I’ve had pneumonia a half a dozen times or so in my life, which sucks, because my lungs are shot, but I was thinking of it this morning, how I would sit sideways on one of the dining room chairs and he would sit behind me and drum on my back with his hands to loosen the crap in my lungs.
My dad was a drummer growing up, back in an era when you held one stick like a chicken bone and the other stick rested across your palm, which was face up, so that the drumstick could bounce along like the needle on Pinocchio’s lie detector. This drumming talent meant that my dad could knock out crazy rhythms on my back as I sat there waiting to cough.
I had a friend in college who was mostly deaf and when you would ride in his car with him, he would turn the bass up so loud on his stereo that you could feel it through your whole body. He loved rap and dance music. Anything with a beat strong enough to shake him.
Being shaken by the beat is one of the most consistent memories of my childhood. I remember parade after parade, standing on the edge of the crowd and there would always be at least one marching band with a bass drum so loud that it kind of made me feel sick to my stomach, like my whole body was coming apart from the tension of that rhythm threatening to replace the rhythm of my own beating heart.
I would listen to albums of just drumming.
You’re not going to tell me it doesn’t blow your mind to think that from that we ended up here?
America, you drive me crazy. Some swirling giant mess of rhythm, the drum beats borrowed back and forth across cultures. Long forgotten gods called up and put into motion. Drawing lines, connection, ties that bind. Pulsing, pulsing, pulsing.
I don’t know. It’s hard not to love America, with his cocksure swagger, hat tilted just so on his forehead, and he’s buying you a beer, and he’s whispering in your ear, and he’s grabbing your hand, and he’s pulling you outside and you’re trying to catch your breath and you’re hoping he kisses you and you’re running your finger up the inside of his wrist and you feel the curdle of a scar and you hold his arm where you can see it, the antique burn marks from some old cigarette.
“Oh, America,” you say, a hitch in your voice, “What happened to you?”
And America leans in, that gleam in his eye, and whispers,
I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, says I to my self, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant — I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it — except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go. Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me, though I couldn’t make out how he was a-going to be any better off then than what he was before, seeing I was so ignorant, and so kind of low-down and ornery.
“Oh, America, that’s not what I meant,” you say, wanting him just once to be straight with you.
“Pap,” he says, and he turns from you to light another cigarette. He talks, but not to you, “Pap he hadn’t been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn’t want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around.”
And then you’re sorry you asked, and you wish you could take it back, but America doesn’t seem to notice. His mind is elsewhere.
Edited to add: Mack just called me to ask what the fuck happened to this post and I’m going to tell you. You know how you have those dreams where you open what you think is going to be a closet and it turns out to be a whole other wing of your house, only it’s not your house, it’s your friend Amanda’s, but it looks like your grandma’s? That’s kind of what happened to this post. I realized that America opening his mouth and having Huck Finn come out was bordering on something so aesthetically perfect and utterly pleasing to me that I kind of just didn’t know what to do with it.
I meant for it to be a post with a small point that I could easily wrap up and instead, it opened up into something I have to mull over for a while.