The Chair, part one.

January 28, 2017

I started writing a story about the life of a chair, over Thanksgiving. This is a work in progress, and I’m not sure where I’m going with it. Thoughts would be appreciated.

 

part one.

Sunlight jabbed through the dust filled curtains, in windmill fashion as the large gray cloud battled the sun for space. Bright waves of white almost appeared to peel off sheets of brown from the large mahogany chair. As the wave dispersed, a sheer glean would slip into the wood, a momentary slickness the dissolved into the thick wooden chair. If the chair could, it would have sighed or groaned under the waiting and crushing memories of its past. The front legs rested atop a frayed rug, worn thin with pacing feet, intermediate dancing and of nervous feet digging deep into its woolen fabric, while the back legs rested on a pine floor, whose stain was just an echo of what it once was. The polyurethane had been rubbed down by years of neglect not only of the apartment but also of the various in habitants. The scars of dropped cigarettes pocked the rug, almost perfect black round holes that sizzled for a moment and extinguished by the yellowed fingers of its owner, while the pine floor had black stains that could easily be mistaken for knots in the wood instead of the carelessness of a shaky hand.

Dust fluttered through the air, small bits of shed skin, hair, grime, and cat hair from a generation ago, swirling in haphazard motions the sunlight acting as a silent traffic cop to the flecks of the past. The air was parched, as faded as the room itself, almost a relic of itself if the room were full people would be breathing it in, coughing against the heavy stagnant air as if they were coal miners. Along the far wall, opposite the widows and beaten formerly red but now faded pink couch sat like a rock carved over years by trickling water although instead of water it was the stoic loneliness that would have created this sad piece of furniture. If it were an animal, it would be shot to be put out of its misery. The bottom buckled from the past weight of bodies clinging tight to flickering television screens, to the slight anticipation of the next card played and always, always the next cigarette to be smoked. The cushions were so imbedded with the stench of cigarettes one could think that the fabric itself was created from the ashes of spent yellowed cigarette butts.

Above the couch, hanging bent but in proud defiance, as if it were saying “the room is bent not me” a small painted picture of a rural landscape made a muffled announcement that the room once held hope. A field of swaying grass running up a small hill with a white farmhouse sitting atop, a group of grouse flew in the blue sky, the watercolor was discolored from the years of cigarettes and the small film of dust that blanketed it with so much oversight of the years. An end table was at one end of the couch, a single shade-less lamp stood proudly with its naked bulb a literal beacon for the past inhabitants of the apartment.

Staring into his glass, as if the center of the universe dwelled at the bottom of the brownish liquid, it would attach itself to his insides like oil, slowly sucking the power of his liver, his stomach and throat. “Jesus Christ, fuck…I almost out. Fer fuck’s sake,” ashes flicked off the end of the cigarette that dangled from his cracked lips. Squinting, he peered closer in as if eyeballing it would make another splash of whisky appear, “somabitch, that cunt drank it all!” he murmured and looked down at the bottom of the chair. A gallon bottle of Jim Beam was at his feet,  not a nary of drop of the corn mash was left in the bottle, with a nudge he toppled the bottle, “damn!” Pulling himself up, his green custodial pants crackling with every movement he made, he stood up, stretched his arms wide, which was going to be the most exercise he would do today he turned and moved towards the kitchen. With every step he mumbled, small curse words tumbling out of his grizzled gob, his amber teeth biting down hard on every word, the frustration being taken out through his jaw. Pulling his a brown coat from hook in the kitchen, itself almost rent useless with holes within holes the pockets emptied into the nether regions of the coat itself, he felt in his back pocket for his wallet, it too was worn thin not from overuse but from neglect as he never had more than $50 at a time. A reminder of the bleakness of his life erupted every time he opened it, like a flutter of wings but these of despair would shudder out when he opened it up. “yup, I got it.’ Already thinking he only had $20 left for the weekend, he breathed deeply, a small but discernable wheeze sprung from lungs that, unbeknownst to him was being feasted upon by cancer. He turned to check the light and on the counter a small pint of whiskey sat unopened with a small note. “Roy, sorry I got lost in your drink. I hope this helps, Love, Pauline.”  A small cracked smile spread across his face, his yellowed teeth peeking behind cracked gray lops as he slapped his thighs in relief. “That wonderful little bitch, I owe you Paulie!” he stretched his head back and cackled to the ceiling.

Placing withered hands on the cracked Formica counter top, whose split endings had started rolling up their own ghosts some past inhabitants ago, Roy bent his head down, thinking hard, a small sliver of saliva covered the cracked lips, his right hand, unsteady as it was took its time and he wiped his mouth clean and opened up faded white cabinet above the counter. The cabinet was flecked with small bits of coffee grounds, teeny dots of tomato sauce that boiled unattended below it, and smudged with grubby hands. It, like the rest of the kitchen had been neglected for years. He pulled out a tin of tuna and a red box of saltines, placing them on the counter he gathered up a plate, knife and several packets of mayonnaise he had slipped into his pocket from the deli downstairs he then opened the freezer, cracked the half full tray of ice cubes and made himself a drink.

Roy sat down hard in the chair, his lower back sent a few grumblings up his spine into the base of his neck, “god-damn back” he winced as he centered the sea-green food tray in front of him. He had moved the chair over to the dilapidated brown card table, itself so worn from age, slightly bowing in the middle, appeared that it was unable to hold a deck of cards let alone a tray of tuna fish and crackers. Roy bent his head and mumbled a short prayer of thanks, more of grunt of air than anything, he made a quick dash of the cross, sipped his Jim Beam and water and shoveled a cracker in his mouth. Crumbs tumbled down his chest and stuck to the stubble on his chin, which he brushed off with his sleeve.  Eating slowly, Roy blinked with each bite, he swiveled to his right, leaned down and picked up the small transistor radio that sat on the floor. Picking it up, he turned it over in his hand, the hard plastic was still sturdy nearly forty-five years after he bought it as a teenager from the proceeds of selling Grit newspapers. A faded “Big Red Machine” on the back still intact, so many years after Joe Morgan splashed a single to center field to rob the Red Sox of a the World Series crown. Turning the knob, the small radio burst into static life, the soft sounds of Bread, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap combined with the soft stroll of Bent Fabric, Paul Mauriat and Harper’s Bizarre would flood the room for the remainder of the day, lost songs that gave life to Roy’s pock-marked memories. A fascinating juxtaposition of this hardened man with a soundtrack of a lightness that never existed for him.

The whiskey burned his throat, while calming his nerves as he cleaned his plate whistling to the songs coming from the other room, songs that he had heard hundreds if not thousands of times before. The sun danced off the greasy kitchen windows, casting sidelong shadows across his brow, he smiled to himself, poured another drink and sat down again. The afternoons drifted by like this, one after another a succession of emptiness that fell far short of what he had dreamed of when he was a young boy in the small town picket fences of Ohio, the secrets that stacked up like firewood along such innocent street names like Maplewood, Prairie View and Meadowlark Lane were buried deep as if they were smoldering dry leaves that had tried to burn for half a century. There are memories that can’t be excavated, that are so ingrained, buried so long and so deep that they have deconstructed into the soil and dirt of consciousness. He blinked twice as the sounds of “Wedding Bell Blues” brought his mind into focus, for a moment the feeling of unease that grappled him so many years ago felt as real and present as the fading stench of the tuna fish.

The woods were just off the end of Brushberry Street, a small cut-through a patch of tall fern bushes , that hedged against Mr. Studer’s ivy covered brick house, and one was already in the woods, with most of the light blotted out by the far-reaching branches of maple and oak trees. They stood against a small wooden fort built with cast aside lumber from the newly constructed housing complex that had replaced a swath of former train yards where blackened train cars transported coal that had laid dormant for millions of years just fifty miles south of here, but now the mines were shuttered up, a testament to science and that in the end billowing blasts of smoke did indeed cause the environment to choke and wheeze in its own natural way. “Well, now what?” Roger looked directly into Roy’s eyes. Roger was four years older, his cousin by Roy’s father’s side. Standing a full six inches taller than Roy with thick sideburns that made his sixteen-year-old frame appear much older, he was a menacing site, even for a younger cousin who looked up to him. “I dunno” uttered Roy, looking away from Roger’s eyes and into the dirt. A small black spider was slowly wrapping a paralyzed insect in it’s soft, sticky web. Roger inhaled deeply off his cigarette, “you better decide if you are gonna be a man or a pussy, now is the time.” Roy, looked at Roger, his eyes filing with tears—“I don’t know, I’m not sure about this. I think I need to go home.” Roger spit on the ground, tossing the cigarette butt at Roger’s feet, “prolly you’ll  just be a pussy then.” Looking into the small doorway of the fort, Roy could see the large hollow shell of snapping turtle that Roy had dragged from the creek. Flopped over backwards, the head of the turtle, hung upside down, the large sharp hook about its mouth pointing skyward, its golden eyes staring into nothing, it smelled, a pinching stench of rot came covered the area. “I dunno, I’m going home.” Roger suddenly appeared in front of Roy, glaring into Roy’s eyes, Roger stuffed his hands down Roy’s pants pinching his penis and testicles hard enough to make Roy wince out in pain, “yup, just what I thought a pussy!” he seethed through clinched teeth. Roy could smell the nicotine and beer on his cousin’s breath. “I bet if I yanked hard enough, I could turn this pussy into a prick!” Roger snarled loudly into his younger cousin’s face, he tugged again and Roy broke free, “I’m going home!” his tongue stuck in his throat, slashing his arms into his older relative, he darted into the small path and ran as hard as he could. “run you little faggot, run!” he heard behind him.

Stumbling into the path, not thirty feet away he bumped into Jessica Lynn Brumfield, a dark haired girl of fifteen who lived on the other side of the woods, she had moved into the new complex just a few months prior. “hey Roy, what are you doing here?” she stepped back from him, “I’m on my way home, I didn’t know you lived near here?” She was dressed in the red and white colors of the school, the sweater emblazoned with the word, “Knights” across the top left breast. “Nuthin’, see you later Jessica” is what he wanted to say but instead he hesitated, turned around  and looked into the thick thistles then suddenly ran past her, as he heard her behind her lightly singing the “am I ever going to see my wedding day…”

All these years later, even with his cousin long dead from a gun-shot wound to the head, as he climbed out of an office window the song still stung like it did so many years before. He carefully collected the remnants of so many cigarettes he had smoked the days before, piled them in soft brown mounds, and discarded the cottony butts into a spent coffee can, and proceeded to roll the next couple of cigarettes that would carry him into the evening.  On the radio, Maryilnn McCoo continued to coo to her lover, her so far away words being sung into the mist of memory, Roy sniffed and lite a half made cigarette.  Outside the sun had dipped below the apartment buildings across the street, the sky had turned into a smudged watercolor that was left in the rain, smears of purple, pink and blue stretched across the sky, smoldering colors hell-bent on making their last moments of life memorable ones. Roy leaned his head against the small kitchen window, he placed his two hands firmly on the edge of window sill, and pushed hard. The window caught and then gave way, thrusting small curls of yellow paint upwards, “lazy assholes painting the windows shut, what do they want people to die of heat stroke” he muttered and more bits of ash flicked on his soiled shirt. By now, after hours of day-drinking, his head danced a little bit, thoughts swimming as if they were in a draining tub, filled with clouds and gray water. There was no clarity to be found tonight. Roy, poked his head through the window, the thick air of daytime had been sliced into by the cool air of the evening. Squinting into the coming darkness and streetlights flickered on, a small choreographed dance of white lights chasing the shadows away over the concrete and asphalt carpet of the city. Closing his eyes, sucking in the deepest breath his ravaged gray lungs could hold he let out a yell, a holler that almost stopped the traffic below. His voices bellowed high and low, filling the street as if a massive gust of wind had climbed over mountains and oceans. A few passerby’s stopped in their footsteps and looked skyward at the old man whose gnarled face with the tuft of gray and white hair, literally howled at the moon.

 

Karl Hendricks 1970-2017.

January 21, 2017

Karl Hendricks.

Sometimes when the weather started to break old man winter’s crooked back, a large cement brick would be used to prop open the basement door of the record shop that tended to get steamy with a little more than ten people in it. The dampness of the store was always present, due to being underground and High Street having a sewer system that was only a step above New Orleans and the first subtle blasts of warm air in late March was cause enough to allow the inside to come into the tiny shop. The thick counter was burnished over the years by armloads of records that people would haul in, plopping them down on top of newspapers or, God forbid, spilling a beer. Every stack could contain a gem that would be shown off to the other staff members, either to be played later in the day and filed away in someone’s take home stack or to be auctioned off in Goldmine magazine. It could be a copy of Skip Spence’s “OAR”, a David Blue, Elliott Murphy or the proto-punk feminism of the Au Pairs. Throughout the week, orders would arrive from the small distributors that carried a variety of records from bands just like the ones in Columbus, many times Ron or I would base our order off the recommendations of the person who handled these mostly, one-person companies. A few are long faded from memory, the guy who ran “Better Than Some” (from Western Pennsylvania) comes to mind, but we usually relied on three of these smaller distributors whose sole-proprietors made our jobs easier. One could say they were the ingredients that helped bake the goods for the record store tastemakers who dotted the landscape during the 80-90’s. Tim Adams at AJAX (Chicago), Ron Schniederman/Dave Sweetapple from Surefire (Boston/Brattleboro) and Robert Griffin who ran Scat (Cleveland).

Tim Adams was a big factor in promoting music from New Zealand not only by carrying Flying Nun records but also putting our records by Graeme Jefferies, the Cannanes and This Kind of Punishment, he also was an early proponent of the (at the time) Shrimper label from California and was instrumental in getting early Shrimper bands into indie stores (The Mountain Goats, Refrigerator and Nothing Painted Blue). Robert Griffin was personally responsible for championing a little known band from Dayton called Guided by Voices by investing his own meager earnings into the band as well as the shared Shrimper band Nothing Painted Blue.

Walking into the store late one morning, Ron had already priced the Scat order, a small stack of records, CD’s and fanzines waited for me to put away, “you know Ron, we might sell some of these quicker if you just put them away yourself before I got here” I grumbled as I placed a small stack of 7” singles into the a small wooden bin. Without looking up from his paper, Ron sipped his Diet Coke, “Nah, that’s your job.” His nasal voice stretching out the “nah” into a “naaaaahhhhhh” like a piece of bubble gum. There was a pecking order in the store, or at least in Ron’s mind. Overhead, the last strains of The Rolling Stones “She Was Hot” was coming to an end, “Who’s this covering the Stones?” I asked. “That’s a Rolling Stones song, it’s the only song on this record I don’t like” Ron shuffled to the stereo, “Yeah, it’s from the Undercover record,” I was now peering over the counter at the jacket of the record Ron had just played. “Well, that’s why I don’t know it, they haven’t made a listenable record since 1972. But this record is great, it might be the best record of the year.” He handed me the simple black and white cover of Karl Hendricks’s debut album, “Buick Electra”, the cover a cartoon of a band driving down Main Street America through the lens of Danial Clowes. “Karl Hendricks? They kinda sound like Prisonshake, can you play it again?” Ron nodded, chewing on the end of his straw, “well Robert Griffin recommended it, I should have ordered more.” Robert was also a member of Prisonshake. The fact that Karl took a liking to a late period Rolling Stones song was enough for me, as the eighties poked its hair blown styled head from the cracked shell of the 70’s, those of us who went to high school in the early mid-eighties were first exposed to some of the 60’s and 70’s greats via their morphed over produced eighties records, whether it be Lou Reed’s “New Sensations”, Alex Chilton’s “No Sex”, John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy” or the Rolling Stones “Undercover” and “Tattoo You” albums.

By the end of the afternoon, I had tracked down Karl’s phone number and called him at his home in Pittsburgh. Within a few months, the Karl Hendricks Rock-Band, was playing a fairly unattended show with Gaunt and Jerry Wick’s solo creation at Bernie’s. When Karl walked in the door, he didn’t match the man on the record, or at least what I had been picturing which was someone older than me, with the black greasy shag of hair so many indie-punk rockers tended to have, in a way I suppose I pictured him to look like a blue collar worker gone off-grid from Pittsburgh, not the tall boy-ish man with a near buzz-cut and glasses. “Hi, I’m Karl Hendricks, you must be Bela?” he held out his hand across the counter that mid-afternoon day. “Yeah, hey, wow, you are here, um want a beer?” We shook hands, “Maybe I’ll wait until the rest of the band shows up, they are trying to park the van. Is the club near here?” Jerry walked up, cigarette dangling on the end of his crack lips as if were just getting the courage to jump from his mouth, “hey, who’s this?” Jerry asked, nodding to Karl. Ignoring Karl’s eyes, never one to make best first impressions, Jerry grabbed a stack of records to put away, turned and walked away. “This is Karl Hendricks.” Jerry stopped mid track, placing the records on the $1 bins, “Oh man, I love your record, do you wanna a beer.” Us record store guys usually had a very limited vocabulary in social settings. “I was just telling Bela, that I should wait until the band gets here and we know where the club is,” Jerry handing him one anyways, ‘ah, it’s right down the street. You’re ok to drink up. My band is playing with you tonight, I’m going to do my solo thing first, The Cocaine Sniffing Triumphs.” This was the first I had heard Jerry give his solo project a name, “Like the Johnathan Richman line?” Karl asked. “Exactly,” nodded Jerry, spilling ashes on the floor.

Karl appeared normal, almost boy-scoutish, always polite with a veneer of humility that was as authentic as the personal songs he wrote, which tended to touch on broken hearts, figuring out how to figure out women, alcohol and cigarettes. “Buick Electra” is a stunningly beautiful record about self-doubt, love that tends to hang around people in their early twenties like a long dress, always present, and always a little in the way. Karl was the inverse of Jerry, wearing his heart on his buttoned up sleeve but only through his songs, as he could only show his anger or betrayal through plugged in amps. As wry as any Midwesterner could be, with song and album titles such as “The Jerks Win Again,” “I Think I Forgot Something…My Pants” and “The Smile That Made You Give Up,” he wrote about the clumsy awkwardness of love, with the sense of always feeling alone at the party. As he got older, Karl’s songs became louder—as if he were wringing the frustration of age one note at a time, his last few records are nod to the guitar blasts of Dinosaur Jr.

Life sometimes is akin to living in a large revolving door, one where only the visitors get too exit, a person shares a space with them and then they are gone, as the door sucks another person on the next go round. At a time, the door moved faster, building points of contacts into a continuum that spans a lifetime. Where passion trumped everything else, negating a person’s upbringing, beliefs and future, where the passion foisted many of us together into a world built on the love and passion of music to transform the feeling inside into meaning. Sound bubbles bursting the pangs of isolation, one note at a time, exploding in our ears—for a three minutes everything melted together but then the music would stop. We would shuffle to the bar, repeating the stories of the day, feeling the space with words or silence depending on the level of anxiety a person felt until the next song, band or record was played.

Karl died yesterday, surrounded by his wife and his two teenage daughters, at one point in his life he achieved his dream of owning his own record store as well as making records for a variety of labels including Merge, Fire, and Comedy Minus One. Although I spent hours with Karl over the years, in bars and clubs, over eggs and pancakes on weekend mornings after he played in Columbus, I didn’t know him like I would know others who have passed through my life but he made an impression.  I had not seen him in a number of years, and knew he had health issues for a while. The last time we spoke was shortly after he found out he had cancer, we communicated a bit via social media, discussing our children, owning a business and the possible release of a record by his. But, with the happenstance of life that burbles up unexpectedly, we of course lost track—as age made it harder to make the drive from Pittsburgh to Columbus for a small club show, and babies making it more difficult to stay out past ten pm,  and eventually information came from mutual friends. “How is Karl doing” I would ask shared friends Eli or Kyle, but knowing that all I could do was send good thoughts his way. Bruno has a small hand-screened poster of Karl on his wall, a small benefit show for him that members of SCRAWL, Silkworm, and Kyle Sowash put together a few years ago. I don’t really know what I believe in terms of an afterlife although it would be nice to see Jerry and Karl smoking a cigarette talking about the brilliance of Johnny Thunders. I spent the day listening to Karl’s records, remembering how he touched my life, I think about trying to pin down a moment but it always moves.

Christmas Story 2016 (WPRB)

December 26, 2016

Jon Solomon, who not only runs the excellent Comedy Minus One record label but also has had a very long running radio show on WPRB out of Princeton, New Jersey. Every year, Jon hosts a 24 Christmas Music Marathon (Hanukkah as well), and he has asked me to submit for the past few years, which is always an honor so, a big thanks to Jon (http://www.comedyminusone.com/bands/ & http://keepingscoreathome.com/). Here is this year’s submission, he usually posts completed shows in a few weeks.

Merry Christmas:

 

Christmas.

Ohio is either filled with sunshine that feeds the summertime humidity like gasoline on a backyard fire pit, or it is a mass of solid cinder block gray. The gray comes in suddenly, overnight usually arriving on November third or so, and departing as the first tulips pop up out of the frozen soil, in the middle there is football, lots of football, snowed in days, ice storms (both inside and outside of family dwellings) and of course Christmas which feels like the last port of call on a ten thousand mile journey. It arrives in Technicolor, with the hidden hope that it may somehow stave off the impending gloom of the coming months. Months that when they arrive get stuck like glue on the bottom of every Ohioans soul, but for a brief flicker of days, Christmas is the salve that stems the desolation so many mid-westerns feel crawling over their very essence.

We never had money, neither with my mother or later when I lived with my father, as we listened to $1.99 Christmas collections from Woolworths and Gold Circle, sung by choirs that I’m pretty sure were non-existent prior to the recording of the record. Names like, The Mercy Tabernacle of Los Angeles or the Austrian Choir and Bells, we didn’t care as long as the songs sounded glorious as they bounced off the red and silver glare of bulbs, stringy shiny Christmas tree iceless and garland the was carefully wrapped around the freshly cut tree. The presents were usually sparse, and we all knew at least a couple of them would hold socks, underwear and a new shirt. The most basic of clothing that was required wearing, would pass for a genuine present, and we would open with a falling, “ahhhh…hhh” a sliver of a smile and thank our mother.

Being from a broken (into-pieces) home, we celebrated Christmas at both parents and both sets of grandparents which meant a lot of small items, clumsy grandparents trying to buy presents for children who were of a much different time period than they were. My grandfather Austin fought in World War II, a barrel chested man who tended to be on the quiet side, he was gentle and he and Grandma Rosemary always had a tree, easy listening music playing Christmas favorites, a splendid traditional tree drenched in silver cascading artificial icicles with presents pushed under the tree. And with the sweet smell of Jim Beam with a splash of water and Winston cigarette smoke dug deep into the thick wooly carpet, it was more like a Christmas on the variety shows that were so prominent in the early 1970’s. My other grandmother, Isabel would build a small fortress of ornaments, nativity scenes and a pool of presents that stretched across the living room as if the tree had been giving birth to presents since Thanksgiving weekend.

My last Christmas before sobriety was a wreck, my wife and I were separated not just due to her job in Gainesville, Florida but by the unspoken voice of alcohol whose late night tenor howled in my ears. The Christmas Eve, I spent bouncing around the short north of Columbus, prancing, dancing and finally stumbling to the very last vestiges of dive bars in the Short North area of Columbus. Finally, being hounded out of the final one for using the Lord’s name in vain, as I clumsily held onto someone I shouldn’t have been holding onto. I awoke, alone, in my bed, realizing that somehow I’d have to drive two hours to my mother’s to pretend as if I gave a fuck.

As a parent, it is difficult to make your own rituals, such as apple picking which we did for nearly six years before the orchard we went to closed up the trees and left for better pastures. Or how to purchase gifts, with my sense of guilt over a childhood that seemed lacking in material goods (although rich in memories and love), I tend to overbuy. With books, clothes and one big item while my wife, she of Dutch blood insists on one or two items, “we never got more than one in the Netherlands” she states as if that will repulse my inner impulses to get the kids whatever they want. We balance both Sinter Klaus, the Dutch version of Santa who lives in Spain, arrives on a wooden boat nearly a month before December 5th (the day the children receive gifts) with a very un-PC bounty of helpers despairingly called “Black Peets”. But, the Dutch are practical and understand the power of magic in a child’s life, the whole country buys into the myth of Sinker Klaus with an almost daily television program titled, Sinterklassjournall, a film crew follows Sinter with some hapless Peets (who this year were a variety of colors) almost disrupt the entire holiday. Every year. The kids love it, and it cemented their belief in Sinter, because “hey, if it’s on television it’s real”. Our daughter, Saskia aged 11, quit believing when she was seven while Bruno, aged 8, still believes wholeheartedly in Sinter but quit believing in Santa last year. Do you believe in Sinter Bruno? “Of course!” How about Santa? “Daaaad, don’t be silly.” As this dark year comes to a close I believe this will be our last year of Holiday innocence.

We cut down a tree every year, and on the tree farm we go to they have pictures of our family over the years, with crooked grins, bulky winter caps and gloves, the children holding on to powdered hot chocolate we are quite literally frozen in time. A few years ago, we cut a mid-sized tree down and I hoisted in on my shoulder, trudging through the crunchy snow to the tractor that would carry us back to the barn. When we got home, I again lifted the tree up on my shoulder and gently placed it in the same corner where the tree sits every year. A week later, while attending classes in Cleveland, a giant rash down my neck, arms and stomach made the day long courses almost unbearable. The tree still had the dried vines of poison ivy wrapped around its stalk. Another short lived tradition. As I get older, climbing into my late forties, I want the magic that swells through the songs, the lips and the smiles of my community. To gaze up at the stars and to think, just for a few moments that, yes, there were once miracles even if they just rested on the minds and tongues of a little boy wondering how a little boy was born two thousand years ago changed the world. I see the spell of disbelief and curiosity in my children, I want to freeze that feeling they have, to be able to swallow it myself and ingest in the holiday of miracles. Maybe, this year.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Violence

November 11, 2016

There was a tenseness discharging from the kitchen, small invisible globs that melted through the walls and open doorway into the yellow painted living room. The clamoring of pots and pans, slamming of the oven and a thick muffled grumbling. My brother eyed me, and we left through the front door, outside behind the changing leaves of the large maple tree that hovered above the Cutants gold-colored house the bright blue sky promised something better than what was going on behind us. We started making our way down the street, “Bela! Zoltan! Come back here! NOW!!” yelled our father in his thick Hungarian accent. “yeah, Dad?”

“Come here!” his eyes glared from the top of the porch.

“what’s up?” we were hesitant. Deliberate.

“I did not give you permission to LEAVE!”

This coming from man who wasn’t home to make us dinner most days of the week, a man who never put us to bed and who certainly didn’t think to provide direction as we fended for ourselves during most waking hours. “C’mon, Bela” my brother spoke as we sauntered back to the house, taking our time because perhaps, just maybe, he would calm down in the fifty feet we had to walk. Glaring at us, his eyes ordered us back into the house and we went into the kitchen. On the table were eggs, toast and fried potatoes with onions. “Eat!” he commanded and as we ate slowly, my eyes settled on the runny wobbly eggs, I felt nauseous. “I’m not hungry” the words slipped out of my mouth on a velvety whisper. BAM! His fist landed hard on the table, a sudden burst of rage. The milk splashed out of my glass, staring at its soft waves, I slowly scooped some egg onto my fork and swallowed, a slight gag as the lobby mass of egg caught in my throat. Why couldn’t he just flip the fucking things over and fry both sides? “Don’t you fake being sick, I made those eggs for you and you WILL eat them!”

That night as I laid next to my brother I felt safe under his words, he was always my protector, shielding me from the anger of our father and of any neighborhood bullies. “Don’t worry Bay, he doesn’t mean it, he’s just under a lot of stress.”

The party was in the back of a large brick building that housed the excellent Monkey’s Retreat, a bookstore that stocked “HATE” by Peter Bagge, titles by Daniel Clowes, Re-Search magazine and a plethora of other underground books, comics and zines. Monkey’s was run by two Brooklyn transplants, Rosie and Daryl whose thick New York accent made them almost as exotic as the reading materials on their shelves. The party held in the rear of the building was bustling, the New Bomb Turks were filming a video for their next record on the large indie Epitaph. Against the back drop of streamers, confetti and other assortment of party-like fair, people swayed, above the yammering of voices. In the back of the room, sitting on frayed couches a group of us drank from keg beer and the small metal flask I had brought filled with Maker’s Mark. My girlfriend had stayed home, studying for her last semester of classes before graduation, slowly tiring of the episodic binge drinking that would hurtle her man into a series of blind nights.

I held court with Jerry, we felt splendid as we made the woman around us laugh, holding court while some of the cameras rolled and soon with the prompting of Jerry, I shed my clothing, walked to the keg on the other side of the room, and filled our plastic cups. He cackled at me and soon even this grew tiresome, and I winded my way through the crowd, a small feeling of anxiety climbed up my shoulders and soon, I breathed in the air. Outside a group of people gathered around smoking cigarettes, cracking jokes and discussing music, books and the general gossip of High Street. The video shoot had ended and Bill and Jim for the New Bomb Turks were laughing, Jenny pulled on my shoulder as we gabbed in a small circle. “Hey, Jim Shepard is really fucked up, maybe he needs to go home?” We all looked at Jim, he was leaning against the brick wall, next to a spray-painted wall that spelled “Art Force One” his head slunk down so his chin rested against his chest, as if his next was a broken hinge, eyes closed he nodded up. His band, V-3 had recently put out their major label debut, “Photograph Burns” an album that was tighter than the other muddled pastiche of sounds that he had caught like a rusted hook from the inside of his clever mind, a mind that held secrets that in retrospect must have been as dark and scarred as Jim had looked now, head dropping down as he leaned against the stone wall. His songs were a play-by-play of the decaying of the American dream, filled with bleak observations that celebrated the depressive thoughts of a man that never quite fit in, songs titled “Hating Me, Hating You” and “End of the Bar”, the highlight was a lonely ode to variety of women, an inverse commentary of “California Girls” this one stinging with the slow burning sound of 4 am emptiness with Jim’s deep sing-song of a voice  carving out sound, “Bristol girl always giving you crap about this and that, London girl always giving you crap about this and that, find another human willing to put up with you.” You don’t know if he’s singing about the woman, or more likely, himself. The record wasn’t selling, as the pop-punk, shit explosion of Blink 182 and Wax was going to save the record industry.  “look at him, is he ok?” Bill remarked, as is we were looking at the video of the slow-motion crash of the skier from the Wide World of Sports. Jim lifted his head, saw us and made his way over, he crookedly walked into a young well-groomed man who looked more out of place because he tried too hard to look in-place. Jim accidentally crashed into the man, toppling the beer from the man’s hand, Jim kept walking as the fellow suddenly grabbed Jim’s shoulder and threw him to the ground. It was a flash, like a car accident, foisting his hands into Jim’s side, Jim hugged the man tight and bellowed, “Jesus, stop! I’m just a lonely alcoholic! Leave me alone! Stop!” His voice was as crumpled as his body, broken and bruised.

Unthinking, I dropped my beer, flicked my dark plastic glasses to Jenny and pulled the up the man, my fists dotted his head and chest the fight was over as quick as it took the plastic beer cup to roll across the gravel driveway. “Help!” I heard the voice below me, Jim Weber pulled me off and I heard Jenny say, “There’s Bela, fighting again, he has such a temper.” Eric Davidson’s girlfriend walked up to me, as I tried to calm down, blood splattered over a homemade silk-screened tee-shirt that had “Blood Family” written across it, “Jesus, Bela. You just beat the shit out of my hair dresser.” “Mother-fucker” to know one, while someone handed me a beer. Jim Shepard had gathered himself up, his clothes filled with tiny bits of gravel and beer. “uh, thanks Bela, I don’t know what that guy’s problem is.” When I got home, my girlfriend looked at me aghast, “what happened? Were you in a car accident? Oh, you are bleeding so much!” “

“I’m ok, it’s not my blood, I was in a fight.”

“What do you mean, a fight?” eyes aglow with surprise.

“yeah, sometimes I fight.” I said, slipping past her.

“You do?!” as if she just discovered I was secretly a woman.

“yeah, sometimes.”

From the other room, I heard her say, “what the fuck?”

The house was filled with broken things, a hole there and there, a chipped telephone there and smashed plates in the garbage can. There were times I went to the hospital because of hitting a wall, or putting my arm through a door, learned behavior from the earliest times in my life. Therefore, we can’t have nice things. There were other times where cars were filled with dents, or CD’s smashed, plates thrown or tables topped in a fit of explosive rage. Jenny came home one day, after I had tried to vacuum the house and surprise her. The vacuum was new, money saved from a waitress’s paycheck, it caught on the rug, and clogged. Outside the sky was melting into the atmosphere, the house thick with humidity and frustration, we could not afford an air conditioner. Wanting to please her by cleaning, I flipped the machine over and saw nothing. “Fucking piece of shit!” Grabbing the vacuum by the long metal handle, it was chucked out the front door into the yard just as she was walking up. Skidding across the lawn, she gazed down at it, as if it were a slow-moving ice puck as it rested near her feet. “What the fuck, Bela? What is your fucking problem?” “It’s a piece of shit, doesn’t work!” Pulling it inside, taking the machine apart she started giggling, “what’s so funny?” I asked as I drank a beer on the couch in the other room. “You are such an idiot, Jesus.” She walked in with a long white tube-sock dangling from her hand, “you fucking vacuumed up a sock. And because you destroyed one of my things I’m going to destroy one of yours.” She ran upstairs and locked the stairway door behind her. Standing in the back yard, gazing up at her as she climbed onto the back-porch roof, she held the first Galaxie 500 record on the small imprint Aurora. “What the fuck? Don’t you destroy that record! It is so hard to find!” Laughing and slowly taking the black vinyl from the white sleeve she paused, took a sip of her beer and as if she were doing a slow teasing strip tease she turned, swung her sun dress in the air, took another sip of beer and placed the record on the steamy roof. “Hey, it’s not funny anymore!” “You destroy one of my things, I’ll destroy yours”, tossing her head back she jumped upon the record and shimmied the record into the roof. It was utterly destroyed.

The end of the summer was fast approaching, and rural Ohio felt as if it were burning one corn stalk at a time. Tractors hummed across the valley from our house, grasshoppers jumped hither dither, while the laundry blew rhythmically across the backyard, a simple ballet of fabric and wind that was being replicated countywide in that instant. Rick’s brown sedan crackled into the driveway, Jimi Hendrix blaring “you gonna be ok, man? Do you think your mom can give me $20 to get back to Athens?” He had driven 2 hours to Catawba, to get me home. School was starting in a few days and I didn’t have a ride back. Speaking to my brother the day before he explained, “I can’t come down and get you, I have football practice, and mom isn’t coming to get you either.” My mother and step-father had wanted me to return from my summer working in Athens about a month earlier, knowing that there was nothing in Catawba to do over the month of August I stayed, continuing to clean chickens at Case Que Pasa, drink beer and be on the search for teenage sex. Rick had agreed to take me under the condition that he have gas money to get home, he had to work back that night. Eric Zudak had come with us, he could placate an angry mother, who came outside upon hearing the snapping stones of gravel. “Hi, Bela’s mom” Eric spoke first, his erstwhile charm trying to break the burning anger of a mother waiting for her son to be home weeks ago.

“Hello Eric, how are you?”

“I’m good, Bela’s mom.”

“Bela, come here I need to speak with you.”

“Ok, but we need to give Rick $20 for gas.”

“You didn’t discuss this with me, come inside and we will talk about it.”

Angry and frustrated, she glared at me, “you could have come home a month ago, and now you want me to pay for your friends’ gas?” “Uh, yeah, he drove me 125 miles to get home because you didn’t come and get me.” “Bob, come here please.” She yelled behind her, Bob, her husband the minister came out of his office. He looked like Andy Griffith, wearing a blue sweater over a buttoned-up shirt and carrying his wooden pipe. “Why the fuck is he wearing a sweater?” I thought. He didn’t address me but looked at my mother, “yes?” “Do you have twenty dollars to pay Bela’s friend for gas?” “I suppose, but didn’t you tell him he’d have to pay his own way home.” “Jesus, he drove me home, because you wouldn’t come and get me, you didn’t have to spend a dime on me this summer because I worked and stayed with Erica! Just fucking give him the $20 to get home.” “Don’t you talk to your mother that way!” Taking the money from his hand, my mother went outside and thanked Rick for driving me home. Bob and I went at it in the living room, I heard Rick and Eric drive away.

“Well that was fucking embarrassing. Guy drives halfway across the state to bring your son who you have seen all summer and you don’t want to pay him.” Full-on teenage rebellion bounced out of my sweaty mouth, I had grown up that summer, both physically and emotionally, breaking out of the isolated pimply shell that had been burnishing for years, I had found myself in the back kitchen of Casa, on darkened train tracks drinking whiskey mixed with grape Kool-Aid, various record stores and uptown college parties. The turntables cranking out the new sounds of the Replacements, R.E.M., the Smiths, and the Tom Tom Club, was the soundtrack that summer. Small town, Ohio this wasn’t. “I said don’t talk to your mother that way!” Bob bellowed. Turning, I thanked him for the $20 and reminded him, “you guys could have easily picked me up and seen Erica but you decided not to!” In my room, I put on an R.E.M. tape and blared it, pacing, with blood rising into my ears, I wanted out. Suddenly, the door flew open, Bob all 6 foot two of him stood scowling, “go apologize to your mother!” “Get out of my room, she should apologize to me for leaving my friend hanging!” I didn’t back down. He lunged at me, pulling me into him and tossing me across the room into the wall, a small end table buckled under my legs. While I was a bit stronger, I was still only 125 pounds or so, surprisingly I had no fear and I rushed him, arms flailing, into his stomach. Just as quickly, he turned me into myself and chucked me headlong into the wall where a chunk of plaster fell into my soft curls, my glasses fell into the floor. My mother appeared behind him, “what on earth is going on here?!” Horrified she looked at both of us. “Apologize to your mother!” “Fuck off!” He made his way towards me, “Stop it! Stop it!” wailing she stepped between us.

 

Violence was always present, like a silent spring just waiting to be sprung, from father to son. Alcohol didn’t help. Later, I would learn, depression and Attention Hyper Activity Disorder would help fuel it, as impulse control is greatly compromised in people with ADHD. Nearly 18 years later, struggling with addiction to alcohol, sitting on bare knees in the summer oven of Gainesville, Florida, thousands of pieces of glass surrounding me like rice on a wedding day, behind me, the large upturned dining room table directly to my back, I realized then that something had to give. Over the course of the next few years, sans alcohol but adding meditation, support groups and various sober activities, I tried to make sense of my anger. At times, it is there, especially when frustration settles in, it moves quietly within me, and I see it in my son when he is frustrated. Turning inwards, he can fling his small soft fists into his head. At these moments, a deep sense of shame fills me, as I do not want the rage to be handed down. In the nearly fifteen years after putting down the drink I have not bloodied myself or anyone else but have had uncontrollable rage, that continues to frighten those whom I love the most, a towering yell from my chest can freeze everybody present. And then, suddenly as soon as it rose and exploded it is gone and I am left with the small quiet space of unease at what just transpired.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht6J5stphHs

 

 

 

Jerry and Jenny: Fear, the devil and Archie Bunker

October 16, 2016

The television flickered in the living room, bouncing shadows off the stairwell, and the white walls of the living room, quivering lights made the other room almost vibrate within the otherwise dark house. Archie Bunker bellowed at his forever-suffering wife, his voice overwhelming the confines of the small shrill speaker from the black and white television, meanwhile I crouched under a blanket at the foot of the stairs, counting and checking my breath as it heaved inside my head; surely my father could hear me breathing. Laughter poked through the white twinkling lights of the television, they splattered over the walls and it was a comfort to hear my father laugh, a deep yawp the cut through the fear that seemed to grip me whenever I laid down. Life was a daily trial, as the mornings and early afternoons where spent braving anxiety that caused a child’s mind to stumble and worry, only to adjust on the playground then back into the classroom as the mind wandered, climbing up the posters of numbers, maps and playful cats and puppies that adorned the classroom walls. After school was a time of great relief, building rocket ships, tanks and caves from the prickly branches of various bushes in the neighborhood, exploring abandoned houses and playing pick-up football, eased the ill-fitting mood the fell over my mind like a shawl during school. At night, it could turn to stark cold fear, if I was unable to crawl into bed with my brother, who would at various times let me sleep at the end of his bed and at others would order me to “grow-up, you’re going to have to learn to sleep at night on your own someday.” Oddly, it would take me nearly thirty-five years to learn this lesson.

The comfort of my father’s laughter would help, soon I would curl up on the hardwood floor, the yellow blanket with the frayed corners that I would hold to my cheek, a soothing tactile comfort for a lonely scared kid, I would soon slip off into a deep slumber. Waking up briefly, while I heard my father’s heavy breaths as he cradled me in his arms and carried me up the stairs. Rubbing my eyes, looking up he excited the room, back to his own room that was littered with dog-eared paperbacks the appeared to have crawled in slow movements over his room, like they were small bulky insects exploring the world outside of their rocky abodes.

Realizing early on, I understood he was a lonely man, an immigrant not just in one country but two, fleeing Budapest at the age of four, into Austria and finally to Caracas, Venezuela where at the age of ten he was neither here nor there, not physically nor mentally. My two charming uncles, assimilated well in Venezuela, both filled sharp humor they, who in-the-end always identified as Latin while, their older brother, my father was left to grope for a place of origin. Perhaps it was the ever-moving sense of a changing idea of identity that he must have grappled with, along with the constant transient nature of my upbringing, there was an almost genetic predisposition to being an outsider, even when alone.

After divorcing my mother, he became a monk, spending his days in ivy covered brick buildings of the monastery, whose walls would echo the soft clatter of footsteps, where the quietness of the Lord’s campus could pardon the most reticent nature of humanity. Perhaps.

We would visit him, a broad smile expanding across his face, making his black moustache dance a tiny jig across his upper lip, in his brown robes and sandals, he did, in fact appear at peace; even to his littlest child. When he left the cloistered life, something turned inside, and slowly the safety of my father turned to mistrust as I grappled with swinging mood fluctuations that could result in shouting and violence. My mother had remarried several times at this point, and at the age of ten I attended a church camp where the instructor believed that Satan was walking the streets, and could, quite easily find a place to dwell inside of little boys and girls. “The Exorcist is a true story,” she explained over a plate of Nestle Chocolate Cookies, “if you don’t pray and keep guard, you too, can get possessed by the devil himself. He finds his way into your heart and mind through television, movies and of course rock and roll.” If I had hair on the inside of my body, they would have stood straight on end, mortified, I wanted to rid myself of her words. I asked my mother if the movie was true, could people be possessed? “No honey, it is a movie” she spoke while driving the car, she AM radio blasting out bits of soft-rock hits, perhaps the devil did reside in the easy going tunes of David Gates and Bread?

Going straight to the authority on all things God, I asked my father then next time I visited him and my new step-mother, “Dad, it the Excorcist true?” Sipping a glass of burgundy wine, his eyes peering through gold wire-framed glasses, “Of course it is true, you must always be on guard of the devil.” He swallowed a hearty piece of beef, and stabbed a tomato, “The devil could be anywhere, in a store, on the street or even a restaurant, and he will be charming, maybe even seem nice at first.” He took another gulp from his glass and looked over his wife, her lip quivered a tad and her eyebrows scrunched together, “Bela, yes, he can come at any time, it is why you must pray and go to church. You might see him at the playground or a party, most likely he will be a gay man.” At this, she lost me, “a gay man?!” I asked myself, that makes no sense. Turning off my ears at that point I was ready to pack up my twelve-year-old self and go back to my mother’s, this made no sense but the seed of fear had been planted. The weekly dinners with them always ended in this, a discussion of evil, Satan and to be vigilant and to attend church as much as I could. “But I do go to church, every Sunday, the Methodist church with mom and Bob, don’t worry we go.” I would answer while planning on how I could leave dinner early. “Oh, God doesn’t recognize the Methodist Church, you must go to the Catholic Church” my stepmother would answer as her face grew darker, more serious, my very soul was at stake. “I have to go, I have homework.” That summer between 12 and 13 was a time of constant fear, especially at night when even soft brushes of wind could startle me my deepest core, and while at the same time I was making an effort to distance myself from a father that grew longer in stature but much more distant, an almost statue-like presence in my life, who was harder and harder to relate to. Whose constant paranoia and fear of evil stood in pointed contrast into the stories I read of Christ, as I had delved deep into the New Testament and within a few years after graduation I would return to the Catholic Church, not out of fear but as a spiritual migrant. The rituals, and the deep quiet of the wooden pews, lending a salve to a drinking problem propelled by inner uncertainty. Eventually, the exploration would be solidified in eastern philosophy, and a keener understanding of suffering, and that in the end a breath is just a sacred as a prayer.

My children laugh and go to bed, relatively easy on their own, there are mornings when my bed is stuffed to sides with a clamoring of elbows, knees and feet fighting for space, somehow they migrate to their parents’ bedroom but the nightmares are few and far between. I desire them to laugh and not to fear the world, a world filled with forts, with comic books, with music that moves small limbs in extraordinary positions. Where bedtimes is a time to celebrate the day and a map to the new day of tomorrow, where differences are celebrated, and always a lesson to learn, to help, to be chip away at the loneliness that is a part of everyone, because in the end love should be on a child’s breath not fear.

Jerry and Jenny: Holding

October 2, 2016

Desperation filled the room like a bomb, overhead lights flickered on, stuttering for a moment as if they were rubbing their florescent eyes and then illuminating the quiet loneliness with a shimmering pale glow. Women eyed nervous men, whose boldness was powered by Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jack Daniels and Rolling Rock, the upper hand danced upon arched eye-brows and the hesitation of whatever the next moments would unfurl, the anticipation danced as if on the tips of floating curtains through the window of minor death that comes from walking home alone. For many in the bar, home was filled with roommates who crowded spaces with loud voices, broken cigarettes they balanced on moist lips as words hurried out of manic-y mouths, all competing for a chance to share their bed, to keep the emptiness away, in this context the bar was more home than the cramped and messy student housing was. Dating was difficult when trying to be heard over a room-mate’s stereo, television or the constant interruptions of political or personal discourse. The bar was easier, with a wiggle into the wooden booth two people could wall off the world around them, the invisible barriers that shot up from the dark stained brown of the back of the booth shot to the ceiling, with the wooden table making the perfect meeting point for early forming crushes. Beneath the table, legs and feet could get intertwined sending an immediate message that one may not muster the courage to voice out loud.

The floor was ruddy, with cigarette butts flicked away in detached mannerisms, as if the calm they just supplied for an anxious fellow had never existed. The black and brown bits of tobacco soaked up spilled beer and dashed late night dreams like a sponge of rejection. The music blared from the speakers as bartenders, tired from a night of mixing cocktails, pouring doubles and opening endless bottles of beer shouted above the panicked din, “Last call!! This is your last fucking call! Turn them in, it’s time to get the hell out of here!!!” Just twenty minutes ago these bartenders were the masters of wisdom, able to parse small bricks of knowledge as they slid a drink across the counter or keeping fainter hopes alive with a wink and the sashaying of hips. The exposed brick walls wore a fine film of cigarette phlegm that grew in insignificant degrees as ladies and men stuffed inward anxiety by deeply inhaling from thousands, if not millions of these thin paper-y tubes of mental health supplicants, exhaling with a passion, the smoke leaving their bodies after digging deep inside their nervous souls it would settle on the walls, ceiling and light fixtures. Turning everything a bit yellow, as if the innards of the bar were in fact an alcoholic slowly beating his liver to death, one icy beverage at a time.

Outside, the autumn wind flew down from the black sky, making the leaves dance their dances of death before being torn from chilly almost naked branches, the wind gathered its strength to bring in rushes of cold air near the top of the sky and although we were huddled inside, amidst the noise of guitars and rickety cymbals, the clanking of bottles and deep sighs of anticipation we could just feel the cold outside, it was understood that when we exited the building, pulling ourselves in, cuddling ourselves or grabbing a hold of another nervous hand the chill would remind each one of us of how the fragility of our lives were.

Her bedroom was cluttered, small piles of clothes dotted the floor like musty landmines, an unmade mattress stacked upon a pitiful box-spring mattress was shoved against the wall. The walls were covered in art, placed in uneven rows as if a bird had decided to decorate the room, here was a painting of a nude woman and ten inches to the left, and five inches lower hung a poster of a shirtless Iggy Pop, his pubic hair tempting the viewer as if someone could mount Iggy right there on the wall. On another wall were a line of post-it notes, each one marked by day-glow ink that listed a person and date, no other explanation. The far window was covered with a wooly blanket, thinned in the middle by one to many bodies digging in deep with the passion that only the mid-twenties could bring, the splotch of meager fabric was almost as see-through as a bowl of broth. Books were stacked against the make-shift bed, Anis Nin, Kafka, Betty Friedman, Ken Kesey and hardcover copy of Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” informed any visitor that the woman who slept here was smart, concise, funny and suffered no fools. Inviting a person to her bed was not something that was given lightly.

We were drunk, leaning against one another as we entered the room, she grabbed my elbow with one hand, the other in the small of my back, pulling my shirt up. Skin on skin and the ceiling twirled as if it were made up of helicopter blades. The night started early, at least for me with the 75-mile drive from Columbus to Athens fueled by a six pack of Natural Light before arriving at the Union Bar and Grill at nine p.m. There was no plan that evening, stopping at my brother’s and finding his house empty except for a pack of dogs that climbed over one another while trying in vain to run out the front door. No lock was needed and I barked at them louder than they barked at me, “Get back! Get Back, it’s just me”, squirming some of them were so large my knees almost buckled, “God-damnit, get the fuck back!” Putting a brown shopping bag with a change of clothes and one of Robert Caro’s books on Lynden Johnson (as if I would get any reading accomplished), in my brother’s room and I drove back uptown.

That night as former art students plugged in black amplifiers, sat behind a drum kit whose kick drum had a painting of a laughing clownish man whose crooked eyes followed the audience as the thump-ba-thump pulsated across the floor, we smiled at one another while melodic feedback brought us closer than any word could ever do. The music extinguished the anxiety the bubbled up between us, the past or future didn’t matter while heads bobbed back and forth, nobody had to speak and if they did nobody could hear anyway, in fact nothing could be said while the music blasted all internal fears like a coal mining company blowing the top off a mountain. Her black hair rolled down past her eyes, small languid curls the bent and bounced while light glinted from the various wisps that fell under her quilted hat, she smiled broadly, displaying perfect white teeth that fell into order almost in a regimented fashion. During the course of the next fifty minutes we stood closer and closer, and by the end of the last three songs our legs were in unison, and as the last notes rang in humming ears she grabbed my hand.

One of the last things Jenny had said to me as I walked out the two story house on Norwich was “go ahead and leave, your life is going to be miserable and you’ll never get laid again besides you suck in bed.” She continued yelling through the screen door and the large black walnut tree casted even darker shadows that then cloud filled night was already doing, as I trudged across the lawn, these small pockets of inky blackness would swallow me whole for an instant, a reverse strob-light as I bounded away from the insults. A part of me yearned to turn around, as the words nicked the insides of me like a small pen-knife, that section of my being wholeheartedly believed her, that in the end being defective was what I was in essence while another part did not believe her and continuing the way we existed was a life that was doomed to eventual death by my own hand. Alcohol had risen around our ankles and although I was only twenty-two, life had become quicksand, the vomit looking quicksand found in nineteen-sixties B-Movies and there wasn’t much left to do except exist with no hope for happiness. It was October just a few years prior to the experience described at the beginning of this entry, the ground was muddy, there was very little that would grow on the slight slope of the front lawn. Wet leaves had already started rotting into the soil, a slight breeze swept from the west with a tablet of cold attached just to make sure that a person felt small against Mother Nature. Against the backdrop of the stone church that bordered the yard, I glanced up, a few small tears trickled down my face, feeling nothing except for the hope for a God that I wasn’t really sure about I said a prayer and climbed into the car. I would spend that first night in Athens, the hour and a half drive providing thoughtful calmness and solidifying, what was perhaps, up to that point in my 22 years, the most terrifying decision I had ever made. It felt as if my entire life was one melodramatic scene from a shitty movie when all that was wanted was a slap-stick comedy.

A small, damp and disorganized apartment in the basement of the James’s house, they were lifelong family friends, the eldest child, Lisa was my sister’s best friend in high school. While the middle son Ian was a tall blond haired, intellectual rabble-rouser bonded with Zoltan, both of them made well-worn paths in plenty of the townie bars. The apartment had a side entrance, from a brick constructed alley that climbed up from State Street to the toppermost street in the county. In the winter one could easily slip near the top of the hill and slide straight into State street in a whoosh. The apartment was small, hardly an apartment at all, a bedroom, a hallway and the stairs led up into the kitchen, itself cramped with dishes, grocery bags and a coffee pot that had almost fossilized bits of burned coffee grounds molded into its base. Arriving in the middle of the evening, sitting on the edge of the bed holding a Rolling Rock, it had seemed that the future was but a panic attack away.

I stayed in Athens for the weekend, keeping to myself as I nursed the broken bits of ego and raw self-esteem, and drove back to work at Used Kids early Monday morning. The start of a pin-ball styled existence that would ricochet my life from bed to bed, bar to bar and of course, record to record had, unbeknownst to me, commenced and would continue for the next decade. As my Monday evening shift ended at Used Kids ended, the thought of driving to Athens and sleeping in the musty, sad apartment, itself a veritable crumpled brown paper bag of a room, almost staggered me. I called my friend Joe Moore, whom I had met while living in the Ohio State dorms, Joe and his friend Frank Peters had won my friendship by plastering their dorm room walls with posters of the Rolling Stones, Husker Du and the Replacements. “Joe, what are you up to?” Without flinching, “you need a place to stay tonight? I heard about you and Jenny.” That night after a few drinks, and listening to records, lying next to a woman with long red hair in the back bedroom, telling her stories of a broken heart and how it had been laid-way by the jabs of Jenny.

Her bed was cramped, almost glued to the wall as the room pressed in upon us, it could have been a large closet instead of a bedroom. Joe had mentioned to me earlier in the year that he had been sleeping with her for a while, but now, the hallway between their rooms might as well been the Atlantic. Her hair lay around her head in bunches, we were like eighth graders, talking to the ceiling as we talked to each other, unloading the worst experiences of our lives while never looking at one another. After a while, the words lost all fuel and the room was filled with separate breaths trying to play catch up with the other. A soft nervous panic rose from the middle of my bones, cut through soft skin and hovered just centimeters from my body, it was soon punctured as she placed her left hand on my thigh. And soon, we rolled to each other, sharing soft kisses while the hands roamed and fumbled and finally I pulled away. The thought of Joe sleeping in the other room, the pain of Jenny and finally, and most loudly the doubt that this was a real thing. “I can’t do this, can we just sleep?” “yes, if that’s what you want,” she murmured, gripping my uncertain hand.

Larry’s was emptying out, as wounded egos shuffled out with a six-pack in hand, the lights flickered on and some of us, with the hope that glistens like a bronze bell during the noonday sun inside of us giggled into the street. Bouncing with drunken giddiness I held her elbow as she cupped her hand into mine, my other hand holding fast to the cardboard handle that held the beer that would take us deeper into the night like a beacon sitting in a far off hill. She laughed freely, and smiled against my shoulder, we had not yet kissed but at this point it was a formality. Sauntering up High Street as a fistful of cars passed slowly by, on the lookout for the police we soon headed to Pearl Alley as it provided more privacy amongst its bits of broken glass, crumpled up fast food bags and the smell of alcohol and piss. Roughly was block down, we stopped as she backed me into the cold brick of a building long torn down, and kissed me full on the lips, flitting herself into my mouth she held me with eyes wide open and felt me against her. Cheeks flushed, kissing while street light hummed above us we walked some more, cutting up to another, more residential street, the large maple and oak trees swayed above us, mimicking my drunken gait, the soft shadows of the leaves making small splashes of darkness against our bodies as if nature had constructed an organic strobe light to frame our slow dance of loneliness deferred. In her bed, we kissed and giggled some more, as we lay naked in her bed, candles stacked like small wax trees around her windowsill, her dresser and her floor. “I need to tell you something before we do this, ok?” lifting her head as she looked me in the eye. Her smile disappeared in that moment, “what? Is something wrong?” I whispered, waiting for the other shoe not to just drop but splinter like a raindrop on hot cement. “I’ve been sleeping with Jerry on and off for about six months.” Bubble thought burst in my head. “I don’t care; I won’t tell him if you won’t.” leaning back into the her bed. “I won’t” she smiled as we grew closer. That night, it wasn’t guilt that closed the evening as if it were made of soft doors shutting it was too much beer and whisky as after some struggles we decided to sleep as birds yawned their early morning songs.

Saskia takes her time dressing every morning, and after we go to the gym together she says,

“dad, wait for me I will be out in 20 minutes. I have to get ready.”

“Honey, no you don’t we just worked out for an hour and your mother is waiting. Hurry up” I sigh annoyingly.

“I just have to put on my makeup.”

“Nobody puts on make up after leaving the gym, not even Taylor Swift” looking for someone she can relate to.

“Ok, give me five minutes” she shouts from across the lobby of the gym.

She is eleven, experimenting with her looks, her discovery of fashion and now, with sparkling whispers she tells her mother of boys and happenings at middle school that her father, no doubt could ever relate to. Offsetting everything with humor, I make her laugh, she tosses the sarcasm back at me, and shakes her head. “Dad, you are not cool, you have no idea.” She wears her mother’s clothes, and balances her growing tall body on skinny shoes, as I stand in the kitchen nursing another cup of black coffee, hoping that while she walks into adolescence and young adulthood she is spared the self-doubt and ache of solitude that has hung around her father as an invisible cape since the third grade. “Dad, seriously you don’t understand what I’m even talking about as she dances clumsily on high heel shoes while holding her phone to her ear. I suppose not.

Jerry and Jenny: Protection

August 4, 2016

School was a drag, from the earliest years of kindergarten to last frayed edges of my psyche as my high school years petered to a shambling halt, all the while my innards groaned every morning I drove the 1978 Corolla to the school. It was as if I had to nail myself upon a cross made of bricks, racism and corn every morning, my stomach swaying as I bounded over the soft rolling hills, past epic farms of corn and soybeans. Just like a John Cougar Mellencamp record. The first awakening to the unfairness of childhood, stabbed my brain as if I were shrouded in an invisible cloak that covered all the innocence of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy of five. Standing outside Ms. K’s doorway as children ran to waiting yellow school buses, metal tubes of laughter, nausea and the sweet pungent scent of childhood who would roll through the nearby neighborhoods, dropping children off as if they were bits of fleshy, noisy mail, I turned slowly when Ralph Scarmack called my name. I knew him, sort of anyway, as much as a kindergartener could know another little kid, his father worked with my father, this much I knew. “Maybe we can be friends?” I thought, as I smiled at him. As my brother stayed in school all day, he was a first grader, I spent the afternoons waiting for him to walk down Sunnyside Drive. I’d sit on the porch, or set up various bulky green Army men under the porch and pretend the Daddy-Long Legs would attack them, perhaps I’d ride my Big-Wheel down to the corner and spy out for him. Big black plastic wheels flicking bits of gravel behind me, I was a blur tearing up the sidewalk.

“Hi Ralph” I looked at him with the hope that I had a new friend. Eyeing me up and down, he snarled, “I’m going to kick you in the shins!” Looking down, I noticed he wore brown socks underneath brown leather shoes, complete with brown stiff laces. Looking back up, I tilted my head, much like a puppy and wondered what he just said. Biting his bottom lip, he raised his foot backwards and with all his little-boy force struck my right shin as hard as he could. Collapsing on the sidewalk, he stood over me, “don’t tell anybody or I’ll do it again tomorrow!” Water filled my eyes, while a lump the size of a loaf of bread rose in my throat, choking on shame and confusion, I was not going to cry. I turned heel and limped away, trying hard not to but he had managed to peel away a small layer skin on the bottom of my leg, small creases of blood dripped down my leg. Maplewood Avenue had never appeared so long, the cut hurt to the touch and I soon made it home. Crawling under the porch, I stacked the Army men in rows, they would wage battle against the ants and other insects. The feeling of being an outsider was literally hammered into me that fall day.

Every year, autumn would slump from childhood summers like a slow moving fog, rising around skinny ankles, winding its promise of long hot school days, sweating while August afternoons mocked us through thick glass windows, and chalk-scented air soon it would choke the fun out of our lives. From the dreamland of summer afternoons, staying up watching Double-Chiller theater, to the drudgery of turning yellowed paper, with artwork from the 1950’s still in our textbooks, it all seemed desperate. Even to an elementary school child. School was like a carousal, attending over six schools by the time fourth grade arrived, I would stand in line while waiting for another multi-colored wooden horse to arrive. Picking me up and taking me on the same old trip. By the time fourth grade arrived, I was in a state of motion sickness when it came to school.

Shy at a young age, but warming up when feeling comfortable, the husk that had accumulated from bracing new schools, new friends and the awkwardness of saying my name, and having to repeat it over and over to disbelieving little kids was burnished by these successive years of change. But when the trust came, I would open from the inside, folding out in a tumble of words that could cause other to be startled into dizziness. Bruno, is the same, and I can see in him the trepidation of my past. Bruno, makes things, big things, out of discarded wood, string, and found objects in our garage. His favorite store is Lowe’s and he bounds up and down the aisles as if he were in an amusement park. June would seduce slowly, with the promise of unending days filled with imagination brought to life, fort-making, back-yard cookouts and late night episodes of kick-the-can and then July would clutch and hold onto childhood like a metal vise, everything was frozen, days spilling into nights the summer would never end, and finally August thumped into consciousness with humid footprints reminding us that school was ticking ever closer. As the sweat dripped like melting ice-popsicles down our backs, August brought along dread that soon, so very soon, afternoons would be spent in steamy classrooms while swaying trees and bleating insects mocked the children through open windows.

A sense of distrust for school manifested itself in me from an early age, from Mrs. Amamuil in first grade who admonished me in front of my new classroom for wetting the floor, I went home in tears, never trusting this older hardened woman who was there to bring out the splendor of discovery in children, but instead struck with an invisible shaming stick to the little ones in her charge. And next, just two years later, a brunette teacher, with her hair pulled tight in a careful bun, long skirts and red-lollipop lipstick who stated to the only black kid in our class (in Newport News, Virginia), “Why can’t you just read Otis, what are you? Stupid?” This was my first experience in racism, as she spoke a portion of my gut tightened, as a child knows inherently when something is amiss and while I could not put my finger on it, I realized what she did was so very, very wrong. Later, in fifth grade, with an already strong sense of right and wrong, the spring sunshine was blanketing the baseball field of East Elementary school. The gym teacher, Mr. Swartz was a stereotypical gym teacher, tight thigh length athletic shorts worn at all times, black baseball cap, whistle dangling from a black cord that reached his tight polo shirt and spotless tennis shoes. He coulda been cast for a Hollywood movie, an intense man, prone to barking out instructions as if all the children were standing 40 yards away and not the five feet from him as we were, and at times he could splice in small insults to players that were not doing well, “Jimbo, you are kind of wussying out there now, you’re going to let Eric run right by you? Eric’s a little on the chunky side.” I didn’t like him, I had the sense he was a bully, plus he played his favorites, Mike Quacktri, a toothy kid who seemed to have a different baseball hat for every day of the week, was prone to bragging, was a kid who you could tell held his favor. Being a small boy, I was often overlooked but also had a competitive spirit and was fast and agile, who played backyard football with a glee that felt as if I were on a ride at an amusement park. We were playing tee-ball, and as I stood on third base, the score tied and Mr. Swartz bellowing that this was the final play and that it looked like it would be a tie game, when the ball was struck I ran home, determined to prove him wrong and I slide into home plate, striking my knee into the tee-ball stand. The base shattered and my knee bled, my classmates huddled around me as I fought off tears and I heard the teacher tell them, “let him be, he’s being a little pussy.” From the ground, my cheeks covered in the fine powered dirt of the batter’s box and fingers bloodied by my knee, I yelled out, “Shut up!!”Suddenly, my small body was flung against the chain linked fence, my head cracking on the steel railing, bouncing off, Mr. Swartz grabbed me by my collar, “you little punk, you broke my tee ball plate, who taught you to talk like that?!”He tossed my to the ground, scooped me back up and pushed me towards the office, tears strained to poured off my face and I fought hard to keep them at bay. I limped to the edge of the playground, “pick it up!” he barked, grasping my left arm tightly, he lifted me a few inches off the ground, the tips of my tennis shoes dragging in the dirt. Certain to get paddled, knee bleeding and the shame of being tossed about in front of my classmates, I swallowed hard, making certain I would not cry in front of this man. As we walked into the office, Mr. Swartz yammered for the principal, “this kid needs a paddling and his mouth washed out!”

Sitting in the principal’s chair, knowing soon he would pull the thick wooden paddle complete with three large holes in the middle for maximum pain, I almost choked on the lump in my throat which had started formed after being tossed against the metal fence as if I were constructed of burlap bags and straw. Sitting in a hard plastic chair as the Principal furrowed his brow and looked across his grey metal desk, his back bathed in the bright spring sunshine, outside birds hopped along the power-lines. “What happened?” he asked his face a mask of concern. “I was running to home plate and I slid, hitting the tee-ball stand with my knee and Mr. Schwartz was telling kids not to help me, I told him to shut up. I was bleeding….then he threw me against the fence.” I had started rubbing the red rings from the rigid grip of the teacher, his hand had enveloped my thin biceps and left his imprint soon bruises would form. The principal called my father and asked him to come pick me up, hot tears were now dripping from my eyes, as if they had become swollen candles, embarrassment crawled up my neck and into my ears. A few minutes passed and I looked up, hands still trying in a pathetic futile attempt to wipe away the red scars of the gym teacher’s hands, “are you going to paddle me now?” A voice as small as a reed bending in the wind, the fear was almost alive. Standing up, the principal folded open in front of me, he was a tall man, nearly six foot three inches. With a dollop of black mussed hair that sat like a woven crown up his head, he walked around the desk in what appeared to be like a giant step. I still remember his hands, they were large, thick like fleshy boards of wood, almost planks and they reached for me, wanting to recoil but holding fast and I looked up at him. He placed his hands on both my shoulders, bent down and looked me in the eye, “no, I’m not going to paddle you, you’ve had a bad enough day.” He gave me a small hug, “don’t tell anybody that I didn’t paddle you though. I have a reputation to think of” he said with a wink. Relief, escaped from my quivering mouth. He asked the secretary to fetch me a glass of water. Time slunk by as I waited for my father, it was as if it were beaten about by the shoulders with its back broken in half, the clock ticked in a booming fashion, I was slumbering towards punishment. I waited in another hard plastic chair in the waiting area of the office, staring straight ahead as children walked past, my brother slid by the door waving his hand in a gesture of solidarity and I wanted him to save me once again. My father picked me up soon after, he held me tight as sobs escaped from my chest as if they were pigeons being freed from rooftop pen, he stroked my hair. We drove to his office, stopping at McDonalds along the way.

A few years later, sitting in the carnivorous school auditorium as countless seventh and eighth graders polished up the last few detention hours of the year, ordered to sit every other seat apart as if this would dissuade 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls from communicating, Mr. Davis a bearded bear of a man bellowed from the stage. “You are all here because you have misbehaved during the course of the year, as-such you have had ample time to fulfill your requirements of after-school detention which you have been too lazy to do. Hence you are here with me, there will be no talking, no looking around and if you didn’t bring anything to keep busy, then tough. If you communicate with your neighbor you will not get credit for being here and will have to redo detention this week, or finish it in summer school.” He was large man, who had a reputation among the children as being a mean-spirited, cruel and violent. The year prior he had snapped up a youngster, by his shoulders, twirled him in the air and slammed the child against a locker rendering his wrist inoperable for the next month. He was a man to be feared, a veritable Javert whose presence at the end of the long lacquered hallways would send children scurrying like rats into the nearest sewers, on top of that, he was a lousy teacher.

Zoltan was getting ready to graduate the 8th grade, he towered above me on so many levels, popular with the boys, girls and teachers, his charming ways had made his transition to various schools and neighborhoods as easy as warm butter on toast. He sat in the row in front of my, grinning as the last minutes of middle school ticked away, he eyed our friend Eric Zudak who meandered his way down the same aisle as Zoltan and listening to Mr. Davis scream from the stage, “Mr. Zudak, why are you late?! And if you have a good excuse you can sit five seats away from Mr. Koe-Krompecher!” Replying with a wide grin, Eric explained, “I was helping Ms. Houska pack up her car, she said you could check with her.” He plopped in the thin folding wooden seat, his backside feeling the crackling wood starting to splinter after so many bottoms had sat through innumerable hours of choirs, plays and graduations over the years. Sitting between the both of them, one row back, I noticed Zoltan making eye contact with Eric, nod his head and mouth, “hey man.” No sounds emitted from his mouth. A bomb went off from the stage, a giant sound that filled the high spacious room, Mr. Davis croaked from his perch, “Mr. Koe-Krompecher, get up here right NOW!!” The anger of his voice eating the air out of theater, it resonated long after the spittle had left his hairy mouth. Zoltan moved towards the front, slipping by Eric, everybody’s eyes moved from him to the authoritative teacher. Zoltan was still smiling as he approached Mr. Davis, in his mind he had nothing to worry about, it was the conclusion of a long three years of middle school, his time in Athens had been rewarding, this young brave man had worked extremely hard and disciplined himself to shake off the dire predictions of professionals who had painted him as a troubled kid, a boy whose frustrations just a few years prior would erupt in volcanic episodes of violence had been tempered by incisive intelligent, slicing humor and the ability to form friendships out of the smoky passage of seconds. He had found his home. Standing in front of Mr. Davis, “yes sir?” Lunging at the boy, Mr. Davis plucked my 13-year-old brother up, and proceeded to shake him as if he were a chicken leg, secured in a zip-lock baggie, a human Shake-n-Bake on the stage. Through gritted teeth Mr. Davis, snarled, “I told you to not make any contact with anybody.” With that he pushed Zoltan away like a king to a servant who had just dropped his golden chalice. “Now go sit down and shut your mouth.” Gathering himself, Zoltan walked proudly back to his seat, with bated breath, the collective gasps of the children were focused on the inevitable tears that would flow from his cheeks. Alas they never came, Zoltan sat down, his eyes reddened, but no water escaped from his eyes. His face sweltering beat red from fear, shame and astonishment at what transpired he nodded towards me; he was ok. Anger filled me, it was like the room had been filled with water, submerged in anger at the unjust treatment of a child, my brother and trembled inside but could do nothing. Weighing maybe seventy-five pounds, arms as thin as red and white stripped straws, I struggled to keep my ass in my seat, wanting to flee but realizing I had to stand fast. “Mr. Zudak, what is your problem? Did you not bring anything to detention?!” Mr. Davis obviously wasn’t satisfied with assaulting one child today, “Get your butt up here!” Eric moved slowly towards the front, taking the side steps up to the stage he stopped well short of the big man, “Well, it’s the last day of school so I turned all my books in so I don’t have anything…sir.” Mr. Davis stepped towards Eric, his boat-like leather shoes echoing across the stage, the wooden floorboards wheezing under his weight, even these planks of dead trees were fearful of this man. Eric took as step back with every step Mr. Davis took towards him, an odd, almost graceful dance of mimicry. Eric was a bright boy. Finally, the bearded giant stopped, “well get a piece of paper from one of your classmates who actually came prepared for detention and write about what got you here.” With that, Mr. Davis turned in disgust and returned to his afternoon newspaper. Eric, hopped off the stage, waited as a classmate handed him a single page of notebook, the left side riddled with the tiny flaps of paper that had once held it fast to the small metal rings. The last day of school indeed.

Summer came and went, soft sounds of adolescent burbled through our veins, things were changing fast, the nineteen seventies were over and the eighties were now unfolding in our lives fueled by teenage hormones that would dictate our collective lives for the remainder of the decade. The sounds coming from the uptown record shops were changing, chugging and whirling sounds of electrical guitars popped through the air of Haffa’s and the newly opened School Kids Records, punk rock had settled in firmly in the small college town, and mixed with the early sounds of hip-hop, the cold disco beats of a disintegrating club scene in NYC and England, the air was electric and from a thirteen-year old’s perspective as wide open as the universe. Reagan had not yet launched his assault on defunding every government program to help the poor and middle class, AIDS had not been named, therefore it was mostly a hidden scourge the was quickly burying homosexual men on the coasts—it had not yet torched the gay community in the Midwest. The school year of 81-82, was a step towards adulthood, albeit in the clumsiest manner a boy of thirteen could muck his way into. Sex was a mystery, one that was witnessed through the eyes of R rated movies like Porky’s, Animal House and The Rocky Horror Picture show, funny and confusing situations that played out on giant canvas screens in our tiny town. Snickering in the back row, the boys were brave, puffing out meager chests, pretending we weren’t virgins while wondering what a vagina actually felt like let alone an orgasm. Acne popped out of faces like dandelions overnight and the fear of being discovered was played out every morning in choosing out the most looking casual outfit that was planned with early-morning anxiety that produced buckets of tears in many households. Eighth grade. A big step and at the time, there were kids in Athens County, whose parents never finished the eighth grade, as the importance of a college education was not yet baked into the national consciousness.

Pro-Ked sneakers grew smooth as I slummed all over the town, bouncing from record store to record store, arcade to arcade and people in town started to know my name, stepping from beneath my older brother’s shadow, finally gaining confidence as the year went by. Classwork wasn’t too difficult with the exception of math, where an undiagnosed learning disability started trickling in fear and self-doubt about my academic abilities, and many of the teachers were receptive to my dark and sarcastic humor with the exception of the curly haired science teacher, who hung a large smooth wooden paddle on the wall behind the aquarium. A silent statement about who was in charge. And Mr. Davis, who taught math, a double-whammy for a kid who played Dungeons and Dragons, couldn’t sit still and had trouble keeping his mouth shut. Sitting in the middle of the class for most of the year, staring out the window as cars rolled by, birds sang songs that mocked the children sweltering in the broiling classroom, there was no air conditioner in the building, until finally the last day of school arrived. I had made it, not one issue in Mr. Davis’s class, the plan for the entire year was not to talk. Ever. And on that last day of school, I thought that this girthy foul man did not even know my name, I was proud and excited, the eighth grade dance would be that night and I had a date.

I sat in my chair, it was the first class after lunch, mid-May and the sun baked the grass outside, cicadas were escaping from their fifteen-year slumber, their chirping sounds of lust filled the air. An insect choir singing for all the children, a cacophony of sexual urges by bugs stuck to the sides of trees, trembling against the rough bark for all of adolescences on the final day of school. The hallways were polished, set for a summer of sleep where no small feat could rub the sheen away, rubber soles upon the floor would instead be traded for thin flip-flops and bikinis at the local pool, where small gestures of kindness could propel a teenager into roiling states of awkwardness. Crumpled bits of paper, lined the corners of the hallway as lockers were cleaned out in hurried rushes, as if the process of tossing old assignments out as quickly as possible would rid our lives of all the anxiety they once inspired. “Fuck ya’all”, went the thought as notebooks were emptied out into circular metal trash bins. Going years without a diagnosis, living with ADHD is at once thrilling and at other times a jumbled mess of panicked moments and feelings of inadequacy, at times the shame and self-loathing are as heavy as trying to pull a tireless semi-truck. Filled with boulders. As big as the trucks hauling them. Massive. Big. Large. Thick.

Mr. Davis was my math teacher in 8th grade, leaning nothing in the class except to realize that I sucked at math (again, the learning disorder that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my mid-thirties). But it was the final day of school, it had passed without once being a target for his brutal teaching methods, his classroom was built upon fear with him pulling out that wooden paddle and tapping it on his large cracked leather feet. His personal life must have been one of misery. Mr. Davis did very little to educate the children under his responsibility and his lack of concern for the education of the children in his classroom was palatable even to the young eyes of early teenagers. If we were flies, he would have pulled off our wings.  As the students would enter his classroom, the large man would peer at each one, dark eyes half shut would scan every child up and down—needing no practice for intimidation as the small folds of skin above his eyes would strike fear in every child who entered his classroom. It was a talent he no doubt relished. But on this, the final step of a long journey of middle school had reached its apex with nary an issue, somehow despite a proclivity to draw attention to myself I had made myself small the entire year in this behemoth’s classroom. This trait of staring down young children, I have learned, is quite common among intimidating teachers. A trait that some regard as a talent while others feel it no room in a place of learning.

The desks were small, with a small plank of wood used for the top, it was connected by a green metal arm to the chair, itself another hardened piece of wood that had caused great unrest to little narrow butts over the past forty years. Underneath the chair was a small cubby where a student could stash books, notebooks or a miniature backpack, but on this day, the final day of school there were no books, papers or backpacks to stash. It was the second to last class of the day, a trembling sigh of relief hung over the hallways and classrooms from the 400 students. Usually, I sat towards the back of the classroom, it was more ubiquitous and for a small kid like myself it was easy to huddle behind all of the bigger boys in the class and at this point in my life all the boys were bigger than me. Alas, all the chairs were taken when I danced into the room, just under two hours to go and we had the 8th grade dance that evening. Perhaps the burgeoning awaking within my body played even a larger role in the giddy anxiety I felt, as I had a date with a very pretty brunette girl who no doubt was as nervous as I was. Even in the days, it was hard to believe that any female would be nervous around a boy, working hard to maintain whatever sliver of cool I had and usually plugged my hands into my pocket and cracked wise. As I skidded towards the lone remaining seat I apologized to Mr. Davis as I was a few minutes late after helping to set up the cafeteria for the dance.

“You’re still late BKK, and if it wasn’t the last day of school, that would earn you a detention. Now just sit there and shut up until the end of the period.”

“But Mr. Davis, I was with Ms. Anderson helping  to set up the dance.”

“I said SHUT UP and put your head down!”

Placing my head down and looking sideways, I saw my friend Danny Abdella sitting next to me, he made a wide eyed face, his eyebrows arched high, staring at me as if to tell me that this was no time to act up. Smiling, I pointed my finger at Danny, making like a gun with my fist, I pulled the trigger. Suddenly I was lifted out my chair, in one fell swoop Mr. Davis flipped me into the air, all 80 pounds of me, hitting the floor he kicked me over the smooth wood towards the far corner, “I told you not to move, not to talk, not to do anything! Now get up and stand in the corner!” his voice lurched above my fear. A pitch black shadow covering my emotions. Hunkering in the corner, fat tears crawling down my soft boyish face, I eyed the window. It was half-way open, “it’s what maybe six feet to the ground, I can jump out and run to mom’s office, he would never catch me.” The soft green grass beckoned, a six-foot jump was safer than being in the room with the bearded brute. Bees flew from soft white flowers while the wind made tempting waves upon the green carpet. Cars drove by, and college students walked the sidewalk, feeling a kinship with them I suddenly yearned to be old, to be strong and to be big enough to fight back. In the end, I wept softly in the back of the classroom, all the children’s eyes upon me and after the bell rang, I hurried out of class away from the hesitations of my friends, as if approaching me would put themselves in harm’s way.

Making my way to the cafeteria was a blur, wanting to run as far as away from the school, exiting the wide glass doors, up the concrete steps towards the gymnasium I felt sick. Nausea had replaced the fear that had choked the breath from my throat, confusion bounced around my head as feet didn’t need a command to take me towards safety. Behind me I heard my name, “Bela, Bela, wait up!” Turning my brother stood in front of me, “we gotta call mom, if you leave then nothing will get done and she can meet you out here.” If anything, he was usually right, “O.K., but I’m not going back in there unless mom is with me.” Zoltan called our mother from the payphone in the cafeteria doorway, I slinking his head between the door and the corner of the black and silver metal phone, it was fastened into the wall as if someone may try to steal it and every teenage secret it no doubt stored amongst it green, red and white wires. The spiral metal cord wrapped around his finger, the phone call took a least two weeks to finish. A few moments later, he hung up, taking me by the elbow he guided me outside. “She’s on her way, she is going to meet up by the gym. I told her you were too scared to go back into the school.”

There is nothing like seeing a mother come to the rescue, her short red hair and confident walk comforted me but in the end I was ashamed, and it wasn’t until she pulled me in tight to her waist and kissed the top of my mussed hair did I let myself feel again. More droplets of water escaped my eyes as I described what happened, “We are going to talk to Mr. Smith about this.” Mr. Smith, was the principal, a short stocky man with a full Grizzly Adams gray beard, his daughter was in my grade and they went to the same church as us. Entering the office my mother asked to see him and he ushered us in, closing the door his first words were, “why didn’t you come straight to me?” “I was scared. I wanted to go home.” I meekly replied. Looking down the barrel of the past 35 years, it makes sense, as the school did nothing when Mr. John Davis manhandled my brother the year before and broke the arm of another kid. “Well, I want an investigation Donald!” my mother was angry, “and I’m taking Bela home now, we can talk next week.” The short fat man, held his hands together, parsing his words he was careful, “Susan, if Bela leaves now he will only be counted a half day and he can’t attend the dance tonight.” He stared across the desk from me, “that is the rule of the school and I can’t override it but if you want to stay you don’t have to go to your last class you can stay in my office until the end of the school. There is only about 45 minutes’ left.” With a small voice I pleaded with my mother, “that’s not fair, he beat me up, and now I have to stay. I already have my ticket to the dance and I’m taking Coleen.” “Sorry, rules are rules” Mr. Smith replied. “This does not seem to be fair, he is upset and there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to return for the dance.” “If he leaves school now, he can’t return tonight.” In the end, full of weary fear, and stress I stayed, I returned to school that night for the final dance of the year. Less than two weeks later we moved from Athens to Catawba, Ohio. There was no investigation.

Northeastern High School basically consisted of five hallways, one story, a cafeteria, and gymnasium. It was a small school, surrounded by cornfields and a pockmarked gravel lot for the handful of beat up cars and pick-up trucks. The majority of teachers in the school had been there for years, and many had been born in the area, attended nearby colleges and returned. Besides a handful of excellent teachers such as my freshman and sophomore English teacher, Jon Barber it was safe to say that many of them did not encourage intellectual curiosity. The guidance counselors were lacking in skills having told both Zoltan and I were not “college material” and we should think about trade schools. Walking through the doors for the first time felt like a prison sentence, as I overheard hushed voices whispering “did you see that new kid, with the funny name, is he even old enough to be in high school?” or “I bet that kids a fag with a name like that.” Climbing into books helped, fantasy stories, history books and Kurt Vonnegut provided the relief that was a life outside the gold and red cinder block walls of Northeastern High School. Retreating into the shyness of my younger adulthood, I kept my head down but being an adolescence with Attention Deficit Disorder was an obstacle as it one-liners fell forth out of my mouth without nary a thought to hold it back, a quick quip is worth every ounce of punishment. The freshman science teacher, Mr. Stevens was a younger man, he looked a bit like a boyish Mr. Keaton from “Family Ties” with parted wispy hair and sometimes he caught hold of one my jokes and half smiled, giving me the impression that he actually liked me. Other times, he asked me to sit in the front or to wait outside of the classroom to gather myself if I was too excited and bouncy. One day we were working with some sort of acid, using thin eyedroppers we were to put dab of the acid on various organic and inorganic items such as a hardboiled egg, the skin of a dried lizard, and wood. We worked in teams, two or three of us, each placing the acid on the item and the others recording the results. Very pedestrian stuff unless the student has a difficult time following directions because he can’t focus. Jeff Entler had the luxury of testing the frog skin, a small billow of smoke rose out of the dried reptile, he handed me the small glass container, carefully I put the eyedropper in, mindful of the oversized plastic gloves and how they made a clumsy boy more clumsy and squeezed the small black rubber top on the white springy egg. I had misjudged as I placed the end of the eyedropper directly onto the egg, a small amount of acid shot out from the sides, like a cherry tomato popping in an open mouth. It squirted into my face, and my eyes, luckily the protective goggles protected my forehead and black curly hair as I had forgotten to pull them over my eyes. Importunely for my eyes, a small amount landed right on my below my eyes, “shit!” I yelled, as Jeff called for the teacher, who rushed over and with astute thinking lead me to a small sink and rinsed out my eyes and face. Remarkably, it did not hurt too much and it all happened in a matter of seconds. “Thank you” I said, being a little nervous, grabbing me by my wrist he hustled me into the hallway. “What that hell are you doing to my classroom?! You could go blind fooling around with that stuff!” Clutching my collar, he threw me against the lockers, “If I could kick your ass right now, I would you little shit! I didn’t like you the minute you walked in my classroom and if I could get you out of my class I would!” Mr. Stevens then shoved me against the locker a second time. “Not again” I thought. Being a little older, I defended myself, “Mr. Stevens I was not fooling around, you can ask everybody at the table, I was doing what you said to do.” Wrestling the goggles off my forehead, yanking my hair in the process, “Bullshit, because if you did you would have these on your face! Listen, I want you to stay out in the hallway for the rest of the class and to shut your little mouth for the rest of the year.” “yes, sir.” Learning from my previous encounters from angry aggressive teachers, I never said a thing. Why would I?

Tucked in the corner, beneath a hand-drawn map of the world, and next to a wooden shelf that was exclusively built for LP records, with the top shelf constructed to hold roughly 100 7” singles, cover’s facing out for easy flipping but now holding one shelf devoted to Star Wars, Pokémon and the original dog-eared Charlie Brown paperbacks that Zoltan and I learned to read with sits two small guitars. One is an acoustic purchased with love by an adoring grandfather and the other, a small red Fender Stratocaster, which is housed in a stainless steel stand, and when the light hits just right, both the guitar and red guitar twinkle like specks of glitter on a girl’s face. There are actually three of those shelves lined together, all stuffed with tiny cubbies, books, baseball cards, guitar picks, stuffed animals that provide comfort when the maple tree branches thump against the green colored garage, reminding the neighborhood throughout a stormy blackened night that, yes, nature is still in charge and is something to rile the fear out of a small boy tucked under a mountain of blankets. On the other wall, a framed Spider-Man puzzle given away by a musician friend and tacked up around the room are a bevy of silk-screened rock posters, all hand made with the names of the everyman musicians that dot my record collection: Karl Hendricks Trio, The Whiles and Dinosaur Jr. At first impression the room looks just like a youngster’s room, the Pokémon shelf, the Charlie Brown, the hand-drawn pictures of mom and dad, sister too, even the lines drawn against the far wall marking age with lead pencil lines as the children in the house climb higher and higher over the years, an inch here and another inch there. Then the other items, the rock posters, the guitar, the line of Christmas lights, hung carefully along the walls, and some tools scattered on the floor. These are not little kid tools, but the adult flavor, heavy made of metal and heavy plastic and Bruno knows how to use them. He can spend hours outside making ladders, stages for his drums and guitars, a fort that never quite makes it past floor level, for his seventh birthday he wanted a toolshed. Every day when our friend Mike came out and built it, Bruno was outside helping, watching, carrying wood, holding the sides up and in the end helping to paint it. The kid has more tools than his father.

Children bring the world into a perspective that is never imagined, it’s as if a person lived their entire life living underwater. In the dark. And suddenly they are thrust of above the waves, into the shimmering sun, pulled from a cold and blurry life into one of brilliant colors and yes, choppy waves. One may not know one has ever been drowning until they can suck in the air, that is what life can be like for an alcoholic who discovers sobriety, and children. Some of the elements we look for as adults are the ones that we felt we had to find as teenagers, sex, intimacy, and the feeling of not being alone, and for a while, they come easy and at other times they come desperately, a three am desperation with trembling fingers and awkward pauses that break through the brittle darkness like darts aimed at the moon. Usually falling short, but at times, charming in their feeble attempt. My children did this for me, and slow process of time management, sacrifices, with the mundane being the gravity that holds they family together. Such as the yearning for a crying child to finally fall asleep, transforming from a screaming, shrieking animal caught in the bear-trap of its mind, into the soft salve for a violent universe. Bruno, cracks wise, he has a sense of humor that stands wise and cutting that makes one think he is a very old soul, like his sister who reads books that aren’t always age-appropriate and listens to the Mountain Goats alongside Taylor Swift. When he runs across the soccer field a determined look across his face, his blond curls dangling past his shoulders, it’s as if I was there with him, living a childhood I never had. The joy that dances from his cheeks is as infectious as lighting dotting the dark summer sky, brilliant flickers of white energy that booms across the landscape. Bruno has arrived.

One never thinks that a child’s life can be broken by the inner violence of an adult, unless you are the child that is licked by the adult or at times a parent that feels the hidden experience of abuse sideways, when it erupts in small earthquakes. What I understand as a parent is that it is my job allow that child to be a child for as long as he can be, no matter what and by doing so, he will always be a child on the inside.IMG_2905.JPGIMG_2896.JPGIMG_0198.JPGcanvas.pnghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcCXUzZWWpY&list=PLFBEA5C8D8536B1F0&index=13STAGE KIDS.JPGIMG_0263.JPGsaskiacharilebrown.JPGPUMMLE.JPG

he can play this on his guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsadA1n-V9Q

Above photo: Randy Newman signing autographs for my children at The Nelsonville Music Festival.

 

Connections – MIdnight Run

July 26, 2016

the Malady

Frequenting a rather formidable preside that overlooks the real estate of a real heartland rock vector that is unfalteringly bold Connections and their risqué purloin whips up a couple snazzy trinkets of that unbudgeable wedged slick transpiring guitar led proposition hammering them into their divets, sitting high at its ivory tower as it robs you for a few smiles.  Formed in 2012 pumping out a few prided EP’s the band came under a historic, yet understated, time for Columbus indie-rock.  Joining the band became the involvement of alumni from 84 Nash, El Jesus De Magico, and Swarming Branch all proficient influences of the local indie fan base.  Matador and Merge affiliate Times New Viking, whose drummer/howler Adam Elliott was keeping time for Connections back then was replaced by Michael O’Shaughnessy, a veteran of El Jesus De Magico, Nick Tolford & Company, Ipps and other Ohio affiliates.  The band herein are releasing their…

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CONNECTIONS – ” Midnight Run “

July 20, 2016

More positive connections….

The Fat Angel Sings

Connections.

Tracing the origins of Columbus, Ohio’s Connections would take you back to the mid-late ’90s, when singer Kevin Elliott and guitarist Andy Hampel were out of high school and in a band called 84 Nash. The only band signed to the Rockathon label despite having no formal relationship to owner Robert Pollard’s better-established pursuit (behind the mic with Guided by Voices), 84 Nash got to tour extensively with its benefactors. From the sound of it, that experience still informs the backbone of Connections‘ every move — five guys with loud amps blasting out of a basement on a regular basis in service of keeping some manner of truth in rock ‘n’ roll.

Ragged and persistent, “Month 2 Month” (from the band’s fourth album, Midnight Run) couples Elliott’s lyrics about hardship and uncertainty with a triumphant zeal (“I’m better off that way!”) nearly outpaced by the amount…

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Ohio, (repost from 2010, for Cleveland)

June 21, 2016

I wrote this in 2010 about what it means to grow up in Ohio, being an underdog, perhaps more of a wet underdog at that. I think it’s pertinent today after the Cavaliers win.

Ohio

Growing up in Ohio is different for all Ohioans, most because, like so much of the United States, Ohio is both vastly rural and also contains some of the largest and best known cities in the country. Everybody has heard of Cleveland and Cincinnati two large cities with history and reputations. Cleveland was populated by a large ethnic population from Eastern Europe, with massive Serbian, Hungarian and Czech immigrants who traveled west-ward to boil away their lives in the steel mills and manufacturing jobs of Northeastern Ohio. Cincinnati is nestled in the southwestern part of the state, just across from Kentucky; it is metaphorically across the invisible mason-Dixon line of Ohio. Hamilton and Clermont counties are two of the most conservative counties in Ohio, and while much of the state has overcome many of the racial tensions, Cincinnati with several large riots in the past two decades appears, at times mired in the early 1960’s.

Columbus would be that invisible Mason-Dixon Line, most people have heard of Columbus, the largest in terms of population of all the cities in Ohio it is mostly known as the largest college town in the country. A city that lives and breathes Ohio State football, which was mired in a multi-decade hangover after repeated defeats in the Rose Bowl that costs the saintly Buckeyes numerous National Championships. Even the smaller cities of Ohio are known, Toledo, Dayton, Canton and Akron have all garnered space in the minds of national citizenry, even if it is for such pop-culture phenomena as Corporal Klinger, the Wright brothers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and rubber tires.

Then there is small town Ohio, with images of Sherwood Anderson, unlocked doors, county fairs filled with cotton candy and first kisses. An idealistic concept that feeds into the basic American dream that a small-town anybody can arise from corn-fields and hidden glens to climb into space like Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, the Presidency (seven of them-all mediocre hail from Ohio, or the silver screen such as Paul Newman and Clark Gable.

Because of its history and rich tradition, Ohio ranks fifth in colleges and universities which logically lead one to believe this is the reason it is home to so many artistic and inventive people. In spite of all of this, when one grows up in Ohio, one has the feeling of being the underdog, of someone who always just comes up short.

Ohio is known and felt as an also-ran, an area known for what it almost has but never had, and in fact never will. For an ocean we have a large lake, for mountains we have foothills and we are forever defined by our collective losses. Our sports teams are known for despair, in Cleveland it is brought out in such slogans as The Fumble, The Drive and losing the World Series with one out to go. Cincinnati is tethered to a football team better known as the Bungles and Ohio State Football went thirty years between National Championships and is better known now for losing two in the past five years. We are in our hearts cynical but lovable malcontents.

Musically, Ohio is rich, especially when it comes to punk rock, with an abrasive arty sound that helped birth the movement. Helped by the ample liberal arts colleges that dot the state, such as Oberlin, Kenyon and Antioch and huge state universities such as The Ohio State University, Ohio University, Kent State and Bowling Green. The arts scenes have always burped out terrific and idiosyncratic fare such as Pere Ubu, Devo, the Wolverton Brothers, the Dead Boys, and Guided by Voices. In the late eighties each town had its own brand that helped define and nurture the other bands and artists. Cleveland had the most excellent and under-appreciated Prisonshake, the Mice, Death of Samantha, My Dad is Dead and Cruel, Cruel Moon. Dayton had Guided by Voices. Cincinnati had the aforementioned Wolverton Brothers whose shambling country-art punk is as twisted as anything from a David Lynch movie, the Ass Ponys and the Afghan Whigs. Athens birthed Appalachian Death Ride and Geraldine, two sinister bands that would be at least marginally famous if they resided anywhere but Athens, Ohio.

In Columbus, we first had Jim Shepard (Vertical Slit/V-3), Scrawl, the Great Plains, the Gibson Brothers, Royal Crescent Mob, Boys From Nowhere and Mike Rep all made up of various odd-balls and characters who would play a huge role in the development of what is somewhat now being regarded as a high point in the Columbus underground scene. The specialness of that time was mostly due to the large and fanatical friendships and respect we had for not only one another but also for those bands that set the stage. Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae would both be besides themselves to share the stage with any Ron House fronted band and the same would be said for the New Bomb Turks who would open for any band they deeply respected, whether it be the Fastbacks (from Seattle) or Prisonshake.

We put stock in ourselves and to a large part, our friends. Friends who would carry the torch of loneliness offset by a burning desire to be heard and to hopefully lay next to another congenial soul by five am. Our hopes, crashed as theirs did when things did not quite pan out as we had planned. We were prepared for it, as it is in an Ohioan’s soul to step up to the plate and be called out by the proverbial sinker ball. Three strikes. The Trip. The Fumble. The Drive. Etcetera and so forth. Nobody got famous, nobody ever really made a dent in any product counting mechanism like Billboard, The College Music Journal or MTV but we loved and cherished one another as if our lives depended on it, night in and night out. What we discovered was the result wasn’t the prize; the prize was the friendship and the making of art for fuck’s sake. That is what an Ohioan does, not always stylish but always sincere.