Go Find John

“Just be happy that the grace of the Lord shines down upon your sorry ass, John!” cries my mother as she storms out of the living room. The last word, she always has it. John sits in an easy chair with the usual shit-eating grin plastered across his face, the one he reserves for my mother and her religious diatribes. She speaks about grace with a vitriol that eradicates any compassion and kindness the word is meant too convey. John cuts his eyes at me. I know what he is after. I shrug, produce an agreeable smirk and suddenly all is right in the world again. As long as you agree with John, all is always right in the world. “Fuck this, I’m goin’ to Teddy’s! Tell your mom I love her despite the fact that she’s a bitch”. These are things that John, six foot seven inch John, will never say to my mother’s face. He uses others as a conduit for the words he is too cowardly, too ashamed to say outright.
The deep rumble of his ’73 Harley shakes the windows and their panes, the pictures in their frames. That bike is his world. No house, no wife, no kids, no money; just John and his hog. There’s never been a time when it wasn’t so. I sit in the living room and wait for the noise to fade as he guns it down the long corridor of row homes that make up 13th street. The sound of my mother making dinner in the kitchen soon overtakes the bikes dying wake. It’s Tuesday, meatloaf and garden picked snap peas night. My mother loves a monthly menu. It gives her the sense of predictability and control she cannot find anywhere else in life. While the world outside changes at an unrelenting pace the kitchen is a museum display only my mother can touch. Pots to the right of the sink, pans on a shelf just above them, cooking utensils in a drawer left of the stove, always left of the stove.
Leaning against the kitchen doorway, I wait. Wait for her to say something about John. How much of an ungrateful asshole he is. How he’s useless and selfish. How he’s a drunk. How she wants him gone. She sprinkles various spices and salts onto the blood red meat. Chops a yellow onion and then a purple potato. Mixes it all up in a big silver bowl, scoops it into a bread pan. Something slowly drags across the floor above us. Must be my father pulling a chair closer to his bedside. A cold beer is thrust into my hands as my mother instructs me to take the drink upstairs.
Almost a year ago this day my father was spot welding a cracked steel beam in the capitol building when the scaffolding beneath his feet gave way, causing him to fall three stories onto the white marble floor of the main rotunda. Somehow, my mother swears it was by the grace of God and the Saint Christopher necklace my father always wore, he didn’t die. Rather than dying, his legs shattered like early November ice as he landed feet first upon the unforgiving stone. His x-rays looked like someone had taken a hammer to a ceramic pot, bones splintered into a thousand tiny pieces, impossible to put back together again.
I knock on his door and hear a muffled “yeah?” He’s sitting upright in bed playing a crossword puzzle. “Hey, dad. Mom thought you might like a beer.” He takes the beer from my outstretched hand and drinks half of it with the flick of his wrist. I sit on the edge of the bed, just beyond where his legs would be. He hands me the beer and smiles. I take in a mouthful, giving the bottle back before I can even gulp it down. Despite my distaste for beer I’ve indulged in this little ritual with my father since I was eight. We sit silently for a couple of minutes. With the bottle drained he asks me what John and mom were fighting about. Nothing, or at least nothing worth bringing back up I quietly sigh. John moving in was my father’s idea.
Five months after the fall and dad was finally allowed to move from the treatment facility back home. Mom would need help with upkeep and maintenance of the four rental units attached to our house and her sister’s oldest son, John, was out of work. Dad proposed that John move in and care for the rentals in exchange for room and board. Reluctantly, my mother agreed. John would be more hassle than help and she knew it. It had always been this way with John.
Dinner is eventually served. The three of us gather on the bed for our nightly Jeopardy routine. Dad cracks jokes as Trebek reads hundred dollar questions starting with the letter “G”. Mom laughs at dad’s jokes. She’s adored him since day one. I help do the dishes and then head to my room to study for a chemistry quiz. I’m in my junior year of high school and at the top of my class. All of my teachers expect great things of me. They regularly tell me so.
It’s still dark outside when I wake to the sound of the phone ringing. The clock next to my bed burns 2:45 in a steady firefly green. Why is the phone ringing at 2:45? Maybe it’s a wrong number? A minute later I hear my mother open their bedroom door, cross the hall and gently open my door. I sit up in bed, startling her. “Who was on the phone?” I ask. She croaks out that it was Ted from the bar. John was in a pretty bad fight. They tried to stop him before he left the bar but failed. Stopping an enraged, bloody, and drunk John is a preposterous undertaking only a fool would attempt. Teddy was wondering if he’d made it home safely. This wasn’t Teds first late night call to our house. My mother stands silently in the doorway for a long minute, contemplating all the possibilities of where John might be at this hour of the morning. Then, in a voice riddled with fear, anger, and guilt, she asks me to go find John.
As I dress for the chilly morning air my mind wonders to the last time I was sent looking for John. It was two months back. A similar situation at a similar hour, only that time he pulled up on his bike just as I was stepping from the warmth of the house into the chilly darkness outside. He came staggering up to me, whiskey heavy on his breath, asking what I was doing sneaking out of the house? “Looking for you”, I seethed through clenched teeth as I unlocked the door and went back to bed.
I am met with a light yet steady rain as I make my way onto the sidewalk and begin walking in the direction of Teddy’s Bar. Save for the few scattered streetlights whose bulbs haven’t yet burnt out or been shot at, 13th street is dark. All of my senses are on high alert. Eventually I’m at the intersection of 13th and James. Three blocks north on James is Teddy’s. Damn you, John! Damn your irresponsibility and the burden you’ve become on my family! Times like these make me hate John. The sound of a police siren can be heard some blocks away. Quickly the sound grows louder and suddenly it’s driving toward me on James, south, away from Teddy’s. Wonder where he’s heading in such a hurry? Then my stomach sinks as an ambulance pulls from a side street, lights and sirens ablaze, following the path of the police car. I begin running after the ambulance, watching it’s alternating yellows, blues, and reds whirl as it races down James.
After a four-block chase I can eventually make out what looks like a wreck. The front end of a motorcycle twisted around one of the oaks that line the street comes into view. The paramedics have located a body sprawled out in the street a couple hundred feet from the tree. The policemen wont let me get close enough to make out the condition of the body but the motorcycle tells me everything I need to know. From one of the twisted handlebars I catch the glint of a necklace dangling in the night, rain dripping off the end of the bent pendant. It’s Jude the Apostle, patron saint of the lost, the necklace John’s mother gave him one year as a birthday gift.

And then the truth sinks in, my mind registering the reality of what has just happened. That after tonight, after this cold and wet three ‘o clock slog down James, I’ll never again have to go find John.


The Middle Of Everywhere

                             Early spring in the southernmost part of Appalachia, yes, that’s when and where it must have happened. Before the great roiling mass of gods green chaos had yet to truly heave itself upon the land. It was just a short hike, a couple of miles meant to clear the mind. This was land that had once been inhabited, rail spikes still littering the forest floor. That was over a century ago and now it was owned by the State. The only marks left behind, save for the occasional stacked stone wall and a hand hewn quarry overrun with poison ivy, were the wagon trails and railroad beds that crisscrossed the Oak, Pine, and Hickory hills I now rolled along. 
                               It hits me as I near the crest of an ancient, time worn mountain spine. That half of a cannabis cracker I ate an hour before has finally caught up to me. Sit! Now! It commands. I sit. Like the million bodhisattvas that have come before me I sit. Anxiety, racing through this body as senses respond to what they can only decipher as a threat. Listen to your…feel your heart, for christssake! Oh shit! It’s beating too fast! Hearts that beat that fast explode and when you’re heart explodes you fucking die! Alone in the woods not but two miles from this little redneck town and this is where they’ll find you! Dead. Silence. You breathe in. Slow, full, life affirming breathes. The anxiety dissipates, evaporates into the quietly fading daylight. You breathe out. From your stupa you observe the subtle hues of dusk, you watch how the trunks of trees allow the waxing darkness cloak them in a beguiling uniformity. Dogwood blooms, glowing white in remembrance of winters passing, remain lit as the flora descends into night.



Thoughts on The Ahmad Jamal Trio’s 1958 performance of “Poinciana” in the lounge of Chicago’s Pershing Hotel.
January 16, 1958. Chicago. Cold. Cutting. Winters knife digging deep into the back of every hunched and harried citizen. Scurrying from street to street, swathed in black wool. Chicago in winter looks like a funeral. Black coats dragging through white streets. An unspoken dirge frozen at the edge of cracked lips. Black and white. 
Piano notes float like flakes between towers of steel, brick, and marble. Some swirl about on invisible eddies down alleys and side streets. Others lift on varying currents above empty park benches, skirting docks, blowing out over this lake that lies; a sea that isn’t.  Wind brushes over the cymbals, sometimes tempest, others temptress. Tom-toms spark a flame, cast a warm glow like tea candles flickering in the middle of cafe tables. Two minutes in and the sharp POP! of the snare let’s you know that this isn’t some simple lullaby. Don’t nod off into the oblivion of winter just yet. Wait. Wait for the distinct sound of fingers sliding up and down, plucking the long tendons of a stand-up double bass, the deep thrumming to resonate through the cavity of your chest. 
Flag down a waiter. Order another whiskey. Is this thrumming coming from within or without. Behind you, glasses clink. Some old acquaintances reunited, celebrate the lack of absence between them now. Your attentions back on the band now. The pianist tickles those keys in a way that reminds you of laughter. You could use a laugh tonight. It’s been a long day. You’re still red in the face with anger from that bastard on the El who stole your hat as he exited at Belmont. Despite your yelling and jostling to try and charge through the masses there were just too many damn people for you to catch him. 
Where the hell is the waiter with my drink?! The hat wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the fact that it was given to you as a gift by your father, a man who gifts nothing to no one, upon your graduation from med school. 
How did you end up in this dive listening to two blacks and a white guy playing jazz while the snow piles up outside? You don’t even like jazz. But this is different. Maybe it’s just the whiskey but this, this is nice. Speaking of whiskey, there’s your drink. Finally! One, two, three sips. All gone. You wish the folks next to you would quite down. People have no respect for musicians in the middle of a performance. Three whiskeys in and suddenly you’re some kind of music aficionado. It doesn’t help that the doors to the lobby doors are propped open so that when guests walk by they can choose to come in for a drink and listen to the music or simply keep walking out into the blizzard. 
The choice is jazz, stiff drinks or old man winter. You have another drink as you wonder where the nearest hat store is.
The lounge slowly fills. Weary travelers shake the cold out of their bones. Hands clap after each piece.Drinks are ordered as waiters twirl from table to table, faces alight as the players play on. It’s 1958 in Chicago. Blacks play with whites, to whites, for whites. Snow falls as the sun sets on the Heart of America. A man stumbles drunkenly into the frigid air, his head adorned with nothing but winter for a hat.


Caledonian Absolution Part One

        Late fall in Scotland can be a beautifully depressing place. Undulating hillsides
dotted with sheep and the occasional lowing cow, trees aflame with the gold and red hues of autumn, cobalt skies reflected in the long, narrow lochs of the North Country. The Highlands. And then heavy clouds roll in off the coast and all becomes grey, dark, black. Boots become buckets.

        It is creation all over again; something formless hovering over the void that once was the land of the Scots. All is a deluge. You remember Noah and his ark. You consider cubits. You ponder names for all the beasts that are soon to come, two by two, parading to you. In this mist you sit, contemplate myths. This landscape, these often treeless hillsides covered in blowing heather, lends itself to a story waiting to be told.

        After a long lesson on the supremacy of Scottish cask ales delivered by a couple of friendly locals in a pub older than the country I come from I suddenly find myself chatting it up with a South African five years my junior on the last bus leaving Inverness. Loch Ness bound the road winds through twinkling villages perched at the edge of darkened lochs. Rain whips the road in front us, wind spurring us on from behind. 

        Jonathan, a blond haired, blue-eyed Dutch descendent from Cape Town, South Africa, is all smiles and inebriated tales of travels far and wide. When he finds out I’m an American he shoots me a sidelong glance and makes a quip about President Bush. It’s 2007 and much of the world is not a fan of the Man, to say the least. I laugh right along with him, letting him know that while I may be from America I am a free man. I pledge allegiance to no one. I make no mention of the apartheid. Every country has its closets, skeletons spilling out from open doors.

       Our bus pulls up to a bench, one lone streetlight blinking dimly in the night. Through the window I can see rain blowing sideways in the light of the glow. I ask Jonathan how far the hostel is from here. He stares at me with a silly grin. He has no idea. We stand in the rain as the bus rumbles away, taillights eventually disappearing behind the curtain of night. Welcome to Loch Ness.

       The tourist map I have, the one with advertisements for boat and balloon tours, pub-crawls and weekend cabin rentals running lengthwise across the top and bottom, says we are still over half a mile away from our destination. I think back on the cute girl in the shoe shop in Seattle that sold me these brown leather boots and how she promised me they were waterproof. Time to put the word of a saleswoman to the test.

       We trudge silently through the water, me in the lead as if I somehow knew better then he where we were going and the best way to get there. Ten minutes later a small wooden sign up ahead reads “Loch Ness Travelers Hostel” with an arrow pointing toward a street across the road. The road is gravel when dry, a river during the fall and winter months.

       We pass cottage after cottage, each hearth burning bright with flame in an attempt to ward off the damp chill of this late October storm. Jonathan is soaked and looking miserable. I can’t help but laugh. Two road weary travelers washed up onto the shores of Loch Ness. Only Nessie, that mythical leviathan of the deep, is wetter than we right now. Towards the end of the river road we see the sign for the hostel. It has always intrigued me how the words hostel and hostile have nothing in common except pronunciation (and even that depends on who is pronouncing it). One an invitation, the other a provocation. A small courtyard populated by a fire pit and two wooden picnic tables are a welcome sign that warmth and a dry bed are soon to follow.

       A girl with a cheery Australian accent greets us as we pile inside, leaving the downpour to the loch, the trees, and the mysterious lady of the sea. We step into warmth and homeliness. A long dinner table is the centerpiece of the dining room; a full size kitchen with big picture windows sits just to the left of us and in the living room a charcoal fire burns quietly in the fireplace.

      We have found the exact solace I was pining for as we passed those inviting cottages along the way. Travel tends to lend itself to a litany of paradox. You travel to lose yourself yet your “Self” is what you so often run smack into. You roam to journey away from the familiar, from the drudgery of a routine yet you end up longing for something familiar, something that is a little piece of home away from home.

       The Aussie girl tells us it has been raining like this for days but it is supposed to clear up tomorrow. Too bad providence doesn’t watch weather reports. She shows us to the group dorm we will be staying in for the next few days. We flip a quarter to see who takes a shower first. South Africa wins.
I take off my shoes and drape drenched socks over the screen in front of the fireplace. Squatting, I watch flames undulate and dance in an erratic almost erotic way. Fire. The primal element.