."

"Hmm. Did you write it down?" she says, still in a haze.

Dawn knows I donít record my dreams. She keeps notes of hers in a dream book. It is always by her nightstand. As long as Iíve known her, sheís been working on improving her natural ability to experience "lucid dreams"--in which the dreamer is conscious of dreaming and is able to exert control over what occurs.

"No, didnít write it down but I remember it. It was about Keith. He came to the farm to see me. He looked like a saint. But thatís how he looked--to me anyway--when he was alive."

"Cool. Then what happened?"

"Nothing. I canít remember how it ended. It just faded and I woke up. I saw him standing there in the hallway. Before that, I was setting up the equipment for a cookout. Afterwards, the men kept saying someone wanted to see me. They insisted he was a friend, a very good friend, someone special. They said the name, ĎKeith.í I didnít really believe it. But when I went back into the plant, there he was."

"You should write it down. You might forget the details." Dawn has a one-track mind about things like this.

"I wonít forget. But I canít recall the ending. I donít know why he was there, or what happened next. It just faded when I saw him. It was weird. It felt like it was really happening."

"Maybe it was," she replies in a way that finalizes the conversation. With that, she disappears into her studio to curl up with a cup of tea and the morning paper.

I stand by her doorway sniffing oil-paint and turpentine. I light a cigarette. A painting of a naked man carrying a machine gun blocks my view of her. I want to keep talking about the dream. Iím feeling uneasy about the way it ended without a resolution. I want to try and make sense out of it.

"I wish I could remember the ending. It doesnít feel right. There must be more to it."

Dawn peers out from behind her newspaper. Half-hidden from my view by her unfinished painting. She tries encouragement.

"Maybe you will remember more of it. Keeping a diary can be a catalyst, causing you to remember..."

"...or invent," I add, interrupting her train of thought in mid-sentence. I walk away--upstairs, to trains of my own, closing doors behind me.

I havenít been up here all summer. Throwing the main power switch now mostly causes a big buzz. A few engines start slow crawls over oxidized track. Some just stay stuck where they are, heating up. The landscapes and mirrors are coated with an even layer of dust. Itís good to go fishing, boating, sunbathing. Why do I feel guilty now? Because it is far easier to keep up with maintaining these models than to face the chore of getting them back in shape all at once. Iím wasting time already. Giving the whole space a once-over will get me involved again.

It can be a fall clean-up. Then the trains will run all winter. I can add new track, replace burned-out bulbs and switches, make some changes, see what happens.

The first thing is to remove all the engines and cars. Thereís a clean patch beneath each one, surrounded by little acres of dust. The mirrored artscape reminds me of Marcel Duchampís ďLarge GlassĒ at the Philadelphia Museum. After years of not attending to the piece, he affixed the dust that had settled upon it -- a natural addition, a chance occurrence untouched by his hand, esthetic proof of the passage of time.

I can imagine something similar happening here when I die. This stuff is so complicated, no one will want to touch it. Gabe and Adam could do it though--maintenance, repair, replacement. They could even add to it, extend it. They helped me construct it, in fits and starts, the way kids do things. They would take an avid interest in my work for brief periods, bring their friends upstairs to see their dadís fantastic psychedelic railroad. Then theyíd lose enthusiasm in favor of videogames, skateboards, or girlfriends.

Sometimes, I donít see them for a while. Then when theyíre ready for a visit, we come up here first. I show them a new layout or lighting effect and they get all excited again. Especially Gabe. He knows the construction and wiring backwards and forwards. His solder joints are as good--better--than mine. At art shows he keeps the trains running while Iím busy with guests.

For Adam, itís the artwork that turns him on. Heís painted and installed some major pieces. At the show I did in Kutztown, for the New Arts Program, where the painting Keith had done on the floor years earlier is still in place, Adam cut and fit my canvas into and around Keithís image. It fit like a dream.

Iím glad both boys got to know Keith. They would come up to New York and stay at my studio. Sometimes weíd stop in to see what Keith was up to and end up staying all day. He always opened up more with the kids. When he was working, he could ignore you for hours, just smiling at you once in awhile. But when the kids were there, he would cater to them, sign posters, tee-shirts, ask them about their lives and their interest in art.

Thatís what struck me most deeply about Keith. It wasnít a coincidence that the first image to earn him a worldwide audience was the crawling infant. Often referred to as the ďradiant child,Ē it became a universal symbol--for the perfect, innocent inner child in everyone.

That first pictogram appeared on the streets of New York in early 1980. It was before Keith started doing subway drawings. His reputation was limited to the street artists, some people from the School of Visual Arts, and those of us back home--Kutztown and nearby Reading, PA--who knew him as a young man from our area who was in New York, studying and making art.

He peppered the city with images of the little infant. It was his tag, his signature. When you saw the baby--uptown, downtown, anywhere--you knew Keith had been there.

Soon the subway drawings appeared. I was subletting Bob Berlindís studio on West 20th Street. Every few days, I would encounter a new drawing. The sureness of line, the perfect composition, the incredible energy and mystery of those early drawings blew people away. Keith was unknown to most of the world, to the throngs of commuters who saw his drawings. His anonymous images became instantaneous urban mythology the moment he started to create them.

It was at this point that I made an effort to meet Keith. I had heard about him from James Carroll. He filled me in about ďthe kid from Kutztown who is doing amazing drawings in the New York subways.Ē

Being the sole art critic in the Eastern region of Pennsylvania--outside of Philadelphia--who had a national readership, as well as being the art reviewer for the newspaper Keith had delivered as a child, made it a simple matter for me to just ring up Keithís parents and ask for an interview with their son.

His mother answered the phone.

"Hello...Yes I read your reviews in the Reading Eagle...Youíd like to interview my son?...Well, heís in New York City. Heíll be coming home for the holidays. You may gladly come by then."

Two weeks later, I parked my car on Normal Street, walked over to White Oak, and knocked on the door. I was greeted by Keithís parents, who were excited their son was to get some recognition. Behind them, smiling, stood a young man of 21. He looked more like an intellectual--a physics major or even a librarian--than a ďgraffiti artist.Ē

His thin body and pale complexion belied his energetic personality. Wire-rimmed glasses hung across a somewhat owlish countenance capped by tufts of close-cropped golden hair. His face became animated when the talk turned to art and relaxed into a thin-lipped grin when I spoke of the impact his work was having in New York.

"I just got arrested," he said. He showed me a copy of the previous weekís Daily News. A little four-inch story and a photo documented the "Graffiti Artist Arrested For Vandalizing Subway."

"Youíre famous Keith," I said.

"Hardly," he replied. "Itís just part of this anti-graffiti campaign the politicians are using to stir people up. They canít do anything about the real problems in the city, so the police go after street artists for publicity."

The arrest didnít amount to much. He paid a small fine and was released. But it was the beginning of a wave of publicity that would make him world-famous within five years. Of course, no one could have known it then. Keith was just a kid from Pennsylvania trying to make it as an artist in New York. He had this incredible drive and an unshakable belief in himself and in the power of art to change the world.

We talked about other artists--his favorites: modernists--Dubuffet, Pollock, Calder; and contemporaries, Anselm Keifer, Warhol, Keith Sonnier--his teacher at the SVA. Mostly though, he spoke about the young street artists he was hanging with.

I mentioned my involvement with the psychedelic art movement of the 1960s and that I had worked for the Rip Off Press, in San Francisco--drawing and writing a column for the Rip Off Review of Western Culture. Keith reacted with real interest. He said he always admired the psychedelic movement and had left home in the mid-1970s to ďbecome a hippie.Ē We laughed about how, by then, it was too late, that he must have been the last one--the last hippie, reading On The Road, hitching around the country, smoking grass, dropping acid, expecting the world to wake up to the Aquarian Age.

When it was time to leave, I said I hoped we could get together again soon. He mentioned he needed a ride back to New York. I was going back too. We made a date for after the first of the year. For some reason, I said, "I love you, man," as I shook his hand. He smiled. I left.

"Art, itís almost time for lunch. Are you hungry?"

Itís Dawn, calling up to me from the kitchen.

"Since when do you call me ĎArtí?"

"Thatís what you want isnít it?"

"Yeah, but why now? For the past two years, Iíve been asking you to stop calling me by my other name. All of a sudden, today, you decide to do it."

"Things change, I guess. Do you want some lunch?"

"Iíll be right down. Thanks, Dawn."

"I love you, Art".

"I love you too, baby. Whatís that?"

"Itís sushi with horseradish and candied ginger."

"For lunch?"

"I got the recipe from Jamie, the gay Black guy at work."

One of Dawnís several part-time jobs is decorating one-of-a-kind ďartworkĒ cakes at Streetsmart Desserts. Creativity is her strong suit--as in sushi for lunch.

"Uh, okay. When do you start the Blue Mountain mural?"

"Iím going up there this afternoon to cut out the cartoons and sketch the forms on the wall. I hope we can start painting tomorrow," she says. "You start your classes at the Art Institute tonight. I wanted to make something special. Thereís pizza too--actually itís foccacia with pizza topping."

"Excellent. Maybe Iíll pass on the sushi. Or maybe Iíll have just one."

Sheís still in her robe, a black cotton wrap-around sent to her by a friend in Japan. Her generous manner in the kitchen never fails to attract me. These free moments together are the payoff for being artists, working at home. They make the occasional absences of cash acceptable.

"Do what you want. So what were you doing upstairs? You didnít even have music on and you were up there for hours."

"I was clearing dust and cleaning the tracks, just trying to get the trains running again. Every summer, I ignore the installation and every fall, I regret it. Anyway, I was thinking about the first time I met Keith."

"In Ď81, when you were commuting to New York?"

"No. Before that. I interviewed him in 1980, during the holidays, at his parentsí place in Kutztown. It was pretty middle-class. He seemed like a boy-genius, just home from the big city. I was the established art critic who was going to legitimize his work, especially in his hometown."

"Did you accomplish that?"

"Yeah, I think so. Iíll dig up the story I wrote. It was one of the first--the first in-depth pieces about him. I analyzed his work, took him seriously. It was obvious to me, even then, he was way beyond anyone else his age."

"I had just moved back here from San Francisco. The Art Institute there was filled with these 20-year-old punkers doing slash-and-burn expressionism, sex-and-violence performance. Keith was a throwback, a psychedelic visionary. I think thatís why I got behind him in such a big way."

At this point, Dawn changes the subject.

"Actually, I assumed you were up there dwelling on your dream. I thought you still wanted to talk about it. But I didnít think I was getting anywhere by suggesting a structured approach."

"Yeah well, I was thinking about Keith. Iím just skeptical about processing this stuff through some system."

Dawn has encountered this roadblock many times.

"Makes you feel like youíre back in Catholic school? Like somebody figured it all out before you got there? And all thatís left for you to do is follow the rules, study the catechism, hmm?"

"I guess. Or just another New Age belief system. I feel like if I start programming myself, then I can never be sure whatís happening is real or..."

"...or just a dream?" Dawn finishes my sentence and, as usual, adds a twist of her own.

"Maybe Iíll pick up the Castaneda books again," I reply."ďI read the first two in Gettysburg. Thereís some stuff in there about dreaming.Ē

Dawn has read all the "don Juan" books.

"Like where he talks about looking at your hands in your dream. Remember that, Art?"

Now I feel like Dawn is pulling the strings. I love her and trust her. Every once in a while though, she says something that shakes me. Itís her timing. Like sheís two--or two-hundred--steps ahead of me. I start talking, trying to recover from the jolt her comment has struck within me.

"Itís too much, Dawn. When you said that. I felt a cold chill go up my spine. I flashed back to the dream--to when I began sweating all over, before going back into the plant. I felt clammy. My hands were moist. I looked down at my palms. At that instant, I knew I was dreaming."

"You know, Art, you were having a lucid dream."

Iím still reeling from the insight. I feel edgy, vaguely nauseous. I wish I would have stayed away from that sushi. I start talking again, just to regain some sense of control.

"Why didnít I remember it before? I read the same book but I didnít make the connection. But when you mentioned it, it came right back. I feel like youíre manipulating me in some occult way."

"Sometimes you get paranoid, Art. You think all women are nuns and all nuns are witches."

"Do I? And why are you so comfortable calling me, ĎArt,í all of a sudden? I must have asked you a hundred times to call me that before. Now, itís like OK. Why?"

"I always call you ĎArtí when weíre meeting someone new. Itís just with people who knew you before you went to the hospital, before you changed your name. Itís a habit. Iím trying to break it, okay?"

Sheís getting emotional. Her face reddens. Her eyes tear. Iím dragging her through the fire, giving her the third degree. I can see it now. Iím taking out my frustration, my confusion, on her. Dawn is my best friend, not my enemy.

"Iím sorry, baby. This is all about my unresolved feelings for Keith. And also, it seems...about the farm. Underneath it all, thereís this feeling I have about the dream. Why did it take place at the farm? Itís like two opposite parts of my life, shoved together. I couldnít make sense of them when they were happening. Now that theyíre gone...itís worse. Before, at least, they were part of my life. It was like making sense of being alive. Now it feels like dwelling on the past, on death."

"I know, Art. Itís kind of scary. But you never let that stop you."

.... I woke with a start. The song, La Bamba, was blaring so loudly, plaster dust was actually falling from the walls.

"Por favor, Mi amigos, la musica, un poquito menus. Por Favor!"

I tried shouting above the level of the music. It was obvious no one could hear me. The speakers the crew had installed in a junked Buick station wagon were connected to the Third Worldís loudest cheap stereo system. All twenty-seven of my Mexican workers had chipped in for it and sent two-hundred and fifty dollars directly to the exporter in Hong Kong. Yesterday, it arrived by Federal Express. The driver wandered around the plant looking for someone who spoke English. I was the only one who fit that description. By the time he found me, all twenty-seven men were tagging along behind him, handing out open brown bottles of Dos Equis and holding their favorite scratchy tapes, lining up already for a fiesta that would continue all weekend.

"Speakie Ing-lish?" said the delivery man. Maybe he thought I was Chinese.

"Yeah, man. Iíll sign for it. Thanks," I said.

"Looks like a real party. Whereís the girls?" he asked.

"They get drunk and dance with each other," I said with a straight face.

"Right," said Mr. Fed Ex. "Takes all kinds, I guess."

I was planning to pick up Keith in Kutztown this morning, after I got some sleep. Somehow I slept through whatever happened last night. That was before La Bamba and the sonic disassembly of my paper-thin apartment walls.

I go to the window one more time and holler. This time, they still donít hear me but Humberto looks up, sees me at the window and cranks down the jukebox.

I down some orange juice, eggs, toast, and coffee for breakfast. The sound is still loud enough to cause the pie plates in the pantry to buzz in synch with the Mariachi music--Fidelís favorite. It must be his turn at the tape machine.

At 10:00 a.m., I phone Keith. I remind him this is the day weíre going back to New York. He calls me by my name.

"Right, Keith. Iíll be there in about an hour."

"Um, my mom wants to know if youíd like to have lunch here before we leave."

"What do you want to do, Keith?"

"Iím not really hungry. I just got up."

"Well, tell her I said, Ďthanks,í but Iíll be there before eleven. We can stop at the diner later--at the Trojan or the Queen City if we want."

"OK. Iíll tell her. See you soon."

"Bye, Keith."

I hang up the phone.

...a knock on the door. Itís Humberto.

"Humberto, que pasa?" I ask.

"Nada. ĎSta sperando para te."

"Porque, Humberto?"

"Hoi, es la Dia de los Muertos. No quiri visitar los momias?"

I'm thinking, "Actually, no. I wasnít aware that this is the 'Day of the Dead' and no, I wasnít planning to visit ďthe mummies."

He asks me why else would I have come to Guanajuato? I step outside and look around.

From the porch, it is clear to me I am not at the mushroom farm, not in Pennsylvania, and not even in the United States. But instead, I am standing on the porch of a ramshackle farmhouse in Mexico.

I tell my amigo I donít know whatís going on or what heís talking about. He looks at me wide-eyed, incredulous, while I explain to him that this cannot be Mexico. I tell him I am planning to pick up my friend Keith today, in Kutztown, and that we are going to New York City.

"Keith!" Humberto says with a belly full of laughter... "Muy bien amigo, Keith?"

I tell him I donít get the joke.

"El muerto Keith, quisas con los momias (Maybe the dead one, Keith, is with the mummies)."

Humberto laughs again.

Then, as he reaches out to touch me, I start to spin--around and around--like a dervish. The landscape is a blur, a spinning green-and-brown smudge whirling around my eyes, until...we are standing on a dusty dirt road beside a faded yellow school bus.

Nearby, down a steep hillside, strewn with rocks, stands a crumbling stone-hewn amphitheater. I have encountered these before, in the Mexican countryside. They are a standard off-the-beaten-path roadside attraction south of the US border, used by the natives for dogfights and cockfights. When tourist buses stop, the animal tenders display collections of scraggly zoo animals , poisonous snakes, or scorpions for a small admission fee.

"What are we doing here, Humberto?"

I protest that I have been taken to this god-forsaken place against my will.

He tells me if I want to see my "good friend Keith," I must be patient and show some respect to the inhabitants of this region by witnessing their entertainment.

I am beginning to resign myself to the absurd and frightening situation I am in. As my resignation grows however, so does my uneasiness. I feel powerless, submissive, captive.

There are a dozen other tourists in the stands, along with twenty or so local villagers--mostly men and a few children. At the edges of the stadium, a handful of men and boys handle a variety of cages containing animals.

A small dog--a terrier, obviously terrified--is led out of a cage and tied with a scratchy hemp rope to a wooden stake in the fenced-in center of a room-sized arena. Two men apply a blindfold to its eyes, tape its mouth shut, cut off its ears and tail...They are torturing that dog!

I rise and scream at Humberto to make them stop. Two snarling pit bulls are let loose. I turn away. I canít look at this. Humberto stands up and says I am embarrassing him. He says this is not real, they are only testing me. Before I can utter a word, he says the dog has died and it is over now. He sits down and gestures for me to do likewise. He commands me to watch the next act.

My heart is pounding. The next act is some sort of gymnastic routine. Three heavily muscled men wearing black leotards enter the arena. Two of them lock arms and climb up on the thighs of the third. Three naked men enter--they are larger, even more muscular than the others. They climb up the inverted human pyramid formed by the first three. Now, three more acrobats, wearing hairy skin-tight suits, begin swinging around on ropes. They jump up from the sides and catapult themselves over the audience toward the men in the center.

One of the men swinging above me is huge. I am thinking he is the biggest man I have ever seen. As this thought forms in my mind, he seems to grow, to become gigantic. Soaring overhead, he shakes the entire amphitheater. I sense danger an instant before the rest of the crowd. I am the first to escape.

Before I have time to catch my breath, we are back inside the bus. Humberto says that was just a show. Now we are ready to see the mummies and maybe even my "good friend Keith."

We are there in an instant. The town of Guanajuato is abandoned. It is a ghost town. The bus stops outside of an imperial theater--dating from the time of the Spanish conquest. The profusion of marble columns, the Corinthian decoration, and the Greco-Roman statuary adorning the Teatro Juarez look absurdly out of place in this dusty poverty-stricken place.

Inside the museum, the air is so dry it is nearly impossible to breathe. Row after row of blackened corpses stand bolt upright in postures of agonized immobility. Others are hardened into permanent slouches. Bits of ragged clothing attest to them once having been living humans. Their gaping mouths stretched tightly over bony jaws seem to be shrieking in terror.

There is no sound. A thousand pair of petrified eyeballs stare at me from dry sockets. The necromantic gallery, with its seemingly endless exhibition of horrifying specimens, is ghastly, sickening, pathetic.

"Te quiri encuentrar su amigo, mejor impiezar aqui."

Humberto turns to me saying, "If you want to find your friend, it is best to start here."

Upon awakening, I felt sure I could recall every detail of this nightmare. I got out of bed, went to the desk, picked up pen and paper, and recorded it. I have decided to take this journey wherever it may lead me. I believe that ultimately, it will lead me to him--my friend, my dead friend, Keith....


to be continued....

Nothing Dies , Chapter 3
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