The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
The Last Child
Riding shotgun in my mom’s dark blue Grand Prix, rolling down Lake Shore Drive on a particularly bright day this past spring, Jim stuck his head out the window and strained his weak eyes to carefully observe a haggard-looking man walking along the lakefront wearing a heavy, ankle-length coat despite the warm weather. “Man, that must be the life,” Jim noted. “Spend all day on the beach. Sleep under the stars.” I giggled, but he was completely sincere. My 36-year old uncle, legally blind and in poor health, lived off disability in a tiny efficiency apartment in our hometown, a community of less than 4,000 residents. Given his prospects back home, there was a certain mystique to being “big city” homeless. There were worse fates.
Fistfights, car wrecks, and frequent arrests told the story of Jim’s twisted life. His most sublime incident came late one summer night, when he got wasted and crashed his dad's Buick Regal into Figlia’s Fruit stand. The car was totaled and so were the watermelons. Bent steel and fruit guts were everywhere. Jim spent the night in the emergency room but somehow came out of it in one piece. He also got busted buying beer for two of kids from my school, one of them a Neanderthal who tormented me during gym class. Worst of all, though pushing thirty at the time, he had a fling with Cher, the girl whose locker was next to mine at high school. He would regale me with tales of late night trysts, sneaking into her bedroom window with her parents in the house. I was horrified.
When my grandmother babysat me as a kid, Jim was in his twenties, usually unemployed and thus always around my grandparents' place. With three pack-a-day smokers crammed into their little two-bedroom apartment, the walls were stained a grim shade of yellow. A can of Budweiser, or in latter days, the slightly cheaper Busch, was in Jim's hand morning, noon, and night. His daily ritual included playing the Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits LP, the one with the iconic red cover behind the band’s white wings logo. Jim’s hair was long and dark black like lead singer Steven Tyler’s. He was emaciated rock-star skinny and wore torn jeans and Army greens that simply reeked of smoke. His cigarette-holding hand shook distinctively as he bounced about my grandparent’s living room singing along to the hits, “Walk This Way,” "Dream On," and “Sweet Emotion.” The youngest of three and a self-styled bad boy, his favorite was “Last Child,” with the lyrics, “He was the last child . . . just a punk in the streets.” Despite his daily listen, he still fumbled some of the words, eventually resorting to humming. The verses to “Walk This Way” came out something like, “bee bah boo to the bee bah boo,” even less coherent than the original, which was an accomplishment.
Jim was close to his mom, her baby. No number of arrests or indiscretions was going to change that. My grandma was a lively and outgoing redhead born in Kentucky who suffered from a rare kidney disorder that had supposedly doomed her more than a decade before. She finally died in 1989, physically run down but still pretty together upstairs. She and Jim spent her last few years drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and playing canasta most every day. My mom once told me she suspected that they got high together when everyone else was away at work, but Jim vehemently denied it when I asked about it years later. He claimed that she hated drinking and drugs and always gave him hell for his habits.
As a disaffected teen, I started to play guitar and cautiously embrace Jim’s record collection, although at the time mostly enjoying it for its kitsch value. I wasn't sure why such a dyed-in-the-wool rocker had albums by The Police yet alone Men at Work peppered among the Rush and Van Halen. When I borrowed his copy of Paranoid by Black Sabbath, he nervously cautioned, “If you find anything in there, it’s not mine.” Here I thought he was going to comment on the devilish content. His warning triggered memories of strange baggies spotted in his top dresser back when my friend Chad and I played with Star Wars figures in his sticky-sweet smelling bedroom while he was off on Army Reserve retreats when I was too young to know what it all meant. Dropping the needle on the Black Sabbath LP, I was a touch disappointed I didn't find anything in the sleeve.
When I moved to Chicago for college in '94, Jim took to calling me “City” and left amusingly booze-addled answering machine messages that would make my roommate laugh. From time to time, I picked up the phone and we actually talked, something we never really did before. When I visited home, we would have a beer and speak candidly. One night we snuck off to smoke a joint at the park out by the creek. He found special significance in the Lenny Kravitz song, “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” which he sang that night, using his same old Aerosmith humming method, only correctly blurting out the words to the title line. He teased that I would end up joining the Army like him. When I reassured him that I wasn't likely to go that way, he replied, “You say that now, but who would have thought you’d ever be out here smoking a joint with me or having a beer?”
This past Mother’s Day, Jim joined my mother on one of her day trips to Chicago. The three of us ate lunch at the Byron’s Hot Dogs on North Avenue. Jim was unusually open, not just to his family members but to everyone we encountered, saying hello to strangers, shaking hands. Despite his lack of financial resources, he gave a few dollars to a ragged guy wandering around the parking lot, but fortunately added no comments about the envious lifestyle of the urban homeless. Jim just smiled, patted him on the back and said, "Here you go, dude."
Although my pothead phase was cooling down, cashing out, he had been bringing me weed, usually just a single joint, which would most likely suffice until the next visit, just a few puffs here and there. When I asked if he could set me up next time, he uncharacteristically declined, “Nah, man, I don’t think so.” Instead, he offered a surprisingly warm and tender goodbye in the walkway out by the alley, shaking my hand firmly then pulling me in for a hug. The characteristic stale smell of smoke wafting off his jacket stabbed me sharply, crinkling my nose.
Jim went home that night and blew his brains out with a shotgun blast. He left a rambling note. He had killed himself on Mother’s Day, a tortured tribute to his dearly departed mom.
Four years earlier, after high school graduation, I had stuffed myself away in my room, playing guitar and writing songs about hopes, dreams, and frustrations, kept going only by fantasies of a future life in the big city. My mind already split from that suffocating little town, I was lost in a world of reverie, frightened by the real world, and suicidal. I was so wrapped up in my own problems that it never dawned on me that I had anything in common with my troubled uncle.
I dropped out of school this summer, took a job at a pub in Bucktown and spent a lot of time thinking about Jim. I never found any dope when thumbing through his smelly old LPs, which were now mine, but I discovered a slip of paper stuffed inside a Pink Floyd album jacket. The hand-written lyrics were filled with hopes, dreams, and frustrations, the same ones expressed in the song lyrics I keep hidden in a blue folder I never let anyone see.
© Michael Hammond Dec 9 2009
michaeljhammond at yahoo.com