(Originally handwritten on the back of a gang prevention brochure)
The stuffed animals were once white, now black-charred and dripping wet, dark marble eyes staring, forever staring. A stack of clothes melted together, sequins & sashes, coat hangars reshaped into iceberg runs of plastic. Malcolm X books survived, as well as Birmingham 1960s civil rights pictures. The memories of this town, in that era, never go away. There was snow and ice on the ground outside and the fire confined itself to one room, in one apartment. It ate everything in it.
The kitchen was sidewalk narrow, I had to turn to the side to walk through in 40 pounds of turnout gear. A barbell was loaded up with iron plates on the floor below the sink. A Rubik’s Cube sat next to two hammers on top of the water heater. There was a stack of books on the counter. The kitchen was a jail cell. Weights and peanut butter jars and reading material.
I thought of Joey.
It was the endless straightedge summer and hardcore/punk rock/emo bands toured across, or tore across, the southeast with the steel-eyed drive of General Sherman burning down Atlanta. A packed car driving to Athens, Auburn or Memphis to stand in a cramped living room and watch our heroes bleed on microphones meant nothing. It was just gas money and laughs and yellow lines on the pavement passing by you at 1am. Wasserman and I hosted more than our share of bands, only we cheated slightly and rented out an old store front for the music. I tried to keep my living room clean.
Joey came from the Midwest and told us he’d played drums for Coalesce before doing an ounce of prison time for stealing a car. He was straightedge like us, and wore the similar war paint tattoos, the shirts and hoodies. He knew the lyrics, the same ones we did, the same ones that some of us had written. Re-located in Pensacola the four hours of I-65 meant nothing to him and his girlfriend Angela when it came time to be a part of things. There was Bear Witness and Caption. Haste and Exhaust. 8th Day.
The word “emo” didn’t take a wrong turn until the end of the 1990s. The four miscreants of Exhaust once stayed up all night on a beach swing set arguing over what was emo and what was not. Cars, haircuts, backpacks. We had a vicious reputation for not taking anything seriously and self-deprecating senses of humor. And that was in ‘95.
Hot Water Music played a pool party and life could not have gotten better.
I remember Angela there.
Angela had crystal-glowing eyes and didn’t talk very much. She was tall and thin-shouldered and constantly self-aware of her posture. Brown hair. Tour shirts. She was one of many I’d see asleep on my living room floor after nights of noise, or upstairs at Sluggos in Pensacola… leaning against a graffiti-wall in the dark bar lights.
Everyone did silly stage dives into the pool when Hot Water Music played the set list they virtually let us write. It was an endless meaningless summer and often, I’d sneak away from Alabama bartending to be a part of it all. Amber and I ate I-65 South alive that day, in pursuit of lyrics with meaning and growling guitars, Pensacola, USA.
More than once I wandered into a hardcore show, barefoot and covered in sand, salt-wet board shorts. And that was alright. I was in Pensacola, USA and no beach is prettier, the horizon disappearing behind waves and seaweed. A nearby beach bar would leave their speakers on all night and I don’t think I ever heard a song that Sammy Hagar wasn’t singing. Again… that was alright.
The decade rolled over into a new century and nothing got easier. No longer part of Exhaust, no longer doing shows in a downtown store front, and nervous tension over a beautiful daughter on the way. The desire was still there, the voices, the passion, but things had changed. I remember seeing Boogie Nights in the theatre and walking out when William H. Macy’s character, Little Bill, put the gun in his mouth and the film rolled the reels from 70’s free-for-all to 80’s brutality. The relevance being that I don’t handle change very well.
Southeast roadtrips became fewer and further between, the living room floor no longer covered over with sleeping bags, tattooed skin, and black-dyed hair. I’d moved into a crummy Southside apartment across the street from an all night disco, the thump thump of the bass going until sunrise. Amber and I shared the space with no a/c, stolen internet and two attempted break-ins. Our slumlord, to this day, remains one of the most hated men in Birmingham, USA.
The phone lines were down when I got an email from my Mom in Pensacola. It read “Call me ASAP. One of your friends just killed another one of your friends.”
When the law caught up with Joey he was running down train tracks and draining blood from his wrists, both of them slashed to ribbons from the same Spyderco knife he’d use to stab Angela to death. Facing down the guns of Pensacola Blues, and coated in the drying brown-red blood of two (his and hers) he told them that he was the man they were looking for. The paramedics bandaged his wrists, the police put handcuffs on them, I seem to think that he took one last look at daylight…
I’m not sure of the ‘why’, but from bits and pieces of court testimony, and police reports and friends too close to it all, I know a great deal of the ‘when’, the ‘where’ and the ‘how’.
Joey stabbed Angela a total of 17 times. She fled to a neighbor’s apartment and banged on his door, midday, as Joey continued stabbing her while she screamed in a cell phone to 911. Whatever crimson image her neighbor saw kept him in shock, and a shut-in, for months and months. Joey ran for the train tracks when the door opened, the Spyderco knife now turned against his own wrists, Angela’s body collapsed, running streams of blood.
A month later and it was still the endless murder summer... Amber and I went to Panama City Beach, of all terrible places, to see Hot Water Music and whoever else at the Warped Tour. The punch of the lyrics had new meaning. The guitars now felt like they were cutting open my veins. On the way home I stopped at an all-night burger joint to meet Pensacola friends. We talked about Joey. We remembered Angela. We agreed that life was unfair… unfair that there were so many horrors in this world and, sometimes, all you can do is watch. We hugged good byes and, in the parking lot, I told them I was going to open a bar someday and call it the Speakeasy. I drove back to Birmingham, USA.
Another month later and I raced away from closing down a Southside bar to UAB’s hospital to be there when Janey was born, be a part of it all.
Summer was officially over.
(This essay was supposed to be my “Jungleland”. Drifting characters and late late nights, and the interaction of the two. Parking lots, living room shows and beach sand. That idea took a wrong turn along the way. I just finished reading a book where the protagonist had a voice in his head driving him. The voice said “Push… it ... down…” whenever he began to dwell on his actions or behavior. Whether it was regret, or sadness, or anger.
Push it down.
A lot of words written above came from something that I’d pushed down. A lot of words I’ve written over the last few years come from something I’ve pushed down.
Today I met a woman who’s husband was shot to death; left her and their daughter behind to fight this world alone. Her daughter is nine. Janey is nine. Life hurts all over. No one is exempt.
Push it down.)
“Shiver and say the words of every lie you’ve heard. First I’m going to make it, then I’m going to break it while it falls apart.” - Echo & the Bunnymen