Posts Tagged ‘Columbus Ohio’

Jenny Mae Leffel 1968-2017

September 4, 2017

Jenny Mae (Leffel) 1968-2017.

“Why are you so angry?” She asked me that, repeatedly over and over through the years. Perhaps it was some of the unease that grew up around me when I was near her, as the jungle of her life, crowded everything out, grew wild around her and eventually choking the life out of her, but I would challenge her on this statement, in the end though—there was no agreement. Perhaps the anger came from frustration, of witnessing a slow motion house fire, a home being torched one item at a time. The flurry of flames to one book, one shoe, one chair at time, small embers that glowed red, then ashen white-perhaps that was what upset me so, the bit-by-bit destruction of a life by slow degree. The elephant in the room was not so much an elephant but it was the room itself, a sense of sadness as well as a flickering modicum of hope that offset the creepy feeling that something was not going to end well. Death is that ending, and for most this great unknown is the not-ending-well that pervades everything a person does, watching a child from a distance, death is unspoken the silent care a parent puts in others-the trust that is given to others who are caring for their child.

She didn’t want to talk about it, the drinking, the poverty, the violence she endured—by the ones who were in her life to protect her, men, neighbors and others who in the end betrayed the trust by fists, insults and of forcing themselves upon her. These were the upspoken experiences that drove her, the memories that tended to visit her when she was alone, at times with some of the voices in her head—there was no wonder that she gravitated towards anyone, no matter how unsafe to make her feel not-so-alone. Sometimes the demons in front of us are safer than the ones in our minds.

She cackled when she laughed, a laugh that could lift a room up and transport it elsewhere, to a place of bliss with just one line, one comment that dove out of her mouth as if it were propelled by jet fuel. Soft eruptions that would murmur from her lips, asides that would leave tears of laughter cascading down anyone within earshot. For myself and a few others, we played off one another, a small circle of suffering outsiders who kept our sanity by laughter, the pushing of the envelope and also, of course music which poured out of her like million different cloudbursts dotting a never ending sky.

 

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A sensitivity that was attuned to the pain around her, she comforted me, she held my head when I wept as a child of 19, when the world broke apart within me, she would wipe my tears and sing to me, just her voice and her hands upon my cheek. “Edelwiess”, “Greensleeves” and “Grow Old Along with Me”, she could trill her voice like a 1930’s Hollywood singer or turn it into a broken Billie Holiday, depending on what she felt was needed. Later, when she started writing her own music, she would pull lines from my notebooks of poetry to fit her melodies, she would sing songs to others from lines that were written for her. Turning our world inside out, and later, some of these maybe have been written for my current lover—she would say, “I just think you are brilliant” to me as I quickly changed the subject because in the end-I knew the answer, that I was as broken as she was.

Over the years the relationship changed, where once she comforted me, I became the caretaker, trying to save a sinking boat in the middle of the Pacific, all the kings men, horses, gold or prayers would not be enough to bale the water out of the crumbling floorboards of her boat. Creaky calls in the middle of the night, loaning her money that she would try in vain to pay back but at times, of course she never could. It’s hard pressed to survive on $700 a month regardless of how well a person budgets. At one point, she plead to me to help change a system that is so selfish and cruel it smashes the poor underneath it with the glee and quiet approval of an upper crust that is exactly that, crust. She is the main reason I work with the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill and how a sense of purpose to challenge the levers of power to quit stomping on the dis-enfranchised.

Sometimes it’s the mudane that sticks in the mind, a memory of the ordinary, maybe sharing a cup of coffee or a song that came on the radio while the windows were down; laughing and passing a bottle between seats as the Cars sang about a cheating with their best friend’s girl. They are cobbled together, on after another, to be mixed and mashed up as one moment flows into the next, soon a massive bleeding blur of colors in the mind’s eye—none exact, just an impression. One day we were walking across a barren field just across the street from her house, we had to cross the Old National Road, a staggeringly long strip of the pre-interstate highway system which was intended to connect Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco but ended up petering out in the middle of Utah soon to be replaced by the faster US interstate system and Interstate 70 which could also be seen from Jenny’s front porch. Along the way, the rise and fall of American exceptionalism is pockmarked along this strip of history, old motels that are now hollowed out, small burgs that once catered to traveling salesmen, truckers and families moving west are now past dead, rotting in the shadows of Wal-Marts, box-stores and a drug epidemic that may just kill off the last vestiges of the great American Dream. It was not quite spring, those few weeks when winter still lay hard in the soil but with some afternoon days moistening the ground to stick at the bottom of one’s shoes. Senior year was hurtling towards and end, I had already had enough credits to graduate and only wanted to spend time with Jenny, read and listen to records. Dj’ing at the local college radio station was akin to opening up a box of 64 Crayola crayons after only having a number 2 lead pencil to color with, the world appeared as long and fantastical as route 40. Standing in her front yard it was hard to believe that if one went east, the vast Atlantic Ocean would be able to swallow this provincial and suffocating life while going west would lead to more adventures. The trees were still bare, skinny black and brown arms reaching skyward waiting for the sun to provide their green clothing, they swayed at the top, the wind making the tops dance in a slow motion action. I grabbed her hand, we had not an idea of where we would walk to, soon the field would end and after a small thatch of woods the starkness of I-70 would be an unpassable barricade. It didn’t matter, she laughed and held my tight, pulling herself against my shoulder, and looked up at me. I was turning into a man, by slow motion, one step, and one day at time. She was going to Ohio State, she swore to her grandfather that she would be in the Ohio State Marching Band, she would major in Spanish so she could travel and challenge the world, and of course she would leave her hometown which she knew in her mind could never contain her. Pockets of doubt rose up in me, wanting to attend Ohio University because Athens was the only place that felt like home, with the idea that I would become a journalist or writer, I realized that in the end I wanted to be where she was no matter the town. The dry cornstalks cracked against our feet, making a yellow rickety carpet all the way to the trees. When we arrived at the end of the field, the trees seemed to huddle together, if they could join branches, they would clasp themselves together and dance, bending themselves up and howling in whatever manner a tree can. Winding between the small forest was a creek that we had never known existed, hidden to the rest of world, she climbed down the muddy banks, “come on Bela” she coaxed me, in a matter of moments the sound of skipping stones splashed against the water until our fingers grew cold. “Let’s go back, I’m cold” she said and we trudged our way back across the field towards that small ranch house on the side of route 40.

https://pitchfork.com/news/singer-songwriter-jenny-mae-dead-at-49/

At one time, I thought I could not believe I could breathe without her, later I helped her breath and now there is no breath at all. I will miss you in everything I do Jenny. Jesus Christ were you brilliant.

 

 

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Death and Almost Death

August 3, 2017

unedited because it just seems like a lot of work at this moment.

Death and Almost Death.

 

 

Ohio State University Hospital East, is an odd building for a hospital, it is 12 stories tall, with a round tower as the centerpiece, it has several buildings that have been attached to it over the years. Inside it is difficult to traverse, with connecting hallways between buildings, various mis-named floors and at the building furthest from the tower is Talbot Hall which is one of the busier detox units in Central Ohio. At one point, some years ago I would do a volunteer group amongst all the struggling addicts and alcoholics, and after that I did an internship there. OSU East is smack in the middle of the Near East Side, a high crime, extreme poverty and highly forgotten about area of Columbus. It’s an area, until recently, largely forgotten about by city planners, business outside the realm of convenient and check cashing stores. During the eighties and nineties, crack cocaine moved in like a cancer, decimating block after block, transferring many of the young African-American males from one corner or project into the various prisons that rose like wildflowers throughout rural Ohio. OSU East and Grant hospital just blocks away in the middle of downtown, are flashpoints for trauma and death in the city.

I walked the circular hallway, winding around, counting the numbers until I found hers, “Penn” was written in black sharpie on the small sign outside her door. Jenny’s mother came up and hugged me, I looked down at Jenny who was folded up in her bed, her unused legs jutting out from the bottom of crisp white sheets. She looked small, as if the past years of her life had not only sucked the life out of her but in doing so, made her limbs and torso shrivel. One arm was crossed over her chest and the other lay limp next to the remote control. It appeared as if she had tumbled down a canyon, as her head lay at the bottom of the raised part of the bed, her neck twisted downwards. The pillow lay mostly halfway up the slope and the rest under her face which was scrunched up as well. She was yellow, with a faint hint of green in her cheeks and neck, in her nose was a feeding tube, her eyes were closed. “Jenny, Jenny…..” I waited, “Jenny, it’s Bela.” Her eyes flickered, her mother spoke softly to her, “Jennifer…Nordy (her pet name from her mother), Bela’s here.” Leaning in, to her ear, “Jenny, hey, its me.” Her eyes opened and she peered sideways, too weak to lift her head towards me, she cast her look and made some grumbling noises. “mrrghmmbbghh”, her cracked lips creaked open like a rusted cellar door,  bits of dried blood were caked around the corner of her lips. “Do you hear me ok?” A soft nod and another stab at words, “urghhhe…berla..” She could hear us ok, but was unable to effectively communicate.

I walked over to the other side of the bed, “has she been like this all week?” Her mother stood next to me, “well, yeah mostly although the other day she was lucid and talking away, chattering about how she wants to move and how alone she is…but later she just sort of drifted into this.” Angling in again towards her ear, “Jenny I was just talking about some of the crazy stuff that we used to do, Bruno’s is really interested in all those stories.” A hint of a smile cracked her yellowed face, just a smidgen, her memory was still intact.

Years before, nearly ten miles down the street from this very hospital, my grandmother lay on her deathbed. One could say she took years to die, her body giving up in chunks over the years, a fall resulting in a broken hip, then breast cancer, then another fall resulting in another artificial hip, with the other one needing replaced as it had developed a crack. Another fall in the shower where she lay for fourteen hours on her 79th birthday. She always fought back, her appetite towards life was massive, it was a big as the sky swallowing up the clouds. Finally, after living in a nursing home for nearly a year, with a deep crack developing once again in one of the artificial hips, this time an operation was impossible, she was too old, too large and her heart too weak to sustain another operation. She lay in her bed for months as her body gasped away its core, small breaths counting down to the inevitable final exhale.

Her room was decorated in all the things she loved, pictures of her life, from her teenage years as a highly desired young woman, whom men nearly twice her age made their way to her father’s steps. Her wedding picture, surrounded by countless men and women, with a flowing white gown wrapped around her, a pool of silk. Next to her, my grandfather, with a handsome grin and a seriousness that his side of the family was known for. She could have been a princess in these photos, as the pageantry was that grand. Other photos of her and her three sons, black and white photos of the four of them on the streets of Caracas, others in Spain and Trinidad where she sent them to learn English which would be their path out of Venezuela. One could trace the progress of photography with these photos, later, faded color photos from the nine-teen sixties, with grandchildren wearing polyester striped pants, large collared shirts and bowl haircuts stood around her amidst a swamp of Christmas presents. And finally, newer photos of great-grandchildren taken with digital cameras and printed out at the local drug store.

On the dresser was a large television, sandwiched between stuffed animals and the ever-present vases of flowers, hundreds of dead flowers had passed through this room.

The final decline happened in spurts, and in the end, it was only her lungs that remained alive, it was as if they had not realized her mind had given up and took flight. Heavy breaths that gasped for air, her eye lids suddenly half opened. Her blue eyes, translucent and watery, the were like small blue pearls under the clearest water that has never existed, drifted towards her son and then to me, they closed softly as lungs strained against the force of nature. Finally, after nearly three minutes without a breath, we realized she was gone, she had wanted to see her parents and earlier that day she spoke quietly with a smile on her face. “I will see my daddy and my mommy soon,” proving that as we toddle towards quietus, we revert to childhood, she was almost ninety years old and pining to see her parents on the other side of whatever it is that is the other side.

Signs spring up everywhere, omens of the final doom everybody succumbs to, especially when people live skimming off the top of life as if it were the deepest most turbulent ocean that has ever existed. Some people can dance atop of life, barely touching it too deeply, not letting themselves sink but not yet being able to glide above the salty spray of existence. Others are pulled down by the ankles, they wade through life with their very essence held back by invisible cinder blocks holding them fast.

We were sleeping in a house I had never been in, a split level with green carpet and very little furniture, boxes placed against the walls, in the middle of the room and a small bed made of pillows and sleeping bags were made for my brother and myself. The house was somewhere in the middle of Newport News, a section I was unfamiliar that was not the house where I had lived in as recently as the beginning of the summer. It was Labor Day weekend, we were visiting our mother—spending the previous three months in Athens, Ohio with our father. Spending golden summer days, traipsing through barren fields, abandon houses and playing pickup football and baseball. It was a revelation after moving nearly every June since the age of five, Athens had provided an anchor that I had never experienced since living at the far end of Long Island where we lasted a year and half. Our father had driven us to Charleston, West Virginia where we boarded a smallish Piedmont Airlines prop plane. I always sat by the wing, marveling at the huge propellers that appeared to go backwards and forwards at the same time, a massive buzzing that shook the seat under me. We usually stopped in Roanoke, Virginia and then onto Richmond. Our mother picked us up, and instead of driving to the house I had called home the previous year we went to this other, strange Brady Bunch looking house. This was the home of her new boyfriend, a fellow named Bob Brushwood who looked uncannily like Andy Griffith.

Paneled wood walls, made to look like a forest cut in half, tree by tree with the innards sticking out, naked but, they were made of pressed wood, not one tree with its heartwood exposed but many crushed and pressed to make one facsimile of a real tree. Cheap, and an affront to all proud trees everywhere. In the 1970’s this was called fashionable. There was a dark green carpet in the living room and in what was the den, a few steps down from the living room and rough and thick multicolored shag carpet smelled of cat piss. My mother and Bob slept in the other room, nestled next to my brother, trying to understand the reasons why we were staying in this house that was a mystery to me, it was a foreign land on one I did not understand the language.

Shortly thereafter, as the shadows dipped and settled along the room, the trees outside providing a ballet against the walls, the sounds from the bedroom arose. Deep sounds, breathy sounds and unbeknownst to a child of nine they were the sounds of lovemaking. Leaning into my brother, whispering and asking questions, “shhh, just go to sleep” he advised but the sounds were relentless and frightening. My hair stood on end. Crying out, after a few minutes of unheeded bleating, my mother came into the room. She was followed by Bob, with broad shoulders, long sinewy arms, hairy chest and a cigarette dangling from his lips, he could have been summoned from a Marlboro ad. Patting my head she tried to explain what was happening but I was lost, submerged in my own mind, sinking like net into the sea, although this net was intended to release all my thoughts instead of gathering them like so many minnows.

A few years later, after they married, we were transplanted to Catawba, whose small-town secrets burbled like a percolator while everyone mowed lawns, hung American flags outside of their white washed houses, and proudly sang the “Star Spangled Banner” before every Friday night football game. The rumors were startling, and rubbed like sandpaper to the ears of whomever they tumbled into, alcoholic father, homosexuality, incest, adultery and rape. These were passed around like verbal talismans, bringing suspicion into the houses that on one level appeared so picture perfect. Bob was the minister of two small Methodist churches, one right in the middle of town and the other a few miles away, set down between two cornfields and winding country roads. He worked hard, trying to infuse the word of God to people who yearned for it but were adherently suspicious of outsiders. That he was a divorced to a woman who had teenage children didn’t seem to help, and perhaps when two of the boy stated they were proudly Catholic it just made his job worse.

It could not have been easy helping to raise two opinionated teenage boys who had been moved around the east coast as if they were swallows, migrating from season to season, year to year. We were baggage, plunked down in different schools every year, unpacking ourselves only to have to toss everything back into our emotional suitcases after the school year and finally, for me, I said “fuck-it” and decided that to be accepted would be on my terms. Using wit and humor with a very liberal background I challenged the norms of my small-town school, speaking out when the football coach used the term nigger in my sophomore biology class-resulting in a trip to the office where the principal asked me point blank, “why do you have a problem with the word nigger?” At home, my mother encouraged us to speak out, at one point she made her way to the very same principal’s office to challenge him on referring to the wrestling team as a bunch of “pussies.” After my freshman year, I quit going to church, another stain I had inadvertently flung on Bob’s aspiring career. Openly defiant at times, both my brother and I were headstrong, well-read but not frightened to speak our minds, in one sense I was a punk but I had a cause which was to speak out to injustice when I saw it. The oppression was thick, lathered on my life like a paint it dripped from me and in turn I resented my parents for plopping me down in the middle of what seemed like the corner of nowhere. I would have yearned for nowhere, from where I felt I was which as a vacuum. Zoltan, had it easier, much more affable than myself, he was bigger and handsome with a talent to blend in with the jocks and rednecks, we had a few nerds maybe five of which I was probably one. He played football, wrestled and was homecoming king while I planted verbal spitballs on my perceived enemies and pined to escape.

 

Bob would drink Natural Light, not much in hindsight but maybe a few every night but he was prone to darkness and the darkness lay upon him like a coat some weeks. After a year, our mother left, moving to Columbus where she got a job at a treatment center, and for a brief period she headed a treatment center in London, Ohio just down the road from us but the marriage was doomed even before they took their vows. They were different people, pulled together by who knows what but we bared the brunt of their mistake and while Bob tried to step into the role of a father it was an arduous task. Compassionate he, laced his sermons with stories of compassion and acceptance, he tried to balance the need for the community to be accepting with their ingrained suspicion of anything that was different from themselves. In the end it was for naught, as his depression gripped him like vines and pulled him into his darkness. Art helped, he went back to his first love, ceramics and drawing, making countless small bowls and religious drawings that soon covered our tables, mantle and desks.

At seventeen, I was living alone, my mother had left him and Bob struggled with a house that contained a disinterested teenager who had found his own escape in punk rock and underground music, and books with the rest of the house filled with unrealized memories that had never had the chance to hatch, smothered by a marriage that had no air to breath. Bob went to the state hospital in the fall of 1985, he stayed there on and off through the spring. I quit the wrestling team where I was named captain after the first practice, in favor of after school blow jobs and Pabst Blue Ribbon every weekend. It appeared, at the time a better trade off, in hindsight it still might have been. Bob was attending AA meetings where he met another woman, he would bring her home or stay at her house, a small bird-like lady who did not have the education neither he nor my mother had, but she was nice and tried to make small talk with me and Jenny. It is obvious now that he was planning his own escape from the ministry, some of the congregation were complaining to the Methodist church and he had several meetings about his future in the church. He was disillusioned by their lack of support, while I thought to myself this was the true nature of many of these people, the hypocrisy was obvious to my seventeen-year-old eyes.

In those between years, Bob was there, making dinner for my brother and I, driving us to wrestling practice, sitting through long tournaments and overlooking the drinking that went on over the weekend. He was encouraging to us, and with our passion for literature and finally over the summer of 1986, right after my high school graduation Bob left the church moving in with my maternal grandmother as he returned to school to get his Ohio teaching certificate. Separation made things easier although a resentment had made a stone in the middle of me, attending Otterbein College which at the time, mid-Ronald Reagan’s tenure was a fiercely conservative liberal art’s school. Not a good fit. I left after one quarter with my first real bout of depression, where I left school mid quarter and slept in Jenny Mae’s dorm room for two solid weeks, peeling a layer of parking tickets off the roof of my car and returning to school. My professors had thought I had left, my English professor pulled me aside telling me I had a future as a writer and suggesting counseling, she saw the signs. I dropped out in December and wanted to move in with my grandmother but Bob was living there, faced with the choice of living with my mother, going to a shelter or moving in with Jenny in her dorm room, I took everything I owned, records, tapes and clothing and moved into her dorm room for two months before I could get my own apartment.

Bob went and worked from Columbus public schools until he reached retirement, we stayed in periodic contact. The weight of adolescence was a lodestone on my relationship with him, I distanced myself from much of my family for several years and finally after many years he reached out to me via email. He had moved to North Carolina where he built a house with his own hands in the woods and made art, we spoke over the phone once, discussing his depression and he offered apologies for those years we were together. It was all ok, I was happy with who I was, and then there was nothing. At one point, I reached out to one of his sons, who wrote a curt email back and I never responded. Bob had suffered many losses in his life, two of his children passed, one from a drug overdose and another from cancer, while his own childhood was difficult as he had years of abuse by his grandparents, brutal abuse he told me about over coffee one day.

Recently while visiting my brother, he informed me that Bob passed away last year. His daughter had called my brother, he was 80. The last couple of years I had assumed he had died, but there was no way of finding out if he had. A google search revealed nothing. What does a person do when a past they have little connection to dies? In the end there is a space, like the space between two words on paper, that space is waiting for a meaning, an explanation that never comes. Wedged between black ink, it waits patiently forever.

 

 

Homeless and Flashlight Tag.

June 15, 2017

Walking down High Street in the spring feels like liberation, when the bleak chilly overhead carpet of clouds slip into their summer hibernation, the bluest sky awakens while people peel away the dreariness of winter by wearing cut-off shorts, tee-shirts, and glide down the sidewalks on skateboards that were shuttered for the winter months. Along the Olentangy River, small pockets of fabric appear amidst the overnight greenery of woods that line a fifteen mile bike path. It is here that many of the homeless camps sprout just like the green buds and purple flowers that awaken in the spring. A stroll through the various parks along the way brings many passerby’s next to men with rumpled men, whose breath wheezes alcohol and whose shoes are cracked and frayed from years to pounding asphalt.

At some point, usually in the middle of July or August within the woods of the bike path the heavy humidity of Ohio is fertile ground for millions of mosquitos to breed, it is not uncommon for a person to resemble a welted corkboard of mosquito bites when strolling through the trees and bushes. The homeless carve out tiny homes within the thicket of bushes and the muddy shoreline, these homes are big enough for a body and not much more and some may consist of walls of pallets, thin slabs of sheet metal and discarded plastic while other may be as simple as a one-person tent or sadly, a sleeping bag and backpack. Bikers, joggers and mothers pushing baby strollers may well be unaware that within the small bushes of the path they are using a person maybe sleeping, brushing their teeth, taking a shit or drinking a tall 40 bottle of malt liquor.

From the explosion on youth culture in the nineteen sixties, where the campus area became a magnet and a beacon for some, a five mile stretch that disaffected kids, drug users, college students and dropouts flocked to. The sidewalk across from the University was a bustle of energy, where pamphlets were handed out, kids with frayed jeans and threadbare tee-shirts smoked cigarettes while playing guitar with a small coffee can on the side to catch silver coins, and later a contingent of homeless African-American men spouted poetry, shaking plastic coffee cups, plying their vocal gymnastics trying to get by on a daily basis as the mined white college students for the change in their pockets. “Help is on the way” one fellow bellowed for nearly twelve years before the heavens took his ghost away. Help indeed. Later, when the wrecking balls bullied their way onto the campus area, smashing memories and campus landmark to bits all in the name of retail progress many along High Street gave up their hawkish ways, it is just a wisp of what it used to be.

After a while, the panhandlers, street crawlers and even many of the students have left, scattered to other parts of the city. Mid-town suburbs, former working-class neighborhoods and, the woods. Each crack in the sidewalk has a story to tell, but as the years sigh by they get forgotten, small bits of an image that dissipates like smoke. From a small-town boy’s point of view the rising mountains of steel and concrete of big-time cities spun tales of bustling people, elbowing one another while scrambling for space and for others in the small towns of Ohio, the cities were to be avoided lest one wanted to get robbed. But for many it was a potential escape from lives that were told that high school was the best time of a person’s life when for many it was the worst time of a person’s life. The idea that this would be the pinnacle of existence felt like suffocating under the weight of the sky. “Your fucking kidding me, right?” is what I would think when my high school teachers told me to enjoy those oppressive days.

We moved apartments as if we were hunters and gathers; a new one nearly every year—from one broken-down, roach filled apartment to another. As if one patchwork wall with faded paint was a step up from another one, but in our minds, as we carried boxes of books and records, Hefty trash bags bulging with clothes from dilapidated cars to the newest old apartment a small pillow of pride burst out from our shoes with every step towards the new home. Each place birthed new experiences and stories, the tales piling on top of one another as our existence and lifestyles invited characters that could have sprouted from thin paper-back novels, some of the characters with stereotypical nicknames, Dan “the man” From CleveLAND, Barefoot Jeff, Crazy Jim, and more that have been replaced by fresher memories.

Working three jobs at the age of twenty was difficult although two of them were at record stores and one was the overnight shift at a Ohio version of 7-11, but with a right-wing religious streak that had the chain refusing to sell condoms, porn or rolling papers—alcohol and Mountain Dew were ok by their strict standards but not the prevention of disease and pregnancy. I walked off the job one night after confronting a drunk frat kid who was harassing a homeless man, “shut the fuck up man, and get out!” I shouted in his slobbery fatty face, “ohh, who are you to tell me, overnight UDF guy?” From there a verbal admonishing to his friends for having such an asshole as a friend, he staggered out screaming “I’m going to tell your manager!” After checking on the homeless guy, not charging him for his food, I undid my apron and said to the co-worker, “I really don’t need this bullshit for $4 an hour.”

Jenny was usually in an elevated mood during her twenties, with a mind twirling as fast as a window fan, thoughts and ideas would spin out of her as if her mouth was shuffling cards. As much as she could spit energy into a room she could also ingest the energy and suck it dry, leaving the inhabitants sweaty and uncomfortable. Oblivious to the fact the propulsive interjection of her far-fetched and usually hilarious words would continue unabated. It was transfixing. She gathered men in her wake like sex infused pied piper, all the while many of us would sit and watch. For some there is a well of sadness that stirs underneath the essence of a person, like the deepest darkest sea under lurking under miles and miles of ice. The rustling of life that tramples above, stirs the sadness is quiet waves, a slight turn of a phrase by a friend or the leaving of a lover turns into a slow ache that upsets the balance of living, spiraling out in waves. The darkness expands in small shadows the crawl over the soul by miniature degrees, a Chinese water-torture of the psyche. A rustling would build inside her, stirring softly and then exploding into reckless behavior that was galvanic, with shards of emotions dripping from every aspect of the persons involved. Some of these escapades caused deep wounds, and dug into the skin of whatever emotionally frailty I had at that age, for Jenny, she would take for whatever hurt was no fault of her own but of my own stupid expectations about her actions. “you know what you were getting into and I can’t help it if you are always so serious” as she tugged a mouthful of smoke from her cigarette, other hand peeling back the wet label from her Natural Light. After a few years of sleepless nights, and anxiety, there was a point where a person gets used to this sort of treatment and it would be addressed with a gallows humor, an emotional brawniness had formed within me. Built with chips of disappointment that had calcified around my core. Nothing was shocking.

Rubbing his sweaty hands against his filthy jeans, which were so soiled that they could have caused his palms to turn even more grimy. On the table in front of him was a flashlight, gloves, his wallet, a pair of cheap women’s pantyhose, a ring of car keys with a plastic blue tag that read “Ricart Ford”, his cracked black wallet and half a can of Busch beer. His patchy beard twitched as he gathered them all up, stuffing them into his pockets, they were soon bulging with the tools for his evening adventure. It was summer, in Ohio the summer was constructed of sticky sweat and mosquitos but the Ohio State campus area was devoid of students apart from graduate students and young people whose lives revolved around the campus.

Jenny was working at the Travel Agency, an odd name for a campus bar the didn’t know if it wanted to cater to the Greek crowd, be a dance bar or even cater to the burgeoning underground music scene (Royal Trux and Urge Overkill both played the odd little bar.) She worked as a bartender, which was akin to having largest man on the block working the buffet table at Ponderosa. These were easy times in her life, where responsibilities meant how late to stay out, when to do laundry; job choices were dependent on lifestyle choices and not the other way around. Nights merged into mornings while eyes were wide awake, and the turntable was in a constant motion. Everything a person needed was within walking distance, record stores, bars, carry-outs and grocery stores made the life of burgeoning alcoholics easy, it was as if there was an invisible sheet being pulled over our collective lives by Anheuser-Busch and Jim Beam. The secret would be revealed years later with devastating consequences but the twirling dances of trembling nights of those days brushed aside any thought of the future.

I wore Dockers to two of my jobs, cheap imitations of professionalism that spoke to the truth of low wage management and sales job, “just who are they fooling” was my thought every time I put the stiff pleated blue or tan pants on, the mild annoyance of the fabric streamed up into my mind blossoming into an infrequent rage when the poverty of hope tripped up any semblance of aspiration. Casual business attire was code for supposed professionalism, collective bullshit by men who had never scrapped quarters from couch cushions to buy a hamburger. A soft seething blistered inside of me on a daily basis. Home life didn’t help, trying to piece together fragments of what domestic life was supposed to be, culled from prime-time television, after-school specials and Sunday morning services, to the reality that every person brings every experience that has ever occurred in their life to each moment. Every. Single. Time. Blending expectations with reality is fiction without practice. Jenny worked several jobs, one at the bar and the other at the Ohio State Faculty Club, her quick wit saved her from getting fired many times. The bar gig allowing her to stay out later, be the center of attention and of course, have access to an almost endless supply of alcohol.

Walking through the alley, stepping over shards of broken glass, empty fast food bags, pieces of broken furniture and massive green dumpsters filled with rotting garbage and piles of empty liquor bottles, he was deliberate in where he chose to go. He started off on high street, and within a few steps he was in the alleys, lurking behind apartment buildings and campus duplexes. After a long day of working two jobs, one selling cassette tapes to young college students, at one point that year I sold a new Kids on the Block tape to a young Chris Jent who later became Lebron James shooting coach, and the other job selling Twin-Tone and SST records to young men who lives almost depended on the sounds being sucked up and through the small needle cruising across the spinning vinyl. Jenny wasn’t home, which wasn’t expected-it was a Friday night—even though summer had come and settled over the city like a moist shawl, campus on the weekends still blossomed the young in need of dancing and sex. I sat on the floor, legs outstretched, with the sounds of High Street floating through the open window while the television flickered a semi-forgotten Steve McQueen movie, with the sound off the record player blared out the sounds of The Rolling Stones “Beggars Banquet.”

Drinking alone was becoming a habit, although listening to music can make the exercise an almost spiritual experience, I brought a six pack into the living room. Three cans in, flipping the record over, looking at the small plastic clock that ticked past two am, a small fear clutched my chest, it was hard to breath as I contemplated the fact that she may just not come home until five am again. Sleeping alone, even briefly-for the initial slumber was frightening, the drink could help put the mind into the warmness of rest, as if the mind was sinking into a steamy bath. The motivation to enter the bedroom alone has hidden in the murkiness of myself, it would need to be cajoled as thoughts went to the scary unreal, the imagination that pictured my partner giving head to someone else or moaning in pleasure while, I sat alone with a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, an old Steve McQueen movie and Mick Jagger warbling. With every late night excursion she had a small part of me would harden, a kernel of steel would form around my chest, never to be dislodged for years. The cicadas had landed that year, digging out of their seventeen year slumber, with only a days to find a partner before death swept over the mass of them, they sang songs of courtship that filled the air with a lovelorn chatter.

The Travel Agency was roughly two blocks from our apartment, as the ache built in my heart, of Jenny not coming home after close I debated walking over and fetching her as if she were grammar school aged and staying out too late with her friends. “Jenny you are missing your supper.” But that was a trip I had made before, walking in while she stood in a circle of people, performing her jokes and dropping her wit as if she was a firework of laughter. I would enter unsteadily, unsure of my role only knowing that I wanted her next to me, the surety that she made my other half whole and I felt naked without her. Every time as I approached, I felt the eyeroll, the invisible needling of an elbow in my ribs, to my heart, “uh, Jenny it looks like your boyfriend is here” some drunk would mutter and turn away, another would raise eyebrows high and her boss, Randy, the balding former wrestling coach who had repeatedly professed her love to her many times in my presence or on our doorstep would rush from behind the bar and yell, “she’s still working, she has to help clean up. You can leave now.” Turning, she would offer a shrug, “well, Bela, yet again you arrived too late at the party, just go home and wait for me.” On some occasions, she might be weirded out by some creep and ask me to stick around. Oddly, it would take me years to realize the waiting I held fast in my chest, the anxious energy that built up within me, the wondering, the visions of awful deeds that would dance in my mind as I waited for her would be the same behaviors and fears that I would cause my future partners as the hold of alcohol gripped me tightly, holding my feet fast to the bottom of the bar stool long after the doors had closed. Tonight, I opened another beer, found another record, Tim Hardin “II”, and listened as Tim sung about the deepest loneliness a person can feel. Outside, the car horns beeped, drunken students screamed at each other in the streets, bumping into one another as they bleated whatever ideas that sprung into their minds and the cicadas sang away, wrestling with their own doomsday heartache.

The front door opened, footsteps landed on the creaky linoleum kitchen floor, “Bela, I’m home. I brought a few drinks with me, aren’t you glad I’m home on time.” She wasn’t but it was better than four a.m… Plopping down on the floor, “why are you watching the television without sound?” “because, it’s stupid” I did not turn her way, the enjoyment of drinking alone had elbowed everything else out. After a few moments of silence, she moved to the couch, speaking into the air, her words landed around me, as if they were discarded plastic army men left for on the imaginary battlefield of childhood.

Outside on the street below, he had found a window with a light on, with enough space to remain almost safely hidden from passerby’s but enough in the light to be dangerous, to push the envelope just enough out of his pants. He placed the pantyhose around his head, mashing his black greasy hair over his forehead, splashing his beard across his cheeks, putting the large silver flashlight, the kind the police use to club someone over the head on the ground in front of him he fumbled with his zipper. Anxiety climbed up his ankles as the anticipation almost swallowed him whole. With one hand he tossed small rocks against out window. High Street was roughly a few hundred feet away, as he stood in a small empty parking lot, just off the curb of Chittenden Avenue. “what the fuck is that?” I asked Jenny. “I dunno, someone is throwing rocks at the window.” Nobody had knocked on the front door but since we lived on the second floor it could have been somebody who wasn’t sure this was our apartment. After a few more rocks had smacked against the window, I roused myself up and walked to the window. Twenty feet below a small bearded man with pantyhose pulled firmly over his head, a cap and dark clothes held a long silver flashlight (the kind that cops use to beat people) in his right hand, pointing it carefully on his midsection. In his left hand, which was working furiously, was his penis. The whites of his eyes shined through the woman’s undergarment mask as he worked away. He was truly a man on a mission. Pulling away from the window and sat back on the floor. “Who was it?” Jenny asked. Deadpanning, “I think it’s one of your boyfriends, go have a look.” I took a sip of beer. Peering at the window she laughed, “what should we do?!” “I suppose call the police.”  She handed me the bulky plastic phone and I dialed 911 explaining the circumstances, “so there is this guy masturbating outside our window, he has a flashlight and panty hose on his head.” “Sir can you describe him more accurately?” Pausing, I replied, “well, he has a penis in one hand and the flash light in the other. Its aimed at his penis, really illuminating what he’s doing…. if you don’t hurry up he’s going to finish up.” A deep sigh on the other end then the reply, “A squad is on their way, your comments are just going to hold them up.”

Slipping my bare feet into my shoes, pulling on some pants I rose to go outside and wait for the police, “I don’t think it’s safe to go out there, Bela” Jenny said behind me. “What is he going to dick-slap me to death?” “No, but he has a flashlight.” “Oh yeah, although he might be too tired to use it, I’ll wait on the staircase just in case.” Walking half way down the metal staircase, I sat down and took a sip of my beer. The man was gone and I took in the smell of the alley, rotting food and urine hovered in the backyard, the alley and small parking lots that lined the back ally were flecked with small tiny pieces of glass, sprinkled around the black asphalt. They made it look like miniature stars were imbedded in the blacktop, and when the lights of passing headlights shone upon them, they resembled rhinestones. The apartment building just to the north of us housed a George Cooper a giant of a running back who played for Ohio State, and next to him a gay man who was prone to wearing dresses, lipstick. The gay man was one of the first openly gay men I had met, he was quiet and kept to himself but would wave at us, and Jenny would talk to him quite a bit. ‘You should talk to him, Bela, he has some good taste in music.” I was hesitant, as I was still trying to shed the homophobia that going to high school in Springfield, Ohio had tried to instill in me amongst other bigoted ideas. The apartment below us was empty for the summer as were most of the apartments in the building just to the south of us, campus got fairly quiet-the exception being the drunkenness that occurred on High Street every weekend. Soon, a police cruiser pulled up, I walked down and explained to the officers what had transpired. “He was holding his penis and a flashlight? That’s a new one for me” said one the officers. “Yeah, he was quite ambidextrous” I chimed in. They set out looking for him, Jenny came and sat down next to me—we drank some more beer, the feelings of betrayal had left me, replaced by a closeness to her brought about by the absurdity of the situation. We always had laughter to pull us towards one another while our actions pulled us apart.

After ten minutes or so the cruiser pulled up, with a small bearded man in the back. “We saw him walking in another alley a few blocks from here, he had a flashlight and some pantyhose in his pocket. Can you ID him for us.” Wanting to make a crack about needing to see his dick, I refrained. They pulled him out of the back of the cruiser, he was short, with greasy black hair, a scraggly beard that was a pockmarked as a fourteen-year-old boy. He had on a pair of worn out black tennis shoes, his pants were about three inches to short, exposing his hairy legs; he wore no socks. Hunched over, he resembled Charles Manson, when the police asked him to look up at me he sneered, “I didn’t do any to you man!” His teeth were yellowed. Asking one of the officers to come and talk to me, I whispered, “what will happen to him if I ID him?” “well, we will take him to jail.” Thinking I walked towards him, “I don’t know if this is him, so I guess maybe let him go.” The officers told him to stay away from our house and he sauntered off into the night. In the darkness, while pale light from the streetlights made his small frame glow he turned, scowled back over his shoulder and kept walking.

It would take some time, years in fact for an understanding of the mentally ill and the homeless to swell within me. Of course, seeing the slow-motion avalanche of Jenny over the years proved a valuable albeit painful lesson in perceiving the far extremities of not only mental illness but also addiction. Issues that have swarmed inside of my own life and mind throughout the years, depression can suck a person dry from the inside as if the soul is being slowly burned by an inner sun, where the result is a deadened feeling. A feeling of desperation that acts like a tranquilizer in a person’s life, unless a person has felt this, it is very difficult and, exhausting to explain. Akin to describing a color that doesn’t exist or an apparition that dances only at night whilst a person sinks into slumber. For many, the task of this explanation proves to be too difficult, the already awkwardness of being different tends to push a person away for help, the inner recoil which may have proved to be a safety valve is the method that may save them but alas, many times it is never used. Jenny always embraced the absurd, as did Jerry and in my own way, I have tried.

Mike Rep.

April 30, 2017

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The back room of Used Kids was cramped, a musty claustrophobic din of shelves, boxes of records, large bundles of brown paper bags that were as thin as dust, that would tear if someone slid a record in even half crooked and Dan’s desk. His desk was shoved into a tower of peach crates, stacked sideways to form a make-shift shelf where all the receipts, tax paper, and unsold cassettes of Cordia’s Dad and the Wolverton Brothers held down the leaning tower of almost splintering wood. In the middle sat a furnace that had seen better days, whose piping was in fact rusting while in the far corner lay a darkness that only the High Street rats would venture too. Crammed in the rear of the room was the bathroom, itself a frightening hazard as one was not sure if one of the rodents the dodged around the clutter may suddenly appear behind the toilet while someone had dick in hand. There was a period when a series of Chinese restaurants were housed above us, the last one that somehow miraculously dodged the health department despite leaving uncovered tubs of slimy chicken meat by their backdoor and a grease trap that attracted all types of animal life, even in daylight hours. At one point, the rats were dying within our cinder block walls at an alarming rate, and the Chinaman who operated the restaurant would suddenly forget his English when I addressed him, scowling at me, “no rat here!” to which I usually replied, “yeah, cause they all fucking died in our walls!” Finally, one day, he was gone, his shop turned black but he had left all the food and soon enough after repeated calls to the landlord, some poor fuckers came and loaded out all the spoiled food. A heavy blanket of rotten stench coated the record shop for nearly a month before this happened, the heavy summer heat only poured gasoline on the problem. The rat problem slowed to a trickle after that.

Some of the boxes in the back where marked for our Goldmine auctions, Goldmine was a record collector magazine that ran nostalgia interviews with everybody from Mike Nesmith, Nancy Sinatra to Captian Beefheart’s guitarist, Gary Lucas. The back of the magazine was chock full of various record auctions, set sales that small shops across the country would advertise whatever collectable records that they came across. Many of these were of the “bootleg” variety or the always sought after radio shows. These radio shows were really a goldmine to independent shops, mostly put out by Westwood One these multiple LP sets were pristine recordings of FM radio bands. Some were much more famous than others, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, and Bob Seger but there were other, lesser known bands—fly by night artists that barely made a flicker on the charts or even rock radio, bands such as Frankie and the Knockouts, Greg Kihn, Quarterflash and John Cafferty. These smaller bands fetched very little, $5-$20 but the superstars, Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles or even R.E.M. could fetch hundreds of dollars. A needed influx of easy cash for us, but a pain in the ass to assemble as all the auctions had to be done via mail or phone. Record keeping and knowledge of what was more collectable were essential, when CD’s came out the shows and programs expanded, In the Studio, Hot Wax and others came on the market and the CD’s were much easier for various DJ’s and radio station employees to smuggle out and sell to us. Besides the radio shows the auctions would also be made up of other collectables, garage singles from the 60’s, rare art and jazz LP’s would sell well. The task for keeping track of these sales fell to two of the most colorful characters on High Street during the past forty years.

Mike Hummel was one of the first people along High Street to record his own music, and then press it to vinyl, his “Rocket To Nowhere” (Moxie) came out in 1977 a blistering blow-out-speaker of a song that at once seemed to capture the sonic waves burping out of Cleveland but infused with Mike’s love of all things Alex Harvey. Mike was able to straddle a fine line of the freedom of punk rock but with a keen eye of the art-y flamboyant sounds of the aforementioned Alex Harvey, early Alice Cooper, and glam-era Lou Reed. Initially he was a shaggy haired figure who would drop by the store, carrying loads of white record boxes to the and from the furnace of the back room, to his car, and later that night it wasn’t uncommon to see him manning the pool table at Larry’s with large leather hat and long leather coat casting a shadow over the table, a large glass of whiskey nearby. He was usually with Jim Shepard or Ron House, frequently one would find them by the back door of Larry’s smoking a joint and talking in hushed tones, probably exactly like they did in high school.  Dan had a contentious relationship with Mike at that time, and if there were any mistakes in the auctions or record show sales, he would berate Ron, “Well, he’s YOUR best friend” as if Mike was responsible for every fuck-up that went on in a store full of fuck-ups.

For Jerry Wick and I, Mike was somewhat of a mysterious shadow, he would slip in on Friday’s picking up a few of the white cardboard LP boxes, huddle in the back with Dan and return the next Monday with a manila envelope holding the winners of that months auction. That night, we would spy him and Shepard at Larry’s poetry night, grumbling that we were constantly shooshed while various nervous types, wearing berets, scarves and inky mascara stood before a bar full of people and read poems and prose from tattered notebooks. “Jesus, I forgot it was poetry night, let’s to go BW’s at least we can drink in peace and play trivia”, Jerry would say as we slumbered to the still local BW-3, that hosted trivia amidst a juke-box the poisoned one’s ears with the latest Jock Jams. Peace indeed.

Soon enough, we discovered the genius of Mike as he was soon working part-time in the Used Kids Annex smiling a broad smile, with his ruffled hair and white teeth he was handsome enough to have been a model for a hybrid of Creem and Playgirl, if such a thing existed. It was easy for us to find fault with Mike, as in our curmungendy-wary twenties, we tended to dismiss a great deal with a thought that would leave our mouth before being properly matured, as Mike was prone to listen to the Doors with the same ease that one of us would put the Stooges or MC5 on. What we didn’t fully realize was Mike came of age when rock and roll turned suddenly more dangerous, when the infuse of psychedelics, marijuana and Quaaludes were stuffed into tight jean pockets to be consumed in Detroit made cars as long as speedboats while the click-click-click of eight-track players boomed out the sounds of “L.A. Woman”, the Bob Seger System and T. Rex. Ron House once remarked that he had felt as if one had to make a choice in high school between Alice Cooper or the New York Dolls, Mike Rep defying both sides would proudly choose both. We all realized that like Jim Shepard, Mike had been making a mix of punk-infused art rock since high school. For the first Datapanik single, label head Craig Regala asked the Boys from Nowhere (themselves a mishmash of punk and 70’s hard rock, that never achieved the success of east coast counter-parts such as the Lyres) to cover “Rocket to Nowhere” while the b-side featured future Greenhorn brothers, the Spurgeons blasting through Peter Laughner’s “Dear Richard.”

“Rocket from Nowhere” is now a highly sought after single, an almost sinister and gleeful three minute announcement of boastful destruction of which Columbus had not quite seen; the Datapanik single was our first introduction to the capabilities of Mike Rep and the Quotas. When the Used Kids Annex opened up, Dan Dow recruited Dave Diemer from Capital City Records down the block to run the shop, Mike came on board full time and usually worked in the afternoons and evenings. There was a large concrete supporting wall that separated the two stores, one tip off that Mike had arrived was the musky scent of marijuana that would seep through the back-room wall. Mike would flip the “Back in Five Minutes” sign up and go to the back of the Annex and fire up, when Lamont Thomas (Bim) worked for us, he would also slip next door for a five-minute escape. Almost like a high-school kid trying to cover up his tracks, Mike would gargle some Scope, and light some incense to cover the smell—it was comical but the fear of drug busts, even for marijuana was still a possibility twenty-five years ago.

One day as I brought over a stack of records to the Annex, Mike was busy pricing 45” records in his shaky chicken-scrawl and singing loudly along to Phil Ochs, in his smooth tenor Mike sang along “I’d like a one-way ticket home, ticket home….” Records can be used a silent code, opening the possibilities of connection almost like nothing else, and for many it is a bigger escape than alcohol, drugs or most anything else. My own fascination with folk music and singer-songwriters started early, an affinity for Richard Thompson whom I saw open for R.E.M. when I was 17, and I had been fed an endless supply for Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Leadbelly as a host of Folkways records as a very young child. Discovering used records stores along High Street when I was 18 was akin to getting into a doctorate program at an Ivy League school, swallowing the songs of Tim Hardin, Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Gene Clark and, of course, Phil Ochs had an incredible impact on me. To find others who held some of these songwriters as close to their hearts was inspiring, the songs and artists were small fireflies of light in a life drenched in darkness. In the eighties and early nineties most of these acts were still obscure, Ron, Dan, Captain, Mike and I had all seen Townes Van Zandt at a small nightclub/eatery called The Dell in the early 90’s there were only eleven people there and Townes got so drunk during his brief intermission he ended the second part of the show basically telling stories while strumming laconically on his guitar.

 

Phil Ochs was an inspiration, not only because he grew up in Columbus and used to drink at Larry’s but because he was a man who appeared to hold his principals above all else, whose sensitivity to the world around him would eventually lead to his death by suicide. Looking back, it is easy to see that he as many other artists we admired suffered from Bi-Polar Disorder (Mark Eliot’s “Death of a Rebel” is essential reading on art, alcoholism and mental illness), but as young man who himself battled oppressive bouts of depression, including a suicide attempt, Phil was a revelation. When Mike sang along with “One Way Ticket Home”, I stopped in my tracks, and although we had known each other for several years we immediately connected  about Phil and records.

Later that year, a small band of excitable men from Dayton were coming up to the shop to hang out in the Annex, I knew one of them as Bob Pollard who would come up sporadically to go record shopping. Mike had helped mix one of the first New Bomb Turks and Gaunt singles as well as record some of the early Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartment singles, gutting the almost smooth farfisa college rock sounds of Ron House’s Great Plains for a big rock via muffled cardboard 4-track  recordings of the Slave Apartments.

At one point the valley of Ohio was the furthest west the country could have imagined, beyond the mountains of Western Pennsylvania and Kentucky, with the Ohio River holding an almost mythical hold that the Ohio Valley held on the forefathers of America were epic, a land of dangerous promises that appeared almost laughable 200 years later as mid-west promises collapsed under the girth of rust-belt nightmares. The fertile soil in Ohio was bathed in the blood of British, French, American and sadly, Native Americans who were massacred by degrees during the 17th and 18th centuries. Frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, trudged through the swamps of Southeastern, Ohio marking claims with rifles, knives and gunpowder leaving a trail of destruction from Marietta to Toledo. The fables that grew out of the carving up of Ohio by these men were the tales that little boys would play throughout vacant fields and the patches of woods that dotted small town Ohio. Even today, supposedly, there is some buried treasure hidden by Simon Kenton somewhere near Springfield.

The ancient history of Ohio goes back thousands of years, the earthworks of Fort Ancient, specifically the curling 1,300 foot Serpent Mound dates anywhere to 400 BC to the 11th Century, other earthworks dot Southern and Central, Ohio and in a sad commentary on 20th Century capitalism, one in Newark has a private golf course sitting on top of it. One can imagine the ghosts of Native Americans dodging errant golf shots whilst crying paranormal tears. One wonders if the people who grow up in the proximity of the Grand Canyon or the white tipped waves peaking off the coast of Maine realize the beauty and wonderment of the world they live in, or does one just accept these everyday astonishments as melting into the background of their existence, to finally, with just the shadow of a shudder, turn into the mundane? Serpent Mound is one of the great American treasures, as mystical as Stonehenge but with nary a speck of explanation left the builders. Serpent Mound is hidden in the deep Southern portion of the state, at least 100 miles away from Columbus, 250 miles from Cleveland and 80 miles from Cincinnati, the region used to be filled with coal miners and poverty cuts a deep wound into this region of Ohio. Nonetheless, the fascination with Serpent Mound has been relegated to mostly outliers in Ohio, pagans, Native American groups and those who tend to lose themselves in dog eared books, long hikes and the passing of pipes.

Mike Rep was transfixed with Ohio lore and more specially the history of Native American spiritual sites, the importance of locale has been steadfast in Mike’s world, a walking internet of facts about the region, Mike was the first person who told me about the Mothman. It was easy to dismiss Mikes fascination with the buried myths of the past, not only with the historical aspects of the Native culture but, in a shock for Jerry and I the self-myth making of musicians such as Jim Morrison and Donovan, musicians we had dismissed as we climbed out of mid-adolescence to our late-DIY-infused teenage years.

It was somewhere around this time, 91 or 92 that we were introduced to Tom Lax, who runs the fantastically spot-on Siltbreeze records from Philiadelphia. Ron and Mike introduced Jerry and I to TJ (as we called him), most likely at Larry’s or at Ron’s House. I knew Siltbreeze as the label that put out a V-3, Gibson Brothers and Sebadoh singles; Jerry and I were a bit in awe of Tom and Mac Sutherland’s ability to put out quality music from around the world, all hinged on music that was unsurprisingly artistic but full of attitude.

Even though, as a glance over the weighted shoulders of time, Tom, Ron, Mike and Bob Pollard were only a few years older than us, that space between someone who is 19, 20 or 21 to someone who is in their early thirties can appear vast, which turns the space horizontal, making an invisible pedestal in our minds. Siltbreeze mined Franklin County as if the sewers below High Street flowed with music instead of shit, and the avalanche of damaged esoteric music that Tom and Mac championed out of Columbus should have made them both honorary citizens of the city. The list is as long as a some of the tales that would bellow from Mike Rep’s drunken dialogues: Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Creeper: Ohio, Times New Viking, Sam Esh (whose warbling most resembled a washing machine playing a one stringed guitar), the Yips, the Gibson Brothers, Psychedelic Horseshit, V-3 and of course, Mike Rep and the Quotas. Tom, understood the musical acumen of Mike, whose taste in music has been unapologetic as well as trendsetting (see Guided By Voices, Times New Viking, Gaunt, New Bomb Turks, Strapping Field Hands…).

 

Mike walked through the main side of Used Kids one late afternoon to fetch a Black Label beer from the small and overworked dormitory refrigerator that kept us all sane during our salad days and he stopped at the side of the counter and sang along with me as I sang in my off-key quaver to Spirit’s “Animal Zoo.” It was shortly thereafter, that Siltbreeze put together a compilation of Mike’s hard to find and unreleased records stretching back into the 70’s. “Stuper Hiatus Vol. 2”. It’s a retrospective that runs the gamut of the punk-fueled deadism of  “Rocket to Nowhere” to the b-movie-whipit inspired “War of the Worlds” with a great dollop of Mike’s love of Roky Erickson smothering the homemade 4-track recordings. It also showcased Mike’s unusual taste in album cover art, utilizing the cover of a French-easy-listening record with Mike’s name on the cover.

Meanwhile, Mike was working hard on several projects, many of which he (kinda) cloaked in secrecy, per his intentional shrouded self-made persona, “I’m working on something that is pretty interesting, when you close up shop come over and give it as listen” he would tell us through his wide grin as he took a couple beers next door to the Used Kids Annex. After work, Jerry and I would stop in the Annex, with all the lights out except the dangling white Christmas lights that hung from the low ceiling, Mike would be blaring whatever he was working on. It could have been Guided by Voices “Propellor”, Prisonshake’s “Roaring Third” or the Strapping Field Hands “In the Piney’s”  or even a four-track recording of Donovan that Johan Kugelberg had asked him to remix (this is another story) but whatever it was it was always ear-splittingly loud. The smell of marijuana drenched the air like a green wave of humidity, a palpable smell that stuck in your nostrils like cat hair on a sweater. This night Mike was mixing something different, a bouncing effect laden song, it sounded as if the vocals were being channeled through a wading pool of water and ectoplasm, shimmering over fuzzy guitars and a small choir singing, “there’s aliens in our midst.” I stopped dead in my tracks, I had assumed it was a V-3 song although the lighthearted nature of the song, with a glint in the song’s eye suppling an aspect of care-free bizarreness that Jim Shepard would have been too self-conscious to lay down on tape. “Who is this?” I asked. Smiling broadly, Mike replied with wide eyes, “it’s the Quota’s but it’s a Twinkeyz cover.” Not knowing who the Twinkeyz were but assuming I should, I mumbled something like, “this is a great cover”.

The next time I worked with Mike he handed me a Maxell cassette  with his chicken-scratch pointy scrawl, “this is everything we’ve been recording.” The tape might as well have been stuck in the Pioneer tape deck in my 82 Ford Mustang for as much as I listened to it over the next month, the songs covered a gamut of sounds that spanned Mike’s fondness of music. From Roky Erickson to the Phil Ochs-cum-ragtime “America’s Newest Hero” and experimental Flying Saucer Attack inspired “One Thirty-Five.” Speaking with Mike over beers one night at Larry’s, “maybe I can put the tape out?” Soon enough, Gary Held from Revolver listened to it and loved it, he and Mike had spent some time together when Gary visited, perhaps they had even visited Serpent Mound together? After a few months of putting the cover, itself another in a long-line of bizarre record cover art from Mike, “A Tree Stump Named Desire” came out on CD. Mike wanted the record to come out on LP but due to the length of the record, a proper single LP pressing did not work, although it was cut to lacquer twice, Mike was never happy with how it sounded so there are only a handful of test pressings of the record.

Some people live on an island, not to the extent that it is a conscious choice but in the end the pursuit of art and creation tosses the irons of mainstream life that can fetter and clog the desire some have to pout what is inside their minds and lives onto paper, canvas and at times, into small recording devices, these are the people many of us are attracted to in our lives. Some may create to achieve adulation, to live forever in a moment of song while many do for the moment of the moment, the ones who can capture a singular feeling that transcends all the seconds, hours and days that follow it. The repercussions of the creation are just a bi-product of what needed to be produced. Most likely these are people who may tend to their gardens in self-imposed isolation, write silently in coffee shops or paint alone in their garages or tiny studios. For many they are tethered to small machines that capture sounds to be digested later, fueled by experience, alcohol, drugs and yes even whip-its. Mike Rep Hummel is one of these people, a man who holds no pretenses and who has managed to help discover and guide an unlikely assortment of talent that has helped inspired and influence the lives of many people who find their greatest solace in music. Guided by Voices, Times New Viking, V-3 and the New Bomb Turks all are indebted to Mike, who continues to do what he has always done, which is to cram what is inside of his shaggy head and cut it into tape without a fear of what the outcome will be. Fearless.

 

http://hozacrecords.com/

http://www.siltbreezerecords.com/

https://midheaven.com/search/?search=mike+rep

https://www.prairieghosts.com/moth.html

 

The Chair, part II: April

March 19, 2017

I have been trying to squeeze in writing, it has been difficult with the sways of fatherhood, work and other obligations. My goal in the coming months is to finish a story I started two years ago for my daughter, continue writing on these short stories with a discarded chair at the centerpiece and hopefully, the normal stuff I write about.

April:

She was scrubbing the floor, her knees wet from the spill that had run up into the hem of her white skirt, small bursts of purple weaved their way up the pearl colored fabric, making wine soaked canals up her thigh. “Well, this outfit is ruined” she said to herself, pushing the large yellow sponge across the wooden floor as small soap bubbles climbed shortly and then burst in soft quiet explosions, winding their way up the now sopping sleeve and teasing her elbow. Eyes scrunched together, her face a pained grimace, she pushed against the wood with all her might, as if she could clean not just the floorboards but also all the anger and frustration from within her. The wine bottle lay in pieces, shards of dark green glass in a small wet pile of burgundy, she had slid them carefully with a wet dishtowel. After years of cleaning up glass, April had become an expert. The window in the bedroom was open, bringing in the shouts of children, the slow roll and gasp of diesel trucks and the small chatter of her neighbors.

April was twenty-nine, a waitress at the corner diner she had arrived home early this morning after closing the diner down and walking her girlfriend Louise home. She had spent the night at Louise’s home, comforting the older woman whose son had passed away just a month ago in the jungles of Vietnam. “I hate to be alone, oh how I hate it. He comes to me you know, in my sleep. I can see him at the foot of my bed, he’s just a child. Always dressed in his orange and white stripped-shirt and denim jeans. It’s as if he just came in from playing a ball game, he doesn’t say anything, just stands there and looks at me.” Louise continued, “a part of me wants to yell out, while another wants to reach out and touch him, I know he isn’t there. The other night I sat up straight in bed, I leaned forward, and could smell the grass off of him. New cut grass, the kind they only make in the summer and I breathed him in. My little boy, I could smell him, he was right there and I knew I should not move. If you challenge a dream, it will come crashing down.” soft elongated tears rolled down her face, “I reached out to him and there was nothing there. All I heard was the clock ticking in the kitchen.”Louise took a drink out of pearly-white chipped porcelain coffee cup, the sweet bourbon burned her throat like a soft bee sting. “Well, the next night I dreamed about him, and we were driving the old Chevrolet Kingswood we had, the green one. I could hear him prattling on in the backseat, talking about the Indians and how Rocky Colavito was going to be the greatest ball player out of Cleveland. Oh, he could talk baseball for hours. Then he grew quiet, there was nothing, I looked in the rearview mirror and the back seat was dark. I’m not talking backseat dark, or closet dark, I’m talking dark as in a feeling—this was pitch black. I called his name, Eugene? Gene, are you there?” She took another small taste from the coffee cup, paused and continued, “So, I turned around and looked for him, and he was there. Although, he wasn’t my little twelve year old anymore, it was Gene alright but it was the Gene who left for the war, he was dressed in that brown bomber’s jacket he used to wear but he was covered in blood. There was so much blood, it dripped off his head, like spilled paint. And, and he….he just looked at me, his eyes were still little Eugene’s eyes. You know how soft they were, but they were just so sad. It was as if he were asking me why did this happen to him? Of course I woke up, I cried of course. I’m mean who can fall asleep after that?” Louise was crying again, “Well hell, I can’t sleep anymore since that dream. Sometimes, a person just wants to be held. It’s been so long since someone touched my shoulder, held me close. Gene was the last one, y’know, when he went off to war. He hugged me so tight my bones almost rattled loose, I think he knew that this would be it. That was what, over ten months ago?” April looked at her friend, as the nighttime shadows climbed over one another, making patterns of dark pinwheels across the ceiling and walls. Louise whispered, “almost a year, it’s almost a year and it hurts just as bad as it did when I found out. Maybe more, knowing it doesn’t go away not even a dent.” Even though Louise was fifteen years older than her, they bonded over their sameness and struggles, both had men who walked out on them. April of course, had no children and had been struggling with her own loneliness but could relate to Louise whose husband, himself a victim of war had left her and Eugene when he was four. She would get postcards from him occasionally, from Chicago, or even as far away as Billings, Montana—small bent, colorful cards of skyscrapers or canyons, with his scribble on the back, “thinking of you both, how’s my little tiger doing, sending money soon, Jack.” Of course the money never really came, maybe once a year an envelope with a ten dollar bill and another brief note. And then finally they never came, just came to a trickling close.  Then nothing as if that television show was cancelled.

April could not relate to the loss of a son, even a grown son at that, but the loss of a man she trusted in made her skeptical of men in general, although there were times in her past while in the clutches of emptiness she gave herself freely to whomever was paying her attention. Louise had eventually fallen asleep, with her head on April’s lap, her hair wet with tears and the empty coffee cup stuffed between the red and orange couch cushions. April had left gently, putting a pillow underneath her friend’s head and tiptoed out. The sun was splitting the darkness, a small crooked sliver of light on the horizon, as she heard her footsteps echo off the sidewalk and wet asphalt streets. It had rained during the night, a soft shower that made the early morning feel new, just hatched and she smiled to herself. As she grew closer to her apartment she felt the unease rise in her stomach, knowing he would not understand and would suspect the worst. Bracing her body for his insults, he would not listen to her pleas, and she couldn’t have called as the phone bill went unpaid last month. He never hit her, unlike some of the previous men she had, but his words fell on her ears like sledgehammers his roar echoing through the apartment and he would inevitably break something, a fist in the door, a plate against the wall or a window punched out. The last time she was late, after picking up extra hours at work, he accosted her when she walked through the door, flinging her against the wall, his beer soaked breath heavy against her cheek. He split the wall next to her head, with a fist the size of a boot. This was the closest he had ever come to hurting her, he left right afterwards, himself in tears. He was sensitive and would weep at the drop of a hat, get three drinks in him and turn on the water works, nobody would have guessed this tall, sculpted man, who unloaded trucks for a living would cry like a toddler when upset?

Her footsteps clacked against the concrete floor as she waded into her sense of gloom, growing thicker with every step, she felt tired from the lack of sleep but also a sense of purpose after helping her friend but now it was slipping away, in small increments with every clack and echo of her shoes the good feeling was now awash in dark trepidation. The floorboards wheezed slightly under her feet as she put her front door keys into the lock, keys jangling while she held her breath. The door swung all the way open, softly hitting the wall of the entrance. The room was dark, with the exception of the soft morning rays of sunshine splashing against the kitchen floor, they stopped just into the living room as if the kitchen and the living room was a deep sea. He was sitting in the chair, his head lowered almost below his shoulders, the small dining room table filled with bottles, at least eight bottles of beer and two bottles of wine. The room was filled with smoke, from the one cigarette after another that he sucked in with almost every tick of the clock.

“I can explain” she said brightly, her lilting voice breaking the darkness as she wrestled her keys out of the door, her purse dropped to the floor as she heard his cracked voice booming from across the room. “Sure bitch! Go ahead and explain! Fuck you!” his voice was hoarse as it caught against his flem-y throat. Taking a breath in, building up a moment of courage she turned, “no really, I can. Louise needed to talk and I stayed with her. George, I didn’t do anything else.” Slamming his right fist on the table, sending several empty beer bottles clanging against one another,                                                                                 “Fuck that bitch! You have responsibilities to me, to THIS HOUSE not some whore who can’t get her fucking life in order!”

“It’s not like that, Jesus Christ, George her son died, she’s all alone.” April put her purse down on the soft couch across from the dining room table, she noticed that the flowers on the end table had wilted, drooping towards the floor, she needed to throw them out. Later. As the light shown against his back, he appeared almost ghost-like, an apparition of anger she could feel his eyes burn towards her, his pupils small and drunk. “What did I say about using the Lord’s name in vain!!? Maybe you are the whore? Maybe you are a whore with Louise??! Fucking slut.” Half risen from his chair, he sat back down, and quiet enveloped him. Hesitating, counting four breaths, “George, she is very sad, her son died—she has nobody, just works at that shitty diner and drinks a little bit to cope. I can’t imagine what she’s going through, there is nobody else. Only you.” Stepping slowly she removed her jacket, and tossed it upon the purse. The table was quiet, and in a moment she heard his soft muffled cry, a part of her broke while the other part grew annoyed at this man-child. She grew close coming up to his side, his massive shoulders moving as if there were floating on massive waves, as she reached out and touched his left arm, her small thin fingers lightly tipping the soft fabric of his shirt. He made an almost indecipherable motion, head flinching just a breadth, and in a moment the yawn-like wail of his animal sounding bawl. Clutching his shoulder with her left hand, her right hand now gently petting his back in small circular motions she tried to pull him to her. She was tired, she felt the full weight of the long night now, all the compassion she had given Louise was now almost as dry as the desert in June, but she understood her role, had played it over and over so now it was her default. She could hear his tears dripping onto the table and she kissed his head softly, motherly and with a tenderness he had always yearned for. His hair smelled of sweat, cigarettes and the musty scent of being un-showered for nearly a week. His essence was sickly sweet, the pungent balm of drunken loneliness, the smell was of a barren man. Her lips touched him gently, and she told him she loved him.

Another long pause, then he knocked his head back, slamming against her teeth and knocking her backwards, she awkwardly caught herself, circling her arms beneath her and stumbled. “Get the fuck out of my face!” with a giant motion he upturned the table, the bottles smashing into a pile, the half empty wine bottle bounced against the wood floor and its remnants slowly chugged out, creating a small purple puddle. He towered above her, looming like a cat with a mouse in its paws, his breath came out in huffs, deep wheezes, with  blazing eyes, his mouth turned to a scowl—she took a few steps back, her feet unsure of themselves as she unconsciously raised her right arm in protection. She was focused on one large purple vein that was pulsating on his neck, it looked like a small snake stuck under his skin, trying to break through. He raised his left hand, fingers balled in a fist and glowered—she flinched and suddenly more tears flowed down his face. She thought he looked like a sad little boy, one part of her heart broke for him while the other nine parts cowered in fear and disgust. “Fuck this!” he finally stammered before bolting out the door, she heard his large boots on the stair steps. The clatter of his soles soon diminished as was out of earshot. Placing the soft bottoms of her hands perfectly in her eye sockets, she comforted herself. The weight of exhaustion overwhelmed her for a moment as she slunk to her knees. After a few moments, she collected her thoughts, went to the kitchen and grabbed some towels to commence the cleaning up.

Her hair had been tied up, a haphazard bun stacked upon her head and now, several strands broke loose and swung softly against her face as she pushed the rags against the floor. Her elbows were sore and occasionally she had to brush some of the hair away. After she cleaned up, putting the glass carefully into the green metal wastebasket, the towels into the caramel colored hamper and changing her shirt which had begun sticking to her sweaty body, she made herself some coffee on the stove top. She stood silently and watched the water slowly boil, small bubbles rising and bursting to the top, soon the water quivered and came to a boil, when she lifted the pan slowly and poured the water into a paper towel filled with coffee grounds. The water trickled through the towel and into her cup. She recalled how her father made coffee this way, “the hotter the water the better the coffee” he would say every time he made coffee. This made her smile, a flat grin creasing her face, it was her first smile of the morning. Walking into the other room, she set the coffee on the small table, turned on the radio and sat down on the hard chair. As she leaned back, staring at the ceiling, she hummed softly to the music, singing along with the music, “in your voice I hear a carousal…”

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 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.