Sing, sing for ourselves alone
Speak into the microphone...
Try to explain ourselves, babble on and on
By the time you receive this, we'll be gone...
Sing, sing high, while the fire climbs
Sing one for the old times.
-- The Mountain Goats, "Transcendental Youth"
Billy says he figures he's got maybe ten good brain cells left to work with, the rest of them blitzed away by the combination of too much acid in the 70s and all the low-alcohol beer he could legally drink on base at 18, because back then, in Alaska, they had vending machines in the barracks. It'd get you as drunk as anything else, he chuckles, you just had to drink more of it. He likes to tell me that now he drives like an old lady, so much wiser and more cautious than he was in all those hapless years of youthful excess. Really, though, he treats the cab like it's the semi he drove for a long time: Turning wide, and muscling it hard from lane to lane, unused to its new, small body.
When John finally starts singing around 1:30 in the morning, I've been at The Mohawk for almost five hours. Long enough to drink three beers and hear four mediocre local bands, unlisted opening acts, play for a small crowd of their waifish friends. There are four of us here at the end of all that: me, a high school choir teacher and his brand new girlfriend, and a mop-haired drummer who thinks I'm hitting on him because I've spent the last twenty minutes trying to convince him to not leave before the show even starts. Nearly empty, the venue is concrete and cold, and it feels later than it is -- those weirdly seasick hours when you are still awake as the night turns over into morning. We pull closer to the stage to cut into the useless space. Sharp-faced and sallow, John looks like a bird of prey against the microphone, or like whatever wounded animal that bird is circling.
When Billy finds out I'm a teacher, he's thrilled. He's got so many questions for me. He wants to know about double negatives and prepositions and what in the hell a Freudian slip is. It takes about half an hour to get from my house in central Austin to the elementary school down south, where I have a job this semester teaching creative writing twice a week to thirteen nine-year-olds. Billy volunteers to take me there and back for the duration. He's grateful for the steady work, and he never charges me for the inevitable time we spend sitting in traffic. Tuesday, I teach him what an Oedipus Complex is because he heard a passenger mention it in the cab. We talk about Sophocles and prophecy, and he says, Man, listening to the oracle sounds like it's always a bad idea. I learn that he is adopted, and that though he searched and searched for his biological mother, she never wanted to speak to him. He doesn't speak much to the family that raised him either. I look different, he says, like a dirty gypsy. He runs one hand through his long, damp curls.
Thursday, he brings me a peach and we discuss the different meanings of the various spellings of to/too/two and how much we love Casablanca. He has three children. His youngest, Rosemary, is my age and has a thyroid problem. She's my favorite. I mean, I don't have favorites, but, she needs me. His oldest is a 911 operator in San Antonio, but a few years ago she danced the evening show at the Yellow Rose in town. Her mother quit talking to her, Billy says, but I figured I better not. Otherwise she'd never quit taking her clothes off and come home.
Here's looking at you, kid, he calls as I climb out of the cab.
John's album, The Graceless Age, is easily my favorite of the year. It's brilliant, soaked in Mississippi fire and brimstone, in heroin and hurt, in Faulkner and The Odyssey and California space. It makes an epic out of walking through the ashes of a small burned-down town. He has a kind of guttural, intimate voice, and at the end of one song you hear a crackling recording of his mother talking about adopting him from a Jackson hospital. We got home that night, and you cried in the night, and all of three of us, my mother and your father and I, got up and met each other at the doorway. We all had to take turns going in to check on you. We were so excited to have you be our son.
Somewhere after that, or maybe way beforehand, something broke down inside the family and the boy they were so glad to have. And there was a lot of suffering. God and addiction and abandonment. And then we got this album. I pray this light will be her guide / into my arms, these crooked arms, / underneath the southern sky.
You wouldn't know any of that listening to John sing this morning. He just looks wrecked, sad beyond belief, exhausted, hollowed. If I hadn't listened to the whole album fifty times, I wouldn't understand a single lyric. The mop-haired drummer shakes his head, kisses my cheek, and leaves. I pull even closer to the stage.
My kids this semester are in fourth grade. But they do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Many of them cannot put a sentence together. For some of them, English is not their first language.
They associate writing with feeling dumb, and from the first day, it's clear to me that they're angry about the hours that we
spend together each week. They think they've been dumped with me because they're struggling or because their parents are not free to pick them up when the school day ends. They're not wrong.
My kids refuse to pick up their pencils. They throw paper airplanes at my head. They steal each other's shoes and leap out of their seats if there's even a second I don't have them engaged. When one kid does finally write a few sentences, they are about his father getting shot when he was an infant. At the bottom he draws an illustration of what he thinks was his best day: the day he was born. His mother lies in a hospital bed. He is on her chest. A tall stick figure in the corner is his father. He labels it so that I am sure. Another little boy, when I tell him he has to open his notebook, begins to stab himself in the chest with his pencil. Hard. I hear the lead break. I have never before felt quite so limited by my wheelchair. I cannot fit between the desks to reach him. The kids cry at the slightest provocation, and otherwise they are trying to yell. They are all bluster and devastation. Tiny storms. Microbursts.
One day, when I stand briefly at the board to write an example sentence, I trip and fall down. They all rush toward me. Warm little bodies; small hands patting my back. I fall down sometimes, too, Jerry says matter-of-factly. Like, Don't worry, you're not the only one.
They deserve someone so much better than me. Someone able-bodied. Experienced. Qualified. But I'm all they've got for these small hours. I'm sorry, I want to tell them every single time.
It's Billy who starts to call them the hooligans. Like, How were the hooligans today? You show those hooligans who's boss? Oh, Miss Molly, he says, I was such a hooligan. I was such an idiot. If I could do it over again, I'd do it different. I'd learn to read. I mean, I can read the road signs alright, but.... Hey, did you know the salmon in Alaska always come back to where they were born... Hey, tell me again about the Oedipus thing...
Do you know that I was afraid of him the first time he came to pick me up? He was tall. He had grimy hands and a trucker hat and he smelled like sweat. I rode the whole way, that first drive, with my cellphone clutched in my hand ready to dial. Thinking: he has my wheelchair in the trunk of his car; what am I going to do? At the end of the ride he offered me a chocolate and told me I reminded him of his daughter.
I think about sweet-faced Jerry and everything he'll grow up to be.
As John sings, I think about how lucky I feel that, even though most of what I write disappears unnoticed into the void, as a poet I don't have to look that fact in the face every day. I just write, and try not to be too bothered by the quiet. But he's driven from California to sing to three of us and fall asleep on someone's couch. Look out at how hard it is to make the thing you love reach truly into the world. Look out at how small you are. Look out at the concrete and the grime and the blackness and live with it. I reach up and put both my hands on the stage. I really hope he can tell that he is breaking my heart. I really hope he can tell that it matters.
Afterwards, John takes both my hands in his and I tell him that I think he is a genius. I tell him thank you so much.
In so many ways the last year has been the worst one of my life. I had a plan for my future. I had a clean, shining path down the fast-track I'd been chasing since I knew how to chase. I had prestige and security and a well-honed sense of myself as invincible. Success, as an artist and a professional, was an escape hatch from the hardship of my body. I was going to be so good at my life that no neurological disorder, no pain or bruising or helplessness, was going to matter. And then, for reasons impossibly complicated, impossibly quotidian, and, I've come to realize, deeply inevitable, it fell apart. It's not an especially good story. Suffice it to say that I never planned to be falling to my knees in an elementary school classroom. I never planned to be thoroughly alone at a rock show at two a.m. I never planned to write a book about an old Virginia hospital. I never planned to be discussing the Greeks in the back of a cab for two hours every week. I never planned anything this messy, or this shining, or this hard.
Even as my kids are pissed-off and badly behaved and reluctant, they are also hugely imaginative and gregarious and inventive. They want to stand up and share all the details of what they ate for lunch on a given day, and why they hate chocolate pudding. They want to tell me the dreams they have about space travel and their ideas for the best possible super hero. They want me to call them by the names of 90s pop stars that I have no idea how they heard of. For a week Salvador goes by J-Lo. Kimani ends every writing prompt we ever do with a list of all the impossibly fancy cars he wants to own.
One week we read the story of how the camel got his hump. I have them act it out on the rug in the front of the classroom, saying humph just like the camel does in the story, hanging their heads in frustration like the dog and the ox.
The next class, I coax them into working on the story of how the wizard got her magic. We go sentence-by-sentence.
How does the wizard get her powers? A magic astroid.
What is her name? Alice the Wiz!
Who is the enemy? A zombie that wants to get the wizard's power by eating her brain.
Where is it set? A mansion!
Write one important thing about Alice that you might not know if you looked at her...
And at the end of class Julie looks up and says: you tricked us into writing a whole story!
Yeah! they chorus and nod their heads. They are thrilled.
Every class, they ask if I'm coming back. Like I might not. Like I might just abandon them and disappear into the ether.
None of this is pretty or clean. None of it resolves.
You have to keep showing up: looking for the puncture in the pitch dark, the small thing you can do, the one person listening. Not because it fixes everything. Not because it is suddenly enough. Out of suffering, you make a gorgeous album not enough people hear. You never get another chance to be young or to do it right. The people who should love you do not always love you. You are lonely. You are not a good enough teacher. You cannot do enough. Your body is the wrong body. Your hurt does not have an endpoint.
But showing up is the only ting we have. Showing up for what we believe in. Showing up to be surprised. It is the only act out of which beauty is ever born.
So I sit down at my desk to write. So I stay in the empty bar until 2 a.m. So I touch a stranger I don't really know. So every day I tell my kids that I'll be back soon. And I come back.
One day, as I am packing up to teach, I hear music outside. Billy is early, and he's sitting in the front seat of his cab with the windows open playing a George Harrison song on his guitar. I gather my papers, and I go outside, and I sit on my front steps, and I listen to him sing.