The bus ride to Dallas took several tedious days. It was early fall, and perhaps the summer travel days were waning, as there were not as many passengers as when I had begun my journey. Granted, they were often as bizarre as ever, but I was able to secure a window seat with nobody next to me for most of the trip. I watched the world speeding by; open country, coastline, mountains, rivers, villages, towns and cities abounding with the American West that I had come to so profoundly love. I had a lot of time to think.
I thought about Trevor, how we had grown from being juxtaposed into young men then had suddenly been separated by the hands of time as it approached high noon. The Ringo Kid and Luke Plummer were now adults, facing the realities of which mother’s deliberate relatives had forewarned. “…not heroically anymore, …dashing across the silver salts of our mind’s camera and projector, but internally, confronting personal doubts and frustrations. We were under-educated dreamers involved in a daily skirmish with the confusion between fact and fiction.” Trevor was defiant, prepared to support an idealistic cause. I was a romantic idealist in search of Eden.
Eden was a fantasy.
A wall within a wall.
A wall of walls.
The great wall.
To keep them out…
To keep us in.
To keep us out…
To keep them in.
Why bother to look beyond
Where one single wall begins?
Must we venture out,
In order to remain within?
Did God punish Man with perpetual anguish because of Man’s lust for knowledge, or because of his failure when confronted with lust? Before I tasted the fruit of the poison apple I was in Eden’s womb, and possessed no knowledge of lust. It was not until well after the serpentine umbilical cord was severed that I was even aware of the apple. Was Eve our mother? Was Adam our father? Where was my father? Surely no longer in Eden.
Yet, I long to retire to the garden – free of Human perception. I lust for the moment when I shall not want, and lust returns to dust, from where the lotus, and the lily, and the olive, and the rose of Sharon grow. Trevor and I could sit in the light and listen to Pappy tell us stories of Sir Uck Uck, and animate them with his puppets. Mother could sit with Father. The lion could lay with the lamb.
The ennui of the long ride had become hypnotic. As I passed town after town of America at work, I began to wonder what I was going to do after I had arrived home. I would have to begin a job hunt, and I was not fond of that idea. Oh, I did want to work and make a living. The demeaning process of finding work, however, rarely allocates for the combination of creativity and production.
Artists are only recognized as ambitious after they have become successful. Otherwise, they are young eccentrics living in the shadows of society, laboring to define existence. As artists grow older they either become successful with their work, or they find work elsewhere, and their art concedes valuable time to the grumbling reality of the stomach. The endless lust and passion that drives these people sometimes produces powerful results – and sometimes children. These unconventional, idealistic entertainers – unemployed – do not make good spouses or parents. Mother, who had gone to work and accepted responsibility for her children, once lovingly told me that if she had had access to the birth control pill in her day, that I would not have been born. Yet, I was, and I am, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was “ending up just like my father.”
Upon arriving home I discovered that Emmett and Mother had separated. He had returned to the scenic forests and hills of his beloved Kentucky, to paint pictures of old barns, bare winter trees, summer sun on the water, country stores, country folks, and countrysides. He was marvelously talented, and his paintings are stunning and full of subtle emotion. The lust and passion for paint and canvas, light and dark, positive and negative space, had reclaimed Emmett. Mother was left once again to fen for three children of a quixotic artist. Until I could find work and an apartment I would be a fourth.
I accepted a job with a furniture store and quickly secured a small duplex at the end of a pleasant cul-de-sac. I was hired as a display assistant, and I actually thought that I had stumbled across a job that could combine my artistic talents with employment. Eagerly I tried to fit in, including the required religious meetings every Saturday morning in which they preached their sanctimonious communion with Christ. Fall was creeping into winter, and I got the natural urge to grow a beard. I was quickly informed that I could not do so, because if I were allowed to grow a beard, then “their colored boys would want to grow one.” The beginning of the end of my employment had occurred within only a month, and, through the technique of self-fulfilling prophecy, I bestowed upon these fine Christians a cause for my termination.
I was able to drown my sorrows at a pleasant little place called the King Street Pub. The clientele was an eclectic assortment of civic leaders, journalists, writers, artists, thespians, and students. I had befriended many of these people, including Jack, the owner, and his partner Mathew. As my new home was only a short walk away, I began to use the King Street as a morning office in which to read the classifieds, and to make some telephone calls. After a couple of weeks of drinking all Jack’s coffee every morning he asked if I would be interested in becoming a bartender. Charged with caffeine, I vigorously accepted the offer.
This would begin a twenty-year chart of extreme highs and lows in my life. I would have prolific moments of creativity. I would encounter long frustrating periods of bibulous excess. I would experience periods of romantic promiscuity that would introduce me to elite pleasures, and to intense pain and emotional disorder. I would make and spend a lot of money. And, during this time I would inadvertently set myself up for a vocationally problematic future.
Bartending came naturally to me. I quickly realized that spinning bottles and juggling limes has absolutely nothing to do with the professional responsibilities required of a good bartender. Some young people use the bar as a venue for their dexterity, and as a base to their social network. If they do not protract beyond their own ego they will not be a very good bartender, and will most likely be short lived in the profession. Manning the bar is an intricate balance of service to the store, to the customer, and to the community; as well as the accurate dispensation of and accountancy for product and money. It was not long before I was given charge of the night shift, and was working six nights a week, freeing Jack and Mathew to concentrate on the preparation of food and to market the lunch shift.
The King Street Pub was a wonderful place with quite a history. It had been in operation for well over fifty years, and was once a speakeasy, with gambling and other unspeakable shenanigans going on upstairs. At one time the widow of an infamous historical villain had owned it. She had blackened the windows, and served up her distinctive style of hospitality to whoever might have chosen to traverse the enigmatic threshold.
It was the corner storefront at street level in a historic brick building that covered a quarter of a block. There was an art and frame shop next door, a unique gift and novelty shop next to that, and a proud, old movie theater that had unfortunately been disclaimed by the industry, and stood vacant. The second floor in this remarkable old building appeared to be one common area above the shops below. It had been unused for some time, and I suspect that the ghosts of many a character meandered its dark, derelict passages; spirits of gamblers with pencil thin mustaches, cigar smoking specters of strong armed attorneys and civic bosses, petite apparitions of ladies of the evening in fishnet stockings, and when I had the rare chance to explore, I might even find the phantom of the immortal Buck Star flamboyantly haunting the scaffolds of that old theater.
The clientele was no less dramatic when I began to work there, and I quickly got to know many rogues of all degrees of success. My beard, that had cost me the position at the pious furniture store, had been shaved leaving a grand mustache that would rival that of anyone’s great grandfather from dusty, sepia photos stashed in attic chests. I often wore vests, and on occasion an arm garter for effect. Pappy’s theatrical genes had found venue through me in this job, as I found identity and acceptance within this eclectic tribe of pubsters.
There were several times during the year when the King Street Pub brimmed with festive prominence that attracted crowds of visitors from every part of town. Valentines day was a cheerful pajama party that engaged the imaginations of many a translucent slumber bunny or clever Casanova. I must say that I found this to be a delightful night of jovial celebration. St. Patrick’s Day was a deluge of green beer, hundreds of would-be leprechauns, and some real ones dashing mischievously in and out. It was a celebration of enormous capacity, and an emerald drunk fest that I have never enjoyed. Christmas, on the other hand, was the ever-glorious holiday season of lights, decorations, gifts, charity, and brandy, which culminated with a cork-popping New Year’s Eve party that rocked the block. I have never felt so encompassed in goodwill and acceptance as in those days of Christmastime at the Kings Street.
There was one gathering, however, that surpassed all the others as the occasion of the year – Halloween! I found it understandable that a location of such moot repute could attract the masquerade of both devil and angel to its outrageous pageant. Behind the horrific mask of the demon lurks a tortured spirit longing to return to purity, and from behind the mask of the cherub awaits the naïve soul lusting to liberate its will. Then there are the clowns.
Clowns very often eclipse the dichotomy of good and evil, creating a phenomenon that requires masquerade. While it is fun to impersonate our alter ego at an occasional party, it is frightening to imagine wearing our choice of costume as a uniform. Coulrophobia – the fear of clowns – is a very real experience for many people. They exist only within the inner sanctum of one’s personality, yet their disguise is not disguised from our senses – they can see and be seen, touch and be touched, hear and be heard. But, clowns cannot be beyond the mask.
Jack and Mathew had chosen to work early in the evening on the night of the grand bash, and I was to come on duty later, after the festivities had gotten into full swing. I had noticed that the novelty shop two doors down had some masks displayed for sale, and I wondered if the fellow who owned the shop might have a suggestion as to an appropriate costume to wear to the party. After a brief discussion, he took me to the back of the store to show me something.
“Now this,” he said as he reached into an old wooden box that he had taken down from a dusty shelf, “might be what you are looking for.”
He presented me with a clown mask, made of papier maché that was supported to one’s head with a strong elastic band. The face was round and white, with red lips and a red dot on the end of the nose. A half cone shaped hat, made of cloth and supported by stout but flexible shafts, rose from the top, and a red pom-pom dangled from the pointed crest. Along the bottom of the hat, which spanned the forehead, and from which hair extended, was a row of brightly colored spheres. The eyes were deep set, dark, and covered with a mesh fabric that allowed the wearer to see out, but no one could see in. It was a magnificent mask and I was ardently reminded of Pappy. It could well have been made by his talented hands, and I was immediately captivated by its powerful mystique. I told the story of how Pappy would make Trevor and I marvelous masks, and described some of them. The storekeeper was intrigued.
“It has been in this box for some time now,” he informed me. “I think that folks were rather intimidated by it. I couldn’t sell it while it stared at them from the store walls. I’ll tell you what – you have been a very courteous bartender and a good addition to the Kings Street. I would like you to have this gratis.”
I was honored, and accepted the mask as if the very spirit of my Pappy had handed it to me. From a thrift store I purchased a pair of extremely baggy, red trousers, an extra-large pair of bowling shoes, a frilly, white tuxedo shirt, a black bowtie, and a black satin jacket. At home that evening I tested my costume. It was superb, and I could scarcely recognize myself. As I animated my actions in front of the mirror I noticed that as I moved about the mask would bounce independently of my actions. I would move, and then stop, and the mask would bob autonomously for several moments. It was as if it had verve of its own. I would soon find out that it was a very creepy sight to others. For me, I was the clown behind the clown, the wizard behind the great Oz. I was prepared for my Halloween debut.
The party was active when I arrived, and my costume was ideal. Nobody recognized me. I would say only one thing, and in a very gruff, disguised voice,
“I’m craaaazy!” I reiterated time and time again, then with a jerk of my head the mask would rebound into it’s own volition.
I cannot tell you how uneasy it made people feel. People, all in costume, and many unrecognizable, would respond timidly, awkwardly, anxiously, worriedly, and by and large uncomfortably. Folks that I had known for some time did not recognize me, and balked at the odd face and my peculiar behavior. Several customers complained to Jack and Mathew that I was freaking them out, and one of the waitresses suggested that I be asked to leave, or perhaps they should call the police. Wow, I had not expected such a response, and found agreeable humor in it. I was playing it to the max when Doc, a long time regular of the King Street Pub, entered the crowded building wearing a pirate’s hat and scarf and bellied up to the bar.
“Hello Mark.” he chuckled boisterously as I bobbed my mask at him.
Jack stopped, and looked at me. He whispered to Mathew, and they informed the waitress. They all confronted me and demanded that I reveal my true identity, to which I laughed and complied. Their jaws dropped for a brief, silent moment, then they all chortled harmoniously.
Doc said that he just knew who it was behind the mask. Nobody else had figured it out, and they were baffled that Doc had intuitively known. I had greatly endeared myself to many people that night. But, they did not realize that it was not I, but the mask. I could not help but remember the skull mask that Pappy made, which had hung on the mezzanine wall in Xenia, and how it glowed, and sneered, and grinned, and took on a life of its own. These two faces were surely linked somehow. That clown mask has worked its magic in other situations, and by Trevor in much the same manor. It now occupies an honored corner in Trevor’s house.
The months passed smoothly, and I settled into my role as bartender and Pub marshal – a term of endearment as a result of my appearance with the large mustache and vests, and as my ability to mediate bibulous quarrels became apparent. At home I was painting. I had begun a series of work that I referred to as Spiritual Fantasies. These were abstract, surrealistic visions in which I was blending religious symbols and figures with anthropomorphic forms into backgrounds of emotional colors and shapes.
One warm Psalm Sunday evening, with the door open, and as I was working with an Egyptian motif, I received a visitor. A lovely lady with all black fur wandered into the kitchen where I was painting. She immediately befriended me, and explained her situation. She was very pregnant, and although she did have a home, she was quite aware that I was a sincere cat lover, and she was in search of a good home for at least one of her expected babies. I checked her tag and discovered that her name was Jazz, which I thought was way cool. Jazz and I talked for quite a while, and then fell asleep together on the sofa. I awoke at approximately three thirty in the morning to the light of a full moon shining through the window into my face, and realized that my lady friend was still with me. She was lying at my feet, and was intently cleaning what I suddenly discovered to be three solid black kittens. I was a father!
I suppose that it could be said that a religious person is a superstitious person. Certainly worshipers of a particular spiritual nucleus may well consider cultural and sacred beliefs and ceremonies that are different from theirs as more superstition than reality. The fact remains that all faith strives to achieve atonement at the apex – that point where the superstitious tools of faith are left behind as Man passes into the Afterlife. Egyptians were embalmed and buried with treasures. Vikings were cremated with their sword and shield. Ancient Chinese rulers were covered by their native soil, along with thousands of life sized warrior sculptures. Sailors are given to the sea, and farmers are returned to the earth. As one passes over, only the measure of their Love passes with them. The crosses, jewels, weapons, amulets, trinkets and charms remain for the contemplation of archeologists. But, it was Psalm Sunday, by the light of a full moon, during which a black cat gave birth to three black kittens on my feet.
The next morning I telephoned the number from Jazz’s collar, and located her person. She lived several houses across the rail tracks, was elated, and came directly over. I told her with a perjuring grin that I did not consider myself especially superstitious in regard to the incident. I would, however, definitely accept one of the kittens after they had been weaned. Several weeks later she brought the babies to me and I selected the one male of the three. I named my new friend Cat Ankh Amen, or Ankh for short. That very day Ankh walked across a wet painting of pyramids on which I had been working, and left little foot prints. They remained in the painting, and I proudly accepted my role as a new dad. Ankh would be my best buddy for over seventeen years.
Spring gave way to the hot Texas summer which reluctantly relinquished its hold to a late fall. By Thanksgiving the days were chilly, and the leaves were turning and dropping. Winter was close, and the holiday season had begun. The telephone call came on a crisp, frosty morning – Grandma had died.
Her memorial service was held in Texas, as she had no family or friends in Ohio to assume responsibility. I took some time off to drive to Ohio and sort through some things. Family members had requested a few items, and I consented to bringing them back. I took a pick up truck that Mother had recently purchased as a second vehicle. I guess she understood that with a truck she would see her children more often, as they continued to borrow it to heave ho, haul and move belongings. She had invested in a stripped down version also. No one would want to keep it for long with no air conditioning or radio. I did not require the air conditioning, but the ride without a radio was long and lonely. Long and lonely rides are conducive to long and lonely thoughts.
I thought about Grandma. She was an honest, hard working woman, but harbored so much anger toward others – others that she did not necessarily know. I wondered how much of that anger had passed over with her, or was she finally free of the embitterment of her ninety-four year life. She had loved me, and I loved her. Take some of my love if you need it, I thought. My thoughts wandered throughout my childhood in Columbus. The rhythm of the road was mesmerizing, and essences of Grandma, Pappy, Mother, Trevor, Mum Mum, Burkhart and Mary Anne, Sir Uck Uck, and many places and events permeated the small, quiet cab of that truck.
As I drove on the Tennessee Parkway at night, I recalled having taken that route several years earlier, and driving into an enormous multitude of fireflies. There were millions of them blinking off and on like thousands of strands of tiny Christmas lights. It was a wondrous sight, and truly a reward from above. This night was cold and misty, and my headlights labored for illumination as I passed small towns decorated for Christmastime. Columbus would be a bittersweet destination.
Grandma’s house stood pallid and lonesome. The yard that at one time had been a veritable Eden of fruit and vegetables had grown unkempt. Winter leaves covered the ground beneath the bare, bony branches of the trees above. I hesitated to enter, and stood there for a long while in the cold wind. When I did go in I was flabbergasted. The place was a mess. All of Grandma’s possessions were still there, and reasonably in place, but nothing had been cleaned for many months. Cobwebs clung everywhere, dust was deep on everything, the bathtub had not been used for a long while, it appeared that the commode had recently overflowed, empty cans overflowed from the trash, and no one had been upstairs for a couple of years. I fell to my knees and prayed for her acceptance into the Heavenly Light, for the dismissal of her great loneliness that she must have felt during her last couple of years of life. Then I stood tall, and irately cursed God for allowing such a thing to happen. After that I wept, and asked forgiveness for my anger.
I have great admiration and respect for people who have the patience and will to volunteer to help the elderly. As the velocity of the human race approaches the speed of light, we have little time to care for others, unless they can enhance our personal pace. Otherwise, throw it away. We are moving so fast that if we ever did look back, we might be passed by younger generations in competition with our ambitions, and suddenly find ourselves discarded with last year’s gadgets. It was not that way when Grandma was born. It was that way when she died. Older folks can get cranky and senile, and difficult to control or communicate with. It is not easy to care for them, but to those who lovingly choose to do so, and who do not leave them to wither alone – you are a blessing indeed!
I did not stay in Columbus as long as I had intended to. I took a room in a nearby motel, and went to the house during the day to retrieve specific items and to search through the others for things of value. I located the requested belongings and loaded them in the truck. The remaining time was spent rummaging through drawers and boxes in search of old photos, letters, and keepsakes from the past. I may well have overlooked a can of hundred dollar bills, or a box of expensive jewelry, or some antique worth thousands of dollars in the process. Value is subjective. If I were snooping several years earlier, while Grandma was yet alive, I would have found the can of money and the diamond rings. I did, however, find a wonderful treasure – a notebook of ideas, muses, notes, and a letter, written by Donn Fought – Pappy!
To be continued soon…Stay tuned!