The Man in Black Underwear
by Zoot J. McNutt
As Tommy Clayton knelt down on one knee and laid his solid black Martin D-35 acoustic guitar into its case, he was nearly run down by the motorized wheelchair that had been making a beeline towards him. It was in fact the chair’s reflection in the guitar’s finish that had alerted him, saving both he and Vivian from a calamitous experience.
“Whoa lady”, he said pivoting and putting out a warning hand. “Lemme get Vivian inta’ her case. She’s tuckered out and needs her beauty rest”.
“I’m so sorry”, said the woman, her head tilting on an angle Tommy recognized as a sign of some kind of affliction that he always dreaded getting himself. As he looked out past the woman he spotted a few more would-be senior groupies en route towards him and quickened his pace.
“What can I do ya for young lady?” Tommy said.
“I just wanted to say thank you so much. I always loved Elvis.”
“Why that’s mighty kinda you to say,” he said, smiling as only the truly and deeply insulted can.
As she spun her chair around and wheeled away, Tommy snatched a large poster off the easel he was kneeling in front of and rolled it into a tube. It featured a black and white airbrushed younger thinner picture of him mounted on a silver star-spangled backdrop. Below his photograph in glittering gold lettering were the words “Tommy Clayton sings Johnny Cash!” Despite the fact that the poster had cost him a week’s salary at the time, it screamed second-rate.
“Ya hear that Vivian?” he muttered. “Elvis? Shit.”
He collected his fifty dollar fee from the woman in charge of recreation and left, swearing as he did every time he played there, that he’d never come back.
After leaving, his first stop was a nearby tavern. Not his regular one, he owed too much money there to show his face. He took a seat, ordered a draft and dug his flip phone out of his hip pocket. It was ten years out of date, but it still made calls. He found the number he was looking for and pushed on the send harder than he needed to.
“Schullman Talent, Mitch here” a voice answered.
“Mitchy, it’s me Tommy. How ya doin?”
“Busy Tommy. Real busy.”
“No secretary anymore? “
“Nah she quit on me. So, what can I do for ya Tommy?”
“Listen. I’ve been working on my act and…”
“I just signed a fifteen year old kid”, Mitch interrupted “He sings Ring of Fire so good you’d swear JC had risen from the grave. I’m bookin’ him left and right. It’s nonstop.”
“Fifteen eh?” Tommy said.
“Yeah, we gotta work on his look a bit, but he’s got the pipes. I’m talking a real bass baritone. You know, the kind you gotta have if you wanna do the man in black justice.”
“Listen, like I said I’ve been workin on my act and I wanted to re-audition.”
“Are you still the singer in the act?” Mitch asked.
“Cuz if you are, it’s a no. It’s like I already told you Tommy. You got an ok voice, and ya do sorta look like Johnny I give you that, but it’s when folks close their eyes, that’s when Johnny really appears–in their minds and in their hearts, and in your case it just doesn’t happen. In your case when they close their eyes they hear Tommy Clayton. An ok singer…but nothing more. It’s a business where just ok don’t cut it.”
“Maybe they hear Elvis” Tommy muttered inaudibly.
“No hard feelings Tommy. We can’t all be who we want to be. Christ, I wanted to be Charles H. Joffe, and I manage dead celebrity impersonators.”
“I get it Mitch.” He’d never heard of Charles H. Joffe, but he didn’t want to look ignorant in front of Mitch.
“No hard feelings Tommy. It’s not personal–”
“It’s business. Yeah I know. You forget, it’s my copy of The Godfather you and my sister wore out.”
“I gotta let you go Tommy. The other line’s ringin. I’m tryin to book the kid at the local prison. They pay big bucks.”
“No probs Mitch. Chow.”
Tommy snapped his phone closed and pressed it to his cheek like he was icing a toothache and held it there for a long time.
Three drafts later and hopefully still under the legal limit Tommy was breezing home on the freeway in a car that had long ago passed the midway point from being more Tremclad and body putty than actual metal. He was singing along to the song “Jackson” from the soundtrack to the film “Walk the Line” and marvelling at what a lucky so and so Joaquim Phoenix had been to land that part. Shit, if it’d been me he thought, I’d be in a Porsche right now, not a 1997 Mazda. Maybe even with Reese Witherspoon. Stranger things have happened.
Beating the rush-hour traffic Tommy made it to his rooming house in good time. As he crept in the front door his landlady accosted him. He may have been a stealth mover, but the Mazda’s muffler announced his arrival for him. Another tenant in the rooming house, an ancient yet remarkably well-preserved man, simply known as Colonel Joe once told him “I flew in a B-16 during the war son, and it weren’t none loud as that car of yers.”
His aforementioned landlady Mrs. Elvira Grotto stood about four feet eleven inches tall and could have passed for Edward G. Robinson in drag.
“You gotta the rent?” she asked.
“Friday,” he answered, not breaking his stride.
“Ok black man. You pay Friday, I give you this”, she said glancing downwards. It was then he saw the UPS parcel hidden behind her back slowly emerge.
“First of all”, Tommy said, “ it’s MAN In BLACK, not BLACK MAN. It’s not the same thing. And second of all, you can’t steal my mail”.
“You gotta the rent? You getta the package.”
Before he could get another word in she was gone. He was reminded of a troll returning to its hiding place under a bridge.
Friday was only two days away; the first of the month. His social assistance would be deposited. He’d get his package. She’d getta her rent.
As far as what was in the box, he already knew. He’d bought it a few days before on EBay but it had come earlier than he’d expected. It contained something Tommy desperately needed.
Two days passed without event. On the days Tommy had no gigs” (if you called playing for the demented and wheelchair-bound gigs) he stayed in his room and honed his act. This process involved a mix of polishing up his material, performing vocal exercises from a book called “Getting to the bottom of things: Exercises for Bass singers!” and poring over his Johnny Cash video collection–over two hundred hours worth of concert tapes, television appearances and interviews, studying Johnny Cash’s nuances the way Dian Fossey had studied the Mountain Gorilla.
On the third day Tommy paid his rent and was given his package.
“What’s inna da box?” his landlady had asked, trying to hide her curiosity as she’d handed it over.
“Black underwear”, he’d answered, hoping the truth would annoy her. He knew she found him to be a silly man. Why not give her more reasons to think so? Had he also told her that they were previously owned and what he’d paid for them, her opinion would have dipped from silly to stupid so he kept it at that.
Box in hand Tommy returned to his room and sat down on his creaky single bed, savoring the moment. These, he thought, touched the man himself.
As he carefully slit the sides of the box with his car keys he thought of every Christmas and Birthday gift he’d been disappointed by and braced himself, but as the lid popped open, any anxiety he’d had about being let down vanished. Even through the semi-transparent tissue paper he could tell the jet-black silky drawers were a thing of beauty. The last time he’d felt anything close to this was when he’d first spotted Vivian gleaming in the pawn shop window the day he’d quit University for the second and final time.
He took the underwear out of the box with the methodical deliberation of a priest performing a part of the mass and held them up–arms outstretched in front of the window as the setting sun shone through them illuminating the stitch-work like stained glass. He wondered if the man who first looked through the shroud of Turin had been filled with such wonder.
The ad had claimed the boxers were monogrammed, and when Tommy inspected the inside waistband it turned out the seller had been telling the truth. There, in gold stitching, were the letters JR . Johnny Cash had been born JR. and changed his named to Johnny upon joining the army. Had the initials read JC, Tommy would have been doubtful as to the garment’s authenticity.
“But how do ya know they’re real? His brother had asked him the night Tommy had called him to borrow the money to buy them. When Tommy needed anything his brother always came through. It had been that way since they were kids.
“Hell, how does anyone know anything’s real Jamie?”
“Ya, but three hundred and fifty bucks for a pair ’a gitches? That kind of coin could put a new muffler on that car ‘a yours.”
“When the money starts rollin’ in it’ll seem like nothing. You’ll see.”
The truth was he’d had his doubts, but conversely he’d also had a hunch. Something told him the day he’d found the ad that his luck was finally about to turn around.
The ad had been succinct and unassuming. “Men’s black boxer briefs previously owned by Johnny Cash. Size: large. Condition: fair to midlin,” it had read. Something about the quirky low-key way it had been written had led Tommy to believe the shorts were genuine. He’d only corresponded with the seller once via email. The man had claimed that his recently departed wife had been a maid her whole life at a Holiday Inn, and that Johnny Cash had stayed once in a room she’d cleaned and that she’d found them under the bed. She’d kept them assuming they might be of value one day. Not long before she died she’d told her husband to sell them to help pay for her funeral. He’d done as she’d asked and placed the ad.
He’d added on a personal note that “I got no real attachment to em’. I’ve always been more ‘Gentle on My Mind’ than ‘I walk the Line’. Now, if they’d been owned by Glen Campbell I’d a never parted with them. Not ever. In fact, I might have even worn’em on occasion and sung “Wichita Lineman.”
It had been the seller’s comment that had been the spark that had ignited the fire of Tommy’s imagination. His intention had been to simply own the underwear. He hadn’t thought of wearing them. Well, not consciously. He’d read somewhere that the subconscious mind was always two steps ahead of the conscious mind but he wasn’t sure if he believed it. Sometimes Mr. Freud, he’d thought, a cigar is just a cigar and a pair of used celebrity undies were just something you bought to collect and admire and nothing more.
I’ll try’em on, he’d thought. Just once–only for a minute. Why not? It’s not like I’m gonna make a habit of it. Besides, he’d continued in that vein, I don’t wanna ruin’em and take away any of the resale value–if there were any at all, which in all honestly he doubted murkily because, even though he’d bought them on faith sans proof, he doubted anyone else would.
As he undid his belt buckle and let his jeans slide to the floor, accelerating on the way down like Newton’s famed apple, he stepped out of his tightie whities with the grace of a Herron and stepped into his newly acquired briefs.
They were giant steps.
From the moment he slid their silky smoothness up his legs and snapped the waistband slightly below his hips where a gunslinger might fasten his belt he’d been overcome by a feeling of rightness, like slipping on a well-worn pair of shoes. He knew Johnny Cash had been 6’2 and 190 pounds, a good bit taller and thinner than he was, yet they fit perfectly. It was if they’d been tailor-made.
He spun in front of the mirror uncharacteristically admiring himself like a model. The thought crossed his mind that June Carter had likely seen Johnny in these–or possibly even tugged them off in a moment of passion; though he was alone, he blushed furiously.
He was about to pull them off and put them back in the box when he’d spied Vivian leaning in the corner. The afternoon sun was gleaming off of her like polished obsidian, making her shimmer. She looked like she wanted to be cradled. Why not? He thought. I’ll play her bit, then I’ll put the shorts away. As he slid the guitar onto his lap the black fabric of the boxers rubbed against her like a cat against a shin. It was as if they were greeting Vivian.
“Don’t get jealous girl” Tommy whispered to his guitar reassuringly. “I know you were here first, but now, we’re a trio, and trios are always the stuff of legends.”
Tommy sat on edge of his bed with Vivian across his lap he draped his right hand across her body and squeezed her neck gently fingering an E chord with his left hand–the opening chord to “Folsom Prison Blues “. When Tommy’s pick struck the muted string it made a percussive click so clear he stopped suddenly, concerned his guitar was plugged in to his amplifier–a no-no according to Elvira Grotto’s house rules, but it was not. Vivian hadn’t come with a pickup, but he’d had one installed. Had he changed his strings recently and forgotten, perhaps accidentally putting on a heavier gauge? He looked down at his pick questioningly as if it held the answer. To all appearances it looked the same. “Hmph”, he said out loud and resumed his picking, holding back as if Vivian had suddenly become a wild mare he had to tame.
When he opened his mouth to sing he had a similar experience. When the line “I hear the train a comin–it’s rollin’ round the bend” came out it was if he was miked slightly with reverb, or singing in a church. Somehow his voice sounded bigger. Bigger and….deeper? What? Am I coming down with cold? He thought. He knew a cold could do weird things to his voice but–before the thought had time to fully form, he felt it wilt and lose power in the synapses of his brain like water from a sprinkler when someone steps on the hose. He knew he was trying to convince himself of something that wasn’t true–like the time he’d gotten the clap and he kept telling himself that the burning was from soap that had merely gone somewhere where it shouldn’t have. He knew what he felt like when he was getting sick, and this–whatever it was, was no cold. But if wasn’t that, then what? He’d been doing the vocal exercises religiously; perhaps he thought they were finally starting to pay off…but all at once just like that?
He thought of something he and Jamie used to say when they were kids, it was an expression they’d picked it up from Shaggy on Scooby-Doo. “Like weirdsvile man” he muttered.
What had started out to be a few moments with Vivian and his new underwear had turned out to be a three-hour marathon of Tommy running through his entire repertoire twice. He’d been shaken from his reverie by a pounding on his door.
“Hey…Giovanni Cash….you no-a live alone. People gotta sleep. People who work gotta sleep ’cause they gotta get up tomorrow.”
“Sorry Mrs. Grotto”, he said “I lost track of time.” She didn’t answer because she’d already gone. She knew Tommy scared easily. His sort was the only kind of tenant she rented to. The meek didn’t inherit the earth, they rented it by the week, and when you’d been in the rooming house business for as long as she had, you could spot the meek from a mile away.
That night Tommy fell asleep watching the film “Walk the Line.” He’d seen it so many times; there wasn’t a line he didn’t know by heart. He didn’t think it was a particularly good film, but when it came to Johnny Cash, his standards weren’t overly high. All that mattered was that it was about the man in black, and it had plenty of good music.
While Tommy slept, he dreamt of the film. But instead of it starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, it starred him and the real June Carter Cash. The dream had vividness about it that unsettled Tommy, much like the first time he’d seen a high-definition television screen.
In the morning when he awoke he realized he’d never taken off his boxers. The idea that the two events: the dream and the underwear were related, never crossed Tommy’s mind. Why would it have?
That Thursday Tommy had a gig in a senior home called “Golden Years”. The concert was a smashing success. He’d even had something happen that had never happened before: he’d been cheered and clapped for until he’d played an encore. He chose “I’ve been everywhere” and played it at a breakneck tempo with an extra improvised verse of his own tacked on at the end rattling off every senior residence within a hundred mile radius eliciting toothless whistles and hoots from ex-residents of the places he mentioned.
After the concert was over and the audience were either wheeling or being wheeled back to their living quarters Tommy started packing up his gear in a ritualistic manner. First he rolled up his poster and collapsed his easel. Once that was done he slipped Vivian into her case, nestling her into the plush purple velvet interior. Before closing the lid he glanced around then leaned down and kissed her quickly on the pick guard whispering “you were great today”.
He wasn’t in his normal take-the money-and run mode. There was a deliberate slowness to his movements of a man who was intent on savoring his experience.
Whistling the mariachi trumpet line from “Ring of Fire”, a song he never played due to his lack of a proper brass section, he strolled languidly across the now-empty rec room, enjoying the percussive sound his boots made as they struck the floor, heel toe–heel toe. As he was approaching the exit he noticed a woman in a white cotton nurse’s uniform standing just outside the doorway. He got the distinct impression she was waiting for him.
“I saw ya kiss yer geetar”, she said shyly.
“Oh…I uhh..”, he answered, caught off guard by her remark. Before he could explain fully she cut him off, saying:
“Do ya always do that? Kiss yer geetar?”
“Well…I uhh, well no…I mean…”
“I thought it was kinda cute”, the girl said. She was smiling. It was a great smile.
“My name’s Darlene”, she said extending her hand.
“My name’s Tommy”, he said. His hands were full, so in lieu of setting something down, he nodded his head in a gentlemanly fashion.
“I know, I seen it on the poster. Tommyyy Claaaayton”, she said, deliberately stretching out his name the way people did when you were either famous or infamous.
“Nice meeting you Darlene”, Tommy said turning radish red. With that he dashed off, his equipment jangling like loose-fitting armour. Women terrified him, especially forward ones.
“Bye”, she called out after him, waving like a cast member of the Beverly Hillbillies during the show’s closing credits. Taking Lot’s wife’s famous mistake as an example, Tommy did not look back.
That night Tommy went to a bar near his rooming house called Spurs. It was Thursday, and Thursday was Karaoke night. The prize for best performer was seventy-five dollars. Tommy had never won. His main rivals were Martha Chavez, an implacably perky Philippino woman whose specialty was The Carpenters; Rhett Geddy, a scrawny pimple-faced boy who barely looked old enough to buy a drink who thought he could channel the spirit of Barry Manilow even though he was as of yet still living, and Barbara Jane aka B.J. Marlowe, a backwards baseball cap-sporting ex-marine whose idol was Stevie Nicks.
Tommy told himself he merely went there to sharpen his skills–break in new material for his act, but he knew that wasn’t completely true. Deep down he wanted very much to win and was frustrated that in the years he’d been going to Spurs the seventy-five dollars had always eluded him…until now, he thought. Tonight he had an edge. Tonight when he took the stage he wouldn’t be alone: he’d have the underwear.
Because of his premonition that he’d win tonight, Tommy asked Jimbo the owner and MC if he could sing last.”Sure kid”, he’d said “Whatever ya want, long as ya sing Folsom”. Jimbo, like most bar owners Tommy had known, was sleazy but he liked Tommy because he liked Johnny Cash. There was something about the way Jimbo’s face always lit up when Tommy sang the line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” during “Folsom Prison Blues” that told Tommy he’d done something similar, or would have liked to.
Tommy’s intention in singing last was to make those who preceded him seem like opening acts. It wasn’t like him to think strategically, but his success that morning at “Golden Years” had given a boost of confidence that had seemed to have sharpened his mind.
There were twenty singers in the night’s lineup. Other than Tommy’s aforementioned rivals none posed a threat. They were the usual drunks on a dare, tone-deaf bucket-list completers, and secretaries on a girls` night out.
Tommy scrutinized each of his rival’s performances, looking for flaws. Martha Chavez performed one of her old standbys “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Her weakness was really in her presentation: she smiled through the whole performance popping out her dimples as was her habit which totally contradicted the song’s melancholy wistful mood. To make things worse, she also had a tendency to do a little two-step when she sang as though she was wearing an Imaginary top hat and in possession of an imaginary cane.
Rhett Geddy had chosen Copa Cabanna and he’d attacked the song with the energy of a manic monkey running ran back and forth rolling his eyes and tossing his mousey brown locks over his shoulder alternating between imitating Rico and Lola like a singing mime with microphone. His effort may have garnered him an “A” but he’d destroyed the song in the process. People clapped for him but there was a palpable discomfort in the room afterwards as if they were ashamed for him.
Last but not least was B.J. Marlowe. B.J. had chosen “The Edge of Seventeen.” She sang it with a passion that was so heartfelt it almost, but not quite, masked the fact that the song was way out of her range. She tried to rely on her falsetto but it was a brutal aural assault. What was worse was she had a huge blue vein that had come out in her forehead above her left eye during the performance that had throbbed and pulsated the entire time, threatening to explode and shower the front row in blood.
Tommy couldn’t believe he’d lost to these three so many times. What was it they had? Certainly not talent. Maybe they gave more of themselves, he thought. What was it Mitch had said “When you sing and they close their eyes they gotta see Johnny“. Tonight they would. Tonight it would be as if the man in black himself had been there.
Tommy had taken the stage last as was his plan. He’d gotten permission from Jimbo to bring Vivian up with him. It was technically against the rules, but in Spurs Jimbo’s word was law. The only grumbling he heard was from his trio of competitors, utterances of “no fair” and “cheater”. The rest of the patrons didn’t seem to mind. Actually most looked pleasantly surprised.
His plan was to play Folsom Prison Blues. slowly at first, and then gradually speed up until he was at the same tempo as the Karaoke track and when he gave a nod Jimbo would press start and he’d continue, blending in seamlessly.
He’d gotten the idea from the scene in the movie “Walk the Line” when Johnny Cash had auditioned for Sam Philips. It was risky. He wasn’t sure if he could accelerate to the right tempo to match the Karaoke backing track, but he figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. Also he knew, silly as it was, his boxers wouldn’t let him down.
Tommy started by saying “Thank you all for commin’ out tonight, and how ’bout before I play, y’all give a big Spurs hand for Martha Chavez….Rhett Geddy…and BeeeeJaaaay Maaaarrloow!!!” The crowd burst into applause and catcalls. Tommy saw Jimbo smiling as he scanned the room. For a moment their eyes met and Jimbo grinned approvingly. He thought of something he and Jamie used to say as teenagers: I got in the bag.
His performance was resplendent. It was an example of Murphy’s Law in reverse. Everything that could go wrong went right. His worry about speeding up to the right tempo had been for naught. He’d nailed it with the grace of a seasoned hobo hopping a moving train, every subsequent note falling into place afterwards, melody and rhythm tumbling together as one like clothes in dryer. Of course adding an extra verse in the song’s beginning had changed its structure so Tommy, thinking on his feet, simply played an instrumental verse on his guitar, improvising around the song’s melody as if it had been written that way. He wasn’t Luther Perkins, but he could get Vivian to sing when he needed her to.
The patrons of Spurs were riveted. Tommy had become a karaoke shaman transporting each one individually to their own imagined jail cells within Folsom Prison, where each in turn were tormented by the sound of a train outside their barred windows on which people drank coffee and smoked big cigars, a train they could not ride.
When he was done, something occurred that had never transpired at Spurs before: the audience demanded an encore. Tommy couldn’t believe it. Outside of family B.B.Q.s he’d rarely been asked to play encores. Now, he’d been asked to play two–all on the same day. The shouts of “more, more, more” were as intoxicating as cocaine.
Tommy raised his arms his palms outwards in a placating gesture and addressed the crowd.”All right. Ok…uh sure…but if It’s ok with Jimbo I’ll play this one myself. No machine”. Jimbo nodded as if to say “No problem”. “I doubt if anyone here has a Trumpet” Tommy said, addressing the crowd “but if they do I’d love if they could join me up here and play the next song. Anyone?” A hand shot up in the crowd and Tommy heard a woman’s voice say
“I got me a harmonica…will that do?”
I know that voice, Tommy thought. I’ve heard it before, where?
As the crowd parted a petite blonde navigated the human traffic. Tommy didn’t recognize her at first. When he’d seen her last she’d been wearing a white cotton nurse’s uniform. But now she was dressed in snug blue jeans, cowboy boots and a yellow blouse a bright as the sun. She still had her dazzling smile.
“Darlene?” Tommy stammered.
“The one and the same.”
“But…” Tommy started.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach ya not ta Judge a book by its cover?”
Tommy, realizing he’d momentarily forgotten where he was turned and faced the crowd. “Ladies and gentleman miss Darlene…”
“Edison” she shouted into the mike “like the inventor.”
Without any further adieu Tommy lit into “Ring of Fire.” He and Darlene tore it up. She was a demon on the harmonica. When she played, the music came from deep within her soul. By the song’s end the whole crowd was singing and clapping along, even Martha Chavez, Rhett Geddy and B.J. Marlowe.
An hour after claiming his prize-money Tommy and Darlene were sitting together at a table near the bar’s rear entrance adjacent to a little hallway that led to washrooms with western style bat wing doors, that, as evocative as they were of the old West, did nothing to contain the sounds and odours that emanated from within. They had wanted privacy and this was as far from the madding crowd as you could get in Spurs.
Above their heads an Exit sign glowed casting a red light about them making Tommy feel as though he was either aboard a Submarine or developing pictures in a darkroom, things he’d never experienced firsthand but that he’d seen in plenty of movies.
Tommy wasn’t quite drunk, but he was approaching drunkenness with both recklessness and caution like a senior citizen backing in to a parking spot. He could manage beer but liquor had never been his friend.
Bourbon had been Darlene’s drink of choice and she’d insisted on Tommy having the same. She’d insisted the way she’d insisted that they celebrate after Tommy had won the competition.
Though he was mortally shy he’d reluctantly let her convince him. The combined success of both his performance that morning and this one had given him a welcome shot of confidence. He’d recalled the scene in “Walk the Line” when groupies started to visit Johnny Cash’s hotel room after concerts, and wondered if perhaps his newfound sex appeal was par for the course.
While he was ruminating on the source of his newly developed chick magnet powers, out of nowhere a second more troubling thought surfaced, rising like a gas bubble from a primordial swamp. Maybe I’m absorbing some of the man in black’s mojo another way somehow like through the underwear a voice from within chimed, finishing his thought for him and forcing him to reluctantly cough up what he knew was the truth like a fur ball.
Tommy’s and Darlene’s conversation was typical of the kind that people have when they hardly know one another, that is to say it was full of stops and starts and uncomfortable silences until the Bourbon they were both drinking took hold that is, then it flowed, unbridled, spontaneous and full of confessions worthy of a priests ears.
Early on there were questions. His to her were mainly about her musical prowess and how she’d ended up at Spurs.
“How d’ya learn to play the harmonica so well?” he’d asked.
“I play a pack of instruments. Everyone in my family does”.
“Wow. You’re like the Carter family” Tommy had said.
“Actually we’re from the same neck if the woods.”
“Were you professionals?”
“Nah. We just did it for fun. My parents were farmers.”
“Why did you pick this place?” Tommy asked.
“Toronto ya mean?”
“I meant Spurs actually, but if you wanna tell me that too, I’m all ears.”
“Well, I met a guy on Vacation on Virginia beach a few years back. He was on spring break from the U. of T. We hit it off real good and he asked me to come back with him to Canada. I figured what the hey. He was doing a PhD in philosophy. My folks didn’t like him. Daddy said PhD stood for ‘piled higher and deeper’ and that he was probably just lookin’ for someone to pay the rent while he philosophized about the meaning of being unemployed after he graduated.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, after six months of blissful shacking up, he fell in front of a subway train on Christmas eve. The police said it was an accident. He’d listed me as the recipient of his life insurance policy. Later on, when I was packing up I found his suicide note. It had fallen behind the bureau. Probably the cat had knocked it off”.
“What did it say?”
“It said he was sorry, and that if I really wanted to understand why he did it I should read everything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote and study the Poetry of Jim Morrison”.
“Nah. I ain’t much for readin’. Also, I never much cared for The Doors. There ain’t an ounce of country in any ‘a their music.”
“And Spurs? Why did you come tonight?” Tommy inquired, nervous about what she’d say.
“One ‘a the gals at work saw that I took a shine to you this morning and told me you was a regular here. Call me a stalker”.
Darlene’s questions to Tommy were adroit investigatory feminine-type questions like:
“You got a wife?”
“Ya ain’t into men I hope”
“Got any brothers and sisters?”
“Yer folks still married?”
The answer to these questions respectively was: “No”, “No”, “No”, “No, “Yes, one brother and one sister”, and “No”.
Though Darlene’s first five questions could be answered with a simple yes or no, the sixth one required a longer answer–or an explanation rather. Thankfully the Bourbon Tommy had sipping as if it were nothing more than cooled-down coffee was taking effect, lowering his inhibitions, when she’d asked him:
“Both yer folks still alive?”
“My mother’s alive. Very much alive.”
“And your…” Darlene looked at Tommy then looked down at her drink. Prolonged eye contact wasn’t her strong suit.
“My old man? The last time I saw him was on my ninth birthday.”
She’d hit upon a subject that pained him deeply, a subject that he went to great lengths to avoid and simply never discussed with anyone ever.
“Yep. Deader than a doornail.”
A long silence ensued in which Darlene fiddled with her swizzle stick and Tommy stared off into space, his lips drawn tight, and his eyes pools of sorrow. Tommy’s silence was not empty or without consequence. It was preparatory. For, after enough of it elapsed, he pulled out his wallet and started going through its contents, flipping them onto the table one at a time like a black jack dealer. The last item he did not flip, but rather he lay down gingerly. It was a black and white wallet-sized dog-eared photograph of a man and boy taken in a photo booth.
“That’s you and him ain’t it? I can tell by the eyes. Same nose too”, Darlene said after rotating the picture and sliding it towards her. She did not pick it up.
“That’s me and my dad on my ninth birthday. Mom had given him the boot that year but he’d showed up and taken my out for my birthday anyway. We went to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. A week later he was dead. He’d just landed a job for the city working in the sewers and there’d been some kind `a gas leak. The irony is he’d gotten the job to impress my mother–to get her to take him back.”
“Why? Was He out’a work?”
“Well not exactly. He’d had a band called ‘Charlie Clayton and the Flying Canucks’ but his flying days were largely behind him–unless of course you count when he’d hit the sauce which happened more often than my mother could tolerate. Most of the money he made came from being a night janitor at a church near where we lived.”
“Was he any good?”
“Oh yeah. In the early seventies the Toronto Sun called him ‘A Northern star on the rise.’ I have the clipping at home. I laminated it.”
“I dunno if it’s just the picture, but yer pa sorta` looked like Johnny Cash don’t ch’a think?”
Tommy didn’t answer her. In fact, he gave no indication of having heard her at all.
“Y’all right Tommy?” Darlene asked, reading Tommy easily.”
Before he could answer her, a voice from within said watch out Tommy, she wants something. They always do. She knows you’re drunk and your guard’s down.
“Just had too much Bourbon that’s all.” He knew suddenly he was going to be sick.
He slid his chair back violently and made a beeline for the men’s room banging open a stall and dropping to the floor. Ahh, the hard stuff, he thought as it blasted out of him like a geyser.
It was the Bourbon–primarily, but it was other things as well. It was bringing up his father’s accident and the creeping feeling that that voice he’d heard warning him about Darlene hadn’t been totally his, that it partially belonged to something outside of him, and that something had been the underwear.
After his session of praying to the porcelain God was over, Tommy closed the lid and took a seat, fighting his drunkenness. If he hadn’t been so unsettled he would have laughed at the silliness of his situation. In his mind he imagined himself telling Jamie “You won’t believe this bro, but Johnny Cash’s boxers have started to take possession of me” to which Jamie would have said, doing his best Shaggy from Scooby Doo imitation, “Zoinks”.
Tommy liked Stephen King and the Twilight Zone as much as anyone, but he knew none of that stuff happened in real life…or did it?
As Tommy left his stall he headed towards the sink to clean up. He leaned down and closed his eyes as he splashed water on his face. He definitely was in no shape to drive. He’d partied enough in his younger days to know that puking could help in the sobering up process, but only time could really do the job. As he stood up and opened his eyes he saw a slender man in a baseball hat with the brim pulled down low standing behind him. He looked familiar. A regular most likely.
“Hey Johnny Cash” the man said. “Good job tonight.”
When he heard the register of the man’s voice it suddenly occurred to him that he was not a he but a she.
“B.J. Marlowe?” Tommy said suddenly realizing where he’d seen her.
“In the wrong bathroom?” she said, finishing Tommy’s sentence.
“Well…yeah..” Tommy said.
“Old habits are hard to break.’Sides, line’s always shorter.”
Without breaking eye contact she reached into her pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie and tossed it to Tommy.
“Here” she said. “They’ll clear up your head.”
“Wah…” Tommy started to say but again was interrupted.
“I heard ya was a pukin, from way on down the hall” she sang in a low voice to the tune of Folsom Prison Blues.
“I used to take them in the Army” she continued “when I needed some get-up-and-go. But be careful, they’re habit forming. I left the Army five years ago, but I can’t seem to leave these little red buggers behind “.
“What are they?” Tommy asked fondling the bag.
“Speed”, B.J. said before entering a stall and closing the door behind her.
“Thanks” Tommy said. “What do I owe you?”
“They’re on the house. There is one thing you can do for me though” B.J. said through the door.
“Sure. Name it.” Tommy said.
“Don’t come back next week.” B.J. said her voice friendly but with a hint of frost around the edges.
As Tommy walked out he heard the sound of the toilet seat smacking down like a gavel.
He quickly palmed two of the pills and popped them into his mouth as casually as If they were breath mints and made his way back to his table. Darlene was looking at herself in a little compact mirror, puckering her lips inversely the way women did after they’d just put on lip stick. She was pretty in a tragic way, Tommy thought, the booze bringing out his inner poet.
“Y’all right?” Darlene asked?
“Never been better” Tommy said, rolling his eyes indicating the contrary. He was hiding the pills under his tongue and holding his bottom lip firm and curling up the corners of his mouth. He’d thought about dry swallowing them, but had decided against it. He was terrified of choking.
“What’s a matter with yer mouth? Darlene asked “Ya look like the Joker from Batman”.
He grabbed what was left of this bourbon and coke and washed the pills down, the scarlet capsules gleaming momentarily, catching Darlene’s attention as he placed the glass to his lips. As he was doing this his newfound darker self said don’t tell her the truth, you’ll regret it.
“I put two Tylenols in my mouth in the bathroom but I couldn’t bring myself to drink from the sink.” As he spoke he looked her straight in the eye and, though they’d just met, he lied as if he’d been lying to her his whole life.
“Tryin’ ta get the jump on yer hangover?” Darlene asked, making her voice sound merry to mask her suspicions about what Tommy had really taken.
“You got it” Tommy answered, hoping his voice didn’t sound as hollow to her as it did to him. He was a poor liar and the Bourbon wasn’t increasing his skills.
“Anyhow” he said, trying to redirect the conversation “you’ll never guess who I ran into inside.”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“How’d you guess?” Tommy sounded genuinely surprised.
“My great grandmother was a witch and all the women in my family got a touch of second sight.”
“Wow….really” said Tommy “that’s so cool.”
Darlene started to laugh.
“You’re shitting me.”
“She came by the table lookin` for you. I told her you were in the men’s room talkin’ to Ralph. What’d she want anyway?”
“You know, congratulations all that.”
“She give you them Tylenols too?”
“Yeah actually, she did.”
“They make’em in red now?”
Tommy imagined a toothless bearded hag standing over a bubbling cauldron in a shack in the hills of Virginia with Darlene’s piercing blue eyes.
As quickly as Tommy had had the vision–if that’s even what it was–he banished it. Haunted underwear witches; it was all a little too supernatural for him. Darlene had been putting him on…hadn’t she? He didn’t know her well enough to be sure.
In what had hitherto been a steady stream of conversation, a sudden lull transpired, and in that silence, Darlene suddenly abruptly proposed that they go.
Tommy was caught off guard. He’d assumed that he was in control of the evening, that he was the orchestrator. The Bourbon had given him a kind of swagger he didn’t normally have.
“What’dya say we leave?” Darlene said. “I gotta work in the morning. And…well…if you do mind me sayin’ you look pretty done in yerself.”
Tommy’s thoughts were less than clear. The pills B.J. had given him were starting to have an effect. He was feeling more awake, but at the same time more disoriented. It wasn’t a feeling he cared for. When he started to answer Darlene, his tongue felt suddenly thick in his mouth. In lieu of a response he proclaimed:
“I’m not the pheasant plucker I’m the pheasant plucker’s son, and I’ll be plucking pheasants ’til my pheasant plucking’s done.”
“Huhh?” Darlene said, sounding alarmed.
“It’s a tongue twister” Tommy said. “I just wanted to see if I could pull it off. If you say it fast enough, you end up saying ‘I’m not the pleasant fu…”
“I think I can figure it out” Darlene said curtly. “You did a great job.”
“Thanks” Tommy said casually, hiding the fact that it had required a superhuman effort on his part to not sound like Daffy Duck during his recital.
“Just gimme a sec to collect myself and we’ll leave” Tommy said lying his head on the table.
The last thing he remembered before he blacked out completely was seeing in extreme close-up the cool varnished wooden table in front of him decorated ornamentally with cigarette burns and carved initials, like a cross between an abstract wood burning artist’s rendering and every high school desk he’d ever stared at daydreaming of stardom as a teenager.
Now when I said he blacked out, it’s not to be confused with passed out. He was awake, but the part of his brain that should have been recording events like a black box on a doomed aircraft was malfunctioning.
The next morning when he awoke fully clothed on Darlene’s couch he was completely disoriented. Darlene had gone to work and left him to “sleep it off” as the expression goes.
Tommy felt uncomfortable being in someone’s apartment that he hardly knew. He racked his brain for the memory of how He’d gotten here. When he tried to concentrate, all he got were isolated snippets of memories: being on the highway with his head out the window of his car, his vomit streaking the door like a racing stripe while Darlene drove; singing in the hallway of Darlene’s apartment and someone yelling “shut up” through the crack of a door; falling into the bathtub and Darlene having to hoist him out by making a sling with a towel. For the life of him he couldn’t remember leaving the club, or how it was decided Darlene would drive his car. No one drove his car, not even Jamie.
When he thought of Jamie he suddenly grew troubled, but wasn’t sure why. Then it occurred to him: it was Friday…the 13th. He’d promised Jamie he’d go to his house that morning. “Remember Tommy” Jamie had said on the phone “Friday the 13th, just like the movies”. Tommy was supposed to help him with some renovations. He was turning his unfinished basement into a play room and periodically asked him to lend him a hand. After all the help Jamie had given him over the years it was the least he could do.
Tommy rolled off the couch with the grace of a seal sliding off an ice float and, using the coffee table in front of him for support, arose like Frankenstein’s monster a few volts short of a full charge.
He fumbled in his front pocket for his cell phone. One of the few advantages of a flip phone–maybe the only real one nowadays, he thought, was that you could sleep on it without damaging it. Nothing much made these days “took a licking and kept on ticking” as the old Timex ad espoused.
When he flipped it open and tried to turn it on, nothing happened. On a good day the battery held a charge maybe twelve hours. It was at least twelve hours overdue, maybe even twenty. “Like deadsville Scooby” he muttered under his breath.
Tommy pivoted and took in all of Darlene’s studio apartment in a glance. To his left was a round kitchen table. On it was a note on which lay his car keys. He walked over in three long strides and snatched them up, spinning them around on his index finger, legendary gunslinger-style. As he did so, he picked up the note with his other hand and read it.
Her handwriting was beautiful and flowing, unlike his barely legible chicken scratch. Ladylike, he thought.
Hi Tommy! I’ve gone to work.
I thought the best thing to do was to do was let you sleep. I had a great time last night! Your car is parked across the street. Call me when you want to get together again.
Darlene Edison XXOO
Ps. Help yourself to anything you want in my fridge (not that there’s much LOL!). Also there’s paper towel and Fantasik spray under the sink if you need to wipe off your car.
Though Darlene’s note had made it clear that Tommy was welcomed to eat what he could find, his stomach was in no shape. He suspected anything he ate would come right back up. He was thirsty however: parched to be exact.
Taking two steps to the left, he stood facing Darlene’s fridge. It was replete with notes held in place by magnets shaped like daisies: “Suzie’s B-Day Thursday”, “Call about class”. One magnet stood alone apart from the rest. It was a deliriously happy looking bee hovering above the words “Bee Positive”. The happy bee held up a clipping of a recipe from a magazine “Delicious Low Calorie Apple Cake”.
Smiling, Tommy pulled open the fridge door. Standing next to the lonely carton of skim milk nudged up against the cellophane-wrapped plate containing half a grapefruit flanked by two low-fat vanilla yogurts was a shiny plastic jug of orange juice, Tommy’s favorite hangover drink.
He removed it, feeling its weight in his hand. Full, he thought, but not for long. He threw his head back and guzzled it until his stomach could hold no more. As he leaned to put what remained back in the fridge from the corner of his eye he saw a black shape skitter across the room. He stood up startled, catching his head on the lip of the fridge as he did so. He then slammed the door annoyed. It was a good enough slam to send the happy bee sliding–almost off the door letting the recipe fall.
A cat. It’s her cat Tommy realized. The one from her story that had knocked the suicide note off the bureau. It was black as pitch and when he looked at it arched its back and hissed as if to say “Hit the road Jack and don’t `cha come back no more.”
Without further delay Tommy stuffed Darlene’s note in his pocket and left completely forgetting about the paper towels and Fantasik. As he was trotting down the stairs out of Darlene’s building his newly acquired inner-voice said, taunting him, don’t witches have black cats? Yeah sure he answered himself, and Vampires hate garlic and silver bullets kill werewolves yadda yadda yadda.
Tommy’s Mazda was parked exactly where Darlene said it would be. Other than the long reddish-brown puke stain on the passenger door it didn’t look any worse for the wear. He’d wash it later. Right now his mind was on getting home for a shit shower’n shave, as his father used to say.
Tommy drove cautiously at first. He knew the alcohol in his blood had probably dissipated, but one could never be too sure. He’d gotten a DWI once years ago and didn’t want another. He wasn’t about to start showing up to gigs on public transit. It didn’t exactly invoke the spirit of Johnny Cash. A tour bus sure, but not the Spadina bus he thought as he broke into the refrain of the old Shuffle Demons’ song of the same name.
Out on the freeway, weaving through the thinning morning traffic–gunning the accelerator and working the clutch of his car, something he never grew tired of–he felt a bulge digging into his front thigh. “What have I got in my pocketeses?” He said Gollum-like. Then he remembered his encounter in the men’s room the night before. Oh yes, B.J. Marlowe’s magic pills.
Tommy reached in his glove compartment and took out a spare bottle of water he kept at all times for gigs in case he forgot to bring one. I’ll take a few just to take the edge off, and then I should toss the rest out.
Holding his steering wheel with his knees, he cracked the seal of the water bottle, and then held it with one hand as he fished the bag out from his jeans, all the while trying semi-successfully not to swerve into another lane. After freeing the baggie he poured two pills into his mouth and then swigged some water.
He was about to throw the bag out the window scattering the capsules onto the 401, when he reconsidered, throwing them instead into the still-open glove compartment and slamming it shut. Just as he was doing so, he passed a sign that said “Speed Kills” and he chuckled at the irony.
After ten minutes on the highway, and another ten spent weaving through the streets of suburbia impatiently manoeuvring through street hockey games in progress and going over–in his opinion–unnecessarily mountainous speed bumps that not only impeded his tendency to speed but also hastened the impending death of his Mazda’s aging shocks , Tommy pulled into his rooming house driveway and in his haste he almost hit the only other car in the driveway, a vintage army jeep with a tarp pulled over it that rarely moved.
It belonged to the only other tenant he ever spoke to, a man named Colonel Joe.
It was a mild enough day for Colonel Joe to be sitting out on the massive wooden front porch looking tiny in a large wicker love seat that could have easily sat the entire Toronto Maple leafs in uniform–including the training staff and the backup goalie.
Colonel Joe had on a green beret and a ragged sweater that had seen better days. Pinned on the collar was a plastic poppy that was so faded, it was more tangerine-colored than red. He wore it every day of the year. For the aged veteran every day was Remembrance Day. On his lap was a copy of Pierre Burton’s “Vimy”. It was the only book Tommy ever saw him reading.
Tommy leapt out of his car and scampered up the driveway like a keystone cop, the speed he’d taken en route having started to kick in. He was hoping his brusque demeanor would give Colonel Joe the idea he wasn’t in the mood to stop and chat, but no one could evade the Colonel’s ambush. He possessed a mix of gregariousness and self pity that was a lethal combination. Wrangling with him was akin to wresting a 90 year old highly decorated tar baby.
“Knew it was you young man,” Colonel Joe said as Tommy tried to blow by him on the porch. “That car a’yers…”
“Yeah yeah I know.” Tommy said, putting his hands out, palms up in the “don’t say it” gesture. “It reminds you of a B-52.”
“B-16 actually” Joe answered matter-of-factly.
“I’m working on a new muffler.”
“What’s that on yer door?” Joe said, pointing a long bluish finger in the Mazda’s direction. “Is it what I think it is?”
“Done some drinkin’ in ma day. Once, in Italy I puked inside a tank. Started a God damn chain reaction. I puked, then the driver puked, pretty soon…”
“I’m in a bit of a rush Joe. Can we catch up later?”
“Sure son,” he said, then, adding as if he’d just remembered “Oh, by the way ‘fore I forget, a woman came around lookin’ for you this mornin’. Handsome woman. Kinda sporty…golf hat. Kinda reminded me of a WAC I once had a crush on who turned out to prefer the company of other WACS more than men if you catch my drift.”
Tommy’s heart sank into his stomach. In the years he’d been living here, she’d come only once before. It had been to tell him his father had died.
Without hesitation, Tommy grabbed the wide wooden railing that framed the sagging steps of the once-great Victorian house and bounded up them two at a time at a time like a young Bruce Jenner with a gut-load of Wheaties. As he ascended, he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder towards the colonel and half-spoke half-sang “Goodbye Joe me gotta go”.
After landing like a flat-footed paratrooper, Tommy yanked open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. His eyes, adjusting from the bright sunlight to the dim entrance, were momentarily out of focus. Within minutes they discerned the back-lit silhouette of a small stocky woman rolling a manual carpet sweeper briskly.
There was no mistaking his landlady.
For a brief moment Tommy felt a pang of guilt about his rather curt dismissal of Colonel Joe, but quickly dismissed the feeling. You’re not a bloody social worker his new darker inner voice quipped. Speaking of curt dismissals, Tommy thought: here comes numeros dos.
“Hello Mrs. Grotto,” Tommy bellowed without stopping or looking in her direction, hoping she’d see he was pressed for time.
His plan had failed however. Upon seeing him she left her antique carpet sweeper and skittered towards him wiping her hands on her apron.
“Tomasso,” she said. Tommy noticed she did not call him “black man”, or “Giovanni Cash”, as she usually did. For once she actually seemed nervous to see him.
“You’re mama came this ‘a morning. I now know where you are. She give me this.” She reached into a pocket in her apron and pulled out a folded note and handed it to Tommy. He opened it immediately and read it.
“Tried calling you last night. Jamie’s had an accident. He’s in the I.C.U. at Toronto General.”
It was simply signed “ma”.
“Thanks Mrs. Grotto” Tommy said stuffing the note in his pocket “I gotta fly.” As he tore off up the stairs he saw her mutter to herself and make the sign of the cross.
Tommy’s room was on the second floor. Once again he bounded up the stairs two-at-a-time like he had when he’d come up the front porch. He was humming “The Flight of The Bumble Bee” under his breath. It was a thing he did when he was nervous–it focused him, and with the speed he’d taken in the car having taken full effect, he needed very much to stay focused to keep his racing mind from flying off the rails like a runaway train.
Of all the nights to not come home, Tommy thought. What are the odds? The one night I spend out in years–the only morning I’m not in my own bed, and something happens. That friggin’ shit phone with its friggin’ shot battery. How long have I been intending to get a new one?
He was in fact racing to his room instead of straight to the hospital because of that phone. Jamie had given him one of those cords at Future Shop that let you plug your phone in to your car’s cigarette lighter. “Thought you could use bro” Jamie had said “I know that phone of yours hardly holds a charge anymore.” He’d promptly thrown the cord in a drawer and never thought of it again–until now. His plan was to grab it and charge his phone on the way to the Hospital. The irony that it had been a gift from Jamie pained him.
Tommy ransacked his apartment with the haste of a burglar hearing the approach of sirens, dumping the contents of every drawer he had upside down on his bed to no avail. In desperation he finally dropped to his knees and turned to Saint Anthony and promptly found it under the bed itself.
Five minutes later Tommy was back in his Mazda, yet again beating a path through the suburbs to the 401, his engine having not even cooled from his morning drive.
He hated driving into the city. Toronto had grown like a cancerous mole since his younger days, and the traffic had grown accordingly. The bus had tempted him, but he didn’t have all day. Also, he couldn’t imagine himself buzzing on speed sitting on a bus. They were two things that just didn’t seem to go together.
As he drove, he fought back the wave of terror and anxiety that kept trying to wash over him. Jamie couldn’t be sick. Christ, the guy jogged, played racquetball and kayaked in the summer. Of the two of them, he was the fit one.
Of course you couldn’t rule out an accident. Fit as Jamie was, he was a touch clumsy. What had he been doing this morning? Shit. He’d been refinishing the basement–by himself and I was supposed to be with him.
An hour later Tommy was pulling into the Hospital parking lot and wincing at the rates as he read them off a white sigh in an attendant’s booth no larger than a monkey’s cage. No one comes here because they want to, Tommy thought. Why did they also have to get fleeced just to park?
Tommy had been at the Toronto General once before years ago when his first serious girlfriend had O.D. It had been years, but he still remembered where the ICU was located. It was seared into his memory like his social insurance number and the postal code in the house he’d grown up in.
Peter Munk Building: tenth floor.
When Tommy strode into the ICU– which he noticed was now called the MSICU–he came across two young girls at the front desk chatting that seemed too young to be nurses.
“Excuse me…I’m looking for my brother. His name’s Jamie. Jamie Clayton. One of the women pivoted in her swivel chair and picked up a chart and glanced at it.
“He’s in 8A. Through the sliding doors on your left.” Her pretty face gave away absolutely nothing as to Jamie’s condition. He might as well have been just given directions to the bathroom. What do you expect? Jamie thought. People die on her shift every time she works.
At the end of a dimly lit hall he found room 8 A. Jamie was lying in a bed surrounded by three Doctors and his mother–tubes protruding, pumps pumping and monitors chirping. He looked bad. Really bad.
As he walked in, his mother’s red-rimmed eyes met his. Tears had streaked her mascara making her look like an aging transgender Alice Cooper in a golf hat.
“You finally made it.”
Good old Ice 9, Tommy thought, his mind flashed back thirty years in an instant.
It was his last year of high school. He was mad about Vonnegut and he’d just finished reading “Cat’s Cradle”. In it was a formula called “Ice 9” that froze water at room temperature. He’d excitedly told the story to Jamie who wasn’t much of reader, but rather one of those people who liked to hear the story of a book after someone else had done the work of reading it.
“That Ice 9 stuff reminds me of ma’s tone when she’s pissed” Jamie had remarked after Tommy had finished the book’s synopsis. From then on, they had used the term “Ice 9” as a secret code between them, as in “Ma went Ice 9 on me last night when I came home late”, or “Ma found a roach clip in the pocket of my jeans and she went totally Ice 9 when she asked me if I was smoking pot.”
Turning his thoughts back to the present, Tommy, in a delayed reaction to his mother’s remark blurted out–a touch too loudly–“I got here as quickly as I could”, purposefully catching the eye of one of the Doctors as he did so.
His intention had been to use the Doctor as a means of passing a message to his mother without having to look at her directly, ricocheting his message off of him like a basketball off a backboard.
The Doctor, not privy to fact that it wasn’t really he who was being spoken to, replied professionally with a modulated tone that had all the inflections of compassion, but contained none of its warmth.
“It’s a good thing you did. Mr…..?”
“That’s his brother” Tommy’s mother interrupted, responding as if she were the only one who knew the reply.
“Yes, well it’s a good thing you did,” the Doctor began anew, his breeding and manners not allowing even the slightest hint of annoyance to show at having just been interrupted in mid-sentence. “I mean get here as soon as you could that is. Your brother has sustained serious injuries. We’ve got him stabilized, but due to the amount of time that passed before he was brought here, I’m afraid his chances of survival are quite low.”
Tommy took in what the Doctor said with a dry swallow. Nerves and the speed had rendered his mouth as dry as paste. He knew Jamie would have never been brought here had it not been something grave, but it was a serious blow to hear it put so bluntly.
Tommy meditated on what the Doctor had said until the initial shock passed. Wanting to see for himself exactly what the Doctor had meant Tommy studied his brother more closely than the mere cursory glances he’d reluctantly allowed himself upon entering. Under his thin blue gown he could see that his upper body was swaddled in huge bandages that were white and as thick as a layer of insulation in an attic. The question that had been on his mind since he’d first heard Jamie had been brought here, a question whose answer he dreaded finally escaped his lips like a child from a long and difficult labour.
“What happened to him?”
“It seems…” was all the Doctor was able to get out before Tommy’s mother again interrupted, reiterating and then expounding upon the Doctor’s truncated phrase fragment.
“It seems he tripped on an extension cord and fell on his band saw…and no one was with him to call 911.” In addressing Tommy her eyes bore into him; accusatory, predatorily; the way animals probably look when they eat their unwanted young.
It’s just like what happened to Johnny Cashes brother, Tommy thought, his heart leaping into high gear like he’d been given a shot of adrenaline. You and him buddy, bound by a common fate. It was that darker inner voice, the one that seemed to have come with the donning of his underwear. It’s a coincidence, Tommy shot back as if to hush the voice, to override its attempt to egg him on and push him into thinking irrationally.
Getting out of his own head, Tommy became keenly aware that his face was a burning ember. To avoid his mother shaming him further, he decided not making eye contact with her was his best bet.
As with all bullies, her stare was her ultimate weapon.
Not wanting to look too obvious, like he was letting her get the better of him, he focused his attention on the Doctors who’d gone off and huddled in the corner speaking in hushed tones about his brother’s prognosis and wished he could read lips.
Tommy wanted to stay, knew he should stay, by Jamie’s bedside until to the very end, when Jamie crossed over. As the guy in the old Quaker Oats ad used to see, “it was the right thing to do”; not only for his brother’s sake, but to offer comfort to his mother as well. He knew this, but he also knew he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His hangover and the speed were contributing factors, but the truth was he just didn’t have the mettle. Ipso facto, he’d have to leave before Jamie took the final Nestea plunge.
As Tommy sat pondering his dilemma fate intervened. It came in the form of an out-of-town specialist.
He’d arrived just as Tommy was figuring out how he was going to leave without looking like the world’s most selfish son and brother. He was a whizz-bang thoracic surgeon from New York here on a conference who’d heard about Jamie from a colleague’s text.
His name was Colin Mitmaker.
When he’d glided into the room almost as if his feet didn’t touch the ground the Doctors all greeted him–even the senior one–with a kind of reverence Tommy had seen on TV when Cardinals greeted popes.
Within a short time, after hearing a lot of medical jargon tossed about that Tommy couldn’t understand–mostly aimed at his, Jamie was whisked out and into surgery.
All Tommy could think to say as the bed vanished down the dim hall pushed by multiple arms in white lab coats, pumps in tow, his mother bringing up the rear, was “Bye Jamie.” His mother lifted a hand in a slight reverse wave but did not bother to turn around.
As Tommy scooted past the front desk out the way he’d come in towards the elevators he thought he’d dodged a bullet, but when the elevator arrived and the metal doors parted Jamie’s wife Carol stepped out looking bewildered and slightly lost as people do when visiting a Hospital they’d never been to for the first time.
“Tommy”, Carol said looking both surprised and relieved.
“Carol…hi” Tommy said using his musician’s ears to imitate her tone and try and sound like he was as happy about running into her as she was him. He’d hoped he was convincing.
“Carol” Tommy said again, his voice cracking. Tears welled up in his eyes and his throat ached.
The sight of Jamie’s wife brought out his own grief, the grief he’d been able to suppress in front of his mother and the Doctors in the MSICU. It was obvious by her blotchy countenance she’d cried all the way to the hospital and only recently stopped.
“Which way is it? Which way is Jamie’s room?” Carol said as she stepped out of the elevator and looked around, squinting like she may have forgotten her glasses. Tommy sensed her impatience at not immediately finding an arrow or a sign to direct her.
“He WAS in there,” Tommy said jerking his thumb over his shoulder, but they moved him.”
“They took him to surgery.”
Tommy then told her what had gone on, about what the Doctors had said, and about Dr. Mitmaker arriving out of the blue. He tried to put an optimistic spin on things for Carol’s sake but she didn’t seem convinced.
“You’re sweet Tommy” she’d said, “but you’re as bad a liar as Jamie. Worse maybe.” At that point she changed the subject abruptly as if she were a television whose remote had just been walked on by a cat.
“I saw him. I saw…” was all she was able to get out before she broke down and Tommy reflexively took her in his arms.
After an awkward moment–Tommy wasn’t big on physical contact–Carol stepped back and rifled though her purse and produced a clump of clotted Kleenex. While blowing her nose she muttered “I’m sorry”.
“No, I’m sorry. I should a’ been at your place this morning. If I had…”
Carol’s face was a jumble of emotions: sorrow, anger, self-pity all fought for screen time. She shook her head and said “Don’t go there Tommy. I Told Jamie to wait ’til you came. I told him, but you know all those goddamn home improvement shows he watches. He Thinks he Johnny Holmes.”
Tommy knew she meant Mike Holmes, not Johnny Holmes the one-time adult film star, but this was no time for jokes.
“How’s Billy?” Tommy asked, hoping against hope that the boy hadn’t seen anything.
“Bad Tommy. He’s the one who found his father. When he ran up the stairs to tell me, he was as white as a sheet. I double-dosed him with Ritalin and dropped ‘im at my sister’s on the way it’s why I’m late.”
Christ, Tommy thought. The kid was already disturbed. This would probably mess him up for life.
“Mom’s with Jamie” Tommy said. “She followed the surgical team. If you ask inside the girls…nurses, I mean will tell you where they went “.
“You’re not sticking around?”
In spite of herself Carol laughed, crying at the same time.
“Yeah I know, Jamie told me. He was the golden boy, and you…”
“I wasn’t even bronze.”
They hugged again and she left. While he waited for the elevator to arrive he could still smell her perfume and wondered if she would look as beautiful in a black veil as she had in a white one when he’d been Jamie’s best man.
As Tommy made his getaway, riding the elevator down, away from Carol, away from his mother, away from emotional responsibility, he felt relieved to be alone. Strutting across the parking lot he ran his thumbs absentmindedly around the elastic waistband of his underwear. The fact that they were there, even with the dark cloud of his brother’s situation looming overhead, lifted his spirits, as if the underwear were the proverbial silver lining.
When Tommy got to his car he saw his phone sitting on his front seat were he’d left it, still plugged in like a fetus attached to an umbilical cord. In his hurry to get to the Hospital he’d never even checked his messages. He sat down and flipped it open, fully expecting his voice mail to be filled by his mother. He’d been partially right. The first two messages were from his mother:
“Tommy…it’s your mother. Call me” had been the first message. The second had been “Tommy…it’s your mother. I went by that…boarding house of yours looking for you. Anyway no one knew where you were. I left you a note. If you read it before you get this you’ll know I’m at the Toronto General. Your brother…got hurt. If you get this first…well..I’m at the Hospital.”
The last message had been from Mitch. “Tommy…Mitch here. Listen I heard through the grape-vine you killed at Spurs last night. Actually I heard it from a barmaid I’m bangin’ who works there–but don’t tell your sister, not that it matters now, but I’d rather the kids don’t know ya know? Anyhow, she told me you were fantastico. Gimmee a call, I might have something for you after all…something big.”
Tommy closed the phone gingery. He was stunned. He’d been waiting on Mitch for years. Why now? Even when Mitch had been his brother-in-law, he’d never taken Tommy on, not even as a favor. It was odd, but why look a gift-horse in the mouth. It was luck, plain and simple.
Oh it’s more than that Tommy boy, said that nagging inner voice, and you know it. Tommy laughed out loud at the silliness of it and then, doing his best Rod Serling said
“Here sits, behind the wheel of his beat-up Mazda, forty-five year old Tommy Clayton, a second-rate Johnny Cash impersonator whose luck has changed, all because of the purchase of a pair of black underwear…mailed to him from…..
The Twilight Zone!”
He started his car, revving the motor as if it were cold outside–even though it wasn’t, and sped towards the exit of the parking lot where he rode the bumper of another car who was leaving. The driver, seeming befuddled did not know that what Tommy was doing was getting out for free, racing under the gate before it had time to close.
Once he was out of the city he decided his call from Mitch was cause for celebration; celebration in the form of Bourbon. There was a liquor store near his house, he’d stop by there on the way home and buy a bottle. Why not? He thought, it’s not every day that your brother is on the verge of death and you get a call from an agent wanting to represent you. It would be a combination celebrate your success and forget all your troubles afternoon drinking session.
Tommy knew it was a flawed kind of logic, the kind of thinking that got people into trouble, but for whatever reason he went with it.
He wouldn’t go back to his room though. There was a vacant lot near the rooming house where he could go. He used to go there sometimes to practice singing when he’d felt his neighbors might need a break.
Four hours, six speed pills, and twenty six ounces of Bourbon later, Tommy was sprawled out on the front seat of his car.
As he looked around there were two of everything. Driving was out of the question.
The sun was starting to set and Tommy knew he didn’t want to stay in this vacant lot after dark. Kids hung around here. Bad kids. The kinds with Mohawks and army boots. I should call someone he thought? But who? In desperation he fumbled in his trousers and found Darlene’s note. With a tremendous effort and one eye closed, he called Darlene. His first two attempts were misdials. On the third try he got her voice mail.
“High, this here’s Darlene. Leave a message at the beep. Bye.”
“Darlene…it’shh me, Tommy”, Tommy slurred. “I’m in a bad way. There is an empty lot near my place…I’m parked in my Mashda…but I’m in no shape to drive. If you could come…I’d appreshiate it. But if it gets dark…don’t come alone. There’s an old guy in my rooming house…we call him Colonel Joe. He’s old…but he’s got combat experience…and probably a gun.”
After Tommy hung up, he squinted and looked at his phone: Battery 7% it said.
It was almost dark when Tommy woke up. He was sitting on the ground outside his Mazda where he’d gone as to not vomit in his car. He was surrounded by a group of four youths in Mohawks and army boots. In the background a fire roared in a metal oil drum.
“Well lookee here. He’s alive” said one.”
“Yeah” said another. “I thought he was dead.”
“Hey pal” said the leader. “Ya got any money?”
“Look at ‘ im”, said another. He wouldn’t be drivin’ that piece of shit if he did.”
Tommy wasn’t as out of it as before, but he still wasn’t one hundred percent. “I’ve got a bit of money” he said. “You can have it…and…uhh..I don’t wear a watch.”
“Let’s take the car”, said another.
“Seriously? And do what with it? Sell it for scrap?”
“Just don’t take my underwear” Tommy muttered. “All’s I ask is don’t take my underwear.”
The group of thugs burst out laughing.”
“Don’t take his underwear?” said one with a high voice who Tommy realized was a girl.
“Let’s do it” said the leader. “Let’s take ‘em.”
“You don’t understand” said Tommy…there…special.”
“Mister”, said the leader “I think you’re special. Take ’em off, or we’ll take’em off for ya.”
“Take ‘em off, Take ‘em off”, the youths shouted wildly in unison. Tommy had never felt so humiliated in his life.
Tommy stood up and undid his belt letting his pants fall to the ground.
“Turn around y’all” the leader shouted “Give the man some privacy.”
As they turned around Tommy saw head lights approaching. As the vehicle drew closer he saw it was a Jeep. Behind the wheel was a small blonde woman. Next to her was a man in a red beret. His arm was out the window holding what looked like a gun.
When the thugs heard the Jeep they turned around. When Colonel Joe let the first shots fly, they scattered.
“Fuck you” they shouted at Tommy. “Keep your undies and your shit car ya loser.”
Darlene brought the Jeep to a halt, skidding in the half-grass half-gravel of the field. She ran out of the Jeep to Tommy.
“Tommy..are you all right? I came as soon as I could. My phone’s never on at work.”
Colonel Joe sauntered up slowly, his pistol still level as if the enemy might reappear. “Gotcher self in a pickle ehh? You’re damn lucky ta have such a fine lady friend.”
Tommy was weeping, weeping like a child, for his brother, for himself, at his foolishness, and for anything and everything that had made him sad his whole life.
“What the hell was they plannin’ to do to you son?”
“It’s a long story Colonel Joe. Would you guys mind turning around?” As they did so Tommy slid off the black underwear and pulled his pants back on. After he did so, he trundled over to the burning barrel and tossed them in.
“What’s that all about ya think?” Colonel Joe said to Darlene.
“I’m not sure exactly, but it sure looked like someone getting rid of a burden.”
Later that night, fast asleep in Darlene’s arms Tommy’s cell phone rang. It was Tommy’s mother saying Dr. Mitmaker had performed a miracle, that Jamie had lived.
As for Mitch’s offer, Tommy never called him back. Later that year he went on the road with a new act, it was simply called “Tommy & Darlene” and every song they played, they’d written together.
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