The Old Blues He Loved to Sing

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Maybe it shouldn’t matter how Homeless Joe ended up shivering in the woods somewhere in southeast PA under a full moon in early September of 2050, singing out Catfish Blues, sliding the little section of steel pipe up and down the neck of the old Gibson L5 guitar.  Moonlight was white upon the paling grass like the frost that started showing up around this time of year and Joe knew he’d be seeing his breath on the chilled air before morning.  There wasn’t a thing he could do about it so he sang.  Music was the only refuge they hadn’t locked up and declared off limits, at least not yet.

So that was authentic enough.  The officers of the Cultural Reclamation Board would be satisfied had Joe still been under their watchful eyes.  A sixty eight year old black man was alone in the woods of an urban park because there was no place else he was allowed to go, singing his heart out to tomcats and possums, waiting to see what the Lord had next.  The scene would fit quite neatly into any number of books or movies, not to mention actual historical lives.  There was even a little of the forbidden fruit that had brought him to his present state of ruin, quietly collecting moonlight in a heavy green bottle.  Quite a bit of that fruit, actually; Joe didn’t like wine.  His ultimate downfall resulted from a laughably tiny sip of the stuff.

Before long his voice was ragged from the cooling night air so he restored the guitar to standard tuning and ran through St. Louis Blues, the number he always played to end his day.  Then he put the meticulously preserved instrument back in its beat-up case, taking care to avoid scratches from the illegal hunting knife or dings from the discredited book he likewise stored in the case.  They really didn’t fit but there was no place else for them so he had to make do.

“I ought to hate the bastards,” reflected Joe as he lay on top of the guitar case, hoping the meager warmth of his body would keep the approaching cold from damaging his most prized possession.  “Bastards” was no mere insult or indulgence of indiscriminate temper.  It was precisely descriptive of specific individuals and the drivers of their actions in the world.  Joseph H. Porter, PhD was a precise kind of man, especially where words and ideas were concerned.

Lights twinkled along the eastern edge of the park.  In the distance beyond neat ranks of perfectly ordered houses softly glowing spheres floated low over immaculate streets and highways, shedding warm golden illumination while collecting data from every passing vehicle or pedestrian.  A fire would draw the wrong kind of attention so Homeless Joe, PhD in Russian literature and formerly a licensed Neighborhood Character curled himself up as tight as aching bones and stiff old muscles permitted and drifted off to sleep.

It had been ages since Joe had dreamed.  Dreams were dangerous things and danger was forbidden in the freshly cleaned and ordered world of the New Affirmation.  But tonight the dam of mental prophylactic food additives and subliminal media reinforcement split down the middle and the dreams came tumbling.

He was in a dark, old house.  No, he was in his tiny room at the Salama safe village where he lived with a number of licensed Neighborhood Characters classified as “indigent” by the Cultural Reclamation Board.  Standing in a shadowed corner with ghostly stars visible through numerous oddly shaped windows was a white man in nineteenth century clothing, mumbling and gesturing expressively.  He was trying very hard to decide to kill himself.

“Kirillov,” said Joe, recognizing the troubled intellectual from Dostoyevsky’s novel.  Typical of characters in dreams the young man had a number of identities, all working at once.  “Dr. Porter,” he greeted in the voice of one of Joe’s graduate students from his teaching days at Swarthmore.  In his hand was a glass of wine which he offered to Joe.  “We affirm the end of God,” he said brightly, taking a sip of the wine and dumping the rest on the floor at Joe’s feet.  “We are new!  We must be God ourselves!”

Joe heard a shot as he walked away from the house, into the star-crazed night.  Behind him the house slid down into a gaping pit, its walls scraping the earth like the bow of a violin, making music like a chorus of bees.

On the outside of Joe’s sleeping body the wind picked up, swishing through the trees.  The people in the green homes at the edge of the park turned in their sleep as their environmental processors adjusted, maintaining perfect comfort.

Joe’s dream turned out to be one of those traveling affairs, the kind that can be left and returned to even if one awakens briefly and goes back to sleep.  Now he was driving onto the Swarthmore campus.  The narrow road twisted its way between countless buildings and green spaces, abandoned athletic fields and parking lots with no spots left for Joe.  He was late.  He was not prepared.  The car stopped and would not move.

The hood was up.  Larry Wells, head of the college’s Cultural Reclamation department was hard at work taking off pieces, looking them over and putting them back out of order.

“Ali Yusuf!” barked Wells as he wailed on the engine with a sledge hammer.  “I’m Ali Yusuf!”

“You can’t be,” said Joe.  “You’re an atheist.”

“Wells was an atheist!  Yusuf is a cultural Muslim, a brilliant Muslim man with no God!”  Clang went the hammer.  “He is affirmed and breaks the slave master’s chains!”  Clang went the hammer.  “And Porter is a traitor!”  Clang went the hammer.  “Porter is a friend to Solzhenitsyn and his capitalist God!”  Clang!  “He is a traitor to his history!”  Clang!  “His people!”  Clang!  “His culture!  He shall be cast into outer darkness…”

Joe awoke with a start.  Somewhere beyond the nearby line of trees a freight train rumbled slowly along the track, its bell clanging.  Joe wondered where the unmanned leviathan was headed and if he had what it takes to hop aboard.  He’d heard about the tru-bos, roving bands of the genuinely homeless and disconnected living somewhere toward the middle of the state, far from any major cities.  If he was going to make it out of the Philly-Chester Home-zone the train was his only chance, even though it was really no chance at all.

Those kinds of plans would have to wait for the light of day and something in his stomach.  The need for sleep was overpowering even in the grip of the dropping temperature.  Off he went to dream some more, remembering as he headed for the cliff that Ali Yusuf now taught his course in Russian literature.

“Yes sir, Mr. Fat,” said Joe, hearing the little ding of the elevator in the lobby outside the neat, rainbow themed office of the Cultural Reclamation Board.  “I started playing when I was ten.  If… if I must be on the street I’d like to do something more than… beg.”

When Mr. Fat smiled the pale rolls of flesh hanging upon the bones of his face convulsed and crinkled so that his blue eyes disappeared.  “Bro,” he said, “it’s not beggin’!  A place for everybody and everybody in place!  That’s the New Affirmation!”  He jumped on “New” with both feet, as if there was an old affirmation to contrast it with.  “There is a surplus of Children of Power in academia so now, instead of aiding the White Hate by exalting their degenerate literature you may bear witness to the truth of your people!  You are an authentic object lesson, oh yes!  I envy you!”

“But the guitar, Mr. Fat,” pressed Joe.  “May I play for my bread?”

“Ah!” rhapsodized Mr. Fat, “the old spirituals of your people!  Jimmy crackles the corn and I don’t care!  Don’t know why there’s no fun up in the sky!  The kid is not my son!

“Mr. Fat, please!  Sir, if I may…”

“Huh?  Oh yes, what is it?”

“I was thinking something a little more…”  Joe nearly choked on the word.  “…authentic.  I play blues.”

“Blues?”  Mr. Fat suddenly looked troubled.  “Blues?  Blues come with… with sex and alcohol!  Perhaps marijuana!  You cannot partake of these things!  No indeed!  The Board has rules!  Rules for your well-being…”

“Not to worry, sir,” assured Joe wearily.  “I come vice-free.”

“And smoking!” continued Mr. Fat, nearing a kind of panic.  “If you smoke we must revoke your license!  And drinking!  Alcoholics may not hold Neighborhood Character licenses!”

“I’m not an alcoholic, sir,” insisted Joe.  “I don’t even like…”

“I am given to understand that one drink is all it takes!  One drink and you will lose your position in our society…”

“Mr. Fat!”  Joe was long past the humiliation of his demotion in human society and the charade behind it all.  Now he was just exasperated.  “I don’t drink!”

Mr. Fat’s big blue eyes were wide and round.  “Bro,” he virtually pleaded, “chill, please!  Do not revert to the violence of the veldt and rain forest and inner city!”

“My apologies, Mr. Fat.”  The only thing Joe wanted was to be out of the man’s presence and crawling was the fastest way through the door.  “Sir, I am not a drinker.  I am not a violent man.”

“You are an indigent blues musician,” said Mr. Fat.  “These things are part of your profile.  So I warn you sternly.  Break one rule and you forfeit your license and the support of our community.  Even authenticity has its limits.”

The first splotches of gray light were soaking into the eastern sky.  Joe was freezing and he really had to pee but the prospect of uncurling his creaking old bones in the icy wind was too much.  He took one more stab at sleep.

Now he dreamt with the clarity of memory.  It was the previous morning, warm and sunny and Joe was on the job at his usual spot at the end of Star Avenue, right by the platform for the local U rail.  A bottle of Night Train in a faux paper bag, a standard issue prop for Neighborhood Characters on the street, sat next to his guitar case.  He played Blues Before Sunrise to the delight of the curious and one or two genuine aficionados.

A lot of things went through Joe’s head as he played.  Today he was heavy with the trajectory of his life and the world he had known.

He heard a familiar voice behind him.

“Well done, Joseph,” said the diminutive Ali Yusuf in smooth, urbane tones.  “At last, you have found your true cultural identity.”

“Good morning, Larry,” Joe said.

“Larry is dead.  Yusuf has arisen from his ashes,” rejoined the gray-haired academic.  “Do try to remember, my friend!  That’s a delightful ditty you strum upon your instrument.  What’s it called?”

Joe wanted to throw up.  Larry Wells was a regular person with radical views who had grown up in Northeast Philly.  The two of them never got along but they had respected each other.  “Ali” was a figment of Wells’ imagination.

“It’s called Strange Fruit,” replied Joe, looking forlornly down the rail.  Why is there never a train when you need one?

“Intriguing title!  No doubt a paean to the romanticized simplicity of our agrarian past!  I see your talent for stroking the power structure transfers easily from academia to the lively arts.”

Joe remembered the hunting knife in the guitar case next to the copy of Parallels in the Russian Novel, the graduate level textbook written by Joseph Porter, PhD.

“That’s right!” beamed Joe, flashing his pearly whites.  “Everybody in his place!”

“Oh, you disgust me!” snorted Ali.  “The one thing that’s wrong with the New Affirmation is that it leaves room for people like you!”

“Actually,” said Joe, opening the guitar case and moving the book aside, “it doesn’t.”

Enough was enough.  The hunting knife was mighty tempting but it was no solution.  Joe put away the guitar and closed the case.

“Don’t tell me you’re going on strike,” said Ali.  “Isn’t that a little left-wing for you?”

“It’s no wing at all,” answered Joe as he picked up the bottle of Night Train and unscrewed the cap.  “Happy landings!” He put the bottle to his lips and guzzled.

As soon as the rancid rocket fuel reached his cowering stomach Joe heard the alarm from the micro-computer implanted in his head.  “Attention!  Neighborhood Character license is now revoked!  Remain where you are until the authorities arrive!”

“Care for a snort, Dr. Ali?”

Ali turned his head with his nose in the air, not deigning to answer.

“I’ll be going, then,” said Joe.

Morning finally came, gray, cold and hard.  Joe heard a dog barking in the distance and the rumble of traffic on the highway behind the trees.  A revoked Neighborhood Character license was a low priority for law enforcement but they would catch up with him eventually and jail might be more comfortable than Salama.

The distant blare of a freight train horn reached his cold-numbed ears.  If he moved as fast as his stiff old legs could carry him he might just be in time to catch the leviathan.

He gathered his possessions and ran for the tracks.  Even if he made it in time the train might be moving too fast.  If the train wasn’t moving too fast there was rail security to get past.  If he made it past the cameras and drones and the train moved slow enough and he spotted a car with something to grab onto he would have to throw the guitar aboard then jump.  He would make it and ride to another home to live among the outcasts or his foot would slip, his grip would fail and he would die.

Either way, he would be free.

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