Arthur Nagel is an ugly, little man. He stands barely four feet tall, and his head is much too big for his body. The muscles on the left side of his face are totally paralyzed causing his face to droop. Because of his looks, most people think Arthur is mentally deficient. He is not.
Arthur lives on East Fifth Street in Los Angeles—sometimes called “The Nickel” or “Skid Row.” He resides in the “City of Angels Hotel,” Room 821. If you live in this place, you’re on the edge of the world. You can get a room for a night or a lifetime. Most of Arthur’s monthly disability check goes to paying for this room, which includes a bed, two chairs, a bedside table with a small lamp, a dresser, a microwave oven, and a mini-refrigerator. No television. No radio. The only window in the room looks down eight floors onto a trash-filled alley. Unlike most living quarters, there are no collected objects from an earlier life—no sense of gathered time.
Only two outsiders ever come into this room—one is Eddie Sellers, an old drunk who lives on the seventh floor. He pays Eddie a few bucks to run errands—trips to the grocery store, the liquor store, and sometimes the laundromat. The other is Brother Thomas, from the local mission, who comes by once a month bringing his message for the sick and infirm. He has never made the lame walk or the blind see, but he does carry a big King James Bible full of platitudes and beatitudes, which are recited with evangelistic enthusiasm, so as to give Arthur hope. The only time Arthur leaves #821 is to walk down the hall to the bathroom.
Arthur Nagel would be considered just another peculiar loner if not for his amazing talent. He is a master musician—an expert guitarist in the Mississippi Delta style. Arthur spends most of his days sitting on the edge of his bed drinking Seagram’s 7 from a Dixie Cup and playing his ancient acoustic guitar. Since Arthur has trouble forming some words, he has learned to use his voice as a musical instrument to improvise solos over finger-picked guitar chords. Using only the right side of his mouth, he creates unique sounds—high wailing tones, almost animal-like in their intensity. He runs through notes and phrases that are inside and outside the blues, and some that are missing from the twelve-tone Western music scale altogether.
Arthur’s only reprieve, from the sameness and solitude of his existence, is an occasional visit from his one and only fan. Actually, it’s not a visit, because the boy never comes into the room. He just sits in the hallway across from Arthur’s closed door and listens to him play. When the boy hears something he likes, he claps. This has been going on for months. The two music lovers have never met.
Brother Thomas is a handsome middle-aged man with a long nose and a smooth face. His brown hair is combed straight back on his head. Today, he’s dressed in a white shirt, a skinny black tie, gray slacks, and black shoes. At this moment, the whole of Arthur’s tiny room is filled by his impressive voice.
“Heavenly Father have mercy on this simple man. Lord, may the words you spoke at the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ bring him comfort in these difficult times…
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
In thy holy name Lord—Amen.”
“All over,” thinks Arthur. The dramatic prayer is always the grand finale.
Brother Thomas closes his bible and gets up from the chair. For almost an hour, he has been sitting knee to knee with Arthur, who’s perched on the edge of the bed.
“Arthur, I talked to a friend of yours yesterday at the mission.”
Arthur looks up—surprised. For as long as he can remember, he’s never heard the word “friend” associated with his name.
“His name is Adam. He told me he comes over here and listens to you play guitar—claims you’re something special.”
Arthur shakes his head in denial.
“I don’t know him,” mutters Arthur. “The boy just sits out in the hall.”
“I don’t know much about him myself,” says Brother Thomas. “I do know the boy is really sick—fourteen years old and already a junkie. He’s been hustling the street since he was eleven. Now, he has full-blown AIDS. He’s going down fast and has absolutely no interest in making a fight of it. The crowd he used to run with won’t come near him now. Even the folks at the mission don’t like him hanging around.”
Brother Thomas pauses and runs his right hand through his hair as if he’s pondering something.
Then he waves to Arthur and says, “Got to finish my rounds. I’ll drop in next month to see how you’re doing.”
And then he’s out the door and gone.
Just after nightfall, the rain starts. As Arthur gets up to close the window, someone knocks at the door. Arthur keeps quiet hoping that whoever it is will go away. But the knock comes again—this time a little louder. So he moves closer to the door and calls out, “Who’s there?”
From the other side of the door, there’s a fit of violent coughing. Then a voice.
“Mr. Nagel, my name is Adam. Could I please speak with you a minute?”
Arthur immediately recognizes the name but is still hesitant to open the door.
“It’s late,” says Arthur.
The boy notices the strange blurring of words—muffled, as if the sound is coming from inside a can.
“Can you help me?” asks the boy.
Arthur opens the door slightly, keeping the chain latched.
“How can I help?”
For a few seconds, there is no reply. Then quietly, with an obvious effort, the boy says, “I need a place to stay.”
Arthur unlatches the chain and opens the door.
The kid stands in the doorway with his head slightly bowed. Pale and skinny with jet-black hair and dark eyes that shine like drops of oil. He is wet from the rain and clearly exhausted.
“Would you like to come in and sit down?”
Adam looks up, and for the first time, gets a look at Arthur Nagel. He studies the man’s warped features and realizes why he has never seen him outside of his room. If there had been any more space available for hurt inside his body, the sight of this heartbreaking little man would have filled it.
“Mr. Nagel I hate to bother you, but I have nowhere else to go.”
To keep from falling, the boy leans against the doorjamb.
“Would you like something to drink—some water or something?” asks Arthur.
Before the boy can answer, he drops facedown just inside the door.
Shadowed in the half-light of a table lamp, Arthur stands next to the bed watching. He reaches out with his left hand and gently pats the boy on the shoulder.
Time has stopped. Adam knows he is sinking—mind moving in dark circles—rolling in the blackness—sick and moving further away. It’s getting harder to breathe, and it seems that his heart might stop at any time. He is ready to exit this place—tired of being a prisoner in his own ravaged body. This has been a long time coming. Now it is here. He feels calm, relieved.
Arthur whispers, “If God doesn’t speak now, then God never speaks.”Nothing. Silence.
Adam opens and closes his eyes. There is a moaning sound as if the boy is trying to say something. He groans in his sleep and starts to cough again—blood on the pillow. Arthur bends down to see if he is still breathing. He lays his ear on the boy’s chest—no beating heart—no sound at all.
Arthur falls back against the bottom of the bed and listens to the rain tap against the window. He stares up at the ceiling and shakes his head—trying to clear his brain. He considers the word “friend.” He thinks about the wall he has been busy constructing around himself for so many years—an ugly, little freak determined to keep out all of the hurt. An exclusive enclosure that became smaller and smaller until there was no room inside for anyone except Arthur Nagel.
Arthur pulls himself up to a sitting position on the side of the bed, reaches over, and turns off the lamp. He begins to cry quietly, tears sliding down his misshapen face and splattering onto the linoleum floor.
Finally, he stands up, walks over to the window, and looks down at the rain-slicked alleyway. He pushes the window all the way to the top and lets the rain blow into the room. With the palms of his hands, he knocks the wire screen out of the frame and watches it sail into the alley below. For a few seconds he stares down at the hazy reflection of light on wet cobblestones, then he turns and walks to the closet.
Arthur takes out his guitar, walks back across the room, and props it next to the window. He pulls a chair over, climbs up, and lowers himself onto the windowsill—legs dangling over the edge of the building.
He reaches back and picks up his baby—the only comfort he’s ever really known.
Closing his eyes, he leans lovingly over the smooth, wooden curves.
And from the eighth floor of a hotel, somewhere on “Skid Row,” a bluesman, balanced on a ledge, coaxes stiletto notes from an old guitar. He sings in mournful wails that cut through the haze like lightning—igniting the murky space with a supernatural fire that burns for a while—then goes cold.