Francis and the Lights

On a blanket-black night in the countryside an illuminated man plays a piano between two oak trees.

I’m so sorry for what I’ve done . . .

The lyrics warp from his mouth, twisted by a storm-front gust. The distant dark horizon pulses with heat lightning; the clouds turn a shuddering orange. The man leans toward the microphone, his shoulders scarecrow square within a tattered suit coat, and sings into the wind:

. . . and I’m out here all alone.

On the face of it this is sheer frivolity: a costumed man perched at a piano in a barren yard in rural Wisconsin after nightfall in early April, singing a Tom Waits song about being all alone even as he is white-lit by a ring of jury-rigged spotlights, his every move documented by a pair of circling videographers and a handful of crew— to say nothing of a herd of beef cows across the road, last seen huddled at dusk, tails to the pending weather.

But the man is working.

Due to my flat-footed farm boy roots, I am forever trying to reconcile this sort of work with the sort of work done at the wooden end of a pitchfork, or atop a tractor, or with blistered hands. As if work doesn’t count unless it produces a pile of something you can stack on a wagon. But I know the story of this artist. Know how he came to be here. How he struck out for New York City on his own. How he lived in the back of a decommissioned mail truck. How he works long night after long night, no matter the presence or absence of the spotlight. His name is Francis. Or part of his name is Francis. He likes some mystery. He told me once, “I built this frame, and within this frame I do the show I would want to see.”

What I heard there was the word “built.” In other words, in light of all the world’s ugliness and fear and horror and rent due, the surreal scene before me is of course a frivolity, but it is also a product of dedication and perseverance and— if we must talk tangible goods, and from the perspective of the crew on hire this evening— is fungible in the form of groceries, car payments, and— yes— rent due. In other words: Work. In fact, my own presence is due to work peripheral to this nocturnal shoot.

The heat lightning is glowing whiter, and the first naked bolts are stitching the sky. Dust swirls in the spotlights. The wind smells like rain. The crew is rushing to get one more take. “Are you good?” asks one of the videographers. “Can you keep going?”

“Yeah, man,” says Francis. “I can do this all night.”

I like to keep chickens, in part so that I may never completely forget what it is to run a pitchfork. One cannot fix the plumbing with a song, one cannot dance a heart bypass, the poet’s pen will rarely adjust your carburetor. But as the singer leans into his song once more, I am grateful for that tenacious, indefatigable, powerfully frivolous element of humankind that drives some to stand out there all alone in a frame of their own making, working, yes, working, facing the distant dark horizon from the center of their own infinitesimal heat lightning flash.

– from “Francis and the Heat Lightning,” in Roughneck Grace

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