Halloween. And all day I spent with the dead. I brought them into my mind one by one, in the order of their passing, from the earliest childhood days forward. I marched them past single file in my mind’s eye and tried hard to honor them by seeing them clearly. Some I saw with more clarity than others, and my heart was grieved by my forgetfulness for some.
For it is not good that the living should forget.
I confess my performance at work was not my best. My mind and heart had clocked out before I even pulled into the parking lot. My coworkers were likewise distracted and taciturn. All agree it is best that the custom demands that no work be done on All Saint’s Day. After Halloween night, it is best to have All Saint’s Day for rest. The custom is both ancient and powerful, and not even the demands of commerce may defy it.
For it is the custom, from the first full darkness of Halloween night until the break of All Saint’s morning that the dead may come visit the living.
Always it is one that you loved, or that loved you. They may come. You may welcome them. Death releases his greedy grip, for a little while. For one night a year they may come, and only once.
I counted down my roll call of the dead, and wondered who would come.
My great grandfather had come once, whom I knew only from a picture. He lived long enough to hold his youngest grandchild’s firstborn in his arms. He was kind soul, full of warmth and affection, and he shared with me tales of his youth, before the first world war. He spoke of my grandmother as a young girl, and my grandfather as a young man. He spoke to me of my great-grandmother, who my mother and aunts and uncles all recalled as saint.
He spoke not of what had come after he passed, for the dead speak not of these things.
My first cat had come one year, he who had waited for me to come home from school every day, and who some wretched soul had murdered with ground glass. He leaped into my arms, and would not be parted. I simply sat with him, as his whole body shook with purrs and his claws worked upon my shoulders. As the night ended and the dawn took him from me again, he meowed at me one time, and all the love he had for me was in it. And I was six years old and inconsolable, again.
Punch the clock and end the day. Mumbled goodbyes to coworkers. The shadows grow long, and the leaves blow wild and fragrant through the air.
I am afraid. I am impatient. We all are, this day. The hair on your neck begins to stand up. The doors are opening. They are coming. You know not who, or why, or from whence they come. It all simply is.
Home. An inventory. Pet food. Wine, beer, coffee, milk. One never knows. I have the makings for a few meals. Ashtray on the table. I quit years ago, and do not allow it in my house, but this night the rule is waived if needs must. They are as alive, to all appearances, as we are this night. No spectral form within a bedsheet, no phantom drawn from some filmic nightmare.
It is as it was when they lived.
I am nervous. I check the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom. All must be ready. I make the rounds, finding nothing new to address, and go again. My anxiety is too great to simply sit. Everyone has different rituals before their visitor comes. With age and years, this has become mine. When I was younger, and I had not so many dead in my life, it seemed easier. A simple visit with a departed elder. As if they had never gone.
The thing gets harder as you go along, as friends and pets and lovers depart and the finality of death slams your head into the bricks.
You miss them, and you miss them, and you miss them, and the night approaches and your heart breaks for them all. And one will come, only one.
I am turning the lights on, for the day is in the last moments. The red and golden glow of the setting sun is just barely visible through the tree branches in the distance. Street lights flare to life. Dogs whine and howl in their yards. Everything seems magnified. The door swings open, the way is clear, they come.
The wind carries the sounds, a spirit wind that blows through walls and bones and heart and mind. I listen.
The old man across the street gasps as he sees his best friend from childhood, gone seventy years.
A dog barks and howls for joy as his first, beloved master embraces him.
An aged widow cries. Her husband has come, as he promised he would.
The wind is blowing and my eyes are shut and my heart is wrapped in iron chains of melancholy.
And it passes, and there is Jack. Of all people!
There are times when there is a hole in your life, and you meet someone, and they fit that niche perfectly. That was Jack.
Back in the old days, the drunk days. I was struggling to learn guitar. I had a junky old acoustic and a couple of chords to my name. I needed a real teacher. What little I knew, I’d just figured out on my own.
I was walking home from a party, had to be two in the morning. The street was dark and deserted, just the way I liked it. I caught the smell of a cigarette burning and heard the soft sound of a guitar being played well. I stood there listening, looking up at the balcony where the sounds were coming from.
I could see the cherry of the cigarette burning and I stood there listening until the player finished his piece.
“You sound great up there,” I said.
“Thanks, man. You wanna come up and have a beer?”
And that was how I met him. A couple of drunken loners, colliding by pure accident in the pitch black darkness of two a.m., bonded by music. We drank until near dawn, swapping songs and stories. He ran out of cigarettes, but I had an unopened pack and shared out mine. By the time we ran out of steam and I resumed my walk home, I had gained a brother.
Jack looked as I remembered him in those early days of our friendship. Thin, rough skinned, long graying hair and matching beard. He was somewhere in his late forties when I was in my early twenties, but looked a full ten years older.
He had that look that some people have when they have lived too fast and too hard for too long.
“Jack.” My voice was breaking as I greeted him.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. ” I thought maybe we can have a few drinks and play some songs.”
My skill as a guitarist had improved dramatically since the last time we played together, but I realized that I didn’t have an acoustic anymore. Just an electric. All wrong for the two of us.
I need not have worried. As Jack laid the battered hardshell case of his instrument on the floor and popped the latches open, I saw my old junk acoustic leaning against the wall. I had cursed it a thousand times for not being a respectable instrument. It was a no name guitar that I had covered with stickers, but the neck was true and it stayed in tune, and it didn’t sound bad at all. I picked it up. The instrument still had the old strap I used back then.
Jack had strapped on his guitar, an old mahogany Gibson. I hadn’t seen it ages, but I knew every detail. The body had been damaged badly and glued, you could see the repairs on the top of the guitar and under the soundhole. The ebony neck was old and worn, and there wasn’t an inch of that instrument that didn’t look as ancient and well-traveled as Jack did. And the sound? There was a pound of beauty for every ounce of wear that old guitar had.
“Let’s do some Country Joe and the Fish.” That had been one of his signature tunes.
Jack had been a real-deal hippie in his college days. Berkeley. Free speech and anti-war. He had taken that guitar to the big rallies, the ones they still talk about today. And he’d played wherever they’d listen. Rallies. Streetcorners. Coffee houses. Parties. He had loved to tell me those stories, and I loved to hear them. He told me I would have fit right into that time and place. He said maybe I’d been born a little too late for my own good.
We tore into “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” like it owed us rent money. That song had been beyond me in those days, and I never did learn it properly, but my fingers knew what to do.
“You’ve picked up a few steps since the last time I heard you.” I nodded.
He unstrapped his guitar and leaned it against the wall. He pulled out a package of Drum tobacco. He was poor, dirt poor, the whole time I knew him. So he smoked poor people smokes.
Jack had gone to college to stay out of the war. He found a niche in the burgeoning hippy revolutionary movement. No movement like that can exist without true believers, and Jack believed. They could win without a single shot fired and create something beautiful.
The revolution never happened and the only world he could have been a part of died stillborn. He graduated with a degree in History, and it wasn’t until he tried to make his way with it that he got his real education.
Liquor took care of the rest. Jack was a human crash landing. There was a marriage that had failed, and there was a long drunken period of subsistence level existence that carried him up to the time I met him. He was a drunken refugee from a country that never existed. His wooden ships had sunk in the harbor.
Jack never could roll a cigarette, and he hadn’t improved since the last time I saw him. I gestured for him to hand me the tobacco before he could finish his pitiful and unsmokable effort.
Outside, the wind was howling and the Jack O’Lanterns were grinning candle powered grins. The air had grown hard and cold. All Hallow’s Eve wrapped her arms around the night. My furnace kicked on with a whoosh, and the comforting smell of warm heated air mingled with the tobacco. I handed him a cigarette that looked more or less like it should. He nodded his thanks and struck a match from cardboard book of them.
I opened the refrigerator door to fetch us a drink. I had stocked in everything I thought a good host would need, but I found a surprise.
Wild Irish Rose. I heard Jack laughing. “I hope you still like that stuff.” He and I had drank a great deal of it back in those days. We had a drinking game. We drank the bottle, and if you got the last drink, you lost. We had some wine glasses but that didn’t seem right for the vintage. I grabbed a couple of jelly jars from the cabinet, and poured us out a few tall ones.
We raised our glasses high, and brought them together.
“Here’s to better times,” I said. We drank.
The taste was sweet and warm, delicate and smooth. This was not standard bottle of the Wild Irish. I drained mine in a single tilt, as I used to do when I was a young man. Jack and I sat our empty glasses down at the same instant. I picked up my guitar and strapped it on. “You ever figure out that Cat Stevens tune you were working on?”
Moonshadow. I couldn’t get that thing down to save my life, the whole time I knew him. I eventually did, and could it sing it well enough. And I had long forgotten it.
“Why don’t you play that one for me. I’d like to hear it.” I nodded. My hands went straight to the D chord and began. It came back to me, as I ran through the chords and sang the song. How I had struggled to get the timing of the verses right, and how hard it was to stumble through that bridge with the changes that went to barre chords. It was child’s play for me now. That’s how long ago it was, but I remembered being the twenty two year old man who photocopied the song at an office supply store from one of Jack’s old songbooks so I could learn it.
Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. Did it take long to find me? And are you gonna stay the night?
As I rolled into the finale of the song, Jack had jumped in and we were singing it together. I hadn’t really thought of it since then, but there were times when Jack and I would catch a song together and we sounded good. The guitars, our voices, the song, all fitting together like they belonged. We weren’t Simon and Garfunkel, but we could have gotten some paying gigs.
I’m being followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow
leapin’ and hoppin’ on a moonshadow, moonshadow moonshadow
Somewhere in the aftermath of that song we hit the last of that bottle, but strangely, neither of us were drunk. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t affected. Have you ever experienced something that was magic? Something so perfect that your mind lights up and you realize that this is going to be part of the highlight reel of your life? It was that. Exactly that.
We spent a couple of years as friends, teacher and student. Guitar and psychedelic history. Jack was my Rosetta Stone to the mystic writing on the Woodstock wall. The time came for me to move to another town and live a different life. I saw him occasionally on my trips back. He was getting older, but still living at street level. Still held tight in the grip of his disillusionment and alcoholism. There came a time that I could no longer find him. No one seemed to know if he was still around or not.
I practiced and learned and toiled. I lived hard. I got into a band that could have been a going concern and got my heart broken watching it burn up on the launch pad. I lived my new life in the new place. I met new people and traveled down new roads. I played street corners at odd times at night, people’s parties, impromptu barroom jam sessions. I chased girls and caught them and lost them and mourned them, and wrote shitty songs about them I rapidly lost interest in playing.
And just as my life in that place had been lived and it was time for me to move on, Jack showed up again. He was much older, but looked much better. He’d quit drinking. He was planning on getting his life back together. He was settling into a scene I knew well and that I knew would be back to visit. We talked about the old days for a little while, standing there on the sidewalk. Finally, we both had to go. We’d see each other around. He was getting to know some of the people and places I knew. I was so glad to see him and to know that he was on the mend.
And that was the last time I saw him alive.
We ran through the songs. He played one, I’d play one, facing each other on old kitchen chairs, guitar facing guitar.
Shine on raisin bran sun, shine on in the summer sky, with amusement in your eye
Shine on raisin bran sun, time crawls at a slither by, and then smiles and asks us why
From the mouth of the sphinx, the riddle was sent to test us, and out on the lawn the pagans have come for a ceremonial breakfast
Shine on raisin bran sun
Hooray, the day has come.
Jack was applauding after that one. “I love that! Who is that?” I hadn’t thought of or played the song in twenty years. “One of mine. I wrote about this weird place I used to live. You would have fit right in.”
“If it’s anything like the song, yeah.” Jack took the last pull off the cigarette he was smoking and put it out. “You always were good. Remember when you figured out the intro to ‘Here Comes The Sun”?”
Years had passed. I had gotten older, raised my son and lived as a single father. The party days had passed. I still played my instrument. I still had a muse that would not leave me alone. I had been commuting to the new and now old town, seeing many of the same places, always expecting to see him. Never did. Jack was simply not around, and he should have been. I wrote it off to him being older and more sedentary, perhaps.
I eventually learned, ten years after the fact, that Jack had been beaten severely while walking home one night and had died from his injuries. His voice and kindness and guitar had been snuffed out in a senseless, unprovoked attack. He was gone.
This would have happened less than a week after our last meeting, on that sidewalk, which was just as unplanned and random as our first.
If Jack was Ahab, that little opening riff from “Here Comes The Sun” was the whale. Maybe it was psychological, something that was so mythic and such an apotheosis of playing that he could never allow himself to figure it out. But I did. I simply sat down and started picking notes until the first one sounded right. And then the second, and the third, and so on.
This ate up most of my free time for a couple of days, but after I had done it, I had it. When I played it for Jack, he was stunned. Nothing I could have done could have possibly impressed him more.
“Let’s do ‘Here Comes The Sun”, he said. I didn’t respond, I just started tearing into the intro. Jack took the lead vocal, and jump in on the rhythm. I played the lead parts and thickened up the chords when I was able, singing backup for him as I did. Our hearts were in the thing. Most times when I am playing, I am not aware of whether I sound good or bad, but I was very aware in that moment that we sounded great. Jack and I always sounded good together and we maybe missed out on something by finding each other when we were both committed to seeing how little in life we could achieve.
Sun, sun, sun–here it comes.
We finished the song and the last chords were hanging in the air, and I felt it. The spirit wind had begun to blow. The way back was opening. The night had passed so quickly, it had scarcely seemed to begin.
Jack’s hair was moving, as if he faced a wind, and a golden light like the sun on the horizon lit his face. I could smell salt in the air. He was looking past me at something that only he could see.
“Pray for me. Okay?” Outside, I heard the disconsolate howl of a dog and the low, whispered murmur of his first owner. “Who’s a good boy. Who’s my good boy?” I heard the sound of a young boy’s voice coming from an old man’s throat, “Goodbye! Goodbye!” I heard the low sobbing of a widow, forced to let go of her husband once again. I heard them crying together. The wind was howling.
“I promise I will. You pray for me, too.” Jack turned his head slightly, and began to say something, but in the instant that I blinked my stinging eyes he was gone.
The wind was no longer blowing. The way was shut.
The first thin and freezing light of All Saint’s Morning had come.
The guitars were gone, and the wine bottle was gone. The glasses bore no trace of that which had filled them. My ashtray was empty, as clean as when I had pulled it gleaming from the closet. No cigarette smell hung in the air.
Everything seemed perfectly ordinary. The furnace made a whooshing protest against the freezing morning. My heart was broken.
It is our custom on the evening of All Saint’s Day to attend an evening Mass, just as the light of the day is dying away. We file in quietly, not speaking, giving only a deferential nod of the head if we make eye contact. We stop at the black book, open on the lectern set before the holy water fountain, and scribe in the name of our beloved dead. We sing the songs and the psalms and we listen to the homily, quietly. With reverence. And we pray for all of those we have known and loved and lost.
This is our custom. So it has been, so it shall be, world without end, amen.
I sat down at my kitchen table. Had death ceased from being cruel? Or was death allowed, for one night only, to demonstrate that he was kind? My body began to shake as I fought them. But the custom demands the tears, and so they must be shed, brought forth from the deepest reservoirs of our souls.
Those Jack O’Lantern tears of All Saint’s morning, bitter as death itself, sweet as candy corn.
Copyright 2017, Kevin Birge, all rights reserved by the author.