Thursday, June 18, 2015

J. Stephen Howard writes


I'm writing this in the year of our Lord, 1980, realizing that my days are numbered. It's amazing I've lasted this long, not because of my advanced age but rather considering I survived to see my adulthood at all. Not many could say the same who experienced a modern day example of God's wrath in Galveston, Texas, in the year of our Lord, 1900.

But while one might think that's quite enough to survive, what emerged in the wake of that terrible storm cursed me for years, and I hope no one else has had the misfortune to come across this evil talisman. But if they have, I pray they could play the blues from the heart. Otherwise, they might as well have been standing in the eye of a hurricane.

Forgive an old man for prattling on, but while I got rid of the Devil's instrument some time ago, I still wake with a chill in my old bones and can swear I hear a haunting blues melody that won't let me be. Maybe by writing this down, I'll receive some measure of relief.

It was a windy morning to be sure on Saturday, September 8, and we had received warnings, but my father, a prominent stock trader in this the Wall Street of the West, said, "Jeremiah, God has been good to us. He'll be good again."

I'd never seen a more confident man then or since. My father's faith in God seemed intertwined with his faith in himself. That's what made him a successful trader, and how could I, a mere boy of ten years, argue with him?

Besides, we lived in one of the best, most solidly built houses in all of Texas. The Greek columns of Belle de las Santos, the name of our mansion, stood tall as I cowered in the basement with a friend of the family.

While it was a Saturday, my father told me he needed to tidy up some business affairs in an office he kept downtown on the island. Although I worried, he had reminded me with an admonishing finger about God's providence. Also, he reiterated his certainty propped up by the scientific pondering of Isaac Cline, from the Galveston Weather Bureau. Cline had said nine years prior that the city didn't need a seawall, so a seawall was never built.

God and science were telling us everything would be just fine.

I tried to wear a smile as my father patted me on the head before walking out into the gusting wind, but it just wouldn't fit.

The friend of the family down in the basement with me was none other than Willy Custard, a once-in-demand guitarist who played in many bands until he began playing a different kind of music. The popular hits of the day were tunes such as "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" and "Give My Regards to Broadway." However, after his son died, who had been the only good thing left after a busted-up marriage, old Willy started playing some new music. The blues, he called it, but I never thought that adequately defined it. I would string some adjectives along in front such as the down-and-out, dark spirit, howling wind blues.

He was there on that morning when the Great Flood, as people on the island called it, made landfall as if an invasion had occurred. It was an invasion all right but of water, wind, and pure evil.

Custard had his guitar, which was nothing unusual as he carried it slung around his neck wherever he went. He should have been knocked out still from a powerful hangover, but he'd been keenly awake when my father suggested he might like to stay down in the basement with me, his son, to ride out the "temper tantrum of Mother Nature." As I've said, though, Dad had some business affairs downtown that needed managing, and when it came to work, he couldn't leave anything untidy, no matter if the winds were picking up at steady 50 mph gusts.

My mother, who suspected my father had stepped out on her with his secretary, had stepped out on him to stay at her sister's.

"You best get on with your business, Winfred," Willy told my father for Winfred was his name. "You know God will get on with His no matter what our earthly affairs might be."

Willy had been a friend of the family for a good five years. My father had saved him from getting strung up by a bunch of KKK members who had no idea they were about to lynch a well-traveled musician.

"You should've let them hang me from a tree," Willy had said on occasion, to which my father would always ply him with more liquor and more musical requests.

The morning when the hurricane was about to hit, Willy was, as I said, down in the basement with his wooden chair tipped back against a support beam. It looked as if at any moment he and the guitar would tip over.

Being a boy of only ten years, though, I didn't say anything. I just kept imagining him falling to the ground while simultaneously the water from the hurricane came thundering down here.

There was one light, flickering off before coming back on, dangling from the concrete ceiling. We were directly beneath, in the center of a vast empty space that my father had always been meaning to convert into an entertainment space with a stage, dance floor, and bar.

The fact that those remodeling plans had never been set in motion, not to mention the moans of a particularly hell-bent storm, didn't keep Custard from singing and playing as if they had been. He sang as if he were playing before a packed house.

Did I mention that he should've still been suffering the stabbing pains of a monstrous hangover? Again, all was immaterial save for the languorous sound of Custard's voice that seemed to hang above the guitar chords clanging with resolute accompaniment.

"The wind's gonna blow, just like a man's gotta know," Willy sang, his voice raw with emotion but rich in tone. It was like the mixed cries of a wolf and a baby. "The water's gonna rise, just like a man's gotta die. His soul gonna blow, gonna rain, gonna fly."

Remember, I was just a kid. I was out-of-my-mind scared from that wind, already blowing mighty strong. From the vantage point of the basement, I could hear all kinds of creaking sounds as if the house above was not settled. I shouldn't have been able to hear the water pouring in relentless sheets, but I did.

And thanks to either the confidence or negligence of my father, I was left alone with old Willy. My mother, who was as I've said still at her sister's, would've taken me with her but for the powerful will of my father. Also, she had no idea the nanny had fled two days ago thanks to an evil premonition of her witch doctor that all signs pointed to disaster striking the Belle de las Santos. Hazel just about knocked me down, she was in that big a hurry to leave.

I'd never seen her act that way before, with her eyes fully dilated and breathing heavy like she might either bulldoze me or faint there on the spot. It upset me that my mother thought I still needed a nanny looking after me as if I'd never made it out of daycare, but that's another story.

I guess my father thought putting me down here with Willy might calm my nerves in the face of a big storm. Of course, we both needed shelter, and Dad knew that, no matter how much he denied its effectiveness against his own impenetrable mortality. His marriage was another thing my father thought was beyond reproach, although she'd been apart from him for a week at that point. I'd heard whispers, even as a kid, of Dad's fling.

"The wind's gonna blow," Willy sang as if confronting me personally with an inescapable truth. "Just like a man's gotta know," I replied, trying my best to sing Willy's beloved blues. The words had risen from deep in the pit of my stomach, surprising me, for the intention to sing them hadn't come from me.

For a second, I thought Willy might smack me for crowding his stage, but he nodded. He was never one for conversation, but that morning, he looked more in the mood to sing than speak. That, however, would change.

I had been aware of Willy's tragic past and how his only son was killed in a freak accident. Trevor had been about my age when he climbed a tree only to slip and fall, snapping his neck on a fence post.

"He was only trying to show me he could climb that tree to the top," I heard Willy say once during a rare moment when he spoke about the accident with my father. "God doesn't want us to climb."

As I stared at Willy the morning of the Great Flood, those words about his son were telegraphed via his soulful eyes. Willy was a man in his fifties, although he looked to be in his sixties. Grey hair dominated his fuzzy hairdo that was as unkempt as the rest of him. He wore raggedy blue overalls that had served many years as his jack-ofall-trades, handy-man's uniform. He'd done many odd jobs for us around the house, including fixing the plumbing when all the toilets stopped flushing at once.

The truth was, I liked old Willy, but that didn't stop me from being scared of him. I'd been a pampered boy, in terms of having any material thing I desired; therefore, I'd never been exposed to the kind of hard living that inspired the blues, which Willy sang about. So, when I saw the deep sorrow in his eyes and felt the sadness, which clung to him like a martyr's robes, it spooked me.

Of course, it didn't help me now to be in the basement with him while a powerful storm raged. I must've appeared like I’d seen a ghost. It was ironic how Willy saw me.

"Trevor," Willy said, at which I blinked.

I didn't dare correct him for calling me by his deceased son's name.

"Trevor, ain't no need to be afraid. Your pops is here. I gots you. I gots you, my son."

I think I mentioned it was dark down there, except for the meager light cast by a single overhead light bulb. There were other lights that could have been switched on, but I was too transfixed by a haunted Willy to alter my position.

Willy's eyes were strained wide as if he saw more than what I or anyone else could see, which of course he did since he really thought I was his boy. He was leaned forward now in a position I was sure would result in him falling forward, crashing into me.

That's when I looked up to see a crack, like an angry mouth spreading to reveal sharp teeth, in the ceiling. Had it been there before? I couldn't be sure, but one thing I was certain of was that I wished Willy would go back to singing rather than talking.

I was somewhat relieved to see he was no longer leaning back precariously in his chair.

"You play," Willy said, holding out his guitar as if it were a sacred object. It looked as though it might be with its strange carvings going up and down the fretboard. The carvings, circular and twisting, were in some language I'd never seen.

I felt my forehead grow wet from perspiration, not from the dank basement, but from my growing dread. I couldn't play one note, let alone a chord on the guitar, although I gathered that Willy's son could.

It felt as if Willy's eyeballs were touching mine. With trembling hands, I accepted the guitar, which was a Martin 0-28 flattop, as I'd later learn. While I never approached mastery of it, I have grown to appreciate the instrument as only a collector can.

At this time, though, I had no idea how to produce one note of sound from Willy's pride and joy. The guitar felt heavy and awkward in my arms, and I was like a nervous father afraid of dropping his newborn.

Willy's right eye twitched, staring out in what I interpreted as annoyance. "What's wrong with you, boy?"

I saw he wanted me to take the shiny, brown pick pinched between his fingers. I hesitated, wondering if I should tell him I wasn't his son. Considering Willy's strong insistence otherwise, I decided it was best if I went along. But how could I if I couldn't play?

Tears streamed from Willy's eyes as he took the guitar back from me and resumed his titled back position. "I never got the chance to teach you properly. Is there any use in Heaven?"

My breath got stuck somewhere between the pit of my stomach and my constricting throat. This man really thinks I'm the ghost of his dead son.

I tested my theory. "Jeremiah wouldn't mind learning."

Willy shook his head. "I don't know where that boy went. Winfred left him in my charge."

How could he see me, a boy very much in the flesh, as a ghost? Then again, the lighting from the one bulb was dim down there in the basement, and the charged atmosphere from the approaching hurricane had just about everyone's radar off. None, though, was off as much as Willy Custard's.

Willy was now biting a knuckle. "I have to do something, find that boy. Winfred would curse my grave if anything happened to Jeremiah."

I thought of the nonchalant way Dad took the approaching of the hurricane and wondered why Willy cared more about looking after me than my own father. Also, it was at least as strange how the boy Willy was concerned about, Jeremiah, was sitting before him in the flesh.

Willy looked with discomfiting tenderness at me. He gave that moment a good amount of time, which made me freeze as if I were the subject of an artist's portrait. Then, he made a sudden movement, getting up with guitar in hand as he moved toward the steps. He then turned back around, his instrument dangling from his hand like a hunter's trophy.

"Trevor, I hope I gets the chance to see ya again. But I have to find Winfred's boy. You understand, don't ya?"

Although it was strange, I did understand. Willy was seeing the ghost of his son, and at the same time, he felt the tug of responsibility he had for the living boy he was charged with watching over.

Just as I was sure he had gone, Willy appeared before me, holding out his guitar once again in the loving arms of a father. "You take care of this, here, now. If anything happens to me, Trevor, you have to take care of it. I doubt we'll be going to the same place, and only your soul can play it."

With that, Willy made his way up the steps, his figure disappearing into the shadows from which he would never emerge.

1 comment:

  1. In 1900 Galveston was the largest city in Texas, the Wall Street of the Southwest. The nearby city of Indianola had been the second largest of the Texan port cities, but its destruction by hurricane in 1886 led to its evacuation. Nevertheless, in 1891 Isaac Cline, the Galveston Weather Bureau section director had publicly declared that a seawall was not only unneccessary, even though the city was situated on a low, flat island, basically a large sandbar, but that it would not even be possible for a large hurricane to strike there. The city continued to grow and proper, and the sand dunes along the shoreline, the last thin defense against a storm, were removed in order fill low areas. and thus the Galveston hurricane of 1900, often referred to as the Galveston Flood or the Great Storm, became the second costliest in inflation-adjusted dollars in US history. And the deadliest -- somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people, more than all the fatalities in all the other American tropical storm combined -- in comparison, Katrina cost some 1,800 lives Over 3,600 homes were destroyed, and 30,00 people were homeless. Since burials on such a huge scale were impossible, corpses were weighted down on barges and dumped at sea, only to be washed back ashore; so funeral pyres were erected throughout the ruined city, and they burded day and night for many weeks until all the corpses were disposed of. The city never recovered, and development shifted north to Houston.
    Climate-change deniers, take heed.


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