R J and Euterpe

Robert Johnson’s birthday is on Sunday, May 8th. Happy birthday, RJ.

Headlights streamed through the bedroom curtains and hit R J in the eyes. He shook the sleep from his eyes, then turned to the woman at his side on the bed.

“Clara,” he said, then louder. “Clara.”

The pickup stopped in the driveway outside.

“What?” she said, angry at being woken from her dream.

“I thought you said that your husband would be out of town all week.”

The headlights went off.

“Oh, shit. R J, you gotta get out of here.”

R J was already out of the bed and in his pants. He grabbed his shirt and his shoes. He leaned over and kissed her thick brown lips. “Be seeing you.”

He shoved the window up and threw his clothes out into the back yard. Halfway through the bedroom window, he remembered Euterpe. He ran across the room and picked the guitar up. The front door opened just as R J went through the window.

He heard Clara call out to her man, “That you, Hon?”

The husband called from the living room, “Who else you expectin’?”

“You, baby,” Clara said.

R J had his shirt and shoes on. He sneaked past the side of the house and then headed out to the street. Before he knew it, he was three blocks away and out of danger. He checked his watch by the streetlight. It was still early. Only ten p.m. He had enough time to make the appointment he had been offered. He shrugged his shoulders with a why-not and headed on out toward the countryside.

A half hour later he left the town behind him, making his way down the country road. The night was dark, no stars and no moon. Only the blacktopped road guided his feet.

R J came upon a bit of a forest. He stepped into the trees. If things were dark on the roadway, they were even darker among the trees. What was he doing? He didn’t need nobody to help him play Sweet Euterpe. He played that guitar just fine.

As he progressed, the oaks and the pines turned gnarly. They gave him the willies, that feeling they were trying to reach out and grab him and squeeze the dickens out of him. It was as if the forest was haunted. There were owls. There were the cries of wolves in the distance. Each of R J’s steps crunched something that didn’t sound quite like leaves. He was not about to reach down and feel the undergrowth. He advanced quickly, pushing back branches and vines that hesitated his progress. Without warning, he stumbled into a clearing. He dropped the case holding Euterpe to the ground.

It was not just any kind of old clearing. This was a clearing where the four winds met. This was a clearing where wizards were known to gather. This was a clearing where the supernatural and the natural encounter each other. This was a clearing where magic was done, and black magic at that.

R J advanced into the clearing, and he saw that the moon and the stars had come out of their closet. In the center of the clearing, four roads met. The road to the north, the road to the east, the road to the south, the road to the west. It was as if they were the four rivers out of Eden.

At the meeting place of the four was a giant stump, a stump as old as the world may have been. Upon the stomp sat a beautiful woman. She wore a long dress of the whitest and purest satin. Her golden hair fell down around her body. The glow pouring from her face put the light of the moon to shame.

“R J, what you expectin’?” she asked from her place on that stomp. “The devil?”

“Y-y-y-yes.” His teeth chattered with fear. It was that kind of fear that came from the preachers when they stormed their congregations with visions of hell. He’d heard their sermons many a time and he knew all the way down to his toes that he didn’t want none of that hell.

“Do I look like an Old Scratch? Do I look like Satan?”

“N-n-no, ma’am.”

“‘Course I do not. I want you to know I have had my eye on you a long time. The way you play Miss Euterpe there. Well, it’s like you play like that Orpheus who lived a long time ago. He played so good, he got Mr. Hades hisself to surrender Orpheus’ one-and-only Eurydice.”

R J turned to look back to see where he dropped his Sweet Euterpe. It was not at the edge of the clearing. He looked down at his feet. There at the side of his right foot was the guitar out of its case and lying flat on the earth.

“Come and show me how you can play the beauty,” the woman’s voice beckoned him to the stomp.

R J did not hesitate. Any chance to show his stuff and he was ready. Euterpe flew out of the case and into his hands. He strode to the stomp. The woman offered him a place to sit beside her. He accepted.

Euterpe rested on R J’s lap and under his right arm, ready for the music about to be. Her master’s left fingers turned the tuning pegs a few notches, then the fingers made a run down the fret and toward the rosette and they returned to the center of the fret. It was then that the fingers on his right hand began their dance on the strings of the guitar. The fingers on the strings above the fret turned wild. The woman watched, her eyes growing larger than the moon. It was the midnight hour and R J was bewitching the witch.

She jumped off the stomp and her feet took her round and round, her hands cavorting above her body. The music grew wilder and wilder. Her dance too grew as wild as the wildest of things. The dress dropped to the ground.

Deep into the night R J played, his music frenzied, then dropped into a softness like a feather falling slow and peaceful-like to the grass below. The sound landed easily to a finale. The woman capitulated, surrendering to the gravity that held her to the earth. She lay exhausted on the ground, laughing, ecstatically laughing. She had been right to choose R J,  and this was the night to choose him.

Naked, she rose from the earth and walked to the Orpheus before her. She reached into the stomp and drew out a chalice and a dagger. The dagger’s blade pricked her finger and red blood dropped into the cup. She raised dagger and cup to the sky, then chanted the words of an ancient tongue.

Lowering the cup, she offered it to R J. “Drink, drink, my brother,” her voice commanded.

R J took the chalice and greedily quaffed down the nectar, draining the cup of its liquid. He went to return it to the woman. But she was gone. The moon was gone. The stars were gone. The clearing was gone. The chalice was gone from his hand. He was sitting on the side of the road, Euterpe on his lap.

R J did the only thing he knew how to do. That night and into the dawn, he soothed the sweetest blues out of his Euterpe ever heard by man or beast.

The house off the Via Dolorosa

Happy Easter to all my Christian friends.

It is a late afternoon in Jerusalem when I turn off the cobblestone Via Dolorosa onto a little side street and there it is. The smell of cooked meat from the animal sacrifices in the Temple fills the air. Soon I come to the door I’ve been searching for. A wooden door with the sign of a fish above it. The house behind that door is the home of the Mother of Jesus.

During Herod Agrippa’s recent persecutions, many of the faithful left Jerusalem. These included Mary. Though she wanted to stay in the City, the Apostle John, the disciple Jesus charged with her welfare, sent her away. In Nazareth, she had family and she would be safe there.

A week before the fifteenth anniversary of our Lord’s Crucifixion, our tribulations ended. Agrippa was dead. We faithful started returning to the city. This became obvious by the number who gathered on the Mount of Olives for the sunrise celebration of the Resurrection some weeks earlier. His Mother was one of them, and now her door is open again to her Son’s followers.

I knock. A small woman opens the door.

“Who is it, Salome?” a booming voice calls. Peter, a large, balding man, sits at a table across the room, surrounded by three other men. “Not a temple spy I hope. Caiphas and his prying eyes.” Then he laughs.

“Just a traveler,” I say, “seeking some good company and a place to shake the dust off my feet.”

“Enter, friend,” another calls over to me. His name is John and his eyes burn with the bright light of his Master’s love. “You are most welcome in this house.”

“Take off your shoes,” Salome says to me. “This is a holy place.”

I remove my sandals and set them by the door as the others have.

“Sit, friend,” another man says, looking over me with eyes that remember Emmaus. This large, burly man with the gruff voice is Cleopas, a former Zealot.

I join the four men, Peter and John, Cleopas and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, at the table.

“Perhaps,” Cornelius says, hope in his eyes. “Perhaps this will be the year of His Return. On the anniversary of His Ascension?”

Mary, the one called Magdalen, walks over and pours me a drinking bowl of red wine. Suddenly I realize how thirsty I am. As I drink, Salome kneels and washes the dirt off my feet.

Across the room, I notice another woman dressed in blue, the woman I have come to see. Though her face and hands are wrinkled and her hair white, the woman in her mid-sixties has a calm peace on her face. And the room glows with her tranquility, her stillness. She is the Mother of Jesus. This coming summer she will pass from this earth and join her Son. But this late spring evening she is here, and I have a chance to enjoy the hospitality of her house as I eat her bread and sip her wine.

She sits in her chair, her hands resting on her lap, a gentleness on her face, gentle yet revealing all the suffering she has known. There she tells her stories and I am comforted.

“He who dwells,” she says, “in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. And I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust’….If you make the Most High your dwelling…no harm will befall you.” Then she folds herself inward and meditates upon all that she has known.

After a long pause, she ends the evening with these words: “Maranatha. Come, Lord, come again.”

Cabbage

Why did she have to raise cabbage? Anything but cabbage. Charles hated cabbage, and she knew he hated it.

Since they were married for the past twenty years, Helene had been obsessed with cabbage. Just try it this way, she said time and again. This way or that way was never going to work for him. He hated cabbage.

“Charles,” she said to him a number of times, “the rabbits are eating my cabbage.”

“Good,” Charles responded. “Now you don’t get to force it into me.”

“You know you would love my cabbage strudel if you would give it the old college try.” Just the thought of cabbage strudel about drove Charles insane.

He gave murder some thought over the years. No judge would convict Charles. “Your Honor,” he would say, “you will understand when you hear the circumstances of my crime. You will have no reason to convict me of the murder of my wife.”

After the judge heard his plea, he would immediately release Charles. “Justifiable homicide. No man could live with the persecution Charles has lived with for twenty years.”

This was Charles’ reasoning for some years, but no more. The country had gone cabbage crazy. It was becoming harder and harder to find a restaurant, a tavern or a friend who did not serve a cabbage dish with every meal.

Finally a solution came to Charles. A one way ticket to America. He had heard that America was a savage country where men and women ate only meat. America, everybody claimed, was a barbarous place.

The westward voyage was such a comfort. Not one meal on the menu offered cabbage. The ship passed the Statue of Liberty with its promised freedom from the tyranny of cabbage. As the ship moved into its berth at the port of New York, Charles smiled his broadest smile. He had turned his back on the religious persecution of his home country’s love of cabbage. Before him stood a cabbage-free life.

The ship docked. Charles gathered up his bags and headed into the city. His plan was to follow Horace Greeley’s advice of “Go West, Young Man.” Soon he would be on a train to California. First he must try a meal at one of New York’s finest restaurants.

Charles opened the menu and read. He just about vomitted. It seemed America’s finest restaurants too had embraced the contagion. Before him were offerings of cabbage and potatoes, cabbage rolls, boil-that-cabbage-down, cabbage stew and cabbage burgers. Cabbage mania had struck America when Charles wasn’t looking.

On and on the cabbage dishes ran until he came to the final offering. “Cabbage strudel topped with a dab of vanilla ice cream.” It was named, of all things, Cabbage a la Helene.

Audrey

Audrey hated her job.  A lot. Her job was to sit in from of the camera and sell It insurance. In a few words, she told the camera It was going to die. It needed to be prepared.

It needed to plan its funeral. To purchase The Sympathy Plan, a prepaid, all-expense sendoff to the Great Beyond. Unpleasant as it was, the camera absolutely needed to know that Its family would be devastated with grief from its death.

Unfortunately, its wife and Its children, its brother and its sister, its mother and its father would have to deal with something that most cameras find difficult. In the middle of their devastation, they would have to think about The Funeral.

They would have to agree at the worst possible moment. “He would want this,” one would say. “No, he would want that,” another said. “How are we going to pay for this?” his wife asked.

So here Audrey sat behind the desk and in front of the camera, telling It the truth. Years of voice lessons, acting training and staying in shape, giving up her cookies and her milk shakes and all the food she loved, food that would make her fat. And for what? To tell the damned camera It was going to die.

Her voice dropped into silence. She couldn’t do it.

She rose from the table like Lazarus’ rising from the grave. She looked into the camera. “I can’t do this. I won’t do this.”

She walked past the director. On her way to the door, she came to the camera, kissed It and said, “You aren’t going to die. At least, not soon.”

She was wrong about that. The next day, in the same studio, shooting another actress doing another commercial, a crew member accidentally tripped on the camera’s cord and pull It to the floor, crashing It into several pieces, Its lens beyond repair.

Audrey walked out of the studio and down the hall and out into the afternoon sunlight.

Free at last.

A Marriage

“Why do you always run off to the shower after we make love?” This could be the man or the woman asking. On this particular night, it is the woman.

The man, her husband, slides back into bed beside his wife’s naked body, reaches over, kisses her lightly on the lips. She resists his kiss.

He withdraws to a few inches from her face. “You know you can join me in the shower. It’s not like there’s not enough room.” The best defense is a good offense.

He’s not ready to give up on that kiss. He tries again for her lips.

She is having none of his attempts at getting on her good side. “All I want is to be close,” she says, moving her lips away from his.

“I’m trying to be close now.” He catches her cheek with his kiss.

She pushes him away. “It isn’t the same. After we have sex, all you do is run away.” Slipping over to her edge of the bed, she gives him her back, then pulls the sheet tight around her, making it into a cocoon.

He drops off to his side of the bed. “But … Lenore,” he protests.

“Why do you choose to call me that?” she tosses over her shoulder at him. “You know I don’t like it, Sam.”

“What do you mean? Call you what?” he speaks to her back.

“Lenore,” she says the name as if it is a curse.

“That’s your name, isn’t it?” Of course it’s her name.

“It’s what my mother calls me. But I’m Nora and you most definitely know that.” Of course he knows it. He has called her Nora a thousand times and more. Her back is now a wall and she’s not allowing any climbing over it. Not for this night anyway.

”I like Lenore. It has such a romance to it. Just like you.”

Silence. Not a sound coming from behind that wall.

After several minutes of waiting for a truce and a goodnight kiss, he reaches over and switches off the bedside light, sighs and slides deeper into the bed. He lies on his back and studies the shadows spreading out across the room as the night grows deeper.

A sob escapes through a crack in that impenetrable wall lying next to him. His wife is crying, pouring herself into her pillow. He reaches over to offer her a tender, comforting touch.

She moves away from his hand and rolls over and faces him. “My name is Nora. And just why do you always feel the need to wash me off after we have sex? Guess you can’t stand the smell of me, the taste of me, the touch of me on your skin. Bet you can’t even stand the sound of me.”

He starts to protest but holds it in.

“Next thing I know you won’t even be able to stand the sight of me.” Shoving the covers off, she jumps out of bed, grabs her robe, heads for the door. Takes one last look at the man in her bed. “Ever since Candace went away to college,” she says, changing the subject but not really. She throws the robe on and heads off down the hall.

He calls after her. “Candace doesn’t like Candace for a name, you know.” Their daughter likes to be called Dash.

“That’s her name, Sam-u-el,” she cries out into the night. She’s Candace’s mother and she can call her daughter any damned name she wants. Why doesn’t he understand that?

“And Lenore is yours,” he wants to yell back but doesn’t. She is the woman he loves, has always loved, and he knows that this is not a good time to call out “Lenore”.

He moves over onto his side and faces the wall, pulls the sheet closer around his body. He hates these dark, restless nights when nothing seems to go right. When everything he tries is wrong.

He waits in the dark and hopes. What is he hoping for? That she’ll come back to bed? That he can somehow show her that he didn’t mean for the night to turn out the way it has? Maybe that, after twenty years of marriage, things can change? That he can change? He keeps hoping but he knows. This will not be the night.

It’s one thirty and he has to get up in the morning for work. But he’s not going to get any sleep. Not till Lenore comes back to bed, and they make up.

Why does he keep calling her Lenore? he wonders in his sleeplessness. He knows how much she hates it. It’s only at times like these when he drops his guard that she she is no longer an average, everyday Nora. She is the Lenore of his best dreams and he is recalling their honeymoon in that long-ago before twenty years wore down their marriage.

He glances over at the clock on his nightstand once again. It’s two and she’s not coming back. He slips out of bed, pulls on this pajama bottoms and a robe.

Downstairs and out on the patio, she hears him slide the glass door open behind her. “I’m not mad,” she says to nobody in particular. “It’s just that, well I’m not mad.” This time she’s speaking to her husband.

There she goes. Making peace. Why does she always do that? he wonders. “I was a jerk,” he says, looking at the back of her neck. The moon throws its light across the room, and he can’t ever remember seeing anything so beautiful.

“No, you were just being you.” Her voice is soft and lonely. Then she thinks, “There I go again, making peace. Why do I always do that?”

He doesn’t know what else to say or do so he waits.

She looks over her shoulder and up into his face. His eyes gaze at her the way he did that first night oh-so-many-years-before on the the beach where they first fell in love. Her hand reaches out for his, takes it, draws him to her side on the bench. “I love this house,” she says.

“It has been a good house.” He sits down next to her.

“I wasn’t sure it was the one for us.” She leans her head on his shoulder.

“I didn’t know that.” He squeezes her hand with all the affection that comes from years of loving and arguing and making up and arguing and making up some more. “I wasn’t that positive myself.”

She squeezes back. Her head feels the strength of the shoulder she has always known that she can lean on no matter what. No matter what. She then takes her head off his shoulder and looks up at the sky. “That sure is a pretty moon.”

“We didn’t think we’d we be here that long.”

“And, my god, the mortgage.” She laughs.

“We’d never owed that much money to anybody. But Dash loved it.”

“We thought we were buying the moon. Five years old and Candace knew it was for us.”

“Why do you keep on calling her Candace?” he whispers. “You know how much she hates it.”

“Why do you insist on calling me Lenore?” she whispers back. “It spoils everything.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, unsure how to tell her all that her name means to him.

“I can see we got what we paid for.” She is back thinking about the house.

“It was a good price.”

She points toward the sky. “We got that moon too, and it is much better than the one we thought we were buying.” She looks at it for several minutes. “You think that Brett and Dash will last as long as we have?”

“I hope so. He seems to love her but not as much as I loved you then, Nora.” He kisses Lenore, not a soft easy kiss, not a deep passionate kiss, but a kiss that makes up for everything. And she kisses him. Then he whispers, “And still love you.”

She stands, reaches for his hand, and they go inside.

On the way up the stairs, he says, ”If you let me call you Lenore every-once-in-a-while, I promise not to run off to the shower after we make love.”

“Only when we’re alone,” she says from the stair above him.

He nods yes, and they are back in bed and soon asleep.

Forgiveness fills the house as it has so many times before and they continue their married life together. At least for one more day.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.