Chapter Eight: Tennesse
“… in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire.”
— Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
Our day’s work was done. The taverns were all closed and the only people on Fore Street besides Trake and me were the barbacks running between Slice Bar and Foreplay. These guys weren’t going to tip us. They were underpaid kids working for a cut of the bartender’s bank. There was no more money to be had. It was time for rest.
On our way to the Dungeon we bumped into George Merrill on Exchange Street. “Look out tonight, fellas,” he warned. “It’s gonna be thirteen degrees by morning.”
“No way,” I said.
That would be a pretty hard drop for a three- or four-hour period, and in five hours the sun would be back on the job. The breeze was picking up, so I figured George must have mistaken the forecasted wind-chill temperature for the temperature. The Dungeon would cut out the wind. I told George he must’ve read it wrong – that he was crazy – and Mark and I shut ourselves into the basement.
When we got downstairs I threw my blanket onto the concrete – not as a cushion, but to shield the cold – and lay down with my head on my backpack. I didn’t even bother to cover up.
Mark paced around the small, central area of the Dungeon. Something was eating at him. This happened sometimes, always well after the tense quiet of dusk had smothered the distraction of day.
We had done well that night and wouldn’t have to worry for days about the next smoke or drink. We also had plenty of booze to get through the night, so that wasn’t it. Something deeper was troubling the old man. I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t be sleeping this night. He was about to begin his prowl. Mark would march around the Old Port in ever-wider sweeps, like a guard protecting a fortress, his monsters’ sanctuary, the private hell he couldn’t escape.
“What’s gotten into you, Mark?”
He stopped dead at my inquiry and looked me in the eyes. By the dim light a street lamp cast through the Dungeon window I could see his eyes were pooling, a sea of emotions swirling beneath his skin. Even the strongest person is built of flesh and feelings.
He covered the hole in his throat and spoke: “I have a daughter who grew up without ever knowing me.”
Mark’s damaged voice always sounded raspy, but rarely did it project the trembling vibrato that conveyed this mortal regret. I was familiar with this pain. I had a daughter who, at that very moment, was growing up without knowing her father.
“I left her and her mother in Tennessee and I never went back,” Mark continued. “I don’t even know her name.”
Now I understood why The Band’s Civil War ballad, with its lines about home life “back with my wife in Tennessee,” had so affected this aging soldier back in that hospital room. When I had told him of my daughter and my own abysmal void, he hadn’t shared this fact with me; he simply shared his sympathy and compassion. That’s all I could offer him now. This was a pain we could both understand, but understanding can’t ease the burden — the pain is just too personal. Only demons can lift such weight. That was what the Crew was passing around in all those bottles and cans: devils to distract from the sins that had steered our pirate ship to this port. I fell asleep without understanding that.
My crystal ship of dreams had drifted free of its mooring and sailed off upon currents of unconsciousness, leaving in its wake all the want and worry of my desolate and desperate waking world. It may have sailed on forever that night had the central nervous system of the carcass left behind not sent out a distress call. The midriff and ribs of the corporeal craft called Kenny Wayne were being kicked by a size 13 Red Wing boot, each blow accompanied by distant shout: “Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!”
Someone really wanted to wake me up. My first thought was police, but even they weren’t usually so brutal, at least not until I was fully conscious. I lifted my head from my makeshift pillow and found my face had frozen to the backpack.
“Get up! Get moving!”
It was Mark. He’d returned from patrolling the port and was desperately trying to rouse me, standing over me with a cigarette in one hand and two fingers of the other blocking the breathing hole of his tracheotomy so he could yell: “You gotta walk! You’ll get frostbite!”
I unfastened the fur on my face from my luggage and went outside to walk the waterfront with my rescuer. It turned out George Merrill had been conservative in his estimate: the temperature had fallen to 11 degrees Fahrenheit. I don’t think I would have woken up dead, but Trake obviously thought I might, so he’d come back to save me.
We walked for awhile. It was quiet, and we didn’t disrupt the peace. It was still too early for the gulls. Strange — in the summertime, they go at it all night, but in winter they disappear into the darkness.
A truck pulled over across the street and the driver called out to Mark. Trake smiled in recognition and approached him. The driver obviously worked construction, but it was still really early by any workman’s schedule. The two of them talked for a few minutes, then we continued on our way. A few minutes later, Mark gestured upward with his head to get my attention as he covered his trake. “I built that building,” he said.
It was a big hotel. “You built it?”
“I was the foreman on the crew.”
“Yeah. That guy just offered me my job back.”
“Are you gonna take it?”
“I don’t know.”
The men’s room at the ferry terminal is congested at five in the morning. Most mornings there’s a line. As we stood there Mark got bored and, after looking all around, pulled out his beer for a haul, then tucked it back in his coat, his patience momentarily restored. There were three people in front of us, every urinal and stall was occupied, and all three sinks had guys sponge-bathing, shaving or combing their hair.
One guy left the urinal and another went for it. Then Todd exited the first stall. “Morning, Kenny.”
“What’s going on, Pops!”
“Luis, are you sleeping on the john again?”
“No, I think it’s Mark.”
“Trake is right here.”
“It’s that big Brazilian, I’m telling ya. Luis, come on, man — wake up!”
After a minute of such banter, the second guy approached the urinal and I was on deck for the can.
“Luis, you fat bastard!”
“I know it’s him.”
“Can you believe this guy?”
“So you say Mark is out there?”
“It isn’t Trake.”
I worked my way into the stall like an overweight, over-the-hill contortionist, an escape artist squeezing into a box in anticipation of the triumphant finale. This act wouldn’t be all that triumphant, but by the time I came out there might be cheers.
The first thing I would do is take a shot. My ass was itching like mad. I had scabies or something. Whatever it was, I was certain it was bugs. After a few shots, either they got buzzed or I did, and the itching became more tolerable.
I had doused myself with permethrin in Saco and thought I was all set. But this wasn’t lice. There were lumps on my backside, especially my ass — that’s where it bothered me most. It’s absolute psychological torture to have bugs living on you or inside of you. One can be fully aware of all the tiny animals that naturally thrive in your bodily habitat — your microbiome is mostly a collection of creatures that can only live on you — and still agonize over this. Nobody wants parasites. That’s why I hadn’t gone to Arizona.
After about 20 minutes on the can, I called next door to Mark and told him I was heading out front. “It’s about time!” someone cheered.
Most days, Mark would have been in there another 20 minutes, and by then I’d have to go back in myself, but on this morning he soon joined me and we crossed Commercial Street just as dawn was about to break.
White Irish was rummaging in a trash can, lord knows for what. I don’t know how these guys do it, but they find all kinds of shit. For every five dollars I lose on the sidewalks, Irish finds twenty; for every joint I misplace, he finds a dime bag or a slice of medical. This guy scoured the streets in the early morning hours looking for dropped coins and shaking seemingly empty cigarette packs, finding $20 bills and eight balls. Ashlea finds a bottle of 30s. Jeremy finds eight grams of dabs. I’m fortunate if I can find piece of mind. But even the losers get lucky sometimes.
Bobby Chops came out of nowhere and immediately started talking about some new superhero sequel. I told him I didn’t do sequels.
“What do you mean you don’t do sequels?”
“I don’t do sequels.”
“Star Wars? Indiana Jones?”
“Well, those are two exceptions,” I said, “but I haven’t seen any of the new Star Wars. I didn’t even get into Return of the Jedi — or The Empire Strikes Back, for that matter. I’d rather watch Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. That’s how you do it. Fuck sequels. Kevin Smith is the man.”
“Those are sequels.”
“No they aren’t. Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma — all of them stand alone. They’re part of the Jay and Silent Bob Universe, but they’re their own worlds.”
“Clerks II. That’s a sequel.”
“You keep pointing out exceptions to the rule. The ’80s sucked,” I argued. “The whole sitcoms, sequels, sushi, ‘Just say no’ stratosphere that society strived to reach — I can’t stand it. Aerosmith got off drugs, got rich, and started writing a bunch of shitty music. Piss on your trickle-down economics. I’m still plugging for Jimmy Carter.”
“Now you’re getting off topic,” Chops said. “Back to the Future.”
“Never seen it.”
“Not one single Back to the Future film?”
“That’s just nuts! Hey,” Bobby shouted at some random guy walking a dog, “can you believe it? This guy’s never seen Back to the Future!”
The guy stopped. “You gotta see it,” he said.
Chops was sniping, and when he got out of earshot Trake gave me his Archie Bunker Being All Done with Edith face. With the hand not holding his never-ending cigarette, he covered his throat. “He talks too much,” he said. “Let’s ditch him.”
Mark has a lot of dumb ideas. That’s really why we call him the Mayor. But this wasn’t one of them. “Let’s go!” I agreed.
We scurried around One City Center, trying to be stealthy, but I’m fat and slow and stand out like a Beast in a bourgeois burger joint drooling on the counter during lunch-hour rush. We ducked into one of the entrances and I crouched as if to take cover, though the high cement walls shielded us from view. Might as well get a shot in whilst out of eyeshot…
Standing in front of me, Mark began rummaging through his pockets. He pulled out a plastic drinking straw and gestured for me to help him. He didn’t need me right away, so I took another shot as he unfastened the velcro neck piece that mounted his trake. I’d seen him do this countless times; he wouldn’t need me until he had to fasten it again. Until then, I had a front row seat to this horror show.
First he’d use the straw like a pipe cleaner to unclog his tracheotomy. He cleared the tube with the straw, then wiped the mucus from the hole in his throat with a couple napkins. Then I got up and adjusted the velcro neck-band from behind until he gave me the nod.
It was right after this that he abruptly turned to face me, overcome by a strange and serious emotion. “There’s nothing after this,” he said.
He looked me right in the eye. With his left hand covering his tracheotomy, he stepped back and bent at the knees, sweeping his right hand across vacant space, like an umpire signaling yer out!
“It’s all black,” he said.
“What? When you die?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “I died and I didn’t see anything. Just nothingness.”
“That’s not how it was for me.”
“What did you see?” he asked, with what sounded like alarm.
“I can’t really put it into words, but it wasn’t nothing. I’d probably call it Everything.”
Mark was looking at me with an expression that said I want to believe.
“And you know,” I went on, “it was like the instant I opened my eyes all of that Everything was somehow sucked up inside me.”