#7: The Rolling Stones, "Exile on Main St." (1972)

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The air in the mansion is both hot and damp: when he veers too closely to the walls he can smell the must; it burrows down into the carpets. In the corner of every room, black abstract forms seep through the wallpaper, its pale green has faded to an uncomfortably biological yellow—a map of sinister continents, new dark lands. The ghosts of flowers—dried up roses blood red and the lavender now a purple almost black—collect cobwebs in corners, the water in their vases gone murky and brown. When he arrived he saw how the painted letters on the iron gates had faded; someone had recently attempted to retouch the N, as if a single gold letter could somehow make things better. 

He got the call a few days ago: he should come to the south of France, they were recording in the guitarist’s mansion on the beach, he could sit in. He had packed quickly and poorly, caught a flight too late from Memphis and arrived too early on the other side of the ocean.

Their revival happens in the basement, more hell than heaven. They grab instruments and pluck and bang, summoning gods and devils, they themselves are goblins, pressing the heat to their bodies so that they sweat through their clothes, sweat drips down their necks and soaks their collars. It smells of cigarettes and booze, undertones of something scraped from the bottom of a shoe. The first time he hears their attempt at jubilation, it sounds funereal. But he remembers not to mention death—not to stir up the ghost of that boy who got killed a year ago. Too many ghosts already stirred in this place.

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They drink wine like communion with their dinner, which is whatever they’ve managed to find at the village market that day, some kind of pale fish sauteed hastily and lacking salt. They dangle cigarettes over their plates until the ash too becomes garnish. For dessert, someone pours too many strawberries into a bowl and more wine into their glasses. A guest asks about the swastikas on the heating vents; someone laughs, and he thinks it odd that someone would be laughing about swastikas in France. The woman at the end of the table says you shouldn’t laugh about swastikas in France. Her accent is thick; her hair is dark and just past her shoulders. He looks at her, for the first time. As if she’s only just appeared, pulled up from the vents themselves, made of the air itself.

And then he sees her everywhere. She doesn’t seem to have a name. They call her darling, they call her babe. She sits on the arms of the baroque velvet and wood chairs, she leans against the walls. She paces the veranda, wearing peasant dresses, long skirts made of crisp white linen, wide-brimmed hats in the sun. She, like the damp, flows through every room of the house, she doesn’t stop anywhere for long, only once in a while holding still where a breeze has come through a window to catch relief from the heat. She is mesmerized and mesmerizing.

One night he walks past her room and sees her writing something in pencil on the wall, hears the soft whisper of graphite against plaster. Later he’ll pass by that room again, and when he sees she’s gone, he’ll go and read what she’s written and pause and whisper the words to himself.

Who’s that woman on your arm, all dressed up to do you harm.

*

I want to walk to the beach, she says. She has already started to gather some things in a string bag—a towel, a hairbrush, a book: Le Misanthrope ou l'Atrabilaire amoureux. She bends down to tie the string on her sandals and he watches as a dark strand of hair falls loose from the rest.

They walk along the tall stone seawall, up to the Plage des Marinières. A man is selling oysters in the shade of a plane tree; she orders a dozen of them in a breathless voice and they both watch as the man shucks each one, the knife as quick as his heartbeat. After the oysters, she is restless; she takes off her shoes, digs her toes into the sand. She closes her eyes and leans her head back to feel the sun on her face. Her nose is brown from a thousand of these leans. He imagines those thousand leans, back and back, back to her teenage summers, carrying another string bag, back to when she was little, carried in her father’s arms, plucking at the collar on his shirt as he carries her across the Playa Maderas in San Juan del Sur, back and back to the first touch of sun on her perfect little nose.

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Later that night he sits down at the piano and plays the chords in his head, B-flat, F, C, over and over, a refrain to drive her from his heart.

The next day he goes again to the beach, alone this time. The oyster man is no longer there; in his place is a young girl selling roses. He thinks of buying a dozen and bringing them back to the house for her, a different kind of dozen that might make her breathless. Instead he digs his toes into the sand and watches the waves punish the sand on the beach before heading back to the house.

He finds her in the library. She looks up from her book when she hears him at the door and before he can say a word she says at some point every girl wishes she were Célimène but not even Célimène wanted to be Célimène. She reads a line from the page where her thumb rests, her accent rendering the French even more potent: “Puis-je empêcher les gens de me trouver aimable?” He hears the cry of a slide guitar from deep in the bowels of the house, a voice scratching its way up through the vents:

Stuff is going to bust your brains out, baby
Yeah, it's gonna make you lose your mind

She stares at the floor for a moment, closes the book, and brushes past him and out the door. Darling. Babe. Célimène.

*

She knows what it is to feel their eyes on her. She sees the cameras trying to steal her image as she walks on the promenade. She knows their attention, their intention. She knows everything about what it is to be worshiped.

*

The next morning, she is gone. They say she was called back to London. He missed her; he misses her. His last night at the house, he sits down at the organ and joins them on a song.

Then you don't want to walk and talk about Jesus
You just want to see His face

The basement is hotter than he remembered, hotter than a Tennessee summer, suffocating and mind-altering. His breath is shallow. The beat of the drums urges him forward, his fingers caress the keys. He presses them, holds them, B-flat, F, C, harder. The air is stiff.

I just want to see her face, he thinks. He packs his things too quickly and carelessly. He catches a shirt in the zipper of his Tourister; one of his shoes gets left behind.

When he arrives back in Memphis, he suddenly realizes what an odd thing it was: those British boys in a French mansion recording a blues album. As if they were trying to possess something they never could possess. No: it possessed them. They keep his organ on the album, one song, but his name falls off the gatefold somewhere between Nice and Los Angeles. Her face comes back to him with the breeze. It says she has given birth to a girl, it says she was married in Saint Tropez.

He visits a church and says a prayer for her, but stumbles over her name.

—Zan McQuade