Ben Hersey


4. Best Feeling in the World?

      My band, The Steamrollers on stage and we’re a long way from home mid-song. That’s a good one, a feeling. My eyes closed and Toby and Gardenhose behind me are synched up and the gravity of the music is thick while the air-floor is ripe and deep.
       Beer cans crackle and Salisbury Beach on a summer day? Any day now, although the nightmare harmonica anthems coming out of me lately got me feeling pretty apprehensive about the idea of New Hampshire this summer.
       Seeing a woman’s scaps suddenly exposed while you are doing some mundane task, like shutting the silverware drawer, or putting on your blinker. Scaps in Traffic: new song title.
            I sometimes go into candle-panic at the Christmas Tree Shop, but there’s pleasure in that, too, that even though it seems sickly or something…no, you know what? It’s good. It is.
            The music of the ink drill, color is a fact, brilliant, to die for, and will soon be again visibly seeping under my alive hide. Ever since I was a kid, I been this way. Always had this picture in my head of my own organs drifting in spaces, certain bones, and certain muscles in transit. Oh, if the tatts could move. Up to my head, down to my toes and over the city. The tattooed cityscape. Or other people’s bones, organs, muscles, too. Celebrity parts. Closing my eyes and imagining exchanging organs with Shelly Long. Slow inhalation / long exhalation. I always wanted to do her over the bar. Opening up on the leather tat chair. What stinging feelings will allow you to suck on are definitely on my list. “Permit to Suck.” New song title.
            Seasick bodies in motion bloated in Celtics windbreaker old days, Charlestown bowling alley townies plus murdered cousins plus psychedelic drug use plus roast beef and donut use let this all fall away with the onrush of Keno dopamine.
Here comes the suns.
There are mornings in this life when you find yourself in a Dunkies with a fresh extra large extra cream and the cover’s off and the steam off eternity’s amber infiltrates brain in such a way so as to make the seacoast cracker and crumble and the hot tide rises up for a kiss on your heart. And, yeah, I’m with Gardenhose most likely and we’re talking GPS systems or striped bass or whatever, but so what? Once I’ve lapped from that vessel, me and Gardenhose, well we’re just a couple a’ quantum psychics hanging out in Beverly or whatever with the sun on our scars.
           Sometimes you gotta do something even if it’s wrong, like shit-eating-grin at the hottest city-girl behind her urban mask at 1:30 A.M. in Tambourine Man’s in Beverly. This was the other night about two minutes before we decided our next album is either going to be called Bay State Blues or Blue Taco Sessions.
            Walk with me through my emotions. Let’s walk out onto the street to get a good look at my house. Let’s stand in the shed, or the pantry or the basement and just take it in physically. The smell of nails, dried paint cans and sawdust. Litter pieces frolicking up against a chain link, bitch. Hear my Saundra’s nine-headed lyric of fire? Me neither.
             Sweet smells: creosote and/or milk duds. Suzy-Q use. I used to live near the Hostess Outlet, oh sweet lord, did I tantalize my mouth with death creams, lengthen my sways, trying to stay off drugs. You ever use Hostess to kick the coke habit? I could sometimes make a single Ding-Dong push back the malady for as long as sixty minutes.
            Soil in my finger tips gripping a pool stick with cigarette breath. Blanking out then keying in. Seeing familiar buildings from odd angles, feeling confused, being more sober than a counter top but still forgetting briefly who I am and the mystery that immediately follows like “wow, what am I talking about?”  Walking through the lots at Eastern Auto Exchange just for a look. Blinking as important things pass me by or return, the burned leaves smell of my daughter’s jacket, holding a blank tape (and all that potential). I’ve learned a thing or two about letting go of the things I can’t control. God grant me the wisdom and whatnot. Know what I mean?
            Wearing a fucked up t-shirt and working on the Chevy in the garage.
            Pushing back the bills in favor of the frills,
            General Gao’s chicken and Keno at Kowloon. A thousand times, yes.
            Scratch ticket dust offa winna. A thousand times, yes.
            The A.C. in Stop n’ Shop during the summer. A thousand times, yes.
            Zamboni exhaust at Hockeytown. A thousand times, yes.
            On stage, blowing up the dead-ends and moving on through the debris. A Thousand Times, Yes!
            Long live Long Island Ice-Teas at the Cheesecake Factory in Burlington. Haha, Now, I’m just fucking with you.
            Getting paid after a show and going out for Dunkies. Having people go “Dude.”   “Damn,” and  “Wow, I didn’t even know that was real?”
            When I feel like I’ve negotiated a stretch of cock-soft days in a builder’s mood. Now I see the light turns green in downtown Haverhill and suddenly, how does it happen, you feel like, you know, finally, you’ve opened some eye holes in the led lined walls of what it’s like to experience life in the Commonwealth. Opportunity is an irritated slit, baby. Go ahead and breathe from it. It’s so easeful that it becomes disarming, I mean – who among us hasn’t felt like all too often the only option available is to look at life through the irritated slit of our forefather’s fuckin low-income stat sheet? No big deal, right? Squeeze on through, brother. Plenty a’ room. Go ahead and squeeze on through. Squeeze on through. Squeeze on through, yeah.

6.  Have you ever cried?

            My lyrics are tears. I know how smeary and diet driven that sounds, but I cry my way through the force-fields, sometimes, fuck, driving in the rain, on the weekends especially, south on 495? Riders on the Storm for the seventh time. I work two jobs, I have a kid, a wife, a band, but where the fuck am I kind of days too often plague. I know, I know, you say, “but Steve, you’re not on cocaine for a while now,” and I go, “yeah, but shit, pretending makes the skin wilt, bud.” I look out at the sizzling expressway: “Will I ever get to Falmouth? Eventually, son, eventually.”
            In my world, the ocean is where people go to, to just tap the bottle of the soul and let the tears flow. Even if I am leaving the booze in the booze, this is what I would do. You probably don’t catch me at Salisbury Beach lately because I’ve been holding my ground in the yard and using the air there to just let the pain out via private harmonica grids. Dude, you ever cry and feel like you’re deeper down in the cryptogram? Wherever I go, goes. And there I remain, a teardrop. Tears keep you deep. The way a sea wall gives life to empty space. The pain, hell, even the want of it, or the knowledge that it’s out there in the neighborhood somewhere, and it is, out in the county, taxing itself, multiplying, helps me relax. The way it emanates from Saundra’s crampy body language. Damn. Stay focused, Steve. Stay with it.
            I’ve known Gardenhose a very long time, but sometimes he will stare at you when you’re talking in such a way that you can’t tell if he’s listening to you. I’ve seen his girlfriends cry with him staring at them like that. But that look is common to a lot of people I know from Saugus so it don’t faze me. Trust me. Try getting a t-bone from Hilltop on Father’s Day for proof of the way I can remain composed when I’m focused and feeling loved.
            I turn my head from side to side in the sun sitting in traffic in Dracut after a day-argument with my wife. Kings cry frosting. Queens cry wine. Opulent tears of shredded glitter of the faithful citizen-solidiers. We’re all weeping in our cars. If we sit here any longer waiting for something to happen, will we abandon the work of cultivating wholeness in our vision of heaven?
            I am disgorging a vision of heaven.
            I’m asking you: please give me space to breathe this out.
            Derrick, my brother, will brag, as he flexes his steroidal biceps in the tinted driver’s side window reflection, about the heroin and oxycontin epidemics surging out of Lawrence and flooding into Andover with an authority that makes me want to shave. “Into the rich hands of the bored babies,” he says. He hates those towns, Billerica too. He likes to go on about the “seedy undercurrent of prescription drug use, swiped out of the dinner closets of deep-pocketed doctors and developers, let it flow, baby.” I know about this first hand. Toby’s brother is in jail for robbing pharmacies in Charlestown. Derrick just flows though: “Can’t fuckin’ doom me. Bitches,” he says, flexing. No tears, no tears. I visualize dining room light glinting off silverware at all hours even as we stand in his hot driveway. “Want proof?” he says looking at me briefly and then turning back to the window, “go to the mall.”
            We stand there and it’s quiet other than the ongoing hiss of 93 off to the side.
            “Which one, bro?”
            “I don’t cry about it though.” He assures me. It’s so bright in the driveway of his house that I don’t even know for sure if he knows I’m standing there.
            “No doubt!” I shout to be sure and he looks at me.
            “Yah, dude.”  He’s suspicious even as he cares.
            “Well, you’re cool, right? No oxy or nothing?” I say to let him know I’m still his brother. 
            “I don’t even need to fuck with my probation. I’m cooking at Brigham’s, I’m behind the counter at Richdale, you know? People droppin like flies but whatever. I’m breast-strokin that shit right now. It’s all good.”
            “I hear yah.”  He flexes. I turn away, kick debris, start singing softly “Would you know my name…if I saw you in heaven…” Stuck in my head for a week.
            He cackles. “You don’t sing that pussy shit in the band or nothing do yah?” 
            “What pussy shit?”
            “That Eric Clapton pussy shit.”
            “Do you know me? I write the songs. Come out to the show some night and find out for once, bitch.”
            “Yah, you sing that pussy shit.”
            “Hey, Derrick,” I say watching him avoid my eye as his biceps pop, I know he’s not hearing shit right now, “where’d you get that arm?” 
            Everything around him is gleaming, sparking and holding in place. Light becomes tone. I get the sound of Toby’s whammy and Gardenhose’s high hat in the brain and know there shall be no tears this night.

7.  Ever like someone who treated you like crap?

            Find a way out from under the pumpkin colored blankets. Water the shelf of plants trying to keep in mind the serenity of a glacier. Keep breathing while you hear your wife’s disembodied voice from rooms elsewhere in the house. Don’t get confused when her disembodied voice blends, like one fad into the next, with the disembodied voice of other ex-wives. Suppose glaciers are fine. Think about a decreasing amount of cocaine on earth. Don’t let the idea that the ocean is rising stop you from putting on your boots. Wash your face. Don’t think about alcohol. Step outside. If your friend is out there give him a high five. Compliment the day.
            Go to place of least resistance in your heart.  Find words.  Write them down:

                        She was in charge
                        of the little things
                        I couldn’t see.
                        She was behind
                        the four-wheeler
                        at the beach.

            Don’t let your boss catch you being yourself.  When he/she walks near, ask a question about the Red Sox. Organize your response around the folds under his/her eyes.  Eat lunch as though you never saw the devil’s nostrils flare at the thought of you.
            Wash the snow camps. Appreciate the work of actors and actress’ you have seen in movies such as “Gosh, That Hurts,” and “Bond on Blonde.” Believe for no more than five seconds that you are a mythical walrus. Wash yourself. Park your car just inches from the Wall of Many Advantages, which is the gateway to another dimension. Run your fingers along the side of the garage as you head into the house.  Make a promise to your wife as you kiss her.  Say hi to the kid. You are a flower. Ask her if she has homework. Recognize the answer by her lack of adjectives. 
            Answer the phone. Tell Gardenhose you are on for the gig in Framingham on Tuesday, late afternoon, at Turk’s off the highway. Watch the cigarette smoke vanish in the cobwebs on the kitchen window. 

                        I was trying
                        not to think.
                        I was trying
                        not to sink.

            Get mystified by the gorillas on TV. Heap more gravy. Show yourself in the mirror. You are awash in flowers. Remember plump lips. Dream of skis on a leprechaun, a pancreas bag, and a post-revolution America, C-Spain, in which it is your job to sing the National Anthem, or parts of it, to rectangular children, pixilated, only partially glinting, within the fruit thrush of digital cable.

24.  Would you rather be buried alive for a night or sleep in a bed of cockroaches?

            So we were in the friggin nosebleeds, watching the figurative pummel the Celtics, the dust of athletes, greenly pulsing over the brown parquet. At half time I asked this exact question to Gardenhose. 
            “So. Buried alive for a night or sleep in a bed of cockroaches?”
            He took a bite of pretzel and goes:  “Depends.”
            “On what?”    
            “Well, whose bed exactly are we talking about?”
            I laughed until I cried. Through tears it looked as though light rods were beaming out of the refreshed players heads. They crisscrossed near the rafters, prettily, speckling the letters of the names above the retired numbers. I thought about basketball players playing the game from fixed positions. What would a GPS allow a player to finally embody?
            “Wow, this is some good shit.”
            Gardenhose goes, “Trued.”
            As though the truth has already been applied. That was the first time I thought about the possibility that there might be something other than life right in front of me that was contemplatable. A series of filters in the atmosphere/walls of time/alleyways that you could use. Like I could think of two things at the same time. I thought: is the snake gagged with frosting a metaphor for travel and if so what kind of permit, or license does one need to abandoned the known? I felt so fucking ebullient from all the laughter I opened up and started to try to tell Gardenhose what I was seeing and thinking, but I think it just sounded broken. “Every glance is like a party in a mansion…” I wanted to talk about it as if I was reading it. But reading is only another way of partying. “I party” means “I understand,” I said. I could read life AND live it. Even if for only one night. I screamed: “Fuck A.A.”
            The good shit had faded pretty much off by the time we were on the Orange Line heading home, but, whew. You know? It had been window to the soul of the afterlife party light kind of times for a while there.

5.  When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?

            Some mix between a cool car and Terry O’Reilly.
            As I got older, I got less patient. I admit to some impatience about dreams and visions. A child holding a paper-bag full of cocaine. There’s your vision of the future. Welcome to Woburn! Right?
            I wanted to burn through it all, the fabric of disdain, the ungrown walls, the baffled scallop-edged faces of these unkempt townies and never stop for nothing going a buck twenty north on 95 one last time into the night.
            My parents were fat and they called each other “Angel” and “Sweetin’.” They grew and dealt minor amounts of illegal substances. There was more to them than that, I mean, they came from people who knew how to stay put. I could almost taste their saliva in the kitchen air, in the heat of yet another “Armageddin’s Pot Brownie Session.” My mother sprinkled “a few cat-turd’s worth” of shank basement weed in and through her softest batter. Easy Rider soundtrack turned up too loud for that hour.
            I blink my eyes and pass through the days.   
            Tonight I got out of my dark truck and started for the house. I walked for days and days. I kept turning and looking back at the truck, twelve feet away, wondering, what have I done? How could I have left it there? And then, for long stretches, I would squint at the front door in the distance, at the windows, cracks of living room wondering where I was, and what was I supposed to do when I got there.
            I’m here now, older. Made it. I took off my shoes, took a shower, read a few dictionary words and meanings to my daughter before bed. Kitchen looks good. Settled in. Saundra left as soon as I got there, something about “Margaret Rockwood’s whole family.” I close my eyes and I can feel the house as it drifts in place, bumping gently against the dock of the property line. I, the minster of human song falling asleep in his permanent schooner. Surely, I’ll hear the finer creaks and rhythms more clearly once I snap off the lights.

24.  Hugs or kisses?

Somebody, please. Weeks have passed.
Gardenhose is having relationship problems too. He was dating “Walmart’s Cutest Blonde,” but maybe she’s cheating on a dude named Christian who played hockey for Sacred Hearts in the 90’s. He manages a Pizzeria Regina out of Saugus. Gardenhose is debating going up there for a chat. I said, at least wait till after the show at Morrison’s in Revere.
            I talked to Nancy for about sixty seconds this afternoon on the phone. I heard myself say: “Offhand comments build coffins.” She said “What’s a coffin?”
            Is this really the way we prepare for the future? Is this the only friggin way?

4. Ever sang in front of a crowd?

She was an Irish, Irish Dentist.
I was an American – with an attitude.
She looked at me.
She seemed to be confused.
And I was like: “Do your job.”

(harmonica solo)

When I was at work,
I gave her a phone call.
I was like:  “Dr. O’Reilly, do you wanna hang out?”
She said: “I cannot accept this invitation.”
And I said: “Do your job.”

Ouch, that hurt.

8.  Bright or dark room?

           I’ve been up all night.
            Kitchen scene stills. Bathroom cabinet mirror reflects part of the refrigerator smothered in Patriots magnets and part of the calendar with the drooling Scrooge, Nancy’s autumn masterpiece. The freezer is littered with magnets that hold twenty or thirty bills against the appliance. A song ends and is replaced by the almost fragrant sound of sleepy chirping which occasionally falls from the dawn ball somewhere in the outer mist probably beyond the property line. The light changes at the same rate that the foundation shifts. I turn my head and look outside as the corpse of night is escaping and daylight finds itself getting into the things I own. The hood of the mini-van glistens its ice.
            I was brought up under the Catholic armpit. A seashell smell and the velvet of unwelcome hugs against acne are the rhythm and bass of the Catholic mind. A minister told me when I was eight, through mouthfuls of lobster bisque that I could talk to god if I could just find a way to see God’s eyes for all life’s glare.
            “Do you – yes or no – understand me?”
             I nodded and shook my head at the same time. Fucking St. Mary’s in Revere. I think I played CYO hockey for them a couple years.
            Churches are a fine place to go to feel the hatchwork of time and space. Church parking lot works too.
            Dear Saundra:  did it all occur in a single inhalation? 
            Dear Steve: Emerge harder light, harden into the shape of the last room.   
            An unripe nectarine on the counter. I thought that would be breakfast by today, but still stiff. Thanks, Star Market.
            I stand in the kitchen and whisper goodbye to the Sandman. My eyes are sticky and a third house pours into my head. No longer a nightmare for anyone, what have I become? Or not. To be or not to be or not.  
            “It’s too bad that all these things – “  
            I look around frantic. I’m not dead. I’m not asleep. I’m not awake. I’m not hallucinating. I’m not Roy Orbison. I need to go drive bus.
            “Can only happen in my dreams.”
            Whatever, guy. Maybe you’re just early to the start of actual life.
            Sunlight floods the epilogue. I have a sudden, powerful desire to rob a Dominos with a pickax.

10. What’s a word that rhymes with DUCK?

            Foreclosure. My fingernails badly jammed up with scratch dust. Two weeks go bye-bye. I finally win two bucks and instantly hear Gardenhose’s careful whisper: “walk away, dude. Walk away.” I collect my winnings and hit the road.
            Okay, seriously? Shuck. I met a roofer from Dedham, Frank Gore, who told me that Saugus was stuck in a “nasty little rut,” but that it was once the kind of place where when a feather escaped the body of a soaring eagle you could hear music as it fell. 
            “Oh yeah?” I asked. “What’d that sound like?” 
            He tilted his head and squinted his eyes as if to say ‘where the fuck are you from buddy,’ and then growled: “rock and fuckin’ roll.” He sneered and backed away into the neon and poolroom mold until I could only make out indistinct shapes.