Back in Liverpool, The Quarrymen have changed their name to Johnny and the Moondogs but are without a drummer and John Lennon is reduced to abandoning his guitar and standing between Paul McCartney and George Harrison, one hand on each of his buddy’s shoulder, as a vocal trio. Actually, the biography states, they looked kind of cool because Harrison was a leftie while McCartney was right-handed and the group looked like a winged animal on stage singing Buddy Holly songs, and it landed them in the finals of “Nationwide Search for a Star Competition” in Manchester. These were tough times for the group that would become The Beatles, missing out on the final heat of the competition they’d qualified for because they didn’t have the money to spend the night and had to scramble for the last bus back to Liverpool. But these are not the innocent boys we think of now, all wide-eyed and bonny-haired. In fact they left the hall that night having probably stolen another musician’s guitar in some kind of frustrated effort at revenge.
This is the part where I get insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes. I get fusty about character and living the reasonable and mature life in a world that is shot through with fuck-ups like—most of Joe’s friends as well as the absent man in Joe’s life whose name here shall remain obscured. It’s the same Mormon self-righteousness, I suppose, that makes me sniff at Kurt Cobain smashing his guitar on stage after a set. This even though the man-boy has declared quite definitively somewhere outside Cleveland that Cobain did so out of honest frustration because he couldn’t even get a custom-made guitar to deliver the sound he demanded. An artiste of the most ego-blinding kind. Whatever.
In truth I’m insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes because I am not one of them. This I am sure of. Instead, I find pictures of the absent man and him in full Halloween make up implanted in the medicine cabinet of his bathroom. A small 3×3” photo, dog-eared with the finger pulling and pawing of disquieting longing. It seems the absent man is the one who spoke wisely of life’s lessons, calmly holding forth on everything from work to love, from government (especially its unfair taxes) to cops–a.k.a. “pigs.” He is the one who ushers forth whenever his out-of-town and elderly mother starts asking her son uncomfortable questions like, “How is Joe? When will I see him? Did you give him my birthday presents?” He is the one who ushers forth to offer his abandoned son some pathetic little toy (a pocket knife, re-gifted I’m sure) or a bag of clementines (also re-gifted in their little netted sack).
Or Joe’s hero is sarcastic John Lennon, the mugging, Liverpudlian thug obsessed with shoplifting and mimicking cripples. And I stew, like a Christianist in the culture wars, about the corrosive impact of pop culture on our youth. But Joe does not demonstrate any of Lennon’s flaws, with the possible exception that he has a fierce, yet often undisciplined intellect, and a thing with growing his hair out. This is what I remember about Joe’s character. He is taking Muoy Thai boxing as a 12-year-old and there’s a kid at the gym, Denver, who at six-years-old has already boarded the flight to juvenile hall it would seem. So damaged is Denver, that even the muscled, tattoo-ed owner of the place, Craig, has banished him to the lobby where he must wait for his returning mom. Something about the kid kicking a kid in the face unprovoked, and then, with a laugh, succeeding at kicking Craig in the balls as the kid was being hauled off.
Joe is there too, with me as we wait for his buddy who is finishing his workout, and Denver is playing with a toy that looks like it actually could be an honest-to-god die-cast Matchbox car. Denver keeps rolling the damn thing off the bistro table like it’s a missile, ripping it out of Joe’s hand when Joe tries to pick it up to return it to him across the table top. The kid appears to be on amphetamines.
My point is that at twelve, Joe is kind. He even seems to feel compassion for a boy six years his junior who is destined to trod a path that Joe knows all too well. And Joe is moved by him. I can see it in the way he manages Denver with patient ease. It’s as if he’s saying through a kind of innate generosity that he finds that he has it in him to be kind to this troubled boy, and so he is. He is kind because he can be kind. He finds that he has a reserve, and without further ado he dispenses with that reserve to the object that needs something the most in that moment.
Despite having witnessed this, as well as Joe’s admittedly steeper learning curve with learning to care for our pets, I regularly panic that he will not turn out somehow. That he will become a guitar-smashing lunatic or worse. But really I’m afraid that when he thinks of the man that he wants to become, it will not be me. Pathetic, I know. But it’s true.
And that is why I am mean to him. Even here, in Kearney Nebraska, after we go for our obligatory swim in our skivs—Nana in her leotard—and we all shiver back to the room to toast the new year two hours early because of what looks like on the Weather Channel, another system moving in, and the movie of the hour keeps getting interrupted with a loud beeeeeep and the ticker tape warning of sub-zero, freezing rain. Yes, I am mean to him. Dismissive, touchy. “Get your boots off the bed. I don’t care if it’s a motel. Put your shit away…now, dammit. You said you hung that up. Why do you lie?”
Nana glowers at me. And she fights back too when she feels the internal storm in her own husband gathering like that over the Wyoming high plain northwest of here and her gangly chick with the mop of hair might be in its path. If the brew continues we will have words, serious ones that only make me feel more resentful of this boy who entered our life, not entirely invited, and now won’t get his goddamn boots off the bed. Resentful because even this marital scenario is his fault: it’s let’s you and them fight, he seems to saying in his silence, in his unflappable way lying on the bed there. And earlier I had even let him have half a glass of champagne, the little shit.
The road before us, through what looks like another ice storm, or at minimum the kind of freezing weather that, because it is far from home, is all the more threatening, stretches in my mind through unpardonable, high-elevation country. It’s a country I am well aware of, being a Westerner. Only in the west can one meet with not only mechanized, Detroit-crunching (in this case Tokyo-crunching?) death on the freeway but with the specter of no one there to witness it except the drifts over Elk Mountain and the implacable big sky above you.
This isn’t even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and young son bond with a fierceness borne of terror, despair and the post-apocalyptic cold. A bond as bleak as it is tender. This is my own interior and fabled “Scotland Road” driving through the heart of the White Star Line’s most infamous vessel—the Titanic. Melodramatic, you say? Perhaps. But part of the zeitgeist here is that one’s private agony with a lost boy who somehow doesn’t cotton to you entirely is an objective correlative at the macro-level, the whole goddamn world collapsing just as it is collapsing in my head here in Nebraska. Just as it is collapsing in my heart.
I am kicked out of the hotel room. By Cheryl. Or perhaps I kick myself out. There are fifty places I could go tonight in Kearney to get wasted on New Years Eve, the last night of the last year of the first decade of the new millennium. Instead, I wander in the halls in my shirtsleeves the heaters at the two ends of the hall madly grinding away, keeping at bay the very death of us. I am bound to not only the hall but to the two people on the other side of the door marked 223.