Chapter I of The Mark of Cain (a novel-in-progress)
The reason the blues are so soulful is because the last little bit of your soul is being emptied right into it. There’s something romantic about this destitution, descending straight from seclusion, and segregation. A pleasure is formed from it, not from knowing that people are hurting, but knowing that they understand the sadness, that sadness so often being a forebearer of what truth is created. The blues and the people, who play it and wail it and write it, produce such a pain that is isodynamically pleasing to the ears, cleansing to the mind, and nurturing to the soul.
These blues stem from a melancholy that feels as though it will be your undoing, but never is compelled to actually oblige your demise, so you emancipate this feeling through your fingers and tongue, your emotions become yours to manipulate once more, as a dash of off-key F sharps attach themselves to bitter memories making them sweet once more. The pain, the agony, it’s almost attractive to wallow in such self-pity, but the mere thought of harmonizing with it is almost enough to drive the artist mad. Therein lies the challenge, the conception of something beautiful being brought on by finding what good lies in everything that is not. It is, in and of itself, lonely introspection.
That’s why the blues are lonesome, and when the bluesman, destined to toil in isolation, chooses the silver-lined highway, he finds out he hasn’t a choice to make. The blues follow him down the road, maybe because he doesn’t know where to hide where they can’t find him. He takes refuge on riverboats, brothels, bars, and other weakly hidden subterfuges in Memphis and Nashville and scattered all around the Delta. He finds the path from the wide, sweltering fields to the cold, cramped dives to be a long and beaten one.
The South Side of Chicago has become a Mecca for the blues subculture, as the pilgrimage up the Mississippi has brought the players to the Windy City’s juke joints and recording studios to make it big, or at the very least, make a living.
For a good while now they have played in Chicago what is known as urban blues, a scion of the raw, rural, folk blues that took on another dimension during the act of passage, and unfortunately in some cases, became a slick hybrid of blues, rock, and jazz. A man’s got to eat though, and commercialization and compromise have always been a barnacle on the growth of the arts, bringing less focus to the needs of the individual. But there is still a pulse beating faintly in the heart of these new blues. This will hold true, because you don’t have to understand the vernacular of the blues to fully grasp what it’s trying to edify. Though its connotations may weaken, the definition is unequivocal. And as long as its lyrics are moaned and vomited over broken chord changes and effortless pain slides up and down the necks of guitars with kitchen knives, steel combs, and other makeshift devices, people will come listen out of necessity, to feel this conduit of their emotions.
The story of the blues has stayed with its listeners, as other tales have passed with memory and lost their relevance. This is because its people are forsaken, the lonely whores, barkeeps, thieves, and beggars, to which a perspective on the problems of everyday life is of compulsion. It lends them the light that sheds on their personal problems, dashed hopes, unrealistic dreams, and the mysteries of the complexities of man. They are a reviving tradition in life. Offbeat, broken stringed, untunable chaos.
And it is this imperfection, like the imperfection of mankind that lends it verisimilitude. Life becomes fathomable. Love stems from this. It is our imperfections and sufferability that make the forgiveness of our sins desirable and possible. It is also what makes the blues so appealing. It is an art form that is created by the very essence of humanity that possesses empathy for real life.
It is only when things seem so right that they are unbelievable. Life becomes easy and we become selfish and misguided. Empathy is replaced by satisfaction. Through himself, man seeks redemption and denouement is found in the collision of paradise. We become disillusioned and a certain weak-edged morality is found in the darkest of sins.
James didn’t hear the door open, so he didn’t see the light from the hall. He’d never before heard the voice, but before he looked up he was sure who it was. He’d only felt a presence like that once before. In the restaurant.
James’s cheek rested between her breasts, and he felt her heart skip a beat. A cool rush went to his face as he peeled it off of her skin. He climbed off her and kneeled down on the carpet beside where they had laid. The silhouettes of two men came toward them. As they towered over them, James’ frightened stare shifted between their two unfamiliar countenances.
“Why are you here?” asked James in a quivering voice.
“Hey, James. Long time, no speak.”
The stranger knelt down in front of James. He took off a black glove and gently stroked back the hair that hung over James’s forehead and eyes. James could hear two people arguing over his shoulder.
The stranger stared right into James’ eyes. He smiled at him. A song came into James’ head. The songs were his security blanket. “Sweetblood Call” reverberated in his ears blending into the background noise of her crying and screaming. James broke the stare, but met the face of another man whose eyes held a glare that only someone who has lost everything twice could understand, and he listened to him threaten his lover.
“No. God no,” James murmured. The music in his head stopped. The man screamed and went back over to her. He paced back and forth between the two of them, finally turning his attention back toward James. The warmth of his malicious breath engulfed James face as he spoke.
“I don’t have to look at your half-naked body and smell my wife on it. Do I, you fucking piece of filth?”
“No,” James replied like a docile animal answering its master’s command.
“Do you want me to kill you?”
“Do you want me to kill her?”
“Do you want to leave this place?”
“I want to stay here.”
“You don’t understand,” James began to say.
“Don’t tell me what I don’t understand about it.”
James watched him emphatically as he continued to yell and circle him on the floor. The stranger stood back, looking down onto James, his gloves off both of his extended hands. His palms faced James, as if to offer sanctuary in their embrace. His hands held James’s life in them. Only God could hold such an avatar in his hands, and he felt his presence. He looked over at her, curled up in the couch with tears full of mascara running down her face. He prayed that God would pardon her.
He felt a pain in his temple. Something warm distorted his vision until he could no longer see her. And he called out, “I love…”
So many people give up after their greatest sins, their greatest defeats. First they give up on God, and then they give up on themselves. Destitution breeds destitution until the sad-sack scene of the disenchanted not only becomes familiar, it becomes a region all its own.
James Hiatt’s lawn chair creaked as he leaned back on his ragged, rain worn front porch. He had been watching the flies escape into the holes of the screen door. He propped his feet up on the rails and started to play a bluesy riff. Plucking his guitar, he whistled and whispered a Blind Willie Johnson cover.”
James sang in a soft, effortless drawl, an amalgamation of a bluegrass yodel and a Negro spiritual. James let his fingers slip up and down the neck. Fingernails, worked down to the quick, pattered down upon the six strings like a lazy sprinkle on a tin roof. He could play well for a white boy with a sunny demeanor.
James lived in a poor, white neighborhood sandwiched between two poor, black neighborhoods in Mississippi. Essentially he lived in his anus, unbearable heat with a terrible stench that was the air. That was just the way the whole neighborhood smelled.
The dust dry Delta county was still in a recession from the repercussions of sharecropping. Being poor never made anyone unhappy though, but heat did. You could bake a potato in the shade. And the heat there was strange. So dry that the air was filled with dust, but it stuck to the sweat of the skin, and mosquitoes flew slowly through the air because of the humidity’s weight. Drops of perspiration moistened James’s forehead, running down the crevices of his nose, and landing in pools at the corner of his eyes and the top of his lips. You could lick your lips to taste salt and callous. He looked through the sweat in his eyes at the other houses in the neighborhood. Most of the run-down shanties looked as though they were being held up by air conditioners.
James took a long look over at his neighbor’s house. His neighbor’s name was Rachel and she was one of the hardest working women he knew. She used to have two jobs. She worked as a grocery store checker in the morning. She was a sexy young girl with short red hair, big breasts and smile, and long legs. She had a little brother who lived with her. At night, right before she went to work, one of her friends would come and get the kid. James would see her early the next morning, dreary-eyed and dressed to kill. She always smiled when she said hello. He respected her.
Rachel quit working at night when her brother died. The child had died of cholera. Or rather from complications from the dehydration the vomiting and dysentery had caused. Their water had been shut off and when she was out making a living he was left to lay there and suffer through his dry heaves and sweatless fever. Cholera in the United States of America in the twentieth goddamn century. James never saw her in the morning anymore. She didn’t need anything that bad.
And that was just another story. James dug around in his near empty pocket and pulled out a piece of pocket lint. He started chewing on it, a habit he’d recently acquired to keep his mouth from being bored.
It was Sunday afternoon, and any other day it would be a lazy one. He looked up at the roof of the porch and whistled a little bit of a tune at the empty dirt dobber nests that aligned its corners. The insects were smart to be going. A county away, the air was filled with fresh baked bread, watered grass, dandelions, and genuine, down-home country bullshit. Where James lived there was none of that. Just dust, and the sound of mosquitoes and crickets.
In the Delta even the rich are forced to live among the poor. Everybody sees destitution, everyone knows its there, but there are a few lucky ones who can choose to look up, down, and around it. The dispersion of monies was few and far between, and the little towns had begun to dry up with the cotton, rice, and soybeans. Whatever little community that had managed to sustain itself since the century had now been long infected by the blue and white cancer that had become a staple in bloodletting commissary. The malignant superstore had formed in the heart of the heartland, and was now being carried through the land down the broken-up interstates like arteries spreading death.
James had grown up in this town and had seen it become vacated and burned out. He had procured himself some temporary employment at construction from time to time and would drive down First Street on his way to work, staring through the empty, cobwebbed windows of buildings he’d helped erect. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet that contained the only money he had left to his name, $2,100, and his coach ticket to Chicago. That ticket almost glimmered. It was his chance to get out, and maybe shake off his past. He looked at his watch. J.L. would be taking him to catch a plane in Greenville any moment. He picked up his guitar again and started thinking.
He had been a free man for just over half a year now. Prison was the two worst months he’d spent in his life, which was saying a lot. All because of circumstance. That old bitch.
He had met Cecilia six years ago in the supermarket. He had stopped off on his way home from work to pick up a six-pack and she accepted his offer to share it with him back at his place. The first time he saw her his jaw dropped at how pretty she was. She was just so damn pretty, too pretty. Her cheeks were so full of color back then and her eyes were so shiny a blue they were almost silver. She was a year out of high school and working for a tractor implement so she could put herself through college. It was love at first sight and the rest was history. They were married for three uneventful years before they both realized that marriage wasn’t what either of them wanted, so quickly, with no hassles, they went their separate ways. James was alone. Being alone at such a young age is a terrible thing. You start to wonder about yourself and worry about things that you shouldn’t.
It was five long months before when he met another woman at the grocery store. She was wearing an ankle length, loose flowery dress, and she was back behind the fruit looking at him. She was a tall blonde. Her neck looked long because her blonde hair was pulled up into a bun. James smiled at her as he walked by. He thought about her that night, as he lay in bed alone.
It was a week later that he saw her again, this time buying eggs. He walked up beside her and introduced himself. Diane was what she said her name was. James asked her if she wanted to have dinner with him and she accepted. That night over pasta she leaned over and whispered in his ear that she wanted to go back to where they had met. So they left the restaurant and drove back to the grocery store. She smiled as she stuck her finger between his shirt buttons and raised up her dress. He kissed her neck and put his hands on her breasts. He felt her nipples get hard, and then very casually went into her from behind before tearing apart at each other in unholy matrimony. It was vicious. It was satisfying. Because it quelled the feelings that loneliness and isolation had brought him. Ugliness, wantonness, worthlessness. The feelings that he’d been keeping repressed and had forced up his carnality. There was no better way to relieve these feelings in the predator than through complete pithy exhaustion. That was the last time he ever saw that woman.
Next week it was somebody else. The next week it was somebody else, and the next week and the next. It was amazing to him that there were women out there as vulnerable and lonely as he was. He would meet them and ask them out as they shopped. Then later on that night it would be him that would make the suggestion. Sometimes they seemed offended or sickened, and if that was the case he would laugh it off and there would be no harm done. But when there was a hint of inquiry or excitement he went for it. Always late at night. It was fun. And virtually harmless.
It was all just a game until the night manager had seen him and called the cops. Then he found out she was three weeks away from her eighteenth birthday, and suddenly the game was over.
Six long months watching his back and behavior, and he was out. He had lost his job on construction. No job, no money, no future, nothing but a bad reputation in a rundown little hole. Nothing to do, with no place to go. On down the road to Sweet Home Chicago. The day James got out he picked up his guitar and tried to play like he’d learned to play before, but now he was hardened and his playing was seasoned. He shook his head at the memories and began to play “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.”
The Danny O’Keefe song seemed to fit the moment well. James had known him as a great tunesmith since a very young age. The lyrics were perfectly fitting, so he played them with reverence.
No matter how dismal the setting, or how analogous the chorus, every song for him was a temporary fix.
James plucked his guitar strings hard on the last note, and let it slowly give way to the buzz of mosquitoes.
He wouldn’t mind selling out if it meant he could eat. He had sold his Dodge, picked up his check, and cleaned out his account. Lots of people were making it up there with little or no talent. He had a little talent; sweet voice, marketable smile, but most importantly, hard ass luck. That’s the blues.
James saw J.L.’s car coming up the road. He leaned back against the pole and crossed his arms. He was sure glad to see J.L. He pulled his rusted ‘83 Pontiac Grand Prix onto the brown grass that was James’s yard.
“What the hell happened to your yard?”
“How’d that happen?”
“Um-hmmm. Well, you ready?”
“Yeah. Let me get my bags.”
“Well hurry your white ass up.”
James grabbed up his three old suitcases and threw open the screen door.
“Need some help?”
James plopped down in the passenger seat and threw his legs out the window. “Let’s get outta here.” James took a closer look at his buddy. “Whoa mother! What happened to you?” James looked straight into J.L.’s black eye.
“Nah, your flat nose. Yeah your eye.”
“The hell it ain’t.”
“Nah, it looks worse than it is. It happened down at the Last Hole last night.”
“A slight altercation with some prick at the bar who thought I was flirtin’ with his bitch.”
“She was flirtin’ with me. White chick too.”
“Yeah, anyway this dude comes over and asks me if I’m makin’ eyes at his wife, and I ask him if they was of them group couples or something, and then, before I know it, he caught me with a left. Or was it a right? I can’t remember.”
“He sure did.”
“He’s lucky I was fucked up or I would’a kicked his white ass.”
James looked over at J.L. and tried to suppress his smile. J.L. was a pretty good-looking fellow, but he was neither modest nor a stud.
“Well, what about his chick?” James mused.
“The white girl at the bar. Would you hit it?”
“Hell yeah! I’d make her call me big daddy. You know what I mean? I’d make her call me big black nigger daddy.”
“Big black nigger daddy, huh? Tasteful.”
“Hey, there ain’t no politically correct interracial fucking.”
“Have you ever even been with a white woman before?”
“Other than your mom?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Have you ever been with a black woman?” questioned J.L.
James stared silently.
“I don’t like white women. They’re too fucked up.”
“They don’t throw punches.”
“That’s why they’re fucked up,” J.L. assured.
“So you wouldn’t sleep with a white woman?”
“I didn’t say that. Opportunity missed is an opportunity never had.”
“Just so you don’t sleep alone.”
“Pussy’s pussy, salt’s salt. If you’re not gettin’ any it’s your own damn fault.”
“That’s really beautiful.”
J.L. reached over in his glove box and grabbed some rolling papers.
“When did you start rolling your own cigarettes?” James asked.
“Last week. I saw some dude do it in a movie and thought he looked slick.”
“Izzat so. Hey, I got to use the bathroom and pick up something to read on the flight, so stop at the next rest stop, okay?”
Two exits passed before J.L. spoke again.
“You wanna be a bluesman, so you movin’ out of Mississippi to do it. You gotta be the dumbest ass white boy I ever known.”
“I might be, but I gotta get goin’.”
“I don’t know why you gotta go so far, though.”
“I don’t think I can get far enough. You know, if you wanted to make the transaction a little easier you could do me a small, little favor.”
“Can I borrow about three-hundred-or-so dollars? I’ll pay you back as soon as I get up there.”
“Bitch, I ain’t the government.”
“Man, I ain’t got that kinda scratch.”
“Bullshit,” James demanded.
“It’s all spent.”
“That and sumpin’ else.”
“Tonya. You know her.”
“Is she the one with the fucked up arches?”
“She wears special shoes.”
“I didn’t know you were still seeing her?”
“Yeah, every day and night. She’s the rake.”
“Where was she last night when you were flirtin’ with white girls?”
“She was over at her grandma’s, and I wasn’t flirtin’.”
“Do you love her?”
“What kind of question is that?” J.L. asked defensively. “Is that what they tell you in prison?”
“Not even if you call me big black nigger daddy.”
“So you’re settlin’ down, huh?”
“That’s what I said. I could burn myself up, or let her suffocate me to death. Either way, ya know.”
“Both seem kinda harsh.”
“You’re telling me.”
J.L. flipped his blinker on as they pulled into a Texaco station. James got out and went to the bathroom. When he opened the door to the tiny Texaco bathroom the smell almost knocked him down. He went in, took half a breath to check the air, and then held it. It definitely smelled like a bathroom, like someone had died before they had finished. James read the graffiti on the gray stone wall. “Jesus loves you” shared the wall with an indiscreet ladies’ number and the KKK. James stood in front of the toilet, unzipped his pants, and studied the condom machine. Inflation sucked. You had to pay fifty-five cents for a glow-in-the-dark or tropical fruit condom. James thought to himself that some kid out there had probably knocked his girlfriend up because he hadn’t had the extra nickel. Probably spent the nickel on the inflated soft drink.
When he was finished he zipped his Levi’s back up and then glanced over his shoulder at a graying humpled mass in the far right corner.
“Jesus Christ,” James said aloud.
James kicked his foot. His head dropped down like it was limp. James bolted out of the door and into the store to tell J.L. J.L. was paying for a Pepsi and flipping through a Rolling Stone.
“Some guy’s unconscious in the bathroom.”
“There’s a guy in the bathroom who ain’t movin’.”
“Is he dead?”
“I didn’t ask him.”
“What’s he doin’ in there?”
“Soakin’ up piss. He’s old. He’s got an old black suit on. He could be drunk. Come see for yourself.”
“No!” J.L. turned to the lady at the register. “Do you know there’s a man passed out in your bathroom?”
The woman peered over the top of her Delta Democrat Times, looking rather bored. She pulled out the Pall Mall that was resting between her lips and extinguished it in a styrofoam cup of coffee as she spoke in a sigh. “Ricky found him about three hours ago and called the cops, but they still haven’t gotten here. I guess they stopped for coffee.”
“How did he get there?” asked James.
“I don’t know. It was padlocked from the outside when we left, and it was still locked when we got here this mornin’. We couldn’t figure out how he got there.”
“Let’s go,” J.L. said to James.
“Hold up, let me get a hot dog.”
“I need a hot dog. Wait just a minute.”
A boy about the age of sixteen was in front of him. James studied the hot dogs twirling around on their Ferris Wheel.
“Can I have change for a dollar?” the boy asked.
James smiled at the boy as he turned quickly around and left.
“I need a hot dog, please ma’am.”
“What do you want on it?”
“You got any of that horseradish business?”
J.L. and James walked out to the front of the store.
“You wanna see him?” asked James talking with his mouth full.
“I told you no.”
“What if he’s dead?”
“There’s nothin’ we can do for him.”
“Have you ever seen a dead guy that wasn’t in a casket before?”
“No, and I don’t want to.”
“C’mon, let’s get outta here before we have to answer questions.”
“Hold it. I wanna take another look at him.”
“You’re one fuckin’ pervert. Listen, we need to get outta here. Now. I have to get to work, you have to get on a plane. Let’s go.”
James stood there with his mouth open, contemplative.
“James. Let’s go.”
J.L. put his pedal to the metal as soon as he got in the car. He drove eighty-five miles-an-hour for the next twenty miles of cotton fields. They rode in utter silence until J.L. broke it.
“That’s fucked up.”
“Yeah, I guess. He scared the hell out of me when I saw him. Could be a song.”
“That shit’s a sign.”
“Oh no. That’s coincidence. Anyway, I could write a song about it.”
“If I were you I’d forget about it.”
“I’ll be fine once I get on the plane. Get there, find a job. I’m glad we didn’t stay though, I don’t want to complicate gettin’ out here anymore than I have to.”
They pulled into the airport parking lot, and J.L. helped him get his things out of his trunk.
“Hey man, I really appreciate you getting up and driving me up here.”
James sat down his bag on the concrete and bent down in Rodney’s window.
“Well, Mister, many thanks.”
“You don’t have to call me Mister, Mister.”
J.L. started up his car and James leaned off as he put it in reverse.
“Take it easy.”
“I can handle it.”
James picked up all three of his suitcases and struggled his way over to the terminal. He sat down on one of them and ran his hand through his thick brown hair, as flight 705 to Chicago was being announced. He hadn’t a single reservation about his upcoming quest. A man’s heart is his compass, and when it points true north he can but only hope that’s where the truth lies.
(photo by Clay Garrett)