by Barrie Jean Borich
East of the church where I lived that fall, there was a house I never saw. A wall of kudzu and privet blocked my view to everything over there but a window and a hand-lettered sign that read, “No Trustpassing. Will Call Police.”
The kudzu and privet swarmed east to west, away from this window and around our church. It fell away as our red dirt driveway met the neighbors.’
A two-beam fence stood in the clearing where the two properties touched, and just beyond the fence sat a three-bedroom house rented by an old woman everyone called Mamma. Every day when I left the church I saw Mamma ambling around her yard with a bandanna on her head and a plug full in her lip. She waved at me and talked her talk, but I never understood anything at all.
Her house flooded over—sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends—so many that they spilled out into the driveway and onto the fence. Rick, Rat, Frank James, Trina, Carbox, Willie, Deidre, Prika, Cedric, Toni, Nanez, Tater, and, every once in a while, two cross-dressing cousins named Chad and Sam, all teetering on the fence, waving at me, speaking.
Years before we lived in the church, someone had placed a black metal sign in front of the building’s white double doors. The sign, though rusted, still read “Full Gospel Tabernacle” in white letters.
By that fall, the black sign and the white double doors were the only clues that our place was any different from the rows of tract homes down our street, leading into what people called The Iron Triangle.
Inside, our church still showed traces of Full Gospel, but the nave had been partitioned off, the transepts cleared into a living room, and the chancel made into a stage, where, in place of a pulpit, we put a drum kit, two keyboards, three guitars, two amps, a bass, a saxophone, a clarinet, and two turntables.
We were twenty years old.
The artwork on the inner sleeve of that first album shows the raised outline of handmade stars on sheer aluminum foil. That fall, because I loved the music of those stars, I covered the walls of the back bathroom in the church with aluminum foil imprinted with my own stars. I sat there until I felt that music pulsing from what surrounded me.
I put a tiny tab of acid on my tongue and hid in the bathroom, staring at the stars and listening to the fan hum, crackle and buzz until the black tentacles that had been creeping up my eyes began to fade.
My friends lay sprawled in the transept with faces full of blood, and when I felt fine, free of tentacles and luminous, I emerged from the aluminum foil smiling, ready for their warm bodies to press against mine.
I began to sing, feeling the air push up from my lungs and out my mouth in wet bursts. My friends began to dance around me, and all together we sang. My friends and I sang, and we kissed because the blackness was gone, and our bodies were warm, and so was our breath.
I played music, but only other people’s songs and only in my room on a guitar I had bought at an estate sale. A forty-year-old Silvertone with a small American flag scotch-taped to the body, ridges worn into the fret board, bloodstains on the tuning pegs.
I sang my songs with this guitar in my room in the church, and I recorded these songs on a secondhand four-track held together with rubber bands. I never played these songs for anyone else, just recorded and re-recorded them on my four-track in my room.
I sang and sang.
My voice was terrible.
The day we moved into the church, Prika walked up to me as I unpacked a box of books and asked me where I came from.
“Why?” I said.
“Why,” Prika screeched, “Cause you talk funny is why!”
She scrunched up her face and jutted out her hip. She looked me up and down.
“I’m all itchy!” her cousin Deidre said, squirming on our kitchen chair, smacking on a Popsicle.
“Ion know,” I said, puckering my lips and sticking out my chin.
“Ahhhhh,” Prika screamed, “that boy talk real funny!”
She slapped at Deidre and ran out the side door of the church to the driveway where the rest of her cousins sat in the dirt, listening to a small stereo. All the cousins put their hands in the air and shouted when she ran through.
I remember watching my friend’s hands shake as we sat in the transept, listening. The black plastic stereo had gray scuffs like jellyfish tentacles. The sounds fought through the speakers—the beats thudded, the horns warbled, the voices bled into dark, echoing chambers—but we didn’t care.
A year before, my friend had moved to Athens from Druid Hills just outside Atlanta. His hands shook over his chest, slapping every once in a while to the beat, right on the spot where a few years before doctors had broken his breastbone to remove a tumor. The tumor, he told me later, had been a twin brother enveloped in the womb. In it, the doctors found fingernails and hair.
After we got settled in the church, we threw parties. We invited our friends from school and our friends from next door over, and everyone at these parties stood together in the transept listening to whoever would wander onto the stage to play our instruments.
Well-scrubbed white college couples wandered in and out of the bedrooms while black guys from next door stood by the double doors, smoking blunts and yelling at one another, slapping hands.
After I smoked a giant joint rolled by a guy named Rat, I climbed up onto the stage between the guitar amp and two punk-rock kids pounding out beats on the floor.
Carbox, the ancient drunk, played bass with his shirt off, and a kid I didn’t know with a floppy Afro played drums. Frank James climbed up next to me, nodding his head frantically and yelling in my ear. I played my Silvertone in fits and starts, shoving tones into the spaces left by the turntables, the bass, and the drums.
Shirtless and sweaty, Carbox stumbled around the chancel, making pained faces and sliding his fingers up and down the fret board. The two punks pounded out beats on the floor with their hands. The kid with the floppy Afro slammed his fat foot into the drum kit, and my friend’s hands shook over the records.
Almost every day after we moved in, Prika and her cousins, brothers and friends came over after school to play while my friends and I watched or yelled at them to leave. Nanez played drums, and Cedric, Trina, Marcus,f or Antonio rapped, holding the microphone too tightly in their fists, too close to their mouths, distorting their words into slobbery mush.
“Who’s that peekin’ at my window,” they yelled, “Pow! Nobody now!”
Standing in the kitchen with a joint, a beer, or a cup of coffee, I tried to coach them into songs, into articulation.
“Keep going! Keep going!” I yelled when Nanez’s beat turned slack, when Cedric slurred.
“Don’t smack on the mic!” I yelled, “Prika!”
“Ahhhhhh,” she screamed, falling sideways into Nanez, laughing.
I don’t remember where we bought the acid, though I know we didn’t buy it next door because next door they only ever had weed, cocaine, crack, or speed, never mushrooms, meth, ecstasy, or acid.
“Shit,” Rick said when I asked, “that’s only junk for white people.”
We kept our acid in the freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil next to the coffee beans, frozen pizzas, and vodka. This was the same freezer from which, one afternoon, a snake sprang forth onto the kitchen floor and slithered behind the overflowing trashcan.
We saw our neighbors everyday on the fence, in the driveway or outside the house. We saw them sitting on folding chairs, on car bumpers, on rickety beams, drinking beer, cooking ribs, tweaking engines, feeding babies, waving as we walked by.
“He-ay,” they would say, waving. “How y’all doin’?”
“Fi-ine,” we would say, waving back. “How about y’all.”
“Can’t complain,” they would say.
“Alright,” we would say.
They would always smile when we spoke, glancing at one another sideways, swatting a fly from a baby, a rib, an engine.
When we spoke to our neighbors our speech changed—our pale vowels stretched, our stiff consonants dropped from the ends of our priggish words, our jaws stuck out, and our eyelids drooped.
“Alright,” they would say as we walked to school with backpacks and books.
A few days before the snake sprang from the freezer, I had gone to sleep drunk.
I dreamt of speaking against my will, of my lips moving and my teeth being lightly scraped by something unseen. Slowly, I emerged from the dream. A small warm thing rested on the side of my face. I reached up and swatted it off my face and heard it strike the wall, then scurry off toward my closet.
“The people next door are so loud.”
“They sure have a lot of cars.”
“I bet somebody next door knows where we could get some.”
“They made fun of me for eating a salad.”
“Did that guy from next door steal your hammer?”
Almost every day, Frank James came over to the church and sat at our kitchen table, smoking Kools and talking fast, running his hand over his doo rag and brushing off his Falcons jersey.
“I grew up on a dirt floor, yo,” he said to me once, “can you feel that? That’s right, dawg, a dirt floor. Shittin’ in the yard and alla that. A hole in the fuckin’ ground. That’s why we got to get this togetha, man. This music, dawg.”
I nodded, hoping my friends might hear Frank James and emerge from their rooms. I knew when they heard him they would emerge because they loved Frank James. They slapped hands and hugged and smoked blunts with Frank James, while I always sat nodding, smiling, hoping I wouldn’t have to hear my voice reflected in the face of Frank James.
Frank James leaned in close to me and opened his eyes wide. He smiled a big gap-toothed smile.
“FRANK JAMES!” he yelled at me.
He turned his face to the ceiling and balled his fist.
“FRANK JAMES! MOTHAFUCKAS!”
He sprang up from the kitchen chair across from me, grabbed the microphone from the chancel and started hunching up his shoulder, looking around with wide eyes and licking his lips.
“FRANK JAMES! FRANK JAMES!” he yelled into the microphone while I sat at the table.
“MOTHAFUCKAS! FRANK JAMES! FRANK JAMES! Where my niggas is[KF1] at? Where my niggas is at? FRANK JAMES! FRANK JAMES!”
My friends came running from their bedrooms and started in on the drums and keyboards. It was their song. Someone else from next door burst in, and off they went until Frank James dropped the mic and sighed.
“My niggas,” Frank James said, shaking his head, cuffing my friends around the neck, “My niggas.”
That fall, I talked with musician Jeff Mangum on the phone. I had put a suction cup with a microphone in it on the back of the handset and plugged the microphone into my four track, but I didn’t trust its tape to record, or its rubber bands to hold, so I scribbled too, trying to keep up with his thoughts.
The microphone recorded him taking in a breath.
He took in another breath.
He spoke again.
I scribbled and recorded, and after I hung up, I read and listened and tried to understand.
The snake came, we guessed, because of the mouse that had crawled across my face. We all laughed about the snake in the freezer, but secretly I wondered, When will I wake from a dream with the snake in my teeth?
“I mean,” I said to my friend, who that night in the fall of 1999 had told me we were the worst ghosts of our parents’ generation, “I wouldn’t mind if of all the things in all the worlds in all the universes in all the realities, I were really just a ghost.”
We had wanted to go to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Prince Avenue to tell Jeff Mangum we loved him, but my friend had begun to freak out, so we stayed at the church and listened to records instead.
“Just a ghost isn’t so bad,” I said, petting his head.
The last time I saw Carbox was when he came over to the church when no one else was home but me. He knocked softly, politely. I opened the door to a cloud of gin and foul breath. Carbox pulled me outside by the arm and whispered wetly in my ear, “Hey, blood. I brought you some pussy, man. For lettin’ me play that night.”
Out in the driveway stood a middle-aged woman with gnarly teeth and a red weave piled high on her head.
“Ha-ay,” she yelled, flapping her long fingernails at me.
After the party, and for the rest of that year and into the spring, Carbox came over to our house nearly every day and banged on the door.
“C’mon, blood,” he would yell from outside, “It’s Carbox! We got to get this together, man! I got us a gig up in Tennessee, blood, a real gig with money and everything!”
We may have let him in once or twice to hear him out, but usually, after a few minutes of pounding, yelling, and hearing us inside laughing, drinking, or talking with each other, not answering anyway, unwilling to let him back into the church, he would stop pounding. In a low, quiet voice, he would say, “Shit. I know what y’all did that night,” and then we would hear him walk back across the red dirt to the house next door.
Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The Stranger, and the Huffington Post, and his work has appeared in a range of magazines and journals, such as the Boston Review,Crowd, Lungfull!, and Denver Quarterly. He lives in Washington, DC.