An elusive musician invites a reporter to tread inside his secret world, praying that what he has struggled to release with art can finally be immortalized in words.
“No photographs and no real names,” the girl who called herself Brittle insisted. “And you have to agree to be blindfolded until we get there.”
We were sitting in a dark, noisy club. I had trouble hearing her over Sonic Boom, the artist on stage creating a wave of sound from an array of electronics, wave generators and feedback loops. It wasn’t music for (or even to) everyone, but thankfully Brittle’s boyfriend F.E.A.R. was a huge fan and as I had interviewed Sonic a while back, I was able to get access to this private show, which I offered to Brittle and F.E.A.R. in exchange for a trade.
“Why do I have to be blindfolded?” I yelled.
Brittle looked around nervously. She needn’t have worried; F.E.A.R. was standing at the very edge of the stage, allowing the sounds to wash over him in nearly visible waves. I’ve stood there, I’ve felt it before, and it was sublime, but right now I had other things on my mind.
Brittle leaned in close, nearly shouting into my ear. “F.E.A.R.’s a very private person, but he says your writing transcends, and so do I. . .”
Her lips brushed my ear and lingered. As a female rock journalist, I’m used to being hit on by both sexes, but I wasn’t interested in a good time, I was out for a story.
I knew little about F.E.A.R., few did, as he was an elusive underground musician of the industrial noise variety–imagine Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music as pop music by comparison–who shunned press like the plague. This would be quite a coup for me.
I turned to face Brittle. “It’s UE isn’t it? I thought their policy was ‘leave only footprints, take only photographs’? So why no pics?”
UE stood for Urban Explorer, a group of adventurers who explore the seamy, decaying, dank and generally off-limit sub-structures of abandoned city constructs all over the world. What Brittle had cryptically described as our ‘little interview adventure’ seemed to fit their scenario.
Fortunately Sonic ended his set just then, so Brittle could answer without yelling. “We’re not UE. F.E.A.R. makes this trip every year, same fucking day, same fucking place. I have no idea why. Not even sure why he’s allowing you to come.”
F.E.A.R. appeared at our table. With his streaming black hair, black shards of leather and straps and ‘F.E.A.R.’ inked across his forehead–he was not the man most mothers hoped their daughters would bring home. He had date tats on the back of each hand: ‘1945’ on his left and ‘1989’ on his right. His eyes had a tranced out look indicating he had maybe one foot still in this world. Sonic’s music could do that to you.
“Is she in?” F.E.A.R. asked Brittle, not looking at me. Brittle turned to me with questioning eyes. I nodded.
F.E.A.R. drove a flat black VW Microbus. I was blindfolded and seat-belted in. We drove in complete silence for I’m not sure how long. When we arrived it was dead quiet except for crickets and other night sounds.
“Watch your step,” Brittle said as she took my arm and helped me over what felt liked cracked pavement. Although blind, I sensed the enormous weight and sorrow of a towering, empty structure just within arms reach. If I was where I thought I was, it was not a place I had ever wanted to visit. I shivered.
“Duck your head,” Brittle whispered, placing a hand gently on top of my head and pushing down, like a cop helping a perp into a squad car. I crawled through a low, tight hole of cold concrete.
Then I was inside.
Brittle removed my blindfold, and for a moment I had the sudden, inexplicable fear that I had gone blind, so absolute dark was the interior.
A match was struck by F.E.A.R. He lit a black candle off it and handed it to me. He lit two more.
“No flashlights?” I asked.
“No. She bled electricity,” F.E.A.R replied then head off down one of the passages.
I looked to Brittle for some explanation. She shook her head slowly: Don’t ask. She followed him.
The room was a crumbling ode to ancient masonry: hulking walls; heavy ceilings and a suffocating maze of dark passageways. My suspicions were instantly confirmed; we were inside the despicable, hideous Greystone Lunatic Asylum. Built in the early 1900’s, it remained in operation up to a mere thirty years ago, when it was finally abandoned then left to rot.
I hurried to catch up with Brittle and F.E.A.R.
We passed room after room, catching shadowy glimpses of human residue and hints of a harrowing life: A broken wheelchair on its side beside a tossed, rusty cot; a moldy rag doll missing an arm; a shredded nightgown . . .
“The nights were the worse. They cut the electricity to the wards to save money.” F.E.A.R announced suddenly, not sure to whom.
Brittle took my hand and squeezed. I was beginning to realize that she wanted me here more for support than sex.
F.E.A.R. walked with unwavering, unhurried determination.
We entered a room that had obviously been some sort of administrative office: desks tilted over, broken chairs, scads of damp moldy papers strewn across the floor. I plucked up a crumpled piece. It was from a patient’s file detailing their treatments: Electro-shock, skull drilling, ice cold baths, extended isolation . . .
F.E.A.R. let his backpack drop to the floor. He removed a thick, club hammer. It must have weighed at least 3 or 4 pounds. He placed his candle on the floor and blew it out.
Brittle and I remained in the center of the room as F.E.A.R. closed his eyes and walked the perimeter of the room, his right hand sliding lightly across the cracked concrete walls, the hammer dangled heavy in his left. Occasionally his fingers would sink into a hole in the wall, always at about the same height. There was writing above each hole, but I couldn’t make it out.
“The screams didn’t reach this room,” he said softly, matter-of-factly, “they pretended they didn’t exist at all. In here all were safe and cozy and . . .” He stopped. His fingers brushed a circle over a bare section of wall, reverently. “Sane.”
Without warning he shifted the hammer to his right hand and delivered three pounding blows to the wall.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The concrete shattered and fell to the floor in a shower of dust. A gaping black hole remained. F.E.A.R. studied his handiwork, breathing heavy from the exertion. He removed a can of black spray paint and sprayed something above the hole.
“Remember,” he whispered.
He put the hammer and paint back inside his backpack, relit his candle then left the room. I led Brittle to where he had just hammered; she refused to release my hand.
Above the hole he had sprayed: F.E.A.R. 11/19/14.
I glanced down the wall. Each hole had his name and a date above it: same month and day, different non-consecutive year. I counted at least nine other holes, but I couldn’t see the farthest walls.
“Fuck Everything And Run,” Brittle said.
“F. E. A. R. We better go there’s still two more rooms.”
I could see the shadows cast by F.E.A.R.’s candle rounding a corner. I’m no sissy, but this place was seriously creepy, and I was anxious to catch up. But Brittle knew where he was going, and I could tell she only felt comfortable talking out of his earshot, so I allowed her to set the pace.
“This is my fifth time. It always frightens me. I’m so glad you’re here,” Brittle whispered and kissed my cheek lightly.
“I don’t understand any of this,” I said, ignoring the kiss. “Why does he do this?”
“He won’t say.” Brittle’s eyes were huge in the candlelight. “I hate this next room most.”
A once thickly padded chair with remnants of arm, leg and head straps stood in the center of the room. Everything else had long been stripped out and removed (evident by traces of torn bits of wires and brackets).
F.E.A.R. stood in front of the chair mumbling. “Who are you? Who are you?” Who are you?” he asked in soft, feminine voice. It didn’t matter if we were there or not, he wasn’t talking to us.
He removed some items from his backpack then sat in the chair.
“What’s he doing?” I asked, but Brittle had turned away, crying softly. I held her, watching F.E.A.R. in morbid fascination.
F.EA.R. pantomimed attaching the straps to his wrists and ankles, then, leaning his head back against the headrest, attached an imaginary strap across his forehead. He spoke to the darkness, in a patient, nurturing voice.
“This will help you to remember love. To forget what pain is, and sadness . . . and who you ever were.”
He placed what looked like a rubber dog bone in his mouth.
“It is for your own good,” he mumbled through the bone.
He pulled out a pocket taser.
“No!” I screamed. Brittle grabbed my arm and held me back.
He held the taser to his temple and pulled the trigger.
“What the fuck!” I pulled away from Brittle, but by then the shock was over. The taser dropped from his limp hand and his eyes rolled up to white. He slid onto the floor.
“Leave him!” Brittle screamed and rushed to him.
I backed away, only because I saw his eyes pop open. Although dazed, he looked around the room with coherence, his gaze settling on me, tears in his eyes.
“Like waking up adrift on a milky sea. . .” He rubbed the red spot where the taser rested. “They say it is necessary. I say I feel fine. No more, please.” Tears rolled. “No more, please. But they shake their heads.”
Brittle hugged him, crying too.
My nerves were already jangled, my thoughts blackened, so when a rat scurried across my foot I shrieked! “Fuck this, fuck the story, and fuck this place! Fuck. Everything. And. Run!”
But I didn’t. Neither did they.
I thought I knew what this was all about, but I was wrong.
The true story was yet to unfold.
Unlike all the other rooms in this damned, fucked-up, sick hole, this one was clean, almost reverend. The walls had been repainted bright white and plastered, the floor swept. The brittle remains of flower corpses were arranged in a row of small vases along one wall.
I knew very little about F.E.A.R., as I had said, but I had no indication that he was a most remarkable artist. His paintings displayed sensitivity and love and devotion and I suddenly understood what Brittle saw pulsing inside him. I understood too how she tolerated his compulsive ritual to this truly god-forsaken place.
His paintings showed a finessed talent manifested throughout the years, although what I took for his earliest may have been my favorite as they were sadder, darker and surely closer to the epicenter of pain.
Brittle and I sat against a wall, holding each other, and watched him place the final brush strokes onto the wall. This one was of a beatific rather than sorrowful nature. The woman, the same tortured soul in each of the dozen or so paintings, looked heavenward, as if released at long last from her Earthly bonds.
As he inserted the new vase of fresh flowers into the center of the row, and bowed his head in silent meditation or prayer, I realized why I was allowed to be here this, his last time.
He did not want her to ever be forgotten.
A legacy of words may often time outlast a photograph, a painting, a song or even a building.
He had finally released her.
Then turned to me.
How could I tell him I was not worthy?