Friday, July 17, 2009
The Boomer Bible Begins...
GENESIS. It's just a fragment, but it's Johnny Dodge remembering more than writing, a unique event in his complicated history. The first part is, thus far, missing, but what's there tells us more about him than we have from any other source, including his famous autobiographical piece "Country Punk." Here's where the Cream King Trove manuscript becomes legible:
...death of Greedy Sperm.” He looked at my sleeve. There were eleven stitches on it, ten from the Winter War. “I know you don’t like killing. I’m sorry.”
I just looked at him. The last time I’d counted Loco’s stitches, there were thirty-eight of them. Very fine, very small black stitches, leaving lots of room on his black sleeve for more. It looked like there were more than thirty-eight now.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not catching up very fast.”
“Don’t get callous,” Loco said sharply.
“Then why do we wear our kills like fighter planes?” I asked. “Isn’t it all just turning into a dirty game?”
“No,” said Loco. “The stitches are to remind us, not to brag.”
“Tell that to Cadillac Mope,” I said. “He’s started sewing his in dayglo orange.”
Loco scowled. His jagged white face was growing deep lines, which turned black when he got angry. “I heard about that,” he said. “And he’s not the only one.”
The night before, Priscilla Screw had sat at the front table in the Slaughtered Pig, sewing stitches for half a dozen punks. Spools of bright-colored thread were spread out in front of her like the makings of party favors. Even Kobra Jones had had her do one for him.
Loco caught me looking at his sleeve.
“I’ve never killed one of us,” he stated grimly.
I was stung by what that implied about me and what had happened with Greedy. “Who taught us how?” I asked him.
He fixed me with his good eye and stared me down. “Someone had to,” he said. “Or you wouldn’t be here whining about it.”
“I apologize,” I said. “But it seems like years ago that we wanted to do something worthwhile. And then there was the war, and it’s like fever. Everybody’s changed. We don’t even know each other anymore. It’s like something wiped the slate and everything we were before is gone. I saw Piss Pink yesterday at the Sandman’s and I swear she didn’t recognize me. She’s started carrying a whip. And then Basil Shroud tried to pick a tork with me. Basil Shroud! I saved his life at least three times in the war. And now he’s got a four-foot scriver with an icepick point and a razor edge. And you should see his band mask. It’s a green boar’s head, with tusks dipped in real blood. Of course, his band isn’t spending any time doing pieces. They’re too busy trying to get themselves killed.”
Loco sighed. “And what about you? I can see that you are troubled. Are you still having nightmares?”
“There was only one,” I reminded him. He nodded and I knew then that he had not forgotten.
During the war I had quit drinking and other drugs, thinking it would improve my reflexes. I found out that one of the reasons for going to bed in a stupor is that it stops you from dreaming. On practically my first night of sober sleep, I had the most terrible nightmare I’d ever had. I was on a motorcycle, trying to get back to Punk City in time. In time for what I didn’t know. It was night, or at least it was dark, as if there was nothing outside the motorcycle and I was riding through it, the engine noise disappearing into the darkness behind. As I rode, I could feel a weight pressing against my back, bearing down more and more, so that it was all I could do to keep my head above the handlebars. I somehow knew the weight was my brother, his body leaning against mine, full grown, heavy, and dead. I looked down to my waist and saw his dead hands gripping my middle, not grabbing, but locked together and dead heavy like pale stone. He was suffocating me, and I also felt myself getting smaller, turning back into a boy, almost unable to reach the handlebars, while his increasing weight slowed down the bike until I could feel that we weren’t getting there, would never get there in time. I couldn’t call out to him because he was dead, and so I begged him to let me go, almost screaming the words, even though no sound came out. And then I saw the lights of Philadelphia appearing in the darkness ahead, not like I was seeing them through the night, but as if they had just come on, were just all of a sudden there. I tried to straighten my back, but my brother’s weight was there, and I felt us stopping short, just as the Duke loomed out of the darkness in our path. I shrieked “Rick, Rick, help me!” a scared kid calling for his big brother, but the words froze in my throat and as the Duke bent down toward me with his hammer, I struggled against complete paralysis to get away, which was the moment when I woke up.
<>This was the nightmare that came to me when I started dreaming again, and I had it every night for two weeks, so that I never slept well during any part of the war. I guess my fatigue started to show, because late one afternoon Loco took me aside and asked me if I was having trouble sleeping. I told him about the dream and he listened patiently. Then he spoke to me in Stingle for the first time.
“You must remember you are Johnny Dodge,” he said in his solemn way. “You must wake up in the dream and remember that, so when you meet the Duke he will have to face Johnny Dodge instead of a small boy. When you do that, the dream will change. And then it will go away.”
“Johnny Dodge is a name,” I told him. “A made-up name. Nothing else.”
We were standing in a doorway on Third Street. All around us, punks were arming themselves for the fight to come. The bricks echoed with the clank of metal against metal as punks sharpened, tested their blades. People we knew in spite of their whiteface and coal black eyesockets paused in their preparations to look at us and smile through tight lips. Kobra Jones looked directly at me and winked, then drew his scriver down one cheek, drawing blood. When he confirmed the sharpness of the scriver blade with his index finger, seeing the red wetness on his glove, he smiled and whispered, so low I had to read his lips to understand what he was saying: “Johnny Dodge. Johnny Dodge. You and me. We'll kick some biker ass tonight.”
Loco closed his hand around my shoulder. “When they look at you, they don't see a made-up name. They see Johnny Dodge, the fearless one, the fast finisher, with four hundred and forty ways to send you to hell.”
“Sure,” I said. But Kobra and I did kick ass that night, and when I went to bed in my department the next morning, I tried to remember Loco’s advice. When the nightmare came, though, I did not wake up any more than I ever had, and it was playing itself out the way it always did, with the bike slowing down and my brother’s dead weight almost breaking me in half, and my body collapsing back to childhood in the emptying darkness. And then something different happened. I heard the voice of Loco Dantes speaking calmly in my ear.
“Johnny Dodge,” it said. “You are Johnny Dodge. Take your brother home. Take your brother home, Johnny Dodge.”
I still did not wake up, still had no sense that the dream was a dream, but inside the dream I remembered that I was a warrior, and as I remembered, I felt my scriver at my side, the comforting bulk of my torkjack, the iron clamp of my mask. I was indestructible, immortal, and I felt the tender weight of my brother’s body clinging to my back like a leaf.
“Hang on, Rick,” I called to him. “I won’t let them stop us. I’ll take you home.”
And then we were on a long straight road, screaming through the marshland of south Jersey. The front wheel ate the pavement like a shark, but I felt the need to go faster, faster, faster, or we would never make it in time. And then I discovered that I could not remember the way home at all. The road we were on was the wrong one, and Rick was becoming lighter and smaller and fainter behind me as I worked desperately to suck more speed out of the bike. This was when I woke up, relieved that the Duke had not appeared, but confused and unhappy about the direction the dream had taken.
Still, this nightmare seemed a paler, less terrifying one than the other had been, and I had it less often. Sleep made me feel less tired, and I survived through the end of the Winter War and into the bleak aftermath of senseless band duels which Loco and I had been discussing over coffee.
"It’s come back, hasn’t it?” Loco asked. “Your dream about your brother.”
“Yes,” I told him. “It has.” Lately, the changed dream had become as regular and exhausting as the original, and I seemed to spend hours every night looking for the way home through the marshland, with my dead brother evaporating behind me.
Loco fingered his eyepatch. “Have you told yourself to wake up in the dream?”
“Every night before I go to sleep,” I said. “But I never do.”
“But I see you are still drinking coffee.” Loco was smiling at me.
“Yes. Still drinking coffee.”
Our talk turned to other things, and Loco got very insistent about the need for me to keep the 440s together, to keep them working on our pieces, no matter how discouraging things seemed in Punk City.
“We’re bringing in some new equipment,” he said as I finished up my last cup of coffee. Through the window we could see bands emerging onto the broad black ell of South and Headhouse, conversations starting, dogs frisking and leaping with morning fun, the occasional flash of blades in the spring sun. The music was beginning too, a tinny rolling drone that would build in volume until shortly after sunset. No fights yet, though, and Loco seemed pleased about the new gear. “A large central processing unit,” he explained, “with over twelve hundred ports. Plus the software to run it all. Can you imagine what we could do with that?”
“No,” I said honestly. “I can’t.”
“Think about it,” he said. Then he got up and left without saying goodbye. I didn’t see him all that day or the next, but the night after that I rolled out of bed at three in the morning, wakened by a knock at the door. None of the boys stirred, so I opened the door and found Loco waiting quietly in the hall outside.
“We have to hurry,” he said. “The truck’s downstairs.”
“Where are we going?” I asked him. “Should I tell the boys?”
“No time,” he said in a hoarse whisper, sprinting down the stairs ahead of me.
The truck was waiting as he had said. I had driven it many times, hauling our dead across the bridge into the back road marshes where it sometimes seemed that all of us would come to rest. It was an ancient olive drab Dodge with dented fenders, and I hated it, the dirt and hay smell of its rotted interior, the marsh mud permanently caked on its tires, the sick rattle of its exhaust. Nothing reminded me so much of the ugliness and waste of the violence that clung to Punk City like a disease.
“You drive,” Loco ordered, clambering onto the passenger seat.
I started the truck and turned toward Headhouse.
“Which way?” I asked. We were approaching the entrance to New Market Mall, where a lot of torks had taken place in the last few weeks.
“Turn right,” Loco barked. “Here.”
I had no time for a questioning look. I obediently horsed the truck right, up the steps into the mall’s first enclosure, and then somehow we were bounding through the inner courtyard, heading toward a break in the surrounding buildings, through which I could see the lights of the river.
“Which way?” I yelled, almost chanting it, while Loco merely pointed straight ahead, directly at the Delaware.
I braced myself for the lurching descent over steps to the sidewalk, gritting my teeth against my fear of breaking the old leaf springs. But we didn’t bounce once. I looked out the window of the truck and saw the river below us, a shimmer of cool black streaked with silver moonlight.
“Loco, you sonofabitch,” I shouted. “This is a dream. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was the only way to make you wake up,” he said.
We were gaining altitude, soaring past the eastern bank of the river, cruising over the dirty nightlights of Camden.
“Where are we going?”
“Where’s Rick?” I asked, aware of the dream but still caught in its illogic.
“In back,” said Loco, pointing with his thumb.
I looked through the grimy, round-edged back window of the cab and saw a small form under a blanket, curled into the fetal position.
“He’s dead,” I said, feeling a sob rise in my throat like a bunched fist.
“Get going,” said Loco. “We’ve got to get there in time.”
Camden was gone, the moon was full, and we sailed serenely across the gentle swell of Jersey farmland. I could smell the salt of the marsh, the cool full bite of the night air, and I felt rather than saw the hedgerows between fields, the aged barns with their mourning doves and dense old hay, houses nodding in sleep among the woods and streams and ribbed green squares of crops, the junkyards teeming with metal carcasses inside their fences, the struggling towns tethered together by miles of looping asphalt, the wooden boats riding sadly at anchor against arthritic docks that rubbed and rubbed at their paint, willows whispering to the hunkered feathers of owls, dogs lifting their muzzles to the moon, and everywhere the sleep and dreams of the people who breathed this land, in and out, so that it might live on for another age. I felt the love of this place holding us up as we swept through my dream toward home, and when I looked for Loco to my right he was gone. Then, when I looked out again through the windshield, we were there, resting on the lawn of our house, which was dark in every window, with no sign of anyone home.
I jumped from the truck, not thinking to look in the back, because my brother would be lying in the ditch by the mailbox, with a face like hardening wax.
He was there, of course, dressed in that awful corduroy sack of a sportcoat, fifteen years old and still as a bag of trash tossed onto the roadside. I pulled him into my arms, but I could not think what to do except carry him into the house and lay him on the couch in our unused living room, which is exactly where I found him the day he died.
The cushions seemed to pull him in, as if they had been waiting, remembering the scene the way I had, and I felt the dream freezing into the cold reality of how it had been, unable to wrench it in another direction.
Then I heard Loco’s voice at my ear. “Johnny Dodge!” it commanded. “Don’t let him die. Make him breathe. Don’t let him die, Johnny Dodge!”
Of course. Of course. He had stopped breathing. I thumped his chest, felt like a beast beating a corpse.
“Don’t let him die, Johnny Dodge.”
And then I felt Sam Dealey turn to water in my bones and drain away. There was only Johnny Dodge now, going to war against the still chest that was taking Rick’s life. I hammered on the boy’s ribs, again, again, screaming like a madman in his cooling ear, then blew the contents of my lungs into his, still pounding, fighting the way I would have then if I had only known how.
“You can stop now,” Loco said, peering over my shoulder into Rick’s face.
I stopped and stared at the face. The eyelids fluttered, once, twice, and drifted open.
“Hi Sammy,” he said and smiled as he lapsed into sleep.
My one thought was of finding Loco, which turned out to be easy. He was having coffee in the Rattery with a punk I had seen before but never met.
“Loco!” I said explosively, bracing myself to use the Stingle.
But Loco greeted me in the Tung and seemed not to notice anything out of the ordinary in my mood.
“I’ve been having a conversation with your friend St. Nuke. He’s got some very interesting ideas about how to solve some of the problems we were discussing the other day.
“I don’t think I’ve met you,” I told St. Nuke.
“I always wanted to meet Johnny Dodge,” said St. Nuke with a confident grin.
Loco acted astonished, a rare happening. “The two greatest warriors in Punk City, and they don’t know each other?” Loco shook his head. “Nuke, meet Johnny Dodge. Johnny, meet the man who killed the Duke.”
I stared at Loco in shock. “But that was—“
“St. Nuke,” Loco told me firmly. “I saw him do it.”
I never finished the sentence. St. Nuke, grinning, waved a hand in my face as if to remind me that Loco and I weren’t alone. I turned toward him.
“Hi, Sammy,” said St. Nuke.
“That’s Johnny,” corrected Loco, coolly dismissing a slip of the tongue. “You two need to talk about the project.”
“What project?” I asked, sensing that I was not to voice my thoughts on other matters.
“The Boomer Bible,” said St. Nuke.
The rest is history. Unless it isn't.