fine grass as a mattress
blue sky for a quilt
happy with a rock for a pillow
let Heaven and Earth go through their changes
--Han Shan (Cold Mountain), 8th century Chinese hermit/poet
Tombstone is my pillow
Cold ground is my bed
The blue sky is my blanket
And the moonlight is my spread.
---Lonnie Johnson, 20th century American bluesman
Slow John is making his way north, somewhere in Illinois--he remembers the name Carbondale some miles back. The highway follows river bedrock and the Illinois Central railroad line. It's mid-October, and already the pinkish sunsets warn of icy nights. On the road he has to plan ahead—where will he be when dark sets in? He can sleep in the car, most nights, in the old Coleman bag, the green one printed with red pheasants. Or, he could drive all night, and sleep in the car by day. Except that way he never sees anything. And if there’s any sun at all, it gets hot in a closed car, even in autumn, and he awakens all in a sweat.
He’s not above sleeping in public—libraries, churches, parks. He doesn’t mind sneaking onto private land, either, bedding down in barns or tool sheds. You’d be surprised how peaceful a garage can be, what with the smell of damp concrete, of mown grass and oil. He's slept in canoes, and under canoes. Anything to keep out of the wind, to keep the rain off his head.
So tonight Slow John is lucky to happen on an isolated farm. A grove of trees to hide the car. Yellow leaves everywhere. Plenty of outbuildings, including a small greenhouse. He likes the scent of humus, the filigree of peeling putty. The cracked panes. He studies the smeared colonies of black and green on the glass all around—he thinks of terrariums, of microscope slides.
Of ubiquitous life. Of sleep.
No light on in the farmhouse. Might as well get the guitar, while the place still holds the day’s heat. Play some low blues underneath this potting bench—he’s brushed away the spiders, shooed the mice.
Try some Skip James. Sing of some promised north. Out of this squalor. Imagine James writing “Illinois Blues” in a lumber camp in Pelahatchie . . .
Four in the morning. Something's scraping at the greenhouse wall. From down there Slow John can just make out a form—bulky, not skinny like a feral dog. Too small for a bear. Raccoon, probably. It moves behind the encrusted glass, persistent.
There’s a cold violet light from a vapor lamp back by the barn. When the coon turns at a certain angle, its guard hairs are illumined. Then the animal shifts its posture, becomes again an amorphous form.
Scratches. Wants in.
The turning begins in an abandoned greenhouse, maybe, in some god-forsaken hour. With one exhausted man eyeing an animal just outside. Some critical threshold is reached, and something collapses. Entire species vanish. New forms, new gradients arise. Or no forms, who knows?
The threshold hovers in the atmosphere, wobbles in ocean currents, takes the light blankly where icebergs calve. All quite outside him, beyond the bluesman who is after all only a homeless bum, an “itinerant musician.” Isolated. Scorned.
And yet his honed perception is an apex on which catastrophe turns. Some crisis shoves him east and west, north and south and ever deeper into sheltered pockets. Pits him against his fellows, such as they are. Is this apex his perception only? No—it locates itself in every earthly gesture. But how can it exist anywhere at all if not in his here and now?
Right now, for instance, Slow John returns to sleep, uneasily, atop an enormous carbon sink.
The Illinois Basin is an elliptical intercratonic basin that covers approximately 34 million acres in Illinois, Southeastern Indiana and Western Kentucky. All coals of economic interest are located in the Pennsylvanian-aged strata in which 75 individual seams have been identified and of which 20 have been actively mined since the 1800s.
The Illinois Basin began as a rift complex that failed and evolved into a rapidly subsiding Paleozoic cratonic embayment that was structurally closed by major tectonic events in post- Pennsylvanian time. The basin was at one time past of an extensive continent-wide Pennsylvanian deltaic system that included, but was not limited to, the Western Interior, Black Warrior, Michigan, and Appalachian basins. The basin contains several large anticlinal features that have produced over 4 billion barrels of oil since the late 1800s.
The positives for the Illinois Basin are:
• Multiple coal seams from 100 to 1,700 feet
• Net coal of 15 to 35 feet in the Carbondale and Spoon formations
• Strong regional markets that are dominated by unlimited end-users and gas pipeline purchasers
• Pro-industry regulators and minimal environmental opposition
"Coal, fool. Why do you think they call it Carbondale?"
Slow John awoke this morning among shards. His life is emblematic, quite against his will. He's nodding to the waitress across the breakfast counter, having asked some stupid question he's already forgotten.
His eggs, over easy, are rimmed in cooking oil. His hash browns, too. His coffee, black, has a slight rainbow-colored slick on top. For some reason. "For some reason," he thinks.
He sips, he blinks, he tries to figure. "What set me off last night?," he's wondering. "I ain't done damage in months. Wasn't even drinking."
Slow John knows that right about now a farmer is trying to figure, too--why the hell would someone bust out every pane in a greenhouse? The rampage was creepy, meticulous. The greenhouse in sparkling ruin.
A crystalline mess. That's what Slow John wanted, I guess. How does the lyric go?--there's just a meanness in this world.
All the while the blues men and women sang, the Industrial Revolution raged. Smokestack lightnin'--coal soot ascended awhile, then fell, while the carbon dioxide continued aloft, lodged itself in the atmosphere. Who knew? Who could have guessed?
The blues people wanted revenge, and fine automobiles. By the time of Slow John's birth, in 1950, V-8 cars, haunched and lobed and drowsy-eyed, sped across America. The machines had evolved, even as their drivers became suddenly complacent.
Slow John heads for Chicago. The countryside is flat and neutral, the harvested corn and soy fields corrugated, brown. John cherishes the anonymity, the plainness the fields afford. He himself feels featureless, vague. And feels an ancient pull, as well: the old agricultural energy. He senses the exchange between seasons, the sheltering and feeding of slow dumb animals. The secret seed.
Cider reminds him. Tufts of smoke gray in the wind. The gaps in the fields all say it. The crows in the naked orchard say it. The corn maidens skipping across the roads inscribe it in the air.
Colonial paupers say it. Hungry mouths and swelling wombs say it very well. If no human is listening, that only makes the saying more crucial, the horses more keen and responsive.
Highway 51. A straight shot north. Then 39, but the way to Chicago is via The Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway--John refuses to exit.
So he ends up hungry in a little town called Sycamore. They're having a Pumpkin Festival. Fine by Slow John--he eases into town, eats a cheeseburger, walks the streets in a gray hooded sweatshirt. He's invisible, as far as he knows.
Citizens are lining Main Street, eager for the parade. Folding chairs, sunglasses, Thermoses: all the paraphernalia of transient America. Slow John feels strangely at home. He likes the mix of the ancient and the arbitrary: the tissue paper, the straw and the pumpkins, the Elks Lodge float. The marching band and the horses. As the procession passes, Slow John follows, trying for a better view at first, but then impulsively stepping in, accompanying some Vietnam vets, some of whom are disheveled, bearded like Slow John. One wears a t-shirt that says, mysteriously, Sons of Promise. Another totes a POW/MIA flag, the black cloth pristine. Berets. Medals. Camo pants, scuffed black boots. A batch of ambiguous heros. John, a fraud, has joined their ranks. One of them looks at him sideways.
Autumn chill, stark blue sky.
Survival: corn shocks and gourds.
Slow John's skull was fractured, back in Macon, when he was seventeen. His father, on a four-day drunk, had swung an iron skillet--who knows with what intent. They'd been arguing at the kitchen table, but no more vehemently than usual, when all of a sudden his dad rose and started whirling, nearly dancing, it seemed to John. His father was fervent, then, all flailing arms and cusswords. Was empty-handed, but as he turned, grabbed something from the stovetop.
John stood up, saw the black jet at the very last instant. Turned his face aside. Was hit broadside, and went down. Saw his dad blubbering above him just before he blacked out.
It was John's deferment. Maybe the old man did him a favor.
It was also the start of his avocation--someone brought him a cheap guitar to strum while he recouped. Abed for months, he solemnly learned. He tuned and retuned the strings. He sought out chords so methodically, so single-mindedly that his friends and family worried for his mind. They noticed a new quality to his speech as well--he was painstaking, precise. He lingered on words, often, as if testing each one. Folks began to call him, with some affection, Slow John.
John answered to the name. He soon began giving it in public, about the time he first performed. On street corners, in bars. Solo, always, accompanied only by a tip jar that would sometimes ring with change. Slow John had learned a passable delta style, knew a few Robert Johnson and Son House tunes. Liked Skip James a lot. Used a Japanese guitar and a bottleneck slide. This was still the sixties, the tail-end of the "folk revival," and a few people listened to his country blues. Meanwhile the Allman Brothers Band was fusing blues with rock, burning it up there in Macon, and beyond. John loved Duane Allman's piercing electric slide, but he couldn't afford that Gibson Les Paul and Marshall amp setup. And besides, Slow John needed to be quick sometimes, light enough to move on a moment's notice.
Once Duane Allman and his brother Greg walked into a bar while Slow John played. John nearly seized up, but went on with his version of "Terraplane Blues." Once Duane turned and grinned widely in John's direction, a smile framed by mutton chop sideburns and red, exhausted eyes. But the brothers were too drunk to actually hear the music, and the place was really loud anyway. John watched as the two staggered out to the street. Duane would be dead in a year or so, having run his motorcycle into a peach truck. The Allman Brothers Band's next album would be called Eat a Peach.
Demise makes for traces, which John seeks out. He's walking an abandoned streetcar line that runs from Sycamore to a sister town, De Kalb. The tracks have been pulled for the scrap metal, but a wide trail, bounded by woods and fields, remains.
De Kalb, Illinois: the birthplace of barbed wire, what to John just now amounts to industrial brambles. He's caught his jeans on some rusty strands while trying to get to a ruin. Cussing, freeing himself clumsily, he knocks a milkweed pod aside--he's startled to see the seeds released. Airy, white, hopeful, hopeless.
Just drifting off like that.
And then the gaping pod. A brown mouth, pale inside. Oh, the singular image will grip John on occasion, will paralyze like venom, like ice around a bud. John just wants to fall away, but feels there's no ground beneath him. If he can only get to that relic--he will.
What is it, a cistern? A cement-lined rectangular pit, cracked, accumulating soil and debris. Maybe ten feet by six feet. The walls marked with faded spray paint. The pit partly covered with a gray sheet of plywood, but mostly open to the scraggly woods, to the sky.
It looks ceremonial to poor Slow John, who sees tombs and monuments everywhere. A public space, though placed obscurely. A tribute to ruin.
Closer: a trickle of water from a crack in a wall. In the inch-wide vertical stream, a shroud of moss. A centipede. Some sort of whirling white larvae. And a sudden arrival--an autumn hornet has come to sip.
A pause. Then a human voice.
"What you ponderin'? It's only concrete."
The voice is coming from behind Slow John. Hoarse. As if it hadn't been used in awhile.
John rises and turns to face the man fully. To size him up. Well, he isn't a threat, Slow John supposes--too old. As a matter of fact, the guy, white-bearded and dressed in a worn army parka, is probably just another bum. Like John, only a lot more grizzled. A wino, maybe, but no--there's a certain clarity in his spruce-colored eyes.
"I just like old places, I guess," says John, tersely. He never did like explaining himself, to anyone.
"Old places, yeah," says the stranger. "Old times, too." Already Slow John dislikes this guy--the way he talks to himself while pretending to converse, just like John's old man. Lives in a private universe, probably. John wants to be on his way.
But the old guy's blocking the way back to the trail.
"You been sleepin' out here?," John asks. "In these woods? In this pit maybe?"
"Now what would I be doin' sleepin' in a hole in the ground?" The old guy laughs. "I ain't dead yet. I sleep nice and dry in a place I know. Back a ways," he says, gesturing towards the trees. "Wanna see my mattress?"
Slow John's confused. The old guy pulls out a fat tattered wallet, opens it, and holds it out, at a distance, for John to see. The wallet is bulging with hundred dollar bills.
Slow John's surprised, of course, but also strangely irritated. "You're a damned fool, old man. What you doin' letting on like that? How do you know I won't hurt you, maybe kill you for your cash?"
"Cause you won't," he laughs. The certainty behind the old guy's words rattles John a little.
"Well why you showin' me your damn money?" asks John.
"Because you got a car," says the old guy. How does he know that, thinks John. He been followin' me since town?
"And you gonna be my guide," the old guy says. "And I'm gonna pay for stuff as we go."
"Really," says John. "And where we gonna go, old man?"
"I told you--you're the guide. We go where you take us. Places you know. Places you don't know. Just places--these old woods gotta be cut down soon. Bulldozed for houses, I s'pose. I seen the survey stakes, the pink ribbons. I seen the developer guys. They set up a pump in the low parts, to drain the water out. That damn pump ran twenty-four seven, kept me up all night, 'til I fixed it. I fixed it with a iron pole I found in the creek."
So this guy is crazy, probably, thinks John. But he's got money, somehow. I'm kinda crazy, too, I guess, 'cause I'm impressed that the old man took out the pump.
Who is this guy anyway? A nonsense rhyme from Dylan comes to Slow John--The pump won't work 'cause the vandals stole the handle. John decides to accept the offer.
"So OK, let's go then," he says to the old man.
The countryside on the drive in to Chicago becomes dense with suburbs, quickly. "In the fifties, even the sixties, this was all farms and some of it still prairie," the old man is saying, gazing out the window.
How old is this guy? Slow John wants to know, but doesn't want to ask. Instead he says, "What's your name, anyway, old man? You never said."
"You never said, neither."
"Well they call me Slow John."
"Yeah, and I'm Robin Hood," chuckles the old man.
"No, I'm really Slow John. That's who I am."
"Oh well," says the old man. "OK. My name's Johnson. That's funny isn't it? A common enough name, Johnson. You should call me Mister Johnson."
Slow John smiles. "Well some of my favorite musicians were named Johnson." And then in a slow, sing-song voice: "Robert Johnson. Tommy Johnson. Blind Willie. Lonnie Johnson, too."
"Who are they?"
"Just blues guys. From old times," says John.
Mister Johnson glances back at the guitar case in the back seat. It's half covered up in the sleeping bag, like maybe Slow John was trying to keep it warm.
"I'll call you Mister if that's what you want," says Slow John. "Just Mister."
"That'll do," says Mister Johnson.
The thought of moving through remnant trees intrigues me, always. Both for the possibilities of the immediate place--perhaps turtles or accipiters--and as a nexus to the entire world. The woods are private, yet universal. Whereas the houses, the ball fields, the strip malls: these only block, in their artifice, passage through a vista--what vision more easily allows.
Often I have to rely on memory. The crowns of winter hardwoods, receding over low undulations. Remember how they would draw you in? And maybe, on the edges, a trace of the old wild prairie. The one that was sung to death . . .
"You see your good old self in the trees. It's how your brain works," Mister is saying. He's been rattling off occasional profundities like this for the last hour or so, while shuffling a deck of cards on his thighs. Two things bother Slow John: first, he has no idea what the guy is talking about, and second, aren't those faded pinup girls on the backs of those cards?
"I know a place in Chicago," Slow John says. "Where we can stay."
"OK," says Mister. And looks out the window.
"Don't you want to know about it?"
"I'll see when we get there." Now Mister is nodding, as if someone has said something he agrees with. The old man's wires are crossed, thinks Slow John.
"It's how your brain works," repeats Mister Johnson.
Chicago is gray and sharp-edged, to John. A place to negotiate.
It's more amorphous to Mister Johnson. A place in which to be absorbed.
Slow John guns his old sedan to get to each red light. His turn signal on the dashboard seems to him a sort of warning. Some little sort, but important. He doesn't want to be rear-ended, or worse, stopped by police.
Mister Johnson notices faces in the other cars, obscured. He feels sorry for the people on the streets, most of them striding, eyes locked forward. Neat tan overcoats. Hard black shoes. The occasional homeless woman or man, shuffling along with a shopping cart or a precious plastic bag, cheers him, nearly--if it weren't for the oncoming cold.
"The cold, first it starts in the steel," says Mister. "Then it gets in your bones. Pretty soon it starts in your bones, and you need the steel to shelter you some. Then it starts all over again."
Slow John has already learned to ignore Mister's odd pronouncements. John's response, he just starts singing. OK, how 'bout this, from Eddie Boyd: "I got a job in a steel mill/Shuckin' steel like a slave/ Five long years every Friday/I come straight home with my pay/ Have you ever been mistreated/You know just what I'm talkin' about/I worked five long years for one woman/And she had the nerve to put me out."
But what did I see--red bricks, brown bricks. Blonde. The clumsy contour lines of tar poured to repair the gray asphalt. The white wooden cuts where trees had been hacked near power lines. Flocks of pigeons tilting to stave off the oncoming cold.
The season a mockery of the big warming. Obscuring the moment when subtlety opens into a hothouse bloom.
Robert Nighthawk: "You meets a lot of musicians, get a lot of jobs from Maxwell Street. You do pretty good. Mostly every musician in Chicago played on Maxwell Street at one time, including Muddy Waters. See, it's more hard to play out in the street than it is in a place of business, but you have more fun in the street, looks like. Well, so many things you can see, so many different things going on. I get a kick out of it, I guess."
Hound Dog Taylor: "You used to get out on Maxwell Street on a Sunday Morning and pick you out a good spot, babe. Dammit, we'd make more money than I ever looked at. Put you out a tub, you know, and put a pasteboard in there, like a newspaper. I'm telling you, Jewtown was jumpin' like a champ, jumpin' like mad on Sunday morning."
John can remember back before '94, when the Maxwell Street Market was actually on Maxwell Street--before the university and the mayor pushed the last of old Jewtown out. John felt honored to play there whenever he came north. For the history, at first, but increasingly for the moment: well anything might happen, people dancing spontaneously, or fighting, or acting out odd domestic dramas-- while the music rolled out over the crowds continuously, in blue layers and waves.
The other thing about Maxwell Street was the sheer amount of stuff for sale at those makeshift tables: every sort of trinket and gadget and food and tool. Clothes. Car parts. Produce. Pork chops. It was like material America was laid bare every Sunday, its side split to where you could see the steel and the vegetable guts. Wonderfully gaudy. And the fact that America's poor were hawking all that junk made the display feel joyous and honest to John: "Cheat you Fair," as the signs all said. Not like the suburban malls that by then had become ubiquitous-- surreptitiously bland on the outside, and "tasteful" in their climate-controlled interiors. No, the Market was scrappy. The people clung to whatever edge America offered on that particular day. Some dug in, some let loose, some let go and disappeared. The blues that washed over them, the music in all its transience, turned out to be more durable, in its way, than all the men and women and kids and mongrel dogs that passed on through there. More durable than Slow John, certainly. Which is why John remembers the Market with affection, and feels not an iota of sentimentality. Which is why John plays blues, disdains pop, and has no use for nostalgia.
Mister's in a room on the near north side. A brownstone apartment, nondescript. Minimal furniture: a milk crate for an end table, a dining room table made of a door placed on sawhorses. A red diner chair, an ancient beige couch.
Radiators knock and hum. The floor is wooden, scarred. A great arch-shaped window looks out on bricks and rooftops.
Mister Johnson is fixated, just now, on the strange rooftop terrain. He's trying to account for every vent and chimney, for each mysterious portal or door. TV antennae, radar dishes. Metal flashing. Faded tar shingles. Flat asphalt roofs.
A wasteland. "It's fine," says Mister, to the no one in the room.
"Can he be left alone?" Sam is asking Slow John. Sam's a tall, skinny harmonica genius, not much good at anything else. He plays pretty regular blues gigs, lets John crash at his apartment. Likes to hang out here, at the Pony Boy bar and grill.
"He's OK. Not gonna steal anything. He's got money of his own, somehow. Harmless old guy. Homeless, I guess. I found him in the woods."
Or he found you. Prideful around your peers, aren't you? Pity the poor homeless--even while you yourself have no address, no possessions to speak of: a change of clothes, a winter coat. A forty-year-old guitar.
Sam and Slow John are drinking beer at eleven in the morning. The Chicago bar, strangely, has a western theme: spurs on the walls, and an old horse blanket. Bad paintings of the plains and mountains, darkened by years of cigarette smoke. A decrepit rifle hung with a plaque: Buffalo Gun. The two men hunch beneath it, talk.
"Can get you a gig at Hank's, on a weeknight," Sam is saying. "A tip jar, a few old folkies and a college kid or two who might show. Not much, but better than the street. It's gettin' too cold to play on the fuckin' sidewalk."
"Yeah, I'll do it," says John. "Sometimes the college kids get generous. The folkies want that 'Candyman' shit, want to hear 'Freight Train', 'Good Night Irene'."
"Well there's another gig you can do, if you want. I've made a few bucks at it."
Slow John knew what came next. Sam had been into deliveries, occasionally: small-time dealers would get him to drop off pot and sometimes crack. Money would change hands. Sam got to keep some of it.
"Make a few deliveries. It'll get you through," says Sam.
Slow John considers the offer, says nothing. Sips his beer. Tastes grain in there, tastes bitters.
At the apartment, Sam's gone out on an errand. Mister and Slow John are sitting on the floor. John's working out a set on the guitar, his back is against the couch. Mister is fascinated, but quiet.
Slow John stops playing in the middle of a very slow blues. Looks up and says, "Look, Mister, I got a chance to make a little money here in Chicago. It'll take longer than I expected, though, maybe a couple a weeks."
"I told you I'd pay for stuff," says Mister. "Ain't I paid for gasoline and food?"
"Well I gotta have money to get through the winter. Can't play the streets up here. Too cold."
"So let's go where it's warmer," says Mister. Something's telling him not to stay too long in this city, or in any one place. That, he knows, is Slow John's mindset, too. "Let's travel. I got nothin' but time."
"Yeah, well I'll play a gig or two and try this other thing, and then we'll go. It'll take only a few days, maybe. How 'bout Texas?" says John. "Warm down there. We'll go."
"This other thing"--Mister doesn't like it. He's not naïve.
Slow John doesn't like it either, but it's faster money than music brings.
John is waiting in his car near a place called Pioneer Park--way the fuck out in the suburbs. A couple of high school kids are supposed to pick up a kilo of pot. They're late, and John's getting nervous. His car's by far the oldest on these streets--conspicuous, he's thinking.
When the kids finally show, they're driving a silver BMW, listening to Green Day. They're stoned, but efficient. The money's exact. The pot, in a gym bag, sits on their back seat as if they were heading to the health club. Maybe they are. John is glad to be rid of them, rid of the pot. He slowly turns around in a driveway to head back to the city. Pauses a moment.
So few people on the streets. Each house self-contained, Colonial. Aluminum siding, three-car garages. If there are actual lives occurring in these houses, they're far from Slow John. Alien. Vague. Anyone home? Anyone raising a voice, a hand? A drink to their lips?
John drives, tops a small rise and looks over the suburb--what's it called, something "Heights." He notices a wisp of snow in the street, when did that fall, last night? He looks out over subdivisions on the glacially-scraped terrain. Over autumn foliage, striations of color on tree-lined streets.
Rooftops, where the chimney-smoke figures hover, dissolve.
Sky, blank except for a few stray jets.
A subtle muti-directional light lies unfettered on the plains. The prairie elephant rises. A bag of seed is hoisted up on one man’s shoulder. "Everywhere Jimmie Rodgers went he threw marijuana seeds off the back of the train": but this is the opposite, a burden, the heft and weight of all potential. Blue unconscious phrases form, come out of the mouths of bluesmen, of women who yield nothing. The mottled guitars, their varnish flaked and frets worn down by human will and oils, hold the fleeting, imperishable law.
Arks are sheltered in exile lands. They’re carried, with abandon, by practiced hands, while mouths form rhythms, placid as doves. Rifts may lead to depth, or more: rifts may open worlds. Surely you've felt it, this insistence of the nerves. Leaving stifling fields, and ever-drifting: a man contained within a chasm, an Adam always falling, need never be expelled. The moment of sin, ongoing, suspends his Eden even as he speaks, no longer naive.
His nation wants to prolong that innocence, to inflict it on the world. So worlds like wounds do open, as he raises his arms, asserts his freedom. He rallies his senses: he flees. Frozen in Huck Finn adolescence, he skirts our innocence with every pass.
Mister is leaning into the wall, waiting for John to return. There's a kind of peace in the old apartment, as if the wood and brick have finally settled after a century or so.
The peace is in fact passivity. Is material earth succumbing. Is the hum of water in the radiator pipes. Is flaking plaster walls. Is glass in the windowpanes, rippled, flowing.
Mister remembers a woman from maybe forty years ago, how she would lean into him the way he's leaning now. How they would lean into one another. She had good dark hair, wore lipstick on Saturday nights. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about her, which is what Mister enjoyed. The lovers pushed up mountains--or so it seemed to Mister then. The lovers were merely earth succumbing.
There's a sound in the stairwell outside. Slow John's at the door, softly knocking. Mister stirs from his reverie and answers. Says, "Let's go to Texas. Texas is plain. This city blocks my view."
"I have a little more work to do. A week. We'll go." Slow John needs the money, so as not to depend entirely on Mister. The risk of delivering drugs is minimal, probably. Sam has promised three or four more connections, enough money to last John 'til past Christmas. Christmas would be good in Texas, in the borderlands, thinks John. Clean. Among naked rocks.
There's a flood down in Texas, all the telephone lines are down . . . Slow John is singing. He's fretting his guitar with a small medicine bottle worn on his third left finger. Almost no one is listening in the little café. Wind's up: Slow John can see the branches quiver in the streetlight just outside. Off in Lake Michigan, not a mile away, John knows, whitecaps are pinching the shallow black water.
His voice rises to meet the wind. So does his slide guitar. A blues vibrato, bracing. It holds John together, barely. It has a hold on poor Slow John.
A man enters the café slowly, sits in the back of the room. Watches John intently, and when Slow John takes a break, beckons him over to his table. What John sees in his face: something strangely familiar. Gaunt, a crudely chiseled face. Gray eyes. Dirty hair spilling from under a watch cap. Hard to tell his age. But yes, he's visibly aging. Probably into meth.
John is thinking: Don't I know this guy from somewhere? What's he runnin' ?
"So John," the man begins.
How does he know my name?
"Slow John," John corrects him. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Doesn't matter," says the man. "What matters is what I know. Followed you all the way to a little park in the suburbs. Saw it all. Even followed you back into the city. You never knew you had a guardian angel, eh? Just over your right shoulder."
"Shit, man. I don't know what you're saying. Better just leave me alone." Slow John rises to leave. But the man touches John sleeve.
"Won't cost you much to keep me quiet. I'm a quiet sort of guy. Five hundred bucks. Tonight. You won't hear from me after that."
John can hear the desperation beneath the thin veneer of cool. This is so stupid, John's thinking. A shakedown on a deal so small the cops would hardly bother. Slow John didn't even make five hundred for his trouble, and now this asshole wants in. Still, who wants complications? Slow John just wants out of this town. Mister wants out, too.
Best to be terse. Get it over. Get out.
"I'll be back here in a hour. With money," says John. "Meet me in the parking lot."
"Better be," says the man. "I know where you live."
John grunts, rises again to leave. Notes the guy's build--slight. Makes a decision, then, in spite of himself. Feels an unwelcome anger rising there inside him.
Slow John packs up his guitar, drives as if heading back to the apartment. He's vigilant this time, makes sure he's not being followed. He figures Mister might give him the money, just to get them out of town. But there's a thing in John that won't let this deal go down. A thing John requires, but doesn't want. He turns off the street and finds a neighborhood bar. He sits for a half hour, nursing a beer. He gets back in his car and drives back to the café, parks two blocks away. He retrieves a jack handle from the trunk, wears it up his sleeve. He walks to the darkened parking lot. Waits.
The man in the watch cap arrives, also on foot. Good, thinks Slow John. As the man walks by, John steps out from the shadows and blindsides him with the jack handle. First on the side of his face. Then to the back of the knees, to make sure the guy goes down. Finally a few stomps on the ribs, to keep him down a while. Things happen quickly, efficiently. Slow John is practiced. The man barely makes a sound.
Within another half hour, John has Mister, who's groggy from sleep but happy to leave, bundled in the passenger seat. They're on the ramp to Interstate 55. John's focused on driving, making good time but not speeding. Mister senses trouble, of course, but knows not to ask questions. He's watching the vapor lights stab at the windshield. Not a word is spoken until Joliet, near the prison. "Sure hate to end up there," is all Mister has to say.
Then it occurs to you that the familiar streets have become somehow oppressive, that they delimit your possibilities in the world. Nothing's really changed out there--all the flux is internal, as if your mind were a rotating storm, slowly unwinding like an old watch spring. Even as you move across the terrain, you sense this tick, this quivering. It prompts you to leave, and it registers the topography, the textures of the leaving. It sets your life in four dimensions. It does not cease, even in sleep. It beats.
It could indeed be conflated with your heart.
I'm goin' down to West Texas, I'm goin' down behind the sun
I'm gonna ask the good Lord what evil have I done
--"Key to the Highway" William Charles Segar
Where are Mister and Slow John now? Heading towards Austin, Texas, where Slow John knows a blues bar. "Always a gig in Austin," he's saying to Mister.
But Mister's not listening. Instead he's sniffing the stream of air coming through the half-open window. "Somethin' burnin' out there," says Mister. "Grass, maybe."
"Not this time of year," says John, but then he smells it too. Pungent, almost sweet, but then acrid in the back of the throat. And soon he sees the caramel-colored smoke on the horizon.
They're driving towards the vague conflagration. Mister leans back. Slow John looks for side roads, but the highway's straight and plain.
"Mister, you ever see that movie, Red River? With John Wayne?"
"No, I don't much watch movies, or TV," says Mister. "What about it?"
"Well just before they--John Wayne and his sidekick, what's his name--just before they cross over to Texas, they look back from where they came and see the smoke from the wagons the Indians have attacked and burned. And John Wayne knows his girl he left behind is killed, you know--he can tell by the smoke. And they think for a minute about goin' back, but what's the point, you know? It's too far, too late by then. So they camp right there for the night and next mornin' they cross the Red River and there they are, in Texas."
Slow John pauses. "So it's a pretty good movie, if you like Westerns."
"I like the ones I've seen, I guess," says Mister. "I'm tryin' to remember. I like the bluffs or the cliffs. I like the shapes of 'em always looming up in the background. And I like gunfights, the whistling sound the bullets make. That stuff's alright."
"They got me through a lot of tough times back when I was a kid. I'd lose myself into those movies, the late late show, you know, although I only had a little black-and-white TV, in the basement, with the reception not too good, either," John laughs. Right now he's recalling those grainy images, even as bugs and ash begin to smear the windshield.
Memory mixes. Insects flee. Soot dances on shifting thermals, makes indistinct helixes. And then dissipates: in Texas, life's reduced, by forces, or by the sheer size of the plains, to just specks. Think of the long views: intermittent oaks, cars over the lonely highways. Cattle grazing the distances. Swarms of locusts. And now this damn ash.
"Specks," Mister is saying to the no one out there at all.
They drive into the maelstrom. No choice. The highway's passable, but visibility's bad. John has to slow to a crawl. Then a bit of a pageant: a line of cars, of pickups. Befuddled drivers. A semi trailer has pulled off on the side. A big water tanker creeps along the shoulder, looking for a place to enter the fields. John grimaces as a state trooper waves him by.
Mister seems half-asleep, yet drawn into this cryptic world. Like a child, he's reciting what he sees. "Little flames inching along in the grass," he says. "Grasshoppers jumpy ahead of 'em."
Or: "Cowboy all sooty, scratching his head--now fanning his face with his hat. " While John, concentrating on the road, careful not to fuck up in the presence of the trooper, nods. He's strangely grateful to Mister for narrating the world John negotiates, but misses, in his focus, and in smoke.
A list, not nearly comprehensive, in an eerie light. A catalogue, we used to call it. Except that here, littered on the ground, shoved and fluttered by the hot wind, are full-color pages and flyers, insert ads from newspapers. Glances of fashion models, of power tools, of laundry soap and home electronics. Small. Tossed. Glossy, then gone. Some of them charred at the edges.
The sun goes amber, then dull. Still, John can make out patches of blue, up ahead, where the Texas sky resumes.
In Austin, at dusk, Slow John and Mister Johnson notice bats in the air. Like rippled clouds, ushering in night. A million and a half, as a matter of fact, are flying out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Slow John knows that this is one of the last fly-outs this year. Early November: the bats are heading to central Mexico, where they'll winter, and mate. John feels the pull.
Away from the tourist bars, far from the river, there's a little bar called Zoey's, a brick shoebox with a makeshift stage at the far end. At one time the stage was enclosed by chicken wire, as the patrons sometimes took to throwing beer bottles at musicians who didn't quite fill some expected Texas niche--either straight up country, or ZZ Top style blues-rock, depending on the crowd. But those were the bad old days. By now the place has mellowed, some would say declined. The chicken wire, mangled and half torn down, still skirts the stage, like a old garden fence.
Slow John steps over it with a comical sort of reverence. He regards Texas blues, gritty as it is, as a sophisticated mix. T-Bone Walker brought jazz inflections in and pretty much invented electric blues guitar. Lightnin' Hopkins had a troubadour's wit and fiery guitar lines. Even Stevie Ray Vaughn, for all his loudness, had a real touch, and he let both Hendrix and Kenny Burrell into his blues.
Playing to an indifferent crowd, John sings automatically, then remembers, for some reason, how he'd sing to himself in the alleys and the night yards of his childhood--sing completely to himself. Not blues, back then, but any pop tune or advertising jingle, any nursery rhyme or nonsense that occurred to him at the moment. It didn't begin that way, of course. At first he was just testing his voice. Later he may have been warding off ghosts, or imagined assailants. But at some point, somewhere around fourteen or fifteen years of age, just when most kids were becoming hyper-self-conscious, John began singing boldly, with real intent. The singing was strictly for his own gratification; he couldn't care less who heard. That's what made the songs, he now realizes, so strong. People began to comment, sometimes to ask him to sing. He'd oblige, so easily. It was just an exercise, like running, like swinging at a fat, slow pitch.
She walks in just as he ends his set: she can't have heard more than a minute of his blues. And yet she seems to know something, from the music, from John's demeanor. She walks directly up to him, steps gingerly over the chicken wire, and stands at the edge of the stage. Her face is just about level with his knees.
John is surprised, amused. A little embarrassed, for some reason. She looks up to find his eyes and says, "I know what they pay the musicians in this dive. C'mon, I'll buy you a drink."
Her hair is long, black. Her face is a little angry, just around the mouth, but her voice is calm, steady. Her eyes are brown, almost black. When she brings the glass to her mouth, John sees that her hands are lean and tan. Her whole body seems sun-hardened; not wiry, exactly, but defined. Defined by work and weather. He guesses that she works outdoors, on a ranch, maybe, or that she gardens, or swims. Maybe she's a nature lover--though John thinks it somehow a violation to ask.
He's hoping she's private. He's happy when she doesn't disclose all that much about herself--no family tragedy weighing on her tongue, no big neuroses to parade in the air. John wonders what she wants, if anything. He likes that he has to wonder.
She's telling him about Texas, giving him a lot of information, but ladling it out kind of slowly, Texas-style, he guesses: " . . . just a big flat grid," she's saying, "in the east and north. But things get interesting right west of here, in the hill country. Lotta caves, and good oaks, and streams that run fast on top of the rocks. Gotta watch for flash floods, but you should see one sometime. It's cleansing."
"I guess it is," says John. Yep, definitely a nature person. John doesn't mind.
She continues. "Only problem is those assholes building their trophy homes on the hills--you been in any of those?--with the high ceilings and oversized windows, the track lighting and the stone tile floors-- it's like they're living in the mall all day. I guess that's what they want."
"I guess it is," says John again. He doesn't need to agree, to impress her--he just does.
Don't fooled by all that Texas talk. The territory is huge, but that's not a Texas you'll ever know.
Instead, go out to hill country, as a guest, hosted by live oaks, by pecan trees and elms. Always you're greeted by particulars, not let to stray among the abstractions. Because Texas wants to hold you, close.
Here. The shallow soils over limestone allow for Texas mountain laurel, with its purple flower, its grape-like fragrance, its red poisonous seeds.
The Texas blind snake, which looks a lot like an earthworm, lives amidst the good decay, under logs, eating insects and invertebrates.
And native grasses: big and little bluestem, and side-oats gama, splinter the Texas light, and slim it down to where you can see it, there among the stems.
Should you require secret meaning--limestone country means caves, means springs. Means underground rivers. Water might surface anywhere. You're walking in a dry and fragrant woods, the oak leaves on the ground are pungent in the heat--when suddenly you come upon a full-blown pool, the water green and clear. Understand, the spring is no metaphor; it is its own meaning, and now it's yours as well.
Welcome to Texas. The scattered hollows murmur with pigeons, are effusive with grackles. Are festive with bright cardinals. Mockingbirds perch low in the shrubs, say the world with strange inflections . . .
Morning. Her house, after talk and coffee in a tiny kitchen. They're amorous. They embrace. She spontaneously strips off her clothes.
He follows. She glances at a dim stairway.
John wants to go down. The cellar smells of limestone, of damp cement. Naked, she leads him. Naked, he follows. Slow John watches her descend the stairs, her hair swaying, her ass flexing.
The basement's warm. An old boiler hisses. The room is lit only by a single small window placed high on the wall. John sees her contours, and she sees his vague musculature, better for this angled light.
She leads Slow John to a corner, a cot. A narrow bed, but it's all right--she lays down and begins fondling herself. For John's benefit, but also for her own. John kneels down on the floor beside her. He kisses her mouth and breasts and belly, kisses her hands should they happen by. And then they embrace, awkward at right angles to one another, but somehow, love ensues. When John finally straddles her, their moans hovering close, the old cot sags and nearly touches the floor.
Their bodies stir, like a form in a dark cocoon.
Mister is restless, moving among strangers in the Austin streets. He's sizing them up, he's usually displeased. But one among them appeals to Mister: a young mother wheeling her baby in a dingy stroller. The mother: pale, tattooed, dressed in leather and black canvas tennis shoes. A ring in her nose, but none on her fingers. Walking down the center of the busy sidewalk as if challenging the world. With this child. But instead of the usual sneer, a beatific look.
The baby: a scrunched-up face peering out of the blankets, taking in some portion of the world.
Mister finds an excuse to speak to her when she drops a little stuffed toy on the sidewalk.
"Your giraffe," says Mister, bending over to retrieve it. And that line strikes him funny, strikes her funny, too.
"Thanks," says the mother, taking the toy and placing it gingerly near her baby's ear. "It sings to her," says the mother. "It sings."
Mister pretends to know exactly what she means by this, and maybe he does, after all. "Is it singing now?" he asks.
"No. When only she can hear," says the mother, and continues on her way.
"Met a woman," says Slow John to Mister.
"Me too," says Mister. "She enough to make you stay?"
"Maybe," says John. "And how about this woman you met?"
"She knows stuff," says Mister. "She knows people don't stay."