Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Painting Tacoma, Chapter Thirteen: The Freakout

Moss Green

Shawn realized his knowledge of C.S. Lewis came completely from some movie with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. Armed with such limited information, he was an easy setup for Lewis’s trap. He was a third of the way through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before he realized it was a direct allegory for the gospel. Witness the lion who gives up his life so the two children might live. Subtle as a fart.
            Or a knock on the door.
            “Shawn! I realize it’s a guy thing, but do you think I could get in there before noon?”
            “Apologies, darling one! I’m caught up in your book.”
            “Haven’t your butt-cheeks fallen asleep?”
            “The lion just bought the farm!”
            “Oh,” she said. “That part is so sad. But I still have to pee!”
            “Just a sec!”
            Shawn washed his hands, then turned to the title page and read his favorite part.
            To my dearest, darling Shawn. May you be the C.S. Lewis of drummers, and may you have every last thing you want (especially me!). Hugs, kisses, rrowr-rowr! and most of all love – Tacoma Davenport
            Funny how she always signed her last name like that. Like he might confuse her with all the other girls named Tacoma. He met her halfway down the hall, where he gripped her by the waist and deposited kisses on her neck.
            “If you keep doing that, I’ll never get to the shower.”
            “I like you dirty.”
            Tacoma pulled back and said, “What do you mean by that?”
            “Being clever. Would you like an omelet?”
            “Sure. Bell peppers and ‘shrooms in the fridge. And Swiss. Only, hold it fifteen minutes, wouldja? I’m going to soak a little.”
            Shawn was watching a documentary on jazz when she reappeared, wearing an odd ensemble: Birkenstock sandals with white woolen socks, tattered burgundy corduroys and a University of Washington sweatshirt.
            “Laundry day,” she said. “You wears what you gots.”
            “Would you like that omelet?” he asked.
            “You know, honey? It’s very sweet of you, but I’m not really hungry and I need to hurry so I can get down to the office for a couple hours. So, no offense, but could you... skedaddle?”
            “Oh,” said Shawn. “Sure. We’ve got a sound check at two, so – yeah.”
            He fetched his jacket and headed down the steps, pivoting on the porch to let the five-inch differential bring their eyes level. He was met with a question.
            “Are you all right, Shawn? Are we all right?”
            His instinct was to laugh, but he saw that she was being serious.
            “I think about you constantly. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
            She traced a finger along his collarbone. “You seem distracted. Sometimes I say things and you don’t hear me.”
            He kissed her on the cheek. “I’m a guy. And this gig tonight... I’ll try harder.”
            She gave him a look that was oddly blank. Then snapped it away like a bad hat.
            “Yes. Of course. And don’t worry – you’ll be great. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being a chick.”
            “That’s allowed. Seven o’clock? My place?”
            She smiled. “See you soon, Bubba.”
            She lent him a pillowy kiss and waved as he turned the corner. Shawn’s attentions turned deftly to the day’s agenda: to Sluggo’s for new sticks, Shakabrah for the sound check, figure out what to wear, grab a nap. He flipped C.S. Lewis onto the passenger seat and rolled down the window.

Black. A blues drummer should wear black. And layers, because the spots would heat up and he’d have to strip down. Black tee, black jeans, black button-down. He tried on a black fedora and had immediate visions of cheese. Nuh-uh.
            The fashion process had him running a little late, but he wasn’t worried. They’d run such a thorough sound check that they could hop on stage and literally be playing in five seconds. But Tacoma was late, too – fifteen minutes. That wasn’t like her. The intercom let out a scream.
            “Joe’s Pizza.”
            The joke flew right past her. “Pardon?”
            “Stay there. I’ll be right down.”
            Entering the lobby, Shawn could see that something was wrong. She was wearing the same clothes: Birkenstocks, corduroys, UW sweatshirt. And no makeup, which for Tacoma was unheard-of. He leaned through the door.
            “Did you want to... come in?”
            She gave him a blank look. “Why?”
            “I thought you might want to... freshen up.”
            “What for?”
            His boyfriend alarm-bells were going off full-blast. It almost seemed like she was looking to pick a fight.
            “Nothing,” he said. “All right if we take your car?”
            He swung through the door and went to kiss her, but she jerked back as if he had just spit on her.
            Oh man, he thought. This is bad. He ran through the past few days, looking for some small crime he may have committed. She turned to go, then stopped to look at him again, as if horns had just sprouted from his head.
            “Let’s go,” she said. He followed her to the car, and accepted the keys when she asked him to drive. He was about to crank the ignition when she put a hand on his elbow.
            “Wait, Shawn. I think you’re in trouble, and I have something that could help you. I think we need to talk about Jesus.”
            She reached under the passenger seat and pulled out a large Bible, began flipping through the pages.
            “I think there’s a passage in Corinthians...”
            There it was, the rejection, the big lie. Despite everything she knew about him, here it was, some crazy attempt at a foxhole conversion. The muscles in his abdomen drew tight.
            “Stop,” he said. He made his decision quickly. “I have to go.”
            He got out and walked, afraid to look back. He went to his apartment and sat by the window, in darkness. Five minutes later, she drove away.
            He found himself watching the American flag atop City Hall. Then, his alarm clock went off. No, it was the phone. He waited for the caller to leave a message.
            “Shawn? Where the hell are you?” It was Ivy. “We’re getting worried, sonnyboy. We’re on in half an hour. Give me a call at...”
            “Hi. Ivy. Sorry, I was screening. Listen...”
            “Are you okay? You sound odd.”
            “Um... upset,” said Shawn. He proceeded to the mathematics at hand: What will it take to get me through this?
            “Listen, Ivy. I’ll tell you all about it afterward. In fact, I’ll probably need to. But for now, just pretend everything’s normal, okay? Trouble with my battery. Left my lights on.”
            “Sure, Shawn. Are you okay to drive?”
            “Yeah. I’ll be there in ten minutes. And forget about me, okay? Enjoy your singing, kick some ass up there. It’s nothing life-and-death, just...”
            “Yeah. Girlfriend.”

Shawn was capable of shutting himself down, in the worst of situations. When he was sixteen, a friend was killed in a boating accident. Another boat rammed into theirs, late at night. His friend was decapitated. Too shaken to speak for themselves, the family asked Shawn to deliver the eulogy.
            At the service, Shawn felt himself elevated, sealed off. His friend had been blessed with a large heart and quick wit, and Shawn was determined to get this across. He told a handful of small, funny stories, spoke so calmly he was on the verge of seeming cold-blooded, detached. But people laughed, and smiled, and that was what he wanted. Five hours later, driving to the store to pick up some groceries for his mom, Shawn heard his friend’s favorite song on the radio. He pulled off the road and sobbed for half an hour.
            So here he was, another assignment, another levee around his heart. After a single mother-bear look of concern, Ivy did him the great favor of keeping him busy, handing him a set list and running through some last-minute changes.
            After that, the night was a blur. He remembered Jimmy going into a raging guitar solo on “Stormy Monday,” playing with his teeth, behind his head. The band wasn’t entirely sure if he intended to stop. And all along, Shawn was building up the volume, starting with brushes then flipping around to the handles. By the time Jimmy nodded the final turn, Shawn was whanging the cymbals full-tilt, one-two-three-four, one-two... He hit the cut on his hi-hat then stomped it, sucking sound from the air. The audience had no choice but to scream their heads off. They had no idea how deftly their buttons had been pushed.
            Ivy was on her game, shaking and growling, pulling back for a sugary turn of phrase. Shawn thought how much of the blues was theater, how thoroughly you had to invest yourself in a character. Halfway through the second set, the usually listless Shakabrah crowd got up and danced, staying their through the finale, “They Raided the Joint.” Shawn’s drum break was a gem of small geometries, punching into the spaces, working the toms till they demanded a cymbal, then the snare, ending with spitfire rolls to the crash. If drumming were Zen, perhaps it was best to ruin one’s life right before a gig. Shawn’s mind contained nothing but fuzz, and he appeared to be playing beautifully.
            “Ivy and the Swingin’ Richards!”
            Somebody shouted their name into a mic and the crowd let loose a volley of hoots and applause. A minute later, as the whoops dwindled to a drunken few, Shawn slipped out the back and threw up in the alley.

Whoever designed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, hated pedestrians. Tightroping the three-foot walkway, Shawn felt the thrust of each car is came that close to blowing him to smithereens.
            People knew the Narrows, whether they thought they did or not. Its predecessor, known by the locals as Gallopin’ Gertie, swung herself to pieces in the channel’s high winds. Her death throes, caught on film by a local photographer, had since become a staple of disaster documentaries.
            Shawn was betting on Gertie II being a little steadier, though it hardly mattered. A midnight overcast was holding the wind to five knots. Nearing the first of the bridge’s two towers, Shawn felt the call of completion. He knew he wouldn’t be happy unless he walked all the way across. It would also give him time to think. Some kid leaned out the window of a passing car to yell either “Jump!” or “Don’t jump!” Neither of which helped.
            Thank God for Ivy. At a time when she really should have been collecting plaudits on the coffeehouse floor, she chose to spend 45 minutes in a vomit-smelling alley with her heartbroken drummer. As a do-it-yourself pagan, lover of natural cycles, Ivy had always expected Tacoma to “go Billy Graham” on his ass. To her credit, she stayed away from the obvious Christian-bashing, choosing instead to offer gentle questions and vague consolations. And made him promise to drive straight home, and not to do anything foolish.
            Was this foolish? Probably. He watched his steps eat up the span until he found himself over the edge of the Kitsap Peninsula. He tapped the end of the railing and turned back.
            His new adversaries were blinding headlights and kicked-up dust – but the moon was out, three-quarters, slipping through cottage-cheese curds of cloud. The waters below were dark and sleek, offering up riptide lagoons of light. Tacoma showed very little of itself, swales of suburbia dripping over the bluffs like cake frosting.
            He found a couple walking toward him, a slim blue-jeaned boy in a funky bowl haircut, a jet-haired girl with twin pony tails, dressed in a retro satin skirt. Considering the setting, Shawn prepared a reassuring greeting.
            “Glad to see I’m not the only one.”
            The girl laughed shyly, and they walked on toward Gig Harbor.
            Was this their idea of a romantic date? Will he kiss her halfway across?
            Not if they followed the signs. No Standing, every 200 feet, halfway between the emergency call boxes. The bridge was trouble.
            He settled on a stripe of dark near the Tacoma-side tower and peered upward, a blocky moss-green shoot stitched with rivets. Suitably impressed, he leaned over the railing, the water too dark to inspire vertigo, and set to his business.
            The pages ripped away easily, but Shawn took his time, offering each its own little death. Together, they formed a smoke-like trail of white leaves, striking the water in a slow drift toward the Pacific.
            Take that, you proselytizing bastard.

Perhaps it didn’t help at all, sending C.S. Lewis to a watery grave, but Shawn felt better for doing something so foolish and picturesque. He spotted a pair of plastic bouquets, strapped to the railings for suicides past, then discovered he had to drive all the way across the bridge before turning around.
            He couldn’t resist the quick bypass to Tacoma’s house, and surprised when he didn’t see her car. Out fucking some Baptist, he thought, enjoying his viciousness. He found his immediate reward in a vivid mental image, the two of them boinking atop the altar in some dark sanctuary.
            God, this really sucks.
            Arriving home, he tortured himself further, imagining Tacoma with men of all faiths and penis sizes – Hindus with foreskins, Muslims with twelve-inchers – wasting all that brilliant lovemaking on true believers when it was he, Shawn, who believed in her. He fell to a fitful sleep, convinced that he was on his own again – the way he had planned it, the morning he left Ellensburg.

Photo by MJV
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