The Seven Gables by Bobby Minelli
“WHAT OTHER DUNGEON is so dark as one’s own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one’s self!”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables
When I was nine years old, I had a dream that I couldn’t wake up from. My parents buckled me into our used minivan and drove me to the hospital. I screamed so loudly, and for so long, that by the time we pulled into the Emergency room turnaround, I had ruptured my vocal chords. The injury took eight months to fully heal and gave me my trademark baritone. I honestly don’t think the band would be doing as well without it, but that could just be my ego.
A specialist I saw four times a year, Dr. Bachman, had me categorize my night terrors in a dream journal. He gave me a three-letter code. “C’s,” were dreams that I could immediately convey to my parents upon waking. “B’s” were dreams that I could eventually work my way up to revealing over time. And “A’s,” were the dreams I was never able to speak of, to anyone. Strangely, I often dreamt of self-diagnosis. You see I knew I was afflicted, but I didn’t know how specifically. Dreams are a mystery to us all. I would find myself dreaming that I had cancer of the soul or that I was linguistically schizophrenic and always said “you” when I meant “me” or “her” or “him” or “dog.” I guess I wanted to get some clue as to what it was about me that was abnormal… what it was that so clearly frightened my parents. The dream about No-Nana, the one where I hurt myself from screaming, it was classified as an “A+”. I would have never willingly mentioned it to my parents, but through the coaxing of drugs, the doctors were able to get some details from me. It is a sensation I remember distinctly from childhood, knowing how badly I was scaring my parents. On the occasion of the dream about No-Nana, I knew that the doctors were scared too.
I had that dream on my mind the night we played the Pageant in St. Louis. It was during a Mardi Gras week celebration, and we headlined. It was the peak of our tour and we had been looking forward to the show for months. People in the Midwest know this… St. Louis can party. And during Mardi Gras? Fuck. We sold the show out, although surprisingly, we had sold out nearly the whole damn tour. In a rock band, even if people tell you things are going well, you never expect to make money off a tour. We had been in the black on the last two by quite a bit. This third one though, our first as a headliner, was shaping up to be the best yet. Life on the road was a dream of another kind, one I traced back to the moment I received a taped cassette version of “London Calling” as a Kris Kringle present from Nick Boskin in the fourth grade. Or perhaps even before that, when my Dad made me sit down and listen to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the venue was nameless and the crowd wore deaf ears, but his expression told me that it was important. Anyway, the sold-out Mardi Gras show should have been, by nature, excessively celebratory, but a subtle distortion hung about my evening like smoke. There was one small feature of the evening, so desolate in its specificity that, despite the triumph of the occasion, I could think of little else afterward. I just sat in Denny’s, drank whiskey from my flask, and thought about this lady. The waitress must have asked me a half-dozen times if I was sure I wasn’t hungry. The thought of food repulsed me… how could I eat, when that lady was out there, just standing, with her back turned?
A lady in the audience had kept her back to the stage. She faced the opposite direction for the entire two-hour show. She had silver hair. I fixated on her, and to some extent, deprived myself of the atmospheric joy of our rock’n-roll bonfire. Seemingly randomly, it occurred to me, during the bridge of our third number, that I did not own a Bible. For some reason, that bothered me the whole damn show too. Billups and the Breakups, that was us, playing a sold-out fucking show, at a major venue, on the largest party day of the year, yet I couldn’t enjoy it because some crazy old lady had her back to the stage the whole time. Up there on stage, all sweat and earth and moon and planets and comets and tails blazing, I knew I was living my dreams. I knew I was drinking whiskey and doing coke. And also rock’n-roll, I knew I was doing that too, but what I was focused on, during the show and even after, when the boys said they were starving and had to go to Denny’s, was the unwatching back of the silver-haired woman and the fact that I didn’t own a goddamn Bible. The end was near. Who fucking needed pancakes? It pissed me off. And unsettled me.
“Yeah… but what I’m trying to say is…” I caught sight of myself in the dark, wooden, antique, hotel mirror and tried to right my body, but then I realized that the dresser had been knocked into at some point, so the mirror sagged, not me. I was standing straight up, which was miraculous. My naked body beamed back at me through the drugs and the wood and glass. I was lean and curated in a way to suggest that I was simply well built and didn’t care what I looked like and never worked out. Neither was true. Some guys in bands rely completely on the way narcotics hush an appetite to lean them out, but I also did push-ups, sit-ups, and a whole bunch of other bullshit. I am quite vain, so I don’t take too many chances when it comes to looking like I take chances all the time. I think Iggy Pop did both push-ups and drugs, but who knows? It could have been just drugs. My abdomen looked strained, like I said, I had refused to eat at Denny’s and upon consideration, I couldn’t remember my last meal. I knew my appetites lay elsewhere.
“What you’re trying to say is…?” It was the girl, she was naked on top of the sheets, her thin athletic body in a relaxed post-coital pool on the hotel bed. A consummate asshole, I had forgotten she was even there. I was looking in the mirror, possibly talking to myself.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the lady with silver hair and I rather abruptly went to the bedside drawer and opened it. There was a Gideon’s Bible and I stroked the weird leather softly as I teetered. We were a loud band and she hadn’t rocked or swayed with the music; she wasn’t moved by it at all. She had just stood with her back turned, totally alone.
The label had put us up in the Seven Gables Inn and it seemed their style to have Gideon Bibles, so I wouldn’t have second-guessed it, but when I looked back down at my hands, it was gone. Puzzled, but on drugs, I moved on.
“What I’m trying to say is…” I looked at the girl, then back at the mirror, and then I looked at the girl again. What the fuck was I trying to say? I had no idea. If memory served me, and it often didn’t, I was trying to tell her how I ended up like I am, a phony, a failure, an imposter, a false hero in a rock band pretending to be a prophet, when really I’m a disappointingly anointed naked hide full of stardust. Or maybe I was talking about The Lord of the Rings, I honestly couldn’t remember.
She had been our waitress at Denny’s. I couldn’t remember her name, although I’m sure she had a tag somewhere, attached to her shirt, wherever that was, which would have her name on it. Also, she had likely told us before she asked if we wanted coffee, but I hadn’t been listening at that point. Our bassist, Daniel, had taken some of his meal to go, but they hadn’t given him to-go utensils. He was worried there might not be any in his room and when I went back in to ask for some for him, she had smiled at me and I noticed she was doing her cashout. The sterile diner fluorescents let her smile linger a moment too long, so we left together, both knowing we were doomed. We could sort out the details on the way. As we went up to my room, she was concerned that I had decided not to eat, which amused me – a waitress to the core.
In the tilted hotel mirror, I saw that I was wearing eye shadow, and I wondered what the chances were that we had the very same kind on, she and I.
“I’m trying to say, I just… I guess…” I flailed for words and then they soared gracefully into focus, “I just… like damage.”
“Oh,” she said, stroking her highlighted hair and biting at her pinky fingernail, “I get it.”
That was just about the worst thing she could say because, if she got it, I didn’t want to have said it, and I was pretty sure I had.
I turned and looked right at her, “Do you ever worry that every word that has ever come out of your mouth is bullshit, or that you’re incapable of saying something really wholly true?”
She was crossing and uncrossing her legs, staring at the ceiling, not listening. I couldn’t blame her. She was pretty, and hideous, and lost. It seems to me that sometimes the small-town waitress can put even Marilyn herself to shame, because that waitress never was found. She just stayed wherever she was, stuck, being the most perfectly immobile beauty you ever saw. Like a cliff at dawn is beautiful, that’s how the Denny’s waitress was beautiful. She was no more mine to take than the rising sun. Still, I tried.
She spoke again. “I don’t know… I’m pretty truthful, like on social media and shit. People always say I’m so real.”
I think I understand why women shave their pubic region, but also, basically, like a ton of other shit that women do, I assume it is basically because men are awful. Either way, she was kicking her legs back and forth on her back and her vagina looked like it was a crab trying to signal S.O.S., which didn’t make much sense to me because crabs are at home on the beach so why would one need to be rescued? Either way, I knew I would answer the fleshy crustacean call. I was, after all, an awful fucking man. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have been feeling guilty, about not knowing her name, or not eating at Denny’s, or the fact that I was going to leave St. Louis in the morning, but if I did feel guilty, my guilt was buried deep, in lost places. I had a lot of encounters like this on tour, and the goal was basically for both parties to not feel bad until later, when they could feel it alone.
She looked at me looking at her, “You’ve got a big dick.”
Hearing her poetry, I realized I couldn’t remember what cocktail of drugs I had done and felt like I might pass out. “Do you read the Bible,” I asked, “or I mean, did you ever?”
She ignored me. “It’s not pretty. Most dicks aren’t. It’s big though.” I swayed like an oak before a storm “Don’t get all self-satisfied,” she said furrowing her brow, “it’s not like it’s some kind of credit to you. You learned to play the guitar, and you learned to write pretty songs, and then you learned to play them for crowds, but you didn’t learn to have a big dick. You’re just…
“I’m just what?” I tried to center myself.
She surveyed. “Abundantly male.”
Then, finally, I felt guilty. I should’ve never assumed she was dumb. She was just slightly self-destructive and some shade of unhappy. And she was fucking beautiful as a statue next to a softly splashing fountain; she had a midnight acuity that deserved more respect than I had given. A moment later, I realized I was babbling about the Bible, dick dangling, jerking awkwardly at counter rhythm to my enthusiasm, like an embarrassed pet, wishing its owner would keep his cool. We were all on different pages.
“I just feel like, it’s so spectacular, to know nothing about death, to have such a huge open ending. It’s liberating, right? So why is the entire practice about restraint? Why fast? Why deny? Why kill your only son?!” I looked at her eagerly, and wondered where that Bible had disappeared to.
“Wait, what?” She seemed justly and legitimately annoyed that I thought I had anything to say given our current state of advanced intoxication.
I was next to her and my mouth had a mind of its own. I did this sometimes, ever since I was a kid, but I called it “Holy Shouting”. I’d just put words together and paint the situation, without worry or any desire to be understood verbally, just an oral homage to the moment. This time it was Dylan, and also the drugs… it was both Dylan and the drugs. I knelt on the bed and took her hands. “Ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken…” Our bodies had gotten closer to each other while I rambled.
“You’re bumming me out,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “Be sad if you want to be.”
“No.” She looked at the ceiling. “I’ve got a six-year-old at home, so I don’t have the luxury of acknowledging sadness. Besides, if I start crying, we’ll need about twenty-six ice buckets to catch all the tears hiding out inside.”
“I’ll rob twenty-five rooms,” I said. “I’m braver than you think. I’m an outlaw hero.”
She considered this and touched my mustache with a delicate finger. “You’re tongue’s not broken, is it?” This confused me, which must’ve shown. She smiled. “Do you wanna stop talking and go down on me for a little while?” She was playing with her hair again.
I shrugged, walked to the twisted wardrobe, cut out a line, and soon set about falsely being a generous lover.
In my dream, my “A+” dream from when I was nine, I had been sitting in my kitchen, but it wasn’t the kitchen I grew up in. It was the kitchen I grew up in within the dream. Because details are inherent, in this dream I was six, even though, like I said, I had it when I was nine. I was at the kitchen table, and I was listening to my parents argue, but their voices were half-hearted whispers. They were discussing the fact that I was sick. I had that very morning been diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder, where certain stimuli caused a series of rapid micro-seizures throughout my body, effectively paralyzing me. My father had discovered this after I became immobile and fell from my chair at the breakfast table, seizing uncontrollably, as he tore an article from the newspaper. The doctors, after several weeks, had told my mother and he that the sound of tearing paper was one of several specific stimuli that would cause the seizures and consequent paralysis. Now, as I said, I was only nine when I had the dream, and six within it, so I was in no way prepared for the content, but I dreamt it nonetheless.
Inside the dream, I got on the bus in our lower-middle class neighborhood and went to school and sat down in class. I knew that I should have been worried about my diagnosis – my rare and serious newspaper illness. I also knew that I should have been worried about my parents’ obvious concern. However, all I could really worry about, at school, inside the dream, was my Grandmother. She lived with us and slept out back, on the screened-in porch. Her back was gruesomely hunched and she, rather horrifically, had no hobbies. There was only one way she passed the time. She would sit in an old rocking chair and read the Bible. Oddly, she often laughed as she read it, chuckled like she was in on some bad joke. Sometimes she would just shake her head and wheeze at the old leather book. My dream self was obsessed with her, because I didn’t believe she was really my grandmother. And, being six, I had no idea how to tell my parents of my fears. They called her Nana, but I secretly thought of her as No-Nana. Sometimes, even after I woke up and grew into a pitiful, womanizing, traveling minstrel, in the blackest deep of my less and less frequently occurring nightmares, I could still hear No-Nana wheezing and turning the pages in her old wooden rocking chair.
In the hotel room at the Seven Gables, the blonde girl with the eternally highlighted hair and no name was asleep. I was still awake. I looked at her nakedness. She was soft and faintly scarred, and even asleep she couldn’t quite ditch the air of savvy that surrounds a girl who has been pretty since she was very young. She had, most likely, been dealing with men who were aggressive and felt falsely deserving since she was taking swimming lessons at the local pool or some shit. Who could blame her for handling brutes in whatever way she wanted? The sex, our sex, wasn’t good, although we both excelled at it individually, which seemed to highlight our detachment – two people, sharpening their tools.
I got out of bed. I had sex with a lot of girls on tour. Truth was, it was about as routine as having drinks. We’d chat, I’d take a genuine interest, which comes naturally to me, I’d find something about them that reminded me of more innocent times, and thus the sadness within myself would arrive, which would appeal to both of us, and we’d build something – and then, we’d burn it down. More than sex, my partners and I shared the delusion that we both were strong enough individuals to pursue our delights with flaming hedonistic joy, totally in the moment, and never frightened of consequence. We lied to ourselves and told each other that there was nothing to be afraid of, that we were forces of nature. Is lightning afraid of scorched earth? It was a simple lie, bought and sold to each other. I knew, and so did they, that on tour, you don’t have to be a good guy, as no one expects it of you, you just have to not be such a huge asshole. And beyond that joyous vacuum, we were all just self-hating Midwest Christians anyway who couldn’t even let themselves enjoy the decadence of Denny’s in the days leading up to the coming of our goddamn Lord.
Sometimes, the whole sexual transaction was timely enough that it seemed like a less terrible experience. The most redemptive thing I had been able to weave into the perpetuation of the ritual is that at least the stranger and I were honest about the exchange – stranger wants to fuck me because I am in a band and the music makes them feel less lonely, while I made the music because I am lonely and want to fuck to feel less so. As a result, we get together and are lonely, together. Our bodies are gratified in the pursuit.
I got in the shower. The show had gone well, a dark melodic, leather-jacketed orgy, the kind for which we were known. We hadn’t been a band long enough to be bored yet and had all basically accepted that we were whores for attention before the whole thing got started, so putting on a good show was second nature. A journalist had once written, “the Strokes were to sidewalks what Billups and the Breakups are to dirt roads”, which was my favorite way anyone had ever described us.
I got out of the shower and put on a worn out Smiths tee shirt that comforted me and torn black jeans. I slipped into black loafers without putting socks on and looked at the girl in the bed again. She was so pretty it was just ruinous. I did love her, I wasn’t sure how, but somewhere in the night I had hit upon the endless wellspring of awe the universe can have for a person, any person, and I carried the discovery like a great blessing and a great curse. If she had asked me to, I would’ve quit the band to be a father to her son, at least until the morning. I was pretty sure the bar downstairs was still open, so I moved toward the door. For the briefest of moments, the waitress’ hair looked silver and my heart stopped. Then it went back to being blonde and I went back to feeling like a rich father, with a porcelain-pretty daughter who knows he is in a world of trouble because of her. My nameless lover was adrift and I lit a joint that had been given to me by our bus driver, Charlie (who the fuck knew what was in it). I guessed I would have to give her a name, so I turned it over and over in my head while I smoked the joint in the soft blue dark. I decided she would be called Phoebe. I put down the roach and left her to sleep. Her hair, again, looked silver.
I stepped into the hallway with the bar in mind, though it seemed very far away, a distant land. Earlier in the night, a young man had been playing lonely covers on the parlor piano and I hoped he was still playing. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep anytime soon and dear Phoebe had been earning her rest every waking moment since that first corrupted swimming lesson. I put on the sunglasses that I was surprised to find dangling in my left hand. I pulled a cigarette from the pack stuffed into my jeans. I made to light it in the hallway like a total dickhead, but stopped, all my breath gone, emptied out in a mad dash.
At the end of the hallway, there was a woman with her back to me. She wore a cream dress, the same she had worn to our show earlier that evening… and she had long silver-grey hair. There was a black shawl around her shoulders and she had black heels on, as well as long black gloves that ran up above her elbows. I felt my stubbled face slacken and the cigarette fell down dead, but clung loosely to my lips. A refresher to myself, I was in St. Louis, at the Seven Gables Inn, the band I formed had just played one of our biggest shows, I was drunk and on drugs and had just slept with our waitress from Denny’s – twice. Almost nothing could’ve fully surprised me at that moment, but there was a familiarity to her rigidity. The entire hallway felt peculiar, off, and she had her fucking back turned, just like she had for the entire show. She was straight-backed in such a distinctly unrelaxed way that it had no place in a hallway, or concert venue, or anywhere really. And, like before, she was deathly still. She was maybe a hundred feet down the hall from me, but even at that distance, her stillness made the hairs on my arms stand up. I began to walk toward her.
In my “A+” dream, I ended up leaving school early and going home. I think I skipped over the journey because what I recall is simply being at the front door. It was an old screen door that opened directly into our family room. My parents would have been at work, which is what I wanted. I wanted it to be just her and I. The room I stepped into was wet and warm, since she always turned the A.C. off as soon as Mom and Dad left for work. There was a thick nauseating doom coating every corner of the place, hanging weighted and sweaty, like the place had been dipped in molasses. And I could hear her wheezing. I had let the screen door slam behind me. I didn’t think there would be much point in trying to surprise her.
I waited, a child alone in an empty house. A house I had created for a childhood I had created, for the child I was within my mind. When I heard her high, labored, raspy chuckle, I knew they were dead.
I moved forward propelled by whatever mad dormant engine it is that gives a dream direction, and I crossed the family room and entered the hall. The long, wide, wood-paneled hallway led to the back room and the screened-in porch, but none of that was visible, because my mother’s crucified body hung, mangled and dead and dragging, from No-Nana’s outstretched arms and back. The rusting nails went through both their hands and the old woman sagged under the weight. My mother’s feet nailed together too and they dragged, jerking and tearing at the faded blue carpet. Her head hung slack and her long brown hair fell down around her face. She wore only an oversized grey sweatshirt. The old woman wheezed and I watched as their evil train made it the last few feet down the hall. Both bodies banged into the doorframe as they rounded the corner and went out to Nana’s porch. I listened to the unmistakable sound of the nails being removed from their hands, and I heard my mother’s body hit the floor. It sounded like a sack of mulch being dropped. Then I could hear shuffling and worse, the sound, again unmistakable, of wet slicing, of a blade entering meat.
My engine had stalled. I did not want to see what was
happening on No-Nana’s porch. I knew I had been meant to see my mother, but I did not want to see my father too. Yet I knew I had to continue, as I could hear her mumbling and it was imperative that I knew what she was saying. The mumbling wasn’t for me, just an overflow of her evil, but I knew that I would need it sometime later. I spent decades walking down the hallway, tortured and slow, but eventually I entered the porch.
The worst thing about it was that he was already dead. His body was piled in the far corner, lacking reverence or ritual. He was just tossed there, and No-Nana lurched around over him, raising a winking bloody knife high and then plunging it back down into him. I could hear her.
She raised the knife again. “No one has ever seen God. John one eighteen.” And she brought it down into his dead body. And again the blade swung upward. “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. Matthew four eight.” It came down. Then she stood straight up, completely straight, in a way that her little hunched body had never stood before, rigid and bold. Her back was to me and her voice lowered like it was falling down basement stairs. “Behold, I will corrupt your seed and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts and one shall take you away with it. Malachai, chapter two, verse three.” Then there was a high wheezing chuckle. In a playful leathery voice she said, “Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? Hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall that they may eat their own dung and drink their own piss with you?”
With rigid dead steps, she began to turn toward me, her wiry silver hair running down her back like coat hangers. The smile on her face was huge, and I knew in my heart that she had been waiting for this day for a very long time. She had no eyes, only bloody sockets and they yawned at me like the desperate searching mouths of unfed babes. Tears of blood ran down her ancient cheeks.
Before I turned and ran, I said something to her, something I’ve never been able to remember.
Days after the dream, when, due to the severity of my vocal chord injury, I was forced by doctors and psychiatrists to write about the details, I remembered every single word she spoke by heart. Even the Bible phrases she quoted, I wrote it all down for them in a haze and they promised never to tell my parents. And, while they tried to hide it beneath the veneer of the “professional” and the “adult,” I could see their fear when they learned that each biblical passage she recited within the dream, was real and accurate, chapter and verse, down to the very last word.
“Long night too?” My voice sounded quivery and foreign in the chilly hotel hallway. It bounced off the dark wooden beams uselessly.
The silver-haired woman didn’t move or respond in any way, so I kept walking toward her. I told myself that maybe she was asleep standing up, some old broad who got torn up at a high-class wedding and called it a night right there in the hall. Only, I was posturing, and pathetically so, because within myself I had begun to recognize the white-hot feverish exultation of true horror.
“Looking for your room?” I asked. “That’s a hell of a dress. Very pretty.” I’m not even sure why I said that. I stopped in the hallway maybe fifty feet away and just stared at her, frozen.
When I was very young, and experiencing the night terrors, my parents would put half a shot of Jack in a bottle with chocolate milk to get me to sleep. They started to give me spiked chocolate milk again in the months following my vocal chord injury, or else I wouldn’t sleep more than forty-five minutes or so at a time. They would play “Kind of Blue” or “A Love Supreme” and Billy Joel and Elton John, which is how I eventually came to learn piano and guitar. I started drinking on my own at thirteen, and only realized in adulthood that the reason I began to drink was to outrun my dreams. I pursued music and alcohol, and after, women, with the hunger of someone who was himself being hunted. I knew all these things, just as I knew that it would be better not to continue speaking to the woman with her back turned. I was on the third floor of the Seven Gables Inn, a warm wooden place in the middle of a hard-working Midwestern city that was knee deep in the ancient revelry of Mardi Gras, and yet there were no sounds of celebration. I had preached for over a decade about the musician’s life, about embracing the moment and running with the wolves beneath the miraculously callous, beatific and bemused moon. I fucked, and I fucked, and I fucked, and my seraphic, sanguine victims held me responsible for none of their sadness, because my own waters ran so clear and so deep. But what were we all running from? What was I running from? Then she laughed, a high, labored, raspy chuckle, and I knew.
When I was a kid, I used to call praying, “reaching for the moon.” I’m really not sure why, but in the elevator, on the way down to the lobby, I reached as far as my spirit would stretch. I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed, and to what, I know not.
Even so, when the elevator doors opened and I stumbled into the lobby, clutching a half-smoked cigarette and shaking, I’m sure no one assumed prayer to be a regular habit of mine. I walked to the bar on unsteady legs and tried to come back down to earth, sold myself the lie that I had just been spooked, that it had been something I’d smoked. The piano player was still playing, but it was a chilling isolated series of notes that did nothing to settle me. I took a seat at the bar next to a frail-looking man with glasses and was happy there was someone else there.
The bartender looked at me skeptically, but only for a
moment, as he had seen a lot, so he just said, “What’ll it be?”
“Whiskey,” was all I could muster.
A group who I thought had been at the show, recognized me and smiled, but under my breath I begged them to stay where they were. I didn’t need company. I was having trouble breathing.
For reasons lost to me, I began to run through a personal register of former lovers. A British girl named Louise, who I had really done a number on. She was engaged, a model, twenty-two. Her fiancé was twenty-three, also a model, and a sweet idiot. They probably really loved each other though. I gave her four orgasms in one night, mostly because she got off on my not being him. I offered to fuck them both together, if it would mend things between them. He threatened to kill me when I said that…
And there were these two twenty-year-old ballerinas, Nicole and Luz, who I let snort coke off my erection. I didn’t put any sort of pressure on them… they just wanted to be their father’s worst nightmare, respectively. I facilitated.
Then there was Britt, who was well into her forties and three months divorced. We laughed at how much difficulty we had with the basics. She wanted to try again in the morning, so I went ahead and did late checkout and we tried two more times. The bus nearly left without me.
And Rebecca, of course, who had worked at my family’s favorite vacation tee shirt shop, “The Beach Bazaar” in Siesta Key. She had maybe more sunshine in her than anyone I knew, but when we were together, mostly shadow.
And then Andrew, who mocked me when I urged secrecy, but also complied. And Blake, and April, and Jolene, Jack andandandandandnandand… and Phoebe, who had worried so, because I hadn’t ordered at Denny’s.
Try as I might, I have no apologies for those who bore a bit of my seed. Why should I? I was as careful as a deliberately reckless person can be, and they all knew me to be quite intentional in both my recklessness and deliberateness.
I started when the skinny man next to me spoke. “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” I recognized the Poe, but didn’t comment. “You’ve had a hell of an evening? No?”
“Yes, yes I have.”
“Was it worth it?”
“Was what worth it?”
“Any of it?”
“Jury’s still out, I guess.”
He chortled and took a sip from his martini. “Well, don’t be too hard on yourself, Nick.”
I distractedly sized him up. He was immaculately put together, a tweed coat over very thin dress pants, a shadow of a mustache, gold horn-rimmed glasses, a sharp jawline and very, very large eyes. He looked like a very dapper librarian who was dying of AIDS. “Do we know each other?”
He pierced me. “Yes and no.”
I was silent and downed my drink in one motion. I didn’t want to chat, “I’ve had-”
“A hell of an evening?” He smiled. “You just need to accept some things for what they are, Nick Billups and the Breakups. And first and foremost, many of the pieces in play are much, much bigger than you. Your biggest breakup in fact, may escape your reason.” His voice was high and scratchy.
“Buddy, I don’t think I know you.” I sat my empty glass down next to him.
He smiled and straightened his tie, which was odd, silk but made to look like rope. “No, heh, no… of course not. Not many do. I just wanted to be here for this tonight, I’ll let you get back to it, I guess, but just know this Nicholas, the war you are going to perish in, it was never meant for men, so like I said, don’t be too hard on yourself.”
“I’m not going to die afraid,” I said, having no idea why I was being bold or even engaging with the stranger.
He laughed as he stood up, and his motions were unnatural, like paper crumpling in reverse. “Oh my, son. Oh my. Yes, you will. Sure as you owe your dreams to your nightmares, your sing-song sorrow to your screams and flight, when you die, you will be so afraid… that you will beg to burn your thinking mind.” He looked at me as he stood there, frail, peppermint-thin and smiling the largest, least sincere smile I had ever seen. He was madness in an evening coat. “And when you see me watching, don’t judge, please.” He straightened his cuffs and adjusted his rope tie and then his glasses. He looked over my shoulder and around the room. “I just like damage.” Impossibly, his smile widened to an unnatural length. “I’m so pleased that you like her dress, I picked it out myself.” He turned to leave but hesitated, “You could always go back upstairs, give Phoebe one final kiss and take a walk off that lonely balcony of yours. It would be… more distinguished, if you take my meaning.”
“Go fuck yourself,” I said, not knowing who or what I was talking to.
He shivered with delight and then settled back into himself, “How very rock’n-roll of you, Nicholas.” He smiled big, winked at me, and briskly left the room, walking past a woman who stood between myself and the door, with her back facing me.
In my “A+” dream, I burst through the screen door screaming. It was broad daylight and I was wailing for a neighbor to come out, but all the homes wore darkened, empty windows, like socketless eyes. In my hysteria, I tripped and fell, and sprawled out in the grass under the happily distracted sun. I realized I was crying, yet I stopped completely when I heard the screen door. I was on all fours and didn’t want to look, but knew I would. My dream engine turned my head and there stood No-Nana, her face still smiling, and her bloody eyes gaping, holding the knife loosely in her right hand. But beneath it, supported by her left hand, like some sort of religious offering, she held death itself…
In the bar at the Seven Gables, she stood in the doorway. The woman with the silver hair had her back to me, and it looked as though she was holding something in her hands. I had stood to ask the barman, or God, or anyone else for help, but we were suddenly alone in the dark empty room. I leaned against the bar for support, then pushed myself off, righted my body and stood straight. The backwards woman began to laugh, and it rattled, wet and heavy and evil.
I shuddered with realization as she cackled at my horror. I tried to spring from the grass on the front lawn, but it was too late.
I decided to sprint from the hotel bar. Her mouth smiled, her eyes bled, and, as in the tombs of my soul, she wheezed and laughed like stalking boots sucking of muddy ground. That’s when I saw what she held, and the bottom fell out of my heart.
She stepped off the front porch, laughing…
She stepped into the bar, laughing…
In her hands, she held the day’s newspaper.
She began to tear pieces from it and as I seized up and collapsed, her laughter became so rapturous, so spasmodic and joyous, that it threatened to tip her over. I could hear her getting closer, her laughter like the weeping of all the world. Heavy packed mucus rattled about in her lungs like wet crows in rusted cages, and it rose, higher and higher, until it was a chorus of demons exalting a darkness no sun could breach. She was there with me, and as she turned me over, the blood from her eyes dripped warm on my face. It ran down my mustache and into my mouth and it was sour and without salt.
Her hysterical laughter owned the world. She raised the knife and screamed, “THEY ARE WANDERING STARS FOR WHOM IT IS RESERVED THE DARKNESS OF BLACKNESS FOREVER!”
And then… I remembered what I had said to her. Back within my dream, my “A+”, when I was nine. I had yelled the phrase for hours, blowing out my vocal chords, changing my life, giving me my signature baritone, and my Jack Daniels chocolate milk, and my lover, after lover, after lover… all my exquisite escapes. Just attempts, really, to remember a scrap of Biblical phrase I had lost as a child, which used to provide some comfort… I looked at her, saw her, and she saw me and I quoted John, Four Eighteen. Word. For. Word.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. Fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not MADE PERFECT IN LOVE! There is no FEAR in love! THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE! THERE IS NO FEAR IN LOVE! JOHN FOUR EIGHTEEN! THERE. IS. NO. FEAR. IN. LOVE!”
The wretched thing began to convulse. I just kept repeating. I screamed loud enough that I could have blown vocal chords, I sang, I screamed, and all the while I could see the excess of my living self, vomited and beautiful and lavender, across the bar and the sky and the cosmos. And she howled, the vanquished evil howled, like a planet that has lost its sun, the evil deficit was cacophonous. She was like a black and bleeding star. And… then she was gone.
I don’t remember the reaction of any Seven Gables staff, and I don’t remember Phoebe coming downstairs, but I know I screamed that Bible phrase until I was out in the street, clothes ripped, knees and elbows bleeding. I stood screaming to the littered Mardi Gras streets of St. Louis until sunrise. I watched the sun come up in the Denny’s parking lot and I bled and I wept and I was, for the first time I could remember, starving.
The police were there at some point, and hotel staff was there at some point, and my bandmates were there too, and God and Jesus and Abraham and Isaac were there, but I wasn’t looking at any of them… I was looking at the slight man, in the tweed coat, who stood with his hands in his pockets, watching my lunacy from his strange perch atop the shingled roof of the diner.
He winked at me as I walked toward the establishment, and like my stubborn, damage-loving self, I did not fail to look him in the eye. I was hungry, and it felt good to be so. We would see each other again, but first, I needed pancakes.
Later, as a group, the band decided I needed to take some time and relax at this rehab joint. I write Phoebe letters (her real name is Audrey) and I play piano. The man in the tweed coat still comes around. He scares me. Also, I am still naked and full of shit and stardust. But at night, when I reach for the moon, I tell myself, and the universe, and all the demons within earshot, and the skinny man, if he’s listening, that there is no fear in love, and that they can all go fuck themselves.
Dig into more deep and dark tales in SN9: Fat Tuesday – available on Amazon now!