Saturday, October 18, 2014

Gates of Heaven

Headlines from the Irontonian on November 10, 1921
Domestic Troubles Assigned as Cause
Police holding Two Guns as Evidence
Husband Says Wife Shot Herself
Coroner to Hold an Inquest over the Body

            On November 10, 1921, at 8:30 in the morning my grandmother, Vina McGlone Estep Reed, was sitting in a rocking chair in her bedroom in Ironton, Ohio. Her second husband, Hayes Reed, was still in bed. Hayes and Vina had been married for about a year. Vina was 24 years old when she married Hayes. He was 44. Vina’s first husband, Albert Estep, my grandfather, had died in 1918 of typhoid fever leaving her with one living child, Maizie, my mother. Vina and Abert’s first child, Clyde, had died of meningitis before his first birthday. In November of 1921, Maizie was not quite five years old.
            Vina and Hayes had been fighting. One source of their domestic troubles was Hayes’ sons from a previous marriage who lived with the couple.
            That morning while sitting in her rocking chair, Vina was shot through the heart and died instantly. She was killed by Hayes’ gun, a 32 caliber Savage automatic. The bullet entered her chest, pierced her heart and passed out the right side of her body. Hayes was the only one who saw what happened. He told everyone Vina had shot herself with his gun. Vina had a gun of her own, a 32 caliber Bulldog pistol. It had not been fired. The police took possession of both guns. Six months earlier, Hayes had killed a man with the same gun that took Vina’s life. For a while he had been with the Ironton Police Department. He had been sent to a home to make an arrest and shot to death a man named Henry Farmer. Henry Farmer’s family claimed that Hayes was intoxicated when he came to the house. Hayes was tried for first-degree murder charges, but he was cleared.

            Two undertakers came to the house for Vina’s body. Hayes had called one, but Sina McGlone, Vina’s mother, had called a different one, O’Keefe and Company, and they took possession of the body. Mrs. McGlone lived only a couple of blocks from the house where her daughter died. She came over that morning with another son-in-law, Jim Stevens. Jim was the husband of her younger daughter, Callie McGlone Stevens. In the confrontation, Jim drew a revolver and threatened to kill Hayes on the spot.
            Mrs. McGlone told the police that what happened was no suicide. Just recently, she told them, her daughter had said that she “had too much sense to take her own life.”
            There was an inquest by the coroner. The county prosecutor was present. The coroner ruled that there was no evidence to contradict the testimony of Hayes Reed, the only eyewitness, that his wife had shot herself.

            Vina was buried in Woodland Cemetery only a few blocks from the fourth ward neighborhood where she died, only a few blocks from where Albert had died two years earlier. At Woodland, a hundred yards or so separates Vina and Albert’s plots. Hayes is buried there too, but in a newer part of the cemetery. He lived until 1952. He never remarried. Woodland Cemetery is a beautiful place. Walkers and joggers use it to get their daily exercise. There is usually the sound of mowers as the maintenance crew cuts the grass.

            In the cemetery register my grandmother is listed as Mary V. Reed - section H, Lot 66. At that site, Vina has a nice headstone carved with an image of the gates of heaven swinging open. Her headstone reads “Mary E. Eystep, 1896-1921”. They got the dates right. Given the family’s poverty, they must have cared deeply for her to go to the expense of a stone marker for her grave. They must have wanted her to be remembered.

            Vina said, “Wait.” Then she got out of bed. I thought she was going to the privy, but she just went and sat in her rocking chair. Then she started in on me about the boys. It’d all been said about a hundred times. She’d say, “Them boys don’t show me no respect. I can’t bear that kind of behavior no more.” Then I’d say, “They just boys. You gotta teach them. You wallop them a time or two and they’ll learn.” “No,” she’d say. “I ain’t gonna live that way.” On and on.
            That morning I said, “The problem in this house ain’t the boys. The problem is there ain’t no lovin’.” Vina, she hung her head and said, “Lord. Lord. Lord.” I said, “A mans got needs.” Vina said, “Hayes, I never lied to you. You said you was gonna marry me and take care of me and Maizie. I told you I weren’t ready to love nobody.” Then I said, “And I have taken care of you. Now, Vina, a marriage is like a contract and I’ve lived up to my end of it, but love me or not, you got duties you ain’t livin’ up to.” I think she started crying and I heard her saying, “Lord. Lord. Lord.”  We’d had this conversation a hundred times, too. I was feeling like I had a fever. My neck and my ears were burning up. My head was starting to ache.
            I said, “You ain’t a natural woman and you ain’t no use to me.” She said, “I’m a natural woman. I know that from Albert.” My head was full of fire and pressure when she said that. I knew what was going to happen next. My gun was right by my bed and I pointed it at her. I thought she was going to change her tune and beg me not to shoot, but all she did was say, “Hayes, you get my mother to take care of Maizie. Do it right away.” So I shot her. I never even got out of the bed.
            Maizie was at the door calling for her mommy. I said, “Go on over to your granny’s house. Tell her to come right away.” She called out, “Mommy?” again and I said, “Do like I told you.” I heard her go down the stairs and out the door.
             I thought, Now I killed two people. That’s it. I’m done with killing. Then I got out of bed and laid my pistol in Vina’s lap.

            Vina woke up feeling like a glass that was filled right to the brim. Except that instead of being filled with water she was filled with sadness. She knew the least little thing and she’d spill over and instead of being inside her, her sadness would be everywhere and she wouldn’t be able to help thinking about baby Clyde and Albert, both of them laying dead in Woodland Cemetery. Then Hayes tried to get on top of her and she said, “Wait” and went and sat in her rocking chair. She thought about the day and knew she’d have to deal with Hayes’ boys who would run wild and not listen to a thing she said. “Hayes, them boys don’t show me no respect. I can’t bear that kind of behavior no more.” He blamed her like he always did. He said, “They just boys. You gotta teach them. You wallop them a time or two and they’ll learn.” She thought, No I can’t do it. They’re too big and rough. One of these days they’ll hurt Maizie.
            Then Hayes started in about the sex like he always did. He said, “Now, Vina, a marriage is like a contract and I’ve lived up to my end of it, but love me or not, you got duties you ain’t livin’ up to.” When he said that her sadness spilled and tears began to run down her cheeks. Then Hayes said, “You ain’t a natural woman and you ain’t no use to me.” She remembered being with Albert and she knew she was a natural woman, but she knew too she could never be that way with Hayes. Out loud she said, “I ain’t even no use to myself. I ain’t even no use to Maizie.”
            She knew what was going to happen next. Hayes had hung his holster and his pistol on the back of the rocking chair like he always did even though she asked him to put it away. She took the gun and held it backwards, pointed at her chest, with her thumbs on the trigger and her fingers around the handle. She had thought that maybe Hayes would try to stop her, but he just sat there in the bed. She Said, “Hayes, you get my mother to take care of Maizie. Do it right away.” Then she pushed the trigger away with her thumbs and thought…

            I thought about that morning every day of my life.
            I already had my dress on, but I was still sitting in my bed. I had a little rag doll and a stuffed rabit, too. I was waiting for my ma to call me. There was a big bang, like somebody had slammed a door real hard. I went down the hall to their door and said, “Mommy?” Hayes said, “Go on over to your granny’s house. Tell her to come right away.” I said, “Mommy?” again. Hayes said, “Do like I told you.” Hayes’ boys was out in the hall too, but they didn’t say nothing. I ran out the house and ran barefooted to Granny’s house. It weren’t real cold, but I could see my breath. I started crying cause I knew I was an orphan now. I knew that bang weren’t no door slamming. I couldn’t say nothing when I got to my granny’s house, but she looked at me and she started crying, too, cause she knew good as I did that I was an orphan now. My Aunt Callie and Uncle Jim was there. Aunt Callie took me on her lap. She wrapped me in a quilt. It had boxes on it that looked real. They looked like you could touch them. My teeth were chattering, but I wasn’t cold. Granny said, “Jim, I gotta go over there. You’ll come with me, won’t you? Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord.” I never saw my ma again. I can’t remember my dad, but I remember my ma real good. Nothing was like it was no more. Nothing was like I wished it was. Everything was different.

            My mother, Maizie, had a traumatic childhood and a hard life. She survived. She was an exceptional woman. Additionally, she created a bridge that, in one generation, allowed me to cross over from illiteracy, poverty, and violence to a very different kind of life. I’m educated, solidly middle-class, and no one has ever pulled a gun on me. I am grateful to her. In my gratitude I feel an obligation, an obligation to tell this story. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Vermeer's The Geographer, painted 1668-1669


 Scholarship on Johannes Vermeer includes a lot of speculation and conjecture. He lived and worked 350 years ago, he was not famous in his own time, and he only painted about forty pictures. The records are skimpy. The Geographer was painted in 1668 and 1669 when he would have been 36. It is one of the few paintings that he signed and dated. Beyond that we are in the territory of subjective analysis.
At the time the painting was done, there were three men who shared the same birth year -1632 - living in a seven-mile radius: Vermeer, Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, and Baruch Spinoza. Besides their birth year and geographic proximity, the three men shared an interest in lenses. Spinoza ground glass into lenses for both microscopes and telescopes. He was also one of the most influential thinkers the world has ever seen. Vermeer probably used lenses and some sort of camera obscura setup to get the incredible realism and perspective in his paintings.  Vermeer may have used Spinoza’s lenses. Van Leeuwenhoek was well known for his discoveries with the microscope but was also described as being skilled in "navigation, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and natural sciences.” He may have used Spinoza’s lenses. He may have been the model for The Geographer. He may have commissioned the painting and advised Vermeer on the right kind of instruments, maps, and globes to include in it. There is no historical proof for any of these possible connections.
What is clear is that these three men were living in a time and place where people were beginning to understand the world in a new way. The Netherlands were relatively tolerant and a place where artists, scientists, and philosophers could strike out into new territory. Whether they knew each other or not, they were in the vanguard of The Enlightenment, The Age of Reason.
As a point of reference, in 1632 – the same year Vermeer, Van Leeuwenhoek, and Spinoza were born – Galileo published Dialogue explaining the reasons to believe that the sun, and not the earth, was the center of the universe. Galileo had been hounded and threatened with torture for heresy for most of his life. When he published Dialogue, he was tried, found guilty, and imprisoned by the Inquisition. He was never again a free man.

The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer 1668-1669

I take the measure of things.
I calculate and triangulate.
I hypothesize and investigate.
I want to know the size, shape, weight, distance
Of… everything.
Others get by on faith.
They believe what they believe because they believe it.
When I wake, my head is a buzz with questions.
Certainty flies out the window,
Leaving behind doubts, hopes, ideas, dreams.
They won’t leave me in peace. Thank God.

I bear the believers no ill will,
Even though they sit and wait for me to go too far.
They quote me the bible:
“…blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I am a doubting Thomas!
If the risen Christ stood before me,
I would put my finger in his side.
I would touch his stigmata!
I’d put his blood under my microscope.
I don’t even want to know.
I just want to find out.

I can breathe and stretch in Delft. Thank God.
In other times and places,
I would have danced in red-hot shoes,
Inhaled water instead of air,
Knelt in the sand waiting to feel the sword on my neck.
They ask me if I have no beliefs.
I shrug and move on,
But, I think, “Yes. I believe in progress.”
I believe soon free thought will be taken for granted.
I believe soon no one will die
Or face torture
For understanding the world in a different way.
Thanks God.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When You Die in Ironton in 1918

When you die in Ironton in 1918,
You don’t linger.
You’re a workingman one day; ten days later you’re dead.
When you die in Ironton on October 23, 1918
You’re twenty-three years, seven months and 16 days old.
When you die in Ironton at twenty-three years, seven months and 16 days
You’ve still got all your teeth,
But, truth be told, sometimes they hurt so bad
You wish you were dead.
When you die in Ironton at twenty-three years, seven months and 16 days
You don’t outlive your passion for your young wife.
You want her everyday, and she wants you.
Even when the baby’s in the bed, you do it quick and quiet.
When you die in Ironton in 1918,
At least you don’t die in a trench in France, your lungs blistered by mustard gas.
You didn’t go to the war, but maybe the war came for you.
When you live and die at Third & McGovney Avenue in Ironton,
There is nothing between you and the Ohio River, nothing between you and Kentucky.
When you die at Third & McGovney Avenue in Ironton,
They bury you in Woodland Cemetery.
You could hit it with a rock from your house.
When you die in Ironton on October 23, 1918,
Your daughter is 9 months and six days old.
When you die in Ironton in 1918,
You run a fever and your head is pounding, you have a rash across your ribs and belly, your teeth chatter, and your joints ache.
Your young wife walks the floor with the baby on her hip, singing Just a Closer Walk With Thee.
When you die in Ironton at Twenty-three years, seven months and 16 days,
In your delirium, you dream you’ve hopped a ride on a freight train.
The wind blowing through the open door of the boxcar relieves your fever.
The baby watches you as you are dying and dreaming of riding the freight train.
When you die in Ironton on October 23, 1918,
The doctor comes to your house ten days in a row,
On the tenth day he writes “typhoid fever” on your death certificate.
At least you don’t have to go back to shoveling coal at the forge.
That damn job put bread on the table,
But truth be told, sometimes it hurts so bad
You wish you were dead.
When you die in Ironton at Twenty-three, seven months and 16 days,
You don’t know that your young wife will be dead within the year,
You don’t know your baby will be an only child, who will have an only child, who will have an only child, who will have an only child.
When you die in Ironton in 1918,
Your sense of time expands infinitely.
It means nothing to you that ninety-six years pass before your grandson takes an interest in you and writes a poem.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What if...? Oh well...

What if… ? Oh well…

What if I hadn’t slept walked through high school and gotten something better than a “C”? Oh well, that was a long time ago and it doesn’t matter anymore, besides was I anymore oblivious in high School than anyone else?

What if I had a good singing voice instead of being able to draw? What if I could sing and draw? Oh well, I already have enough trouble staying focused. Probably the last thing I need is more options.

What if I had understood what was up when Ricky’s aunt invited me to give her a backrub? Oh well, I was sixteen and she was forty and it took a couple of more years for the possibility and then the certainty to enter my mind.

What if I had actually gone to class and hadn’t flunked out of Queensboro Community College? Oh well, it makes a good story to tell to people who are worried about their kids’ choices.

What if I had married Harriet instead of Andrea? Oh well, that would have been a mess too, just a different kind of mess. What marriage wouldn’t be a mess when you’re twenty-one?

What if I had stayed in NYC and tried to be a full time artist? Oh well when you come to a fork in the road you can’t really take it.

What if I had hung out at the Cedar Bar and gotten to know Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns? Oh well, my career in education has been great and my chances of dying of AIDS or an overdose much reduced.

What if I had been as good a father as I aspired to be? Oh well my kids love me and I’m a better grandfather than I was a father.

What if I hadn’t been such a jerk in my relationship with Mariellen? Oh well, then I’d still be with her and wouldn’t be with Deb and I wouldn't have missed that for the world.

What if I had passed on the vasectomy and had a couple of more kids? Oh well, I got enough damn kids already and the grandkids keep coming. Talk about an embarrassment of riches!

What if my mother could hear me reading this? Oh well, she loved a good country and western song. Who’s to say she can’t.

 What if my knees hadn’t given out and I was still running? Oh well, at least I haven’t had anything replaced… yet.

What if I’d finished my PhD program at Brandeis? Oh well, staying 28 years in my job in Coventry resulted in a big pension that allows me to do pretty much whatever I want with my time.

What if when I got my weight down to 175 I’d kept it there? Oh well, who wants to live forever anyway?
What if I had stayed in Central America instead of coming back to The States? Oh well hay mas tiempo que vida.

What if I had gotten the job directing the American program at the Ecole in Switzerland? Oh well, now I’ll probably get to try another couple of years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central America, besides all that chocolate and cheese in Switzerland would have made me even fatter.

What if I had read all the things on this list instead of censoring some of them? Oh well, dangerous writing, writing without fear, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to give up all your privacy.

What if I didn’t speculate endlessly about all of life’s missed opportunities? Oh well, what fun would that be.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Boy

The Boy

            The boy was not as young as he appeared. His smooth skin and round cheeks made him look no more than sixteen, but in fact he was twenty. The crew appraised him as he came aboard the ship in Boston. They looked at his thin wrists, ankles, and neck and doubted he could do his share. “Better a cabin boy, than a sailor,” they thought. For some the notion of buggering him came forthrightly to mind.  In addition to his sea bag, the boy carried a fine leather box with brass fittings. It contained his beloved squeezebox. “Well,” thought the crew. “If he can’t haul the anchor at least we’ll get a jig out of him.”
            That night with the coast still in sight and the moon rising full on the horizon, the crew had a party. The one-eyed fiddler, The Moor on guitar, and the boy and his squeezebox provided music. Several of the men sang. There was some vigorous dancing, but all preferred the ballads of lost love. The finest voice belonged to a sailor named Young Matty. He sang the last song before all turned in for the night.

I leave  my heart wi thee my love
Tho forc’d from thee to stray
Wi tear stained grief I onward move
And lonely make my way.
How tedious will the hours appear
Each day a year to me
For ah! my love, my only dear,
I leave my heart wi thee.

Every man thought about what he was leaving behind and what lay ahead. It might be as much as a year before they saw home again.
            The Boy realized he’d never played with a musician as fine as The Moor. The notes from the guitar flowed like water under, over, and in between the traditional melodies he and the fiddler knew. Later, below decks in his hammock, he fell asleep and dreamed about black fingers dancing above ivory inlays, touching down on brass frets.

The Moor

            For as much as a fortnight The Boy did well enough. He was as agile as a monkey and showed no fear. He had surprising stamina. He could keep pace with the hardest working of his mates from dawn to dusk. However, it was clear to all that what he lacked was strength in his arms and shoulders and back. The crew accommodated him without resentment because he was modest and quiet. He said little beyond a mumbled, “No, sir. Yes, sir,” but he smiled readily. His nightly music enchanted his shipmates and inclined them to lend a hand when he needed it.
            Then it all came to an end. There came a blow, not even a storm just a good strong blow. The boy and four others were high up the mast, taking in the sails. He lost his grip and fell. That should have been the end of him, but his foot tangled in a rope and he swung into the sail. In desperation, he grabbed whatever he could get a hold on. The canvas gave way at a mended spot and began to tear. The boy road the rip to within ten feet of the deck, snapped loose, and landed on his back. He lay there with the wind knocked out of him, but no bone broken and hardly a bruise. All around him there was chaos as the able bodied men scrambled to save the flapping, tattered sail and control the ship as it rocked in the wind. The captain fought the wheel and shouted orders. The boy struggled to his feet still having trouble breathing and then vomited over the rail. The Moor grabbed him around the waist out of fear that he’d go over board and yelled in his face, “Just get out of the way, boy. We’ll deal with you later.”
            When order was restored, attention turned to the boy. No one had any taste for it, but a flogging was clearly in order. His shipmates dreaded what was to come, especially those who had felt the lash, but his error was too grave to ignore. The captain signaled the Moor to proceed. The black man laid his beautiful hands on the boys shoulders and said, “Take off your shirt, boy.” The boy knew the jig was up, but he shook his head, “No.” The Moor said, “As you wish.”
He was tied to the mast and the Moor grasped the back of his shirt and ripped it open. In the tight quarters of the ship there was little privacy and modesty was non-existent. However, in that moment, many of the crew realized they had never seen the boy without his shirt. For the first time they glimpsed where his thin neck met his narrow shoulders and they saw his delicate shoulder blades. They also saw that his chest, just above the rib cage, was wrapped tightly in a gauzy, white band of fabric.
The Moor understood the situation before the others. He stood behind the boy, blocking him from view and said over his shoulder, “Captain, if you would, please step forward.”  The Moor could not deny that he was amused and aroused.
The Captain also quickly understood the situation, “Sweet Jesus!” he muttered.
The boy looked over her shoulder into the Captain’s eyes. There was a shift in her voice and manner. All pretenses were dropped.
 “Captain,” the boy said. “As you can see, I’m no seaman, but if you spare me the lash, I assure you this will be a voyage you won’t soon forget.” The boy stated this with a confidence she had never shown as a deck hand.

The Captain
The Captain looked like a captain. He was handsome and vigorous. He came from a wealthy family and had grown even wealthier during his decade at sea. He was an exceptional businessman. His trips were profitable to a degree that others viewed with suspicion, especially since he never dealt in slaves. He had the loyalty of his men because he fed them well, paid them generously, and treated them fairly. And yet, he knew, and they knew, he was not a natural leader of men. He often didn’t know what his crew wanted or expected from him.   There was no ease between them. He sensed that the boy had created a crisis in which he had much at stake, but he hadn’t a clue how to resolve it. As he often did at such times, he relied on the Moor. He looked up at the black man questioningly. With a wide grin, the Moor yelled, “Take her to the Captain’s quarters. We’ll get to the bottom of this in private.” Had the Moor stressed the words “bottom” and “private? Would his facial expression best be characterized as a grin or a leer? Whatever the case, the crew was left on deck feeling relieved and giddy. It seemed their young mate would be spared the lash, that he was not a mate at all, that he was a she, and that the routine of their working lives had been broken by a most entertaining series of events; events that they’d be telling stories about for years to come.

Balance and routine were quickly restored. The Captain had no taste for drama and he had the advise of The Moor to rely on. The Boy became the cook. Since the cook couldn’t cook and was a better seaman than The Boy, this arrangement pleased everyone. Rather nice quarters were constructed for The Boy in a storage locker off the kitchen. Included were a rope strung bed frame big enough to accommodate The Boy and The Captain when he visited. His visits to the room off the kitchen were occasional and in his own quarters, on many a night, he continued to teach Young Matty to read. The Moor made it known that The Captain had proprietary rights to The Boy. She was working off the debt she had incurred as a stowaway, but the debt was only owed to The Captain. None questioned the correctness of these arrangements. The food improved. The Boy, The Moor, The One Eyed Fiddler, and Young Matty entertained the crew more evenings than not. Young Matty could read many passages of The New Testament with few prompts. He studied hard. Often he didn’t emerge from The Captain’s Cabin until dawn. The Boy enjoyed her times with The Captain. His visits occurred once or twice a week and were vigorous and enthusiastic, if brief and a bit impersonal. The Boy was no stranger to whoring and this was easy work. She slept well those nights, dreaming of beautiful black hands. In her dreams, The Moor’s hands no longer attended to his guitar. Rather they touched her white body, gliding over smooth skin, grasping handfuls of soft flesh, slipping out of sight.

One night The Captain fell asleep in The Boys bed. Two hours later he awoke hot and sweaty with fever. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, intending to dress and go back to his quarters, but he was too sick to rise.
“Lay back down and get under the covers,” The Boy said. The Captain fell back against the pillow. The Boy pressed against his back to warm him and pulled the wool blankets over the two of them. The Captain sweated and shivered in her bed for three nights. She gave him water and tea and soup when he was able to eat. At times he seemed hardly conscious even if his eyes were open. During one of these spells he became aroused and moved to cover the boy. She accepted him. He radiated heat from his fever and his movements were slow and unfocused as though they were making love in a dream. It had been a long time since the boy had found the body of a man so pleasurable.
When the fever broke and The Captain slowly regained his strength and vigor, they began to talk to each other. This is part of what they said:

The Captain: I’ve never dealt in Africans, but my family has. I’ll take no part in making a man a slave. I think slavery is a temptation from God; a test that will show us what price we put on our souls.

The Boy: I came aboard your ship because there was a man who meant to do me harm. He reckoned he owned me. He said if I didn’t do as I was told he’d kill me, but the things he told me to do were killing me.

The Captain: I’m the third son. My oldest brother has the business. The next went into the clergy. They sent me to sea in this ship when I was fifteen. When my father died, it became mine. Now I’ve sailed it as captain for ten years.

The Boy: I would have played my squeezebox and served beer in the saloons, but the man told me I had to pay my way. By which he meant I had to pay both of our ways. There was nothing I could say no to if the price was right.

The Captain: My brother can’t abide me because my voyages are more profitable than his. You will think it is gold or rum or molasses or any of the other things I trade in that makes the money, but it is tea. Tea, of all things, has made me rich. I’m done with sailing. I’ll be a businessman in Boston.

The Boy: The Moor says I’m a fine musician. I’ve never heard anyone who played better than him. When we play together I feel I’m good too.

The Captain: Maggie, you need not receive me here in your room. I’ll not force you or hold your passage over your head.

The Boy: I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do, Will.

The Captain: Can I have a song then?

The Boy:
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If I get there before you do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
I'll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming too.
(Coming for to carry me home)


As Young Matty mastered bible verses he would read them aloud to his shipmates as they sat and smoked a pipe when the day’s work was done. They marveled at both his literacy and the stories. One evening off the coast of Spain, he read one of his favorites:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side... Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

Young Matty

That night Young Matty dreamed he had become the masthead of the ship. As is possible in dreams, he was carved from wood and, at the same time, he was his own familiar flesh. His feet skimmed across the tops of the waves and against his back the bow of the boat pushed him forward with all the power of the wind in its sails. He knew The Captain steered the ship and he felt deep faith in The Captain. Young Matty, as the masthead, held a bible open in his hand and even in the rush of wind and waves he kept his eyes on its pages and sounded out new words.

-->             In the ship’s hold were many bolts of fine fabric. The Captain had told The Boy to take as much yardage as she wanted. She had sewn herself dresses, skirts, and blouses of simple designs that contrasted with the richly patterned and brightly colored cloth. Many of the men thought she looked like a gypsy, especially when she played her squeezebox. She made herself as pretty as she could and walked along the deck, past Young Matty reading the bible to a circle of sailors, and made her way to The Captain’s quarters. It was quite rare that she would seek him out. She knocked on his door and said, “Will, I don’t want to disturb you, but could we have a word.”
            “Please come in, Maggie,” he replied.
            She stepped in and looked around the room. She saw a whole shelf of books, a chess set in mid game, a fine telescope and other brass instruments, a writing desk with logs, account books, and journals. The Captain’s bed was covered with a quilt of a design she had seen her Mom sew; tumbling blocks it was called and the contrast of light and dark fabric made it look three dimensional.
            “What is it, Maggie?”
            “I’m not sure where… how to begin.” He waited. “Will, I’m going to have a child… a baby I mean.” She began to weep. He said nothing and she cried harder. He approached her.
            “This comes as a surprise,” he said.
            She said, “I know what I am and what I am to you. I don’t want anything… anything more from you, but I thought you should know and I want to go home. I want to go to my Mom to have my child. She is a midwife. If I’m not with her, I will be too afraid. When we’ve crossed back will you take me to Providence.”
            “But you’ve told me it isn’t safe for you in Providence.”
            “The Moor says he will take care of it.”
            “Did you tell him you were pregnant?”
            “No, but I told him I wanted to see my Mom and I told him what the man had threatened me with and he said he would fix it so I had nothing to fear.”
            “Well, if he says he will, he will.”
            There was a long silence and then The Boy turned and left. Quite late that night, long after she had fallen asleep, the boy felt her bed shift as The Captain lay down next to her. She held up the cover and felt the heat of his skin against her body. Usually, when The Captain came to her in the night no words were spoken, but this night, he delivered a speech that had perhaps been taking shape in his mind the whole evening or perhaps he’d been thinking it over even longer.
            “Maggie, I’m a peculiar man and there is a kind of affection I don’t have in me. I intend this to be my last voyage. I’ll be a businessman in Boston and The Moor will captain my ship. In my new life, I’ll need a wife to keep my house and raise a family and see to certain social demands of the community. Since the family is now begun, I want you for my wife. I will provide for you and respect you. This child and any others that come along will grow up in prosperity. The attention and pleasure you have provided me on this voyage have been more important to me than perhaps you realize. As we have been to each other these last months, I would hope we could continue to be for a long time to come.” 
            The Boy had long ago stopped believing that her life would be guided by love or romance or passion and she could recognize a good deal when one was laid before her. “Yes” she said, “I shall be your wife, but I must go to my Mom and have my child in her care. I’ll join you in Boston as soon as I can travel.”
            Three months later, they were married in Newport and then the ship sailed up the bay to Providence. As The Boy was going ashore, with a large sum of money in her purse, The Captain said to her, “Maggie, you will be coming to me won’t you?”
            “Yes, I’ll be coming to you, Will,” she replied. Then she handed him the fine leather box with the brass fittings that contained her squeezebox. “Keep this safe for me.”
-->             “Well! Look what the cat dragged in!” Mom shouted. “And looking mighty fine, too. And my goodness with a bun in the oven!” Mom was a whore and a midwife to whores. It was often said she had once been the best-looking woman in Providence. However, she was quite fond of food and booze and opium, so her legendary career was much diminished. Still she was better off than many an old whore. She had a little house along the river, not far from the docks. A policeman, a former governor, and a minister still visited her. They had many a fond memory of her from the old days and saw to her safety and comfort. As she looked at her daughter, the elation she had felt when The Boy first appeared evaporated.
            “Oh, but darlin’, what’ll happen when he hears you’re about?”
            “Its been taken care of.”
            “There’s nothing to fear, Mom.”

Nothing To Fear
            Late into the evening they sat together warming their feet before the fireplace. They sipped tea. Mom had laced hers with rum.
            “Maggie, my love,” Mom said. “Why are you here, dear?”
            “Isn’t it obvious? To have my baby.”
            Mom sipped from her cup. ‘No, child. Not at all obvious. Why aren’t you with your husband, in his fine house, in the care of a good doctor?”
            The boy stared into the fire for a few long minutes. When she spoke to her mother again it was in a calm, confident voice.
            “Well, you see, Mom, I cannot be sure whether my baby will be white or black and I didn’t want to receive the answer to that question in the presence of my husband.”
            “Ah, my girl. You’ve gotten yourself into a fix, haven’t you.”
            “I’ve been in worse, Mom.”
            The older woman loved her daughter, but, like many a mother and daughter, over the years, they had been a great disappointment to each other. Perhaps, Mom thought, now we’ll all get a new start.
            “And if the baby is black, my dear, what will you do?”
            “There’s no shortage on this waterfront of girls who would be happy to have their white baby raised by a wealthy family in Boston.”
            “Ah, Maggie. And so we get to the real reason you’re here. You know full well any such girl would have found her way to me.”
            The Boy looked at her mother over the rim of her teacup. The rim was gold and just below it the cup was encircled by a garland of tiny, blue, painted flowers.
            “Do you know any such girls, Mom?” The boy asked.
            “A few, my dear. A few.”

            The Boy’s breasts got huge and her milk flooded in. She thought, I never could have passed myself off as a boy with these tits. She mastered feeding both The Twins at the same time, their tiny swaddled bodies crisscrossed in her arms, a greedy mouth sucking with surprising force on each of her nipples.
            The twins were less than a month old when The Boy and Mom disembarked from the little steamer that had brought them to Boston from Providence. Each carried a wicker basket holding a baby. The Captain was there to pick them up in a carriage.
            “Maggie,” he said. “What have we here.”
            “Our sons, Will. The Twins.”
            He looked into the baskets at the two faces deep in sleep. Each of the infants was wrapped in a quilt of a design he knew well. When he had first gone to sea, his mother had sent him off with a warm quilt of this same pattern. “I see one of our sons is of dark complexion, Maggie.”
            “Indeed he is, but he is no less ours for his blackness. His mother came to Mom for care. She was a freed woman, not a slave, but totally alone in the world. The birth was terrible.” The Boy got tears in her eyes and her voice quavered. “The black girl made me promise to take care of the baby… then she was… gone. I put the baby to my breast when he was less than an hour old. Since then, he has been as much mine… ours… as his brother.”
            The Captain extended his index finger to his black son who grasped it without hesitation.
            It was only a ride of fifteen minutes from the dock to the house The Captain had bought as a home for his new family. The carriage passed through a gate and up a circular drive. It stopped in front of a large white wooden house. At the very top of the house’s roof was a small porch surrounded by an iron railing. From there, The Boy thought you could see the harbor and await the arrival of a ship, but he’ll be here already. There’ll be no one I’m waiting for. Then she saw that Young Matty stood in the door way of the house smiling broadly as they all arrived.
            In response to The Boy’s quizzical look, The Captain said, “This is Young Matty’s home, too. I have made him my ward. I’ll see to his education and a ship is being built that he’ll captain when he is ready. He has quarters above the carriage house. There are also rooms there for The Moor. He will be part of our household, as well, when he is not at sea.”
            That night The Boy was reunited with her squeezebox and she sang a song for them:
Well go down yonder Gabriel
Put your foot on the land and sea
But don’t you blow that trumpet until you hear from me
Well look way over yonder
See people dressed in white
I know it was God's people I seen 'em doin right
Oh look way over Jordan
What do you think I see
I see a band of angels and they’re comin’ after me
Well meet me Jesus meet me
Meet me in the middle of the air
And if these wings should fail lend me another pair
  As they had been to each other those months on the ship, they continue to be for a long time.

The Twins

         In the summer of 2013, I met a woman named Joke Bijl-Costerus. She was a sailor and played the accordion. She sang a Dutch song about a girl who goes to sea disguised as a boy. That was the beginning of The Boy.

John Kotula

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Castle (The Band)

Jesse Golding's photo of Castle, The Band
This is going to get complicated. You’ll have to pay attention. Try to keep up.
            There is an indy rock/art rock/folk rock scene spread out between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Brooklyn. Look at a map. The geographical center is Providence, Rhode Island. No surprise. Not coincidently, last year at Bonnaroo and SXSW they had workshops on how to talk with a Rhode Island accent. You can trace all of this straight back to 1974 when David Byrne was trying to learn to draw at RISD. Not to mention the Young Adults and Roomfull of Blues. Don’t get me started. It’s a complex world.
            Currently, there is the top echelon; Deer Tick, Low Anthem, Joe Fletcher. Then there is the second tier; Vudu Sister, Jonah Tolchin. And Castle (the band). They all know each other. It doesn’t seem to be a competitive thing. They seem to think the more music that gets made the better it is for everyone. What are they a bunch of commies? This is going to be mainly about Castle (the band). But wait. Hold on. First…
            There is this woman. She’s got a lot of tattoos. They keep coming. She takes beautiful photos. She is destined to be to this music scene what Astrid Kirchherr was to the Beatles, what Milton H. Greene was to Marilyn Monroe, what Robert Mapplethorpe was to Patti Smith, what Adam Ritchie was to the Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd. You want me to keep going? ‘Cause I can keep going. Anyway, this woman with the tattoos, she shot Castle (the band) in concert. While you’re reading what I got to say about Castle (the band) you should be looking at those photographs. Just look! Don’t ask questions.

            I’m getting to Castle (the band). Are you looking at the photo? But wait. First…
            There is this bar in Newport called Billy Goodes. It is an anomaly for bars in Newport, because there has never been a designer or a decorator anywhere near it. There are no ferns. None. Look it up on Yelp, where it is spelled “Goods”. Idiots! Here are the categories that Yelp uses to describe restaurants and what they say about “Goods”. In parentheses I have put what it should actually say: Attire: Casual (put your damn shirt on and pull up you pants because I don’t want to look at your boxers), Outdoor seating: no (Sure, jerk, sit on the curb after you throw up in the gutter), Alcohol: Full Bar (If by full you mean Bud and ‘Ganstte.), Good For: Dinner (LMAO), Good For Kids: no (At last some honesty. If only the Catholic Church had been so straightforward)… but, I digress. The whole point of bringing up Billy Goodes is that it is the perfect place to see Castle (the band) perform. 
            O.K. so you’re looking at Jesse Golding’s photos of Castle (the band) and you are picturing them playing at a certain Newport dive. Now, crack open a Bud or a ‘Gansette and put on their album. Crank it up. Now you’re having the Castle (the band) experience… uh, not really. You’re having the Castle (the band) album experience. As good as the album is, and it is damn good, it registers at about 60% on the energy meter as compared to a live Castle (the band) show. I should mention that the energy level at the live shows is probably illegal. Spontaneous combustion is always a distinct possibility. So, get the album, listen to it, love it, but don’t think for a minute that it means you can sit home. You still have to drag your self down to Billy Goode’s, drink cheap beer all night long, and hear a live show.
            But that isn’t going to happen tonight, so back to the album.
            Are you looking at the photo? Are you looking at Bessie Bessin? She is so beautiful. Right? And how about that voice? It is ethereal, meaning “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world” according to the first definition that popped up on Google. However, she sounds less angelic than playful. Her phrasing goes for a friendly, slightly ironic, rollicking take on the lyrics. At one point, she sings, “I’m floating away.” And you picture her floating above the squalor and spilt beer at Billy Goodes born upwards by a voice that can break your heart and make you smile with delight in the span of a single phrase. I didn’t mention yet that she plays accordion! Quick, name three other chick singers who play accordion. Can’t do it can you. (Julie The Bruce, Wendy McNeill, and Niki Berger. All on You Tube.)
            Bessie Bessin is such a charming, engaging presence, that the boys in Castle (the band) have to work hard to keep things in balance. They do it. Castle (the band) is not Bessie and the Boys, but I predict you’ll spend 40% of your listening time focused on her and 60% of your contemplating time remembering her. Bessie, solo project? Come on girl! Throw the dogs a bone.
            The male line up of Castle (The Band) consists of Noah Bickford on guitar, Craig Cameron on bass, Mike Cellemme on guitar, and David Passafiome, Jr. on drums and guitar. They al pitch in on the vocals, too.

            You heard it here first. Castle (the band) is going to put Rhode Island on the map. They are going to be a destination group; you’ll come to them rather than them going to you. Billy Goodes will have the same resonance as Gerde's Folk City, The Star-Club, and The Stone Pony. People on their way from Brooklyn to Boston will get off 95 and drive all the way across the state to drink a ‘Gansette where it all started. Jesse Golding’s photos will be all over Rolling Stone. She’ll date and eventually marry Colin Kaepernick. Ain’t that some wild stuff? And it’s all true.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Keith McCurdy and Vudu Sister

(This image is based on a photo by Jesse Golding. You can see the original here:  
            The waitress at Rhode Island Capitol Billiards Bar and Bistro in North Providence, Rhode Island is blond and pretty, but too skinny. She’s got the kind of body that makes guys my age (67) think about taking her out for a cheeseburger.  I’d like her to have a little caloric cushion to get her through the week. Guys Keith McCurdy’s age (27) probably look at her and think about getting her number, think about positions where their hipbones won’t knock. Yeah, that’s what forty years does to you. I am having beers on a Thursday afternoon with a guy who could conceivably be my grandson because I’m impressed with his music and want to write about him. He has completed the recording on a new album, his second, with his band, Vudu Sister. It is called Household Items. If all goes well it will come out on May 4th.
            We order beers and the pretty waitress asks, “You want any food?”
            Keith replies, “I’ll take some chicken fingers.”
            “The boneless ones?” He nods. “You want ‘em mild, hot, or suicidal?”
            Keith says, “Suicidal.” It is consistent with what I know about Keith so far that he would go for the extreme. He is one of those people who seem to be playing for higher stakes than most of us. After all, one of his best songs is a balls to the wall number about suicide-as-revenge-on-a-girl-who-did-him-wrong.
 The Quiet Man
It’s a lonely place when no one is home
There’s a rickety chair and a good strong rope
She heard the clamour of the wood to the floor
He left nothing to mop; now her back’s so sore
From carrying that body to the bottom floor
No she never should have left him all alone
At least he can’t try it again

            Despite the theme of this song and several others, Keith does not seem morose or depressed. In fact, he is so energetic and full of ideas that it is hard to imagine him lying still for five minutes, let alone for eternity. His conversation and lyrics cover a lot of dark and violent territory, but he seems enlivened and passionate about his themes.
            He says, “I don’t have a very unique story. Me and my family have had a lot of struggles. I haven’t had a privileged upbringing. Sometimes when that happens, you embrace it. Death and despair are real to me. Why not write about it? I don’t relate to “jovial” music, for lack of a better word.” 

            And then there is the voice. Keith has a big voice. It is loud and clear and true. It would be pushing the point to call it soaring, but he belts out his songs in a way that rivets you to the vocals. In another reincarnation he could have sung Broadway show tunes; “…and the waving wheat can sure small sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain…,” “…Hold my hand and we're halfway there. Hold my hand and I'll take you there. Somehow, Some day, Somewhere!” etc.

            The thought occurs to me that because of my age and the antiquity of my musical references, I’m going to miss something essential about what Keith and Vudu Sister are up to. Keith mentions influences I don’t know; Donita Sparkes and Mia Zapata. I dutifully listen to them on YouTube.  I start asking young people how they would characterize his music. The phrases “acoustic grunge” and “death folk” come up. These have little specific meaning to me. Then I pose the question to a couple in their teens, “So, what is your take on Keith McCurdy’s music?”  I ask. “He’s great!” they reply. “He’s like the love child of Janice Joplin and Neil Young!” Wait a minute. If Janice Joplin had lived she’d be seventy and Neil Young is only six months younger than me. I can relate to that. Having gotten an answer I could live with, I drop my inquiry.

            Back at Rhode Island Capitol Billiards Bar and Bistro in North Providence, Rhode Island, the pretty waitress returns to our table. Keith is definitely eyeing her. I ask for an extra plate so I can sample the suicidal chicken fingers. Hell, yeah! They’re hot enough to hurt, so why do I lick my fingers as Keith watches the waitress walk away? That’s what forty years does to you.

            Keith is proud of his sophomore album. He worked hard on the recording and he has high hopes that it will move his career forward at least to the degree that it makes sense for him to keep doing what he’s doing.
            He says, “I use to think it could happen all at once. Lets be Pearl Jam! Lets be Alice in Chains! Now I’m thinking about small steps. Maybe I’ll get to play the Newport Folk Festival, release a few more albums, tour incessantly.” Keith is embedded in the Rhode Island music scene and knows and works with people who have achieved this kind of success; Low Anthem, Brown Bird, Deer Tick, Joe Fletcher. He recorded Household Items at the newly renovated and revitalized Columbus Theater and he has a release party scheduled there on May 4, 2013. Mark that date down. It is an important one.

            You can make a donation to support the release of Household Items here: