Posts Tagged ‘Phil Ochs’

Mike Rep.

April 30, 2017

A-415676-1470337021-1648.jpeg.jpgMike Rep.R-937105-1174862228.jpegmike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

http://hozacrecords.com/

http://www.siltbreezerecords.com/

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

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

 

Advertisements

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae part 47: The Hospital

February 19, 2012

Part 47:  The Hospital, 2012.

 

My beautiful son is now three. He has soft, curly, blond hair, almost transparent blue eyes, and is a giggling machine. He wakes up early—usually around six AM—while I slumber away, still wanting to spend the day in bed at the age of 43. He runs free through the house, with every new discovery a surprise, from the falling snow to being told it’s the weekend. He says things like “yeah!” and “yippee” when you tell him that we are having pizza or going to the playground. He has a sly smile that he inherited from me and, like me, he has no idea that he has this secret, charming tool in his arsenal. It took me having a son to realize that if I had one physical attribute that women found attractive, it’s that smile. He slays people with it, and has no idea. Unbeknownst to him his charms can blow a bad mood asunder.

Thinking back to a time in my life when it was not uncommon for me to wake up pants less in the bushes, or making desperate 4 AM phone calls to someone, anyone who could assuage my fear of being alone, I could not foresee what has become my life. It is different in so many ways. While my circumstances have changed, the strains of being a father, the effort of being a husband and keeping my addictions at bay, is in some way more of a challenge than hiding in the bottle or in the arms of a one-night stand. But back then I always woke up dreading the day and facing what happened the night before; it was a constant reminder of my emotional shortcomings. It was as if I could barely communicate, holding my breath in every relationship until whoever I was with learned that I never learned the proper rules of engagement.

Bruno sits on my lap, telling me in his fractured vocabulary what happened today at school, everything shaded by his imagination and perceptions based on innocent and basic emotions. His fears are of ghosts, of the lights being out. His favorite word is “spooky”, and in his world everything is spooky, from the cover of a book on about gorillas to the sound of a hemorrhaging muffler that croaks by our house. Bruno’s fears are in stark contrast to my own. I have no fear of ghosts or the devil—it is hard to be scared of the things I no longer believe in or even think about. Nonetheless, fear shakes me awake at night. I dream of the dead and of leftover resolutions that were never resolved as I am besieged by my past. I dream of Jerry and he is always dead. I encounter a roomful of records as I am transplanted back to Used Kids, trying to resolve the misery that I felt leaving that community. At other times, I dream of shitting and vomiting. I tussle with dreams of being “discovered” that I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, despite being a forty-three-year-old man with two young children and three college degrees. I strive to be spiritual but I’m drawn to the physical. I am still a boy wondering just what the hell I am doing.

Bruno looks at me with benevolence, surrendering himself to what he thinks is the vessel of all knowledge, his father, who struggles to find the patience not to scream at his wife, “I just want to sleep! That’s all I want, for everything to be quiet!” I hold him; he is an exquisite hugger—one of the best I have ever known. A few nights ago, he rolled over and held my head tight in his arms, my ear pressed securely to his chest. It made me wonder, just who was fathering whom?

Bruno talks in his sleep, yelling out to his mother and, at times, giggling, which is a most wonderful sound. I stare at him sleeping, my wife next to him, and listen to them breathe. Invariably I turn to my side and either drift off to sleep with my back to them or wander downstairs to stuff chocolate into my face.

I once had a dream that I had to beat the devil—I literally had to conquer him. In the dream, he was completely black, like a shadow but also shiny and metallic. He had no features, just a solid mass of black, marbled metal. But I felt him as I hunted him down, I felt his presence, and in the dream I could feel the hairs on my arms stand at attention as I came face-to-face with the devil. In an instant, I realized that I would be consumed by the devil if I could not think of how to beat him. I thought of my young daughter and all the love I had for her while I hugged the devil, and that, the action of love, a love with no-strings-attached, was what beat the devil. The evil from the devil melted away in the dream—I had beaten him. I woke up thinking, “That was a crazy fuckin’ dream.”

Jenny calls me. Her voice is hoarse, tired, and cracked like piece of plastic that has been sitting on hot asphalt the entire summer, faded around the edges, brittle but still with the essence of itself. “I’m in the hospital again,” she croaks. She is tired and speaks feebly into the phone. Her voice on other calls may sound the same, depending on how late in the day it is. If it is late afternoon I know that she is drunk, no matter what she says. I have made it my profession to understand drinkers and addicts. If it is morning, she is usually lucid and able to display some of her caustic wit. We laugh hard at these times, sometimes enough to make tears stream down my cheeks. These times are fewer and fewer and on most occasions when I talk to her, I am resigned to the fact that she is drowning in the sea of addiction

“Which hospital?” I ask, as I slowly turn my car out of the downtown parking garage. I am annoyed by her call. Annoyed that it is ten till six and I have to pick up my two children from school in the next ten minutes or pay a fine. Annoyed that the motherfucker with the inappropriately large 4 X 4 truck from another county has no idea how to drive in the downtown of a city of 1.4 million people. Annoyed that I didn’t finish all the work I needed to do. Annoyed that I have yet another phone call that is asking me for help.

“Hold on,” she replies. “I’m downtown. Grant, that’s it. I’m at Grant. I’ve been here for about three days but only felt well enough to call now. They took me by squad again; they should just park one in our parking lot because of me and William.” I picture her in a hospital bed with tubes stretching out from her arms, hair matted, and a tray of half eaten Salisbury steak and applesauce in front of her.

With a pause that would swallow the ocean, I maneuver through the outbound traffic, spying the time on the dashboard, the clock’s blue lights yawning at me to hurry up. I ask her what room, knowing full well that I will forget it and just ask at the desk. “I dunno, it’s Grant. I’m at Grant, the hospital.”

Another pause as I close my eyes for as long as the road will let me. “I know that.” Now I am obligated to ask what room again. “What room, I said?!” Even though my wordy prowess may be stronger than her drug induced lethargy, she will still win this verbal tennis match, as her obliviousness is far superior to my impatience.

Another pause. “Oh, what room? I thought you asked hospital. The hospital is Grant. I don’t know what room I’m in, but I’m pretty sick. I was puking for about two weeks.” I can hear her struggling with the equipment that is dug into her arms. I can almost see her wince. “Ah, fuck,” she mumbles, “I ain’t doing good. They don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Mutual history with addiction and mental illness doesn’t always give a person the required composure to remain calm. Although I have been trained to stay calm in my profession and in my own Buddhist practices, this all flies out the window when I talk with Jenny like this. I say, “Okay, um, I’ll try to come by tomorrow.” I start to hang up the phone, as I have arrived at the children’s school with two minutes to spare before the fine kicks in.

“Wait! Wait!” I hear her screeching into the phone.

Closing my eyes again, and injecting my words with a heavy dose of discontentment, I say, “What? I have to get my kids!”

She is shifting herself in bed. I can hear the phone slipping and her voice gets small for a moment, as if she is laying at the bottom of the bed and crawling towards the receiver. “Hold it, hold it,” I hear her say. “Okay, so I had to tell you one more thing, so hold on, just hold on. Sorry.”

Pulling open the door to the school, I shake the snow off my shoes. “Okay, go on., you have about a minute before I have to hang up.” The hallways are strung with construction paper artifacts of volcanoes erupting, dinosaurs, and handsome colorful drawings of gardens punctuated by glitter scattered amongst the flowers. Small girls wheel by me in the hallway, rushing into the gym where the older children will have their winter dance this evening. Kids are lugging backpacks that are larger than them—they look like ants carrying giant morsels of food. A few parents smile at me as I pass. I wanly smile back as Jenny tells me how William and her little brother smuggled a bottle of vodka into the hospital earlier in the day, a stunt that had the Columbus Police searching her room.

“You wouldn’t believe it. I woke up and I had this bottle of vodka in my lap, under the covers, and the cops start looking around and they start asking me where William and my brother are. I mean I feel like fuckin’ death. I can’t believe they did that. I mean, my brother and William.”

My first thought is to ask her, well, did you drink any? But I let this thought float by. “Well, you sound very sick. Just do what the doctors tell you to do. If they want to call me they can.”

“So, where are you?” she croaks.

“At the kids’ school. I’m picking them up.”

After another pause, and with a far away voice, she says, “They must be getting big.”

With that, my daughter runs into my arms. “Daddy, daddy, guess what? We got our Daisy forms to sell cookies. Can we sell some this weekend? Can we call Grandma and Grandpa?”

“Of course,” I say.

Bruno is infatuated with music. He sits at the piano at six AM, plinking away, blows through a plastic flute when wandering through the house, and is always getting out his ukulele and an old guitar that Jake from Moviola left behind when we bought the house. He loves to watch his grandfather play guitar, and for Christmas he got a guitar from him. He started lessons about a month ago. There are no real expectations, just that he practices when he can and make it to his lesson every week. Carrying his guitar, he looks and walks proud, with a purpose unusual for a three year old. His steps are careful as he climbs up the porch where he gets his lessons. When Sean, his guitar teacher, opens the door, Bruno stays back, hiding behind my torn jeans, themselves relics of a past that seems far more distant than the gray hair on my head.

He acclimates himself rather quickly and well. As I sip coffee with Sean’s wife, I can hear Bruno strumming vigorously away on his acoustic guitar, sounding not too different from the opening strums of Phil Ochs “Pretty Smart on My Part”.  He stares up at Sean looking for approval. Although he can’t yet count very well, his effort is noticeable. The routine is to get lunch with daddy afterwards, but on the way to lunch I say, “Bruno, we have to go see Jenny in the hospital.”

Bruno replies, “crazy Jenny?”

“Yup.” He hasn’t seen her in almost a year, as she lives in a part of town we only come close to when we drive by on the freeway. As I back the car up, Bruno shakes his head. He is frightened by the size of the hospital.

“Daddy, let’s go eat.”

Pulling him from his seat, he hugs me and I reassure him, “Hey, we’ll only be a minute.” He clutches me and won’t let me put him down as we stroll to the front desk. “Jenny Old, what room is she in?”

“Hmmm, let’s see…there it is, room 535. Go down the hall and the first elevators on your left. If you see some on your right, you’ve gone too far.”

“Wow, Bruno, we’re going to ride an elevator.”

“I don’t wanna. Let’s eat.”

It’s still morning, so we are the only people in the elevator. As we get off the sign reads “Gastric and Pulmonary.” We wind our way through the hallway. Bruno starts to shake, “I don’t wanna go, Daddy!” The hallway is crowded with a plethora of machines, all with wires and beeping noises; nurses have serious looks on their faces. “No, Daddy, let’s go!” he yells.

“Hey, look, we’re here,” I say as I try to subdue his struggling. Entering, we see a woman rolled on her side, a bare arm hanging to the side; it is as thin as a small branch, with bruises up and down the wrist. “Hey, Jenny” I say quietly.

Bruno is shaking his head, whispering, “Daddy, I want to go.” Jenny turns and smiles broadly, her matted hair is unclean and mussed. Her face is red, with deep lines over her forehead, and her skin is blotchy.

“Don’t worry; I look like shit,” she says. “I think I was in the ICU before they put me here. Hey, little Bruno,” she says softly. “It’s your aunt Jenny. My, did he grow.” Bruno looks at Jenny, eyes wide as he takes in the apparatuses that are plugged into her arms. I gaze at her arms; they are so thin, like those of a starving child in Africa. Noticing, she answers my stare, “I haven’t eaten anything solid in a few weeks. Everything comes up.” Pause. “Of course it’s my liver, my pancreas, and something with my intestines. They don’t know what that is.” Pause. “And yes, they say I have to quit drinking.” Her lips are chapped, bits of white skin flecked out from her bottom lip. “I’m so thirsty but I can’t really drink, so I crunch on ice. You should have seen me yesterday. How did you know I was here?”

Smiling, trying to put something positive into the room, I say, “You called me. Listen, have the social worker call me and I’ll see what I can do to help. They should be able to get your Medicaid started here.”

Straining her neck, she says, “She was in this morning. I can have her called.”

I kiss Bruno on the head. “No, it’s okay, just have her call me.”

Bruno whispers in my ear, “Can we go now daddy?”

Another kiss. “Yes, of course.”

Jenny smiles at Bruno and me, “Thanks for coming, hearts.” I look down at her in the bed—hearts—and we leave.

“Thanks, Daddy,” whispers Bruno.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Jenny was discharged later that day and took a 45 minute bus ride home. The social worker never called.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XL6wc1MnZDE