Along about 1970-72, I was in the RM Drug Store waiting for a prescription. They used to have a small record bin up front by the counter. I used to check it every time I was in the store because it was the only place in town that you could buy records.
One day I looked in and found a five dollar copy of Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. My life never was the same after that day. I quit banging my head and started listening to words, and when you do that the words need to make some sense or else why listen to them.
I guess it really does matter what you put in your head. I listen to some of the stuff that lot of kids are listening too nowadays, and I get afraid. But then I remember that back then we had people who said we should be "doing it in the road", "painting it black", and mumbling some silly bullshit about this guy named Louie. And don't even get me started about Inna Gadda Da Vita. So, I guess in a way some things never change.
Great lyrics though are more than being just about making sense, The world needs them to supply beauty and wonder and to help explain things. Here are some that go way beyond just making some sense.
1) John Prine - Everybody Wants to Feel Like You
Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to
Someone to open up their ears And let that trouble through
Now you don't have to sympathize Or care what they may do
But everybody needs somebody that they can talk
A simple truth explained in simple language. Listening is the most undervalued skill that there is. Too many people get it mixed it up with problem solving or talking, not John Prine.
2) Bob Dylan - If You See Her Say Hello
If you get close to her kiss her once for me
Always have respected her for doing what she did and gettin' free
Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won't stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on from the night I tried to make her stay
Some words just pierce you right through your breast plate and come to a rest right fucking smack in the center your heart and just sit there quivering like an arrow shot by Robin Hood. These words are also like a hammer blow to the middle of the forehead because of how that they remind me of the bitterest night of my life. Sometimes I turn the song off before it even gets started, and some nights I listen to it and marvel at Dylan's archery skills.
3) Al Stewart - Year of the Cat
"She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain"
I went through a period of several years where I didn't listen to anything but Al Stewart. He has several songs of absolute genius that are far more substantial than his one big hit. But I still stand amazed at the beauty of this well crafted descriptive phrasing using both a perfect simile and superb alliteration.
4) Robert Hunter - Ripple
There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
I never was much of a Dead fan when I was young. Probably because they weren't that much into recording compared to the playing live. I recently watched a documentary and heard bassist Phil Lesh talking about the lines "Let it be known there is a fountain, That was not made by the hands of men." That shit is a pretty damn profound way of saying that there is creative force, call it what you will, that mankind has drawn sustenance from throughout our existence on this planet.
Looking up the lyrics, I was pleasantly surprised to find this stunningly beautiful verse that perfectly describes our lonely journeys of self discovery. "Between the dawn and the dark of night" captures the human predicament in a beautifully painted little nutshell.
This is something that Sophocles might have written a long, long time ago, and I imagine that someone writing in the 22nd Century will say something like it too.
T5) Lindsay White - Fancy Shoes
i lost my family, i lost my friends
to falling branches and howling winds
i lost my home to inclement weather
i keep on clicking my heels together
but fancy shoes won't kick my blues away
I did two brilliant things for which my children should be eternally grateful. I placed a bookcase full of books in each of their bedrooms before they came home from the hospital, and I played Bob Dylan around them constantly.
They are both very creative, articulate and love Dylan. My daughter Lindsay has written a lot of my favorite lyrical phrases particularly because of her use of metaphor. This song is based on Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. I once saw Lindsay play this song at Borders in Visalia, and a homeless man in the audience started crying when she sang this chorus. I knew just how he felt.
I been having some real strange dreams lately. This is unusual because I had lost the ability to have dreams like this after developing tinnitus and coming to rely on a sleeping aid to get the rest I need. The dreams I normally have are tortured affairs where my mind keeps going back to one idea over and over.
Yesterday morning, I was bothered by this dream where there was some gigantic contest involved like the one in the movie Ready Player One. When it came down to the final part there was a two prong question that couldn't be solved. One involved the lighting of a fuse and because no one knew the answer, the fuse remained unlit. I can't remember what the other question was, but I know it was equally perplexing.
I remember snippets of the dream, and that it was taking place underground, and I was surrounded by people I didn't want to be around and in a place I didn't really want to be. I had to step through water on two occasions and on both occasions there were monster like creatures, but they weren't real frightening because they were both cartoonish and made of cheap plastic like those toys you win at the fair for putting a ping pong ball in red plastic cup.
This morning, I was wakened by a dream where I was underground again and sitting in a chair with someone in a hallway and down the hallway I could see a young lady also sitting in the hallway and watching something taking place in another room from the doorway. I was with someone but I don't know who. Suddenly, a short, round faced man came from around the corner. I looked at the young lady and back at the man, and I knew he was her brother and that he had remained quietly in the background while steadily pushing her forward to shine.
I grabbed him by the hand and shook his hand furiously while telling him, "I know who you are." I knew the lady was a sweet person, tender hearted, and accomplished, and that he was largely responsible for her development as a human being. I was trying to let him know that I understood his selflessness, and also that he couldn't hide it because that kind of stuff can't be hidden. It was like the old song we used to sing in church, "Hide it under a bushel no, I'm going to let it shine."
The dream woke me up, and I was trying to remember it all. It seems to me that we have lost this ability to step back and let others take the credit. Everyone is dealing with deep traumatic issues and seeking approval from anyone and everyone outside of themselves. We no longer seem to be satisfied with knowing that we should think and do the right things simply because they are the right things to do.
We need to quit listening to those jackals who would strip our bones bare for their own amusement and the amusement of others, quit paying the salaries of those who have become famous for throwing shade on others and trying to drag people down just so they can be on top, and quit making heroes out of people whose only really real skill lies in telling us how great they are.
And when we run across that person inside of us that we have allowed the opinions of others to have beaten into silence, we need to grab him or her by the hand, and say, "I know who you are. I know you."
I had bought two cups of coffee at the Get-n-Go on the corner of Milton and Leonard. Normally, I got one, but this morning I had impulsively decided to buy one for the homeless guy I saw sitting on the bench across the street from the store. I didn't really know why. It probably had something to do with the argument with Maria the night before which stemmed from her desire for me to rise up much quicker in the firm than I really felt comfortable doing. For one thing, it would mean stabbing my boss in the back, and I really liked him.
Me and this homeless guy had waved to each other every day as I drove downtown to work. The bench he sat on was about two hundred yards south of the K Street overpass where another homeless person, a red-headed lady, had set up shop using a red milk crate for a throne and a blue shopping cart to hold her possessions. I waved at her too, but she rarely, if ever, acknowledged my existence.
I pulled my shiny brand new Benz over to the curb careful not to block his view of the street and got out carrying the cups of coffee.
"Hello, I was wondering if you could use a cup of coffee this morning?"
He looked up me and smiled. He was probably, at least, in his late seventies and wore his hair in long gray ponytail. He had bright blue eyes and gray stubble on his chin, and his smile revealed several missing teeth.
"Well, I have never been one to turn coffee down, if that's what you mean." He reached up and took the cup from me and gestured for me to take a seat on the bench. I sat down beside him.
"I have creamer and sugar too," I said patting my pocket.
"I'll a take a couple of creamers if you got them. Never liked sweet coffee. My mother used to drink it straight black; too bitter for me." I watched him pour the creamers and handed him a plastic stirring stick.
"I don't like sugar either. My dad drank it straight black too, the hotter the better."
"Thanks for the coffee. I know who you are too. You wave as you go by every morning. You are the only one who does. I noticed you too because of that pretty car." He nodded in the direction of the Benz.
"Yeah, she's pretty I guess."
"You don't seem to be proud of it."
"Oh, it's not that. It's a perk of the job. Company wants me to present a good image. So, they pay for the lease." I saw his eyes give me a up and down, so I added, "They give me a clothing allowance also. Got to dress nice for the clients."
He laughed, "Hell, that's something I ain't gotta worry about. I do try to keep it clean though. Down at the Mission they have a wash machine I can use, and a shower, and a locker I can keep a change of clothes in, luckier than most I guess. He was dressed simply in clean but worn pair of blue jeans, a blue sweatshirt covering a gray t-shirt, and a pair of white tennis shoes.
"You dress like I used to dress in college, very comfortable."
"Yeah, you dress like I used to dress when I taught college many years ago."
"Is that right? What subject did you teach?"
"The Greek classics and Modern American Literature."
"If you don't mind me asking how did you go from teaching college to sitting on a bench on side of a street. I know it's a personal question, but I'm curious. That seems like an awful big transition."
"I don't mind answering, but first I have to ask you a question. Are you proud of that car?"
The question took me back, I had to think a little on how to answer, "No, not particularly. It's a car. I'm not even really that proud of everything I had to do in order to be driving a vehicle like that. I'm Gordon by the way." I reached out to shake his hand."
He took a drink of coffee, sat the cup down, and warmly shook my hand, "Benny. If you had answered yes, I wouldn't tell you my story, but since you didn't, I will."
Benny told me that he had once been a professor at a prestigious university teaching the Greek classics and modern American Literature. According to him, he kept rising and rising and gaining more fame and fortune with each year.
"My problems all began when I wrote this goddamned book that I am almost famous for, a work explaining the mysteries of great god Zeus to the layman. It sold very well for a while. I went on book tours and was invited to lecture all of the world. I had myself a car that would put that one to shame. Yeah, my problems started after that damned book."
"I don't understand. Sounds like you were doing very well."
"That's the problem. The thing that the ancient Greeks hated more anything else was hubris, and I fell victim to it big time." He looked at me with defiant eyes as if he was expecting me to argue with the statement.
"Were you proud of your successes? Was that what it was? That would only seem natural."
"My excesses you mean. I took pride up a level. Got to the point that I felt that I knew more about the Greeks than they knew about themselves."
"How did it all fall out? What happened " I relaxed on the bench, and got more comfortable. People were driving by and looking at us and wondering what the hell I was up to talking to this old man. I didn't care. I really wanted to know Bennie's story.
"Them fucking Sixties! I debated a well known student radical on the subject of was mythology relevant enough to maintain a space in the modern college curriculum. The student, who was actually quite famous at the time, was a total asshole, a complete lightweight human being, but someone who looked good while being a lightweight. Do you know what I mean?"
That made me laugh, "Do I know what you mean? You just described pretty much our entire celebrity class and most of our politicians too?"
Benny smiled, "Well, I kicked his ass up and down that day. There wasn't a single point where he had anything remotely coherent to say. He actually wanted to replace the classic courses with the likes of Huxley, Kerouac, and Gibran. I agreed that they all had something to say, but to ignore those wondrous things that came out of nowhere at the very birth of human consciousness is the height of absurdity."
"Someone once told me that every generation has to decide for itself what they will carry forth into the future."
"My point exactly. He wanted to ditch the very things that we have deemed to be some of the most important thoughts that humans have ever entertained because they just got too heavy to carry. He trapped me with a question about how I could prove that we needed mythology by taking one of the myths and adapting it to explain the political-social movements in vogue at the time. All the youth in the audience cheered and applauded. What first alerted me to my own peril was that many of my colleagues joined in the applause."
"What did you do?"
"I told him that to do so would prove I knew nothing about the subject at all, and I asked him if I could use a Christian teaching about the 'casting of pearls' instead."
"Damn, that took some guts. It's funny, but I bet it took guts to say out there with an already hostile crowd."
"Yes, it did, but in the moment before I answered, the knowledge of all my sins up to that point passed through my brain in an instant, the strangest thing I have ever experienced. And in that instant, I understood that my future hung in the balance. I could have easily gave him what them wanted, or I could tell the truth and lose everything."
"It was just a debate."
"I lost my job because many of the people at the university sided with the impudent fool. Things fell completely apart; The book quit selling because of the bad press. I started drinking heavily and fell into a bad dream. When I finally woke up I was still drinking heavily and teaching remedial English at a local junior college. My wife had left me for one of the idiots who said I had no right to call the fool a swine. And now, since there's no longer any great love of the classics, here I sit washed ashore in deep-soiled Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are near kin to the gods." He waved at his surroundings, shrugged and then continued, "I'm living in a halfway house right up the street. I've been sober for over a year, and I sit here because it's quieter than at the house and most people are content to leave me alone."
"Why didn't you just stick to teaching Modern American Lit?"
"The same reason why I told that idiot to go fuck himself. The Greeks were about self discovery, the modern stuff just tells about how we fucked it all up. Besides too many of the writers were self-absorbed whiners who twisted the myths that they told to their political outlook. The ancients would have laughed them out of town, or pelted them with rocks. I taught it for awhile, but only after I explained what the Greeks had to say about things."
"Surely, it couldn't all be bad."
"There's a few, like McMurtry or Pynchon."
I nodded in direction of the red-headed lady up the street holding court in the shade of the underpass, "What's her story? Anything like yours?"
He smiled grimly, "In a way they are all like mine, it's been the one benefit of living in a bad dream. You recognize that everyone is living in the myth, and that everyone needs their own chapter of the Bible, or at least the ability to know which chapter best explains what is happening to them, but, with Annie, it's mainly just her love of the goddesses and Morpheus. On some days, she's Athena, on others, she's Isis, and then on some others, she's just Medusa. It all depends on if she's taking her meds."
"Well, I think that I'm going go talk to her for a moment, if you don't mind."
"Why should I mind?"
I went and made my peace with Annie, as he called her. I could see him watching us curiously. I was lucky because I caught her on a day that she was channeling the Greek goddess of wisdom. To most people, what she said would be considered the incoherent babbling of paranoid schizophrenic addicted to opioids. I figured it was worth deciphering.
I walked slowly back over to where Benny was still sitting.
"What did you tell her?" he asked.
"I asked her if I could offer some money to support the upkeep of her temple in exchange for some divine guidance. She gave me twenty dollars worth of guidance, a bargain, I guess." I then handed Benny a fifty.
"Why?" he asked, "I don't normally ask why people give me money. You, Mr. Shiny Car, I'm going to have to ask,"
"Is it true that the Greeks believed that one does not have a dream, but one sees the dream and that dreams helped form and were considered a part of the reality of things?"
His eyes lit up, "Exactly! I find it amazing that you know that."
"I know that this is going to be hard to believe, but I was there that day you destroyed that pompous jackass. In fact, up to that day, he was a friend of mine. I was in your class a long time ago. Tell the truth, I didn't recognize you either. I've been unhappy for a long time. I was starting to have nightmares of my own. You've actually done me a great favor then and now."
We talked some more about the past and the present, and when I left, I looked back over my shoulder and asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his day?
He shaded his eyes as he looked up at me, "What I do most every day. Sit here and wait for Nauusica to appear."
I was puzzled by the reference, "The beautiful virgin? What's she supposed to do?"
Benny pointed his finger at me,"Someone needs to brush up. She's going to set me on the path to home."
I remembered. "Well, in the meantime, you don't mind having coffee with another wayward son?"
Benny laughed and shrugged his shoulders, "Anybody who ain't too proud of his shiny car and has enough sense to want to know what Annie's got to say, is welcome anytime.
I got into my car, waved at Benny, girded my loins. and proceeded into the heart of the city. This time Annie waved back.
I found the diary on a bookshelf in the backroom of a dusty thrift shop. The cover was near torn off, and the pages were yellowed and starting to release from the binding.
Normally, I don't buy old books, but I picked it up and a picture fell out of young girl dressed in Victorian style looking wistfully at the camera. I turned the picture over, and it read, "Olivia James on occasion of her 18th birthday, April 9th, 1887."
She was a very pretty girl with long dark hair and large, light colored eyes. Her was face was long and narrow with high cheekbones and an aquiline nose, the bridge of which made her face somewhat alluring and exotic looking.
I checked the inside cover of the diary, and, sure enough, it read "Olivia James - April 9th 1887." She had gotten the diary on her 18th birthday and taken the picture that same day.
Curious, I bought the diary for 25 cents along with a slightly battered copy of James Joyce's Ulysses and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. All three books cost me less than a dollar.
I placed the books on my dining room table and forgot all about them. That night I had drinks with some friends from work, and we ended up in a ridiculous argument concerning the relative merits of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was a lifelong Giants fan and one of my friends loved the Dodgers. The other friend was the mediator because he loved the Detroit Tigers.
I initiated the conversation by saying, "I don't think our pitching will be able to hold up, so I have hard time believing that we'll be in it at the end."
Al, my boss, jumped on it, "That's where we got you, man. Our pitching is the best in baseball. This is our year!"
"All I know is that I rather kiss a pig on the ass than wear Dodger blue." This caused Jacob to blow beer out of his nose, and the rest of the people to start yelling in an effort to get in their two cents.
Once I got home, I noticed the books and went and picked up the diary to look at picture of the girl. I then opened up the first page and read, "I am eighteen years old today. Mama gave me this diary; my father bought me, surprise, surprise, a book of Bible verses aimed at the guidance of a young woman as she reaches her maturity. It was written by a man, a minister in fact. I resolved never to open the book as long as I live. In this diary, however, I have also resolved to faithfully record my thoughts, especially those that I can never give voice to in public. My mother looked at me with anticipation to see how I would react to her gift. My father, on the other hand, went about his business, not ending his florid speech until a full five minutes later. I kept looking at my mother, and she would look back at me with a great deal of mirth in her eyes, and I could tell that she was biting her cheeks to keep from laughing."
I turned the lights off and went and sat down on the living room sofa. It was like every other night of the year in that I was all alone and lonely. It had been like this for three years ever since Jennie had left me.
I had come home late one night from a meeting and all the lights were out. I checked the bedroom and Jennie wasn't there. I knew she was home because her car was in the driveway. So, I opened the back door and walked outside. It was pitch black out there, but I could make out her outline sitting by the patio table.
"Hey, babe. What are you doing sitting out here in the dark?"
Her response came out of the darkness like a hissing snake, the words like razor blades. She said, "I don't love you anymore, Danny. I never will again. I deserve someone better, so I'm leaving you."
I don't recall ever reading about anyone ever being punched in the gut, slapped upside the head, stabbed in the heart, and cut to pieces at the same time, but that's the only way I can describe my feeling at that moment.
Jennie got up and swiftly and silently glided past me in the dark.
"I don't understand, Jennie. I don't know."
"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm leaving."
She left me that same evening. Apparently, her bags were already packed and loaded in the car. She went upstairs, came down, and walked out the front door. I heard the car start up and her backing out of the driveway. I looked out the door just in time to see her brake lights go off as she turned the corner.
I didn't like being at home alone, at night, so I went out to bars, movies, games, and casinos almost every night. The silence in the house drove me crazy, so I took to playing music the whole time that I was home. Only, I didn't like music with words, so it was classical and jazz all the time, usually Miles Davis.
I went out the next evening, and this time the argument hinged on who was the better fighter Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard. I loved Duran. He was tough, punched hard, and often threw punches to the place where his opponent's head hadn't even moved yet.
This time, when I returned home, I sat down in the living room with a cold beer and read the diary out loud. Turns out, Olivia was a college student, a great student, in fact. Much of the diary centered upon her frustrations with being a woman in a man's world. Her father was both a minister and something of a dick. Many days, Olivia would just write down fragments of his dinner table lectures to her. During the lectures, Olivia's mother usually said nothing, and it was mainly that which prompted Olivia's hatred of her father. Her mother had once been a promising student herself before dropping out of college to marry Olivia's father.
"I asked mother why? I had read her some of her poems and they revealed a birdlike creature with an enchanting voice trapped in gilded cage being interminably lectured by a very abrasive crow. She never answered me directly, just said the situation demanded sacrifice, so she sacrificed."
The diary talked about Olivia's own frustrations particularly with a professor of the Classics that she liked, Mr. Lumis. One day, he had written down some remarks about a poem she had written where he chastised her for using some mythological reference for "profane ends." Olivia took exception to the remarks and barged into the professor's office one day demanding an explanation. She wrote of how she had charged him with being a typical misogynist and unwilling to listen to the voice of a female.
"He leaned back into his seat and his eyes grew sad. When he spoke, it was almost in a whisper. 'I never said anything about your theme, or that I disagreed with your major points. I just said that poetry is like an unveiling. The Greeks believed that it was a gift from the gods. They would never understand your references because you are twisting them to make them fit an argument. That's the difference between the sacred usage and the profane. You have a sacred viewpoint. I just want you to get it right.' I left his office in tears and cried the whole way home. That night, I interrupted my father during the delivery of a very boring discussion on the subject of tithing. I asked my mother to recite one of her poems. Of course, it caused an argument. My father was in the midst of a lecture on rudeness when suddenly my mother began to recite, 'I sat and watched the sunlight seeping through the silent clouds.' The room went silent except for the voice of my mother. Toward the end she stood up and spoke directly to my father, then turned her face toward me to finish, 'and the summer breeze whispered and left.' Mother left the room in tears. I sat there and etched the image of my father's frightened eyes into my memory."
I set the diary down upon the coffee table and took a short journey in time back to the night that Jenny had left me standing on the pool deck gaping like a fish out of water. I had bled profusely that night, in fact, I was like a hemophiliac, and the slightest touch would cause those wounds to bleed again.
But I knew that I was lucky in one regard. It was only the complete and utter darkness of the night that had saved me from being turned into stone.
At this moment, I am sitting outside in my undershirt and a clean pair of jeans and white socks. I'm sitting in a chair on the front porch sipping on a cold Hamm's beer. I know that I'm coming to the end of the story that I been telling about me and Thurman's adventures since leaving Oklahoma. Truth be told, it's been a strange journey. Maybe not the strangest ever told but strange enough for me.
Jeannie just told me at dinner that she was pregnant again with our third child. Not knowing what else to say, I kissed her, rubbed her belly, and told her, "We got us a three bedroom, might as well fill 'er up. If it's girl, them boys can double up. Didn't do Thurman and me no harm."
She was beaming, "I really hope it's a girl. You boys outnumber me already."
The boys are asleep in their beds and dreaming of God only knows. I went into the back rooms to check on them before I came out here and caught Danny in Glen's room talking to his brother just like Thurman and I used to do.
Jeannie is curled up in a chair reading another damn romance book. For someone who claimed she never read before, she took to that shit like a duck takes to water. I had to build a bookcase to put in the living room to accomodate all our books.
I put the ones Mr. Jenks left me on the bottom, not because I didn't value them but because I did. I figured no one will bother them there until the boys get old enough to want to learn about that stuff. I'm gonna tell them stories about them Greeks the way that Mr. Jenks told Thurman and me where it made sense in the way that we are supposed to look at our own lives.
I think, though, that I'm going to have to quit reading so much about them things and take the advice Thurman gave me on that trip out to the place where all them men got shot down by the side of the river. Driving back into town that day, he told me, "Junior, some folks only read about them myths, but all folks live them. If you just sit on your ass out on a porch with some dusty ass book in your hand, you gonna miss the whole fucking point of all this shit."
I only laughed because I thought he was getting a little too fond of moralizing, "That's good shit coming from someone who once spent three days in motel in Sacramento to see a room where Mark Twain broke bread with General Grant."
He started to get mad and say something smart back to me, but he stopped and chuckled instead, "Don't forget about that trip to go see where Billy the Kid died."
I guess some folks might wonder why I ain't said a whole lot about them religious stories from the Christian Bible. I mean I started in telling about things with Thurman getting dragged in front of the altar and all, and Jenks told me that them were myths too. He said to be careful who I said that around because a Baptist, or some like 'em, might punch me in the eye for saying it.
When I asked him if that wouldn't go against what Jesus said about turning the other cheek. He just at looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and put his hands up into the air.
I think that maybe the reason why my Bible learning don't figure as much into this story was because Mr. Jenks liked talking about the Greeks, and maybe because of how I learned about the Bible. Back in Oklahoma, we spent an hour before every church service learning all the Bible stories.
Our first Sunday school teacher was a four hundred pound pig farmer and moonshiner who told us kids that we were going to burn in hell for all our sins. Our second teacher was his wife and she not only was as large as her husband, she had warts and whiskers to boot.
She kept saying over and over about us being washed in the blood. She tried to explain to us youngins that we didn't have to bathe in real blood that it was what she called 'figurtive' blood. Even then, at that young age, I could see that the blood was 'figurtive' but they didn't seem to be able to see that maybe some of the other stuff they were going on about was too. Seem they were kinda selective in their choice of what was 'figurtive' or not. Mr. Jenks, on the other hand, was happy as hell letting us know that ever little thing was.
Besides, the only sins I could think of that I was committing on a regular basis was being afraid of my daddy, which I came by honestly, and feeling that thing I felt in my belly ever time Sersie Miller walked through them church doors. I never told about Thurman that part. I didn't think that either one of them sins qualified me for any eternal roasting. Only thing was, I couldn't bring them up without admitting that I was guilty of them.
Before he got religion, Daddy would come and park outside the church, and when we got out of Sunday school, he would pick us up and drive us home, so we didn't have to listen to the sermon. I think it was the only time that Thurman and I were glad to see him. We got so used to it, that one day when he didn't show up on time, Thurm and me decided to take out anyway and hoof the five miles home. We got there just about the time and Daddy was getting ready to drive down to the church and pick mama and us up after the sermon.
When he saw us walking down the lane, he pulled his truck over and opened up the side door. When we crawled up in there, his eyes were at first full of suspicion, but after we closed the door, he chuckled. To this day, I believe it was the closest I ever come to hearing my daddy laugh.
The last week before Mr. Jenks got married, he came over and cooked a big breakfast for us, bigger than usual. He cut some tomatoes some cantaloupe, and made the orange juice fresh. He was all excited and going on about his future, and also about the fact that he had been reading these two Russian story tellers. He was bursting at the seams to tell someone what they wrote about.
Thurman liked the first one because he mentioned Napoleon, some Russian general, some battles, and the king of the Russians. The one I liked was the second. Jenks told us that that writer almost got executed by the king and was put in prison instead where he lived with some of the biggest killers, rogues and rascals in all of Russia.
Mr. Jenks got all excited and almost burned the eggs when he said that writer had come to love all them rascals and on the night before he was freed from prison had said something like, "And how much youth lay uselessly buried here within these walls, what mighty powers were wasted here in vain."
He had to explain to me and Thurman what the word "vain" meant, and he did so by comparing it to the way that Abraham Lincoln used it in one of his famous speeches. What struck me most of all was that Mr. Jenks, of all the things he had ever told us, had only taken the time to write down this one statement.
He actually had to put his wire-rimmed glasses on when he read it, and right after he sat staring off into nothing till Thurman yelled at him, "You're burning the eggs, Jenks!"
That there piece of paper was still in his pocket the day he got ran over.
He got them eggs under control and sat back down. I nibbled on some bacon, took a swig of orange juice, and said, "Damn it, Jenksie, if that don't sound like this whole dumb ass world."
He looked at me and Thurman and chuckled and that made us all laugh.
Dear Heavenly Father,
You know, as well as I do, that I made some pretty bad mistakes along this journey. I ain't always done right by people. Every now and then, I tend to let my own self-interests get the best of me and stand between me the right thing to do. I don't think that I am all that different from most people in that regard, but that ain't no excuse.
I try, nowhere near as hard as I should I know, but it is still trying. I feel bad when people hurt, and I don't like comedy that is all about making fun of hurting people. I want the world to be more like the way it was with Barney in The Andy Griffith Show. Barney was a real mess but most of the people in Mayberry were just like him, and even if they laughed at him, they loved him too and would feel bad if he was hurt. But nowadays, when we laugh at people like them two idiots in the Home Alone series, we're really kind of being mean. Can't help it, but still kind of mean.
Most importantly, I feel lost without you. I talk to you a lot more
than people know. We have random conversations at all hours of the day, and you let me do most of the talking, and that's a good thing. It's not good to keep bad shit bottled up on the inside, and sometimes a fella just wants to talk to someone and there ain't nobody else around.
I wish that you would talk a little more and text message me in that wonderful way you have like that time I was coming out of theater in Tulare and them two high school girls said the exact same thing, using the same exact words, that I had read about and highlighted in a book earlier that morning. That was pretty cool and helps me to know that I'm just not talking to myself. I like that a lot.
When people ask me about you, I'm not afraid to tell them I believe in you, and I am more than a little bit confused by those who don't. I don't want to have to think what it would mean that my life and the lives of everyone who ever lived didn't have some kind of meaning. That would make it criminal that I brought my two daughters into a world without meaning. Meaning seems to be the thing we crave the most, and I cling to every tiny fabric and particle I run across.
When doubters ask me how a loving God can let people die in such horrible fashions, I tell them about the time I stole all my daddy's silver dollars and used them to buy candy at the Candy Store. Not all I once, of course. I knew there would be a day of reckoning, and sure enough, one day there was. I was reading comics in the living room, and the next thing I know, my mom and dad are standing in front of me with an empty box, and the only thing going through my head was the word "Sh*t" on endless loop.
I tell them folks that that's the way it's like. I know it's really not the same thing at all, but I don't know the answer to that question. No one does. But not one of them people will ever start the conversation by asking why does God create all the beauty that he does either, and maybe it is just not possible to have one without the other.
I know that there has to be a single, underlying truth that explains it all. I like to think that that is you and your son Jesus, and that you are way too busy to have to stop and explain every little thing to everybody like I had to do when I taught 7th grade English. Why, that would take an eternity, and maybe that's the plan. Maybe it is the realizing of things that is the purpose of life.
When them same people ask me, does people suffering seem fair to me. I have to ask them to define "fair". It's not fair like an NBA rule, you know one of them rules that changes depending who got the ball. But it is more like one of them laws that Newton came up with like gravity. I think the whole idea of fairness becomes kind of moot at a certain level. I'm sure it would all make perfect sense if we could only see things from your point of view.
I try to have an open mind and not to blame you for things. I'm sure that there's good reasons for all that you do or don't do. I would like a chance some day to talk to you about testosterone and the adolescent brain, and about the logic of having a young boy sit in a junior high school language arts class with four or five of the prettiest girls in school, and thinking he's going to remember what an adverb does. That happened a lot.
I figured some of it out by myself, and it was fun but also painful at times. Makes me realize that all of us tell a story that is at least as good as On the Road or one of them other books that tell the story of some discontented person who don't like what he/she has, and longs for something else. So, then I think why ain't we all famous like Jack Kerouac then? But I remember that maybe we're all a little too much like those people in Mayberry to know what the story even means.
I do think I might have done a lot better job of things if I could have listened in on the Oxford discussions of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien like some people got to do instead of learning from Sunday School teachers who had to ask me what theology meant. They had good hearts and did the best they could, but I think that churches should at least put in the same due diligence as school boards do when it comes to the hiring of teachers. Maybe more.
I know you must be cool. Elvis was pretty cool, and he don't have billionth of your reputation. He sure could sing the hell out of a gospel song though, and I'm sure that you had a lot more to do with that than Col. Tom Parker and them folks at Sun Records.
I'm sure that if you have sideburns, they're the best sideburns ever, and that your Ray-bans would let you look at total eclipses from right across the street. You are actually pretty humble for all the amazing stuff you do. I mean I know people who do end zone dances for throwing a bottle cap in the trash can from two feet away. You don't do stuff like that, and that's pretty cool too.
I ain't mad or nothing like that, and I'll hang with you Lord. I'll ride shotgun up until I die. Then, maybe we'll have to work out some other kind of arrangement.
Thanks for everything,
Not too long after the showdown at the Brunswick Corral, Jeannie and I packed the car up and took the boys to go visit Burney, Thurman and their boy Billy. They lived in this arid looking area southwest of Bakersfield, in between that city and Taft off of Old River Road.
Thurman had bought a modest looking two bedroom house right across the street from some railroad tracks. The house had used to belong to the Railroad. It had a big sheet metal shop building and one small white shed. The yard was surrounded by a white picket fence and a whole bunch of desert looking land.
When we pulled up in the driveway, Thurman wasn't home yet. He worked at his own mechanic shop which was about ten miles closer to Bakersfield. His boy Billy ran up to the fence, greeted us and opened the gate. In wasn't a minute till he had them boys by the hand and was leading them toward the house and to his room where his toys were. Danny was too small to keep up them, so Billy picked him up and carried him.
Burney was out chopping weeds in the flower beds that surrounded the house. She only stopped long to wave us over and went right back to chopping. Right when we got there, just like she had planned it, she chopped the head clean off of a big rattlesnake and with one smooth motion, scooped the rest of the snake out of the bed and onto the grass.
"Them damn snakes love hiding in my flowers. You two come on over here and give me a hug. I see Billy already got them boys." She hugged Jeanie first and then turned to me. "Dang it, Billy John, you getting better looking every time I see you, How you all been?"
She had cut her long brunette down to shoulder level and it did wonders for her face. "You cut your hair off. Looks nice. Don't you think it looks nice on her, Jeannie?"
Jeannie smiled, "It sure does, and, I swear, Little Billy's grown at least three inches since I've seen him last."
I could tell that Burney was tickled pink by the complements, "That boy eats more than Thurman, I swear."
We heard little Danny start crying so Jeannie took off inside to see what was happening. After she was gone, Burney leaned in and asked me a low voice, "How you guys getting along?"
"We're better. Things have been good lately. Her sisters don't come around near as much as they used to and that helps. How you and Thurman been getting by?"
"Same here. When we first moved out here, I thought he picked this place to lock me away from everybody else. I come to like it though. It forces him to have to talk to me more, and we fight a whole lot less when we talk." A pain look overtook her face, and she decided to let go of something that had been bothering her, "Just so you know, I only took up with that other guy because my Mama and Daddy were always steady pushing on me to marry someone from the church. I always loved Thurman, and I damn near cried all night when he showed up back there to come get me."
"Well, what'd your mama and daddy say to that?"
"I don't think we even told them. Clement knew I didn't love him. He was pretty good about it and met us in Reno to sign off on the divorce.'
"Well, I wish I could get shed of Jeannie's mama that easy. I'd do it in a heartbeat."
She laughed and then there was a long awkward pause before she said, "Hey, I want you to come with me; I want to show you something."
And with that, she took me by the arm and led me around to the other side of the house. There was garden there attached to the east side of the grass yard and running the length of the fence. The whole are had been planted with a whole bunch of green trees, flowers, and bushes. It looked amazing like one of them oasis things you find in and around the Holy Lands. Or, at least, that what they say.
There was a tall, white, wrought iron gate in the middle of the fence. I stopped in my tracks when I saw it. The gate reminded me of, "Hey, that gate looks just like......" Burney nodded before I could even finish saying, "the gate on our little cemetery plot back home."
"Thurman had a copy of it made. We went by your old place when we left Missouri this last time. Thurman had made a deal with Old Man Jackson when he sold him your place, the deal said that Old Man Jackson would have to keep that cemetery up. Come over here I want to show you this."
We walked around several bushes, some clumps of flowers and a couple of pretty elm trees to a shady little spot with two mounds rising up from the ground. On each mound was small marble marker with the names of my mama and my daddy carved on it and with the dates of their births and their deaths. There were two small metal receptacles at the side of the monuments with bunch of freshly cut daisies in each.
The sight knocked the breath right out of me, and as much as I tried not to, I started crying. At that very moment, Thurman walked through the gate and around to where we were standing. Jeannie popped out of the house with the bawling Danny on her hip, so Burney took the opportunity to leave Thurman and me alone.
"I had them made when I come back from the Missouri. Remember when we went back to get Burnie's stuff? Tell the truth, I thought about planting that dumb ass daddy of hers in the ground before I left."
I didn't say nothing, just raised my chin toward the two gravestones.
Thurman took a deep breath before he started talking again, "You remember when Daddy asked me to forgive him?"
"Fuck, how could I ever forget it. You don't run across times like that everday."
"Well, it seems that the further you get away in both time and distance some things do get easier to forget."
Thurman shrugged, "Still working on it. still If you remember, I promised him I'd look for reasons not to hate him so much."
"I don't think he had much of a chance himself. He put clothes on us, gave us a roof overhead, and put food on the table. We never showed him an ounce of appreciation for any of it. When it comes to loving us; maybe that was on us a little."
"Don't you even lay that shit on us. I mean I'm glad that you letting go of all that hate, but we didn't deserve none of that."
"That ain't what I'm trying to say. All I'm saying is that he was hurting too, and maybe he needed help as much as we did. We had Mama after all. He didn't have nobody. And as much as I hate to admit it, I can't help wondering what would have happened if I had just gone up to him one time and gave him a hug."
"You would probably have turned to stone on the approach. Maybe if he hadn't beat down mama so much."
"Be honest, Billy. Mama was beat down quite a bit by her own problems before she ran across daddy."
There was another longer awkward silence. I finally broke it by saying, "I like it Thurman. I like it a lot. This here is a right pretty place."
He smiled and cuffed me on the shoulder, "I'm glad you like it, Billy John. Hey, do me favor and make a fuss over Burney's biscuits."
"Why? Is she struggling with the recipe?"
"Well, they ain't like Mr. Rick's, but they almost passable."
"Well, if you could teach her to fry bacon and talk about Jesse James, you'd have the perfect wife."
Thurman laughed, "Hell, she can fry bacon all right."
Then right on cue, Burney pushed open the kitchen window and yelled out, "You boys, get your butts in here. I cooked you all a feast, and you better get in here fore it gets cold. I'll let these boys eat it all."
Thurman grinned and turned toward the house, and I followed closely behind him. The sun was just starting to sink behind the house, and I stopped for a second at the place where iron gate led into the yard. And for just a short moment, I stood there straddling the way out with one leg in the garden and the other in the real world.
I was hesitating about seeing this movie for a few reasons. First of all, I don't particularly like Ben Affleck. Secondly, I read a lot of bad reviews of the movie. Thirdly, everybody else, since I'm 67 years old, said I need to stay away from places where other people are.
I took a chance that the theater would be virtually empty at 4:00 when I went. It was. There were only two other people in the theater, and they came in late and sat on the opposite side of the room.
On the other side of things, I did feel compelled to see this movie because I am a basketball coach who has battled with depression. I felt that I owed it to myself to see what the movie had to say on that subject.
I was pleasantly surprised. It is more than just a sports movie. It is also a strong message about redemption, and the ability to survive great loss and to find reason to keep on trying. I loved the ending of the movie as I felt that one scene at the end elevated the movie to a different level and made it all about the human struggle our need to find reasons to deal with the pain and suffering that life hands us in spades.
There are several parts of this movie that I identified with wholeheartedly. For example, there's a scene where the coach tells one of his players that his wife saved him from his wasted youth. I give my ex-wife full credit for preventing my own downward spiral at that age.
In another powerful scene, he meets his wife for lunch where she tells him that she is seeing another man. My wife told me she was leaving me in the darkness of our own backyard on a wide slab of cement next to the pool. I can recite the dialogue from that night by heart with every intonation and inflection, and I will be able to do so till the day I die.
There was also a lot of buzz about this being Affleck's greatest performance, and I would have to disagree on that point. It is a good performance, but nothing that comes even close to the job that Joaquin Phoenix did in The Joker, I hate that freaking movie, but have to admit that it was a total star turn on Phoenix's part, and it set the bar very high for actors in the future. So much of this movie involved frozen stares, pained looks, drinking to excess, and swearing that it didn't really give Affleck much to work with.
The best thing about the movie is the writing. There were so many times the movie that could have went the way of cliche. It never did. I was wary that for every moment of discovery that we in the audience would be subjected to a long, boring explanation. The writers studiously avoided such explanation, and instead did something extremely rare in a Hollywood films, they allowed the audience to draw their own conclusion and trusted in our judgement to reach the right ones, and, as a result, the movie never stalled for a moment. Instead, it hummed along at a steady pace that helped support the rising tension.
The film also worked backwards, peeling back layer after layer to reveal the source of the hero's suffering. It was a very effective technique and also helped to create the tension needed to keep the audience in their seats.
Ultimately, the film was a typical sports movie only in regards to the fact that it was about grief, failure, and redemption. That just happens to also make it about things that pretty much everyone experiences at some point in their life. People want to identify with the stories they hear. Those stories make us feel less alone, and makes it seem like we are all sharing the heavy load. It was the reason why I was there.
My wife left me a good while ago. She has since passed away from cancer. I've always blamed myself for the failure of my marriage, but I was way past my substance abuse stage when it happened. That only means that I had to face down the man in the mirror with my flesh peeled back and my nerves fully exposed.
I fell down hard back then, and I have yet, to my own satisfaction, fully regained my equilibrium. I've suffered greatly for that failure, and I have since learned to use words in order to deal with the pain I feel inside. I often stay up at night and write down words at the same pace that Affleck's character downed cold beer.
I've gotten better over time, and just knowing how deeply that others suffer too, helps me keep things in a proper perspective. I like movies and all things that offer up hope. There's more than enough depressing things in this world without Hollywood having to constantly rub our faces in the essence of tragedy.
The theme of The Way Back is about hope, and it pushes that message with a great deal of authority, and it's the kind of hope one gets when the basketball goes up right before the buzzer sounds, and we wait to see if the ball rattles in.
I've taken to sitting outside my front door and reading in the morning. I can't read much though before I find myself staring at the grey wall with my matching mailbox hanging on it with an opened book in my right hand and a cup of hazelnut coffee growing colder in my left.
It seems that it don't take too much to pluck my vision from this world and send me off on a journey through the mists in search of explanations. My searches have been driven recently by the need to know two things: the meaning of Medusa and why the movie The Joker was even made.
The first came about because my oldest daughter mentioned something about using Medusa in some project that she is working on. Right way something instinctively warned me that such myths are not meant to be used and to give her fair warning. They exist only to explain things and trying to twist them to our own uses is a fruitless endeavor.
Nietzsche, who probably understood the ancient Greek mindset as well as any modern man, warned against such twisting as well as the effort to to try and make ancient myth and tragedy fit into a modern explanation. There is, however, a great deal of current feminist literature that deals with themes offered up by the myth of the Gorgon.
I've been stuck on the issue of why the great goddess Athena sought to punish Medusa for the crime of being raped in the temple. It is that issue, and its correlation with modern forms of patriarchal justice that enrages many feminist writers and helps them to justify and glorify the power of Medusa to turn men into stone.
In doing so, however, it becomes necessary to dismiss the role of Athena in the story. Afterall, she is not only the powerful and important Goddess of Wisdom, but it is she who also guides and abets Perseus and is the person to whom Perseus later offers up the head. The grisly relic is then placed upon her own her shield as a permanent warning to those who seek to use the mystery of wisdom for their own nefarious ends.
There are other interpretations which state that the crime that Medusa actually committed which enraged Athena was in allowing the mysteries to be profaned. The myth is said to have originated from the temple masks worn by female guardians in order to frighten off people who were unworthy to enter the temple of Athena, people incapable of grasping the significance of the mysteries contained therein.
The rape signifies that the mysteries fell into the wrong hands and were profaned or, at least, an attempt was made to utilize them for the purposes other than the way that the Goddess intended, maybe even an effort to use them in support of a political message? Afterall, what is more profane than the politics of the human race?
It was also Nietzsche who helped me to understand, in some ways, why the movie The Joker was created. The great philosopher designated tragedy as belonging to the sphere of the chthonic god Dionysus. The goat was the god's symbol, and word for tragedy literally means the "goat's song". By placing Drama into the realm of Dionysus, Nietzsche explains that it represents the loss of the individual ego in the face of the inevitable flux of death and annihilation. In Nietzsche's view, this recognition of the underlying forces of dissolution gives them a sacred meaning.
He, however, also throws in elements of the worship of Apollo with all its emphasis on forms, shapes and structures, and which in Nietzsche's view, explains the juxtaposition of the two deities by taking the underlying forces of unrelenting nature, placing them into the form and structures of poetry and dramatic theater, and, however temporarily, turning them into something beautiful that somewhat assuages our human fear of certain death.
Nietzsche offers up the idea that tragic myth lent the Greeks a positive fatalism and not the nihilistic outlook that many modern scholars claim.
And therefore lies my problem with the modern use of myth for our own purposes. The efforts by many modern feminists to enlist Medusa into their struggle to obtain equal justice, have taken one part of the myth and often jettisoned anything that doesn't fit that narrative.
Athena's active participation in what some perceive as the crimes of Perseus and therefore of all men, offers a fairly large clue as there is something more afoot here, and that the solutions they are seeking will never be found in the parsing of the story like the modernists are often prone to do.
And as regards the creation of The Joker; there can be no argument that the movie is presented as a modern take on Tragedy. Yet, the Greeks, and later Shakespeare, told these stories using beautiful poetry in order, as Nietzsche said, to take the never ending threat of death and dissolution to a transcendent level where it becomes art and therefore offers up some kind of meaning and comfort in the face of ultimate terror.
I find it somewhat ironic that those who insist on preaching to us about the virtues of Darwin and of evolution also laugh at the idea of mankind's spiritual evolution and completely fail to even notice how the Greek's success in turning the bleakness of human existence unto the path of a positive fatalism played a huge role into our development and understanding of an even greater mythic outlook, one that has not only given us an even longer lasting and greater appreciation of existence, but offers us hope as well.
The Joker, on the other hand, fails to give us even a small trace of a counteracting beauty and therefore becomes just another act of profaning the great mystery of life in the search of profit and glory, and becomes therefore worthy of Athena's curse.
When I finally got out of the service, the Anderson's had retired and sold their store. I had to get a job driving a engine to support my young family. By then, Thurman had opened up his mechanic shop in Bakersfield had moved to live out on the outskirts that city.
I was essentially alone again. I had friends, lots of them, and Martha Jenks became like a second mother to me, only a stronger more vocal, female presence than my actual mother. My mama would never have lifted a hand to me. Martha thought nothing about smacking me with a stirring spoon or fly swatter if she thought the lesson she was teaching me warranted it.
I used to make fun for her by comparing the advice and wisdom that she passed down to me to that of Mr. Jenks. "Martha, I don't think I ever heard Mr. Jenks used the words shit, fuck, and damn in the same sentence."
She was just laugh and act like she was going to hit me with a wooden spoon, "You ain't in school anymore, Billy John. This here's real life and if you need a smack upside the head or a good cussing, who else is gonna give it to you."
We went round and round on the subject of me marrying Jeannie. Martha couldn't understand why I would subject myself to so such trouble. All I could tell her, was that I never so felt so all alone. It was clear that Thurman was moving on with his own life, Uncle Bill and Aunt Lou were gone, and so was Jenksie. And I saw in Jeannie Lazarus, someone who needed me as much as I needed her.
Mr. Jenks had told me and Thurman about this story about a man named Oedipus who had married his own mama by mistake. This made his daughters his own sisters. I tried to reason it out some and the only thing I could come up with was that all them females represented the bigger idea of being a woman, and that when we get married, we are actually tying our own self to the idea of motherhood and that all females are in some way our own sisters. That's about as far as I got.
I told Mr. Jenks that my take on the story was that in our ignorance of things, we deserved what we ended up with. He got kind of mad and answered, "That's a modern understanding on it son. Them Greeks didn't believe in all that moralizing about stuff like that. Them plays simply said, "This is the way things are. Take it or leave it."
His answer struck me kind of deep. I'd often thought about maybe I married Jeannie because I felt that I was guilty about what happened with Guinnie and Stewie and my mama and my daddy. I wondered at times if I believed that I needed to wrassle with a tornado out of that sense of guilt.
At other times, I knew that that was a big bunch of bullshit. Jeannie wasn't always troublesome. Half of the time she was a sweet as Mama was, and she loved our boys.
Driving a Caterpillar wasn't anywhere near the funnest thing I ever did, but it paid the bills and put food on the table. Aunt Lou and Uncle Bill had left the camp and big house to Colton when they died, and he didn't really want it. He sold it me and me and Thurman for a good price and me and Jeannie moved into the big house.
We continued to have our problems and fought an awful lot. We had our two boys in a very short time and were both kind of chafing under the demands of being new parents. I know for a fact, that a lot of my own problems had to do with me coming home from traveling all over Europe and coming back only to settle in the tiny little pile of dirt in the middle of nowhere that was Concord.
I had to believe that much of Jeannie's problems came out of living with her crazy sisters and her even crazier mother. Then when she finally managed to get shed of them, right away she's got two kids and husband made grumpy from the long. boring hours spent guiding a Caterpillar engine around a dirt field.
I didn't make things any better because I would often go play cards to blow off steam and leave Jeannie home minding the kids by herself. We used to go out dancing a lot, or even to the movie shows, but when I offered to hire a babysitter, so that we could get out, she wouldn't have it because she didn't want to leave the kids with anybody else.
One morning, I stood off by the side of my idling Caterpillar smoking on a self-rolled cigarette. It was a gray November day, foggy and cold. The mists rising up out of the ground made it hard to see more than fifteen feet away.
Every time I blew the cigarette smoke out of my mouth, my breath would combine with the mist and make it look like I had a fire going on in my belly. I watched as the boys in the back of the rig ripped open grain sacks and poured the contents into the hoppers.
I felt ashamed because I always stared a bit too long at Blue Daniels as the one-armed man hoisted the sacks using the stump of his left arm to steady the bags on his right shoulder. Blue had lost his arm to a Nazi grenade. When he was drinking, he said it was buried somewhere in France and every now and then he could feel it making French gestures while he slept.
Blue never wanted to talk about it much though and every time the young, dumb ass Billy Hollis tried to draw him out on the subject, the other men in the crew would tell Billy to shut-up. On this day, Billy Hollis got riled up and exploded.
"I'm getting awful tired of all you old, motherfuckers telling me to shush all the time! If I got somethin to say, by Gawd, Imma gonna say it!" There was a brief moment of silence broken only by the sounds of tractors in the distance. Billy was standing more or less in the center of a loose circle of men, and he turned and faced them all in a threatening posture with his fists balled and his arms defiantly bent at his sides.
Then, one by one, we started laughing. It was only chuckles at first, but it kept growing till the guys were all guffawing loudly. Mooney Gomez had to bend over to catch his breath. All the men had been overseas during the war and had seen death and dying and some of them had even killed men. Billy, on the other hand, was a second string half-back on 2-6 football team.
The laughter subsided, and Castor Nichols put a big dot on it by loudly farting in Billy's general direction. Slim Jones then spit a big glob of tobacco juice on the moist ground. Billy slowly put down his fists and slunk away dragging his tail behind him.
The Caterpillar I was driving had once been painted orange but now the paint was old and faded and rusted metal poked through ever where. Two dirty canvas flaps were hung from the side to guide the heat back toward the cockpit to where the glove wearing driver handled the sticks that guided the beast across the field. The constant breathing of the canvas made the machine look somewhat like a asthmatic dragon trying to catch its breath.
"She's near ready to go, Billy John. Hoppers full, and she's loaded up with diesel. We woulda had her ready last night, but it was so foggy I couldn't find the fuckin truck much less drive it."
"Ain't no thing, Slim. I could use the extra time to try and cut this hangover loose."
"You tie one on last night?" Slim questioned. When I grinned and shook my head shyly, Slim asked, "What did Jeannie say about that?" Slim was one of the steady poker players down at the Brunswick, and so was I. Usually he played on Friday nights but had missed last night's game because of church supper his wife had hosted. Him and me talked all the time about all our domestic concerns.
"Well, she weren't happy I can say for certain. She stayed up late and near brained me with a can of peas when I walked in the the door. Only thing that saved me was I turned my head. Lookie here at the scar it made. I pulled up my cap to show the wound over my right eye. "Hell, I traveled all across France, Belgium, and Germany with nary a scar, and in two years with this woman I already broke a rib, got two black eyes, and a broken toe. Now this."
Slim laughed, "You marry a wildcat, Billy John, you bound to get mauled. It's what they do. Her mama was the same xact way. She did jail time for stabbing her ex-husband while he was sleeping."
"Well, Jeannie sure keeps me on my toes, and sides, she's kind of sweet most of the time. At least when we're alone."
Slim laughed again, "When she's alone, you mean." We shook hands and Slim walked back to his service rig and climbed into the cab. I was sad to see him go, I liked Slim, and looked up to him as a kind of a mentor. My own dad had never been a mentor. All he ever did was teach me to afraid of him. Mr. Jenks had done more than a passable job of it, but now he was gone.
Later that evening, I had gone back to the Brunswick. Jeannie had gotten mad over something and taken the kids and scurried over to her sister's house to commiserate with her. In my eyes, her sisters were the most miserable excuses for caterwauling she-bitches in the whole damn universe.
When she stomped out and slammed the door on me, I sat there by myself for a bit and then went and got dressed and headed out the door . I knew it was a risky choice and ripe for potential disaster, but I didn't care. Tell, the truth, Jeannie and her constant complaining was really beginning to get on my nerves. I wasn't supposed to work that day, but Bill Jessup had got thrown in jail, and I'd gotten called out to take his place.
I was four beers in and up fifty dollars when she came walking in the back door of the bar carrying baby Glen on her hip. Her sister Cassie came in behind her carrying little Danny in her arms. Cassie stood by the back wall in front of the gold framed autographed pictures of Hank Williams and Hank Snow, and the look she gave everone in the room made it look like she had swallowed a whole sack of peeled lemons by her damned fool self.
I excused myself from the table and went and took my wife by her waist and walked her out the back door. Jeannie tried to resist, but I was determined, and she had to hurry her feet to keep up with me. Cassie scurried out behind us.
Once we were standing outside in the alley beneath the light of a single street lamp hanging from a crooked telephone pole, we stopped, and I released my grip on her. We stood there in the alley way facing each other like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The anger in her eyes was palpable, and our frozen breaths hung in the air between us. It was looking at the frightened eyes of my boys that calmed me down.
"Them boys shouldn't be out here in this cold," I finally stated.
She had never seen me this way, and after looking to her sister for support and finding none, she impulsively spat, "Them boys got a right to know where their daddy goes at night!"
"They're babies, Jeannie. They need to be home in bed and not out standing in the alley behind the Brunswick."
She started to rear up again. She was gonna say, "Just like their daddy." But something in my eyes warned her to not go there. This whole mess was Cassie's doing anyway. Jeannie knew deep down that I was a hard worker and a doting husband and father. She knew I needed to blow off some steam from time to time, but she was jealous of the fact that I seem prefer the company of other men when I did it.
I spoke, "Jeannie, I'm trying my damned best to make this work. I'm new at it, and I suppose I'll get it right sooner rather than later. But, you gotta come to a decision your own damn self. I'll support you in whatever you want to do with your life. I mean it; I will be your bedrock, but don't you ever come walking in a room with the intent on belittling me and trying to shame me in front of my friends. If you do this again, then you can pack your bags and go live with that miserable bitch." I pointed toward Cassie who suddenly looked like a suffocating fish on a dirt bank sucking at air.
To her everlasting credit, Jeannie fought back the urge to become her mother, she stared down deep into my eyes and then slumped her head down and started crying like a little girl. I quickly put my arms around my wife and child.
We stayed locked-up that way for several minutes before I finally muttered, "Go get in the truck, and I'll take you and the boys home. Give me a minute to go get my winnings." I fished around in his pockets and handed her the keys.
As I was collecting my money from the dealer, I saw Billy Hollis sitting at the bar in front of several empty bottles looking my way with a huge grin on his face. When our eyes met, Billy quickly looked away and mumbled something to the kid sitting beside him.
I said my goodbyes to all my friends and meandered over to where Billy was sitting. I leaned in close and told him, "You are a lucky sumbitch, Billy Hollis. Got your whole life ahead of you. You are young, free, and got a job, but you need to listen to your elders a bit more and quit trying so hard to impress them. It makes you look silly. If you really want to impress them men, you need to quit trying so hard."
I gestured to Carlos the bartender to put Billy and his friend's next round on my tab and slowly walked toward the rear door feeling more like a growed man than I had ever felt before.