I am a Walking Star Monster
Michael J. Brien
In the beginning, I touched music through the songs—the brown-cloaked voices coming over the wall and falling into its shadow. By then I had already learned to leave the yard and go where I was told not to go. Early mornings I was called by the voices. I had learned to hold the top rail of my crib and not let go. Jump up and down, up and down, up and down, until my wobbling legs learned to stiffen and I was over the rail and down the other side, along the thin bars that led to the bottom rail, and then to the floor. The bedroom door open and welcoming. Climb the chair near the front door where Daddie took off his rubbers, turn the deadbolt, turn the porcelain knob, and enter into the still dark of morning coming. My feet covered by my onesie, I played in the notes that sprawled in the grass at the base of the old stone. Quietly, on their bellies, the notes slid in the arc of the day’s growing shadow until they hit the slant of sun. Then they vanished. The rousting lasted less than three minutes. I’m sure of that. To stand outside and hear the final voice alone—a brown-cloaked woman hitting a note so high I knelt in the green like a penitent, laying my head on the fluff, pushing my left ear into it, finally stopping the sound in that ear, feeling the tickle when it trickled into the tympanic cavity of my right ear. Three minutes—because I breathed inout, inout, inout eighteen times.
If I stayed in bed and let it happen the bell would clang three times—one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost. The voices of the caramel-colored cloisterers followed, climbing the dark morning into the light not yet on the wall. They were sleepy voices, much huskier at the beginning of day, in the stilldark, cold. First one voice, climbing a stepladder, reaching for a branch that needed pruning, taking out the big scissors and—snip, making a cut. Then the clutch of voices following, dragging their tools along the ground, singing hallelujahs, joining and repeating the phrase just having been sung by the soloist. They repeated it again and again until there was silence and the first light peeked over the edge of the river. And then the bells pealing—at lastatlastatlast, themorninghasbrokenatlastatlastatlast, hallelujahhallelujahalleluja.
It amazed my Mommie when she realized I could count to three. I could climb out of the crib, and I could unlock the front door, and I could count to three. My world was made of three and the multiples of three. Mommie, Daddie, me. Sister, brother, me. The moon, the sun, the stars. Nuns, Lucy, fans. Three strings like glass. Three strings like sand.
My Mommie cried each time I left the house without her knowing and she blamed herself. When she would catch me up in her arms, I would stare at her tears and touch the wetness dripping down her cheek.
My Daddie told her that she had to first overcome the shame, and I have always wished that I had been in the room when Daddie told her that. Then I might have seen the look on her face, in her eyes, in the way her body collapsed against Daddie. But I only heard her sobbing from my bed. I heard her whisper hoarsely, “How can I not blame myself?”
In later years when I grew more hurtful, and I wanted to shame her—I did blame her. I called her mucky and ugly and monster.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she would always begin.
But quick as mercury I would remind her, “I’m an autie, Mommie, an autie.”
And she would break.
I was six when I knew that all I would need in life was my smile, my ear for music, and a Stratocaster. My eyesight had deteriorated to the point that I could barely distinguish a shrub from a car, but I felt the telling of everything and anything in the light touching of my fingertips.
It was at six years old that I also heard a lute for the first time. It too came from behind the cloister walls, first one string plucked, then several strings strummed, ringing out long enough to give the voices a place to start or rest or come back to. It did not dawdle.
I entered the cloistered place without bowing or genuflecting or being polite the way my parents told me I should always be. I had been ordered never to enter that sacred place. These women were called there by God, my Mommie told me.
“And they are to communicate with no one but their God,” Daddie chimed. Though chimed is just a cliché I use. Daddie’s voice does not chime—it does not ring—there is no treble in it. It is coarse and crass. It is a sewer-layer’s voice covered in clay and asphalt.
She was dressed in caramel cloth from head to foot. She raised her face into the sun. Her face glowed.
My nose itched, but I did not scratch. My tongue swelled, but I did not swallow.
She said, in the soloist voice I recognized in their later mid-day song, “The star, the star shines, the whole world rejoices.” She lowered her eyes and went back to her work—her shoulder humped and her arms moved in small circles before her.
I dared not share my voice at first. Hers was so overwhelming. Her singing could not reverse my developmental disorder, but it could make it hesitate. It could make me forget about it. I wandered less.
Her name became Sister Helen after a half-dozen trips to her plot of Eden. She believed that a human being consists of a tripartite nature composed of body, soul, and spirit. Many mornings in that dark cold, she quoted from 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Amen, I would mumble, baby spit, toddler toothed, little boy blue babble.
She asked me one time, in the blue black of cold, before the others came into the courtyard, “Do you know what diversity is?”
I did not have to think. “A disability,” I answered.
She reached out her hand and touched my cheek.
At nine years old, my guitar played too loud for the neighbors, my Daddie had to move us. Sarah Jane, John, Mommie, and Daddie. An autie, two normals, and the Mommie and Daddie who bore them all. Sarah Jane was twelve years old. John was fifteen. Daddie worked at Freudenberg making rubber gaskets for Fords and Chryslers and GMs. Mommie was neglectful.
Daddie told us that during his lunch hours, he walked through the plant gates and out into the streets as far as he could in fifteen minutes—north, northeast, south, southwest, east, and west—always looking for a house. When the old Victorian with a barn on Virginia Street was put up for sale, Daddie called Mommie from work, told her to gather all of the papers, and meet him at the bank.
The center room with the bay window lay thirty degrees southwest of Homeland Cemetery, a patch of granite and field that spilled into the Newfound River. It was a three-minute walk from the Lake Street plant gate, and nine hundred feet from the junction of New Chester Mountain Road. Like capillaries, Winter, Spring, and Summer streets each segmented a length of Homeland. Off in the northeast corner, like scared schoolgirls, were Virginia and Ellen streets, and Abbey Lane. Sarah Jane too had been one of those girls, a sparrow often cowering in the corner of her darkened room until the day her thin fingers found and pulled her satin ballet pointe slippers onto her toes. Then, like a demoiselle crane, her confidence expanded and she stood on pointe, tall, crowing, ready for her migratory flight.
We had moved from beside a hermitage to a cemetery—the correlation was not lost on me. Both were graveyards for souls or temptations or memories run away from. But dragging my fingers over the engravings in the stones, spelling out the names and ages of death, and whom they left behind, I often thought, How had they gotten here—in Homeland? Through death to be sure, but what were the colors and smells and sounds of death? I conjured up vivid scenes of family life suddenly falling apart—a baby, only months old, smelly, dying in its mother’s arms of tuberculosis; an older couple slain in each other’s arms in a robbery attempt; an alky Mommie coughing, coughing, and finally stopping her breathing; a Daddie keeling over at the kitchen sink and no one there to watch him fall; the destruction of each, finally equaling the residents of a small township.
I was twelve when I heard my father’s copy of “Straight, no Chaser.” This man, this Monk, found cracks in the diatonic scale. Quantum Entanglements I would call it now—notes becoming so entangled, that any impact made on one would have an instantaneous effect on the behavior of another, no matter where that note is played.
When I was fifteen, big brother John returned home from college for Mommie’s funeral. After we packed Mommie away, he stayed a few nights with Daddie and me. Sarah Jane was in Africa and could not make the trip. Sitting on the edge of my thin redbedspreaded bed, in dim light, John read to me from the Iliad. Every night for three nights, John read. He shared the brains of others on the subject as well—the great professor, Colin MacLoud, an Oxford University classicist, said that the Iliad was and is and forever will be such a monumental work because it speaks authentically for pity and kindness and civilization without showing them victorious in life.
“The Iliad’s humanity does not float on shallow optimism,” John quoted. “It is firmly and deeply rooted in an awareness of human reality and suffering. To enjoy or appreciate the Iliad is to understand and feel for human suffering. To feel whatever sorrows we have as part of a common lot and so to endure them more bravely.”
On the third and last night, John quoted Simone Weil, the French philosopher. In her essay on the Iliad, written just after the fall of France in 1940, she said, “The sense of human misery is a pre-condition of justice and love. Only one who has measured the dominion of violence, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”
The thoughts of MacLoud and Weil shook me—Violence does not exist apart from any one of us. I would learn to sing that. My crooner understood—we are all implicated.
This tidbit—the human heart generates the strongest magnetic field in the body, nearly five thousand times stronger than that of the brain. I believe this.
Once, Sarah Jane did write me. She had danced her way to Rwanda. Billy, she wrote, I am ok. You’ll be ok. I work now for a woman who is as strong as the mountain gorillas she feeds and cares for. She can stare them down and she is teaching me. You will learn from women just as strong. I pressed my cheek to the polished wood floor, remembering the feel of satin against my skin. In seconds the feeling fleeing.
I was twenty-seven when Nancy, the reader provided to me by the Association of the Blind, read a work by A.M. Lepicier, a theologian. It was a long and sometimes overly thought out text. But in it I learned that “An angel possesses such penetration that he is able, at one glance, to take in the whole field of science lying open to his perception, just as we, at a glance, can take in the entire field of vision lying exposed to our eyes.”
It was then that I realized alcoholism was very impeding, and my Mommie had been a severe alcoholic—my Daddie a wonderful enabler. It took me until that long, three times three times three years, to decide that she had been unfixable.
Hopi time is quantum time. It flows in two directions—forward and backward. IS is then is tomorrow is now. Why can’t a broken egg mend itself? Space-time moves in a special way, following a special path, creating a special effect. That path, I believe, is spiraled, and the effect of spiraling is a torsion field, and the spiral of space-time is the essential key to nature’s code. The bony labyrinth that is my ear permits me hearing and balance—one cannot be without the other.
On a winter morning after a new snow, blue sky reflecting in the pure white like the blue in her eyes, Sister Helen stood and peered so near at me. She parted my hair. Her fingers were delicate as the pigeon feathers I had found in the walkway between our house and the cloister wall. I kept the feathers in a box in my room, taking them out in the dark and fluttering them along my arms.
“Search for patterns in the mystery of every day,” she told me.
We watched the clouds together that morning, distant, then thin, then squirrelly, swirling like paper against a chain link fence.
“Once you’ve glimpsed the world as it could be,” she told me, “it is impossible to be complacent.” She placed the tips of her fingers against my eyebrows and guided my eyelids shut. “You cannot live any longer in a world as it is.”
I kept my eyes closed. I had grown comfortable with them closed.
“For me,” Sister Helen said, “the hardest thing is that liberation never happens right away. Sometimes it takes years and years.”
Silence in the snow is beautiful. Silence in the rain is difficult and elusive. But in music, it skips and hides and races between every note.
I kept my ears alert to the pop her saliva made when she parted her lips.
“Methodical perseverance is not only essential,” she said, “but it is also very tiring, William. Sometimes
I wonder if I am wasting my life.”
I still see her in the blackness where my eyes once saw light.
“I would not want to ever deceive you, William,” she told me.
“You are a star monster,” Lucy, John’s girlfriend, told me at the end of our first tour. “You are a success.”
Yes, I was a head-banging thirty-something celebrating the success of my first album. Bob, Lucy, Eric and Schroeder had taken the equipment from the truck and gone inside to set up. But I had the tune and lyrics for “Scratchloss” twittering in my head. I didn’t want to lose it. Our trip down the Garden State Parkway had inspired me. I needed to put the tune dancing in my head into the laptop. So John set up his laptop on the hood of the truck and I howled. I let the rhythms and flow of sound and silence wash over me.
But I heard the gravel being spit and someone screaming at me to stop. I imagined an ogre standing by the passenger door staring raven-eyed at John.
“I’d be ashamed if I were you. Why do you let him go on like this?” the ogre said.
I stopped singing. I sensed that the ogre was afraid to look at me. He was throwing his voice at John.
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“What are you? Forty or something, and still acting like a kid punk rocker. Is that what it is? You and your buddy living out some fantasy.”
John started to laugh.
“Get out,” the ogre screamed at John.
I imagined John spreading his arms like angel’s wings and shrugging his shoulders. “Come on, Bill,” he called.
We began walking back to the house.
“Is he your brother?” the ogre shouted after us.
“Yeah.” John stopped.
“You should be ashamed. Exhibiting him like this.”
“I’m not ashamed,” John said. “He’s the lead singer in our band.”
I imagined the ogre dropping his head and shaking it, no, no, no, no, no, no. He said, “You’re kidding, right?”
I took a step back and said, “No.” I stuck out my hand, “I’m Bill. The band’s name is Bill. Everyone likes Bill.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t. You’re living some kind of fantasy if you ask me.”
John walked to me and put his arm around my shoulder, adjusting the cape that had become twisted by the wind.
“If you ask me . . .” John’s voice was turned away from me, “there’s not much distance between fantasy and reality.”
John must have pointed at the guy’s house and then ours, because next I heard John say, “between your house and ours.”
At the end of the day, me back in my bedroom, Lucy came in to say good night. She brings in tidbits for me to grit my teeth on. Some of these are visions I choose for my songs. That night she brought me words from Jorge Luis Borges: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” These were the words I was singing when my heart burst.
I woke from the operation with Lucy whispering like a cinder, “Hi, rock star.”
I tried to speak but the tube in my throat stopped me and I choked. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Lucy reached over and patted them with a tissue.
“Docs say that you’ll do fine. Your brother’s gone to get more coffee.”
The doc pulled the tube from me and sent me to my room. I couldn’t speak at first. It hurt to try. Lucy offered me chips of ice. Soothing, they melted. She took my hand. I listened to the whirr of the automatic ratchets and springs cushioning me, felt them reach under me, helping her help me to sit up. Lucy’s arms circled round my calves then pulled my legs toward her, moving me so that my legs dangled like a child’s over the edge.
“Take it all in, Bill. Go slow.”
Then she put on socks and brought me to standing. I held onto the rippled muscle in her arms.
“Are you okay, Bill?”
I spoke at last. “I am.”
She had a walker there and had me hold its rails. She gathered my stanchion of IVs and drip bottles. Together we began to walk. We moved out of the room and into the hall. We walked by the nurses’ station and I heard a song from the album playing on the radio. I stopped. Behind the song were the voices of three women, huddled low, dancing at their desk.
I was pleased with myself, with them. “I am a walking star monster,” I proclaimed.
They laughed. Lucy laughed.
The huddle I now know is a sanctuary in the middle of a maelstrom.
I am now a week away from my thirty-ninth birthday and last week I bought a burial plot next to my Mommie for sixty dollars. I bought it because two weeks ago at the selectmen meeting, they voted to raise the burial plot price six-fold on the first of the year.
From John and Lucy’s and my front porch it is only a short walk to death’s front door. It is as easy as connecting the dots—me at point A; the burial plot, the belly button of Homeland, point B.
Death is somewhere past the sun and moon and stars, in a universe without stars, just black matter, or non-matter—invisible to a naked eye.
Still, I remember when time was nothing more than a shadow creeping slowly along the base of a stone wall.
When death does come, I will back away and close the large wooden gate behind me.