|Apr/May 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream
I can't write about music anymore. It has something to do with my inability to focus on the nuances, subtleties, and intricacies... whatever. For a long time, I couldn't listen to it. Then, I couldn't get enough of it—I was downloading obscure stuff from 30 years back. But I had nothing to say, nothing to write, nothing from which to be inspired or motivated, beyond the fact that some of those downloads gave a clarity to my dreams at night I didn't care for. So there you have it.
Thirty-five minutes ago I started a different letter to you. It was about The Dentist, like this one. But it was different. Oh, it was good, alright—damn good—but it wasn't right, of course. The fact that I can't remember how or if I loved you doesn't give me the right to be clever in my writing to you. And that's what that first attempt was. I won't go back and open up the file again, but it started off cryptically (vague for literary purposes) and was headed in a familiar direction. I suppose I was going to attempt to tie together the odd, medicinal memories of my time with The Dentist with the degrees to which you and I separated over time. It would have been good, Caroline, and there's a chance a part of you might have missed something about me after reading it (maybe a piece of my voice, how good of a driver I was, my Royall Lyme cologne, my knowledge of the microdot doses and how they bubble behind the eye before settling in the frontal lobe... see, here I go, familiar territory).
But whatever that chance might have been after reading the aborted letter, it would have been silly. Twenty-three years has been aborted, too. So, let's pay attention to this one. I'm going to write it twice, once now, once at the end: I envied him because he owed absolutely no one an apology.
I was introduced to a 5'5" truck of a corpsman many years ago, long before you knew me. He'd been dishonorably discharged for reasons of depravity and instability so pungently perverse that he was all too happy to share them with guests given the moment was right—if the fix was properly aligned with the saturnine static in the sky, if matters of Pride were on the table about an hour and a half before dawn. The Dentist held court out on Axehead Road, across from the boarded-up, Baptist College in Palominas. A desert spread. There were skinny kids of indeterminate ages lounging in tree branches next to origami lanterns, ghost-bone women whispering in the corners, and extended relatives gnawing on their finger scabs beneath the mesquite bordering the property. All humans aside, he owned closets full of the best medicine this side of the San Pedro line.
For a variety of reasons, he didn't like me.
I was welcome only grudgingly so. All conversations were of dire nature to The Dentist, and he loved to talk music. I could do that back then. And as long as I agreed to keep his skeleton-like sister-in-law "company" when I visited, the mood was relatively calm. In regards to music, he was particular. He and his wife (whom I never heard speak) had this synergism that played out over the course of the evening and early morning hours. Whatever came floating out those dark windows—attended by the wife, vinyl crackling—was a soundtrack to the diatribes. Rather than ever having to adjust his voice, his wife (as some sort of snaggle-toothed, unseen DJ master) would listen carefully, adjust the equipment, alter the impetus accordingly, anticipate the next strand.
In particular, he enjoyed Steely Dan.
But it wasn't until he explained to me (very directly, spittle spraying on my neck, eyes focused furiously on my chest) that while he was taking time off from moving gear for the Allman Brothers in the late 70s, he would babysit from time to time the lonely child of one Libby Titus—the on and off again girlfriend/muse of Levon Helm, and then later Donald Fagen. It wasn't until the mention of Donald Fagen that I understood his stake in the matter. He reverently called him Mr. Fagen, said he (Donald) used to try and good-naturedly give the lonely little girl piggy-back rides when he and Libby returned late at nights from some New York club, said the girl yelped in fear and ran away each time.
"It was the hump," The Dentist said to me.
Be patient, Caroline. Aja is probably their strongest work, but that's arguable to a point. All those years ago the wife happened to be turning Gaucho, off which "Babylon Sisters" and "Third World Man" are my favorites. It was floating out the dark windows an hour before dawn, and those microdots had run their course for the most part. We were sitting across from each other at a picnic table, drinking heavily to help ease in the approaching morning. His mood had turned contemplative, almost wistful.
"I could tell the kid hurt his feelings, but what the hell."
The Dentist went on to describe his relationship with the odd little trio as familiarly distant. He didn't like to make his admiration of Donald's work "a big deal," so he asked for no autographs and kept his fawning to the sharing of joints, that sort of thing. Fagen's hump was obviously a touchy subject, but The Dentist had heard (as had many in the LA/NY industry) the rumors. He rightly suspected that Libby's daughter was not scared of the unfortunate deformity itself. Instead, it was something more sinister—perhaps even more so considering Fagen persisted in trying to innocently endear himself to the girl by attempting to give her piggy-back rides.
"I'd heard the shit before," he told me, "all the talk: the Night of Lightning, the Robert Johnson / Crossroads thing..." He turned and vomited quickly, then added, "I had to get the information out of the kid, though. She knew something. Kids don't lie. They're innocent."
He explained that there was a picture of the three of them at the Jersey shore enjoying a day in the sun in a little frame next to Libby's bed. Donald disliked being outdoors, let alone going topless, so he wore a thin wife-beater in the photo. He was posed in the middle with one arm around each of the girls. In this pose, the grotesque nature of his hump (upper right quadrant) was pure and stark—ultimately menacing. Of course it was The Dentist's plan to use this picture as an agent of some sort of shock confession on the lonely, little girl. After fixing her some macaroni and cheese one evening, the disgraced corpsman moved the framed photo to the little girl's bedside table while she was brushing her teeth.
I thought the following was a digression, but it really wasn't.
"You know, I could've been anything I wanted in this life. Anything," he gave me the Evil Eye, "but I've always had a Rotten Destiny... you know what I mean? No... I bet you don't," he looked off at the rising purple in the sky.
So back in the late 70s, he returned to Libby's TV room and awaited the daughter's reaction. He told me (with an odd relish) he imagined high pitched squeals, sharp, ear-splitting shrieks, maybe a long, mournful wail—anything that would be his cue to come to her rescue and get the real truth of the hump from her. After none of this happened, he crept down the hall and noticed the light still glowing under the door. He knocked softly and whispered her name before opening the door. (Caroline, if you'd known the man, that image would have made you shudder.) He found the girl sitting up in bed, her back to him, holding the picture in both hands. She seemed to be in deep thought, studying the photo and undoubtedly peeling away its revelations.
Here was his perfect chance: all he had to do was offer a penny for her thoughts, then he'd have it. The truth... validation. The trajectory of someone's life can be changed for the better if one is only willing to make the Deal, take the Ride, answer to the Master, maybe suffer only a bit of corporeal indignity along the way (David Gilmour's wandering eyeball, Seal's facial scarring, Tony Iommi's missing fingertip, Crystal Gayle's preternaturally oversized labia, Ronnie Milsap, Waylon Jennings, etc., etc., and these were just the musicians The Dentist mentioned). So, he almost whispered to the girl, "Whatcha' doin', sweetheart?"
Without turning around, she responded calmly, "Why the fuck did you take this picture off of mommy's table?"
And that's where his story ended and the sun rose in oranges and pinks. I understand now, decades later, why he decided to share all of this with me. However, at the time I felt a bit cheated. Hell, I wanted to know the connection, too... the creative Mojo encased in a fleshy, pale mound that inspired half the groove of some of the great, subversive, filthy, white-danceable tunes to come out of the late 70's (and late 90's and early 2000's, incidentally). Needing more, I tried, "So, she was just a filthy-mouthed, back-sassing little girl, then?"
The Dentist's eyes very slowly lowered from the morning sky and leveled themselves at me. They could no longer focus, but I could see myself in their glass. I was alone and vulnerable, and I had obviously misspoken. The album had ended, and for some reason the wife left the needle to drag over and over. The tree kids had disappeared, and the other women of the house were lying in wait somewhere (I felt certain). My friends had abandoned me. It was a long, long walk up State 92 to the gas station's phone booth for a cab ride. Ugliness.
"Boy," he addressed me as he had so many times before, "why don't you open your ears, clean off your glasses. What is it you think those books have been teaching you out there on the left coast?"
I could hear human-like movements in the mesquite shrubs.
Caroline, I understood the grim tone of the lesson I was about to be taught. He perched his elbows on the table and began rubbing his hands together.
"There are a finite number of opportunities a man is given to change his lot in this life—truly finite. Get me? And while these don't mean shit in the Face of Destiny, they can make the ride a bit more comfortable, you know? A bit more dignified, a bit more Human. Do you get what I'm trying to say to you?"
"That smart ass little girl cheated you out of your chance somehow? It's going to come back to bite her someday, eh?" I was young, but I was really trying to connect with the brute.
His hands stopped, mid-rub, while he fixed my left shoulder with another death stare. Then he went off on a tangent about how his lunatic father had taught him how to swim by dropping him out of a canoe in the middle of Parker Canyon Lake and whipping his fingers with a bamboo switch anytime he tried to grab the sides of the boat. After another four or five beers, I was prepared to meet my own fate there that beautiful morning. I thought briefly of my mother and this pretty girl named Phaedra whose hair smelled like lavender (my first time at 2nd base when I was thirteen).
His wife slithered up suddenly from behind him, put her arms around her man. After kissing the top of his head, she tilted it back and administered the special drops into his eyes—right into the frontal lobe. As he closed his eyes and let them soak in, she smiled warmly at me, as if I should appreciate the coming wisdom, and slithered away.
He twisted his neck back and forth, exhaled slowly. Eyes still closed, he said, "See, they're right when they say He puts you where you should be at all times, where you need to be, gives you the opportunity to make the right or wrong choice. I'm not arguing with that. But check this out..."
As I waited for him to finish, Caroline (as I'm about ready to finish this note off now), I began replaying in my mind those great harmonies Fagen doubled over with himself in the chorus, the wailing guitar solo, the lyrics of "Third World Man." If you listen carefully, there's even a certain aroma to that song: something lost, a beauty that was once meant for something, but now that it no longer matters what it was... its value is sweet as moist creosote or out-of-date colognes, or aborted years.
He opened his eyes, "What if He figured it was just fine to gloss over the circumstances of those opportunities, the details... not pay attention when His child needs His guidance or a nod in the right direction when they've gone astray just for a split second... (see there, boy) a split micro-second astray? And He wasn't watching. He looked away when it was most important so that the opportunity was lost. And..."
He began pounding on the picnic table with each syllable,
"... there... was... no... fuck... ing... dig... ni... ty."
Well, it's about time to wrap it up. I was just signing the final papers to buy the Oberlin house when I knew it was time to write you. I've been awake (in a Van Winkle sense) for some time now, several months I guess, and am through forging ahead here, now, in this way. I'm going Home, it's that simple. I'm tired. Everything I write, I've written before. Everything I've tried to say in the last several months sounds like a cheap, pared down copy of the juicier years. And just like that first note I was about to write you, all it takes is for someone to turn his head for a moment or two and I'm off into familiar territory again. Somewhere in that soft, slow 23-year tear (rhyme with hair) of mine, we spent a few together... somehow.
The new medicine will be gone soon. I'm looking forward to that. I bet you're married now, huh? Two effects of the new medicine have been that I forget words, and I dig into the archives to hear old music. This pertains to you in two ways, Caroline. One: there are certain words in this letter that took me forever to remember, more than I'll admit. One of them was "aroma." Forever. It fucks up my short term memory as well. But I do clearly remember the jasmine oil you used to rub my back with sometimes. Thanks, I guess. Two: "Tonight You Belong to Me," the song Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sang to each other on the beach in The Jerk—we both liked that a lot.
As for the Third World Man, I heard third hand about his demise a few years back. Oddly, they didn't find him out there on Axehead Road where he had held court for so many years, over so many fearful subjects, throwing beer caps at his kids in the trees to get them to go to bed. Rather, The MPs found him hanging from a hundred year Mexican Oak up in Garden Canyon on Fort Huachuca Military Base. Evidently he had snuck onto the base wanting, we can only imagine, to be found in a place where he once had purpose, where things made sense. He was found four days after Christmas of that year, hanging from LED Christmas lights instead of the more traditional rope. The third party speculated this was because The Dentist's father used rope to punish him as a child—but who the hell knows the truth in any of these desert, punishment stories?
I'm going Home.
P.S.—I envied him because he never had to apologize.