William Leigh Baumgartner
People, you’d think they’d know better. You just don’t go banging on a musician’s door at eight in the morning especially a weekend morning. It’s not a partying thing. I haven’t taken a drink or a drug in years. It’s a sleep thing.
BOM, BOM, BOM.
“Nonow, lemme sleep, Ionwannago tschool…”
BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
Jesus. Is it the cops? I’m getting flashbacks to my South Bronx days here. No no, calm down Sam, of course it’s not the cops. You haven’t crouched in a crackhouse in years. All right. So what fool is standing out there, anyway? Just let me look through the peephole here. Uh… dreadlocks, little troll face, Medicaid-issue glasses with coke-bottle lens…
Oh. Well, most people you’d think they’d know better.
And for some people the word “fool” just doesn’t feel strong enough.
“Hey. What, what d’you?” I’ve opened the door and am doing my best to make sure he sees how intensely unhappy this scenario has made me. But he’s oblivious. Then, in his own astonishing way, he lights into me.
“I was looking for you all night! What’s the big idea, canceling the gig?”
His face contorts, his mouth writhes around the words as he speaks. The situation couldn’t be more obvious. He’s been up all night, now he’s out of drugs and the bars are closed too. And somehow I’m responsible for his misery. I knew so many people like him back in the day. There’s nothing more pathetic than an addict/alcoholic who can’t come up with a good honest hustle and so goes around trying to wrest imaginary, fabricated debts out of people.
I envision myself hoisting him up against the wall, steadying him with one hand and smacking him repeatedly with the other. But there’s no such thing as beating sense into this guy. Besides I never hit anybody and even if I did I’m too tired.
“Listen, uh, whatsyername, Scooter…”
“Whatever. First of all I was gigging last night and I don’t appreciate being rousted this way. Okay? Don’t do that.”
I hang him a look. Duh. He’s opaque. I continue, but with the depressing awareness that I might as well be talking to an empty hallway.
“And about this so-called ‘gig’ you booked, don’t you listen? I told you don’t. Nobody ever said you were booking our band. You don’t know our schedule; you’re not authorized. Tina from Triton calls me about a gig I didn’t even know about and now I have to go clean up your mess. You’re making us look bad.”
Watch his face in vain hope that anything is getting through. I wish I didn’t have to look at this guy at all. Ever. Then he gets even more pissed off.
“Ah forget it!” He throws his little arms up and shakes his hands in the air like one of those fake-hippie, jam-band dancers that you see so many of in this town. “I don’t think I wanna book your band any more!”
With his strangely pigmented skin and undernourished little frame, his nervous flip-floppy way of moving and buggy bloodshot eyes, he reminds me of someone. But who?
“That’s the whole idea. You never were supposed to book”
“But you said”
“What? What did I say?”
He stands appropriately dumb.
“I’ll tell you what I said, Flipper”
“said no. You think you’re going to take some ridiculous percentage of the tiny pay we get from these stingy clubs? You think you’re gonna buy dope and drinks on our money?”
Ah. I’ve touched the nerve. He really is out of drugs and booze. He’s freaking out. He does a little half-turn on the spot, like he’s looking around to see if there’s someone else he can blame for his dilemma. He shouts again and I’m afraid I’m really going to smack him this time.
“Ah, fuck you! I tried to help you, man!”
“No you didn’t, Sparky.”
“Skipper, Gilligan, whatever. You didn’t try to help us. You tried to help yourself, to our money. But you’ve got it wrong, see. If you really want to help yourself go to detox.”
I’m talking to an empty hallway. No, I mean literally. He’s gone. He couldn’t hang. I could see his frail mental processes breaking down while I talked, gave him truth in chunks too large for him to swallow, let alone digest. About the time I was saying “you’ve got it wrong,” he was sliding away. Fuck me. Fuck my advice about detox, who was I why the fuck should he blah blah blah.
Now I remember. He didn’t remind me of a person. He reminded me of a character. In a fantasy.
Gollum. The prototypical addict. That’s who he is. Gollum with glasses and dreadlocks. The difference is that in Lord of the Rings you see Gollum struggling with Smeagle, the junkie fighting with the “inner child”. For Skipper, that struggle is long since over. If it ever existed. The druggie has won; the child is dead.
Staring dully at the vacated hall, I wonder if I ever appeared to others like this guy appears to me now: a creature devoid of conscience, prey to his own blindly followed compulsions, a character in a morality play.
Of course I did.
I go back to the bed and lie down, but I can’t get back to sleep. Something’s bothering me, something bigger than what just happened. The issue of money floats back up to the surface like buoyant garbage in a polluted pond. I just can’t ever seem to get ahead in this elitist, overpriced college town and this clown is trying to get money from me? Hah!
Like most of the “recovering” people I know, I’m an inveterate worrier. This morning is no different. I worry about the future of the band, about the fact that I’ve been alone for so long and not getting any younger, about money hell, I even worry about poor pathetic Skipper, and the fact that my own troubles have made me so hard that I can’t find any sympathy for him. The filthy angel of anxiety flaps down over me and I want to check out; the old addict inside wants comfort or oblivion (they may be the same thing) and finds neither. I get back out of bed and kneel on the floor. I don’t know about one God so I’m talking to some shifting consortium of spirits, saying please, can you please
Tina, the booker at Triton, is confused. Moreover, she’s angry. I try to tell her that Skipper is just a runaway train that has totally skipped the tracks: he had no authority, I never
“But then how could he come to me, with your demo”
“He didn’t get it from”
“and talk about he’s your”
“tried to tell him”
Eventually we work it out and I set another date with her. Speaking of dates, is Tina flirting with me? Oh forget it, she’d never go out with me. She’s just flexing a bit. Enjoying the fact that, as a club booker and a beautiful woman, she has power over me times two.
I’ve finished my Eighth Step list and there are a few people right here in town who I owe amends to. I’m standing in front of the door of one of them.
“Sam,” Carmel says, muttering my name as one might acknowledge an unpleasant fact.
I met Carmel a long, long time ago in New York. The damage I did in that relationship was oh so typical of many I had in my early twenties, those coke-fueled days of duplicity, moral decrepitude, and the egomania that often occurs in young musicians doing delusion-inducing drugs in that egoistic city. But I did love her, really. I never meant to do what I did. (It was Gollum, not me!) Now, convenient to my Ninth Step, I wandered into an art gallery and recognized her style and then her signature on some paintings in a show. She lives here.
And she’s still gorgeous, a thing of Irish wonder and grace. The skin over her cheekbones is still always red like she’s always just stepped out of the shower or is feeling shyly amorous. But the old hurts and mistrusts dance to the surface planes of her face in spite or even independent of her unabated glory.
“What, what do you want.”
Tiny splatters and big smears of color all over her clothes and skin. She rubs at a smudge of dried vermilion on her wrist, and it seems like an excuse for her to look somewhere, anywhere but at me. I had pictured this differently. I told myself not to picture it at all, but
“Carmel, I’m sorry. I mean, that’s, that’s what I”
“that’s all, just to say that I’m so sorry”
Her stare softens, stopping my words. She’s accepting, she understands. Finally, if only for a moment (and that’s all we ever have anyway, isn’t it) it’s all there, all the knowing, and the falling away of the pain caused, the unmeant ravages…
But finally it is only a moment, and she sees me again as the man who cheated on her, lied to her and stole from her, and her gaze hardens again. I also pull back into my shell of self, the foolish instant of freedom gone, that space reoccupied by my own damaged wariness. No matter what, if I’m walking around, someone always gets injured.
“Sam,” she says, and now she doesn’t mumble. She says my name sharply, as you would to wake someone falling asleep at the wheel. Staring hard at me now. “What did you expect?”
I want to tell her that I expected nothing, but was unable to keep myself from hoping for something. Instead I just stare at her, unable to say what I mean. The apartment smells like paint thinner and she is as much of a slob as she ever was. Stuff piled and strewn everywhere.
“Can I come in? Can we talk?”
She presses her lips together and squinches her eyes. “Why? What else could you possibly have to say to me?”
I’m looking at the stoop, the concrete steps under my feet. I can’t look at her again, not now. And so I know that the old skin does not, in fact, fall away so easily.
Walking away down her street, I get this tingly feeling like there’s someone behind me, watching. I turn half expecting to see Carmel herself, a sudden change of heart, come back, and lie in the piles of dirty clothes and roll in the paint…
But no, of course not. Oh wait. It’s Skipper. You gotta be kidding me. Is he following me? Is he going to duck behind a tree, in a bit of unintentional slapstick? I could use a good laugh about now.
What he does is so unexpected and baffling I have no idea what to make of it. He looks straight at me but it’s like he’s looking through me. Then he walks up to Carmel’s house, bangs on her door. She comes and opens it, they stand there talking for a moment, and then he goes in.
He knows her? She lets him into her house? She wouldn’t let me in, but him…? My mind takes a quick spin through the possibilities, and I can’t help it they’re all lurid. That’s where my thoughts go with Skipper, and especially Skipper with her, the woman who still gets under my skin, who should be with me in there… But doing what? I skip back to that smell of paint thinner. Doesn’t she know that all the artists especially in this town, so full of eco-hipsters use the natural products now, those citrus-based thinners that aren’t so flammable, and so toxic ?
Oh no. I mean, can it be? Are they huffing the shit? Getting high and, and…
Ugh. That’s revolting. But is it so impossible? It’s been years, after all, since I spent any time around Carmel. Anyone can get addicted to anything.
But Jesus. The two of them. Huffing and humping…
This can’t be real and in fact it feels like I’m hallucinating. My face is hot and my center of balance is threatened. It’s insane, I know, but I can’t stop the reel of images. Him touching her. Her sighing, arching into him. This is it, this is the preposterously appropriate moment that life throws at you, to remind you that you are powerless. Not just over drugs and alcohol, but everything.
And this is me, raging and shaking on the sidewalk, jealous of a half-human creature in a fantasy.
Somehow in the midst of all of this burdened and strapped, this lumbering living, somehow music is made. It becomes itself, making its way out from the interstices of our confinement. In finding its way into the air, the music almost accidentally affords us some of the same freedom I had tasted so ephemerally while facing Carmel again, earlier today and though I called it foolish, I take that back. This is not foolish at all. This is the essence of wisdom, and in fact if I could bring this music to her, make a gift of it and lay it before her, we might not only escape the weight of our shared past but also find love again.
We’ve just finished the last song of our first set. We’re playing at Labyrinth tonight, a basement club with many different interconnected rooms. I lay my saxophone into its stand.
“Fuckin’ great,” Taylor finishes my thought, and puts his guitar into its own stand. I pull a face.
“Yes, that’s what I was going to say”
“And now you don’t have to!”
He pulls out a cigarette. The bassist and drummer follow suit and they’re all heading outside to smoke. I can’t smoke or drink or do anything anymore, even coffee now fails to thrill me my road has narrowed. And to think I once got such a kick from cocaine. Still I follow them outside, maybe subconsciously hoping to catch a little second-hand smoke, a little contact buzz.
We stand in the alley amidst other groups of smokers. Somewhere wood is burning. A snowstorm marches slowly over the Front Range. For a moment, between smelling that fireplace and seeing the deliberate approach of those clouds and just before the odor of cigarettes reaches me, I am in my Secret Place.
I’m oh, eight or nine years old and have gotten myself lost in the woods behind our house again. The Secret Place is not in the woods it’s in me. The woods are my way to that part of me that gives up hope and then lives free, unfettered by the demands that hope makes on me. When I am out there and I know I’m lost but still living on the ridiculous hope, oh I’ll find my way soon, I just know it, it’s going to be all right! As long as I’m thinking that way, I’m fucked. I’m a pathetic little loser. It’s only by giving up that I actually get anywhere.
I’m wet and cold and exalted, coming home. I got lost on purpose, stumbled against lacerating branches and through freezing streams so that it could happen just like this. My mother there in the living room touching a light to the crimped newspapers under the kindling and logs. My father with a few drinks in him but not yet drunk and combative, just this side of the confusion area where he doesn’t know what to feel anymore
I didn’t say that. Taylor did.
“Well at least somebody around here knows my name,” Skipper says. He sees me looking at him and smiles. No wait. That’s more than a smile. That’s a gloat.
“Didn’t know you knew Carmel,” he says, lips stretched tight while he speaks.
I don’t quite know how to deal with this new, smarmily confident side to Skipper. I swallow and manage to ask him what was on my mind half the afternoon.
“So how do you know her?”
“Ah,” he says, tossing a hand backward, exaggeratedly casual, “I’ve known Carmel for years. I’m an artist too, y’know.”
I can’t stop myself from gaping. Fuck no, I didn’t know that. And frankly I just can’t believe it.
“Yeah,” he says, “I just went there today to borrow some supplies, y’know, because I’m so broke I can’t afford my own.” He gives me the significant glare. Like I’m some deadbeat who owes him.
I realize that I forgot to tell the guys about his “booking” shenanigans. How did he get our demo, anyway? And who gave him the idea that we wanted him booking us?
“Hey, you talk to the people at Triton about us yet?” Taylor asks him, just as casual as you please.
Skip Stoner looks at me and it’s all clear now. Taylor, usually such a good judge of character, slipped wildly this time and authorized this fool to book us some shows. I shoot a look at him to let him know that this is not cool and he shouldn’t have done it. He looks appropriately bewildered.
“Uh, listen Taylor,” I tell him. “We’ve gotta talk about that.”
I mean later. But I can see that Skipper wants to talk about it now. I think he’s probably been straight all day and can’t stand any more hours of unaltered consciousness. I mean unless he really was inhaling fumes with Carmel earlier, but that thought feels ridiculous now. He speaks up and he’s kind of blustery apparently emboldened by some renewed sense of the injustice that’s been done to him.
“Man, see? See what I was sayin’, that’s, he told me to, he said, anyway so I got you the gig and you need to pay me”
“That’s right. That’s my name”
“not paying you anything. You’re out of line here.”
He looks like his eyeballs are about to explode. The glasses make his eyes look huge anyway, but now it looks like the internal pressure is too much for his face.
“I went there and talked to Tina,” I tell him, “cancelled it. We’ve already got a gig that night. You need to just stop.”
He does one of those fast head-snaps, side to side, like someone cornered, looking around for the way out that he should already know he will not find. For the first (and possibly last) time I feel something like sympathy for him. He looks at Taylor, who can offer him nothing, then back at me.
“Man, this is stupid!”
The whole band just stands there and nods, in profound dumbstruck agreement.
“I can’t take this shit anymore!”
“That’s okay,” I tell him.
I say it softly, because despite my better instincts I can’t help it. I feel sorry for the guy.
Back inside the club for the second set, Skipper has somehow managed to get in too. I can’t understand that. I thought he’d been barred from this place. And I know he’s not forking over any cover charge. But here he comes, right at me.
Just when I was getting up the courage to go and talk to that punk girl who’s really not my type and is way too young for me. But hey, you never know. So please Skipper, please just go away. Skip on out of here. I have thirty seconds to go and tell her that it’s still possible to fall in love, to wait till the set’s over and I’ll show her how. I can’t stand to be alone any longer, so have mercy. Go find some other band to haunt. Please!
“What. What what what.”
(The punk girl, across the room, sticks out a red lower lip. Her eyes, framed in heavy mascara, burn me. She turns and exits.)
“Can you at least put me on your bar tab?”
Should I put my horn down and punch this guy? Finally, for once in my life, do something definitive?
“Look,” I tell him. “I wouldn’t buy you a drink if you were the last sorry son of a bitch on earth. You just ruined a chance for me” he blinks incomprehension “and now you’re trying to ruin my gig. But you know what? I won’t let you. Now get the fuck away from me.”
With that I turn to the band, count the first song, and kick into it with a fury I am usually too cool to let show. That anger turns out to be just what the song needed. The punk girl would have loved it; she doesn’t know what she’s missing. People jump up and start dancing, and I am briefly elated.
Halfway through the second song, Skipper dances up to the bandstand, but there’s something… He’s not really dancing. He’s, he’s, well what he’s doing, it looks like, is mock-dancing. That’s the only way to describe it. He’s, like, making fun of everybody who’s dancing to our music. Then he stops square in front of me, plants his feet and sticks his middle finger up in my face.
I finish the song without looking at him. The whole time he is standing in exactly the same position doing the same thing, giving me the backhanded salute. When the song is over, I tell the band to hold on a sec. Go toward the bouncer, but apparently he saw everything. Because he just gives me a grim nod, heads over to Skipper and lifts him with one hand right off the floor.
Other dreadlocked kids are here in the club, but no one protests the bouncer’s getting physical with this one. I think they must realize that Skipper is not really one of them, that in fact the hairstyle is probably just a good excuse to never comb, cut or wash his hair. Anyway there is so much hypocrisy in that group, so many of them would never lift a finger to help one of their “brothers” if they thought it might cause some trouble or inconvenience for them. We call these kids “Trustafarians”. Rich whites in need of a scene to lose themselves in, a ready-made identity to borrow.
As I watch him being carried out the door I have this final flashing moment of pity. I hope the bouncer doesn’t actually hurt him.
Skipper, being dragged backward, feet half off the floor, looks me straight in the eye. I wish there were some other way for the scene to unfold, but everything happens just the way it does.
When I was an active addict and alcoholic, using cocaine and acid and drinking and smoking dope all the time, living in a squat on 11th Street between Avenues C and D down in “Alphabet City”, New York, I had sex with a girl who had nodded out. I’d wanted to do it while she was awake. I’d wanted to make it with her for a long time, but she lived with her boyfriend in the space across the hall in this old building. I went and knocked on their door one night and she’d obviously been shooting some dope and her boyfriend wasn’t around. We started talking, she could barely hold a conversation with me, I started kissing her and getting my hand in between her legs and she just nodded out. In a swirling tempest of guilt, lust, and the psychotropic effects of whatever substances I was on that night, I just kept going. I went all the way. I fucked. I can’t say, “We fucked”. I fucked. It was horrible. I got no satisfaction and could no longer look her or her boyfriend in the eye. The fact that I never got caught made me feel even worse. But I was staying so perpetually stoned and self-deluding that eventually I got over it.
Or so it seemed.
Like three weeks later, the building burned down with her and her boyfriend in it. We all stood on the sidewalk and screamed at the firemen, who just stood there and glared back at us. This was in the ’80s when Helmsley-Spear and other huge development corporations were buying up all the property in the East Village, preparing New York City to become the giant gated community it is today, a place where none but the most successful can afford to live.
Some of my friends said later that the reason the squat had been allowed to burn down with our friends in it, was that the firemen had been paid to let it burn. The developers, the devils in suits, wanted us out and they had the money to make it happen. It was hard for me to consider the possibility that even New York’s Bravest could be bought.
But so what if they could? I thought of that girl and her boyfriend burning up in there, and I forgave the firemen, if in fact they had been paid off. Because they needed the money, they had families to raise and they were and would always be better men than I. I could never forgive myself for what I did, romantic me, who claims to love women so much. Even today I can’t be kind to anyone, not really and truly kind, because I still hate myself for some of the things I did back then.
For some reason I am remembering all this now. Why? Could it be because I smell smoke? Coming out of sleep, the soot-smeared angel lifting up its wings, releasing me from the shadowy world of a guilt-infested dream.
I am not dreaming now.
But I am in the Secret Place.
My mother has lit the fire and I’m home, my father has not had a drink in months, there is a way in to the secret place inside me and I don’t have to go get lost in the woods any more to find it.
I know that this kid named Skipper, who must have had a real name once (like Gollum was Smeagle), Skipper who is actually not a kid at all but like, what, thirty-five years old maybe, who can’t face a day without some kind of substance in him
I know that he is outside my apartment in a delirium of disappointment, surrounded by his own dirty seraphs, an empty can of paint thinner rolling away from him and a spent torch made from paint-spattered rags in his hand. The foul smelling liquid flows and puddles under my door and the flames leap and roar. Skipper has done what he had to do and I am hungrily breathing the smoke that I have denied myself for so long.
And for a minute it could end just like that. I’d be perfectly happy to die now, lie here in my bed engulfed in flames smiling like some philosophical old Indian on his pyre. A good day to die and all that. I can’t do it. I have to thank him, the Skipper of my ship out of the murky waters I’ve found myself mired in these past few years. Instead of putting me to bed forever, he woke me up.
So I bolt up and out into the hall, my apartment crumbling in sparks, crashing in waves of fire behind me. Let it go good riddance even! I am so grateful to him; I must thank him.
Skipper doesn’t even hear me. I come round to face him and he stares at me like I’m not there, then goes around me. To him the job is done and I am already dead. He walks away muttering that this will show me, after all he’s done for me. And I guess it will, because after all he has.