This post is for my internet buddy
and his daughter
Be as strong as you have to, as good as you can, and live while you've got the chance.
and his daughter
Be as strong as you have to, as good as you can, and live while you've got the chance.
So I walked home. It took me more than an hour. When I got there my feet felt as though they were made of cheese if cheese could blister. Lulu was already there. Her laptop was out and the two-octave portable keyboard she used for her synth programming was plugged into it.
“Where have you been?”
“Work. Willy gave me a ride in and then ditched me. What are you doing home now?”
“I went in early and skipped lunch because we were gone talk, remember?” Lulu frowned. “So you walked home? You should have come and got me and we could have rode the bus together. Even if you’d waited until I got off we’d have been home at the same time.”
I dropped my knapsack at the end of the couch and collapsed in the armchair.
“You sit there,” Lulu said. Rather, she told me and I was tired enough to let her. She left for the kitchen and came back with a glass of water.
“Here you go.”
All of a sudden I felt something wet on my face; I touched it and then tasted my fingers. Tears. I wasn’t sobbing; I didn’t know where they came from. It wasn’t like I was crying, more like I was bleeding from my eyes.
It was just that everyone was being so nice to me. Dierdre taking me to the hospital, Willy teaching me to play blues, Rob giving me a bike and letting me work full time. And now this from Lulu.
What the fuck was wrong with these people? Didn’t they know me at all? What I’d done, what I was…
I had no idea what to do with this. Nice things shouldn’t happen to me.
Lulu lit a cigarette, sat still and watched me until I was calm again and the tears had stopped.
“Matty?” Her voice was small, so quiet I could hear a little gurgle from her lungs.
“Deacon said.” She looked away and took a drag that burnt her cigarette down to the butt, then coughed and swallowed. When she spoke again her voice was clear. “I ain’t never heard you sing. You know how to harmonize?”
I shook my head. “I used to do vocals but you couldn’t really call it singing.”
“I want to hear you,” she said and turned the laptop on. I noticed she didn’t have it plugged in; the thought of why plugging in was a bad idea raised the hairs on my arm.
“Matty, would you sing for me a little?”
“I dunno, Lulu. It’s been a long time and I ain’t in good shape.”
“Don’t you want to drink some of that water, get your throat ready?”
I shook my head and picked up the glass, cleared my throat and took a sip. Lulu started playing the keyboard, simple chords, cycling through synth patches. First it was a church organ, then a Farfisa electric organ, then a grand piano. She finally settled on a honky-tonk piano, sharp little jangly notes with no sustain. My mind put in a walking bass line behind it; there was something familiar about the chord progression. I’d heard it when I was a kid. The lyrics were on the tip of my tongue, just out of reach.
“Let me call up the lyrics for you.” Lulu started pecking away at the laptop.
“Waitaminute,” I said. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-got to Hangtown. Hangtown fry – I hate oysters, can’t stand seafood… Hangtown was Placerville. In wonder they gazed down on old Placerville. “Actually I can get by without ‘em. I think.”
Lulu nodded and kept playing the chords, watching me, and I cleared my throat, waited for the jumping-on point and launched into it.
D’ja ever hear tell of Sweet Betsy from Pike
who crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike
with two yoke of cattle, a big yellow dog
a tall Shanghai rooster and an old spotted hog.
“Fuck this, I sound like shit. Sorry, Lulu.”
“Did I tell you to stop? Cause I don’t remember that part.” Lulu sighed and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “You’re trying too hard is your problem. Don’t suck up all that air before you start, it makes you like a balloon. You don’t sing by deflating. Just take a half-breath and use your guts to power it, that way you got control. Like this.”
Lulu sat up straight and tilted her head back, took in a comfortably shallow breath. She sang a tone in that strange voice of hers, no words, quiet at first, then louder and louder, varying the volume and tone with deliberacy and control until she hit a harmonic with the room and it resonated and made every loose object in the place buzz. At the height of it she stopped cold, the breath in her lungs gone. She sighed and smiled at me, a loose comfortable smile I’d never seen from her before.
The room felt different; it smelled different. Cleaner. It was as though there’d been something lurking close and she’d scared it off with Lulu power.
“Try it like that,” she said.
One evening quite early they stopped on the Platte
‘twas near by the road on a green shady flat
where Betsy, sore-footed, lay down in repose
while Ike gazed in wonder on the Pike County rose
“You’re on-key, you know. You got a natural ear. But you got to treat singing like you was talking; singing is just talking in key.” The country in her voice was getting thicker; you could hear the hills and mountains when she talked.
The wagon broke down with a terrible crash
And out on the prairie rolled all kinds of trash
A few little baby clothes done up with care
‘twas rather suspicious but all on the square
Lulu stopped playing.
“How come you’re all squeaky-like?”
“Don’t know what you mean.”
“Matty, you got a real nice baritone and you pitch it high. You’re trying to sound like a little kid and it ain’t working. Sing like a man which you ought to because you are. You hear how you crack on those high notes? Try going low instead.”
The rooster ran off and the cattle all died
one morning the last piece of bacon was fried
poor Ike was discouraged so Betsy got mad
the dog drooped its tail and looked wondrously sad
And at that point my voice sounded like I was really singing. Fuck if I knew how that happened; it was Lulu more than me. Pitching my voice low worked and was easy on my throat but it made the base of my tongue hurt; okay, maybe I was a man but it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do it on purpose!
Lulu was smiling differently now; it was the smug smile she had back when she had on her face when she was recording my bass, the one she got at the end when she was pleased with herself for getting something that worked out of me.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s this all about, anyway?”
“I just needed to know,” she said. “You ever do any harmonizing?”
“Fuck no. That shit’s hard.” I shook my head. “Lulu?”
She caught the tentative tone in my voice and the smile vanished. “Yeah?”
“Can I ask you something?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I guess.”
“It’s about the Deacon. He said something to me that’s been hanging on the edge of my mind.”
Lulu looked positively grim at this.
“He asked me if you’d told me about your father.”
“God damn it.” Lulu punched the power button on her laptop and looked at the French doors. “Shit. The van’s gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll go to my room.”
Lulu put her hands over her eyes and her hair drifted down over her face. She stayed like that for so long that I started to get up as quietly as I could.
“No, don’t you do that.” She sighed deeply with a gurgle and started coughing. I pushed my water toward her and went to the kitchen to fetch her a paper towel.
“Should I pound you on the back?”
Lulu shook her head with a great deal of vigor, still coughing. Finally she brought something up and spat it into the paper towel, took a peek and seemed unhappy with it before she folded the paper towel in fourths and set it on the coffee table. She reached into her purse for her inhaler and took a long drag.
When she caught her breath she pulled out her cigarettes.
“So the Deacon said that?”
“I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“Well what the hell else were you going to do?” She lit her cigarette and took a long drag, then exhaled sharply through her nose. “It ain’t your fault. I just don’t like thinking about it.” She took another drag. “Deacon asked me why I came after you; I said you were a friend to me and Willy. Wanted to know if I trusted you.”
There was a nice long pause after that.
“Ain’t you going to ask?”
“What I told him.”
“If you said yes then you’d tell me. If you said no you wouldn’t want to answer. So what’s the point of me coming at you?”
Lulu’s face relaxed a little. “I’d give you a kiss on the forehead, I could reach it. I told him of course I did and so would anyone, told him there was no meanness or guile in you.”
“So you lied.” Or were delusional.
“Just stop that, it makes me tired.” She curled her legs under herself and drew her arms in and it made me think of a pill bug curling up. “I never talk about my daddy.”
“Will you cut it out, you are the I’m-sorriest creature I have ever laid eyes on. You didn’t do nothing so stop taking it out on ever one else.” The ash on her cigarette was an inch long and when she waved her hand at me it gave way and drifted to the floor.
Lulu looked at the red cat clock and my eyes followed; it was going to be a while before anyone else was home. I could tell whatever she had to say choked her. I sat back and put on my listening face and waited; after a while she opened her mouth and shut it again.
“Listen, Lulu. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t feel like it. Maybe you could try showing me some harmony.”
She sighed again. “Well now you got me thinking about it so I may as well tell you. But I never told this to no-one.”
“Not even Willy?”
“Willy is my sweetie-pie but that don’t mean he needs to know ever little thing. He’s got an edge to him and I guess I like to keep that edge away from where it hurts.” Lulu stretched, then settled down again. “You know I never even met my mama. Daddy kept pictures of her and I’d sneak into his drawers to look at them but he never showed them to me. I think if I asked he would have but I never wanted to ask. I thought it might make him sad.”
I leaned back and put my feet up on top of the coffee table; Lulu had the air of someone settling in for the long haul. I may as well be comfortable. And I knew whatever she told me I was going to have to keep to myself; this was private.
“She didn’t look nothing like me. I always thought she looked like one of those pictures of angels you see in church. I took after Daddy, little and dark. So it was me and him and Grandma. You know how it is when you’re a kid. All you remember of those years is bits and scraps but I remember my daddy singing me to sleep.”
Her voice rose up, soft and clear and pretty.
Hush little baby don’t say a word
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
“The first real memory I have, I was lying in bed. Grandma had gotten a telephone call, and she was scared. I knew it was my daddy but she didn’t want to tell me about it so she sent me to bed early. I pulled my quilt around me and cried. I did it soft as I could so Grandma wouldn’t hear. I just wanted my daddy to sing me to sleep the way he always did.
“That’s when I heard him tolling me.”
“You know, when you call to something and bring it to you. I did it to you to bring you home. Like tolling a bell to call people to supper or church or what have you.”
Lulu stubbed her cigarette out and lit another.
“So I heard my daddy and I followed his voice. Hours I was walking up the mountainside at night. Sometimes I come awake at night and I can still see the way the trees moved against the moon, feel the way briars snatched at my bare little legs. But I had to keep going. My daddy was calling out for me and he was scared. He’d never been scared before.
“I heard the sirens before I saw the lights and then I heard the voices of all those gathered at the mine. I had heard of the mine but I’d never been there before. My daddy’s voice was still faint and I knew the hardest part was still ahead. But it was like a dream in a way; no one was looking for me so no one saw me, they only looked where I wasn’t. I crept behind and I crept under and as I followed my daddy’s voice I heard serious men speaking and what they said I did not want to hear.
“There had been a cave-in and I knew that’s where my daddy was and that was where I had to go. I found a cage with a door on it and when I touched the door I felt like my daddy and I knew which buttons to push, how to get it where I needed to go. But I was still startled when the cage dropped down into the earth.
“There were more men at the bottom and I still don’t know how I got through that crowd without being seen. I found my way around them and slipped into a gap no grown man could have fit into.
“I had to climb like a lizard and squirm like a snake and by the time I’d got through whatever the briars had left of my nightie had been taken by the rocks. I was sorely scratched and bruised and cold, bitter cold, and I felt the nearness of death in my chest.”
Lulu coughed and spat into the paper towel again and looked critically at her cigarette before gently stubbing it out and balancing it on the edge of the ashtray. Saving it for later.
“Then I saw a gleam of light and as I drew close it got brighter and brighter until I drug myself into a hollow lit by balls of fire floating in the air and singing like they do; they were each one singing something different and spoiling the music.”
“Souls,” I said.
“First time I seen ‘em. And the first time I seen something else.
“It was a man all dressed in black sitting on the rocks shaking his head like he didn’t know what to do. When I crawled into the hollow I knocked some rocks loose and he turned to the sound and saw me.
“He said, ‘Child, what are you doing here?’” and right away took off his coat and put it around my filthy-dirty little body and picked me right up and held me shivering in his arms.”
“Was it --”
Lulu nodded. “It was the Deacon.”
AN EMPTY GRAVE, AN UNBROKEN CIRCLE
“It smelled like the air was just another kind of stone, still and ancient. It was the smell of underground and I hope never to smell it again.
“The dark man said, ‘Listen,’ and I did. I heard the souls singing. The sound scared me, but worse than that it made me sad.
“‘Someone got hurt,’ I said, and the man nodded.
“‘That’s good listening,’ he said. ‘Do you hear anyone you know?’
“I listened harder, and the voices split apart, each soft note going on and on. There was one--”
Lulu tipped her head back, and started to breath out. Softly at first, then louder, she sang a single note. It was a man’s tenor voice, and it went on and on. It was the sound of someone lost in the worst way, someone using their last breath to say “I can’t leave her, I can’t leave her.” It went on and on and it made me feel like someone had their hand on my heart, digging their fingers in. When Lulu finally stopped it wasn’t because she was running out of air.
“I started crying and crying,” she said. “The Deacon just held on to me, tried to keep me warm.
“‘That’s my daddy,’ I said to him. ‘My daddy’s lost.’
“‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘That’s why I need you to help me.’
“I tried to get loose to look for my daddy but the Deacon held me back. ‘You can’t go fetch him,’ he said. ‘You have to toll him to you.’
“‘Daddy!’ I called out, ‘come here Daddy!’ and the man shook his head.
“‘‘You got to sing,’ he said to me. “Your daddy needs to see you before he goes.”
“I started to sing Hush Little Baby, but my voice sounded weak and thin. It didn’t echo against the walls; it broke on them. I started crying again.
“‘You can’t just sing with your voice,’ the Deacon said. ‘You got to sing with the soul God gave you.’
“When I was able to stop crying I heard my daddy again and a song he would sing me came into my mind, the saddest, bravest song I knew.”
When she opened up the song was familiar and as much as I wanted to respect what had happened to her I couldn’t help but sing along, my voice under hers lifting up and holding down. For that moment I felt entirely outside myself. There was nothing but music.
will the circle be unbroken
by and by, Lord, by and by
there’s a better home a-waiting
in the sky, Lord, in the sky
“That was when my real life started,” Lulu said. “It was as though I’d never sung before or as though I’d never done anything else. All of my sorrows and worries and love, all of the strength my daddy had given me came out in song. It moved through me and echoed through the tunnel as if it was a stone throat. It went shivering into the rock around us and I knew where my daddy was, I knew there were men around him.
“They were crushed. My daddy was little but he seemed so strong to me and it shocked me to learn that something as senseless as rock could crush that strength. We are all so little and here for such a short while.
“The souls were angry and scared and they kept circling around each other, moving through the rock, crying out and trying to get back into their ruined bodies. They were angry because they knew this wasn’t something that had happened to them; it was something that had been done to them. I’ve tried not to think about this, tried not to dwell on it but I do know that when something like that happens in a mine somebody knew about it ahead of time and let it happen because sometimes killing is the cheaper way to go. Coal has blood on it and blood will not wash away.”
When she said that I felt a killing rage at the thought of suits and wallets and bookkeeping and saw a machine that took people in at one end and pushed money out the other with a valve at the bottom where the blood drains out. If I could lay hands on whoever had made that choice…
But this wasn’t my tragedy and I thought of the blood I couldn’t wash off of my own hands. I ate the anger, choked it down, sat still and listened hard.
“Daddy heard me and for an instant I thought my heart was broken because he didn’t fly right to me. He went to the others and made them listen, one at a time. Then when they had all found the way he came to me, rising through the stone, and my heart lifted with him. I knew he came to me last because he wanted to hold onto me now that his time had come, he wanted one last… He wanted to take a memory of me with him.
“One by one all those souls let go of what had been done to them and they rose as well and burst like slow fireworks, sparks peeling off the little suns until they were gone, each spark a living thing in itself bright and burning and joyously going forth, singing now in harmony as they went.
“That was when I knew what songs were for.
“When each soul was done and had vanished, something small and dark at its core dropped to the ground and the Deacon patiently gathered them up.
“‘Thank you,’ the Deacon said. Even in the new light he was in shadow. ‘You helped your Daddy and his friends on their way. I could never have done that.’
“I wasn’t paying much attention, I was watching my daddy loop and dip and sing in front of me. He kissed me on the forehead, and then he blossomed like a burning rose and moved on.”
Lulu parted her bangs; I’d never seen her forehead. “Look,” she said.
There was a white circle on her forehead, the edge of it fringed like the rays of an old-fashioned drawing of the sun. She let her hair fall back in place.
“I bet that burn on your back turns out the same,” she said. “That kiss warmed me right up. I stopped shivering and after all I’d been through I fell asleep. When I woke up I was in my bed; Grandma came in all worried and asked where I’d been. There was mud and coal dust on the sheets but no footprints on the floor. She asked me and asked me what had happened.” Lulu picked up her pack of cigarettes and started tapping it against the arm of the chair. “How can you even start to tell someone who’ll never know for sure that you’re telling the truth?”
Then her voice got cold, hard and flat like a metal strap. “We had a service for my daddy in the church. Grandma somehow paid for a stone but Daddy didn’t rest in a grave. They left the bodies where they lay. It would have cost too much to dig them out.”
The cat clock ticked into the silence for minutes before I spoke.
“Lulu, I’m so —”
She raised her hand, one finger upright. “You got nothing to be sorry for. I told you!”
Right, right, right. “Sorry, I won’t…”
“This is not a joke,” Lulu said and I heard a rough edge to her voice; her throat was tight.
“I know,” I said. Then I tried to bite at the tail of my next words as they slipped out of my mouth. “I’m sorry.”
Lulu looked at me with no expression for a second and then started laughing. So I started laughing and by the time we were done Lulu had started hacking away again and my ribs and belly hurt.
“Lulu, I wish with all my heart that had never happened to your dad. I wish you hadn’t had to go through that. I wish there was something I could do.”
Lulu tilted her head. “Do you really mean that.” She made it a statement, not a question.
“Then I got to tell you some more.” She picked up the extinguished butt from the ashtray and lit it again.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What was the Deacon doing there?”
That was when Lulu finally broke and started sobbing, curled up with her face pressed against her knees, rocking back and forth. It shocked me; it wasn’t like her, it seemed to make her toughness, her drive into a lie. I wanted to hug her and let her cry against my shoulder but when I reached for her she pulled back in a way that let me know she didn’t want to be touched. I could not comfort her; I had nothing to offer.
But everything passes and so did Lulu’s tears. I brought her another paper towel and when she was composed again she cleared her throat.