We spent that afternoon shopping at Strings and Things, a big famous musical instrument store in Memphis. I bought a defective drum throne and told the clerk I was going to the guitar shop in the next room. He looked surprised, and I told him, "Yeah, I'm not just a drummer, I'm a musician." Fourteen eyeballs of hate. I gotta be me.
I'm leaving my dad's house in Memphis, crossing the bridge into West Memphis, Arkansas, on the way to my 20th high school reunion at Subiaco Academy, a Benedictine monastery and boarding school in the Ozarks. West Memphis has a Martin Luther King Drive now. Keep hope alive.
Memphis is where it is because it's on a natural bluff. The Mississippi River steals topsoil from Arkansas and deposits it on Tennessee. This is why Memphis is high above the river and Eastern Arkansas is a god-forsaken floodplain devoid of trees or joy. To get from Memphis to the Ozarks, you take the rice paddy to the mountains. The St. Francis River joins Vietnam to Pennsylvania.
They got orioles here. Never seen one in Baltimore.
God's country has talk radio that teaches unparalleled wisdom, like perspectives about the homosexual campaign to destroy Christianity. I do wish the gays would hurry up with that. I'm gonna beat a queer for every Jesus billboard I see until the sissy boys make some progress. I agreed with the fear-mongering radio announcer, with the exception that he should expand his indictment of gay marriage to condemn marriage in general. Gay marriage agenda? What about the marriage agenda? A marriage can destroy a family, weaken a person's moral fiber, and has no basis in natural law. Marriage is a joy-sucking campaign of evil, and it must be stopped. Where's my show?
Used to be Republican and Conservative had independent meanings, and someone could be one and not the other. Soon Christian will be a synonym for all three. Our flag will be Jesus wearing a cowboy hat riding an eagle, and I won't know who to hate.
I change the radio band to AM, 'cos I'm a sick bastard. The African-American radio preacher gave a sermon on the Broken Vessels concept, something about breaking the alabaster box and pouring out the ointment being a metaphor for breaking the containment that restrains you from expressing yourself. The ointment is the valuable stuff. The vessel's not important. We have to break our protection from vulnerability to get humble and get the needs of the flesh out of the way. Breaking the vessel lets go of the possibility of controlling what comes out of you. Hallelujah anyway. Dance in advance. Preach on, brother. Laugh anyway.
I'm seeing stuff for the first and last time. I've been thinking about how everything I'm experiencing is actually for the first and last time. I'm just not fully aware of the differences between two similar experiences because I'm a simple monkey baby.
I'm having chest pains up the last turn toward the school. Anxiety or gas from the Subway Club sandwich.
Teena Harber, the Columbia to my Eddie when we played in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, calls me. I tell her where I'm going, and tells me not to let 'em get me down 'cos I rock.
I get to campus and walk the part of the inner courtyard that was forbidden to me as a kid.
The Subiaco Cloister.
I look through the window. It's just the monks' dining hall. At my 10-year reunion a priest told me that their dinner conversation would often be about the ridiculous nonsense that Basil White said that day. I was ridiculous and nonsensical at 13.
I get my key. All the dorms are semi-private rooms now instead of the open-air halls I knew. At least now only one person can attack you while you sleep. I call Aimee and Dad in the middle of the courtyard under the St. Benedict statue because that's the only place I can get a phone signal.
The only place with good cell reception.
I meet my alumnus Ben Krone and we go into vespers. I kill my phone so I don't interrupt the sanctity of evening prayer with my ringtone. My English teacher for 9th-11th grade comes in and shakes my hand. He lives in a hermit's house on the monastery grounds. The J.D. Salinger of the Ozarks. He says, "You didn't have to dye your hair to impress me." I tell him, "I thought you were dead." Love all around. Ben Krone kneels and prays, so I kneel and pray. The prayer that comes to mind is the prayer from Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
Ooh, You are so big.
So absolutely huge.
Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell You.
These days, I mean it.
We pray and kneel and sing, and have "open petitions," when individual churchgoers can offer a petition for prayer from the entire congregation, sending a spiritually fulfilling Catholic Mass into a fiery train wreck. Why does the train to salvation give the general public access to the handbrake? Just once I'd like someone to petition with "I'd like to offer a prayer of Thanksgiving for six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous, we pray to the Lord."
We closed with a song in Latin and the Abbot sprinkled us with holy water. Fortunately, he didn't get me. That stuff can burn.
Time for more beer and fellowship.
Subiaco Academy Class of 1986.
I find my alumni and hold court.
My English teacher said I was the only student who ever contacted him after graduation. When we were in school he played a videotape of reenactments of T.S. Eliot poems and said he was looking for Eliot's book of cat poems. I saw the book while I was in college and mailed it to him. He says it's still in the parcel knot I tied around it.
A couple of alumni who tormented me 20 years ago shake my hand. I smile. I feel nothing bad at all. Peace be with you.
I figure the 20-year anniversary will be the last chance any of my alumni have to confess their homosexuality. None of our guys declared their eligibility, but a perfunctory sweep of my gaydar found the gay conversation circle.
Here's a tip for the closeted: Straight guys don't look at your shoes before they talk to you.
My English teacher and a '77 alumnus tell me about Frank Stanford, a Subiaco alumni and poet who shot himself.
When I was a student here I washed dishes to pay for my tuition, so after breakfast on Saturday I grab an apron and reenact the last time I did an honest day's work.
I still have the fixed action patterns down of pulling a new spike basket for plates and turning the basket into the dishwasher. They used to slop the hogs with our leftover food. I always thought it was perverted that they slopped the hogs with leftover breakfast sausage. That's a special kind of cruel.
We go to our alumni meeting. We start the meeting with a list of who died since the last meeting and a petition to speak up if any of the dead aren't really dead. Then they asked us who else was dead and no one raised their hand.
The chairman shared the financial report and said that new laws ending bingo and raffles are killing our fundraising. Funny that bingo and raffles only become illegal after the state starts running a lottery.
The recruitment manager narrates a slideshow called "Subiaco Academy: A Tradition of Excelence" (sic). That was the money shot of the whole weekend. "Six students admitted into Service Academy's" (sic). A photo of one of our graduates in West Point drag walking alongside George W. Bush. See, you don't have to be limited just because you can't read. Strive to be excelent.
They listed the values the school teaches. I grade my personal achievement in these values.
Desire for Excellence: B+
Respect for Self: B
Respect for Others: F
Respect for Tradition: D
Respect for Authority: F
Fiscal Responsibility: C-
Summary grade: C-
Telling people I went to a boarding school in the Ozarks confuses most people. It's too weird for them to even ask a question. If I told them I went to Mars where they crowned me their Emperor, at least there's cartoons about that sort of thing.
Noon and I'm already drunk. It's not that I want to drink, it's that there's no food until the dining room opens, there's no store open down the hill at the highway intersection, and beer is the only food available to consume. I fall asleep from heat exhaustion and alcohol poisoning and wake up in time for dinner, missing mass and the group photo.
At dinner I meet the prior, the second-in-command of the monastery. He thinks I should write a book of humorous notes on the gospel readings to help priests punch up their homilies. I tell him about the book I'm writing on reverse irony and ask him to give me a homily topic. He says "obedience." I say "How's disobedience working out for you?" He got it.
I go out to the meeting tent where they're setting up tables for poker and craps. Jesus said not to turn his Father's house into a den of thieves, but he didn't say anything about the lawn in front of the house.
Our class president apologized to people if he did or said anything hurtful when he was a student. I thought his apology was ironic, 'cos he was nothing but nice to everyone. 20 years ago he was the only jock in school whose brains I didn't want to splatter on the wall. I'm feeling much better now. It's been years since I met somebody worth jail.
I tell a local that I remember when I was home during Easter break of my junior year there was a white supremacist group in Southwest Missouri called The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord that the Army had to drive out with rockets, and Dad pointed to the TV screen and said, "That's just north of where you're going." The local tells me that just south of the Missouri border is Zinc, Arkansas, home of the KKK Grand Wizard, where the Klan has a highway cleanup sponsorship sign on the highway. I think it's kinda sweet that the state lets them pretend to be people.
Alumnus Ben Krone's photo album at http://homepage.mac.com/benkrone/PhotoAlbum18.html
Hello, Memphis. Goodbye, Arkansas.