Secret Message

Secret Message

Simon Jacobs

After I take the secret message from the man at the door, the house becomes rife with codes. I pause at the refrigerator and note the conspiratorial way that Rebecca’s hand wraps around Henry’s shoulder in one of the photographs, as if on the verge of absconding. Her lips are pursed in the manner of a duck. It’s startling—unfair—that I remember her name, that this incidental character has blotted out such a significant portion of this photo, persisted in making her presence known across these years. I see her scarf and remember that it came from Kohl’s, by my hand—shit! I worry that by putting Rebecca on the fridge I’ve unintentionally memorialized her right alongside Henry, alongside everyone else included there, such that the entire surface of the fridge, which is fairly choked with Henry photos—Henry with friends, Henry with family, Henry with culture—seems populated basically with ghosts, these photographic entities unintentionally calcified into permanence over time. I skip across a figure with a topknot and abruptly recall his entire life story, Jared and his old-time hippie mother, friend to Henry, and all of it feels like stolen ground, like attention I should be sparing for the main event: My mind bloats with the sea of faces, mosaic-like, and I feel briefly like tearing everything down, starting afresh from nothing. I tell myself, Get ahold of yourself, woman. Cool your jets.

My mind bloats with the sea of faces, mosaic-like, and I feel briefly like tearing everything down, starting afresh from nothing.

Queen was one of the most popular rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s, routinely playing to stadiums of over one hundred thousand people, and their singer, the late and great Freddie Mercury, is considered one of the most vocally talented and charismatic frontmen of all time. His life was cut tragically short by AIDS. I am saying this because I’m standing in the eastern corner of the living room, which is where these records are kept, organized chronologically by the date of their recording, rather than their release (i.e., Live at Wembley ’86 directly follows 1986’s A Kind of Magic instead of 1991’s Innuendo; the live album wasn’t released until 1992, almost six years after it was recorded). This system is complicated by the fact that the band continued to release albums that incorporate Freddie Mercury’s voice up to twenty-five years after he died, like the clothes of a long-gone relative you keep discovering in trunks, and as one moves forward in time the situation becomes increasingly frustrating: Freddie recorded his vocals for “Mother Love” in 1991, for example, the year he died, but the song remained ludicrously unreleased until 1995. So where does one shelve its parent album, Made in Heaven? In any event, it isn’t long until the bones of the house thrum with sound, and the answer to that previous question is generally after Innuendo, but with reservations.

A watershed moment—no, a pinnacle—in Queen’s career came during their twenty-minute performance at Live Aid in 1985 (a benefit concert for famished Ethiopia, a country that is rarely visited), in which Freddie played conductor to a live audience in Wembley Stadium of seventy-two thousand (and a broadcast audience of two billion), widely regarded to be one of the Greatest Rock Performances of All Time. Famously, their sound engineer sneakily cranked up the levels before Queen’s set, making them louder than anyone else, louder than hobgoblin Paul McCartney or the Who, who were basically a sputtery series of reunions for Old Fools by then. Every band that existed in 1985 wishes they were a part of Live Aid.

Our audience was infinitely smaller. We’d lost our son—or I’d lost him while AJ sort of wandered away (name for a father! I should have known)—but that’s never been a secret; it’s right there in the photos on the fridge, in the bedroom, in the stairway, on the mantle, in the mail that comes with the pale yellow forwarding stickers. Still, these days people don’t know anything unless you announce it. If you carry around photos of babies, people are going to assume they’re yours; in the same vein, if someone pries the truth out of you and you answer something like “his brain was eaten,” they are not going to take you seriously—even if it’s true, they are going to demand a better answer. I waited on a set of instructions that never arrived, a guide to how one made something like this public. I’m still waiting.

. . . if someone pries the truth out of you and you answer something like “his brain was eaten,” they are not going to take you seriously—even if it’s true, they are going to demand a better answer.

Last month, a neighbor lady asked me how my son was doing—clearly having forgotten his exact name—and I thought, how dare you approach me directly on this suburban street, and I responded that “the industry has metastasized into every man and his laptop,” which was a strange word to use, and she replied that it was a hard climate for sound engineers, and for a second we stood there facing each other on the street, her in her leather jacket and me in whatever I was wearing, perhaps an alma mater sweater, and I thought that we both knew much more than we would ever admit, that we were in on the same dark and unanswerable truth. It was a hard climate for sound engineers.

I asked abruptly if she had an ankle tattoo. The way she scratched at the back of her right calf with the opposite foot, I knew the answer before she even opened her mouth: “A whole leg.”

Freddie Mercury died in his home on the evening of November 24, 1991. The obituaries that followed the next day were universally crass and patterned with money; the tone was very much “gay dragon dies in his castle.” Queen’s record sales, which had flagged for years, surged morbidly upwards. It’s hard to watch a contemporary video like 1991’s “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and not be torn apart by what so obviously seems like imminent death—it was shot in black and white to mask the severity of Freddie’s physical deterioration—to not look upon him and his cat-print vest with the nostalgic condescension ingrained of our age and think “cute old queer.” There are apocryphal stories about how, once Freddie knew his time was limited, he spent as long as he could in the studio, recording material he knew would be used posthumously; anything they wrote those final few months before he took to bed, Freddie sang for them. And of course there was a moment years ago when, touring the control room, Henry showed us an upstart band performing through the glass and then turned a dial on the board, rendering them mute, and I found their earnest silent gestures hilarious, their desperate hands making no sound. And still I’m sitting there on the other side of the glass, the message tucked safely and warmly in my palm, on the verge of spilling everything, struggling to decode their signals, the voice of a golden god wrapping my ears, five full octaves wide, enough for anyone to crawl inside.

Simon Jacobs is the author of SATURN, a collection of David Bowie stories available from Spork Press. He writes the monthly "Masterworks" series for the Paper Darts e-newsletter, and may be found at

Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.

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