Billy and the Irish Musician (Jesus at 50)April 7, 2012 Note from the monkey: I don’t know whether I’ll continue this, but it’s the beginning of something that I’ve been working on for about 20 years. I’m offering it as a sop to those waiting on Chapter Three of the ongoing novel, The Undiscovered Country. That’s been delayed why I work some stuff out.
The sun is low in the sky over the water. We are on the edge of country, we will know in a moment whether we are looking east or west, depending on whether the sun is rising or setting.
We have seen the silhouetted figure before; he is the Irish Musician. We cannot see his face quite yet but we know what it looks like, or what it nearly looks like. It is unhandsome in a famous sort of way; he has a glamorous unhandsomeness. He is Jesus in his fifties, perhaps, had he not died young and glorious. Not ugly, but worn down. The face of a peasant who won a huge lottery a long time ago and after many years of trying has given up on even squandering his fortune or exhausting the favor of the gods. It is too vast and he is too old.
We have seen him before on these mornings, smoking on the beach. We know he must come from the golf resort over the dunes, though he does not (so far as we know) play golf. But maybe he does. Dylan does, someone once told us, but they also told us Dylan sparred with Gina Gerson in a boxing ring. Maybe that happened, maybe the Irish Musician plays golf. Or maybe he is staying in an unlikely destination.
He has seen us before and nodded, and we have nodded back but we have never spoken at him. The other day he mumbled a greeting. But we hang back, stray dog wary, sensing his protean power. We hang back, understanding he wants not to be crowded. Waiting, only half-hopefully, for an invitation.
He turns and looks us in the face. His eyes blanked by heavy sunglasses, he draws on his cigarette. He smokes deep, like us, he wants to feel the drag in his lungs. He wants that nicotine sting but he doesn’t get it either, just a dull burr in his throat. But like us, he keeps pulling, deeper and deeper. He nods his head, we step closer.
I’ve seen you, he says. What’s your name?
Billy, we tell him.
Billy is a good American name, he says. TaylorMade. You like brand names, Billy?
We had forgotten we are wearing the golf cap. We want to say, no, the cap is an ironic gesture, that we wear the golf cap because it is the sort of thing they wear on the golf resort where we imagine the Irish Musician is staying. Because it is precisely not the sort of cap anyone would expect us to wear.
Not really, we tell him. We tell him we found it even though we bought it at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
You live around here?
We shrug, which misrepresents our situation slightly. We live in a trailer a quarter mile away. But we shrug to suggest that we live nowhere and everywhere, that we live in the dunes, and sleep under an ancient sky peppered with billion-year-old stars. (We say nothing but we mean to suggest that we don’t fully believe in stars but see the nightsky as a membrane pricked with tiny holes through which a white magnesium forge can be glimpsed. We mean to suggest that we believe someday, maybe soon, the fabric will be rent and the light and heat will consume us all. Like it almost did in New York that September morning when we became us, no longer just Billy.)
The Irish Musician smiles at us, his famously bad teeth famously fixed. He looks like a photograph of a French film star playing a cowboy in some fucked-up punk movie with Joe Strummer. It is a sodium smile, not white but dazzling. We see it is possible he believes we are simple.
TaylorMade is owned by Adidas, he says authoritatively. It’s not really an American company anymore. The clubheads come from foundries in China, they make the clones and counterfeits in the same factory, stamp them with slightly different markings. What you pay $400 in the pro shop at Harbour Town you can buy off a Hong Kong street vendor for $25. Or so I’m told.
His voice has a pleasant lilt, a country sound to it. We like to hear him talk and not just because he is famous.
America is a big country, he says, you been around it? It’s large, multitudinous. All these diverse people and cultures, glued together by TV. You watch TV, Billy?
We used to, we say.
Used to? He smiles again and this time it is like one Delta Upsilon fraternity brother pounding another in the shoulder. That’s good, used to. Because TV is the worst stuff, Billy, worse than fast food or text messaging. TV tells you don’t do drugs; they’re dangerous. Join the Army; it’s fun.
We say there are parts of the Army that are fun.
The Irish Musician laughs a little laugh. Shakes his head in photogenic slo-mo for the MTV. So you got a CD for me — a DAT or something? Something in your pocket?
We have something in our pocket. We think about John Lennon. He was an Irish musician too really, they all were, The Beatles. Liverpool was just where they were born.
But we don’t have that. We don’t have the wish for that, only sometimes these queer feelings. Not queer as in homo-erotic, though that doesn’t seem as alien to us as some things do. Just queer as in we don’t know how they insinuated themselves into our head, a mopey counterpoint to the main theme.
What we have is a four-track tape. Guitar, bass, drum machine and vocal. We did it two years ago, one night in the attic of a house that was lived in by a girl we know. She just let us go up there and work it out ourselves, there were things we couldn’t figure out but it is a fair copy of what we hear and what racket we can make when we are overtaken.
We slip it out of our pocket. An e-mail address is written on the little sticky label. It is a Maxell cassette but the sticky tape says “Fuji.” This fraud has always bothered us. But we hand it over anyway.
I’ll really listen to it, Billy. I really will. I’m always listening.
We don’t say anything back, we just stand there a while, shoulder to shoulder with the Irish Musician. He seems at ease and that puts us at ease as well. We just stand there smoking and watching the ocean, the gray waves and the foam and the terns — we believe they are properly called terns — suspended in the green gold air.
It takes us an hour to walk four-point-two miles. On a bicycle it takes us twenty-two minutes. But we would rather walk, it warms us up and we don’t have a lock for the bike. Not that we need one, there is no one on the island in February who would steal a bike and the only ones who’d steal a bike in season are the smartass tourist kids who wouldn’t dare steal our bike if they knew it belonged to us. They tend to have their own bikes and scooters anyway, if they don’t have topless yellow Mustangs or white Volkswagen GTIs with black cladding.
We could walk faster if we wanted, but there is nothing for us to hurry for, the Irish Musician will not go right back to his villa and listen to our tape and want to sign us to his boutique label right away. He will likely give it to someone called a lackey to listen to and whether the lackey listens or not is out of our hands. If the lackey listens to it he may not feel like he needs to tell the Irish Musician anything about it — there are reasons some people are lackeys — and even if he does the Irish Musician may not be genuinely interested in listened to our tape. He may have simply been being nice, or he may have a secret contempt bordering on hatred for us. These are things we cannot know and we will not worry about them, though we notice we are walking a little quicker today than usual.
Despite our appearance, we do not lack for money. We have — or had, as of Wednesday last — $63,726.19 in an interest-bearing account and we have a little income from the Internet sales. We can make around five dollars a week just money-looking, we make twice or three times that some weeks in season. Some people won’t stoop to pick up a dime or nickel, some of them won’t even stoop to pick up a quarter. We will. We will pick up pennies and aluminum cans and Coke bottles if we can find them, which we hardly can anymore. Not glass bottles anyway.
We own the trailer, which isn’t much and the electric bill isn’t either. Our laptop doesn’t draw much power, and we’re close enough to the Hampton Inn to most days poach their Wi-Fi signal. They don’t change the code every day or even every week and if they do the girls who work the desk will write it down on a little card for us. Sometimes we stop in the Hampton Inn to say hello and take some of the little plastic packets of peanut butter or a sugar cookie that’s supposed to be for guests only. We are tolerated by the staff and they want to be a good neighbor to us we guess.
We walk or ride to the Piggly Wiggly nearly every day. We buy thin-sliced turkey breast meat sealed in a vacuum package and a banana and eat at the picnic table in the side lot of the store. We drink water from the fountain. We nod at the woman behind the cash register and even speak, What do you know today, Miss Alma?
Nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified, she usually answers. We nod and she bounces a smile off our back.
Willie Morris once said that Eudora Welty used the Jitney Jungle across the street from her house in Jackson, Mississippi as her pantry. We are like Eudora Welty in this respect. Only our Jitney Jungle is a Piggly Wiggly that is four-point-two miles from our trailer, not across the street.
“Jackson” is what we call the dog but not his name. He has not told us his true name, and if he has a name that was given to him by the people who feed him, if there are people who feed him, we do not know that either. He is wary of us but he follows, a black and white dog, Australian Shepherd or Border Collie mix. An intelligent wounded animal who is trying to decide about us. He doesn’t mind that we call him “Jackson.” For now, that’ll do.
We are conscious of what they must think of us if they think of us, which Miss Alma aside, they probably don’t. They are the takers of moneys and the stockers of shelves, they don’t look at us. We are unremarkable except maybe for our regularity. We walk (or ride) here and we go to the cold case and the produce aisle and get our lunch. We eat in the side lot on the picnic table that’s probably there mainly for the employees but they don’t seem to mind and will even sit down beside us and carry on their conversations in front of us. We are tolerable and unremarkable and make no claims to be otherwise.
This is our plan. We plan to fit in. To stir no shit forever. We have delivered our tape to the Irish Musician and now it is in the hands of him and God. He will do what he will with it, he will play it or not or give it to his guitar player or some employee to listen to or not. Adventure, excitement? A Jedi craves not these things.
Jackson is walking beside us, a skulking heel. He is not our dog yet he is with us and we like that — we stop and reach down and he locks it up and pulls back from our hand. But then he lets us pet him. Good boy, we say. His eyes ring with canine dread but he lets us stroke his neck and scratch through the thatch of fur at his throat. He is maybe beginning to trust the world, finding here and there a solid piece. We wish we had saved some of the lunch meat but we need the 90 calories per serving to keep up our own strength. Tomorrow morning, if Jackson will abide with us, we will go to the Hampton Inn and fetch him some breakfast sausage. We will take some extra money with us when we walk to the Piggly Wiggly and buy him a chop or steak, something that a dog would like.
At the trailer we have only raisin bran and milk. A dog would like milk, we presume.
In our email there are orders and notifications from PayPal that funds have been deposited into our account. We check the Paypal account and transfer $273.19 into our money market checking account. That gives us $64,000 even but we plan on withdrawing $50 from the ATM in the shopping center down by the main road this evening. So that will give us $63,950.00 in the money market account, but the bank will pay us our monthly interest in a day or two which should put us back over $64,000.
We put the ordered T-shirts into mailing pouches and address them carefully. When we go to the shopping center for the ATM we will drop the pouches into the DHL box.
Next we go to our website, and we check the traffic. We have lots of browsers, but not everybody buys. But if they come back two or three times, they usually do buy. We have lots of hits from China and Taiwan. So far we have not shipped any product there but we imagine we will soon. We are set up to ship internationally.
Jackson will not come in the trailer so we have left open the door. We pour him a pan of milk and he laps at it with his eyes turned up at us. We ask him his true name but he is still not ready to tell us. He is young but not a puppy, but we sense his wariness is temporary.
In the morning after we feed Jackson the sausages and a clump of cooled scrambled eggs, we walk to the beach. Jackson follows, at a discreet distance. We do not see the Irish Musician, but he is not there every day. We may not see him again, he may be off on a world tour or recording in Dublin. Things change fast for people like him and we do not count on, or even exactly hope of, seeing him. We hold him off in our mind. Not seeing him relieves us somewhat. Jackson watches us smoke on the beach, his front paws stretched out. He stays back in the dunes, and he watches.
Miss Alma looks surprised when we set down the pork chop. For the dog, we say, motioning with our head toward the automatic sliding doors though Jackson is no place but hidden.
She nods. I can’t keep no dogs, she says. I got started on cats and I guess I’ll stick to cats. Some cats tolerate dogs, but they don’t really like them. Cats don’t really even like other cats. Cats may not even like me so much, but I feed them so they let me be.
We have no feeling about cats though we would set milk out for a stray. It is easier to provide kindness, even if in the long run it is not actual kindness. We know there is a way to see kindness in tough acts and that some men make a living on the TV doing this but we are not made for tough acts or even talk.
We pay with one of the stiff new twenties from the ATM machine. We don’t care for the feel of new money, it is too sharp. Like a blade or a crease in old timey trousers. Sharp money is sinister. We don’t like it and are happy to receive worn and wrinkled ones and solid coins. (We do not tell her this.)
We feel as though we have the better of the exchange, though we know this is not the case. We know the store has got the better of us, and that their incremental advantage in every small transaction amounts to much, it provides them with leverage. Their lift their fingers and the world dances.
We like a knot of raggy ones in our pocket. We are simple.
We eat. We take the folding knife with the good blade and cut the chop into bits for Jackson and he takes them from our hand. We give over the bone and he holds it in his forepaws gnawing and breaking it. He lets us tug on the end of it, but he will not relinquish it. That is fine. It is a gift, made without conditions.
When we walk home. Jackson walks beside us, his head up. He looks as though he’s done something.
Our brother Bludge has sent us an e-mail. He does this from time to time. Though Bludge is not quite right in the head he is able to live in the world in a way we have not quite been able to manage. He lives in the city and has a wife. He writes books and takes photographs and he is famous in some circles.
Bludge is grand and large, where we are slight. He was a schoolboy athlete and seemed destined for a career in sports, like our father, before what happened happened. What happened was an accident though not everyone believes that and there are many rumors. Bludge himself has on more than one occasion in interviews said he believes he murdered our father, though he does not mean that in any sense that admits criminal responsibility. He shot him because he thought he was an intruder, which he was, albeit one with pure intentions. But we are not ready to tell that story yet.
Bludge’s e-mail is unremarkable. He expresses concern and invites us to come and live with him and his wife in San Francisco. He suggests that he may be able to help us find more gainful employment and he rightly points out that there is no reason we could not continue our current e-commerce venture from San Francisco. He asks us for a good terrestrial address, so that he might ship us a few items. He says he hopes that we are well and that he enjoyed the MP3 files we sent him. He wants to know the name of a percussion instrument we used on one of the tracks. One that sounded like a ratchet being wound. (A guiro — a hollow gourd with notches that you rub with a drumstick.)
We type a quick reply to Bludge, evading the central questions. We are well and happy. What else should we say? We have a dog we are calling “Jackson” for the moment. We hesitate before deciding to give him the number of the post office box in Bluffton, which we check every other week for snail mail orders.
We hit send. Our heart falls into the sun.
We are the lesser, middle brother. Paul is older, he broods and drinks and writes for newspapers. He is aloof and pained and angry with us all — with Bludge and Mother and us. And with, we suspect, himself less for the hack work he does than his inability to transcend what he sees as his tragic ordinariness. He will not let go of what he sees as his defining traumas. He is angriest of all with our Father, who got himself killed.
Our father was a ballplayer and a good one though you wouldn’t know his name unless you are one of those people who read sportswriters and follow baseball more closely than you should. He played in the 1960s and ’70s and he made one All-Star team but he was too early for the big money that came after Andy Messersmith. He was a second baseman; they called him scrappy.
Bludge and Paul were athletes too — Paul played basketball and golf as well as baseball and was good enough at all of them, but Bludge was a prodigy who was first mentioned in Sports Illustrated when he was eleven years old. Bludge was a football player mostly, though he set scoring records in basketball and ran track. He hurdled and high jumped.
We were not much interested in sports of being popular. We were singular then, unwed to the multitudes, and so we mostly hid, we atomized ourselves. We would not be apprehended by the sorting gaze of whatever Other sought us out. We atomized ourselves, and made Billy invisible. We were the drab-faced Columbine brother, without the martial wherewithal or requisite interest in our fellow students. We wrote in secret diaries and learned guitar mysteriously as Robert Johnson did — we sucked for months and then something fell away and we could play whatever we imagined, blocks of dread ringing chords and needle twitching solos. We felt it and somehow made it actual. We plugged in headphones and moaned and the ghost of song entered us.
Our father, to his credit, did not love us less than he loved our brothers. He took certain pains to let us know that he was no less proud of us than his two jocks. Our mother was the sort of mother Southern athletes married in the 1950s, pretty and devoted to a certain style of living. Ours was a happy enough house, Paul was earnest and Bludge was wild and we were silent and tender and kind.
Because we had some money we never thought about it. My father parlayed his baseball career into a lucrative position as a financial advisor. We moved into a bigger house after he retired from baseball, we had the toys we wanted — a full basketball court in the backyard and Ben Hogan golf clubs and Gibson guitars. We had Cadillacs and topless yellow Mustangs and Volkswagen GTIs with black cladding.
There was a glitch in Bludge’s sophomore year in high school. We were a year ahead of him but paying no attention, Paul was in law school in Baton Rouge. In retrospect. we are sure it was a misfire in his brain, maybe exacerbated by cocaine or crystal methamphetamine.
Bludge broke into a coach’s car and stole the pistol in the glovebox as well as the District Championship trophy, which Bludge had helped win earlier that evening.
It was played off as a practical joke pushed too far. Bludge admitted taking the trophy but not the handgun, then he changed his story and said he taken the handgun on impulse but had later regretted it. He said he threw it off the bridge into the river to cover his tracks and everyone more or less believed him. He apologized and was suspended from school for three days and was required to make restitution and it was all more or less forgotten.
In his junior year he rushed for 1,800 yards and scholarship offers came in from Arkansas and Louisiana State. Our mailbox was choked with brochures and letters from coaches.
Jackson comes into the trailer. He paused with his forelegs on the cinderblock step, then pushed himself up and over the threshold. We scratched his throat awhile then he laid at our feet while we wrote a song about him. His eyes are intelligent and clear, but his coat is matted. We got the hairbrush from the Dopp kit and ran it through his fur. We took the laptop and sat on the floor of the trailer with him as he dozed.
We fed him a bowl of milk. If he is still here tomorrow morning we will ride the bike to the store and bring back some kibble.
There are six more orders off the Internet. Our PayPal account has grown larger. We plug a USB cable into the Flying V and play “Jackson’s Song” into the computer. Later we will add bass and a scratch vocal and put it up on our MySpace page and enable downloading.
We do not have a drum machine any longer, which is well because our sense of time is fluid and we have evolved beyond precise pulses. Time is not ordered and sectioned neatly off. The human heart keeps not strict time. Our past lags behind the beat, the future is a rushing drummer. We stay on the moment, for the most part, squirting mercury notes. Now can be forever— a second is more than enough time enough to be born, live and die. A quarter note has a life — and eternal pre- and after-lives.
It takes us seven, nine or more than fourteen years to play “Jackson’s Song.” It started before Red Foley wrote “Old Shep” and before, at the suggestion of his fifth-grade teacher Mrs. J.C. Grimes, a ten-year-old Elvis Presley, dressed in a cowboy outfit and standing on a chair to reach the microphone, sang it a capella in a talent contest on Children’s Day at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show in Tupelo. (He won second place in the contest — five dollars and a pass to ride all the rides for free.)
And it the notes will decay forever, through the artificial vacuum of history. All of us will be but motes before the vibrations stop.
Jackson sleeps beneath the trailer. He says his true name is “Jackson.” This is probably not strictly correct but we let it go because we understand he wants to be friends.
In the morning, we tell him to stay and he probably does, for he is under the trailer when we get back from the store with the bag of kibble. We pour some in the pan and add milk. He nuzzles us, and we hug the soft fur of his neck.
The next morning we see the Irish Musician on the beach. He is grinning. He says he is making a documentary film about street musicians. He says he has listened to our tape. He says it was fuckin’ brilliant.
Is that your dog? He asks.
Jackson has come out of the dunes and he stands apart, watching us but not wary. He looks interested.
We are his too, we say.
The Irish Musician says that is fantastic, that they can us him in the shoot. He says his guitar player wants to meet us, that he has some ideas about how the songs might be shaped. He says he has some business people who will need to talk to us, that he would be proud to sign us to his boutique label. He pulls out a wallet on a motorcycle chain and reaches in and pulls out, for walking around money, three hundred-dollar bills.
Stiff and sharp.
He jabs them toward us, like Jesus with the loaves and fishes.
We look at Jackson. We look at Jesus. We have money, we mumble. We have money.