I gave him a name, Frank Sechs, and some of my actual and imagined history, and I gave him a lady friend named Naples LaTour. Naples was invented from a girl I dated in college and another girl who inspired an all-consuming infatuation from the moment I first saw her. I didn't know her name. We shared one class one year. By chance, I saw her after I'd carried my secret flame for over a year and I asked her for a date. And she said, so kindly, "I'm married."
So inventing the character of Naples allowed me to imagine all sorts of outcomes other than "I'm married." I found that these imaginary people could generate insights as I wrote their story, and so I continued to put pieces of that story together once in a while. Years could lapse before another installment.
I just took up interest in their story this summer, so I'm going to begin by posting the initial parts and then add new parts as I develop them over the coming months or years.
Frank and Naples
If I were a writer...
If I were a writer, I’d tell you a story in the usual order of things, beginning-middle-end, and a love would develop, fail, and either revive or kill the belief in hope for one of the main characters or you, the reader. But I’m not a writer. I’m a detective with no skill set, just a hunch or two and a taste for finding things out.
Well, this story begins a while ago, but not at the beginning of it. I was having a night out with a couple of friends at a micro brewery. Tom Harry was winning a dart game again, playing with college kids who believed his story about never having thrown a dart before. Naples LaTour, a woman of some repute locally, was at my side encouraging me to buy her another round.
“You’re round enough already, Baby,” was all I could say, hoping to upgrade her mood. The smile that began somewhere behind her eyes exerted a pull on the corners of her mouth. I saw the smile blossom as I finished my beer, noticing that someone seen through smeared potato chip grease on a beer glass is, nevertheless, someone. I didn’t evaluate the image I’d just seen, and I don’t think she realized that looking at her as a distortion filled me with both a dread and something else, something like a calling of some kind, a knell.
I can’t help reality, reader. This story begins with a greasy beer glass, and the view of a woman who was once the most remarkable girl in my life, and the impossibility of prolonging that view, or that remarkable girl.
From Bible Grove to Spelling
In the spell of monotony on the trip south from Bible Grove, a place poetic and hopeful in the unpeopled map of northeastern Missouri, one has time to imagine how to participate in the whimsy that is in the place names of this part of the country. There’s Fairdealing in the southeast, Bolivar in the southwest, and Savannah north of St. Joe. Savannah was named “Union” until that became an unspeakable word in those parts 140 years ago. There’s the imaginary town of Spelling. I like to go there (“I” being private detective Frank Sechs) with Naples for a plate of Jalapeno poppers at the diner that’s open weekends in October while the Police Academy is in session.
I’ve been friends with Naples LaTour, on and off, for a long time. She’s got a voice that sounds like Dutch chocolate to me, like Jane Fonda in her late thirties. These days she’s had her hair cut short, and it’s real dark brown again like it was when she posed for that Cosmo cover that the manager of the Weiss Market had to pull off the shelves. Her deep brown eyes have always seemed to glisten, as if she misted them or something, but I don’t think she does, and when she looks my way, those eyes hold me.
The less said about her name the better. Once when she didn’t want to drive all the way to Spelling with me, she said, “wouldn’t you rather tour Naples instead?”
I met her for lunch yesterday to try to get used to the idea that she’s in my story. We agreed to let the relationship simmer for a while and see where it might go. For I don’t know how many years we thought we were part of different stories, but here we are. Where will it lead?
Greetings from Naples
I belong in the autobiography of Frank Sechs, but that doesn’t mean I will let him tell you a very tall tale at my expense! When he made that remark about viewing me through potato chip grease, I didn’t know whether to walk out or imagine he was getting into a serious vein. You don’t know that he likes to say whatever comes to mind, whether true or not, and he thought I’d get a charge out of that. Well, it’s flat lying, that’s what it is, and he paid dearly.
He would have you think I’m a cheap trick, to hear him talk. I will have you know that he has not frequented a tap room since the 60s and does not know the first thing about dart sharks. He only mentioned that because he thinks he overheard one late one night at the New College Diner when he was feeling sorry for himself about the lack of a girl in his life. And then I walked in. He’d never heard a civilized Louisiana accent (who has?) before he met me and he couldn’t establish my talk. He thought we all sound like Justin Wilson and tell Boudreau and Thibideaux jokes, I gua-ran-tee.
I am part of the Langlanais family. My only brother became a college teacher with the Christian Brothers. Naples is a family name on my mother’s side. It was Lucia Napoli when she came to America in the 1920s as a baby, and the Immigration officer changed the family name to Naples on the spot. Everyone called my mom Mimi, I don't know why, and when she married Jean-Claude Langlanais, he insisted on carrying her family name into the first generation of their children. I met Gaston LaTour in high school, when he was on the football team and I played field hockey. Our elopement was impulsive, our marriage brief, our happiness a pipe-dream. People in town shunned me after we ran off. The LaTours and the Langlanais clan had not been on good terms anyway, and this confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions about the other family. I got an athletic scholarship to Penn State, and that’s where I met Frank Six.
That’s right. His name was Six then. His grandfather, Reinhart Sechs had been treated just as my mother had been, and had been renamed Randy Six by the immigration officer. People with German names usually took care of changing their names on their own during the First World War, but Frank’s grandfather had come over after the Franco-Prussian War, so the family was named Six until Frank had his name legally changed to the way his ancestors knew it. This was some time after we met and I like to think that I was responsible for what he later called his “year of coming clean.”
Of course, everyone at school thought I was some kind of hippy with a name like Naples LaTour, and the beefy guys who asked me out thought they were in for a night of smooth sailing. Were they ever surprised! Consequently, I didn’t have many second dates in those years. I was feeling down about that one night in November. Thanksgiving was a week away and I wasn't going home for it. There was rain coming, you could feel it in your cheekbones when the wind hit you. There weren’t a lot of people out, a few here and there, and not many cars on College Avenue. Every now and then the only sound was that of the dry leaves retreating along the curb like a memory so painful you can’t bring it back to mind, like a picture that shatters before you can compose it, the pieces falling away, away into the dark. I went into the diner to get warm, maybe have some pie and coffee, and as I walked down the aisle to a vacant table in the back, there was this boy I’d seen playing his guitar at the HUB, and he was having pie and coffee, and he looked up just then and our eyes met and kind of locked. He knew he’d seen me somewhere, I just knew it.
“Hi. I’ve seen you playing the guitar.”
“I hoped I’d see you again, but you won’t imagine the reason. Can you join me?”
That’s how it started. A boy with a line and a girl with a yearning for a boy with enough brains to have a line. And what a line. Before too long he was talking about how my face seemed to blush all the time and how my dark eyes looked so vulnerable and inviting, and how my hair did this or that when the light was on it. It all sounded so true, I began to fall in love! I went to the ladies room to see if I could see what he saw when I looked in the mirror. And what made me go for a long walk with him after our dessert was that I could! Maybe love is when you create a person who isn’t there, and then they become what wasn’t, so, sometimes for a long time, sometimes for a lifetime, it is.
How it got started
It was a long time ago, I was just a cub, away at the university and pining for a love that was not to be. It was a Thursday night in the wee small hours of the morning and I was out on South Allen savoring the loneliness of the silent streets, the dark store fronts, and the stoplights changing yellow-red-green with no traffic or people to direct. A single light bulb illuminated the doorway of Centre Taxi, but no one needed a ride. I felt like the last person in the world on that hot August night before summer term finals. It would be an hour or two before the first shift showed up at the Corner Room to start the coffee and turn on the lights. I kicked a candy wrapper on the sidewalk and kicked it again, and it occurred to me to find a bench and just sit there and wait a day or two for the Sunday New York Times.
The groan and swish of the street sweeper lumbering down an alley somewhere to my right.
If I had known then that this night would replay itself in my dreams of failure for the rest of my life, I probably would never have become a detective. It certainly wasn’t on my career radar at that time...I only wanted to be a landscaper. The air was still humid from the thunder shower we’d had hours ago, and I savored the smell of wet concrete like a corpse. I wished I’d brought my pipe, my tobacco pouch, my pipe cleaners, tamper, lighter. But my Bermuda shorts were too tight for all that stuff and I didn’t want to look ridiculous when I saw my reflection in the windows. This familiar part of town seemed like an empty stage after the show has closed, the discarded programs tossed into the trash, and the set torn down to the last staple. And there I was, a lone actor one scene too late.
At some point I realized that I wasn’t on the sidewalk at all but was walking dead center down the middle of College Avenue, heading towards the stand of oaks where she’d first let me kiss her. The recorded sound of Big Ben announced the half hour from the tower of Old Main...half-past what, though? Half past nothing.
I heard a sob, over to the left.
A girl was huddled on one of the benches that face the row of shops across the avenue. What should I do? Leave her in the privacy of her tears? Announce my presence with the clack of my sandals? Rushing over seemed a really bad idea. When you’re wallowing in the notion that you’re the last person in the world, you don’t want to reconstruct your pity to include a companion. Should I pretend not to see her, but let her know I was present?
I was thinking all these things as I stepped in her direction. She didn’t hear me approach. I stopped about five feet from her and knelt down on one knee and said softly, “excuse me.....I’m ...”
That was all I got out before she took a sharp, audible gasp and locked her eyes on mine. They were big, brown eyes, set in a round face, framed by her dark brown hair.
“I’m Frank, I said...I wonder if you should be out here alone...can I help you?”
“I’m not going back.”
“Miss? Can I help you?”
I stayed down on one knee, no motion, my eyes unable to look away from her eyes, which seemed to look through me and deep into my past, my future, and my nature.
Something in her expression relaxed by half a degree. She said, “I don’t need help,” and looked away up the empty street.
“My name is Frank,” I said. “I don’t think I should just leave you here alone at this hour.”
She looked through the back of my eyes this time. I couldn’t move.
“Well, Frank, you are a gallant boy, and you look like you are waiting for Queen Elizabeth to knight you.”
She rubbed her eyes and looked up the street again, and then looked up the other direction.
“I’m taking a final tomorrow and I don’t know the material,” I said. “I never expected to have a conversation out here.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow,” she said. “What final?”
“Baroque Art History. The grad students are writing down everything the professor says, and I never think he’s going to TEST us on that stuff, and then he does. I think I’m not supposed to understand his world the way they do. But it has been an interesting D to earn, I’ll admit that.”
“When is your final?”
“Eight. I’ll have to get some black coffee before then or he won’t have any answers to decorate with comments.”
“I don’t have any coffee here; sorry,” she whispered, and she looked up again and miles through the back of my life.
“I’m Frank,” I said, “and in more ways than one today I don’t know what to say next and I’m waiting for the door to open and the light to go on and the smell of coffee to bring me back into the world.”
“I’m waiting for a door to open, too,” she said. “I’ve just closed one. I don’t want to open it again. The lights behind it are the bluest blue, and they burn like Christmas decorations someone forgot to take down last year and then just left up, what the hell?, and they burn with the comforts of little blue lies and little blue cuts, and little blue icicles...Behind that door are familiar sounds, bookshelves, records, clothes, and a history I don’t want. Behind that door is a blue, cold wind that makes me shiver down to my backbone on the hottest night. Behind that door, no one dreams any more and the telephone rings and rings and rings and rings, and I am not there to pick it up. I am here.”
“I’m Frank,” I hinted, “and I’m a little blue, too.”
“Little Boy Blue,” she said. Something like a smile crept across her face.
“My name is Naples, like the city. LaTour.”
“Six,” I said. “My name is Frank Six.”
I've had lots of time to wonder how Naples gets off that bench on College Avenue, where she met Frank Six many years ago in the hour before dawn one August night during finals, to make the phone call that would get her a place to stay with her hockey coach for a time while she sorted out her life. Have you? Have you wondered how a nice guy like Frank Six becomes a professional killer before he seeks a career change, how many people he offs, what methods he uses, and what he thinks about this kind of work when he's reading Shakespeare or playing the guitar? Naples La Tour. Was that family name Le Tourneau at some time before anyone remembered? And what happened in that year when Frank "came clean" and changed his name to the original spelling, Sechs, no matter how much kidding he took? Or maybe he never kills anyone, just tells a tall tale.
And not just that. Was it Frank or Naples who first realized that being someone's lover for a very long time entailed a kind of complex psychological theater that had less to do with the peak moments than with everything else that surrounded them? Did they come to this understanding together or in a long period of separation? After they came to it, did they have to work for years to put it out of mind and just play each other "by ear?" Did Frank ever in his life want children?
Why, too, did Naples obsess about the lives of strippers and then become a nude model for the art class? And how did that evolve into the cover of Cosmopolitan that Weiss Markets wouldn't allow to be displayed on the rack?
I don't know, I don't know. There was a moment there on that bench when Frank did not ask the question that came into his mind. Naples sensed him forming the question. She knew what it would be. She sensed him put it away and decide to be silent with her. The entire universe seemed to enter her spirit with that realization, and Frank became its child in that moment, and Naples realized that something in her could respond to something in him until the light of stars became pure music. Yet she also sensed more than knew that there was business that needed outgrowing, and in that dark hour, while Frank was waiting, waiting, Frank fell asleep. And Naples knew that if she didn't get up softly right then, if she didn't walk away, that she would become Frank's love for a year, five years, ten, but never forever, because what she would be able to give him would be a thing needy and on the run, and that what she would take now would be different from what she would need later. In that way, they would never really learn each other....they would learn a mirage, and their sadness when they stopped for water would last to the end of their days. So she left. She walked away, taking her chances that there would be a day for Frank and her. And when Frank woke up and found her gone he was forlorn. He, too, walked away...away from his final exam – he probably took a D in the course for doing that – and he just walked and walked through the neat neighborhoods of State College, wondering about the lives behind the walkways and the Tudor facades, wondering if or how he'd ever see Naples La Tour again.
There's a song by Franz Schubert titled, Frühlingstraum, a song just before the middle of his long cycle of songs about an alienated man walking into the great unknown across a winter landscape. "I dreamed of the flowers that bloom in May," he says on the way to the loss of his mind, "of green meadows and the lusty cries of birds. But the bird calls woke me up in the cold and darkness and there on the window I thought I saw flowers. Go ahead, laugh at the one who sees flowers in winter." Three thoughts, three sections. The music in the piano that introduces the section on waking up to imagine flowers on a frosty window is like the chiming of a clock somewhere, chiming, chiming, chiming...deliberate of pace, lyrical, as if counting the hours innumerable, hours of an eternal loneliness, hours without end and without a woman's nurture...something like the soul of Frank Six that night in the moments before he met Naples La Tour and fell eternally into the unfathomable succor of her eyes.
The last time I saw Naples LaTour, before the missing years that ensued, her lovemaking put me in mind of the arrival of a best friend from long ago, whose name you couldn’t bring to mind, nor the basis of your friendship. I wonder now what she thought of mine. It was an experience lived as if by someone else, and after it I cried like a kid whose dog has died.
For months I couldn’t bring her image into my memory, nor the look of her across the table at the diner, nor the look of her the night we met, nor the look of her across the pillow. I would try to remember by analogy to pictures in magazines, though that notorious Cosmo cover never reminded me of her. That was not one of her genuine looks.
I sit here now listening to a bluesy piano, a bass player, and I still can’t bring her back into focus, not the way she was then. I feel drugged, blasted when I think of that time, as if there’s nothing in my world except the varnish on this small table, the ash tray, the menu, a glass of beer. And yet, I know this is now.
Out of that first meeting had come a peculiar sort of courtship. I wonder if galaxies resemble our coming together when they meet and pass through each other over the course of millennia. They meet, they mingle, they each emerge from the far side of each other, and they move on. Does the meeting of galaxies entail the exchange of planets, of lakes, of a dairy cow, a diary? It this what happened to Naples and me?
Did we bear the same cells when we emerged from the other side of each other? Does a soul’s imprint on another soul affect the blood, the DNA, or only the chemical balances of what is and was already there?
Naples, Naples, your teeth! How I want to remember you!
Thinking of Naples’ eyes is not the same as re-membering them. Set in perpetually round and rosy cheeks, their dark brown essence was one of the utmost succor, sympathy, and fire. They were the most expressive eyes I had ever seen, fathomless and containing the urgent power of oceanic rip-tide. In their power, I was a mere sprig of seaweed in the surf.
Naples, Naples, how did we change?
It was with Naples that I learned everything important about lovemaking. Before her I had imagined the whole of it as a matter of technique and, like dancing, something done according to various patterns of motion. It was in dancing that Naples opened up the world of love to me. With her, dancing became a good conversation at which intent or desire was suggested, nuanced, gamed. The exact motions of legs and feet mattered not a bit to her.
My own dancing was oafish, I could see a difference between us right away. She invited me into a world she created at the moment of the dance. I invited only her admiration, that and the passage of time and the satisfaction of exertion. But the world she offered was irresistible, and so I learned to create worlds with her, and when that happened we were already lovers before we ever merged.
Out of that experience of new worlds created together we found ourselves changing, despite our need to remain locked in a sort of unity. The sense of conversation became jammed by the sense that something unforeseen, unbidden, unwelcome, had moved us into different zones. I could no sooner explain it then than I can now.
We never said “goodbye for ever,” never thought it. We expected to see each other regularly after she moved away. But we had sensed something suggestive of unbearable pain, I guess, and so a day became two days, and two days three, and we didn’t talk, and the passage of hours was like the weight of the sea on a sinking ship.
When we finally talked again – it really wasn’t so long – the ship had burrowed into the sea floor. If we were ever to merge again, what would we need…a new ship? A new sea? A sextant set to a different star?
Oh, table, you look like a mirror in this bluesy light. I am no longer the young man who met and loved Naples LaTour. I am no longer a boy without a star. Somewhere inside me is that boy…his pain and his loss infuse the layers of “me” that covered him over. I think if I ever kiss Naples again, there will be layers of "me" in touch with her, and more than one of her to encounter me.