My eyes are a camera. When I was a young boy eight nine ten years old, I’d keep my left eye close to the wall, at eye level as if I were a living breathing Steadicam, my right eye closed, an eternal tracking shot, my left eye forever open, the score always in the background, the score I had written on a one hundred dollar Casio. I pan down the hall, to the left, past the bathroom, Mama’s room, into my bedroom, I pivot and the left eye closes and the right eye opens, it’s seamless, undetectable by the human eye, a marvel at 50 FPS, my tiny bedroom a diffused here and now, Mama’s voice coming to me from the kitchen – Nathan, what are you doing? Nothing, mama! The camera finally telescoped into a close-up of the Snoopy plush on my bed, resting on my pillow, excited to see me, the director of everything. You’re a daydreamer just like your daddy was, Mama says. The world isn’t kind to daydreamers, Nathan – remember that.
Mama was always too strict with me. Was she afraid I would run away, leave her like Papa left her? When I had friends over after school, which was rare, Mama always warned me to keep them out of the house, out of my room. I work hard for what we got, boy – no one is going to take it from us. In fifth grade, ten years old, granny was still alive, an old woman in the house while Mama was at work, and granny loved me, I know she did, but her mind was already gone, watching soap operas on an ancient television, mouthing the words to old commercials, Nathan honey make me a glass of tea, granny surrounded by all her old things, a blanket that smelled just like her, her hard black shoes that slowly clicked down the hall, the wall slightly discolored by her phantom hand, making her way to her bedroom at the far end of the hall, across from mine. We had a three bedroom house on Culver Street, and just a few clicks down the street were my friends Andre and DeJuan, elementary school friends, friendship cobbled by the luck of geography, how the cards are laid down when one is poor. There were a few kings and queens on my street, kids with mothers and fathers, but most of us were either a two of clubs or a three of hearts. Granny finally making her way to her bedroom, calling my father’s name, a man I cannot remember, a face I try to recall that slips through my fingers, I remember a man hovering over me when I was in my crib, he was wearing a motorcycle helmet, my first memory, and it scared me because the visor was down and I couldn’t see his eyes, I could only see myself looking at myself, an odd trick, but perhaps this is only a fiction? Did my father really own a motorcycle? Or was it Adam Clayton, the Visitor, in a space helmet, coming to save me? We’ve got work for you to do, child, so hurry up and grow up – what do you want? What are you afraid of?
Sometimes I’d find granny in her bedroom, a shoebox of old pictures opened at her side, her memories spread out before her, and she would have tears in her eyes – I don’t remember what my son looks like, where’s my son? It took me a while to figure out what had happened to all the pictures of my father, that Mama had destroyed them, maybe I figured it out during my first year of college, when I was away from Mama’s constant questions, maybe it came to me as I lay in a dorm room not wanting to go to Tuesday classes, my head filled with smoke, tapping out a text to Mouse on an iPhone 4, you wanna boke a smowl, always playing word games with each other, Mouse not yet closed off to me, even silly and open-hearted, something I cannot imagine now. You know musicians have very mathematical brains, he said, No that’s BS, I said, I’m terrible at math – well you’re all looks and no brains, Mouse laughed, probably better for you to be a front man. I’m a deep thinker, man – well Dixie cups aren’t deep, Mouse replied, then I’d make a Gojira move toward him and we would destroy my dorm room as I tried pinning him in a cobra clutch to send him nighty night – what’s wrong don’t you love yourself – stop hitting yourself – but Mouse was too fast, too slippery, out from under my grip and suddenly I’m seeing red stars because he’s got me in a sleeper hold – Give up! Mouse says – never! Rats don’t have ribs, I yell, rats don’t have ribs! It’s Mouse man and you’re trapped… you’d better tap out or it’s star search for you. Bubbles of spittle on dorm room concrete are never attractive… Alright I give, get up off me! I roll on my side and wipe bubbles of saliva from my mouth, my nose. It’s Kleenex time, Mouse says, boy where you hide the Kleenex box, I know you must have a pallet of them in here.
In fifth grade I had a friend named James and sometimes he would come over after school… not in the house, of course. We would play in the old Volkswagen Beetle, our spaceship, he was my second in command, there was no captain’s chair and no passenger seat, both seats had been removed long ago by – Mama, one of Mama’s boyfriends, maybe Papa before he left? I don’t know, there was only ever the shell, and an interior stripped of all recognizable components… the radio was long gone, which meant no communication with Voyager 3, the glove compartment interior was missing, a door opening to exposed metal and ductwork, no room to stow our tricorders, and where the stick shift should have been was an empty hole in the floor, shafts of dead summer grass poking through the hole to remind space travelers that even the future was susceptible to entropy and mother nature. The only thing left was the instrument cluster, the fuel gauge eternally on R for research, rescue, reconnaissance, James and I sitting on metal milk crates, me at the wheel, preparing for liftoff, we are not two schoolboys we are cosmonauts of the highest order, I took Mama’s Reynolds Wrap and Scotch tape from a kitchen drawer and wrapped James in aluminum foil, securing his space suit with tape, then when he was sufficiently suited up he wrapped me in aluminum, ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, we mean you no harm, take us to your leader – we fly over country roads in a silver bubble, far north of the desert, searching for lone electrical workers or men on telephone poles, reading their minds without harm, scanning for intelligent life, hit 2:04 James, there’s nothing here…
We’re mild and green
And squeaky clean
Which galaxy are we visiting today, James asks, and I hand him a frayed four-folded sheet of discount Manila with the coordinates RA 0h 42m 44s | Dec +41° 16′ 9″ written on it in my careful hand but I tell him not to fret over it, we’ll get there in the blink of an eye, faster than the speed of thought, the journey is the destination, charting new worlds, learning new languages, a new simplified mathematics, that was the goal, traveling without moving only required aluminum foil, scotch tape and football helmets. Should I set the coordinates, captain? Yes please –
And I have no compass
And I have no map
And I have no reasons
No reasons to get back
When Mama discovered the Reynolds Wrap was missing she grounded me for a week – but you can’t ground me Mama, being stuck on the ground is the worst! Nathan stop this foolishness! Pull your head out of the clouds! A week without friends, without television, only granny to keep me company – Esther leave that boy alone – but being grounded wasn’t so bad, I had my books and Snoopy to keep me company, me on my stomach on my bed, my Vans kicked off, an old hardcover copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos before me, the last perfect day on Earth – Boy you’re never going to get anywhere with your head buried in a book all the time – Mama – sighing heavily to remind her she was interrupting great work, the galaxy needed saving, so I pressed the power button on my Casio 61 but her secrets wouldn’t come to me, there was only the soft hum of electronics waiting to be placated, my fingers hovering over her, hungry insects waiting to touch down.
What happened between Morrissey and Johnny Marr? How did one of the greatest musical partnerships go south? So when are we moving in together? I’ve gotta get out of this dorm. Mouse standing before me, in basketball shorts and a wife beater, the eternal beanie pulled over his head, his arms crossed waiting for an answer – Next semester works for me, avoid all that paperwork … hey when are we going to practice together, I’ve been toying with this new tune but I only have the lyrics, I need someone with skills to lay the tracks down – that’s why we need a place of our own, Mouse says, you can’t practice in a dorm room, and he sits on my bed next to me, adjusting his beanie, thick dark straight hair, not like mine, an invisible keyboard on an invisible stand before him, lap level, he can see the music before it is concrete, audible, so long ago, those days when he was open to me, when we would work on a song for hours, trying to mold the lyrics to a bridge, an unplugged Yamaha TRBX505 5-string on his leg, were his fingers coaxing the notes or were they already there?
If I were ever going to create my own Golden Record, in preparation for Voyager 3, Mouse was the person I wanted to create it with, my Lol Tolhurst to his Pearl Thompson, my Brian Eno to his Adam Clayton, it was going to be him or no-one, we clicked and I understood he was a natural and needed to think very little about what he was doing, while he understood I was a technician and had to map everything I was working on down to the simplest chord progression. You have to be a pretty talented bass player to play a five string? I ask. You don’t have to be skilled to play any kind of bass, Mouse replied, it’s just matching your hands with your heart. A skilled bass player should be able to play anything without a pick. They should be able to do the double-thump technique. But what about keyboards – I don’t know man, that’s all you, though I believe a true musician should be able to play several instruments… drums, bass, keyboards, guitar – Can you play them all, I ask – Yes, but I like the bass best, it’s heavy – but what about keyboards – I don’t know, I don’t like sitting down, I like movement, plus my brain doesn’t work that way – what way – I’m not Herbie Hancock – I need to move around, it’s too technical – Well I want to have skills like Herbie but I want to be cool, too – Herbie’s cool, man… don’t overthink it, you’ll kill yourself overthinking it, and I knew Mouse was the one because he knew of Herbie Hancock, of Papa’s old vinyl copy of Head Hunters in the living room, Mouse holding the album in his hands – that’s a demagnetizer – flipping the album over with the expertise of a record store clerk – Just remember you’re the fingers of this operation – and if I hadn’t eventually become Jace I would have become Fingers.
Like a rocket after liftoff, shooting violently into the atmosphere, the Earth getting smaller as the rocket moves further from its surface, my father’s face disappeared as I got older, each year taking me from the memory of it until it was a hazy small dot, a nothingness. Hey Mama why are there no pictures of Papa in the house – I never had any pictures of him, Mama says, the only thing he gave you was a name. – Esther leave that boy alone – Mind your own, Mama! Mama screaming into the next room, granny with her blanket pulled up around her, a shield against Mama’s hatred. Hey what galaxy are we going to today, James asks, a scratched gold football helmet pulled over his head. He’s looks silly wrapped in aluminum, but he’s my friend, and Mama seems to tolerate him, even though he’s – Set the coordinates for Andromeda, I say, the discount Manila pushed deep into my right pocket where years later a cell phone would be. I puff out my chest and survey my milk crate kingdom – Subspace is a wonderful tool but we must use it carefully… James nods at the import of my words, punching code into the glove compartment door. In the old Beetle we can go anywhere, limited only by our imagination, yet I cannot establish contact with my father, who is an unknown factor light years away, a pulsar in the distance, his face PSR B1919+21, am I an alien, was Papa an alien, is this why Adam Clayton visited me in my crib so long ago? Wake up, Mouse says, drumming on my shoetop – the desert awaits.
The above was excerpted from a forthcoming novel by James Nulick.