Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Mae’

K. (more from the Chair.)

January 12, 2019

working on several things at once, one is the book to be published sometime in 2019, the other are finishing several stories I have been writing for my kids, and then this, a series of short studies with a furnished apartment as the centerpiece. Some are based on people I know and some aren’t. This is the newest one I’m writing

K.

 

There must have been at least 100 ants walking across the kitchen floor, they marched after each other in tiny rows, a few would scuttle off the path and then circle back around. They were attacking a small bit of a peach that had fallen on the floor and some bread crust that lay just inches away from the sticky sweet fruit. He moved the chair towards them, scooting it softly across the wooden floor, finally resting just a few feet from them, hands on his knees poking through well-worn jeans, leaning over his face only inches from the parade of insects. A glob of saliva dropped from his mouth, landed like a small bomb in the middle of the ants, splorking two of them who twisted in the gooey mess their bodies contorting as they tried to wrestle free and the rest of the ants just went around the two struggling insects. “How could they help?” he thought as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “poor little fuckers, I’m sorry” he mumbled. In the sink dishes were piled on top of one another as if it had become a garbage bin for porcelain plates, coffee cups and Smuckers Jelly jars that he used for drinking glasses, he was growing used to the sweet stench from the sitting water that sat in the cups.

Standing up and stretching his arms out wide, his back loosening as he twisted in the middle of the floor. There was hardly any furniture, just an old love seat his mother had helped him pull out of the alley, a cracked plastic coffee table that had one leg propped up by an old paperback book, the chair and an old tube television that turned on in sighs, it would flash once and take its time gathering up the picture, it took about three minutes for the screen to fully awake and even then sometimes it would only cover half the screen unless he gave it a hard bang on the side.  The coldness of the wooden floor teased the bottom of his feet, causing them to arch up, rocking back on his heels he rolled them forward to suck up all the chill that had settled into the wood. He strode to the window, hands on his hips, he gazed out the window, twisting his waist back and forth, he was getting loose while his eyes followed a woman on the sidewalk pushing a stroller with one hand while holding the hand of a little girl, dressed in a pink chiffon dress that billowed up around her scrunching into her mother’s legs. The mother, daughter and baby moved in starts and stops, a slow shuffle as the girl pulled on her mother’s hand towards a store they had just passed while the mother appeared to want to hurry as far away from that store. Step. Step. Step. Stop. Turn. Shake head. Step. Step. Step. Stop. Turn. Shake head. Throw arms up in frustration. Finally, the girl tossed herself down to the ground, her dress swelled up around her like a miniature candy mushroom cloud. Pressing his nose against the wet pain of glass, he smudged the condensation. He felt his hot breath coming back on his face. As the mother calmed the girl down, appearing to give in and walked back to the store’s window as the girl pointed to something that had grabbed her attention, he couldn’t make out what it was but saw her mother nod and kiss the girl on the top of the head, they turned and left.

There was a smell stuck in his mind, one of flowers and honey mixed with the sweat of his boy, he remembered the feel of his small shoulders, which seemed so small and fragile, and how he squeezed his sons’ arms and offered him encouragement before he ran out onto the green field. With soiled yellow shorts, bruised knees with mud caked on them as if they were spackled on by a spatula, blades of grass sticking out the bottom of his orange cleats splayed out around the edges they looked as if they had gone to war with the sod covering the field. “Dad, dad?!” yelling as he sprinted off the field, “can you go get my water? I left it on the other side of the goal.” The memory now dissolved into the scent of wet grass, the early morning glistening of the soccer field and small legs galloping from one end to the other. Things moved slowly now, turning his back away from the window, pulling the red cushion a few inches, did three prostrations and bowed to the round red seat, bowed to the sun and sat, legs crossed, hands on his knees. Breathing every memory in then every memory out, with every exhale the exiting thoughts winked at the sun, falling away into nothingness. He shuddered as his mind gave up miniature ghosts into the room.

She had laid her head against his shoulders, her blue eyes sparked as the tears made her face glisten, arms at her side, just being held was almost enough. Almost. Her laugh careening off the sides of his mind, he remembered when he dazzled the most beautiful woman in the world. Effortlessly as if he had been built by the wind and grounded in the sea. His chest rose and fell, he was still except for his chest, sitting and sitting until the pain slowed down. It trickled out in running spurts, in the most inopportune times while he slept, at the stop light, eating a sandwich. Next, she was pulling weeds out of the front yard, a gardener’s grimace cemented to her face as she attacked the stubborn plants, they were tangled around all the yellow, blue and red flowers that struggled to live amongst the aggressive weeds. She waved and went back to grimacing, another thought, another breath to chisel them away.  This was almost a year ago, maybe longer, sometimes memories were piled in his mind like mounds of clothes scattered in the bedroom corner and until someone picked them up, fluffed them ou,t then one wasn’t sure if it was a blouse, leggings or a pair of pants. Not that it mattered, it was gone, all of it except for his dusty mind that kicked up a fuss whenever it felt like it. After twenty minutes he stood up, stretched again letting out a deep yawn and walked back to the window.

The reddish-orange bricks fractured the sunlight in barely discernable yellow hues, the gray mortar between the bricks did their dutiful job of holding the entire fucking building up, working for the past seventy-five years to do just this. Stay put. Clouds cast moving shadows on the wall, the telephone wires swayed slowly as the sky breathed out, everything seemed to breath. There was an emptiness within him, it had grown larger and larger, taking small bites and then larger chomps out of him from the inside out. Soon it would devour him, he knew this for sure and there was nary a thing he could do. Shrugging, he walked back to the far wall, carefully choosing a record album, one that would best describe his mood, he wanted to feel this moment while there were other times he would put a record on to change his mood, he wanted to feel the thickness of his depression as hard much as he could. It was lathered on him like paste, he lifted to dust cover and put the record on, it spun around and around and when the needle hit the grooves, it crackled and came to life as if it had been waiting to sing forever. Adjusting the stereo he paced the room, going to the kitchen, putting water on the stove the blue fire of the burner tickling the bottom of the kettle. Its blue flames licking the metal, he carefully put five spoonful’s of coffee in the French press and walked back to the living room. It went like this for the next ten minutes, a small dance routine for himself until he sat on the small couch and sipped his coffee. There was no place to call home, this much he knew.

The depression hit him when he wasn’t thinking of it, somedays it felt an inch thick and other days, the bad ones, it felt like he was incased in it six feet around him. They were the ones where he was smothered with emotional impotence, it was painted on him with heavy brushes from the inside out.  There were some days when the sadness had settled deep in his chest while he slept like a kitten curled around a person’s legs, on mornings like this making it to the first cup of coffee was a chore, he might have well picked the coffee beans and roasted them himself for the amount of time it took him to swing his legs over the side of the bed. And then suddenly a song would come over his headphones and the depression would fly away like a billion butterflies fluttering in the sky. There were somethings that helped more than others and then there were times when depression was so entrenched, there was nothing else to feel—it had sucked in all the air and chewed in small bits. Gobble. Gobble. This morning as the speakers sucked in and out, small little thumps that smacked out the sounds that slowly peeled away the morass he was feeling, there were fragments of thought that we was trying to pull together, note by note. It was working, eventually he finished the coffee, a slight buzzing in his head as he washed the cup out, the warm water and imitation smell of mint of the dish soap helped him concentrate. It was meditative and was helping.

Upon looking through a small book of photos that spent the past few months collecting dust, speck by speck, his fingers stopped on a photo of her, she was young, her face more roundish—as if the last remnants of childhood retreated to her cheeks holding out hope that she would forever be a child,  only a scent of a young girl on her face, she was smiling, and he knew in this photo he had made her laugh. Her white teeth glowing from a full laugh, the joy made the picture erupt in happiness. She put up with a lot, this went through his mind as he tried to remember where the picture was taken, there were empty beer bottles on the table next to her arm but the background was fuzzy. Maybe twenty years ago? Maybe even earlier? This was before the desperation swept him from his feet, clobbered him inside and foisting him into a sheet of blackness that rolled inside and around him for years. Another photo, probably eight years later and she was full of life, literally, standing in the back yard her body stretched to keep the life growing inside of her comfortable, she was smiling in this photo as well. The brilliance of motherhood danced from her eyes, as a new life for them was about to explode into their lives. He remembered his trepidation about fatherhood, wanting to avoid it altogether, the feeling of doom that he would repeat the failings of his own father was an almost daily trudge during her pregnancy and while it lifted for many years it had returned, making an unwanted I-told-you-so, into his life now—munching into his ear that no matter what he did he would never escape his past even if he was an innocent once. Another photo, their daughter, tongue hanging from the side of her little-girl mouth and she strained to take her first steps, her mother holding her sides, encouraging her with whispers. These were indeed her first steps on her own, she had pushed the little pushcart away and never looked back. He had caught it, stuffing that moment into a picture forever more. Another photo, his son booting a soccer ball in front of the goal, maybe 30 feet from it, his shaggy hair bouncing but stuck frozen in the picture. He must have been six or seven in this shot.

Then a photo of them together, all of them, somewhere on the beach, she on one side of the children he on the other, holding the phone to capture them all. She looked pained and he looked hesitant, as if there was nothing to be captured in this moment, their daughter looked away towards her mother while their son giggled as he pulled down on his arm. Then nothing, there were no more photos. The record abruptly stopped, the needle lifted and clunked its way into the phonograph’s cradle. A small electrical buzz came from the speakers. Bzzzzzzz…..

Outside a fly buzzed around his head, into his ear and the up away from his hand as he tried in vain to swat it away, it teased him, a bothersome moment in a life full of bothersomes. His car had scars up and down the length of it, a dent here, a bruised bumper and of course the cracked windshield, a metal testament to his poor eyesight and shitty ability to focus, it was amazing he hadn’t been killed in a car accident by now. He turned on the car stereo, his phone automatically melding into the car’s system and the music burst around him like aural fireworks, he felt like he needed a drink to match the music, or maybe to dance but it was only eleven am, still to early for both and anyway, he had not had a drink for nearly two decades, this was not the time to start now. He felt everything more acutely now, much more than he did when he stumbled into bars, fell onto barstools, collapsed into bed, and looked in vain for some relief for something that he could never name. His head was shaking back and forth to the music, small bobs up and down, floating on a wave of sound—he’d give anything to be a note of music floating through the air, a vibration that doesn’t hurt but only brings joy. “mother fucker” he thought to himself. There was a memory of the gay bar, where he used to escape not for sex but for music, to free himself from self-consciousness and let arms, hips and feet meld to the music. It was a safe-haven, he went with his dead friend who combatted all of the same things that he had, that is until he lost not just the battle but the war. No more dancing. “I should go dancing” he thought, he turned up the volume. He was now holding his baby girl in his arms, swirling her about the room while she cooed at him, her smile making up for her lack of language, there we melded at that moment, stuck in his mind until his mind would disengage sometime in the future. But not now. Not yet. “Not yet” he whispered softly.

At one point he realized she believed in him, offering him hope and she slid her arm around his back, touching his shoulders and his face, she kissed him softly her eyes lowered—she injected hope and encouraged into his very being, but now, all he felt from her was hopelessness. It had turned into something dangerous for the both of him. He sighed deeply and switched the gears in the car. Touched the screen to the next song and turned into traffic. Alone.

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Update on Updates, new writing and book

July 14, 2018

A few updates as I have received some emails and questions about the slow going of new writing. There is actually a lot of writing and re-writing going on this past year as I have been working on a book which contains some of the writing in the blog, I have some great help from Lisa Carver and the book should be out in 2019. It is slow going, I have posted to small rewrites/additions on this update. I have also been working on a short story compilation that I may or may not post, basically finished an adventure story for Saskia (that she has now outgrown) and am in the midst of writing an adventure story for Bruno (not sure if I will post either of these).  Here are the additions from the book:

Relationship:

After Jenny got out of the hospital, she and I hovered around one another not face to face more like we were at the same party but never in the same room. This went on for a year or so, and as Jenny’s life became more precarious, a slow-motion tidal wave that just grew and grew over the years, collecting and casting off everything in its path until finally it obliterates itself, I would step back from her, my ability to converse became more strained over the years. The relationship had completely changed by the time she became homeless, I became the caretaker or even the older sibling, the protector but the job came with a toll. Jenny became defensive, like I would peel her open and discover her innards were built with lies, like a down pillow made of soft untruths. When she was drunk, during these years, it felt as if my skin was sweating on the inside. People would ask if there was temptation to drink as I had quit drinking, but it did the opposite, nobody eats a full meal after someone vomits. I felt cured of alcoholism around her, scared straight every time the smell of alcohol heaved and shuddered from her mouth. At times when the hospitalizations became routine, they had ceased being an event in the last seven years of her life, they were just normal—it was as she became a convict that keeps getting arrested, but she was in the hospital instead of jail, I would see her, talking to her and offering encouragement. “Don’t judge me, Bela” she would sneer, IV’s dangling next to her, tubes hanging from her yellowed face, “you may have turned your life around but it doesn’t mean I have to live the way you do.” These comments would spew out of her mouth, years after I had tried to get her sober and the anger had dissipated to a sense of love the was smothered in dread of what was to come. Jenny felt threatened by the secrets we held together, the truths we experienced and the hope that had burnt up like a poorly rolled cigarette. All that was left was the smoke.

 

The hesitancy Jenny held around me was palatable after I left, she was guarded and anxious, there was a part of her that was still dumbstruck that I left her and that I was able to survive with our her and in fact, that despite her predictions and even some inner belief of my own, I would find new lovers and eventually fall in love. My presence felt like Kryptonite to her, also for me as well, what an awful realization that something that helps create you, that is very much a part of the very essence of you, causes such pain. The apprehension was volatile, it came out in glares and quick exits when I was in the same space as she, “Bela, I can’t see you—just let me know when you are going to be there. I hate seeing you, maybe some day I can but you just hurt me too much” she spoke into the phone one night, I could almost feel the wetness of her tears through the twisted telephone line, it had felt like a sucker punch, “don’t say that Jenny, I want to see you—I still need you in my life.” “No, not while you are fucking some other girl.” Exasperated, “what the fuck are you talking about, you are with guys all the time.” Her voice was cold and sharp, “you know its different with me, I can’t be alone. Ever. I fuck them for a reason. You are ok to be alone, you deserve it.” She hung up the phone. Things would get said that were intentionally incomplete, like a punch-line to a joke that never came, and the joke just hung in the air until is floated into the back of a person’s mind. Confused. Annoyed. “God-damnit, Jenny.” And then I hung up the phone.

 

Jenny’s Voice:

Western Ohio is an area of transplants, perhaps the forgotten transplants of the Midwest, whereas the German and Eastern European immigrants that flooded Cleveland, the industrial complexes of Youngstown and Toledo and to the southeast the poison air of the coal mines of Appalachia. But Western Ohio, the forgotten and silent step-child is created from the steely-hard persoonia of Protestant immigrants, what-goes-on-here-stays-here, God-and-Country and a generally feeling of distrust of the outside, of difference. The accent of this area is more southern than the Norwegian cadence of say, Minnesota, or the distinct Cleveland accent where vowels are drawn out—where a person’s voice is closer to person from Buffalo or Pittsburgh than say, Dayton.

Moving from Athens and having spent a childhood rocketing from one part of the country to another, I was most startled by the southern lilt of my friends in Newport News, Virginia when I was in third grade. Where they all sounded like Hee-Haw singers, with slow drawls and language that we were taught never to speak, most specifically nigger and terms such as coon, faggot and so forth. Here the racism sat front and center, it was not subliminal as I would later discover in Columbus. So, I was alarmed to hear these terms again when I started high school in Springfield. Jenny spoke with an almost southern accent; her voice was hard—not just from her personal childhood experience, but the area of South Vienna and Springfield is hard. A struggle for survival, where scuffed knuckles and the anxiety of the next paycheck are ever present. She did not speak delicately although her knowledge of language came out in the written word, a lovely writer-her short stories were things of beauty as was her indelible handwriting, one would be surprised to learn that her course voice would blanket such beauty. As such, in Columbus, this may have affected her standing among many of the northern Ohioans and college bound academics that dotted her life. Perhaps, only the subtle West Virginian accent of Scrawl’s Marcy Mays was overlooked because of over arching power of Marcy, and Jenny always spoke of Marcy in reverenced terms.

Jenny’s singing voice could slide from a simple innocence, almost child-like in delivery to a husky pillow drenched in Maker’s Mark from one song to another. She could have easily had some of her records on K records, with it’s simplistic and bare-bones aesthetic-where Beat Happening carved a niche for anybody to parlay songs and art into words without the angst and vitriol of punk rock while some could land safely on the corner of 4AD with layered guitar and keyboards shrouding the pain she was able to slip out in an ethereal gasp. In the end, though her’s was a voice that fit nowhere, as she lacked the sophistication or polish that would provide so many female artists an avenue that may have allowed the man’s world of indie-rock provide acceptance. She was a victim of her own circumstances, to bold and outrageous in personality for those who wanted their female singers to provide solace—to not only sound pretty but to be pretty and much to pop and sing-song-y to attract the punks-she slipped on her own being, in a sexist and classist world. She sang without misgivings, at times, depending on her alcohol intake she could go tragically off-key, not unlike Bob Pollard whose vocal stylings can fall flat-footed in concert and he drowns his throat with another Budweiser, while at other times, her breathy voice could crush as evidence on her song “Ho Bitch” which could be perhaps one of the greatest songs on living with mental illness that I have ever heard.

Jenny Mae & Jerry Wick comic + 7″ coming out via NIX Comics

March 28, 2018

Roughly ten years ago I started this blog to process some feelings and sort memories out pertaining to Jenny Mae Leffel and Jerry Wick. There was nothing more or less to it except that I wanted to have an outlet and share their stories and how they impacted me. It has been a very rewarding experience and I have been humbled by the response over the years (over 80,000 reads covering over 120 countries around the globe). As Jenny passed this past year and I am continuing to work on a much larger project pertaining to the writing. Over the past few years I have been able to partner with Nix Comics to produce two graphic comics based off several of the stories in the blog (both have been reprinted and both are available via Nix: “Do You Remember Rock and Roll Record Stores” and “Negotiate Nothing: Jim Shepard”). Nix is planning on releasing a final graphic in the comic based on Jerry and Jenny meeting as well as exploring Jenny’s struggles with homelessness. There is also a planned 7″ (limited to 300 copies) of an unreleased Jenny Mae song recorded in 2006, and the only vinyl version of the Jerry Wick song “Love, Death and Photosynthesis” from the CD compilation “I Stayed Up All Night Listening to Records”. There is nice easy method to pre-order the comic and/or the 7″ through the Nix Kickstarter for this (follow link). There is also other comics and projects planned as part of the Kickstarter. I have reposted the first entry of the blog below.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nixcomics/nix-comics-2018-comic-book-and-records-subscriptio

 

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae

August 12, 2009

I sat in the corner booth, with a brown haired girl with muddy blonde streaks and when she laughed the whole world stopped for a moment.  Beer shot out of my nose and down the front of my t-shirt.  The t-shirt had a picture of a monkey riding a bike and said “R.E.M.” on the back.  She, the girl that is was telling a story about work.  Apparently she worked in a private dining club with a Chinese woman who once played for the Chinese National Basketball team; she was tall especially for a Chinese woman.  The woman spoke very little English, and my friend named Jenny had used her lack of English for a practical joke that went a bit wrong.  An older gentleman had asked the former basketball player what desserts were they serving today, the basketball player stuck her head in the kitchen and asked “Ah, Yinny, what is desert today?”  Jenny, whose wit was quicker than her mind replied, “We have pecan pie, chocolate pie and hair pie.”  The ball player turned around and answered “We have ah pecan pie, ah chocolate pie and ah haar pie.”  Jenny quickly ran to the cooler and hid for the next ten minutes while the manager looked all over the kitchen and dining room for the culprit who played the poor immigrant.  Jenny said as soon as the manager went on break she clocked out and was thankful she had the next few days off.  It was a Wednesday and we were celebrating the late afternoon in the best way we knew how, with an evening of cheap bottleneck beer and keeping one another company.

In the table just off our booth a man with a weathered thin US Army backpack laughed along with me, he turned and smiling with crooked teeth said “God-damn, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in forever.”  He had hair just past his shoulder and smelled of pizza sauce and patchouli, not the most pleasant smell in the world.  He was drinking coffee.  I always managed to check what a person was drinking back then (I still do this today) as a way of measuring them up. I noticed him; I’d seen him in the record store I worked at part-time.  I worked in several stores at that point, I worked as a manager of a mostly classical and jazz store that catered to the University professors and grad students and on a few days a week I had the opportunity to settle behind the splinter giving worn counter of the used record store just down the block and under the sidewalk from the classical store.  I could drink beer and listen to the glories of underground and brit-rock in the safe confines of the used store. Here as I guzzled beer and coffee I would secretly plan my escape from the classical store where I wore a tie and uncomfortable poly-cotton Dockers that did not dispel any pretense that I worked as a manager in a chain record store.

I also remembered this man from some of the independent rock and punk shows I had started attending with my friend Jenny over the past six months.  I had seen him with his coffee cup at the basement bar down the street where we would watch local music for free and piss tip-toed as a way not to let the overflowing toilets flood our tennis shoes. He had a notebook in front of him with a page filled with scribbles and a small doodle of a skinny man screaming into a ball of larger scribble.  He had on a black tee-shirt.  The tee-shirt said “Mudhoney” above four half naked men, it was a take-off of a Slits album cover.  I was impressed.  He pulled his chair over just as I was rising to go get a few more drinks.  I asked him if he wanted one. He asked if I could get him some more coffee.  He was still laughing from Jenny’s story.  As he handed me his cup his slightly bent shoulders shook with laughter and I noticed his thin hands and arms; he was as skinny as a flagpole and his long hair draped over his bony shoulders like spaghetti over a mop handle.  His entire being was like caffeine come to life.  “Really, if you want a beer I’ll get you one” I offered.  “No thanks, I don’t drink.”  I was shocked and somewhat suspicious.  I didn’t know anyone who didn’t drink.  Jenny said “really, are you sick?”  “No, I just don’t drink.”

I had an immediate kinship with Jerry.  From the moment we spoke to one another my entire world opened up ten-fold.  Prior to that point much of my world revolved around Jenny and I getting drunk, playing practical jokes on strangers and pretending we were people who we obviously weren’t.  My circle would go from two people (me being one) to several hundred in a matter of months in part of my new friend.  Jerry told us he worked at the chain pizza place down the street and had moved to Columbus recently from Kent Ohio.  He claimed that Kent “grew stale, it’s a small college hippie-town filled by pretentious rich kids who wore tie-died clothes to hide from their mommies and daddies.”  I made no mention of his patchouli scent to him.  When he spoke of the things he didn’t like, his voice rose and his intensity was surgical.  I could absolutely relate to this aspect of him.  We bonded over our distaste over college kids, our hate of shitty music and our ability to laugh over the telling of events that were at most two years old but in the haze of Jenny’s and my own drunkenness and Jerry’s caffeinated hyperness appeared to be at least a decade in passing.

Jerry lived just two blocks from us on Indiana, in a three bedroom house where he happened to be an outsider.  For his distaste for hippies and all manner of pretentious rock and roll music he chose an odd place to live.  His roommates were a band that played every Tuesday evening in the basement bathroom overflowing bar, their sets were filled with ten minutes plus songs-“jams” complete with fog machine and noodly keyboard solos and they wore enough hair to get part-time jobs at a petting zoo.  A roommate of mine and Jenny’s went to go see them every week and she had managed to drag us to see them on a few occasions.  I had a complete revulsion for anything considered “art” and rock and roll which meant I wrote off a large swath of music that emanated from the late 1960’s and the 1970’s from the laborious epic song cycles of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to the shrill hard rock of later day Rush.  Anything with a concept and keyboard was cause for utter derision.  This was yet another belief that we bonded over, Jerry told us he couldn’t stand his roommates and fled the house whenever they practiced.  He was shocked and pleased when we mentioned that Jenny wrote short little songs on a small Casio keyboard she had borrowed from one of our other roommates.  He told us he would love to hear them and when we said that we didn’t have any recordings he offered to record her on his tiny tascam portable recorder which was just a fancy cassette recorder.  We ended up back at his house; his room was just a mattress with a bookshelf crammed next to it.  The bookshelf was crammed with whatever remaining clothes were not scattered on the floor, cassettes and a paperback books by Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and music related tales such as “Please Kill Me.”  He pulled out a shoebox a played us what sounded like the solo from “Down by the River” speeded up and muffled under a pillow.  I was amazed.  There were no vocals.  He said it was him playing a one-string guitar and that he was still working on it.  He told us he was in a band called Black JuJu.  Like the candy.

It was late and I had to work in the morning.  Jenny supposedly had school but unbeknownst to me she had already dropped out at this point and had been keeping up the charade of a full-time college student for a while now, she would continue to do this for at least six more months.  We wobbled home on liquid legs and twisted grins.  When we got in the house I boiled a couple of hot dogs and drank three glasses of water to help stave off the headache that may or not arrive. We went to sleep in the closet that Jenny had managed to convert to a bed.  She had a fear of people out to get her, a paranoia that seemed innocent in those early twenties days but would later manifest itself in far more dire behaviors.

Jan 2018, sitting at the stop light.

January 28, 2018

Jan 2018.

 

The boy sits on the couch, the one with the split seams that is bandaged with a gray throw blanket to hide the years of use, rubbing his head with his colored fingers, black, red and green from scribbling in notebooks, these are the scars of a Saturday afternoon. He’s watching a show, the sounds of pre-recorded laughter over an unfunny television show bleeds through the music I’m listening to. But, its ok, I don’t mind some of these interferences any more, the music will always be there and besides I’ve listened to this record about a million times—I know every note although I don’t really know any notes. 1,000,001. Outside, beyond the houses across the street a brown-gray tree reaches into the clouds, gray marrying gray while the chill in the air makes itself comfortable for the next few months, it will overstay its welcome again this year. No doubt about that. Looking up at me, for reassurance a sliver of a smile slips out when I smile back, giving him a thumb up. He returns to his toy, a flat white piece of technology that literally puts the universe at his fingertips, sliding his nimble fingers across the screen he can pull up live satellite images of Jupiter or watch the ten worst skateboard accidents of the previous year. Fetching coffee from the kitchen, the fence outside needs replacing, the wood buckling and bowing after years of soaking in the sun and absorbing winters filled with snow and sub-zero temperature. To be a wooden fence in Ohio is a lonely life.

There are moments when a person feels nothing, no thought, no worry, no anticipation, no anxiety, no pleasure—nothing just the softness of the occasion. These come in small crashes, as if they were encased in feathers, in the middle of chaos comes a blunted bomb of nothingness. When they are noticed, it feels like the unraveling of a secret and then it dissipates as soon as the mind notices it, I think then about how this never happened for you. The quietness. You were a rattling rattle, it felt like you were ten feet high and twenty feet long, lungs pushing out words as if you would have choked on them otherwise, waving above the world—the energy shooting like sparks from your electric body and the mind that never switched off.

He gets up, goes to the kitchen, I hear the refrigerator door open, and the sound of the milk carton on the table, the clinking of glasses and his sing-song voice, mumbling over the words of a pop song that you would have taught yourself to play. He sits at the table, sketchbook in hand and draws, the noise from his toy is not song and it forms a peculiar dance of sound as it seeps into my headphones. Eyeing him, I think backwards, flipping through memories as if they were being unpeeled in microseconds, and then I get stuck in the middle of them. It is then that I wish you were here, that you would tell me what memory it was that I was trying to recall about you, if you were a ghost you could try to point the way in the silence haze of whatever world that ghosts hover in. In the end this would annoy you, not being able to talk, to only float about in the background. There was this one time, when you were sleeping in our garage, after I had laid down a rule that was as foolish as telling the sea not to be salty, that said you could not drink if you were to stay in our garage. As if this gesture alone would give you the motivation to finally, once-and-for-all, quit drinking. It was hot, the house was roasting, cooking in its own peeling paint and 19th Century wood, and I noticed the front and back doors were open—you had used the kitchen or bathroom or both, in hindsight it didn’t matter but in the moment, it did and the anger that grew as suddenly as a flash-fire engulfed me. You were on the floor upstairs in the garage, an old green portable CD player, flecked with white paint and dust listening to The Whiles. The same song over and over, turning your head, you looked at me,

“Bela, you have got to hear this song—it’s amazing. I can’t stop listening to it. Its genius.”

She started the song, “Emily”, again.

“God-damnit, Jenny!”

With eyes half open, “just listen.”

“I know the song, I put it out, Jesus fucking Christ. Jenny.”

“shhhhhh.” Putting a hand in the air, one finger extended. The international sign of “hold your horses.”

And I waited. I listened. And when it got to the chorus, when three voices blended into one, “there’s no way to say…..goodbye, bye, bye, bye, lalalalala”

For a few spaces of time, there was no anger just being lost for that chorus.

“This song is perfect, fucking fuck.” She took a drink from a large plastic bottle, vodka and juice. The pint was on a box of old photos and notebooks.

 

“You left the front and back door open. What the fuck, and your drinking.”

Not only were her words slurring it appeared as if her entire essence was slurring, her shoulders, her eyes and her mouth, “of course I’m driinnkkkingg…what the fuck doo you actually think I do? I drink. When will you get used to it?”

Of course, I drink. Some words go together as if they were birthed at the same time, Siamese words. Ofcourseidrink. “You can’t stay here if you’re drinking, I can’t have it. I can’t have it around me.” When panicked and disappointed, words come out in force, with the energy of frustration and feelings that have laid themselves off to the side. It wasn’t the drinking just now, it was the prospect of sending her back out to the streets, even if they were the same streets we had walked and slobbered down for years. They were still streets, concrete canvases for both wonderment and danger, that could open its cement jaws and grab a person and chew them up by slow degrees. That was where the anger came from, “You have to leave.”

“Fine, I’ll come see you when I feel like it.” She grabbed a handful of her clothes, and stuffed them into a brown bag, in the corner was her trumpet, and an old electronic keyboard that she had been playing earlier in the day. She gestured to it, “I was writing a song earlier,” she pushed some shirts in the bag, “I’m going to try to get the boys back together and start making a record.” Bewilderment sat in the corner, it’s oafish face looking skyward, I looked at it and it looked back, and we shrugged our shoulders. Taking a sip from her red cup, she waltzed past me. “Where will you?” As you bounded out the door, “what do you care, Bela? I have places I can go” and you disappeared.

I sit at traffic lights, there are those moments that come up, when work isn’t crowding me, or the kids aren’t worrying me, when there is nothing and they you fold back the curtain of my mind. “Peekaboo” you appear as the light waits to turn green, hear your laugh from 30 years ago, as scampered across memories as if you were dancing atop water, fluttering for a moment and I smile, I look at the kid in the back and the young woman sitting next to me, both of them singing to a different song and I wish you could see them grow, to discover but I also have the worry about what yet may be for them. Nodding it away, flecking them off, the memories and drive home. Finding myself listening to one of the songs you loved, “till I die”. And this as if on cue, maybe it is your ghost stuck in the machine, the next three songs that appeared at random on my Spotify,  as I wrote this: ‘Silly Love Songs”, “This Will Be Our Year” and “Working Class Hero.”

 

 

 

 

 

One Month Later, more or less (not edited, sorrynotsorry)

October 28, 2017

A Month Later-2017

 

A little over a month later, the leaves are turning, millions every night go from green to red or orange,  some even straight to brown. Instant ghosts, dropping and floating their slow-motion dance to the ground. Autumn weather is an unpredictable guessing game, where one day the sun floats humidity down like moist blanket and the next day the October wind bites bare legs that were fooled into wearing shorts just the day before. On Friday nights, marching bands stand in lines, blowing on cold fingers, cracking jokes to split the awkwardness of teenage sexuality in half, they bleat out pop hits, odes to the gridiron and dream of life after high school. Meanwhile young men slip on shoulder pads, long socks, form fitting pants with laces to make help tie in this perfect American male package and slap each other in locker rooms, waiting to smack another kid across the grass as bright lights illuminate the field. In kitchens, onions are diced carefully, to be added to simmering pots of chili. Young women take to stores of all types, Macy’s, boutiques, thrift stores, buying sweaters, scarves, leggings all for the coming months. We all prepare our nesting in certain ways.

Jenny used to decorate the apartment with whatever season or holiday it was, at Halloween she would tack up pictures of jack-o-lanterns, sinister witches and tape up the crinkly fallen leaves. It was not uncommon to come home in the early evening and be welcomed with a spinning Halloween record on the stereo blaring the spooky sounds of Halloween.

Insomnia has settled in my bed, a thin invisible itch that pesters while trying to drift off to sleep, and when slumber finally arrives, the itch comes back I am shaken awake only to face the dread of not being able to sleep. In some ways, due to the long-term nature of Jenny’s death, the grief process has happened by degrees over the years. As her alcoholism and mental illness carved out small parts of me with every crisis or every worry stacked upon another as if they were made of a million tongue depressors stacked on top of one another over a twenty-year period. Her life spread out over the years like a sinkhole, swallowing everybody who ever loved her, and if the hole could talk it would have been screaming with every inch it widened. She had become invisible in her own life, an apparition at the end where those of us who could still muster the energy to care for her, would huddle together outside of hospital rooms or over the phone and repeat the same script we had honed for years. “If only she got away from _____(insert any man she was currently living with), she could quit drinking”, “if only she’d quit drinking, then she could be herself again”, “if she could just stay in the nursing home, she could walk again” or “I can’t understand why she drinks like she does if she knows she’s going to die.” Although she had always drank, the only sober times she experienced was when she was in the hospital, jail or nursing homes—the reality of her mind was too much to handle without numbing it. Towards the end, these conversations came with the resignation someone feels after their football team went down by four touchdowns with seven minutes left, it was all over but the time ticking off the clock.

Numbness isn’t a feeling but a state, as is the resignation of being helpless as an event happens, no matter how long the event may last, whether it is the eventual separation of California from the west coast as the San Andres Fault finally, cracks, shivers and splits in two, or as quick as a glass of milk being spilt. Age tends to temper the feeling of invincibility, logic reminds a person of the interconnects of everything comes the realization that despite this truth it is also truer that one has very little control over anything, including thoughts, emotions, and triggers that are made bolder, scarier and taller by addiction. It is as if anxiety were a giant looming over a city, swooping in and smacking cars and punching holes in the asphalt of the mind.

Some are born more sensitive than others, the ability to feel, to feel alive or sad or dead is amplified into something grotesque or even sterling beauty. Leaving all the other mere humans, left to be enthralled or disgusted with mouth agape. We would talk long into the night, as the morning light peaked through windows covered with sheets, towels and tee-shirts, “I’m going to go to Italy in the spring whether you go with me or not, then I’m going to Spain and drink on the beach. You can go if you want or you can stay here.” Staring at the ceiling, playing all the scenarios in my mind, “of course she’s going to go, and of course she’s going to fuck some guy(s) over there, and of course she needs someone to babysit her…. And I’m really fucking sick of this shit.” Eventually, she did leave, multiple times she saved her money purchased a ticket and left for Europe. She always called me to help bail her out, one night sometime around 1992 I answered the phone. “Bela, listen I just left Jeff in Germany, he doesn’t drink, and I can’t stand it. Fucking people need to lighten up anyway, I needed to get away. I was mean to him, you know how I get. I feel bad but not really because I HAD. TO. GET. AWAY.” Even though I was 3,000 miles away she knew I was shaking my head, “Don’t shake your head at me, if you are going to be an asshole then I will just hang up and I won’t talk to you.” Even though she had called me, the emotional pull of her predicament overrode all semblance of logic, ‘who will fucking help her then” went the thought in my head, it might have well been on a lite up billboard, “Who Will Fucking Help Her?” “What the fuck do you want me to do?” and just a few inches from me, a voice from the other side of the bed whispered, “Bela who is on the phone, is everything ok?” “yeah, it’s Jenny calling from Germany….” The resigned woman breathed out, “of course it is.” They never knew that they got her in the bargain when they dated me.

“Here’s the thing, I met this guy in the Netherlands, at the Vero, this awesome bar–you’dloveit.  We saw the Turks there, anyway he and I made out so I’m going to go stay with him. I met back up with the Mummies guys, they are really cool, and I’ll go with them to Belgium, then Peet will come and get me, his name is Peet, like Peter I always want to call him Uncle Peter and have to stop myself. Can you imagine if I said that shit while we were fucking?! Me screaming out “Fuck me Uncle Peter! Fuck Me! Hahahaha.” Her speech was rapid, one word sliding into another, almost lapping the word spoken before it, like they were racing one another  Some people can stand rock solid while the winds of the hurricane swirls around them, the waves of life crashing against them, trying in vain to pull them into the murky depths of their own depths (or should that read deaths?), they appear to be oblivious to the violence that pounds every aspect of their lives. This was Jenny in Germany, and later in Spain where she had went on a whim and quickly ran out of money until she charmed a wealthy Spanish woman who took care of her for nearly two months until the woman, undoubtedly, exhausted by this funny and outlandish American from Ohio purchased her a plane ticket back. My head was heavy in my hands, the sheets bunched up around my thighs, I stared outside the bedroom window as the streetlight glowed yellow against the row of dormant cars—patiently waiting to be driven in a few hours, and replied,

“what do you want me to do? I have no money, what the fuck Jenny, why do you do this shit?!”

“I didn’t call you to be judged by you, you are always fucking judging me! Your life isn’t fucking perfect Bela, quit acting like it is. I thought you would want to know where I was, plus I told the guys from the Mummies about you, I knew you like them. They are really fucking funny. I told them they should come to Columbus and you could make it happen. But they stink, that shit they put on to play, it smells like ass.” She was off on a tangent.

One moment vindictive, and defensive the next excited about something that gushed out of one neuropathways in her ever-moving brain, “oh, cool” thinking to myself, “why would she mention me to the Mummies, just cause I like them?” although I was excited about maybe bringing them to Columbus to play.

“So, you are going to the Pits to meet some guy named Peet?” The woman got up from the other side of the bed, and crossed the room, I followed her hips as she walked out of the room, she was beautiful, my next thought, “god-damnit Jenny, don’t ruin this for me.”

“No, the Pits is in Belgium, I’m going to the Vera—that’s in Holland, you’d like those guys—the Turks loved it and they know Jerry Wick, I asked them if he was an asshole to them as well.” She cackled.

Yawning, “ok, great—be careful, let me know if you need anything when you get there. When are you coming back?”

“I dunno, soon, maybe call my mom and tell her I’m ok. Poor Jeff, I’m an asshole.” She hung up.

Sitting at the end of the bed, I stood up and looked out the window, the glowing red numbers on the digital clock read 2:20 a.m., and the ache in my stomach grew around the rest of me and settled in my head. “What did she want?” said my friend with the perfect hips and she climbed back into bed, “Ah, she left Jeff and is hanging out with Supercharger and the Mummies, she met some guy in Holland, I guess she’s going to go stay with him….” “Why are you friends with her, it seems like all you do is bail her out of trouble?” I didn’t turn around but felt my neck grow red, this was hard to explain, impossible even—why do people care for others when there appears little in return?

Choosing the words carefully, “I dunno, she’s really a terrific person. Oh well, there is nothing to be done now” I slide under the sheets as she allowed me to intertwine my legs with her, I pulled her close and let me self be held.

When the gray sky spits the first cold rain of the fall, and the wind touches through skin into a body’s bones, I am always transformed backwards, to 1991 or so. Maybe 1992, at this point these are just numbers, signposts on a backward highway that really leads to the abyss, fading into the vanishing point on our own inner canvasses. The memory is New Year’s Day, the night before I spent with another woman named Jennifer, and our friend Haynes. A farmhouse on the edge of Athens County, Ohio, the house straddled a hill, with a small winding road that curved up and around the old farm the house sat on. An old fence, faded from years of neglect was broken in spots, the wood an almost gray-black as the white paint had long been rained and burnt out by time, a small pond with a dilapidated dock half submerged in the brown water gave one the thought of a once more prosperous and happy time. It wasn’t used to grow anything anymore, just memories and junk in the yard, the land gone fallow with weeds sprouting around abandoned tires, an old truck sat bare in tall grass that was holding tight to the carcass as if the metal hulk was a savoir in a sea of desperation. It had once been a proud farm, and now it was a backdrop built for my faded memory. The night before we had listened to music on a small boombox, shuffling cassettes as the mood suggested, “Nevermind” had come out in the fall, and I was infatuated with “Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine and Superchunk’s “No Pocky  for Kitty” and as the new year turned over, I put on “Flyin’ Shoes” by Townes van Zandt whom they women had never heard. As we listened and relistend, I succumbed to the pressure of the wine bottle, having gone mostly four months without a drink the atmosphere of the evening called for it. At one point, I knew this would be my last night with Jennifer, I knew this was not going to work—we were too different, she was much more organic than me, more Athens county than I desired, she was a stark contrast to the cosmopolitan-New York Sharon, Jennifer wore poncho’s, sandals and oils—and while conversations went into the deepest part of the night, I felt no spark-I felt incapable of love in any sense. We made love that night, with me knowing this would be the last time and as we spoke in hushed tones afterwards, she confessed her love for me and my reply was silence, my skin getting hot as I knew I was incapable of the same. The next morning, I arose early, made coffee on the stove for all of us and ventured outside. It was New Year’s Day, and everything was fragile as I ventured across the road to a field that slopped down into a small thatch of woods. It was cold, with dried corn stalks crunching and snapping under leather boots, barren trees looking painted on against the forever gray sky. There was nothing there but thoughts and the wind, that was kept at bay by a thin brown jacket, a revelation happened as I walked along into the woods, listening to the crunch of my boots, that in the end I was destined to be alone regardless of what I had in my life, whether it was the bottle, friends or a lover. The thought wasn’t frightening, it was as if a riddle that had been clawing in the back of my mind had suddenly been solved—and it was ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

hot-rod-92062306bela1.jpg

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.

 

 

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.

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.