|Jan/Feb 2010 Nonfiction|
The Family Doctor Circa 1925
I was living in the parlor. Decked out for guests. A room for show. And performing abortions in the back room.
I was a professional. Mattress on the floor in the back room. Access to hot water. Lots of clean towels.
I drank tea in the parlor with distinguished individuals. Real go-getters and pillars of the church. I went into the back room and waded in the water.
Blood-red Nile. Sweet waters of Jordan.
It didn't matter. I was always just going to get wet.
In the back room.
I wasn't a fool. I understood that a house divided. Parlor and back room. Couldn't stand.
I just couldn't find an alternative.
You can't fulfill your oath. In these bleary days. Without betraying someone. Or something.
Come, Let Us Reason Together
I was in a bath tub and it was full of filthy and cold water. This wasn't no Cialis commercial.
And the Lite Brite Man. Man of lights. Came and got in the tub with me.
It was cold and loathsome in the water.
So we were just sitting there looking at each other. In the cold and filthy tub. Shivering and clutching our knees to our chests.
And he said, "This sucks."
And I said,"Yeah."
Then he stood up.
And the birds went crazy.
An American Passport
There was a great storm. And it hit the land. There were twisters and cyclones. In several counties there were reports. Entire roads had been erased or confused. Didn't lead to places they used to. Couldn't get there from here.
I sat out the whole ordeal in a root cellar with a Texaco map. Plotting courses. Seeking new routes. Clinging to my last coordinate.
Reports came in from Denver. From Salt Lake City. From Pittsburgh and Detroit.
And then came the new morning. When you open the doors of the storm shelter. Crawl out. Like Columbus. And discover America.
But every time the sun came up. I was still here. A thousand miles from home. And that map didn't illuminate the way forward any more than it ever had.
Ten foot dust-drifts up against my cabin door.
I dreamed of Zion in the land of exile. Couldn't open the door. Gateway to the West. Some St. Louis. Other than the actual St. Louis.
And sometimes a great notion.
And sometimes you go down twice and only come up three times.
And sometimes you walk on water.
Republic of dreams.
The longing of the ages.
Be True To Your School (For Brian Wilson)
I was in Paris waiting in the receiving line to shake hands with Benjamin Franklin. I was next in line.
And wouldn't you know it. Suddenly the Baal Shem Tov was there. He started singing and clapping his hands. Dancing around like an idiot. I was mortified.
And then before I knew it, St. Francis of Assisi was there too. And he started singing as well. Clapping along with the Besht, and even providing counter rhythms and interesting percussionary variations. Getting his groove on. It was disgusting.
And before I knew it Krishna was leading a bunch of Gopi Girls in some really sweet close harmonies. The cast of Hair started singing "The Age of Aquarius." And Shirley Caesar started stalking the stage doing a sweet version of "Satisfied Mind", which figured perfectly as a a kind of counter-melody.
And Little Richard was there too. And Marvin Gaye. And Chuck Berry. And Jerry Lee Lewis. And Jimmie Rodgers. And comically, Donovan. (He was a hoot. In his feathers and kaftans.)
I can't tell you how deeply ashamed I was. Like I was a rube.
It came my turn to shake the hand of Benjamin Franklin. Make my impression as an up and comer. A real go-getter and booster of Liberty.
And I couldn't help myself. I did the Georgia Crawl. I did the Watusi. I just lost it with the Quawwali singers. Like a native son of the land of a thousand dances.
I like it like that.
My face burning with shame. Like I was vomiting. Like I couldn't help myself.
And then my turn came. And Benjamin Franklin shook my hand.
And didn't even notice the choir that had come with me. Didn't seem to hear the songs or the chants or the drums.
It was then that the Besht. Baal Shem Tov. Leaned over to me. And said. This is what he said:
Let us do our living right down here.
Let us do our living right down here.
Let us do our living right down here.
Let us do our living right down here.
And he pointed to the Rev. Gary Davis Jr. And gave a shout out.
Suddenly, Benjamin Franklin turned to me. I mean he was already shaking the hand of the guy in line after me. He was wearing a tux. It was then that he turned to me and whispered:
Viva la revolucion!
Dancing With Angels
I woke myself up laughing. I was standing in a Freudian Pulpit. And I knew that--that is was a Freudian Pulpit--by the fact that it was made of glass and I wasn't wearing any pants.
This is in the dream, you understand.
And I was holding forth. And I was preaching the Word of God. Really quite eloquent. From my glass pulpit. And you could see the reaction.
The congregation was falling out. Riding high. Cockles were warmed and shouts were heard. They were rocking and rolling. People of God. Ecstatic dancing and some barking. Quaking and twirling. The pews themselves seemed to be undulating.
But there was nothing but jibber jabber coming out of my mouth. It was hysterical. I would blubber nonsense and syllables and they would catch each and every break--like some James Brown routine. Down on my knees. And they were lost in the music. Some weird sufi dream. Hearing music in the noise.
And there was nothing I could do to break the spell. I told dirty limericks. I did Tiny Tim impersonations. And they just kept hearing something else. Grooving to the righteous beat.
No matter what I said. They grooved to the righteous beat.
Last thing I remembered before I woke up. Last thing I remembered, was wiping my eyes. Slapping my knee. Really cracked me up. I woke up with my stomach hurting.
Too damn funny.
And then I just gave in and danced.
Dig that righteous rhythm, boys and girls. It's gone Daddy, gone.
Shadowboxing with Bob Dylan (Handy Dandy)
I was listening to the kneeling drunkard's plea. I was singing about how that dirty rotten coward. Laid Mr. Howard. In his grave.
I'd gone down twice and wondered how many more times I'd come up.
I made it clear that I was going down the road feeling bad.
(I'm just saying. I'd done my research. I was becoming an American.)
I said: "Where's the beef?"
I said, "Choosey mothers choose 'Jiff'".
And I said, "You deserve a break today."
I nailed it, boys. You should have seen me. The look on their faces? Butter don't melt in this mouth.
I was alive. With style.
The old Scandanavians dancing on the Lawrence Welk show. They started to get surly. They waved fists on arms that were encased in powder blue polyester. They wielded champagne bottles and batons. I was so of a different age. There were fifty years of denial on their shoulders. And no mood to brook it.
It was a tinderbox, boys. Let me tell you.
I waved a little Sinatra at them. No dice. I crooned a little Crosby. The crowd was getting ugly. There was violence in the air.
They had me surrounded.
Reminded me of the time my friend the Colonel found himself facing twelve crazed Lascars each with a scar on his right cheek and a half moon shaped sword. He carried a derringer.
You should have heard him tell that story. It always made the ladies blush. The porcelain doll ladies. That always pressed against the Colonel. Like egg shells. That wanted. To be cracked.
Danger always followed that man like perfume.
I pulled out my accordian. And I played an American tune. It was sad and weird like a Joplin rag. It was defiant and ridiculous like a Standells single. I chorded on "The Old Rugged Cross." I did the Macarena with my fingers.
I did a jaw dropping solo on Jew's Harp.
I was an American. Snake Oil Salesman. Medicine Show Professor.
And the dancers on the Lawrence Welk show.
They saw what I was, sir. And they let me off easy, boys.
I figured I had a beating coming. I was so of a different age.
I guess it's true.
God looks out for Americans and drunkards.
I was cleaning out people's septic tanks and it kind of hit me.
I didn't want to bear the stink of weird.
I didn't want to be erased in my vocation. I didn't want to be a martyr.
Having stables. Of my own. Left to be mucked.
I was living in a bad neighborhood.
I was down on my knees.
I'd stripped off every layer of skin I was going to.
I was a man without an alibi.
Jimmy Swaggart was crying real tears. I mean. Really. Have you heard him sing? And play that piano?
You can't do penance you're whole life. Sooner or later you're going to have to do the future.
I thought maybe it would be good to cash that check.
I thought maybe it would be better to stand up.
I danced with three angels. Each of their faces was remarkable. I was so damned hungry. They were each on fire. Flaming faces.
They left me charred and spent. The dance with the angels. But so much had been burnt off that all I could feel was the lightness.
Like on the morning after.
The burden just wasn't so heavy.
And everything seemed a whole hell of a lot funnier.
I was homeless. But had a sense of humor.
The Main Event
I was wearing my mask and making noise. I was not a fierce man. Put that mask on though. And I was invincible.
Gorgeous George didn't have nothing on me. Cassius Clay. I had a mouth.
I had a back big enough to carry myths. I knew what it meant to shovel chicken shit.
They paired me with the Savior. Jesus Christ himself. He was looking lean and mean. Homeboy was ripped.
I mean. He walked into the ring and you couldn't help but be drawn.
I was big. I'd been hurt. And was pissed.
Still. He wasn't. And that was intimidating as all hell.
We shook hands. He looked me in the eye. And I got to tell you. I was all Mike Tyson on his eyes. I was an animal.
He just kind of looked.
I had a girlfriend at the time. And she was in a family way. If you know what I mean. I needed that money. I needed to win.
But he was all righteous and the Son of God. And all that.
I said, "Alright now."
I said, "Now you're in my ring".
And I said, "Ain't no divinity that can save you now."
Then I said, “It's on.”
And he just kind of looked.
This dude was cool. He didn't flinch with my Tyson. But he didn't return it either. He was just looking.
Looking at something else. Watching an entire different fight.
I tried the rope a dope. But he wouldn't hit. I gave him everything I had. But he wouldn't go down.
I stood there all naked, my fists clenched and body poised to cause as much damage as possible.
And he just looked at me.
I'm not going to lie. I connected as much as I could. There were punches that carried everything I've got to say in this world. And he took them. And gave as good as he got.
My head rocked back.
I just stood there in the ring. My nose broken. My eyes swollen shut. Blood dripping down my face.
And I looked at him.
I just looked at him.
Through my mask.
The Singing Brakeman (A Real Good Yegg)
There was a guy in the alley. He had clearly been around the block a few times. A real good yegg.
"Any thing I can do for you, pal?" I said.
"Gotta coffin nail?" he said.
"Do I? And how? I got Kents."
"Kents? With the exclusive Micronite filter?"
"You said a mouthful, mister."
"You can take it to the bank, son."
I gave him a light and looked at his face. This boy was a thousand miles from home. Sometimes you get so far. You can't never come back.
"Mind if I ask you a question, pilgrim?" I asked, lighting a cigarette of my own.
"It's a free country, ain't it?"
"This citizen says 'yeah'."
"Don't kid yourself, that's the goods."
"How does it feel? How does it feel to be too far to come back?"
"Well let me tell you, brother. It feels alright. Until it doesn't."
The city was burning and we had to get across the river. The old man was heavy. Anchises.
I carried him on my back. Burdenless burden.
But it wasn't that way at all. He was heavy.
But then again. We had to get across the river.
You can see my dilemma.
I checked out the ferry schedules. I even priced helicopter rates. They were prohibitive.
So I carried him on my back. And I don't know if you've checked it recently. But that river. It's really very wide. And he was heavy.
It's not like we had a lot of time.
Don't get me wrong. I didn't mind. Carrying him on my back.
He was my father. It was my duty.
And the city was burning.
But I got to tell you. That water was cold. The current was strong. And he was heavy.
I mean. Really heavy.
OK. So I thought about it. I thought about just tossing him off and getting to the other side.
The city was burning. And I was not yet old.
Between you and me. I wasn't quite certain. Well. The old man just didn't know anything about strange lands. And all he wanted to do was comment on how he would have chosen a different place to ford the river.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't ungrateful.
But we were supposed to find the new world. Weren't we?
That old man never was one to hold his tongue.
And you really really need to pay attention. When you are crossing the river.
When you're looking to discover the new world.
What a strange fate. I will always be carrying you to places you don't want to go. And you will always be trying to make yourself believe that you are at home.
While the city is burning.
Swing low. Sweet Chariot.
On Our Way Back Home
Everything was frozen. Except for the most basic of movements. Hearts beat and lungs heaved. But everything else was snowed in.
Music hung in the air like frozen spider webs. Souls communicated in the trapped looks of model spokeswomen. And the narrative arc of breaking stories on twenty four hour cable networks.
I sat down and watched the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee just marched to their death. Under an American flag.
I watched the rise of Labor and the Pinkertons.
I watched my Big Mama at a George Wallace rally. And my mother carrying a pitch fork.
I watched the giants on whose shoulders I stand, rut in the soil and violate the earth and do unspeakable things.
So that I could be here.
I was covered in filth.
To the point that. Well. The metaphor wears thin. And dirt. Is just dirt.
And you start to speculate. Wonder. That maybe. Soap is soap. And clean.
Is what you get after you're dirty.
Like getting dirty. Is just going to happen.
I was in that frozen place. And.
It was like when you were ten and you changed gears on your five speed Huffy. You buckled and got caught in panicked circles. Until the gear clicked in.
And you started making headway.
Oh my Jesus. Sweet. Sweet. Headway.