Stephan Phillip Druce… A Journey Blessed

 
 
 
A Journey Blessed
Shropshire England 1993
 

“We’ll be in Shrewsbury soon” said the driver. Gordon had hitched a lift from Manchester with nothing but a guitar on his back and a feather in his cap – finally escaping the crime-ridden council estate he’d lived in all his life. Gordon was a precocious musical talent with a natural sense of rhythm – learning his trade by hitting pots and pans with wooden spoons. In his teenage years he discovered an aptitude for the guitar and the piano – attributing his musical prowess to his father who played the drums in a jazz band. All the gigs he’d played, the recording sessions he’d been involved in and the useful contacts he’d made in the city, all seemed futile now. Without the offer of a record deal the Manchester music industry had seemingly overlooked him. With the recent recent split from his long term girlfriend there didn’t seem to be a good reason to stay in Manchester. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” echoed the proverb in his mind – “I may not be a rolling stone but I’ve had enough moss”. The town of Shrewsbury resonated with Gordon. He recalled the story his father told him of a fishing trip on the river Severn – which encompassed the town centre in the shape of a horse shoe. He was dropped off on the outskirts of Shrewsbury on a warm spring Saturday evening. He walked towards the town, over the English bridge – that reflected over the rippled water of the river, among the old black and white buildings -” wow – what a mellow town” he thought. He approached a group of rowdy young people and noticed two tall lads walking slightly ahead of the adjoining gang – so inebriated they were holding each other up like giant matchsticks. Spotting Gordon had a guitar on his back, one of the lads – Martin, asked Gordon if he had a place to stay. Gordon shook his head and so was adopted by the gang. Martin was a virtuoso slide guitar player and street wise too. He sensed intuitively that Gordon had nowhere to sleep, and as he had a guitar on his back – felt an obligation to invite him to the guitar jam party they were all heading to. The party house was decorated in guitars of all shapes, sizes and colours than circled the main room and hung from the walls. Unbeknown to Gordon, among the party-goers were some of Shrewsbury’s most accomplished guitarists. After extra drinks they all settled down on the numerous sofas – “do you want to play a tune mate?” chirped Martin to Gordon – sensing Gordon had something special up his sleeve. Gordon took his green guitar out of its soft case and played a furious funk song with blistering speed – intervening intricate rhythm patterns on the body of the guitar with his right hand – his singing voice soaring with effortless range and raw passion. The room erupted into rapturous applause and Gordon followed it up with a moving ballad that reduced some of them to tears. “I call it Folkadelic” said Gordon. Martin smiled wryly – he knew Gordon would be special before he’d even taken his guitar from out of its case, but Folkadelic was a revelation and a new music.

Some of the party people then requested Drew to play a song. Drew was the same age as Gordon – Twenty eight, a Shrewsbury born lead guitarist who played with sublime feel, exquisite touch and a formidable attack. At his most ferocious he could purposely break strings, to the concern of worried onlookers who would wince at the potential injury he may have caused himself. He’d played in a local band and was considered a mercurial guitar hero – for all his uncanny skills he could be an inconsistent and undisciplined performer. He was blighted with acute anxiety than often affected his guitar playing. His arms and shoulders would freeze and numb as a consequence of his panic attacks and during gigs his fingers would sweat so profusely it was difficult for him to grip the guitar strings. He would drink heavily to pacify his condition – consequently he would be too drunk to remember the guitar chords he otherwise knew so well. Drew though was obsessed with fame. Playing guitar in a local rock band wasn’t enough – he wanted to leave his mark on the planet. He played one of his songs at the party, and though well received, he shrugged his shoulders in concession that Gordon was an impossible act to follow that night. The group then encouraged Bruce – a heavy metal whizz kid Guitarist to play a song – a twenty two year old classically trained player with a giant wing span. Bruce played an instrumental piece but halfway through the party group lost interest and began chatting – Gordon had stolen the show. Drew felt an instant affinity for Gordon – as if he’d met him before. Drew was as disillusioned with the Shrewsbury music scene as Gordon was with Manchester – for different reasons. Drew was tired of Shrewsbury’s old folk and blues scene – Gordon’s music made you want to dance, it was progressive and fresh – it was Folkadelic. He was enthralled to witness this new music genre – he looked over at Gordon and said “I’ve got a place you can stay”. Gordon was welcome to sleep over at the party but Drew felt he would be the better host. He trusted Gordon and realised that Shrewsbury’s music scene needed him and Shrewsbury may well be good for him too. Drew had an agenda for the good of all. When Drew and Gordon arrived at Drew’s place the front door was locked and the only key available had been mislaid by one of the other tenants, so the only access was through a side window that was left ajar. “Interesting evening” said Drew climbing through the window with half a bottle of wine in his hand. College House was a three storey, black and white building with old beams that adjoined a bed and breakfast and housed six tenants including Drew. “Sleep in this room – if anyone asks you’re a guest of Drew’s” said Drew. The next morning Gordon realised that Drew had given up his room and was astounded by such a grand gesture.

There were good reasons for Drew’s generosity however. He felt Gordon would more likely stay in Shrewsbury if he was looked after. Also from the tenants perspective it would cause less concern if Gordon were to appear from Drew’s room as his guest, rather than being a discovered stranger sleeping on the living room floor. Drew took Gordon to the local café for tea and sausage sandwiches – “everybody plays guitar around here” said Drew casually. This was a subtle ploy to entice Gordon into staying in Shrewsbury, and so Gordon moved into College House. College House, for all its aesthetic charm was largely a dysfunctional dwelling. There were no beds, chairs, tables, T.V sets, radios, fridges, light bulb shades or curtains. In the beginning it flourished with a harmonious equilibrium, but without an authoritative figure to maintain standards it quickly became an open house. One morning the tenants were chatting away in the living room, when they suddenly became aware of a rustling sound from behind the sofa they were sitting on. A young lad then appeared from nowhere, stood up, said “good afternoon” and promptly left. It was assumed he’d tried to sleep behind the sofa secretively, and though nobody knew who he was – no questions were asked. Gordon chuckled infectiously at this, looked over into the girl tenant Sci-Fi’s eyes and she chuckled back. A visitor called ‘Derek The Dude’ would often show up draped in jewellery, a floppy hat, earphones, gloves, sunglasses, a money pouch and rucksack – with the intention of impressing the tenants. He was so heavily decorated in personal accessories however, you could hardly see him. He was phoney too – he would spend the entire visit shaking hands with the tenants, congratulating them on how well they were doing for themselves – having such a nice place to live. Speed the tenant was a real handful – a bright, articulate, well-dressed young lad with multi personalities. He harboured fantasist traits – adopting the persona of eminent T.V. characters. He would imitate Robert De Niro one day and Clint Eastwood the next – and it could last all day. Once in a Bruce Lee mood he tied a punch bag to the kitchen ceiling, and as a consequence of his incessant kicking, the weight of the bag pulled down one of the old beams. Drew was concerned Gordon would become intolerant of the crazy characters and silly behaviour at College House and continue with his journey into the next town. He pleaded with Speed – “Speed I’ve discovered a genius. Do you remember when Jimi Hendrix first came over to England? – he’s going to have a similar impact. If things get too heavy around here he may move on to London – go easy on him will you?”. The following evening all the tenants were at home drinking wine when suddenly Speed leapt into the living room with an inflatable guitar, singing the song ‘Purple Haze’.

He dropped the ‘guitar’, fell to his knees, waggled his tongue provocatively and produced a flame from his cigarette lighter – presumably with the intention of re-enacting Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-burning stunt at the Monterey Pop festival in 1967. Drew flew across the room and snatched the inflatable from Speed’s grasp and yelled – “Speed you bloody fool – it’s made of plastic – you’ll set the house on fire!”. The next day Drew arrived back at College House with a box of wine and noticed Gordon’s guitar was missing. “Gordon!” – he frantically searched all the rooms but Gordon had gone – and who could blame him? what would he want with a little backwater town like Shrewsbury anyway? – he could make it anywhere. He ran out into the street and headed in the southerly direction of the town – “Gordon!”. Finally exhausted he sat down on the kerb – “he’s gone! the new music has gone!”. He slowly wandered back to College House and drank himself to sleep – dreaming the words ‘forlorn at the funeral pyre, we mourn the death of the new music’s last breath, as it flames the fire on the smoking wrecks of choking guitar necks, once held by innovative fists, now stand the crying artists that concede – they were good enough to follow but never to lead – R.I.P. Folkadelic’. Drew was awakened by familiar voices in the living room. He stumbled downstairs and saw Gordon standing there with his guitar – holding hands with Sci-Fi. “have you been out then?” said Drew – careful not to show too much concern. Sci-Fi the tenant was a twenty-two-year-old waitress. She was gentle and quiet, and would giggle at the ridiculous – “she’s really mellow – the opposite of my ex-girlfriend” said Gordon. She acquired the nickname Sci-Fi from the futuristic clothes she wore. Serendipity played its part when an old friend of Drew’s mentioned he’d still got the keys to a residence he’d long vacated, and the place was now empty. Drew now had the keys, and along with Gordon, Sci-Fi, and Sci-Fi’s sister Kate – decided it would make a good squat – a risky adventure but a better option than the madness of College House. The first night they moved into the squat however, an ugly incident occurred. Their belongings were packed for a leisurely move at College House, when a visitor arrived drunk – turning aggressive on another visitor. The air was tense and a bad scenario for Drew’s anxiety. Drew had a heightened fear of heights, closed spaces, insects, flying in aeroplanes, sudden loud noises and aggressive people. Sensing danger earlier than the others he stood up – announced his departure and left. He’d only walked a few hundred yards when he heard running footsteps behind him – “Drew!” – it was Gordon. “All I want to do is play guitar and drink my wine in peace – I can’t believe that guy would start trouble like that in our home” said Drew disgruntled. They walked to the squat together – “well you’re a mellow lad aren’t you?” said Gordon in a sincere, sympathetic, comforting tone that embellished indelibly upon Drew’s sensibilities. The squat was a huge three story house set in an upmarket area of the town. It had beds and mattresses but no curtains, electric or running water. “What kind of squat is this?” said Gordon – lighting a large candle.

“It has good acoustics” said Drew. Later that night Sci-Fi arrived at the squat with the story of how the two visitors at College House had nearly come to blows. Learning the location of the squat, the same two guys turned up and banged on the front door. Drew opened the second floor window and saw they had expressions on their faces that seemed to say – “it’s ok – we’ve reconciled, it’s still early – may we come in?”. Before either of them could speak, Drew growled – “go away! this is an official squat – you don’t have permission!”. He’d tolerated such nonsense at College House but he wasn’t about to let this dubious pair disrupt the harmony of the squat. “Wow you really told them” said Gordon – “nah – Dutch courage” said Drew. They jammed late into the night – Gordon serenaded Sci-Fi with a lullaby he’d written – ‘sleep on it baby’, but he couldn’t resist cheekily changing the lyric mid-flow to ‘sit on it baby’ – “oh no – you’ve ruined it” she said.

At night they lit candles, but without curtains the nearby residents had a clear view into the squat during the daytime – so to not be spotted, Gordon and Drew crawled from room to room. At one point they jammed lying on their backs in hysterics. Though the squatters were paragons of discretion it wasn’t long before they were rumbled. One night there was a loud knock on the side door. Gordon gingerly crept to the side of the top floor window and briefly peeped out. “It’s the police – two of them” he said, “tell them we’re out!” yelled Drew from the adjoining room – Sci-Fi giggled, “shhhh they’re leaving – someone must have seen us” said Gordon. It was decided unanimously they would vacate the squat the next morning. In a mixture of coincidence and a bizarre twist of fate, some builders arrived at the squat very early that morning – parked on the driveway, let themselves in to what they assumed was an empty house with the intention of carrying out some maintenance work. Suddenly the four squatters walked out of the house carrying guitars and clothes in full view of the bemused builders – “morning” said Drew casually – swigging a bottle of wine. With considerable reluctance they moved back into College House. “I’ve found us a place to live – it’s very small but it’s cheap” said Sci-fi. Sci-Fi’s sister had decided to stay at College House so the plan was – the three of them would live temporarily in the single bedsit under the guise of one tenant and two ‘visitors’. If they could overcome the overcrowding issue it would again be a better option than College House. The room Sci-Fi rented was part of a large three storey house that was infamously referred to as ‘Smoke Row’ – the source and reason for its title was unknown. The only other tenant living at Smoke Row was Ralph – a thirty something quiet man who kept himself to himself.

An awkward incident however brought Ralph out of his ‘shell’. Gordon – devoid of a tin opener one night, opened a tin of beans with one of Ralph’s luxury kitchen knives – causing a chip in the blade. Ralph confronted Drew – demanding the perpetrator reimburse him with the cost of the damaged utensil. Later that night the REM song – ‘Everybody Hurts’ floated up from Ralph’s room as if he was making an indirect point through the sentiment of the song – expressing his upset over the knife with a subtle musical implication. Gordon, Drew and Sci-Fi looked at each other – shaking in muted hysterics.

Back at College House an incident occurred that maintained its reputation as a mad house. The landlord had decided to evict the tenants in light of the constant rowdy behaviour from the endless stream of visitors that would drop by when the pubs had closed. In order for the tenants to receive their deposit however, they were asked to move the giant sofa from the living room. As none of the tenants had transport, they decided to carry it out of the house and leave it somewhere discreet. The Square in Shrewsbury was a quaint little tourist area of restaurants, cafe’s and pretty gift shops, but it had recently been blighted by a large gathering of aggressive winos who had claimed one of the park benches as their own. Routinely they would get paralytic and scream obscenities at passers by. It wasn’t long before the headline – ‘Armchair Rowdies’ appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. Unbeknown to the tenants, the winos had descended upon The Square that day, with bottles of home brew beer and a ghetto blaster. Instead of resting on their usual bench, they adopted the abandoned sofa from College House and claimed it as there own property. A local shopkeeper had alerted the police – who tried to disperse the group and confiscate the sofa, but were challenged by the rowdy bunch who took exception to ‘their’ sofa being taken away, and a struggle ensued. The sofa was pulled to and fro until the police finally overpowered them. Although Shrewsbury had been perceived by many as a conservative straight-laced little town, it never failed to deliver its fair share of eccentrics. A good example of this was wine shop owner Ritchie – an immaculately dressed middle-aged gentlemen who grinned incessantly and shook hands with every customer.

He would stand behind the counter holding a deck of cards – refusing to serve anyone until they participated in his magic tricks that always flopped. He once pelted a young lad with chocolate bars as he had the gall to query the price of a bottle of wine. The classic incident though, involved a couple who were good friends of Drew. They’d only met Ritchie on a few occasions and found him charming – at that point they were unaware of his crazy antics. As they approached the wine shop in their car they spotted what they thought was Ritchie waving at them.

As they slowed down to have a chat with him they realised he wasn’t waving at all – he was boxing. He was boxing with somebody who wasn’t there. Drew’s friend put his foot down on the accelerator as they both slid down in their seats – pretending not to see him – “keep your head down – he’s out of his mind – he’s fighting fresh air!”.
Gordon, Drew and SciFi were drinking wine and playing guitar in the park when they were approached by a very old sweet lady called Mary. She asked them if they had a spare cigarette and Drew – in an error of judgement, handed her his smoke. “No Drew!” yelled Gordon horrified, but it was too late – Mary proceeded to smoke the remainder of Drew’s joint. “What flavour is this?” asked Mary – “it’s fruity Virginia” replied Drew – without the sober clarity to offer a sensible answer. Impressed with their generosity and friendly chat, Mary invited them back to her home for a cup of tea. Gordon was instantly receptive of Mary’s invitation – recognizing she needed the company of friends more than a cigarette. Drew was a little more reluctant but he staggered behind the rest of them – swigging his wine. Mary’s place was a private old people’s home – sectioned off exclusively from the rest of the building. She poured her guests a whisky and they sat and watched a football match on T.V. Mary told them the story of her trip to Blackpool in 1976. On returning to the coach she’d travelled there on, she discovered the coach door was closed. She’d walked around to the driver’s side and saw the driver was asleep in the driver’s seat. She had to attract his attention, but being under five feet tall the only way she could alert the driver was by whacking her handbag against the driver’s side window – giving him the fright of his life. They all guffawed at that anecdote. Gordon was a light drinker and didn’t smoke at all, but Drew and Mary were drunk and stoned. Mary put on a record from her big band collection and Drew asked her if she’d like a dance – she duly obliged and Sci-Fi giggled. Gordon needed the toilet and instead of pulling the flusher he pulled the emergency cord – installed to alert staff in an emergency. A young female voice emitted from a speaker in the main room – “Mary are you ok?”. Mary, who was hard of hearing retorted – “hello – who’s there?”. “Are you ok Mary” repeated the concerned voice – “who’s that?” said Mary, “is everything alright?” said the girl – “what do you want?” said Mary. If only Mary had reassured the staff member of her well-being it may have diffused the crisis – but just as with the squat they had been rumbled. Drew, with his heightened sense of danger, staggered out of Mary’s place as the girl staff member burst into the room and yelled “oi you lot! get out! we’ll have no smoking weed in here!”.

It was mid-summer now and Gordon and Drew were jamming in the park. “Let’s play a gig at the Yorkshire Arms – we could call ourselves The Squatters” said Gordon. Sci-Fi made some tickets to promote their first gig, but the night before – Drew pulled out. “Sorry Gordon, I’m a bit anxious about it, we’ll do another one when I’ve sobered up – do it on your own – you don’t need me” said Drew remorsefully. “It’s ok Drew, I’ll do this one solo, I’ll wait until you get strong. Don’t give up – you’re the only guitarist in this town that gives me the Shivers” said Gordon. Gordon played the Yorkshire Arms and someone insensitively put the jukebox on – mid-performance, but was soon reprimanded by the other patrons. The Folkadelic sound was so Leftfield to the audience – that were raised on traditional Folk and Blues – they weren’t sure if they liked it or not at the outset, but they warmed to it eventually and admired his courage to stand up and sing on his own.

Drew in his drunken wisdom, bought a car he didn’t need. It soon became apparent it was a heap of scrap on wheels. The wing mirrors fell off, the wipers stuck, and one day when Drew and Gordon were about to leave for town, Drew dropped some coins behind the driver’s seat, and in an attempt to retrieve them he had to adjust the seat, and in doing so it jammed in a permanent forward position. Drew drove Gordon into town with his forehead squashed against the windscreen – hoping nobody would recognise him. The saga of the cursed car didn’t end there. Drew mistakenly put diesel into the petrol tank. Gordon, Sci-Fi, and two musician friends tried to bump start it through traffic lights in the town centre as it spluttered and spewed out thick black smoke. At one stage they passed a wedding photo session, and as one of the guests knew Drew, he decided to abandon the wedding party and help out by giving it a push. When the car did start up, Drew had to maintain a certain speed or it would cut out and stop. He raced around the block and slowed down to pick them up, but as it threatened to break down again he had to speed up, so off he raced – gesticulating his intentions that left them all bewildered – “he’s off again, where the hell’s he going now?, why won’t he stop?” said Gordon.

One night Gordon and Drew were jamming at Smoke Row. Drew, in one of his drunken epiphanies, suddenly muttered – “let’s have a march for no reason”. Gordon stopped playing his guitar and said “what?” – with a combination of curiosity and disbelief. “A march for no reason – it’s never been done, let’s make history. If we don’t become famous musicians we’ll never be remembered” said Drew. Gordon sat in silence for a while – “it’s genius Drew” he said.

Drew had always been obsessed with fame. His anxiety and booze addiction problems however, had prevented him from fulfilling his potential as a performing world class guitarist. The March For No Reason was an opportunity for him to leave his mark on the planet. An organized march like this would not only be the first of its kind in history, but the only one – “it’s thirty years since Martin Luther King’s pivotal civil rights march on Washington” said Drew enthusiastically. They decided the location of the march would be The Charles Darwin statue on September 4th 1993. Sci-Fi printed off two thousand tickets and Gordon handed them out at gigs. On the eve of the march, Gordon and Sci-fi were alone at Smoke Row. Sci-Fi looked pensive – “what if the march is sabotaged by anarchists? , it may turn violent, the police might arrest us for gathering in large numbers in a public place – I’m worried, can’t you cancel it?” she said. “I’m worried too” said Gordon, “but we’ve come too far to go back now, besides this is his only chance to leave a significant legacy – he’ll never perform again – he’s shot”. On a warm September Day Gordon, Drew and Sci-Fi made their way to The Darwin Statue – Gordon joked – “you watch – they’ll be holding up banners with nothing on them”. Drew took a swig of wine for courage and they arrived at the statue expecting hundreds to be there, but the turn out was just forty two. A mixture of young and old, dressed in colourful clothes, playing guitars on the grass verge. They waited nervously, and it wasn’t long before the police arrived in large numbers – “rumbled again” giggled Sci-Fi. The senior officer approached Gordon as he was positioned at the front of the group – “what’s all this about then?” asked the officer, “it’s not about anything” replied Gordon – Sci-Fi giggled like never before. “Well you need permission for an organised protest” said the officer. Right on cue as planned, Drew stood up and yelled – “come on marchers! let’s go to the park!”. The plan worked a treat – Drew had foreseen that should the police enforce a crowd dispersal, it would subsequently prompt a unified movement of the crowd that would walk together along the same route if a proposed destination was announced. This by default would become the march. Drew knew the police would have to follow them – giving the march more credibility. The Marchers reached the gates of the park and were confronted by another line of police that had cordoned off the entrance and locked the park gates for the first time in its history. As Drew was the leader he felt a duty to try and climb the gates – if only as a gesture of defiance, but he was apprehended as the marchers adapted the John Lennon song – ‘All We Are Saying Is Nothing At All’ as their signature anthem. Gordon pulled Drew back from the skirmishes – “Drew get back! you’re pissed! you’ll get arrested for drunken disorderly – we’ve done it, people have taken pictures – we’ve got the proof, you’ve made history!”. Gordon held Drew up and they retreated along with SciFi – back into town for a well-earned celebratory beer in the Yorkshire Arms. Every marcher gathered in the pub and they chanted “they had to close the gates! they had to close the gates!”. A policeman walked in and monitored them closely in case they felt like an evening revolution. Gordon asked the officer audaciously – “can you buy us a pint mate?”.

In the Autumn of 1993, Gordon and Sci-Fi moved out of Smoke Row and into a room that was part of a house share at Berwick Place. Berwick Place was a large white house on a lofty hill, situated on the outskirts of town. Drew stayed on at Smoke row. He busked every day in an attempt to regain his confidence as a performer and to help pay the rent. Though he was appreciative of the newly-found space, he missed Gordon and Sci-Fi’s company.

 
 
 
 

Epilogue

 
 

Gordon would often invite Drew back to Berwick Place, and so to not wake the tenant downstairs, they would often scale the stairs in unison to imitate the stepping sound of one person. Gordon was making a name for himself in the Shropshire music scene – every gig was packed, and he would bring the house down every time. He incorporated funky acoustic guitar with techno rhythms and the audiences would dance in their Folkadelic hats with a frenetic passion equal to that of the eighties rave scene. In January 1994 Gordon played a gig at a commune in the Shropshire countryside. He began with an organic Folkadelic set and moved on to the synth and drum sequencer, accompanied with a cosmic laser light show – watched closely by an unexpected bystander. One night the phone rang at Berwick Place – “is Gordon there?” said a deep mature, well-spoken voice. Sci-Fi called Gordon and when he realised who it was he nearly dropped to the floor. “It’s Jim Rocks here, I saw you’re gig at the commune, I thought you were marvellous – I’d like you to join me on my world tour”. Jim Rocks was an eighties pop icon and was now making a come back. “Can’t I go with you?” said Sci-Fi, Gordon smiled, “only Paul McCartney takes his girlfriend on tour with him” he said. Gordon put his arms around her – “you’ve been good for me Sci-fi”. There was a knock at the door at Smoke Row – it was Gordon. “You’re off then?” said Drew, “yeah the first concert’s in Australia – we’re flying from Manchester” said Gordon. “I’ll walk you to the station” said Drew, “no it’s ok, finish your wine” said Gordon. “Time for one more jam?” said Drew. Gordon smiled and hugged Drew.

“You’ll send a postcard off course?” said Drew, “off course” said Gordon. Drew closed the front door and walked into the living room. He sat down and swigged his wine slowly – leaning back in his chair, breathing deeply as he put the bottle down. He noticed a small bird perched outside on the window sill. He smiled and asked it rhetorically – “what are you waiting for birdy – it’s ok, I won’t forget you”. Gordon walked over the English Bridge that reflected over the rippled water of the river, among the old black and white buildings and punched the sky.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Stephan Phillip Druce

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Carol Smallwood… After Dirk

 

After Dirk

My house is now very clean; I can rest in its sterility. There are nights I cannot sleep from wanting him; I must believe I’ll see him again to ward off the chill of fall.

I pace supermarkets while country music singers belt songs of undying love. The last survey I made was pasta: rotini, elbows, rigatoni, bow ties, twists (they also came in colors), angel hair, fettuccine, manicotti, mostaccioli, lasagna, penne, shells (various sizes), ruffles, vermicelli—and then egg noodles and spaghetti also in various sizes. I arranged them alphabetically as I wrote them. And compared prices and brands. Once I surveyed spirals of luncheon meats, rings of bologna, stacked hot dogs: most were a mixture of turkey, chicken, pork, beef, and chemicals. I wrote the chemicals in symbols I remembered from chemistry class. And compared prices and brands.

Most enjoyable, however were facial tissues: row after row of boxes. Flowers were the most popular design. Ultra soft, scented, environmentally safe, strengthened, allergenic, pop-up, baby blue, petal pink, sunny yellow, classic white. I’d pick the most comforting and pretend to buy it.
When I looked at the rainbow of scented candles with matching labels, the meadow flowers candle conjured up the spring with Boyd, the yellow citrus the fleck in one of Cal’s jackets, the blue the shore I paced thinking of Doctor, the purple with Mitchell’s heather.

Across from the candles were the detergents smelling so good you knew their claims must be true. But what did “extreme clean” mean? Was “mountain fresh” better than “spring rain”?”
Deep clean” better than “ultra clean”—or was “advanced action” better? Many had labels radiating rainbows.

Jenny said I looked younger and Mark whistled with raised eyebrows when I wore my new dress to church. I hadn’t washed it because I wanted to keep it the way I’d worn it with Dirk.

 

Carol Smallwood’s books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, foreword by Molly Peacock (McFarland, 2012) on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers; Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Editions, 2014); Bringing the Arts into the Library (American Library Association, 2014). Carol supports humane societies.

Copyright © 2014 by Carol Smallwood

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

Sleeping Rough… by Charles Tarlton

 

Sleeping Rough

 

CARMODY
Norma Desmond said it best: “You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!…”

BLIGHT
“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

 

         Marie smiled and scooted down the bench, closer to the camera.
         “I was fifteen,” she said, straight into the lens, “when my stepfather came into my bedroom late at night….”
         “Whoa!” Gary said, and turned off the camera. “I just want to hear about how you started sleeping rough,” he said. “This is a documentary on what it’s like to live out here, on the street.”

         Marie smiled and said how sorry she was, then she adjusted herself on the bench again and prepared for another take.
She was dressed in a long, faded, and flower-patterned beach dress, waist-length fake fur jacket, and sandals with socks. Her hair was half in greasy dreadlocks.
         “Okay,” Gary said. “Let’s try it again.”
         His SONY video camera was so quiet you couldn’t tell when it was “rolling.”

 

         “The first guy I moved in with,” Marie started up, “was nice to begin with, but he started beating me regularly within a couple of weeks.”
         “No! No!” Gary said, and switched off the camera again. You could only tell when the camera was off because the light on its side clicked off automatically.
         Gary opened his script and read a few paragraphs of his instructions to himself.
         “This is where you’re supposed to tell me about what it’s like ‘sleeping rough,’” she said to Marie. “That’s what we want to know about. Okay?”
         Marie reached for her absolutely sweetest voice. “I am sorry again,” she said. “All the parts of this seem to stick together. I have a hard time separating them.”
         “Okay,” Gary allowed. “Shall we try it again?”
         The light blazed up and the camera was on.
         “I hadn’t been in the women’s center for even two days,” Marie said, as if reading from a prepared text,” when this Mexican pimp had me turning tricks for smokes”
         “Oh, shit, Marie,” Gary yelled and forgot to turn the camera off. “Why can’t you stick to the plan?”
         “My life never had much of a plan,” Marie said into the camera, which was still recording. She seemed to sense that posterity was waiting in the wings.
         “I started out a pretty normal kid,” she said, “but then my mother and father were divorced and my mother married this asshole….”
         “Stop! Stop! Gary screamed and just managed to get the camera turned off after a couple of fumbling efforts.
         “What part of ‘sleeping rough’ don’t you understand?” he demanded.
         “Okay, okay, I get it,” Marie said, and reached over and switched the camera back on by herself.
         “The rock bottom truth this time.”
         Gary smiled and looked into the viewfinder on the camera. “Go,” he said.
         “Well, I had a pretty strong taste for bourbon right from the start,” Marie began, “but I soon graduated to weed and from there it was an easy leap to smack and cocaine.”
         “Fuck it,” Gary said under his breath, and just let the video keep on rolling.
         “I was really a wreck, you know,” Marie was saying into the camera. “and I ended up sleeping outdoors next to a garbage can in an alley, asking myself: ‘What’s next? There’s not much left to lose.”

 

Charles Tarlton retired from college teaching and turned to poetry and flash fiction. In the last couple of years he published a bunch of poems and flash stories and was nominated for the Pushcart by Muse-Pie Press.

Copyright © 2014 by Charles Tarlton

 
 

 
 

 
 

 
 

Time Twinkled On… by Robert Crabtree

 

Time Twinkled On

Down the street in the gutter in front of the neighbor’s house, the black, round, head-sized shadow sat, waiting for me. A stream of dark shiny goop trickled toward it and continued on beyond it. A streetlight’s reflection glimmered in the stream like a moon over a river on an enchanted evening on another planet. I was afraid to pick up the head. That evil fiend would be the type to hang on to his life as long as possible just so that he could bite off my thumb or give me a heart attack by laughing at me. I was afraid to get near it. Probably nothing out of ‘the ordinary’ happened, but what if he had AIDS and I got his vile putrid blood all over me? I didn’t even want any of it dripping on my shoe. But Luke was quickly regrouping, getting everyone to do this that and the other thing so that they could get in the car and get out of here. Podd was dead; the situation was a little different. They had a good number of minutes instead negative seconds in which to depart. There was time to find his wife’s purse, get snacks, grab a few important belongings, like photo-albums and his baseball card collection. But they still didn’t have forever. “Hurry up with that head so you can help me with the body.” Luke whispered commandingly. I was the only one standing around doing nothing.

I started toward the head. I noticed a car about fifteen feet beyond the head; facing me silently and eerily like some character in a Steven King story. I recognized that car. It was the car parked in front of the Meghanopolis Apartments in the video I watched at Darla’s last night. I walked up to the driver’s door and looked in the window. I could see the keys in the ignition, beautiful silhouettes dangling, and reflecting glimmers of green from the dash lights.

This was my car now.

I went back and squatted down beside the head. I looked it over like I was a booby-trap expert. Already it had the first stages of that look poor Mr Barrish had; profound and utter emptiness. His face and skin and hair and color were all still there but the emptiness was already cast upon his face like a shadow. That was proof he had a soul. God have mercy on it now, I thought. Not because I felt sorry for Podd. But because I didn’t want God to get mad at me. I wanted Him to have mercy on my soul too.

I didn’t mean to be irreverent but I had to be cautious; I nudged the head a little with my foot, watching for a reaction. His face was definitely dead. I picked it up by a lock of his longish greasy silver hair and looked at it more closely, but at arm’s length so the blood would not get on me. That head had once belonged to a newborn baby and who the hell knows what had happened to it since till now. And that was the only sermon I could think of. I carried it, squeamishly, quickly, to the garbage can at the top of the drive way. I lifted the lid and dropped in the head.

Clunk.

Like the Tin Man getting punched in the stomach. I put the lid back on.

I felt grim, like I was burying him alive. Grizzly business. And we still had to deal with his bigger half.

Luke and I dragged it by it’s boots up the driveway, into his backyard. I felt like we shouldn’t be doing this. “We should dump this guy somewhere, Luke. It won’t make you look good in the eyes of the law to leave this guy here.”

“Ahhhh,” he swiped at the thought like a pesky mosquito. “We don’t got the time. I don’t want this thing in my car. Fuck it. Just cuz he’s in my backyard doesn’t mean I killed him.”

“You probably have fibers traceable to you all over him.”

“I’ll burn these clothes. I’m not worried. Fuck it. Come on, I wanna close this gate up.” We left the body on the side of the house. “Maybe it’ll be a week before somebody finds this thing,” Luke said, kicking the black boot back into the yard so he could close the gate. “I just need a day.”

I looked him in the eye and really felt like he was my brother. True brothers, since birth. It was a weird feeling. Perhaps the nearness to death and all that, plus being fellow potheads. I felt very bad for what I was putting him and his family through. I was driving them out of their home like they were Eastern European refugees.

I decided to give him Hugo Mogo’s money. I’d keep enough to get me comfortably into the Montana Wilderness. I put the bag down and reached in and grubbed my bag of pot, which I stuffed into my coat pocket, surprised at how small it felt now in my pocket. I’d come of think of it as something that could last me maybe six months; now I felt I’d be lucky to have it last till December. What a scary feeling. I grabbed three bundle of money and stuck them in my other pocket.
“Be careful,” I warned. “And here.”

I reached into the bag and grabbed another bundle of money. I showed it to him so that he knew what it was. I then showed him the inside of the bag, filled with more of those bundles. I stashed the one I showed him into my back pants pocket and handed him the bag. He looked at me with the most amazed and surprised look I’d ever seen on someone not in the movies or on TV. I had just handed him a treasure from out of the blue that he had never dreamed of. His happy shock blended with his guilt and shame about how he had to tell me that he wasn’t bringing me with them. He had been wondering how he was going to break the news to me. He wondered if I knew, since I was saying goodbye without ever having announced I was leaving. He was touched that I would spare him this awkwardness. And the money! He looked in the bag.

I started thinking maybe I needed a little more for myself. I reached in and grabbed another bundle, and then another, and stuffed them into my pocket with the weed. “Just to be on the safe side,” I explained. I would have grabbed another but I was really starting to feel cheap and petty and wishy washy and less generous than I wanted to pretend I was. He’d end up offering the bag back and I’d end up taking it.

“That’s his car right there,” I said, pointing down at the small burgundy box shaped car. “I’m taking that.”

“You can my Mustang. It runs good.”

“I’d rather take his car so I don’t feel guilty about dumping it anywhere I feel like. Besides, I’m curious about what I’ll find in it.”

He looked at the car. Then he looked at the bag I gave him. He put it down and opened it up and looked inside. He took out a bundle of money and looked at it up close. He dropped it and reached in with both hands and grabbed three or four bundles with each hand and looked at it all. He dropped all but one and flipped through it to see what the denominations were. He grinned dreamily. I was very happy for him.

“There’s a movie camera in there. If you can, have Clyde down load the movie to U-Tube. There’s a gun in there, too. Just in case. Throw it in a river if you want. I don’t want it.”

He didn’t hear what I said about the gun. He was just thinking of the money. I thought he was going to start blubbering. It made me feel happy about handing over to him the money that got me into this whole mess in the first place. But really what I was looking for when I stole that money was an escape from my old life and I had certainly found that and I would never be able to lose it.

“Why?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. Cuz you need it more than I do. You’ve got a big family here. And cuz it’s my fault that you’re in this mess. And cuz I promised God I’d do something good with this money. Cuz the first time I saw you I felt like we were brothers. And cuz I don’t even know what the heck I’d spend it on. I couldn’t even smoke that much pot. I got enough money here to get into the mountains with a year’s supply of food and hopefully somewhere — maybe some Indian kid in Montana can help me score a pound of that good stuff. I’m home free. I’m happy to give you this money.”

“Here man, take this.” He reached into a pocket and handed me his baggy of fresh green bud.

I probably gave him the same look of surprise and amazement he gave me. “Wowwww! Man, thanks!” I said. “This is great. This insures at least another week of interesting and safe adventures.”

“Well, maybe I’d better…” and he reached into the baggy and picked out three or four buds, each one was like a kick in the nads. “Thanks for this,” he said, showing me the bag, as he zipped it shut. “We’ll go somewhere and start all over again. I’m pretty clever when I have to be. In the navy I got away with all kinds a shit all the time. We’ll be okay,” he said. He suddenly looked into the car to see if his wife heard him say that. He looked at me and nodded that his secret was intact.

“Vio con Dios, amigo,” I said to him.

“You too,” He said to me and got into his car and closed the door. He gave me a thumbs-up and started the car. He backed out and turned and stopped. I stood in the street and he was a few feet from me looking at me out the window.

He nodded. I nodded back.

He took off down the street. Maysong leaned out the window and waved an open palm and flashed a big beautiful happy playful smile. “Goodbye, whoever you are!” she called out sincerely. That made me feel nice. I blew her a kiss. She kept waving until someone told her to climb back in. I stood there and watched them go, the red lights growing smaller, and then disappearing onto another street, and then the wind was all that was left of the Woodhollow Family.

I stood there a moment, soaking up the silence, the cool and enchanting fresh October air, staring up at the stars. I noticed the sound of cars whizzing by. There was a big wall behind a thick forest of little trees and big bushes just on the other side of the tiny street. That was the freeway over there. Podd got his head chopped off and we got rid of his body with about a thousand people going by non stop just fifteen feet away. It’s a weird world, I thought.

I walked over to Podd’s car and got in. I reached for the keys.

The keys weren’t in the ignition.

 

Robert Crabtree is working on a novel that will, if published and,
mind you, successful, change the world. Sadly, it will cause great
unrest and revolution and “The Cause”, (True Freedom), ultimately,
will fail, and we will all be enslaved or killed. (It’s gonna happen
anyway, of course; the book just speeds up the process cuz it warns
the masses and “the mob” will not be permitted.) But you gotta try;
right? Order your copy now, only $50. (It’s very long.)

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Crabtree

 
 

 
 

 
 

Persephone Meets Hades… by Imani Sims

 

Persephone Meets Hades

He tossed a smooth coin in his hand. “So, what do you say,” he asked? I turned to face him, Acheron at my back. A black boat that smelled of sulfur and sweat bobbed in the water. A demon waited—shimmering like a labrodorite gem in the sun, an oar heavy in hand —for me to make a decision.

“What’s in it for me,” I said as raised an eyebrow and tossed a braid over my shoulder.

“An entire kingdom my love; you’ll be queen.”

I must admit, he was persuasive. I wanted the obsidian crown that rose to the clouds. I wanted the flowing robes. My twelve year old mind was filled with enchantment, rationalizing this decision. And he said I can have the dogs too!

But with pursed lips and a flounce, I said, “mmmm nope, maybe next year.” I turned on my heels and wandered back to the house.

This stranger never failed; he came every year around the end of August. He would bring me a gift. Bow and kiss my hand. Tell me how I was the fairest of Demeter’s daughters. Then the bargaining would begin.

Every time, my mother gave me the same advice: Stay Away From Him. Don’t get lost in his golden eyes and tilled earth skin. If you do, we will never see you again.

I couldn’t imagine why she felt this way. He was so nice. He treated me like I was his queen.

For three years, our little game of cat and mouse continued. Each year, his gifts got bigger and more extravagant. A trunk overflowing with jewels, satin robes as far as the eye could see; he even brought me a harp and notebook, so that I could write down my songs.

 

The fourth year came. I sauntered out of the house, ample breasts and curls playing in the wind. I knew today was the day he would be here. I always knew. It was like I could feel his breath on my neck and his arm wrapped around my waist. I shivered, remembering how great it felt to have him near me, how soon I would have him again. Only morning turned to noon and noon turned to dusk. He hadn’t shown up. I stood, from dawn until dusk, feet digging patterns into the banks of the river, arms crossed and my huff becoming more and more of a whine. Until my mother’s voice broke the silence, “Persephone! Get inside! Your dinner will be nothing more than coagulated gravy if you stay out here any longer.”

I silently turned to face her, let the first tear of rejection slide down my face and replied, “I’m not coming in mother, I’m going to find him.”

My mother stood in the doorway, shocked at first. Then she began to run full force towards me, enraged at the thought of me defying her and for what? A man? She couldn’t believe it. As her feet hit the earth, my toes were already in the water. I dove.

My head hit the cold water with a jolt and all of a sudden I felt nothing but sorrow and regret. I felt as though every tear I had ever wept were washing over me, trying to sway me to turn back. But the burn in my heart kept me going. My arms kept slicing the water, my mother’s wails somewhere in the distance, I drew closer to my love, my king.

The first yellow leaf hit the water, as my sorrows turned to lament. My fingertips splashing into the river Cocytus.

 

Imani Sims is a Seattle native who spun her first performance poem at the age of fourteen. Since then, she has developed an infinitely rippling love for poetry in all of its forms. Imani is the founder of Split Six Productions (splitsix.com) in Seattle, WA. Her book Twisted Oak is available on Requiem Press