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“Joe, I'm wondering if we could get a grant to charter a helicopter to record the bells,” said David, with the kind of regulated urgency I often heard in his voice. I just lay in bed, clutching the phone, squinting at the double image of a clock across the room.

“David, what time is it?” I asked.

“It's three o'clock.”

“Are you in the kitchen?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sitting by the radiator?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see the sign pinned to the wall next to the window?”

“Yes.”

“What's it say?”

“Wait, I need to get my glasses...umm, it says 'AM or PM?'”

“Do you remember why there's a sign on your wall that says 'AM or PM?'” I asked, in a tone as close to that of my mean first grade teacher as I could muster.

“What do you mean?”

“David, it's three in the MORNING.”

“No, it's not, Joe.”

“Is it dark outside?”

“It's overcast, yes.”

“Not overcast. It's three in the morning.”

“Did I wake you?”

“I believe you did,” I said. “And we've had this discussion, which is why there's a sign on the wall that says 'AM or PM?' so you'll make sure it's not some insane hour when you call me asking if you can charter a helicopter, unlike what you've done tonight, which is to call me at three AM to ask me if you can charter a helicopter.”

“You don't need to be confrontational, Joe.”

“Besides, the helicopter blades would drown out a recording. Go to sleep, and if you call me at three in the morning again, I'm going to murder you, as we've discussed.”

“Goodnight, Joe.”

Now that he's gone, of course, all the threats of murder, grievous bodily harm, and scandalous biography are for naught, but David Franks was the kind of guy you really, really could picture pushing you over that razor-thin line between composure and insanity. The thing was, at least for me, he was undoubtedly the most brilliant, disturbed, and amazing creative mind I've ever encountered, which is why my periods of permanently swearing off all contact forever and ever with David tended to last less than a few months, except in one case.

I've worked with amazing people, and I've worked in amazing places. Hell, I'm working in a giant clock tower right now, waiting for the steam pressure to level out in the main feed line so my tenants won't end up murdering me. David, though, was something else. He was capricious, petulant, child-like, both in good and bad ways, and he left wonder and ruination wherever he went. If one's life can be an artform, he'd come up with a pretty distinct aesthetic for his.

He wound up in my life because of a collaboration that finally burst at the seams when he insisted that he could not, under any circumstances, perform unless he was allowed to stop the show right in the middle of a concert by a well-known artist and put a plastic novelty wedding ring on the finger of every single woman in the audience. I ended up playing his part that day, the tape-recorder operator thrust into the limelight, and I skulked around him for a while after that, in what I call his body glitter period, where he would leave a trail of sparkles to let you know where he'd been. I didn't have to skulk for long, though.

“That part's so lyrical, isn't it?” he asked, as we listened to the never-ending repeats of f,r,o,z,e,n,t,e,a,r,s in what would ultimately end up as a four year recording session. I clicked the spacebar to stop, pulled the cursor back, started again.

“Let me fade in the underwater rain part right here.”

I moved the audio around, colorful blocks of sound sliding around the screen, and built up a little logarithmic fade to slide it in almost imperceptibly under the notes of acoustic guitar. Sometimes I wasn't even sure what I was working on—it was one of his projects, a sort of symphony of disjointed sounds based in the arbitrary shapes of blocks of music arranged visually, to spell out words and phrases. Not my thing, really, but he was focused and fervent, and had driven others insane on the project long before it fell in my lap.

“That's good,” he said, and it was a distinct pleasure to get that response almost right off the bat.

“I've got to stop,” I said. “My ears are worn out from chasing the white whale today.”

“Let's get lunch at the Korean place.”

“That'll work. Don't embarrass me, okay?”

Of course, I knew he would, and he did. He had a camera, the Korean place had a wall lined with paper cranes made of gum wrappers, and the woman who ran the place was young, gloriously beautiful, and patient with a tall, elegant gentleman in a long coat. As shock therapy for social anxiety, an afternoon out with David would do the trick or kill the patient.

I'm not sure how I fell into all these projects. In the last, and most vexing, of them, I spent almost six years fighting with him over a web site—fighting, building, researching, structuring, editing, and fighting some more. What was odd was that he didn't exactly know what he wanted, but he knew, in a strange, complicated way, how to tease it out of the sweat of my brow. At times, I imagined it's how a hapless silk-screening assistant must have felt, working for Warhol, but the times kept me fed, with stories and disasters and discussions that came from nowhere, and went nowhere, albeit in a lovely way.

In the last several years, the cancer came, and the strain and the reward got tangled up, and I realized that, in a realization that, while I'd chased him down to be a mentor of sorts, I'd found a whole other world. Going through his library, through his papers, sifting through photographs and listening to the hours and hours of tapes of his work, it was like I'd found myself in the workshop of some great undiscovered Beat writer, and it was humbling to dig deep in the archives, picking out pieces for the web site. The man was, flat-out, a staggering, off-center genius, though his skill in creation was met dead even by his skill at unraveling his own successes.

The conversations were endless.

“What have you done to this machine?”

“Nothing.”

“David, someone's completely reconfigured your computer. I don't have a clue how to fix this.”

“Maybe someone broke in.”

“Someone broke in?”

“Yes.”

“And created a new user account on your computer to connect to Verizon?”

“Yes.”

“Smart burglars.”

“Apparently.”

I hung in. The cancer dug in, clawing deep. He worried, to the point of panic, that the warnings in the paperwork from the hospital to the effect that chemo could cause dementia were accurate.

“How would anyone be able to tell if you had dementia, David?”

“No, seriously, Joe, I'm worried.”

“Well, you better get busy writing me a proper bio for your web site, then, before you get too demented.”

“Maybe it'll be better if I was demented. Less concern for the boredom of truth.”

“See, that's a way to look at it.”

It staggered him, though. The illness, the chemo, the everything. When his kitten escaped, he teetered off into the cold in a long coat over silk pyjamas, armed with a giant, cartoonish net, and alienated half of Baltimore by climbing over fences to stalk cats on other peoples' fire escapes. In the end, she came back, though it was after he'd caught and brought home several cats that, of course, bore no resemblance to his kitten.

At the worst, though, in the confusion and the chaos, the wit was there, and the rejoinders.

He took a trip to California, and I walked him through packing his suitcase, down to making a list for him.

“David,” I called as he clattered around the other room, “You better not have packed a smoking jacket in here like last time.”

“That was a beautiful trip, Joe. Cary Grant wore smoking jackets. It's all in the grand manner,” he opined, looking in on me.

“Maybe so, but you don't have space for the grand manner.”

I took my list and opened his bag. He'd packed a swim suit, a pair of goggles and flippers, one shirt, one sock, toothpaste (no brush), a hairbrush, and exactly seventy-two tubes of topical testosterone gel.

“David, what the hell is this? Didn't you read the list?”

“Is something missing?”

“Clothes.”

“There are some there.”

“Okay, more than a shirt and one sock. And, seriously, why are there seventy-two tubes of topical testosterone gel in your suitcase?”

“I might get lucky.”

“And whoever you get lucky with is going to get a goddamn mustache from overexposure to testosterone, I suspect.”

“Why?”

I just clenched my entire face into a knot.

“Unfortunately, you're going to be brutally murdered before your trip, so you won't have a chance to try it out.”

“You say that, but, you're not going to murder me.”

“Oh, I am, and I'm going to make a fortune writing a scandalous hatchet job biography about you. I'm going to describe your genitals as 'bijou', too.”

“Bijou!” he laughed. “Like the movies!”

“Yeah, David, tiny movies. Indies.”

“That's not the grand manner.”

“So watch it, okay? Go and get me three white shirts.”

Maybe it's me. You stare these things in the face, and you've got to laugh back, or be destroyed. I made it a point to threaten him with murder at least once a day, for the notoriety and all that.

“Joe, this is serious,” he said one night, as we wrapped up a long, long, exasperating day of labor on the web site. “I'm really scared for my life here.”

“You're too annoying to die,” I said, but I knew the feeling well. I just wasn't going to give in, because I couldn't.

I got him on the plane. It nearly killed me, as it turned out. I'd pinned notes into his coat, contact information and instructions, because he'd been having a rough stretch, where reality and David never seemed to be in the same room at a given time, and I followed him right up to security, panicked that he'd be refused boarding, and after talking with the airline and the folks at security, we suddenly ended up getting escorted through without any checks at all, shuttling down the guarded lane behind a TSA agent. I stood there, talking with him, going over his plans, explaining where he needed to go, and suddenly, I realized that, having just come from work at the Visionary, I was still wearing two multi-tools and the TSA had just put me right inside the secured area.

“David, holy shit, I'm inside the airport with four knives,” I whispered. “I'm gonna get shot to death!”

He grinned a broad, almost demonic grin.

“No, you're too annoying to die.”

“David, I'm not kidding.”

“Well, then I'm going to be the one to write the scandalous hatchet job biography of you!”

I tried not to look wild-eyed, but I was wild-eyed inside.

You always wondered with him, sometimes, what was real, and what was a bit, a piece, or a fragment of work he was mulling over in his mind, but I stood there, inordinately concerned that, at some point, someone would find me wandering the airport with a belt full of knives and take up the issue.

“And you're going to be the one who's 'bijou',” he laughed.

It amazed me that he'd remembered that, when so much was slipping through his grasp, but nothing got by, even at the worst, as long as it mattered, in the grand manner, or in the sense and systems of poetry. You think someone's lost, that they've gone away, and there they are, if only for a moment.

“Just get on your goddamn flight, and call me when you get there so I know you made it.”

“Sweet dreams, Joe,” he said, and headed for his gate.

I dug my hands deep in my pocket and tried to saunter out of the airport, knives and all, with a casual, devil-may-care bearing and the composure of someone who's got no reason at all to be shot to death by the police, but I've never had the knack that he had. That day, I was probably just lucky, but then I have been lucky, for a quite a while.

I could go on, but there's not enough time in the world. In the end, it's fragmentary, and disjointed, because it's too hard to get a handle on how to write a history so soon.

Someday, though.

Damn.

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joebelknapwall

January 2013

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