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Duct tape messiah
"He's only gone crazy once. Decided to stay." – Townes Van Zandt
I traveled to Austin last week to meet some folks.
People joke that Austin is a “blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup.” Meaning, of course, it’s a drop of liberals in a conservative ocean.
That odd color palate allows some interesting artistic expression. The music, for example, keeps the classic American country charm but with a little more experimentation.
In contrast, folk music in Los Angeles sometimes loses its grounding in real people and events. Instead of your husband leaving you for a woman named “Jolene,” it becomes about a mythical hotel. Sure, the Hotel is probably a metaphor for drugs, but it floats into the abstract land of ideas and poetry. Where is this hotel? Did someone stay there? Who did they love?
Songwriters in Austin are less likely to do that. The red ocean is constantly reminding them, “Say what you mean. Don’t get all fancy, now.”
Willie Nelson wails about his relationship with God, as you might hear in a Garth Brooks ballad, but with a vocal style as strange as Bob Dylan's and a stylistic inability to sing on rhythm.
The following is a story about a singer and songwriter in Austin named Blaze Foley. The events are roughly true, but in the wrong order and with a little creative license.
I hope you enjoy your Saturday.
The sun is setting when Austin, Texas, comes into view. I've been riding the Greyhound for the whole day, sitting next to a big fat lady and her kids.
"You play?" she asked politely near the beginning of our journey, gesturing to my guitar case.
"Yeah," I mumbled to her with a smile. My guts nearly came out through my teeth. I wanted to say that I was going to be worldwide. That people liked my music a good bit. I recorded a new album back in Austin. But she doesn’t give a shit. She’s already petting her blonde boy's hair. So, I just smile. "Yes, ma'am, I play a little..."
She fell asleep about 15 minutes into the ride and is just now waking up, rubbing her face. "We there?"
"Almost," I say to her, surprised to hear the hoarseness in my voice. I sang all night the night before. "See? The buildings are right below the sun."
"Mmm," she says, squinting with a dumb look on her face.
Her kids are squawking for food. "We're almost there, you little fuckers," she says. She looks at me, like, "you know how it is," and I smile because I think I do know how it is. Suddenly, I miss my girlfriend. She sometimes looks after me.
"You going home?" she asks.
"Much as I've ever had one," I say, stroking my beard. It's too long, and the whiskers keep crawling into my mouth. Maybe I'll shave once I get home. I wonder what Shelly will think about that.
The lady burps. "Heard that. I'm moving back in with Momma."
"That'll be good. It’s good to have help raising kids. It’s more work than people think," I offer, trying to sound like I know something or maybe that I care about her life. I don't know why I do that. I've never had kids.
She scoffs. "Maybe. She's a drunk, but swore to me she ain't drinking anymore. We'll see. Better than being near their crazy-ass daddy, anyway."
I don't know what I say to that. "Good," I decide.
She bends over her belly to scrounge around in the duffle bag at her feet. "Billy, where'd you put the fruit rollups? My blood sugar is low..." She digs.
I squint at the rays of sun over the back of her neck. Her dandruff glows in the holy light. I stare at the neck roll jiggle as she searches, a skin tag peaking out from a crack of skin and a bead of sweat forming near the nape. I suddenly notice her boy staring right at me. I smile, but he gawks. "What's your name?" He doesn't answer.
"Can't talk," she says. "Doctor says he's not retarded, though." She dusts off an already-open pack of fruit roll-ups and, breathing heavily, bites into the entire roll at once.
The bus stops near my neighborhood in Austin. Not the nicest, but I'm happy living in it. I'm pretty good at being happy with what I've got, I think. The woman gets off with me. "Your mother lives around here?" I ask.
"Yeah," she says, distant, looking around.
"You need help getting there?"
She looks at me, maybe noticing me for the first time since I met her 8 hours ago. She scans my skinny frame, jeans patched with swatches of duct tape, worn-out jacket patched with duct tape, Henly shirt, thick beard, and long hair. I offer a smile.
I shrug. "Just wanted to make sure you got there safe and sound."
She squints. "Whatever, dude. I just need to find some cigarettes and 1010 Sunnyside drive."
"I'll show you," I say. There is a 7/11 near my place, and I know her mom's street. I lead the way.
She grabs each of her kid's hands, which are all blonde and dirty; there are four of them, I count for the first time. They seem quieter and more wide-eyed than kids should be at their ages. I was never around kids much, so what do I know? I hope things are OK. Hoping things are OK is usually all I got to offer people. Music, too, if they like it. I’m writing a song about this lady in my head. I’ll get it down later. I usually don’t forget a melody.
After I lead the way for a while, I wonder if it's awkward that I'm walking so far in front of them. I slow down. She stiffens as I get closer. "Just thought I'd make some small talk while we walked."
"OK," she says, unsure. "What's the guitar for?"
"Just came from a show in Houston."
"You must suck if you're riding the bus," she says.
I have a problem with pride and self-righteousness. That's what I learned in my AA meetings, anyway. I feel it coming up now. When I was drinking, I probably would've cussed this fat bitch out. Instead, I say, "I do my best."
She snorts. "You and me both, buddy."
Silence fills the Austin air. It's late summer, so the crickets are louder than highway noise. I take it in for a moment. A few pigeons peck around the side of the street, wanting whatever food they might find less than they want to stand near us, so they hop away.
"What kind of music?" she asks out of nowhere. I turn to look at her. She's very sweaty now, dragging her oddly quiet kids behind her.
"Country music," I say.
She perks up just a little. "I like country. Like Kenny Rodgers?”
I smile. Self-righteousness again. "I can play you something while we walk."
"Maybe after we get the cigarettes," she says. She doesn’t have the energy to pretend to like some hippy loser’s music.
We arrive at the 7/11. I can see my apartment from here. I think it looks pretty nice. Shelly put plants by the door. There are powerlines and a dumpster in view, but I squint to ignore them. It is the first place I could ever afford after I recorded the album. I feel a pang of anxiety. I hope the money lasts. I wonder if Shelly is home. "What do you smoke?" I ask.
"Marlboro Reds," she says, fanning herself and swatting away bugs I can't see.
"I got it," I say. I walk in and grab us a couple of waters and walk to the counter. The Indian dude behind the counter recognizes me. "How are you, Blaze?"
"Good, Raheeb, man, good," I say, remembering his name and happy about that. I wipe my forehead with my sleeve. I put the waters on the counter. "How's your boy?"
"Getting big," he says. "You should come by sometime. My wife will cook for us."
"That sounds good, man. Can I get some of the, uh, Marlboro Reds?"
"You smoking again?" he asks.
"Nah," I say. "Just getting them for a friend."
He puts everything on the counter in front of me. "5 bucks."
I pull out my wallet. The entire trip to Houston netted me 50 bucks. I reluctantly lay a 5 on the counter.
Raheeb takes it and rings me up. “You come by sometime, OK? Shelia has been asking about the ‘Duct Tape Messiah.’” He smiles big like he knows something about me he shouldn’t.
I smile. “Tell her to stop listening to gossip about me. I’ll see ya’ll tomorrow night?”
Outside, I hand the pack and a lighter to the woman. "What's your name?" I ask.
"Daphney," she says, rolling her eyes.
"Why did you roll your eyes?" I ask.
"Stupid fucking name for rich people. My momma thought that if she named me rich, I might get that way. That turned out real nice."
I smile. "Moms try."
She nods. "True. I didn't realize why until I had these little fuckers." One of her little boys is watching her light up with wonder in his eyes like he's watching a Disney fireworks show.
We walk toward Sunnyside Dr, where she said her mom lives.
She offers me a cigarette, and I accept. I don't smoke unless someone offers me one, I decide right then and there. I quit a month back, but I reckon that's a pretty good rule. Shelly might not think so. I miss her, but I don’t know. "You mind if I check in on my neighbor before we go to your mom's?" I ask Daphney.
She shrugs, like, "What do I give I fuck for?" but I can tell she's starting to like me.
"You can come in with me. He's a nice dude."
She shrugs again.
We arrive at Mr. January's house. Unkempt. I need to help him cut the grass, I make a mental note. "My momma lives right down there," Daphney says.
"Perfect," I say, "We'll go there right after." I can sense that she's interested enough to want to stay with me.
I knock on Mr. January's door. "Mr. January!" I call, knowing the dude is old. I bang on the door pretty hard. "Old dude," I say to Daphney as an explanation. She smirks, dragging on her cigarette like a calf to momma’s milk.
When no one answers after a while, I bang on the door again. I put my ear up to the door and hear the TV on. I try the knob, and it's unlocked. I push my way in. "Mr. Concho!" I shout, trying his first name just in case he can hear that one better.
Sure enough, he's sitting in front of the TV.
Mr. January must be about a 90-year-old black dude. Bald headed and a white beard. He slouches in his chair, the evening news blaring at him.
He's blind as a bat, eyes milky and white, but he likes to listen to the news, and I think he can see the flashing lights, which might comfort him. I walk in, grab the remote and turn down the set. "Mr. January!" I say, "I'm just checking on you. It's your neighbor, Blaze Foley."
His vacant gaze floats shakily up in my direction. "Blaze?" he says. "You home already?"
"Yessir," I say. "You need anything?"
He swipes his hand dismissively. "I'm OK, boy. How was the show?"
"Good, Mr. January. How are you?"
He nods. "Can't complain, can't complain..."
"Wouldn't do no good," I add.
He laughs. He always laughs at that joke. "Alright," I say. "I'll let you back to the news. Just wanted to check-in. Give me a ring at the house if you need anything."
"Alright, alright...." he says. I wonder if he knows what I’m saying.
I stand upright. Daphney has come into the house like a cautious chicken, leaving her kids outside.
"He's OK," I tell her. But she's not looking at me. I follow her gaze toward the kitchen.
My eyes land on a younger black man. "Carey," I say. "What are you doing here?"
His eyes are wide. My heart is racing. "I didn't think nobody else was here," he says.
"Look, man," I say, "We don't have to get into anything. I'm taking my friend to her mom's house."
He pushes something into his back pocket.
I sigh. "Carey... Your dad needs that money to eat, man." Carey has a drug problem. I've caught him stealing his dad's veteran checks and social security before. "Will you just put it back?"
"It's my fuckin' money." I see gears turning in his head as he looks at me, Daphney, and back to me. He makes a decision. He pulls a gun from his back waistband and points it at me.
"Woah!" I say, putting my hands up. "Carey, man, it's cool. I ain't trying to get into this with you right now. I just want to take my friend to her mom's house." I gesture to Daphney.
"I got two strikes, man," Carey says. "I ain't going to jail right now. I can't be doing that."
"It's cool, man. I'm not going to rat on you. I just want to walk this lady home."
And then my ears are ringing, and there is massive pressure on my chest. I'm confused because, for a moment, I feel like Daphney is sitting on me.
Slowly, I realize there is a bullet hole in me, and I'm on the floor. Daphney screams and runs out the door. I can hear her voice filling Sunnyside Dr. outside. Carey steps over me, running after her.
I try to speak, but blood only comes out. I shift my gaze until it lands on Mr. January. He's hobbling toward me.
"I'm sorry, son," he says, putting a shaking hand on my arm. He manages to get down on the floor with me. "It's OK, boy," he says. His old hand grips my wrist.
As my vision fades, I feel surprisingly relaxed as Mr. January sits with me. I try to finish writing the song in my head before I'm gone…
“I’m going down to the Greyhound station, gonna get a ticket to ride…
Find a big fat lady with 2 or 3 kids, sit down by her side…”