This is a the final section of a series presenting the songs - and a lost manuscript - of a musician friend of mine named Zak Jourek.
Part one gives a more in-depth introduction to Zak and can be found
All songs posted can be found
I met Zak while working in a dining hall at a small university in Iowa and then we both ended up in Boulder, Colorado at the end of the nineties. I got a package in the mail last January from one of his old girlfriends with an old manuscript of his and a demo cassette tape of his songs. As far as I can tell, he disappeared without a trace about thirteen years ago. Did he wander up into the Rockies? Is he homeless and mumbling, going through dumpsters in Portland? Did he become a juniper in the desert, charred by lightning? I have no clue.
I leave you with the entire manuscript (about the length of a short story), including the final section: Purblind Fate. (Purblind: having greatly reduced vision; or, lacking in insight or discernment.) It was originally untitled, but I've taken the liberty of titling it, "Bison in the Rock."
Bison in the Rock
1. In the naked bed, in the motel cave
I opened the motel window curtains. We were somewhere south of Jackson, Missouri. Across the highway, messages scrolled across the TRUCKSTOP 76 digital board: “ATTEND OUR CHAPEL SERVICE IN OUR NEW AIR-CONDITIONED TV LOUNGE…BREAKFAST ALL YOU CAN EAT ONLY 12.99...”
Me and Liv were in the middle of a low budget singer/songwriter tour: empty coffee houses, bars that served up open mics before we played. Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis. A little more than twenty years ago I signed with EMI. Right after I signed, there was a shuffle in higher management and the executives that signed me were fired. Needless to say, the new fuckwits didn’t want to have anything to do with the artists the old fuckwits had signed, so I was dumped. They dumped a lot of people. In my desperation to be signed, I’d handed over all the rights to my music. They locked it all up in a vault and threw away the key, thus ending my brilliant career in the music industry. I went on a drinking binge that lasted many, many years.
There was a guy sitting poolside in blue shorts, white socks, dress shoes, no shirt, scanning a Sunday paper. Two children, wearing face masks, stood in the shallows. Trucks thundered down the highway on the other side of the chain link fence that surrounded the pool. It was strange how that fence, that flimsy see-through fence, stood in for a legitimate divide between the vacation and the workaday world.
I picked up my guitar, played the same three chords over and over, humming nonsense words. Liv stirred on the bed. “I need coffee.” There was still some wine in the bottle on the bed stand from the night before. “Have some wine,” I said.
A tall, thin man wearing floods dragged a black plastic bag behind him through the ditch grass in front of The TRUCKSTOP 76, looking for cans. He suddenly dropped on all fours and scoured the ground, but came up empty. The reflection of the sun off a passing truck sent a sliver of light across the ceiling.
I could feel the words out there. I opened my mouth and sang: There’s a long white glare on the ceiling/Streetlight through the trees/There’s a man on the corner crying “Jesus!”/He drops down to his knees…
“I’m sick of this,” Liv said.
I nodded, kept playing, humming, waiting on more words.
“There was only one guy in the audience last night,” she said.
When she first hooked up with me she was under the impression that she was the secret ingredient that was missing from my former brush with fame. Now that I was with her, singing with her, I would surely get back what had previously been denied me, wouldn’t I?
The lone guy in that café looked about my age. He sat through both sets, smiling, tapping his fingers on the table. During the break he found me in the bathroom, stood at the urinal next to me, pestering me with questions. How long did it take me to learn guitar? Could I recommend a kind of guitar? It was hard to pee. I think he was slightly retarded.
“I liked him,” I said to Liv.
“I think he was retarded,” Liv said back.
It’s funny, thinking about it now, but I’m surprised she didn’t last longer. We were only halfway through the tour when she threw in the towel. But then, she was ambitious, and it was clear we were heading nowhere.
Liv pointed at an old woman behind another window, holding a plastic cup, staring down at the kids in the pool. When the old woman saw us watching her, she slipped further into the darkness. I instantly thought of my mother, the drunk war widow, and sang: There’s a woman in the sea of forgetting/drinking wine from a plastic cup/Cutting the lines to her memory/the sea swallows them up…
“Let’s go to Florida, lie on a beach,” Liv said.
“With what?” We were barely making gas money. The motel was a ridiculous splurge on my card. Most nights we slept in the car. Of course, the tour would have been terribly exciting if I had been nineteen. I wasn’t even close.
“Just use the card,” Liv said.
2. Lost in the Land of Irony
After our gig in Memphis, we went to Graceland. It was Liv’s idea. There was a five year old boy on the bus that shuttled us up the drive from the ticket office who had his hair done up like 50’s Elvis. He kept mugging for everyone, singing lines from Love Me Tender and Don’t Be Cruel. Everyone on the bus thought he was the cutest little thing. Those moments on that bus were probably the closest that kid would ever get to his fifteen minutes of fame.
Graceland is the sanctification of kitsch. No surprise there. There was a room where the walls were shag rug. It looked like someone had hired an interior decorator perpetually drunk on peanut butter/banana daiquiris. Liv loved it. She thinks that you can raise kitsch to the level of art just by infusing it with irony. I didn’t want to spoil the joke. I’d once thought I was in on the joke myself.
I’d been to Graceland before: the summer of ’90, right before the first Gulf War. Bush Number One was drawing a line in the sand and the media was jumping on the band wagon, furiously beating the war drums. Any fuckwit could see it was about oil, but apparently there’s not that many fuckwits in this country. I was on a tour of all the crap bars in the country with my band Raised by Cats, and because we were in Memphis we decided we had to make a pilgrimage to the holy music industry shrine. Our inside joke was “You got to pay to play.”
I didn’t get the punch line until a couple years later.
My band mates and I were standing in line, waiting to enter the hallowed hall where Elvis’ memorabilia was enshrined behind glass (the famous black leather suit from the 1968 Hawaii concert, gold records, and, of course, the fat-boy Vegas jumpsuits), when a little old lady shuffled through the back door of the house, towards a patio table, and sat down to a waiting glass of orange juice. Everyone stared and stared, thinking “What the fuck?” One of the Graceland ushers suddenly appeared, walked the line, telling us all that the old woman was Elvis’ Aunt Delta, and that she took her breakfast out on that patio every morning, and we should respect her privacy. “Please don’t stare.”
I laughed out loud. Seriously? Where did he think he was?
Some things don’t change: the US is shit-deep in another seven wars and I’m on a tour of crap bars across the country. But one thing has changed – Aunt Delta is dead. She died back in ’93.
Forty thousand years ago, in what is now central France, a cave painter sat in the flickering glow of a smoldering torch, night after dark night, day after dark day, until the shape and shadows of the cave wall revealed something: a bison, a horse, a woolly rhino. I have believed for years that songs are like the bison hiding in the contours of rock. The words and music are already there, hanging in the ether, you just have to keep humming the melody over and over, use nonsense vowels, consonants, garbled syllables, until eventually you find the song. Like the bison in the rock, the song is right in front of you, already whole, just waiting for you to see it. It can sometimes take years to find two or three lines. But when it takes that long, they’re usually good lines. The songs that were stolen from me by EMI were good, but they weren’t made that way. I was young, in a hurry.
Liv and I watched the people come and go in the meditation garden, the place where Elvis and his parents are buried. Some knelt to pray, some sang, some giggled, awkward, wondering how to act. While we watched the shenanigans in the garden I came up with another verse for the tune that had been in my head since Jackson: The butterflies of heat fly skyward/turn to bats on the wing/Flapping in the caves of the lonely/making song where no one sings…
Driving away from Graceland, I told Liv she was right, it was time to end the tour. I was tired, so unbelievably tired. I knew I was never going to get back to where I was when I was twenty-two, so what was I doing?
3. If you’re ever in Panama City, definitely check out the blind fate
We made Panama City by sunset, checked into a motel downtown. Outside the window we looked down on the same scene as the one at the motel in Missouri: a man in blue shorts, white socks and loafers reading the paper while someone else’s kids frolicked in the tiny, kidney shaped pool. We went down to the pool, dangled our feet in the water that stank of chlorine, and drank warm beer from plastic cups.
It’s amazing how twilight changes things, turns them inside out – purple and lush – making brilliant flowers where there was once crushed glass. The same scene that looked so bleak that morning in Jackson was transformed to beauty in Panama City. Liv looked happy. In that moment, I can honestly say that I felt something lift off me, something that I’d been carrying since EMI had stolen my music.
I no longer cared. Revenge or acceptance – and every response in between – suddenly seemed irrelevant.
A middle aged couple in their underwear hurried towards the pool, jumped in. That immediately scared off the kids and the guy reading the paper. “We forgot our suits,” the man explained to us after a few minutes of splashing around. His speech was slurred. A freight rumbled somewhere beyond the palms lining the motel parking lot. The lights in the lot flicked on. Moths chased the light. We pretended not to watch the drunk couple splashing each other. The motel song came back again, and I found another verse: The train engine talk whispers secrets/into the widow’s ear/Telling her of the sea of forgetting/…it’s here…
“He’s at the end of some big money won in Atlantic City,” Liv whispered. It’s a game we played when we were bored, sitting around a café or bar before a set, watching the locals.
“But who’s the woman?” I whispered back.
“Her name’s Azalea,” Liv whispered back. “She stuck with him because she can’t quite shake that night in Atlantic City when he couldn’t lose. She’s waiting for it to happen again.”
“And every time he looks at her,” I whispered back, “he thinks of her back in Atlantic City, too, and knows he’s just an illusion to her, has been worried for the entire trip that she’ll see through the veil any minute.”
Liv smiled, nodded, then said: “One night, when he’s pretending to sleep he’ll hear her slip out of bed, gather up her things, humming to herself like there’s no one else in the room. The door opens, closes, then silence.”
I laughed, shook my head. “That’s cold.”
The couple pulled themselves up out of the pool, underwear sticking to them like skin, making them more naked than if they’d had nothing on. They shook their hair out and quickly hurried offstage. When they were gone, Liv stood up, unbuttoned her shorts, slipped them off, then pulled her t-shirt off and dove in. I finished the rest of the beer in my cup, stripped, and followed her into the pool.
The manager of the motel – a woman in her sixties, wearing a pink terrycloth bathrobe and black rubber thongs – came out and told us we were not being respectful of the other guests, of her, or of ourselves. My peaceful carefree illumination instantly dissolved and the old rage came back.
“Yes, yes, respect,” I hissed at her. “Are you aware that an actual human being wrote your favorite song, that it didn’t appear out of the mist all on its own one morning?”
The woman frowned, confused. “What are you talking about?”
It was later, lying in bed on the verge of sleep, that I wondered why the owner hadn’t come out to reprimand the other couple. I put it down to another case of blind fate. Why were my songs stolen and not the music of Chris Cornell or that blowhard Morissey? Blind fate. That’s when I found the final verse to the song: What I really want to know/is why some rise and why some fall/Why some thrash in the waterfall/and why some do nothing at all.
4. The Watermelon Pickup
We passed a rusted pickup full of watermelons on the shoulder of highway 17, south of Charleston, heading north. My card was almost maxed and we were trying to make it to Philadelphia, crash at my mother’s house, before the credit ran out.
I’ve been caught up in a particular hamster wheel for the last ten years: long, crap-bar tours, at the end of which I inevitably run out of money, and then I reluctantly high-tail-it back to my mother’s house and present myself on her doorstep, with nothing to show for another long absence. She lets me in as if I’ve been out for the weekend, though sometimes it’s been as long as three years. We drink some wine, and she inevitably begins one of her drunken tirades, then passes out at the kitchen table. I leave her there, the way I did my entire childhood, and crawl off into the darkness to find a place to sleep. The endless round. But this time, I thought, I’d be bringing someone home with me. Would that change things?
“There was a watermelon truck in the gas station where our car had been towed,” Liv suddenly said. She started stories that way, as if they revolved in the air around her, like moths on the moon’s currents, and then she’d reach out, grabbing blind, and bring whatever she found into her mouth, start from there.
Maybe it was her form of cave-painting.
“The boys in the truck eyed my sisters,” she said, “chopped up a couple of melons and came over to our station wagon, offered it to everyone. My father was in the garage waiting on the mechanics, who were busy ignoring him, playing at making the Yankee wait...”
We passed a row of sharecropper-shacks, surrounded by thick-trunked oaks, and a sign for barbeque (Loudon’s Bar-B-Q Satisfy Testify No lie). Two children kicked dust into shafts of light falling through a canopy of live oaks. Liv turned, watched the children grow smaller, disappear, then continued, telling me how her folks piled their seven kids into the station wagon and drove from Chicago to a rented cottage on Pawley’s Island in South Carolina every other summer. Liv was the youngest so she spent those twenty hours wedged in the well of the backseat, leaning against her sister’s legs. It wasn’t until she was ten years old and two of her sisters had left home that she finally saw the peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
“The mechanics ended up taking three days to get to the car,” Liv said. “We were all together in one room at a motel run by a sister of one of the mechanics – a fat woman in a yellow and aqua bathrobe. The yellow parts were butterflies...”
We passed two men in a yard of junked cars, holding cans of beer, staring down into the engine of a stripped grey Chevy pickup. “There was nothing to do in that town but sit around at the gas station,” Liv said. “That’s when Kendall and Shannon, the two oldest, started the game of making up stories about the people who came and went.”
White sheets hung slack off a clothesline behind a small green clapboard house. A woman’s face appeared – for a moment – from a small window framed by trumpet vines. She looked like my mother – probably because I was dreading the moment when I would have to ask my mother, once again, for shelter from the storm.
“On the second day there weren’t any other cars in the lot and the fucking mechanics still wouldn’t touch the car.”
“What did your father do?” I asked.
“There was nothing he could do,” she said. “It was Kendall that got us out of there. The second night Kendall and Shannon were hanging out down by the creek behind the motel and they ran into one of the watermelon boys. They started flirting. He was this skinny kid, blonde crew cut, freckles, a little awkward, and happened to be the son of one of the mechanics. I’m not sure what happened, but I remember Kendall from that time, and whatever she did with him was probably pretty overpowering. She was merciless.”
Liv laughed. “Shannon came back to the motel room alone around ten. Kendall didn’t show until around midnight. Her t-shirt and shorts were soaked. I remember she had this baby blue bra – she loved it – and you could see it through the shirt. My father was furious. Whenever he got mad his glasses would fog...it was hilarious. Still, when we went down to the garage the next day, the mechanics were working on the car.”
“Did you ever ask Kendall what she did with the kid?”
“Why?” she said. “Even my father knew that Kendall was responsible for the car being fixed. They were always arguing when I was a kid, especially on vacations, but when we left that town he let her drive the car all the way to Pawley’s. He sat in the back with the rest of us.”
As we passed another group of shacks, tin roofs burning orange in the sunset, I looked over at Liv. She flashed me a smile. “It’s a song,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
I wondered: does she want me to write a song about it? Even after she’s heard my seven or eight different drunken versions of the music-as-cave-painting speech?
I said nothing.
She squinted into the sunset. “It’s a country song,” she said. “I can hear it.”
5. Playing Hide and Seek with the Sea
The car blew a rod just north of the North Carolina state line. Liv immediately pulled her bags out of the trunk and stuck out her thumb. I wasn’t sure if she was intending to hitch solo or was thumbing for the both of us. I never asked. That’s when Bobby came rolling by in his red ‘66 Lincoln Continental Convertible and picked us both up, drove us to his place near Myrtle Beach.
We lived with Bobby for several weeks. Well, I lived at his place for several weeks. I have no idea how long Liv stayed. For all I know, she might still be there now. We were his pets; his strange little artist creatures. Liv loved playing the role. Bobby had a Cajun chef in the kitchen, an endless supply of booze, and a view of the sea.
My last night at Bobby’s place there was a huge party. There were always parties, every night, but this one was bigger than most. I spent some of the evening watching Bobby stand just outside the light cast by the Tiki torches at the edge of the veranda, drink in hand, watching Liv mingle with his guests. The air smelled of lemon juice, suntan lotion, gin, blackened redfish, and the sea, the sea, the wine-dark sea.
“Have you ever heard about King Cousin Blue?” Liv said to one of the men encircling her. Bobby sipped his drink, eyes on Liv.
Liv once told me about King Cousin Blue: a twenty five pound crab that lived beneath the Pawley’s Island Bridge when she was a kid. Illusive, mythic. Pawley’s Moby Dick.
“I almost had it once, but it snapped right through the netting,” she said to the men. “And he only had one claw! I told everyone in my family I’d almost gotten him and no one ever believed me. You believe me, don’t you?”
The men laughed. Liv had netted them. She continued: “The crab was named by some local who spent every summer on the bridge in a beach chair, fishing for the beast with a cane pole. He had this biblical name…” She snapped her fingers, pretending to search for the name. “Jelalayah? Something like that.”
The men all frowned, trying to come up with the right name. “Jedediah?” one offered.
“That’s it!” Liv shouted. Everyone laughed again. “They’re both still out there somewhere,” Liv added. She pointed down the coast, towards Pawley’s Island. All the men looked in the direction she was pointing, into the dark.
I wandered into the living room. Football was playing on a huge plasma screen. The news scrolling beneath the game announced another city in Iraq taken by the jihadist group ISIS.
“I heard from Bobby that you’re a song writer?”
I turned, looked into the face of a woman in a tight black dress. She was another one of Bobby’s pets. Last year’s variety.
“Yes,” I said, and left it at that.
“Do I know any of your songs?” she asked.
I’d had a few drinks, so I started to tell her the epic story of how EMI stole my music. Her eyes almost immediately went blank – too many words – so I wrapped it up quickly with “I had to leave the music business,” just in case she wanted to attach herself to my rising star the way Liv had.
She was obviously confused. “So you’re trying to keep your art pure from all the buying and selling,” she said.
I’m not sure if it was a question or a statement. It was my turn to be confused. Keep my art pure?
I retreated down to the water’s edge. A solitary boat light moved across the night surface. Clouds hid the stars. Sand shifted across sand, sounding like half-finished sentences, ghost-talk.
I have a memory of my father on a beach. It is the only memory I have. It is a false memory because he went missing in Vietnam while I was still in utero. It comes from some night when I was four or five, my mother sitting at the kitchen table, shit-faced, telling me about a wonderful day she remembered when all three of us were at the Jersey Shore together.
The beautiful lies that came out of her mouth…that still come out of her mouth…
Still, whenever I’m on a beach, I feel as if I’m missing something, that there’s something hiding out there in the dark water, behind the curl of a wave, or down a crab hole, under a grain of sand.
I had a childhood friend, Bruce, whose father died in Vietnam, too. He was drawn to the absence of his father so much he joined the marines out of high school, made a career of it. He’s probably retired and working for some private security firm in Iraq or Afghanistan right now. I know he definitely was in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. Me, I never think much about my father. But we’re both playing hide and seek with our fathers in our own way. There’s probably a song out there somewhere about all that absence, but I’ve never found it.
It doesn’t matter now. We’ve got new wars. It’s the new that counts. It’s the new, the young, what’s fresh off the conveyor belt, that draws the audience in. “Make it new,” is the terrorizing and terrorized shout from everyone, everywhere. The war my father died in is ancient news, long ago tossed onto the dust bin of history. Too many movies were made about it and so there was a universal acknowledgment that we’ve all been there, done that. Move on.
What’s funny is that it’s not just about new wars and old wars. I know now that whatever I sing about, because of my age, because I’m no longer young, before it even leaves my mouth it is yesterday’s news…
I heard a couple making love in the dunes, not far from where I was standing. More of Bobby’s pets, I assumed, who had escaped from the cage for a few minutes. I looked back at the lights falling across the sand from Bobby’s house and knew that Liv was already gone. She’d started her new adventure.
Well, god bless her.
What was I going to say to my mother when she opened her door in that grim little brick row house in Northeast Philly? The same thing I always said.
6. Can dolphins outrun their fate?
I woke on the beach, hungover, half-clothed, sand in my mouth. The waves were high. There were dark clouds on the horizon. I looked at the woman lying next to me, the one who’d asked me if I wanted to keep my art pure, and couldn’t remember her name. I don’t think she ever gave it to me. I nudged her awake, pointed at the waves. “Looks like a storm.”
She opened her eyes, squinted at me through her dyed blonde bangs, then squinted out at the ocean and grinned. “You ever been body surfing during a storm?”
We rode the waves, catching them high, plunging into the fall, tossed head over heels, bouncing off the sand floor, cart wheeling in the switchbacks and whirlpools. After a while I started to play shark, hunted her legs, grabbed her for a second, then swam off.
“Was that you?” she cried above the sound of the waves.
Lightning shattered the horizon.
Then she started playing the same game. I felt a light brush against my ankle. I looked around. The woman-who-shall-forever-remain-nameless surfaced to my right, faced the storm. “Was that you?” I called out.
I slipped under again, swam towards her, tapped her leg, surfaced several yards off. I turned to face the waves again and out of the corner of my eye I saw her sink out of sight. She pushed against my legs, but this time knocked me off my feet. When I surfaced, she was far off. “Did you do that?” I yelled.
She pointed to her ear, shook her head. Thunder burrowed into my skull.
I turned back to the waves. One more ride before the storm hit. I wondered where Liv was right then, waking up next to one of Bobby’s guests in one of his many bedrooms? Or maybe waking up next to Bobby?
Bobby and his red convertible. Bobby and his mysterious millions. Bobby who owned the world. He probably owned all of my old songs. I could feel his long fingers slipping inside me, trying to find the new ones…
The woman-who-shall-forever-remain-nameless bumped me again. A long brush of rough skin. That didn’t seem right. I looked around, frantic. She was standing knee deep in the water fifteen feet in front of me, pulling her hair away from her face. “Did you...?” But I knew. Something knocked against me again, another long scrape of rough skin.
“There’s something out here!” I screamed, thrashing through the water towards her. She laughed until I was almost on top of her, saw the terror in my eyes, and then we were both scrambling through the waves, slipping under, gulping salt water, coming back up, sucking air, half-running, half-swimming, heading for shore.
We stumbled onto wet sand, out of the water, and fell on all fours, coughing. When we turned to look back we saw eight dolphin fins rising and falling in the shallows – a pod, heading south down the coast. For a moment I had the insane idea that if I wandered back into the water, grabbed a fin, they would accept me, take me with them. The woman-with-no-name began laughing and I laughed with her. What made her laugh, I’ll never know. I didn’t ask.
Rain wandered the dunes.
7. Purblind fate
My mother answered the door, looked me up and down, confused. I don’t think, right at that moment, she knew who I was. “It’s me,” I said, almost adding “your son.” Without a word, she opened the door wide to let me in, her eyes still betraying confusion. I walked down the dim hallway to the kitchen and she followed close behind.
“I brought you some wine,” I said and set a bottle of the sickly sweet stuff she liked on the kitchen table. She produced two glasses from a cabinet next to the fridge and poured the wine for us both. Her hand shook so badly I had to take over.
“Are you still working?” I asked.
She used to have a job cutting meat, stood on a cold concrete floor ten hours a day, four days a week, cutting, cutting. It gave her varicose veins, ruined her feet. Looking at the way her hands were shaking, it was obvious that it had been a long time since she’d done any cutting.
“I’m on disability now,” she said. She held her hands at arm’s length, examined her twisted fingers. “My fingers were smashed.”
Her fingers were obviously twisted from arthritis. I said nothing.
“It happened when I fell down the stairs a couple years back and blacked out,” she said. “When I woke, all my fingers were smashed.”
In the past, I would have argued with her, telling her that the fall down the stairs was a drunken illusion, that her fingers were twisted from arthritis, probably brought on by excessive drink. But what was the point? It looked like she could barely remember her own name.
We both stared at her hands for a good minute in silence. “When did you fall?” I finally asked her.
She looked up at me and smiled, nodded at her fingers. “Look at them,” she said. “They’ve never been the same since the fall. Smashed, I tell you.”
After four quick glasses her speech began to slur. She started accusing the government of trying to put her in pornographic movies, then she accused me of betraying my father, going off to god knows where. I knew the routine, let her have her rant, and waited for her to go on the nod at the kitchen table, chin to chest.
When she passed out, I wandered around the house. All the walls were cracked, peeling. There were water marks across every ceiling. Half the lights didn’t work. It felt like Death was everywhere, but inactive, hovering, bored.
I opened the door to my old bedroom and tried the light, but the connection was dead. A shaft of hall light fell into the room, revealing stacks of newspapers, magazines, piles skidding into other piles. And mail. There was a sea of unopened envelopes. The smell of mice piss drifted out of the room.
I immediately went to her room, fearing I’d find the same thing. But only half the room was filled with stacks of the same thing – newspaper, magazines. Was that a good thing? She’d thrown a couple of blankets over the piles. An act of horror done in some stray lucid, sober moment?
Suddenly exhausted, I stretched out on the floor next to her bed and stared at the ceiling. Shadows emerged and disappeared in the jagged criss-cross of cracks and divots made by fallen plaster. A stick man merged with a bolt of lightning. Liv’s face appeared, became a sunflower, disappeared. I saw Death, in his shrouds, swatting the air with a strip of bacon. Then, a fish appeared. A fish with tea cup handles for fins…
Ridiculous images. Meaningless.
And I thought: what would my beloved cave-painter do with these shapes?
Panic rose up inside me. What had I been doing all these years? I’d never been working with something as solid as cave rock. I’d been working with the flotsam and jetsam of my mind, just the bullshit of our culture, just like this cracked ceiling. I had made my oh so brilliant cave-painting myth from a complete and utter illusion. My beautiful theory of how songs float on the ether, already finished, waiting for someone to hear them and pluck them out of thin air, write them down, was nothing but a shadowy fish with shadowy tea cup handles.
Smashed, I tell you.
And then the thought: how am I any different from the woman downstairs, snoring away at the kitchen table? Have I been telling myself lie after lie all these years, like her, just so that I could keep getting up in the morning?
I fell into a fitful sleep. Then she was shaking me awake, holding a flashlight to my eyes. I put my hands up to cut out the glare. “What are you doing?”
“You’ve started the war again,” she whispered. “You can’t stop.”
“You’re all liars,” she added. Outside the bedroom window the sky was grey. Dawn.
“How so,” I asked, but she was already on to the next thing, something about an electric woman on the phone (someone from the electric company?). Apparently this woman was trying to steal her disability checks.
“They’re all Russians now, you know,” she said.
I closed my eyes, let my head settle back on the floor. “Who?”
“My neighbors,” she said. “I’m the last to speak English on this block. They finally won, you know that? So what was the point of the war?”
I struggled to my feet, headed back down to the kitchen, my mother following close behind. I found eggs in the fridge that seemed okay and made her an omelet.
“Why don’t you write a song about your father?” she said to me as I set the plate of eggs in front of her. “He was a hero.”
I sat across the table from her, watched her pick at the eggs. “I don’t have control over what songs come to me,” I said. I’ve been saying the same thing for so many years, it just came out automatically.
She looked up from her eggs, eyes twinkling, amused at what I’d just said, as if I was four, had just said something cute because absurd, nonsensical. “But of course you do,” she said, “you’re the one who makes them up.”
When she was done with the eggs, she wandered into the front room, stretched out on the couch beneath the picture window that looked out on mirror copies of her own house, and went to sleep. I cleaned the kitchen, then slipped out the front door, guitar slung over my shoulder, bag in hand.
The air was cool, the sky clear; the leaves in the gutters made a satisfying crunch beneath my boots. A block down from the house kids were playing street hockey. They shouted at each other in Russian. One of them asked me for a smoke.
How does this end? It ends with me getting back out there one more time. Again and again, one more time; endlessly singing for my supper, believing that I’m finding songs on the wind; then finally allowing myself to plunge into doubt I had in my mother’s bedroom again, that stripped-down horror of self-doubt, and accept that my cave-art theory of making music is complete bullshit. And in the depth of that darkness, at the last minute, I will probably find new songs hidden inside that place of doubt, and rise back up, make songs out of a new myth, a new faith; on and on, up and down on the wheel, an endless round. A nightmare, a dream – take your pick.
That is how it has always been, will always be, since long before I was born...
Zak's Manuscript (short story).
There are bits and pieces I found among his things, but they didn't seem to fit into this particular narrative. I don't know what he was planning on doing with the story. And so...
Once again: you can find Zak's songs on Soundcloud
Thanks for reading and listening.
And maybe Zak - somewhere out there - thanks you too.