Lost in thought at the Open Eye Café. Fragments of conversation, real and imagined, fall in lockstep with the Greatest Hits of James Brown. Last night Brenda died in my dream. Again. I’m remembering this as I stare at a vase of flowers getting showered in sunlight. Heavy breaths weigh on my bones and my muscles ache as if I’ve fallen down a flight of stairs. Turning toward the window I see the sleepy sky and feel the scratch of wool on my skin. The word “love” has been so overused, I think, that it’s become just another word, like “lice” or “lollipop.” Just a taste of the real thing and we remember with thunder rumbling in our guts: Freedom is real, and life is not just a dream in which we die, unfulfilled, fettered and unawake.
The sky is now dark and dreaming, and the flowers sag like the jowls of a woebegone old woman. Only death can stop the madness now. The fence around my heart grows higher, more impenetrable. The only way out now is down and under. “Down and under, down and under…” My thoughts get stuck in this groove as I stare at the rocking chair across the room. There’s something about the sight of an empty rocking chair that evokes in me a sense of nostalgia mixed with undertones of terror. There’s something ghostly about it, a haunting by the spirits of deceased relatives. I guess that’s it. For me the rocker is a symbol of death, or more precisely, of waiting to die. “Can Aunt Hazel move in with us?” “Sure, but we’ll have to get a rocker for the living room, so she’ll have something to do while we all wait patiently for her heart stop beating!” For the living room!
A breeze blowing through the open window gently rocks the empty chair, and I imagine it’s the ghost of Aunt Hazel waiting for someone to sit on her lap. It’s interesting to hear from my parents that Hazel (my Grandfather’s sister) adored me, and that I, unlike the others in the family, seemed to have no fear of her withered visage. Apparently she had a wart removed from her face because I had innocently pointed out how unappealing it was. She had stubbornly refused to part with this eyesore for decades in the face of relentless ridicule, and then a mere grimace from a child suddenly compels her to have it lopped off. A strange, sad creature, in life she was alone and ignored; in death she was all too quickly forgotten.
My parents now live in the old house on Pleasant Street, and when I’m home for a visit I stay in Hazel’s old room. My Uncle Jack, who lived in that house well into his thirties, won’t set foot into that room to this day. Funny how the old bird suddenly means something to me. I’ve got warts of my own now to be ashamed of, as well as a paralyzing fear that I’m just rocking my life away.
My defenses are down today. I feel fragile, susceptible to the vagaries of life. Last night’s hard partying has killed off enough brain cells to upset the smooth running of the mind machine. A pleasant side effect to buffer the pain. If to be haunted is to be visited by a spirit, then why be afraid? Welcoming Hazel today I was enriched. Brenda I run from, though she seems to be everywhere, in every nook and cranny, behind every pair of sparkling eyes.
James Brown howls from the stereo (I got the feelin’…), calling me back to San Rafael, CA, the group home on Third Street and the haunted soul of one Sam Jenkins. A black man in his thirties, this crazy motherfucker was haunted — possessed maybe — by James Brown. He would get up each morning (who knows if he ever slept), take his meds, then go back upstairs to his room and blast James Brown from his boom box. He had only one tape, which he played over and over again, all day, every day I worked there. He would take a few breaks during the day to wander about town, then he’d return home for more of the Godfather of Soul. He didn’t merely listen to the music though—he howled and grunted along in a dead-on perfect impression, his foot thumping, shaking the dishes in the cabinets downstairs. Evenings I’d have to open his door and shout at him — “Want any dinner Sam?”
“Wha we haain?”
“I ain’t eatin that?”
Then he’d turn back to the stereo, thumping his left foot, slapping his right thigh, and howling at the blank wall in front of him.
At one point, James Brown, in the flesh, actually came to town for a show, and we got tickets for Sam, thinking he’d be ecstatic. Although he grunted his assent at the idea, when it came time for the show he wouldn’t budge. He just grunted at us, turned back to the stereo, and continued thumping, tapping and howling like his life depended on it. Who’s to say it didn’t?
Last night I wanted to crawl under a rock, and tonight, tonight when they’re all nursing their hangovers, I crave the company of others. I started to write “the company of angels” — for whatever it’s worth. Nothing, I know.
I almost hooked up with that barista from the Artist’s Escape last night, almost went nuts at the café today. What I want is to carve my name into the night, this night, tonight, friends or no friends, but I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about it. Guess all a man needs is a good sharp knife — that and the courage to thrust it in to the hilt at just the right moment.
Baby baby baby, baby baby baby, baby baby baby, baby baby…