Michael Standaert >

Sky Dog

 

His real name was James Crews. Jim to some, Jimmy to others, Sky Dog to his father. Jimmy was born the day Duane Allman, lead guitarist for the Allman Brother's Band, died. While riding his motorcycle Duane was struck by a tractor-trailer truck hauling peaches down in Macon on November 29th, 1971. I'd heard Jimmy's father Andy was in the waiting room when his best friend Ponce stormed in, bawling like a small boy. Ponce, six-foot-four, three-hundred-twenty pounds of muscle and shrouded in leather, had anchored at defensive end for the University of Tennessee from 1964-1966. They said to see that man crying was like witnessing the Mississippi flow backwards or watching the moon scrape the top of Clingmans Dome. Andy was so shaken by the sight of Ponce and the news he uttered in half breaths that he forgot his wife was in delivery and took off with his riding buddy to their haunt on the outskirts of town, Glorisa Lily's, for shot after shot of Wild Turkey in memory of the guitar master and fellow motorcycle rider. When one rider went down, anywhere, a wake was held. They were spasmodic happenings, sometimes lasting a couple hours if the rider was unknown to them, but sometimes lasting days, or even weeks, if the name burned in their ears.

Andy and Ponce paid tribute to Duane for nearly a month until Andy finally recalled where he was actually supposed to be. He sobered up and rode home to find his wife Satin nursing his first born baby boy on the front steps of their trailer. A light snow covered the Tennessee hills, but it was warm in the valley.

"What's his name?" Andy asked, averting his eyes from the fierce stare Satin burned through his skull.

"Jimmy."

"Jimmy?"

"Like my father."

That was fine by Andy even if Satin's father was a crook and a murderer serving life in Marion, Illinois after drunkenly abducting an Illinois State trooper. He robbed the trooper, stripped him naked and forced him to walk the center line of Illinois 127 until the trooper got stupid and made a break for it. He was run over by a family in a station wagon heading south for a winter vacation and Satin’s father was sent to rot. But Andy didn't bring that up, now or ever, to Satin for naming Jimmy, Jimmy. He took to calling him Sky Dog, Duane Allman's nickname.

Most people were kind of put off by Jim Crews. In high school he barely spoke. He only smiled like he knew a secret he would never tell. He wasn't a big kid, of middle height, thin, but his deep set blue eyes under a crown of bowl-cut blonde hair the color of broom straw, made him stand out. I knew Jim because my dad used to ride with his dad before mine gave it up and became a sedentary man. Dad went to Sturgis once with Andy, and I think out to California one summer. My dad told me Jim's dad had gone off with Ponce to Sturgis back in the early 80's and never returned. Some said they were still riding around out there, gone to Alaska, or even crossed the Bering Straight somehow and are now tearing through Siberia.

 

<>

 

On the final day of my senior spring semester of high school I was finishing off a sandwich at lunch, sitting at a picnic table with Sue Ann, working her, trying to get her to go to a movie with me. I saw Jimmy walking around by himself, smiling. This wasn't anything weird, he did it constantly, always with that truth look on his face. What caught my attention was his close examination of a branch on the tree he stood under. The limb bowed in his grip as he bent it toward his face. His free hand touched a leaf and something that was hanging off it. Sue Ann tugged my arm and distracted me for a minute with her glowing face and that girl smell, her sweat and warmth beneath her jeans and t-shirt. She asked me what movie. I said Batman. She suggested Dead Poets Society. We decided on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

"What are you doing, faggot?"

I turned to see Frank Powells and Eddy Irons, tag team duo senior quarterback and center for our Johnson City High football team, huddled around Jimmy. Eddy wanted to snap him in half.

"Huh, faggot?" Frank went on, shoving Jimmy. Eddy gawked on, his ham hock lips fluttering in a laugh. "You hear me? You deaf, fag?"

Jimmy glanced at Frank, then to Eddy, with those calm blue eyes of his and the branch he had held swayed back to its former position. He made a fist. I was afraid he would use it.

Frank laughed, followed quickly by Eddy. "You gonna hit me?" Frank spluttered. "This fag is gonna hit me!" he proclaimed with false astonishment to the students that had begun to gather round. I took another bite of my sandwich as Sue Ann clung tight to me. That was one of the perks of watching a fight with a girl on your arm.

Then, I still don't believe what I heard, but I know I did, and I'm sure others can verify it, Jimmy spoke. This wasn't a great surprise. We'd all heard Jimmy speak when answering a question in class, so we knew he could talk. It was what he said.

"I want to tell what the forests were like," he said in a mellow, authoritative voice, not really addressing Frank and Eddy, or any of us; more the still air surrounding him. "I will have to speak in a forgotten language."

Frank made a face like he'd swallowed a plug of chew, looked at Eddy, who assumed the same face, then cracked Jimmy in the jaw. Jimmy hit the grass hard but held his right hand in a fist away from his body as Frank and Eddy took turns kicking him. Heavy sick thuds of boots to body resounded through the silent, breath-holding crowd. Then the bell rang and everyone scattered off to fifth period. Sue Anne pulled me inside and as I looked back I saw Jimmy laying there, blood streaming from his face, with his right fist held up, away from his body.

No one told on Frank and Eddy. They were more scared of them than they were of Jimmy, plus school was almost out, graduation was two days away, and Frank and Eddy were All-State and Jimmy was nothing to them. No one cared about Jimmy. They were worried about graduation, worried about finding summer jobs, or worried about the new schools they would be going to in the fall, if they were going at all. I heard later the day after Jimmy got pounced, that they had taken him to the hospital in Knoxville. A few broken ribs and a badly bruised face.


After graduation Friday night Sue Ann and I went to see Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Afterwards I made love to her in the bed of my pick-up truck down a half-track in the coolness of the hills beneath a canopy of pine and stars. Neil Young's Freedom played softly on the tape deck as we gave up our virginity, or as I gave up mine. I had not asked Sue Ann if it was her first time, and didn't intend to.

Driving home with her sleeping head nestled into my lap, as Eldorado played over again, I thought of Jimmy and wondered if he was all right.

On Monday I had to go down to Knoxville to check out the University of Tennessee. My father grew up with one of the deans there. I was a shoe-in with my above average grades and more importantly my throwing arm. The baseball coach wanted to give me a try out. That morning Dean Camci took me on a quick tour of the campus, and in the afternoon Coach Boarders watched me pitch. I threw mostly fastballs, thirty pitches. They clocked me in the high 80's and Boarders thought my mechanics were sound and that I had a shot at making the team if that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know what I wanted to do. He said he would call me later in the week, so I had a few days to figure it out.

I began to drive back to Johnson City. As I was pulling out of the campus, I decided to take the turn to the hospital.

Jimmy awoke as I entered the room. His face was bandaged tight, above his eyes and under his jaw, making him look mummified. He watched me as I took a seat across from his bed. I noticed his right hand was still clenched in a fist.

I had no idea what to say to him, having hardly spoken to Jimmy in my life. We sat, watching each other. His eyes smiled under those bandages. His look always made me uncomfortable and this time was no different, maybe worse.

"I think I made the baseball team down here," I said, then stopped. I felt stupid. "Those guys are jerks, Jimmy."

He blinked and his head moved slightly.

"When you get out you should go see the new Indiana Jones movie," I said. "I saw it last night. Good flick."

He blinked his blue eyes again.

A nurse broke the silence, gave me a quick glance and a hello, then removed some food trays behind the curtain on the other side of the room where I could hear an old man coughing. She came to Jimmy, helped him to the chair next to his bed then removed his sheets. She whistled sweetly while she worked.

We sat for a while, saying nothing. The television blared on the old man's side of the room. I could see the man's gnarled feet poking out from the bedding, wrinkled like bark. He coughed and his feet jerked. The television high in the corner showed a news program about gang violence in LA.

I wanted to ask him why he still had his hand in a fist. I went back to watching the television then heard Jimmy try to say something. His fist opened.

In the palm lay a small round cylinder about the size of a cigar butt. Jimmy beckoned me with his gaze. I walked slowly to the side of his bed. The cylinder moved slightly in his hand. It was a cocoon. The shape trembled and cracked, hair-like antennae unfurled and elongated. The face of the butterfly poked through and its straw-tongue tasted the new air. Jimmy laughed a muffled laugh. He had been keeping that cocoon warm all week and now the incubation was complete. The creature extended its damp wings, spotted orange and black, lined like stained glass, and pulled the rest of its thorax from the shell. It perched on the edge of the cocoon moving its wings silently, warming them, testing out its new body.

Jimmy moved the butterfly close to the lamp on the bedside stand to warm it. The wings fanned, soaking in the heat, bringing the butterfly energy. Then the wings lifted the creature from Jimmy's hand and it soared around the room, gaining strength, searching about. It fluttered near the curtain that separated the room in two, bumping against it and then taking off toward the ceiling lights then toward the door. I got up and closed it quickly so the butterfly wouldn't get lost in the hospital hallways and never find the outside. The old man hacked on the other side of the room and turned up the volume on the television. Jimmy smiled at me with his eyes and I knew he wanted me to go open the window to let the butterfly escape.

I walked to the other side of the curtain, and the man looked up but it seemed as if he couldn't see me at all. I was an apparition to him. Maybe he was blind. The volume on the set was so loud that I thought he must be almost deaf too. I went to the window and removed the screen but the window wouldn't open further than about three inches, probably to keep people from getting any ideas about sending themselves to death. Back on the other side of the room I returned to find the butterfly sitting on top of Jimmy's head. I think he knew it was there, but he didn’t move an inch. I crept slowly to him, and eased my arm toward the butterfly, trying not to frighten it. It took to the air again and floated about, drifting around the curtain to the other side of the room. I passed over to that side again, trying to corral the creature toward the window, but it was playing with me. I swiped at is softly, and the breeze sent it toward the window. Then it landed on the frame. It seemed to be taking one last look at the room. Then it flew out into the warm May dusk. I went back to Jimmy’s side of the room and took my seat.

“Looks like he’s safe now, Jimmy,” I said. He stared at me.

“You ever just think about leaving?” Jimmy said. “Just pulling out and changing scene? Becoming something new? Where no one knows your past, and can’t dictate your future?”

I was stunned. I’d thought his jaw was broken and he wasn’t able to talk.

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it,” I said.

“I’ve never felt at home here,” he went on, not registering what I said. “I feel dead most of the time. Weighed down. You ever feel like that?”

“Sometimes.”

The old man coughed and turned up the volume even more.

“What are you going to do?” Jimmy asked. “Looks like you just came from a workout.”

“I might pitch for UT. Had a try-out today.” I shuffled my feet then sat down in a chair across the room from Jimmy. After a minute I broke in. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to take a piss.” He stood up from his chair, laughing a bit from the pain. I went to him and helped him to the bathroom. After he flushed I heard him start talking from the other side. “All I know is I’m going to go. Somewhere else. Anywhere else.” He came out of the bathroom and I helped him sit down again. “You think I’m crazy?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“Maybe a little. Maybe if you talked more or hung out with more people,” I started. I stopped. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right.”

“You’re all right. Those guys are jerks anyway.”

“They can go screw themselves. They’re dead anyway.”

I brushed my hand down my leg. Jimmy watched me.

“I ain’t going to kill them, if that’s what you think.”

“I didn’t think that.”

“There you go, lying again,” he laughed. “I meant they are already dead. They don’t dream. They have no grace. No beauty.”

We were silent for a couple minutes more. The television was turned off in the other part of the room and the old man started to snore.

“Why did you come?” Jimmy asked.

“I really don’t know.”

He smiled.

“Maybe I should go.”

“You can go. You can stay. You can do whatever you want.”

I stood and started for the door.

“What did you say to those two guys the other day?” I asked.

“That? That was nothing. Just something I read.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets. “Well, take care, Jimmy.”

He looked away, toward the window the butterfly had flown from, then looked at the shell of the cocoon in his palm.

“See you, Jacob.”

 

<>

 

I dated Sue Ann that summer before my freshman year, but she started to change, or maybe it was me. Whomever it was we drifted apart. She moved to Chicago and enrolled in a business program at a community college in the suburbs. After a few calls I hadn't heard from her. I did hear a few rumors about Jimmy. One was that he joined the Marines, but I couldn’t see him doing that after talking to him that day. Another was that he'd got a job as a lumberjack or a firefighter in the Northwest somewhere, maybe even Canada. But those were just rumors. I had not seen him since the day I left him at the hospital with the empty cocoon in his hand.

My first year at the University of Tennessee I went 4-5 with a 4.86 ERA, mostly in relief, with two spot starts when two of our starters went down with minor injuries. The first start I pitched a three hitter against Georgia over six innings but left because of a high pitch count. The second game I started I was shelled in an inning and a third with six runs, by Louisville, and never had another start that year. I gave up ball during sophomore year after tearing a tendon in my right elbow. I could have gone the surgery route but I had no ambition of going pro or rehabilitating for a year.

It seems like everyone is always leaving or waiting to leave, or thinking about leaving. My father left during my sophomore year. A heart attack took him in the night. He had been alone in his bed for fourteen years, my mother having died when I was six, depression leading her to tie weights to her feet and slip herself into the warm summer waters of Lake Watauga. Her father, my grandfather, had worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority starting in 1934 building dams all through the state. I wasn't sure if he had helped build the one on Lake Watauga. No one ever told me if he did and I never asked. Now it was too late. I’d even heard Jimmy’s mother died. Someone said she walked off into the hills and they found her body in the spring, frozen on a rocky outcrop, sitting cross-legged, looking to the sky.

I dropped out of school at the end of my sophomore year and went to work at a gas station outside of Chattanooga. I wasn’t interested in anything but baseball, and when that failed I wasn’t interested in anything much at all. The gas station was a good job. I saw a lot of people come and go, some I never saw again and some faces become familiar after a few days. Other than that I've took to reading a lot. Mostly histories, ancient Greece and Rome, some Civil War and some from the First World War. I picked up a book of contemporary poetry one day, not having read any since my freshman English class. I'd flip through, read a page or two, then pick it up again the next day. I came to a group of poems by W.S. Merwin and read one called "Witness" and the words struck me like I had heard them once before. I want to tell what the forests were like. I will have to speak in a forgotten language.

That night I crawled into bed with the book and read those lines at least one hundred times. My kind of poem, short and to the point. Maybe that's why Jimmy said it the day he was plowed down by fists and boots. I read it again, trying to obtain a new meaning each time. Each time it came out the same.

The next day I was ringing up a customer when I looked over his shoulder to see a man about my age smiling strangely at me beneath a tangled mass of blonde hair and a beard. I said goodbye to the customer and the man stepped up, still grinning.

"How are you, Jacob?" he said.

"Jimmy?"

"In the flesh, or something like that."

I had my coworker Ben man the register while Jimmy and I went out front and stood looking at each other. Like the last time we'd seen each other, we didn't say anything right away, just looked at each other awkwardly.

"You look healthy," Jimmy said. "Not really."

"I kept up with your pitching for a year but then didn't see your name anymore."

"Tore my elbow up."

"That's a shame. You were good. I went to a game once. Saw you throw a three hitter." "You were there?"

"I was around."

"My dad wasn't even there."

Jimmy took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, offering me one. I refused.

"What's new, Jimmy?"

"Not much. I was out in British Columbia awhile, lumberjack. Then just kind of wandered around. This is my first time back in Tennessee for two years."

"You didn't miss much."

"Looks about the same, doesn't it."

"How'd you know I was down here?" I asked.

"I didn't. Luck I guess. I came down to visit my mother’s grave. I’m leaving again now, on my way out of town."

I told Jimmy I had to get back to work or I'd get fired and he nodded. But on the way back in I took off my work shirt and laid it on the counter as Ben, the high school kid who worked with me, stared at me like I was nuts. I looked out the window and Jimmy sat there smoking in his car.

"See you, Ben. I'm quitting," I said.

"But I can't hold the place myself."

"You'll be fine. Call the boss if you get swamped."

"But?"

"Take care, Ben."

Back at the car I slipped in beside Jimmy.

"That was quick," he said.

"I quit."

"Where to?"

"Somewhere else."

"Let's go fishing."

We drove the rest of the day and into the night and through the next day until we crossed the Mexican border and made our way south. South. We fished the surf of Puerto Angel as time dissolved into nameless hours and weeks, bringing in the fish by truckloads which we sold on the beach. Our skin became dark, tanned by the salt and seawater, our arms sinew and muscle from hauling in the catch. Sometime later that year Jimmy married Rosa Benitez, and I married her sister Marta. We vowed to never leave.