I'm posting this one warts and all, 'cause I kinda dig it the way it is: raw and real, like good blues. Plus, "Tonight I Sing My Blues For You" represents a time in my life when I was really getting the hang of this writing thing, deciding maybe I had what it takes to do it "seriously" -- I feel that this was one of my first stories in which I really started developing my own unique voice.
Hope you enjoy it. Happy New Year to all my friends, family, and readers. God bless you. I am thankful for each and every one of you.
TONIGHT I SING MY BLUES FOR YOU
"Wake up, man. Wake up! You're never gonna believe this."
Two o’ clock in the frigging morning, and I'm jerked awake by my so-called friend Buddy, rocking me like an overeager child nagging at his father on Christmas morning.
"Dammit, Buddy . . . what the hell are you doing here?"
"Get up, get your clothes on. You are never gonna believe this, David!”
If you saw Buddy and I on the street, you'd never expect us to share anything in common. Where I kept my hair styled neatly these days, never allowed it to grow past my earlobes, where I wore khakis and nothing more exciting than the occasional too-loud tie to work, Buddy was my complete opposite. His dirty-blond hair -- done up in those "white-boy dreads” -- fell just past his shoulders, and on the night in question he wore his Mojo Faction T-shirt, a psychedelic explosion of colors around a portrait of that local blues band we liked to go see at the clubs. Buddy was still in college, where I had graduated two years before, and he seemed doomed to remain there forever. Not that you would ever catch Buddy complaining. Didn't matter we were both in our mid-twenties, and I had long since fallen into a comfortable job at the local elementary school, teaching fourth grade and living a "responsible lifestyle" (as we used to sarcastically call such a thing when we were both long-haired party animals), Buddy was content with remaining the eternal college-boy, claiming when someone called him on it that he was still “unsure of exactly what he wanted to do.”
To each his own, I guess . . . the guy may have been directionless, carefree, and - admittedly -- more than a tad irresponsible, but he had also been my best friend in the world for as long as I could remember.
"Some of us have to work in the morning, Buddy?" I said, frowning as I pulled on my bedroom slippers and a pair of sweatpants. “Not that you would know anything about that.“ Still, my tone betrayed my lack of any true anger at my friend. Buddy had that effect on everyone, even if he did look like a greasy hippie -- something in the guy’s face, I suppose, an inherent kindness that was instantly infectious. It was hard to stay mad at Buddy.
"You're never gonna believe this, man," he said again. As if he hadn't made that clear already.
I yawned. “You wanna tell me where, exactly, you're taking me?"
Two words rolled off my friend's tongue then, slowly. A melodramatic whisper: “Sleeping Meadows."
"It was like this when I found it. Contrary to what you might think, David, I didn't break in."
“Uh-huh,” I said, still rubbing gritty sleep from my eyes.
Buddy referred to the fact that the cemetery's massive, spire-tipped gate -- the only way into Sleeping Meadows other than the gravel service road at the opposite end of the property -- stood wide open when we got there. This despite the sign: NO TRESPASSING/GATES CLOSE NIGHTLY 9PM-8AM.
“It’s almost as if I was . . . expected, you know?” Buddy said. “Like the gates were open just for me."
Sleeping Meadows -- nine sprawling acres in the very center of our city -- was the final resting place of hundreds who had once walked these streets as far back as the late 1800's. Dozens of skeletal black oaks, their naked autumn branches reaching heavenward like gaunt fingers, loomed in no particular pattern throughout the cemetery, as if they were God’s sentinels randomly placed there to guard the souls He would one day return to embrace. The jutting silhouettes of monuments, tombstones, and cherubic statuettes scattered throughout the place resembled odd-shaped pebbles sunning themselves on the bed of some shallow, moon-swept stream. The night’s cool breeze kissed my face, slid through the trees, and whispered against those cold gray stones like voyeurs discussing our every move. The cemetery’s grass had been recently trimmed, seemed to shine silver beneath the night's full moon, and that summery mown-grass smell assaulted my nostrils as I followed Buddy through the place. It reminded me of backyard barbecues when I was a boy -- of childhood innocence, somehow, of a time when the world seemed so much larger.
As we made our way down those winding paths, sometimes across the blacktopped road that snaked through the cemetery then back into the sea of graves, I asked my friend several times in a nervous whisper just where the hell he was taking me.
"I couldn't sleep, man," Buddy finally began. "Had a dream about my mother." Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes, but he never stopped walking, never slowed down. As a matter of fact I was forced to pick up my pace just to keep several strides behind my friend. "Dreamed she was outside my window, right? Singing."
I understood Buddy's pain. Barely a month had passed since the accident. A drunk driver, head-on collision. It was bad, I'd heard -- very bad. The mortician had done all he could, Buddy was told, but the wake had still been a closed-casket affair. My friend was entitled to his grief. I shared it with him.
"I dreamed she was singing to me, David . . . dreamed I went to the window, and there she was, floating two stories off the ground outside my dorm-room. She was playing this old battered guitar, a blues song. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever heard, man!"
"Buddy --" I started. I reached out, gently touched his shoulder, but he kept walking.
"I woke up . . . I mean, I really woke up this time. This part was real, I know, 'cause I was sweating all over. And guess what?"
He looked back at me, pausing only briefly before continuing on into the heart of the cemetery. To dark places that the full moon’s alabaster glow could no longer quite reach. "I could still hear that music, David, even after I woke up. Swear to God, man . . . just this simple three-chord acoustic number, very sad, but it was the sweetest damn thing. At first, I thought I was imagining it . . . it sounded as if it were several blocks down the street . . . but it was plain as day. And crazy as it sounds, man . . . it’s like I knew . . . that song was playing just for me."
"So what's all this gotta do with me?" I asked, my brow furrowed.
"I couldn't go back to sleep, after that. I had to come see her.”
Again I touched my friend lightly upon the shoulder. "Hey . . . I'm here for you, Buddy. Anytime. You know tha --"
"Here we are," he said suddenly, not really hearing me, and he stopped above a grave.
I looked down.
And I frowned. This wasn't Buddy's mother's grave.
I had been out here a couple times with Buddy, however, and I knew this gravesite just as well.
It was the grave of one Joseph "Blind Dawg" Melton.
"I don't get it, Buddy. What's Blind Dawg got to do with your mom?"
Buddy knelt before the modest marker -- not much more than a flat, cheaply inscribed rock, really -- over Blind Dawg Melton's final resting-place. For several long, awkward seconds, he said nothing. He just sat like that, a melancholy expression on his face, the tips of his fingers gliding across the late musician's chiseled stone (1905-1999 was all it said below his Christian name, with a crude etching of a guitar beside that).
"Where'd they all go?" he said, more to himself than to me. "They were right here."
I just stared at him, puzzled.
"There were people here, David. Gathered around Melton's grave. They were standing here. Listening."
"Yeah. I'm over there --" Buddy gestured toward an off-white crowd of marble tombstones about a hundred feet away (the area, I remembered, where his mother had been buried) -- "visiting with Mom, and I see them over here. Just staring down at Melton‘s grave. It really creeped me out at first, till I realized what was going on. A couple of ‘em, I can see their shoulders shaking. You know, like they're crying."
"Buddy," I said softly, "I know your mother's death hit you pretty hard . . . it hurt me too, man . . . but I think maybe we should -- "
"No, David!" Buddy shot back, in a tone harsher than any he had used with me in quite some time. "No! I saw them. They were here! They were listening to his music. I know, because I joined them. I’m not crazy. I stood right here. And I listened, too."
A tear ran down Buddy's face, silver in the moonlight like mercury.
"Blind Dawg was playing. Down there. Never in my life have I heard anything so beautiful."
Perhaps at this point I should fill you in on a little history . . . .
Joseph Seymour Melton -- better known as "Blind Dawg" Melton -- had been a native of the city in which Buddy and I lived. Up until his interment in Sleeping Meadows, the old bluesman obtained little more than a small cult following despite having -- in my opinion - deserved so much more. During his career Melton recorded only a dozen or so records, and all of those had been on a small label run out of Mississippi, a less-than-reputable outfit by the name of Sharky Records (which, last I heard, ended up on the losing end of a class-action lawsuit engineered by several other artists who never saw the money owed them by the company). Buddy and I often discussed, on those long nights when we would sit in my apartment or in his cluttered dorm-room listening to Melton’s scratchy old records, why a man like “Blind Dawg” Melton should live in such obscurity despite the inimitable talent God had given him. Buddy and I owned every recording Blind Dawg ever cut, some of which cost us a pretty penny. Not that we cared. Because Blind Dawg Melton -- who was truly blind, by the way, supposedly since childhood, at the hands of an abusive stepfather -- was worth so much more. Guy had soul, lemme tell ya. Everything he sang came from the heart . . . and his guitar-playing, well, it was simply out of this world.
Buddy and I had attended Melton's funeral ten months before that night my friend claimed to hear Blind Dawg singing from beyond the grave, and -- while it may sound silly, as we never knew him personally -- it hit us hard. The guy was nothing less than a hero to these two blues fanatics, an idol no less revered than others in the genre who built their careers upon albums surpassing gold status the world over.
Blind Dawg Melton didn't just play the blues, he lived them. As the story went, he had been an alcoholic in his younger days, a troubled, bitter man with various mental problems. But Melton fought his demons and won. He battled racism through the forties, fifties, and sixties (hence his most-remembered, if not altogether financially-successful song "We All Bleed the Same"), and had just barely made a living with his music in a world that seemed to desire screeching rock n' roll over the very heartfelt rhythm which inspired that genre.
Joseph "Blind Dawg" Melton was one-of-a-kind. A beautiful man, in my opinion, who made music that was the closest thing to heaven Buddy and I could imagine.
We visited his grave once or twice a month, more often than not leaving a rose upon his modest stone just to show someone cared. We still played his records faithfully and sometimes shed a tear or two as we listened, but we went on. Because, well . . . for God's sake, the man was ninety-four years old! He had to go sooner or later, right?
However, on the night in question, I seriously began to wonder if my best friend was truly over it at all. If he would ever be. Because now, after losing one of his greatest heroes and his dear mother less than a year apart . . . I feared the poor guy had completely lost his mind.
"He was playing, David. It was beautiful. He was playing from beyond the grave."
"Okay, Buddy," I said softly, conflicting emotions roiling within me. "I think we should go home now. You should get some rest."
"'Don't cry for me . . . I'll see you on the other side.'"
"That was his song, David. So perfect. And it was like . . . he was playing it just for me."
"Come on, Buddy . . . come on."
"You don't believe me, do you?" my best friend sobbed as I gently led him away.
And I honestly did not know what to say.
Buddy and I parted ways that night shortly after four a.m. He headed back to his dorm. I retired to my apartment, confused as all hell and wondering if my friend was really going to be okay. I wondered just what the hell he had witnessed out there at Blind Dawg Melton's gravesite. I knew that my friend would not lie to me. Even so, if only in the spirit (excuse the pun) of some harmless prank, there was no way Buddy could have pulled it off so convincingly. Tears and all.
Still, I refused to entertain the notion that he might have actually heard . . . a phantom bluesman working his mojo from beyond the grave?
Give me a break.
Something really had happened out there at Sleeping Meadows. Buddy did believe what he told me, that he had heard the late bluesman playing his sad song out there . . . my shirt, still moist with my friend's tears as I returned to my apartment that night, was ample proof of that. However, the question now was . . . what was wrong with my friend? Had my old pal been indulging in a little too much of the "wacky weed?" Or was he on to something that could not be so easily explained?
I would know soon enough.
After that night in the cemetery, Buddy and I sort of . . . drifted apart. While Buddy never strayed too far from my thoughts, and I worried about my old friend every day . . . the truth is, I made no effort to contact him. Once upon a time, Buddy and I would never allow more than a week to slip by without getting together, never more than two or three days without calling one another just to touch base.
However . . . I must admit I was a little fearful of Buddy's sanity after that night. I didn't call him. I didn't visit him up at the college. For that, I will never forgive myself. Likewise, Buddy made no effort to contact me. Perhaps, I thought, my friend might have been more than a little embarrassed by his actions, by whatever insane things he claimed to have seen. Buddy may have realized that he did need help. Professional help.
I can only guess, however. I do not know what went through Buddy’s mind in the weeks following our nocturnal visit to Blind Dawg Melton's grave. I guess I never will.
Because that night was the last time I saw my best friend alive.
Three weeks after mine and Buddy's bizarre little adventure, if you will, I awoke in the middle of the night, a Friday night, and I couldn't get back to sleep. I'd been having that problem quite a bit lately, plagued with some rather disturbing nightmares (which was odd because I hardly ever dream anything worth remembering). Buddy had filled my mind with some rather morbid images, and now I was suffering for it.
So I decided to take a walk. Through the city. This was something I used to do quite often back in my college days, take long walks at two or three in the morning just for the time alone, to think clearly about whatever was on my mind without the chaos of daily life getting in the way. But after I graduated, fell full-swing into that “responsible lifestyle” I mentioned earlier, I could no longer find the time for such soul-searching ventures.
Sleeping Meadows was most certainly not my destination that night, yet somehow I ended up there all the same.
I turned the corner, and there it was.
The gate stood open, again.
Without even consciously thinking about it, I entered the cemetery. And headed straight for Blind Dawg Melton.
I heard them -- faintly, in the distance -- before I ever saw his grave. The sound of gentle sobbing, of several different whispered conversations spoken in breaths thick with snot and tears.
I knew before I saw them that the people who made those sounds would be gathered around Blind Dawg Melton's grave. However strongly I wanted to deny that there could be any validity to Buddy's insane story of a ghost guitarist and his midnight graveyard gig . . . I knew they would be there.
Indeed, three people were gathered around Blind Dawg's tombstone. Two men and a woman, seemingly oblivious to each other as they carried on like the world was falling apart all around them. One man stood, tallest son-of-a-bitch I've ever seen, gazing heavenward as moon-streaked tears trailed down his face. He was bald, dressed entirely in black, a yellow ribbon pinned to his lapel. He held his skeletal arms around himself, trembling slightly as his lips worked in a silent conversation with God . . . with Melton . . . with somebody.
The strangest thing of all, though?
Even as the big guy bawled his eyes out, he was smiling. Smiling.
Likewise, the man and woman on the ground -- she sat cross-legged, also gazing heavenward, while the middle-aged black man beside her was on his knees, gazing down as if he could see all the way through the earth and into Melton's casket -- wept as I had never seen anyone weep before, but all the while undeniable smiles kept creeping through their anguish.
It was the most bizarre thing I have ever seen, let me tell you.
I stayed out there for well over an hour, approximately a hundred yards away behind an immense oak tree, watching them. Wondering just what the hell was going on here.
Yet whatever these people carried on about so . . . whatever bled such raw emotions from them . . . not once did I see or hear a damn thing.
And, for some strange reason, I found myself oddly depressed by that. By the fact that, for whatever reason, I was not allowed to share in this.
Six days later, after my own bizarre encounter at Sleeping Meadows, I was awakened by a phone call from Buddy's sister, Kara. Kara lived in Atlanta, and I hadn't spoken with her in almost a year, so I knew right away something was wrong. Why else would Buddy's sister be calling me?
"He's dead, David," she sobbed into the phone. "They killed him."
"Kara? Killed who? What are you talking about?"
“Whaaaat?” A lump formed in my throat. My heart began to beat faster than it would seem humanly possible.
"Gang-bangers jumped him on 42nd. You know Buddy, stubborn S.O.B. that he is, he'd never let them just take his wallet. I always knew that mouth would get him in trouble some day.”
With that she broke off into a fit of sobbing. I felt myself heading in the same direction, but I had to keep my composure.
"Oh, my God. Where was he?"
It took her a minute, but finally she answered. "He'd been staying down here with Donald and me the past couple weeks. I told him Atlanta wasn't a good place to be, out on the streets alone late at night. He'd been having trouble sleeping, and I guess he wanted to take one of his midnight walks. The police said those bastards stabbed him twenty-eight times! Why, David, why?!"
"Jesus, Kara. I'm sorry." It was all I could think of to say. "I'm so, so sorry."
One of the last things she said to me then, during that unforgettable phone-call, hit me right in the gut. A stinging punchline to a very unfunny joke . . . .
"He said he missed you, David. He told me that the other day. Said he hoped you were okay. Did something happen between you two?"
Another question I did not know how to answer. I left her with her tears then, and she with mine, and we parted with little more than a final "I'll see you at the funeral."
Two days later, beneath a sickly gray October sky, I watched the cold ground swallow up my best friend.
Buddy was buried in Sleeping Meadows, next to his mother. Just how he had wanted it.
It was the single worst day of my life.
Several days after the funeral, I pulled the worst frigging drunk I have ever pulled.
"Here's to you, Buddy," I wept as I drank, screaming it out on more than one occasion until the guy below my apartment started pounding the ceiling beneath me.
"Lick my pole, asshole!" I cursed at the floor, grabbing my crotch.
Didn't take long for Jim Beam to knock me flat on my ass. Everything went black, black as sin, and the next thing I remember it's five in the morning.
Head pounding. Stomach churning. Blood rushing through my head so loud I could hear it, like ocean waves breaking on the shores of my throbbing temples . . . .
To hell with it. I had to see my friend. I didn't care what time it was.
I had to tell him good-bye one last time.
So I grabbed my jacket, shambled out of my apartment building half-drunk with anger at a God that could take my friend so abruptly, still half-drunk with the alcohol I had consumed earlier. I didn't care. I had to talk to Buddy. Tell him how sorry I was for doubting his sanity for even a second. What kind of a friend was I, anyway?
Once again, I headed for Sleeping Meadows.
The gate stood open again. I remembered Buddy saying how it seemed as if it had been open just for him, welcoming him inside. Did the same hold true for me, tonight?
I shrugged off the thought, headed for my best friend's fresh grave, a tear already spilling down my cheek.
"I love you, Buddy. I'm sorry I wasn't there."
In the moonlight, despite that fancy tombstone, Buddy's grave resembled little more than a nondescript pile of dirt. Even the veritable forest of flowers all around it -- their colors seemed so dull and lifeless in the night. Hard to believe that under all of this my dear friend, my brother, slept a sleep from which he would never awaken.
"You and me, Buddy," I said to my friend, wherever he was now. "It was all about you and me. I love you, you long-haired hippie freak." I laughed at that, could imagine Buddy laughing along with me. Perhaps slapping me on the back like he always did when I got off a particularly good one.
"Remember our first year at UT, Buddy . . . we went to that Monica chick's New Year's Eve Party? Man, you got so fucked up, you couldn't remember anything that happened the whole night. Me and Bobby Harwood, we had you convinced you'd spent the night with that gay guy who was always giving you the eye in Trig . . . . "
Again I uttered a sad little laugh, wiped tears from my eyes. "You believed us, too. You were ready to kill me for letting you go home with that guy. I told you, 'Hey, it's what you wanted. You sure were horny last night.'"
I bit my lip, fought back a new wave of tears. "Man, that was the funniest shit ever."
I sniffled, ran a hand across his tombstone, and it was like touching a block of ice.
"I'm gonna miss you, Buddy."
And that's when I heard the music. About a hundred yards away.
"Oh, Jesus . . . "
I didn't want to go over there. I was terrified. The eerie rhythm of that phantom blues shuffle made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up. A chill ran down my spine like the frigid, undead finger of my late friend.
But I knew I had to. I had to go.
It was what Buddy wanted. What Blind Dawg Melton wanted.
I had no choice.
I turned, and my breath plumed forth into the night air like smoke. Either he had not been there before, or I had failed to notice him: a man now stood over Blind Dawg Melton's grave. A man who at first appeared to be nine or ten years my senior, though once I saw him up close I suspected he was much younger than that. His eyes were very sad, glazed over with recent tragedy. His clothes were wrinkled, his hair mussed and unwashed.
I left Buddy's grave behind, sat beside the man at Blind Dawg Melton's dusty stone.
I listened. And I felt it. At last.
As I approached the man, he did not acknowledge my presence. He dropped to his knees, listening to that phantom melody that I could finally hear. The man had been crying, I could tell, but now his face held a sad smile. A smile of hope. In his hand he clutched a wrinkled snapshot of a little girl, a toddler who so resembled him I knew right away she was his daughter.
Nearby, I spotted the fresh grave, about half the distance between Melton's and Buddy's. The grave of a child. Mid-sized stone carved at the top into the shape of a tiny angel, somewhere on there the words CHERISHED DAUGHTER, GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN. Gigantic bouquets of flowers and several lost-looking stuffed animals propped all around the raised soil.
“Jeanie . . . my baby . . . oh, Jeanie,” cried the man, and I put my arm around him. He never seemed to notice, but that was okay.
I understood, then, who these people were. These troubled survivors who came to Melton's grave, who were drawn to hear his song of hope . . . the very thing they needed.
I understood, for now it was my song as well.
The sound of Blind Dawg Melton's guitar cut through the very marrow of my bones, bit deep into my soul. But it was not a song of tragedy. Alas, this was a song of hope, of new beginnings and peace. A warm song that brought new tears streaming down my face, though these were tears I wept with a smile. Tears born of something so much more than the tears one sheds for lost friends. Every word the bluesman sang from beyond this veil of mortality . . . every wailing note he played down there upon his ethereal guitar . . . each would instantly dry my swollen eyes . . . only to, seconds later, conjure forth new tears of wistful happiness.
I understood now. I understood it all.
"Don't cry for me," the bluesman sang. "I'll see you on the other side."
"Yes," I said, and the stranger beside me echoed my sentiments. The photograph of his daughter, which he so tightly held mere seconds ago, he now retired to his pocket. Gone, but never forgotten.
We listened. And we cried together.
We knew that life would go on.
And everything would be okay.
"Relax, I've only stepped out for a while
You'll be here soon, you see
And when your time has come as well,
You'll be right here with me
One day you'll see I never left
So don't you look so sad
I'll just wait for you up here
And man, the fun we’ll have . . . . "
"So when you feel you can't go on, just think of this, my friend
'Long as love's inside your heart, there's no such as thing as 'The End.'"