Absolutely Zeke’s Blues

This originally appeared in Downstate Stories in 2006. It’s a strange mainstream story or perhaps slipstream, deptending on how you see it.

ABSOLUTELY ZEKE’S BLUES

Monday night at Captain Ahab’s, six customers were in the bar, and one was applauding after each song I did. But then I knew him, and he probably wanted a ride home. He lived a few houses down from me, and that January in Carbondale, if I played on the strip, Westbound Slim usually caught a ride home with me.
He sat with some guy wearing a phosphorescent orange hunting coat and cap. Like his clothes, the stranger’s eyes glowed.
I joined them on my break, and Westbound Slim introduced his companion as Zeke. They resumed an argument they were having. While Zeke quoted Scripture, insisting we lived in the final days, Westbound Slim scoffed.
I listened to their accents. Westbound Slim looked like a mountain man but talked most streetwise. Talked, laughed, swore.
Zeke might’ve been a newscaster. He sounded like one and had the regular features. Now if I had joined in I could’ve added a third accent. I grew up on the Illinois-Kentucky border and sounded, everyone agreed, like a hillbilly.
I stayed out of it, though, and by the argument’s end, Zeke had mentioned he was a university dropout, had no permanent address, and had spent the weekend in jail.
I asked about the weekend in jail, and Zeke said, “God had work for me there.” He said that two of his cellmates had threatened to rape a younger cellmate, and he’d prevented it.
“So you believe God is guiding your life, then,” I said.
“I know it,” he said. “God talks to me.”
Westbound Slim glanced at my face, threw back his head and just roared. Eventually he laid his arms on the table and rested his head on them, moaning happily and swearing. When he quieted he raised his head slightly and looked at Zeke. “Show your rings to Joe, man.”
From a coat pocket Zeke took a white box containing two gold wedding bands.
“Very nice,” I said. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
Zeke pointed to a pretty waitress standing thirty feet away by the bar. She was curvaceous, and like all the waitresses, wore black hot-pants and a sleeveless blue T-shirt. Her legs were perfect, and her brown hair, shining and wavy, fell past her shoulders. She wore no make-up and needed none.
My gaze came back to Zeke. “When’s the big day?”
“We have to resolve something first,” he said, as he slipped the rings back into his pocket. “She thinks she hates me.”
Zeke said that he and the waitress, Linda, had met and gone on a date. They’d seen Rocky, and afterward she invited him over, stripped right there in her living room, and told him to take her. On religious grounds, Zeke refused, and since then, Linda despised the ground he walked on. But God said she was to be his bride.
By the time he finished his tale, it was time for me to go back on. Zeke said he played too, and wanted to do some songs. That was all right with me, so I went back and ordered a Bud draft. Just as the barmaid handed it over, Zeke launched into an old-time gospel tune, “I Saw the Light.”
Robert F. Chester, the doorman, grabbed my arm and glowered. Robert F. was a part-time grad student in administration of justice, a rugby player, folksinger, and aspiring writer of sword and sorcery. He was a couple inches taller than me, maybe six-three, muscular, and wore his hair crew-cut.
“What’s that creep doing on stage?” he demanded.
“He asked if he could play.” I glanced around. “What can it hurt?”
“Well, the owner won’t like it,” he growled. “He hates him. And so does Linda.” He jerked his thumb at the waitress.
As he stalked off he added over his shoulder, “And his music sucks.”
He was right about Zeke’s music. Gospel is okay, but Zeke sang like early Bob Dylan. Positively early Dylan. And he so thrashed the guitar strings that they buzzed and rattled over the P.A.
A couple left their table, walked up the short stairway beside the stage and out the front door. For customers, that left Westbound Slim, Zeke, and two lovers whispering at a table midway between bar and stage.
Zeke finished his song, and I climbed on stage, took the guitar and thanked him. In the middle of my first song, he walked up the stairs, nodded slowly, and walked out. Winter blasted in.

After that, Zeke haunted my gigs, hounding me to let him play, hitting me up for spare change. I didn’t have any spare change, but at first I let him play on my breaks. People booed, but I got a charge out of him, a glow-in-the-dark Dylan clone up there belting out gospel music. Plus, he always had some new misadventure tell. I repeat them to Donna, my girlfriend, and we’d laugh. But he drove away customers, so I decided to stop letting him play.
Next time he stopped by—it was a bar called The Club—I said no. The rest of the night, Zeke leaned against the wall, sneering.
His attitude was the least of my worries. I wanted badly to get together the money to move to New York City, and for a month, since the start of January, had run an ad in the classifieds for my ’68 Le Mans, Stratocaster guitar, Twin reverb amp, Gibson bass,and Kustom bass amp. So far exactly no one had called.
In a way, I had a good thing going where I was. I’d played in bands in college, and after graduation stayed in Carbondale and just kept playing. Over the past five years, I’d got more and more work. Week nights I played as an acoustic single in Carbondale, and Thursday through Saturday I worked in a southern rock band in Carbondale and a sixty-mile radius. I generally played five or six nights a week, sometimes seven.
I could wear a T-shirt and jeans and long hair to work. All I did was play music, which I loved, and I didn’t have a boss. That was the good news. The bad news was that years of playing smoke-filled bars for drunks got old. Also, I wanted to do my own stuff, and I wasn’t. I hadn’t even written anything in a year. I was too busy copping songs from records.
In New York, I planned to take my songs around to music publishers, record companies, and clubs that wanted songwriters. I didn’t want to end up fifty someday and wondering what would’ve happened if I’d tried to make the big-time. And living in the city would be an adventure I’d never had. So I was anxious to go but wanted to take some money, and nobody was calling about my stuff.
Besides that, Donna was unhappy about my plans. I’d asked her come with me, but she was in grad school and couldn’t. Or maybe my invitation lacked enthusiasm. Anyway, I was going, she was staying, and meanwhile we shared a house on Cherry Street with three roommates. She’d found a button that read “used” and wore it on her shirts. She brought over old boyfriends. She sulked. Most nights I stayed out late.
Donna felt I was going to New York to get away from her, and maybe I was. She was intelligent and funny. She had chestnut hair and blue eyes. She had good sense and a great smile. I don’t know why I wanted to leave her. Sometimes she wanted me to play guitar less and relate to her more. But this wasn’t some big deal. Something was missing, that’s all.

One cold, clear evening in late February, I took Donna to see Robert F. Chester at Captain Ahab’s. He was a doorman there, but every Wednesday he played a couple sets. To my surprise Westbound Slim sat at a table near the stage, and I asked what he was doing there.
“Hey, for the world, I wouldn’t miss this shit,” said he.
A couple weks ago Robert F. Chester had told Zeke to leave Linda alone. Or else. Yesterday on the street Zeke had followed her for a block telling how much he loved her and how glad it would make God if they wed. Today Robert F. had run all over town, telling everyone that he was going to grind Zeke’s head into the pavement. Westbound Slim expected Zeke here tonight.
Big grin on his face, Robert F. was on stage, doing his thing. It’d be hard to say which Donna hated more—his music or his jokes. She was trying to get us out of there, when a pasty-faced bouncer sidled up and whispered in Robert F.’s ear. He immediately set down his guitar and announced, “There’ll be a short intermission.” He dashed out the door next to the stage.
With most of the bar, we followed. Captain Ahab’s door was below street level, and as we climbed the stairs, I glanced up. Zeke stood above, framed by the night, his outfit glowing like a neon sign.
As the mob from below encircled the two, Robert F. called Zeke a “schizoid turd,” and shoved him. Sternly Zeke said, “I’ll preach you a sermon now, brother.”
He socked Robert F., who stood three inches taller, right on the jaw, and landed several more. But Robert F. began to fend Zeke’s blows and might have nmade good all his threats, except two cops broke through the spectators and stopped the fight. When things simmered down, the cops sent Robert F. back to work and took Zeke to jail.
As Donna and I walked home, I asked, “Now aren’t you glad we came? Look what we would’ve missed.”
“I can’t stand it,” she whispered.
We turned left at the Dairy Queen and walked silently up Cherry Street, our breath trailing behind us. A couple blocks from home, Donna stopped under a street lamp. She cocked her head.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe you should’ve stopped the fight?”
“Me?” I asked
“Yeah,” she said. “You’re friendly with them both. I bet you could’ve stopped it.”
I shrugged.
“You didn’t care. You like everyone, Joe, you enjoy them. But you don’t care about anyone.”
We stood looking at each other, while the streetlight made our rising breath glow. Finally, I said, “I don’t know. You might be right. I don’t take anything seriously.”
“Maybe you should,” Donna insisted. “Maybe next time Zeke starts spouting his B.S., you should tell him to get real.”
Zeke was in his own private universe. Trying to intrude was so clearly pissing in the wind that I couldn’t help smiling.
“Arrghh!” she growled and leaped forward, sending a punch that flew hard but landed soft on my arm. “You are a goof,” she cried. “A goof!” She punched me again.
I kept smiling.

Four or five of us had been spending our afternoons in a friend’s apartment above The Club. The day after Zeke’s fight I’d just been talking about it, when there were footsteps in the halld, and Zeke strolled in like nothing had happened.
“How’d you get out?” I asked.
“Oh, they shot me up with Thorazine last night back at the station,” Zeke said plopping down on a bass amp by the window. “But they didn’t’ charge me with anything. They did take me in front of a judge this morning.”
“They took you before a judge?”
Zeke nodded. “I guess it’s been in the works a while, but Linda has a court order now forbidding me to so much as speak to her.”

That evening, when I got home, a note from Donna was on my desk. It gave the number of some guy who’d called about my bass. All night, I danced around the room. At last, a caller. A couple hours later, I stood holding three hundred dollars, watching a kid just old enough to drive leave with my bass.
A couple weeks went by, and late one afternoon a friend called from Chicago, saying he’d be driving his van to the East coast in April. He offered me a ride. Things were coming together. I’d hang around another month, doing acoustic gigs and trying to sell the rest of my stuff. Then if I didn’t lose my nerve, I’d head up to Chicago.
When we finished talking, I walked down to the strip and sat on the little cement wall by the Dairy Queen. For mid March it was pleasant-warm and clear. Westbound Slim happened by, saying Zeke was in jail, could anyone go his bail? No one could. For a second I thought about the three hundred dollars back in my dresser. Zeke’s bail was only a hundred-fifty, but I needed every cent, for New York.
When I did hear what’d got Zeke arrested, word came from him, fresh out of jail. Wearing cutoffs and a ret T-shirt emblazoned in black with a laughing Jesus and the words “Jesus Lives,” he stopped by the apartment above The Club one afternoon. Everybody put down their guitars.
I asked, “So what happened?”
Zeke eased down onto the bass amp by the window. “Well, it was a full moon, and I was walking around just soaking up the moonlight.”
“Soaking up moonlight,” I said, “didn’t get you locked up.”
“True, Then God told me to go tell Linda I love her. So I went to her house. When she answered her door I said, ‘I love you.’ She slammed the door and called the cops. They dragged me off, shot me full of Thorazine, and locked me up.”
He shook his head. “ I don’t know why God picker her.” Before leaving, Zeke wondered if the cops had the right to keep giving Thorazine. He meant to talk to a lawyer.

Four days later, I ran into Westbound Slim in the afternoon on the strip. He looked sick. The cops had busted Zeke on some bogus trespassing charge. Word was, they wanted to have him committed to a mental institution and had arrested him to make sure he stayed put.
Westbound Slim had a plan to break Zeke out if he did get committed, and wanted to know if I’d be his accomplice. I declined, but couldn’t believe that the cops could really get Zeke committed. So we went to a pay phone, where I called a friend in law school, who said the authorities should have no trouble putting him away.
I stepped out of the phone booth and told Westbound Slim, who then wanted me to use some of my money to go Zeke’s bail.
I threw up my hands, “Slim. I’m scared about going to New York. Without throwing away my money first.”
I headed home, a frown all over my face. I equated mental hospitals with straight jackets, shock treatment, lobotomies, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Even if Zeke did think God talked to him, even if he was a thorn in Linda’s side, I didn’t want to see him committed.
When I got home, Donna was sitting in the living room, and my frown was gone. I asked to borrow her car, and explained shy.
Her eyes twinkled. “You have this affinity for weirdoes,” she said. “Did you know that, Joe?” She handed me the keys.
I stopped in my room, and went out to her old Camaro. As I headed for the Jackson County jail I remembered Donna’s crack about my affinity for weirdoes. It was true I got a kick out of strange people. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I’d never been crazy.
Seven years earlier I’d wigged out good. A couple sucker punches from life, drug abuse, bad memories, and Nixon did it. I’d been depressed and suicidal and plagued by panic attacks bad enough that often I’d sat on the wall by the DQ, terrified that gravity would fail me and I’d float off beyond the stratosphere. The everyday world was strange and distant.
For a couple years, I’d seen a psychiatrist, who treated me with talk therapy, antidepressants, and tranquilizers. It let me keep it together, barely. But then I learned meditation, which I’m not trying to sell, but it really helped more. Eventually I stopped the tranquilizers and antidepressants. Instead of having feelings of unreality, I felt naturally stoned. The world still seemed absurd and horrible, but that I took for granted.
Carazy people were travelers from a land where I’d lived.
At the county jail I got Zeke bailed out. Outside, I asked if he knew the cops wanted to commit him, and he’d heard. I asked where he could go, and he said a certain commune out Wet had always interested him.
“Great,” I said. “Let’s get you on a bus.”
To avoid awkward run-ins with the police, we decided to drive sixty miles south to Paducah, Kentucky to get a bus. Zeke spent the trip telling me all the ways God talked to him and the strange, beautiful ways God’s words come true. As we crossed the bridge over the Ohio River from Illinois into Kentucky, he said, “God sent word you’d be by to free me.”
I gave him a side-long look.
“IN a dream last night,” he said, “an angel told me.”
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“So why’d you bail me out?”
“Maybe crazy too.”
He nodded like I’d made an excellent point.
At the bus station, Zeke’s bus left in forty minutes, so I hung around. Driving back, I followed a two-lane road through small towns, farmland, and dark hilly woods, while I worked on a cold six-pack. The car’s windows were down, and the night smelled clean and good. Even after Zeke’s bail and bus ticket, I still had most of my money, and in five days, by god, I was catching my ride to New York.
Thirty miles from Carbondale, I turned onto a side road. A few miles down, a long tall bridge spanned a narrow creek. I pared. For a time I leaned over the bridge’s steel rail, gazing down. Gleaming dark water flowed quietly. I opened a beer and looked up. The night was strewn with a million stars, and they sang like a gospel choir.

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About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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