Lou Farr had bright red hair, which he got from his mother, a pretty woman, but he wasn't pretty. He had a mole's nondescript face, pale skin and wore thick rimless glasses. Not a big guy, about five seven. Neither fat nor skinny. But lots of red hair, a restrained way of taking things in and a street kid’s way of speaking that did no justice to his intellect.
When I met him he was the reservations clerk at the county park where he’d had a summer job the year before and been asked back. He sat behind the boss’s chair even when the boss was in the office. The boss talked at him for hours. Lou sat there taking it in, laughing sometimes and at other times obviously agreeable to the boss blowing himself out, letting Lou pore over his textbooks, silent as a stone. He’d already completed one year of a chemical engineering program at Drexel in Philadelphia and wanted to get a jump on the next year. The chemical engineering program at Drexel was a bitch.
I was new, just out of high school, and had no ride other than my father when he could arrange it, but Lou had his father’s Dodge Dart. He said he could pick me up and drop me off. I asked why his father didn't use the car. He said his father had Hodgkin's lymphoma and didn't leave the house anymore. I’d never heard of Hodgkin's lymphoma. Lou said it was an orderly, slow-moving, fatal disease. No cure except dying. That’s how he put it.
The only time I met his father, the man was sitting at the dining room table of their tract house smoking a Marlboro. He had a cold cup of coffee at hand. Lou asked if he could hot it up. His father said no thanks. Lou asked how about some soup. His father wrinkled his nose. Father and son were almost identical in their stillness. It would be difficult to say whether they were innately composed or paralyzed with fear. Lou's father moved slowly because of his illness, but Lou moved slowly, too. When he ran––if we were playing some baseball in the park––he’d pant and his small tongue would protrude from his mouth, just like in a cartoon.
Lou's mother Patty came home from work. Now there had to be some food for Lou, his father and me. Hamburgers and fries, pickles and some beer. It was difficult to believe the strain of Lou’s father's cancer hadn’t spoiled Patty’s good looks and figure, but she was almost like a high school girl. Looking at Lou’s father, an ashy, half-crumbled man, I tried to imagine him with black hair and zest sufficient to win her over. That's probably how he was when Lou was a little boy and they played catch in the backyard.
The reason Lou manned the office, a little brown cabin, while the rest of us sweated it out cutting trees and grass and painting picnic tables and building fences was that the boss knew Lou’s family and their situation. That's why he spent so much time talking at Lou, telling his dirty jokes and reminiscing about this or that woman he'd known in his well-spent youth.
Lou had just lost his girl, Laura. One day I asked him what happened. He said she claimed she just didn't care anymore. He didn't understand how that could happen because they’d been close since ninth grade. He also said he'd gotten so upset he stopped playing his trumpet and lost his lip. I said he could get it back. He said you couldn't ever get your lip back. When your lip was gone, it was gone.
“But, man, I got to do something,” he said. Music was everything to him. He liked it all. For years he’d sat on the living room floor playing classics from the Music Society of America: Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart. His father listened, too. “When you got nothing to say, music fills in,” Lou said. I deduced that’s where he was with his father, nothing to say.
We began hanging out at night, drinking. I had a lot to say having spent my youth reading literature. I was high on it. Still am. Lou knew nothing about Kafka or Joseph Heller or Laurence Sterne or James Joyce. When I told him what they'd written, he began reading them, too. We talked about that and me starting to write short stories and Lou beginning to play the guitar and write songs.
One night at my house when we were soused on my father’s scotch, Lou opened up his guitar case, which he'd brought along but left untouched several times before, and began playing the instrument in a way that made it sound like a balalaika, driving it hard. Then he began singing a song with these opening lines:
“I can’t get out of my car… I can’t get out of my car… Here I am forever just can't get out of my car.”
I was hypnotized by the sound and the image. What car? Why can't you get out of it? Has the car or this throbbing music got you trapped? Which is it, or is it both?
Then he radically switched perspectives, shouting not as the man in the car but as everyone else:
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s burn the odd little man in his car! Let’s burn down his car and burn down his house and burn down his family, too!”
And then abruptly, brilliantly, chillingly, back to his plaintive flat inscrutable lament:
“I can't get out of my car, I can't get out of my car . . . .” The words tired, the voice tired, slow, monotonous, unbearable. I felt like a screw that had been twisted so hard the head snapped off.
“‘The Odd Little Man,’ is what I call it,” Lou said.
I said it was the best song I'd ever heard.
We drank more, finished a whole bottle. Somehow Lou drove himself home and the next day he was back at the desk in the cabin and the boss was talking at him and I was mowing grass on a piece of county property that fringed the juvenile detention center, St. Gabriel’s, which once had belonged to the Catholic church. The incarcerated girls who saw me on the tractor came running over to the chain-link fence and pulled up their shirts to waggle their titties at me. “Put your dick through,” one said, “and I’ll suck you right here.” The other girls folded up with laughter. I told Lou and the boss about that when I got back to the cabin. They both liked it. Before that day I wasn't part of them; after that, I was. And I also knew about Lou's song, which the boss didn't, so something else was going on.
Summer ended. I went off to college while Lou kept living at home and driving to Drexel on the Schuylkill Expressway. I received a call from him one night. His father had died. He wanted me to know. I said how sorry I was. He said he just had one question.
“How come a decent man who did all the right things and loved his family had to die that way? He was forty-seven. Got Hodgkin’s when he was forty. How come?”
I said I had no answer. Maybe it was in the music, maybe in the books.
“Well, it ain’t in chemical engineering,” he said. “Anyway, I just wanted you to know.”
“I’m glad you called. What can I do?”
“Nothing. He’s in the ground.”
“How’s your mother?”
“I don’t know what's going to happen with her. She don’t either. Like we’re both dead, too.”
When I’d come home during breaks and over the summer, we'd get plastered and talk and listen to music. He was big on The Band and John Prine. From time to time we’d catch a couple of older women at a bar and spend the night in one of their places because neither of us could take anyone home. These were men-hunting women, but we were blind drunk and didn't care and afterwards crossed the bars where we met them off our list. Didn't return their calls if they got our numbers, either.
Lou’s mother met a really decent man named Joe, a truck mechanic, who was fastidiously groomed at night the way mechanics like to be after a day in the garage. Lou wished his mother well. He knew she didn't love Joe the way she had loved his father, but there was nothing he could do to bring his father back. He wrote a song about that, his mother and his father and Joe, without including himself. Then he wrote a song about an experience he had interning at an oil refinery south of Philly. He had climbed a ladder on the side of a storage tank to check some meters and he froze. His hands were locked on the rung at his shoulder level and his feet were locked on the rung beneath him. The song wasn’t about oil refineries, no reference to anything but up and down and frozenness. He told me he knew he had to do something but he couldn’t move. He imagined if they sent a helicopter up they’d have to break his hands with a hammer to get him loose. The song was called “Don’t Look Down.”
I developed a relationship with someone at college, but Lou didn’t really develop a relationship with anyone after losing Laura. He graduated and got a job making fiberglass in Kansas City. His chief concern was patching the furnaces with glass when the metal gave out. He’d move the temperature inside above and below 2000 degrees and that’s what made the glass patch form. Then he’d return the furnace to stewing glass, as he put it, and streaming it into fibering blades. Like making cotton candy, he said. His song about the furnaces was called "You Can’t Look,” because you couldn't with unprotected eyes. “Even eyes behind these lenses,” he said, tapping his thick glasses.
Joe and Lou’s mother got married. Joe told Lou he’d like Lou to be his best man, but he had to ask his son from his first marriage to do that. Lou settled for being the one to give his mother away and wrote a song about that.
These were not country songs. They didn’t tell a straightforward story. The woe in them was chilling, not sad. I told Lou that they were the theoretically inaccessible thing-in-itself, as Kant put it, not the thing as perceived, which is the human condition, dealing in appearances of reality rather than reality itself.
Lou said he wasn’t interested in the fucking human condition. All he knew was that giving your mother away to another man, even one you liked, made you sick. Being sick, that was his reality.
“You get me, man,” he said. “I know you do.”
I went to graduate school in Baltimore eventually and Lou came to visit me and the girl I’d married, who left for work before Lou and I went out for breakfast. Lou didn’t like the first or second diners I took him to. Finally he said okay to the third place where he ordered a beer with his eggs and bacon. Coffee, too, but beer, three of them.
Afterward, as we walked back to my apartment, he said a few weeks back in Kansas City he’d awakened in the storage room of a big truck garage, a place like where Joe worked. He’d rolled his Toyota Celica off the highway in the wee hours and some Samaritan saw it happen and stopped and found out he was all right, just drunk, and offered to tow his car and give him a place to sleep while he sobered up. No cops, in other words. The only thing wrecked was his Celica.
When Lou came to, he had one lens left in his glasses and took in the nudie calendars and metal shelves loaded with parts and walked out into the office, and the Samaritan told Lou he was an alcoholic himself and Lou was an alcoholic, too, and needed to go to AA.
“This morning,” Lou said to me, “I was desperate for a beer, which is why those first places weren’t right. They didn't serve. I needed some place that served. I can’t tell you how bad I felt, wanting that beer. Man, it was wicked.”
“Now you’re all right?”
“No, I’m not all right. That guy was the one who was right. I’m an alcoholic.”
“You’re only twenty-four.”
“Don't matter. But I can’t go to any AA meeting. You know that. Stand up and say, ‘I'm Lou and I'm an alcoholic’? Never happen.”
No, never happen. He had a new Celica, which he'd driven all the way from Kansas City, but Lou wouldn’t tell a group of strangers the tale of how he got it. I’d known him for years, and he’d tell me, just like he'd sing his songs to me, and sometimes to my wife, but even she found him creepy and didn't understand. When I told her his story after he’d left, she said maybe I should call his mother, which I knew Lou would see as an unimaginable betrayal.
He came back a few months later. Didn’t bring his guitar. Didn’t drink any wine with us. Said very little. The evening became sluggish and effortful. My wife couldn’t bear it and went to bed. Lou and I sat up looking into our little wood stove.
“You stopped drinking completely?” I asked.
“Yes, I have.”
“But not through AA?”
He said Jesus had saved him, and the only book you needed wasn’t my books but the Bible.
“I’m walking through the flames of hell in Kansas City looking at the bars and the babes along the way, and I know I'm going to die and maybe take some innocent people with me if I get back in my car. So, really, I’m just out there on the sidewalk telling myself to keep walking, don’t go in no bar, don’t go get into my car, keep walking.”
“Could be a song in that,” I said. “‘Walking, Keep Walking.’”
“Not on my account. I don’t write songs no more, but there was music. That’s part of what I’m telling you. I come to this corner and I hear organ music blasting out of a church. It’s this black stone ugly thing with red doors and the whole building’s vibrating, music coming through the windows, not out of them, right through them, and I froze.”
“Like on the storage tank?”
“Worse. Because what next?”
You know some people deeply, and I knew Lou deeply. I just did. “You fell.”
“That’s right. I fell to my fucking knees bawling my eyes out, and here comes this next Samaritan. She's black. Her name is Lucy. That was her church. She took me inside and sat with me, and the organist saw us there by ourselves, me bawling and her holding me, and he kept playing harder and harder, throwing Jesus at me, all of Jesus, more Jesus than I could take, crushing my ass, wasting me, telling me I was sin, sin, sin, and yet He forgave me, He loved me, I made it to Him just in time.”
I knew this wasn't over. I looked into the fire in the wood stove and let him keep going wherever he was going.
“Then I hear the music stop and I hear something else,” he said.
“I didn’t know. I looked at this beautiful fat black girl and she's making these sounds with her mouth, and I have no idea what’s going on.”
"She was speaking in tongues,” I said.
“She was speaking in tongues,” he said. “Do you want to hear it?”
I never liked the cartoonish way his short tongue hung out when we were playing baseball in the park and he was winded and I didn’t want to hear it. But I said all right, and Lou began speaking in tongues. Why tongues, plural, I don’t know, but his unintelligible tongue became a multiple instrument as hypnotizing as his songs, past phenomenon, the thing-in-itself.
I went to bed that night and my wife said, “How did you manage to stay up with him that long?”
I said, “He's found Jesus. He was speaking in tongues.”
Her body grew rigid under the sheets. “Out there?” She meant out in our living room, on the other side of the closed door.
I said, “Out there.”
A few years passed with no contact. One weekend when we were visiting my parents, my mother said Lou Farr had stopped by and left his address. He didn't have a phone, but he hoped when I was around I might go see him. The address was #10 Oliver Alley. I had no idea where that was. My mother was born in Raponikon. She knew where it was. Not a very nice place.
My wife said, “Not me.”
“I'll go by myself then.”
I drove to #10 Oliver Alley. It was a cinderblock cottage, probably a garage in an earlier incarnation. I knocked on the door and saw Lou’s red hair behind the frosted glass.
Inside it was cold. Lucy his black Samaritan was there, a woman almost twice Lou’s size. She had a baby in her lap. She put it down to hoist herself up and hug me as if we’d known each other all our lives. Lou picked up the red-haired, café au lait baby and sat in a rocking chair while Lucy and I sat down on the sofa. I wondered if I’d be offered anything to drink, not alcohol, of course, but anything, just normal hospitality. I wasn’t. I noticed there was no TV in the small living room. No stereo or radio, either.
“How are things?” I asked.
“Oh, we're blessed, blessed,” Lucy said.
Lou sat there rocking and smiling. No desperation in the blue eyes behind his thick glasses.
“Are you back working at the oil refinery again? Up on the ladders?” I asked him.
Lucy said, “Oh, no, he runs the printing and outreach operations for our church. We came here for that and are blessed by it.”
I said I was in the Foreign Service, returning from Latin America.
Lou said, "I don’t listen to the news or read the papers or anything but the Bible." He tipped his head toward a large red Bible on the coffee table opened toward the end. “We were just reading it when you came.”
"But I guess you read what you print, don't you?"
“Oh, sure, the newsletter, the sermons, the hymn sheets, sure. Have to get it right.”
“You left your address with my mother. Wanted to see me about something?”
“I was going to ask you to come to the baby’s christening. We named him Joseph. Remember Joe?”
Why wouldn’t I remember Joe? I remembered everything. All the pain and unhappiness, all the drunkenness, all the fear, all the chilling, powerful songs. “Sure, I remember Joe.”
“Well, Joe died, but here he is again, the miracle of Christ. I forgave him for taking my father’s place, and Jesus forgave me by making me a father myself.”
Lou stared down into his child’s face. Time passed. More time passed. I waited for the stillness to yield until I realized that whatever was going to happen was happening. This absence of phenomena was what Lou had always been seeking. He and Lucy were sitting there within it before I arrived and would remain there after I left.
With more than 100 stories in print, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. His work has appeared in literary journals across the US and in Anglophone countries around the globe. Erotique (http://www.amazon.com/Erotique-The-Wapshott-Journal-Erotica/dp/1942007094) recently devoted an entire issue to seven of his stories. Vine Leaves Press will publish his collection of stories, Imagining Women, early in 2017. A diplomat for twenty-five years, Robert Earle lives and writes in Chapel HIll, North Carolina. His website is robertearle.me.