This one’s for you, Skink, this solid and remarkable dream I had one night, just last week, still haunting me in this, my 88th year on the planet. It was so real I believe it really happened in a place so near us, we can’t see it, or so far away from us, we’ll never get to see it for ourselves, even though we know it inside and out, upside and down, from left to right, and all the in-betweens, the hereabouts that may occupy more than one place in this universe.
Wherever he went, whenever he went, this is for Skink, our one-time town drunk who was haunted practically his whole adult life by an accident that was not his fault, driving an ice delivery truck for a town business man, a man who did little if any maintenance on the truck, particularly on one door-latching mechanism that had a bad habit of swinging open on its own at hustle, jarring or rumbling of the chassis — with the door handle confoundedly smashed into a knife-like threat of hardened, one-time chromium steel the sun still clutched at on some cloudless days.
That awed appendage loomed like a weapon at the edge of the door, and when it swung open right by the School Street railroad crossing, it caught a tad of a boy on the forehead while riding his bicycle on another morning watching freight trains make the crossing near his home, loving the adventure of reading freight car logos, his mind finding images of faraway places — The Forest Trail, Maine Hill Line, The Route of the Phoebe Snow or the Hiawatha Line or Boston & Maine or The Carson City Limited, each of them saying elsewhere, each of them crackling with the excitement and dreams they brought with them.
That crisp morning dove into death, despair, and the first drink of an endless career of drinking, a once-crisply moving, handsome young man locked so deep into alcohol he could not come back from it — nor ever bring back that dreamy boy who loved trains.
Skink became his name, shabby his dress, bed anyplace out of the weather, alcohol his night and day companion, begging or stealing funds for the next fix, for the next day or night to face up to, the nightmare of crunching bone and uncontrollable screams of horror from victim, witnesses, the hapless driver.
Pity tailed him like a wounded animal, but alcohol put him to sleep, sometimes with the horror crawling back into his sleep with him.
The years went by; he survived by the power of his own guilt, the alms of others, now and then a similar-bent veteran of the horror of war spending a few days with another dread loser, as they enrolled into their own fraternity.
I watched him for more than twenty years, on occasion, with a side glimpse into a morning alley, hands out beside a barroom or a liquor store, standing guard at the perimeter of jousts and games and meetings and celebrations where pity worked drinks loose from the gathering. More than once I left a half empty bottle or can of beer on the ledge of an open window or on a back stoop of a civic building or went outside with a few friends to get some air of an evening and left a full bottle on the top of a parked car, some of those friends shaking their heads, now and then one or two of them nodding acceptance of my deed, Skink’s history from Day One imbedded in them the way it was in me.
Life among us, around us, had its quirks and its accidents, its wars and bony pains and harsh cancers, its losses and separations, and last visions of lost or forgotten friends.
But once in a while, over the latter part of those twenty years, on mostly good days or nights, the moon perhaps spilling some kind of happiness, or calling for an element of devotion, I’d hear a voice from some audible distance, a singing voice, sometimes a decent throat pushing out a mostly unintelligible song or tune, sometimes a caught phrase that called for remembrance.
I never once found who or where the voice was coming from, as though it never wanted to be found, no apparent dream of La Scala or a Broadway scenario in the itch of the song. And when this lovely Golden Labrador puppy came to me as a present, we began an evening walk about town, often in darkness, changing routes several times, until one was selected by both the puppy and me as the long loop around our local pond.
That’s where the voice came from, on odd nights, at odd hours, rolling across the water of the pond, and always as if it came from the other side no matter where I heard it, until it dawned on me it was from some kind of craft that moved about the pond. I never heard the splash of an oar or a paddle, never saw the singer doing his thing.
I’m certain that I’m tone-deaf, can’t distinguish one note from another except the likely ends of the scale, whatever the scale is to musicians, my father often saying “You couldn’t carry a note in a briefcase,” which he could, like in the shower or with a couple of summer beers in place. But at the same time, I loved some songs and some singers and loved Caruso and a few others on long-playing records or doted on some singers who made movies famous because of special songs.
The unknown voice began to alert me to some favor, unseat a special curiosity, and even held my dog’s attention at odd hours of the night. There were times I thought he’d leap into the pond if he were loose and go find the voice, but the pond at night seemed to be a lake, a larger body in which to hide, elude listeners, walkers, dogs.
I began to enjoy the mystery, as though I did not want to find the singer. I think that’s when I noticed the voice had arrived at a point of quality, that practice and a natural instinct had made way to that quality. That’s about when a job assignment took me away for almost a year, with two brief visits back home, my dog in the hands of my kid brother, no more thoughts about the strange singer on the pond or about the pond.
When my assignment was finished, I returned home, resumed my walks the first few nights, and heard nothing of the unknown singer. He had slipped beyond the horizon, like another lost soul from my past. Some losses, we know in our secret accountability, seem light, some are unknown except through a very minor association, and some hurt like Hell is playing with me, or the High Heavens.
It was at week’s end when the phone rang, my pal Eddie at the other end. “Get down to the Center now! Hurry! You might not get a parking space, You won’t believe it! I swear to the heavens you won’t believe it. Hurry or you’ll miss it. It’s impromptu, I swear! It’s outta sight, I swear!!”
He hung up on me.
I got to within one hundred yards of the Town Hall. The whole of the Center of town was jammed with cars and people. Cars were parked all over the four roads leading in and out of the Center. Younger people sat on hoods of cars. Others crowded on the lawn and the wide front walk of the Town Hall. The sidewalks were crowded.
The very air released a mystery to its near-mythical origin.
And dead center on the steps of the Town Hall, standing proudly in a neat outfit of shirt, sweater and army suntans, his tenor voice melodious, reaching for notes, bringing quality from wherever to the words of Nessum Dorma, like La Scala-trained, an unbelievable quality as rich as I could imagine, Skink Hanson, the town drunk, the lost inebriate of my youth, was liberating his soul, his fears, his blame, his conscience, his guilt, freeing his home town of a huge guilt he carried in his own back pocket, a man who was once scored, scorned, besieged, laughed at, ridiculed, pitied, and had run counter to everything normal in our times.
For more than two hours the songs burst from the cavity of his chest, from the pipes of his throat, from his heart, from the deepest confines of his soul so that people gasped in unison, enjoyed in unison, but managed fully to the farthest edges of their gathering to refrain from clapping or applauding in any manner.
All joy, all acceptance, all forgiveness, were quietly universal.
A flash snapped into my mind; this was re-creation of my town and its soul.
I’m walking the pond again with my dog, thinking every step of the way we’re the only ones who hear the music.
Header photograph: By Teufel (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons