Excerpt from Vivid • Novel • Back
James Harris meant a lot to me. I gave him what I could, and I’m proud of what he did with it. I’m not sure where he’s ended up.
By the time he entered what remained of Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, of what under that wonderfully transparent banner had been a place where people worked and ate and talked, loved and lost and otherwise directed energy, his world had turned peculiar. As if the spaces between things were wider, or like the air was working differently, or like something somewhere had shaken all the atoms from their roosts, and now they were unsettled and rumbling about in strange new ways. He was tired, he could feel it, and he was anxious and hungry. But he wasn’t worried– actually he felt OK. He took an odd sort of comfort in seeing the world acting off, as if the things around him had agreed to meet him on his terms. See, lately James had been feeling quite bizarre himself, really out of sorts. Like he was outside of things, forgotten and alone in a world that hadn’t noticed losing track of how things ought to be.
Five days prior, he had left his home, the coastal community of Nehalem, OR, a gumboots and flannel kind of place along the 101. It wasn’t the first time he’d left, but it was the first time he’d done so on his own. The first time it was James, as opposed to “James and”, braving out into the world, as wild as Huck Finn setting out along the river, as open as a sheet of paper, blank except for headings of the date and time. He started his adventure midway through a sunny month and struggling to stay sane in a summer job– he’d never done well with the feeling of making other people money. And he travelled more than highway as he left Nehalem and made his way to Vancouver, BC, by thumb and bus and conversation. He’d strayed off into novel ways of seeing. The latest scratchings in his small black book were evidence of this; for example, inspired by Nials Lehrer, the travelling salesman who had driven him from Seaside to Seattle, James wrote the following:
“There is a world behind each set of eyes. Each interaction is a journey. Right now anything might happen.”
12 people besides James would turn up with him at Vie’s, a group of travelers and trippers, mystics and depressives– acolytes, the lot of them, to some order who’s name escaped them, and who’s name did not matter. They were a group of hard- done strivers, together for an event advertised by flyers throughout Stratchcona and the Downtown East Side: the Mental Health Support Group Open Mic. By the way, what’s left of Vie’s is now a shrine for James Marshall Hendrix, an American who died in 1970 after a short but full life, during which he jumped out of airplanes in service to the United States Army and, later, injected western culture with several surges of electrically amplified energy that had fantastic effects, including exciting people for more than 40 years.
Of the 13 at the shrine, only one was wearing roller skates. He had a long brown ponytail that looked due to grey when taken with his worn skin and long, narrow face. He wore a gold hoop earring of a thin gauge in his right ear. He was speaking to a robust man beside a stereo that was playing Jimi’s stuff, a live cut James didn’t think he’d heard before. The two men were talking, of course, about Hendrix.
“So we’re sitting at this bar,” Skates was saying, “and we look like Hell, right? We look like lunatics, my buddy’s wearing this purple jacket, neither of us have shaved, the bartender’s looking at us like we’re insane– but we wanted a drink, right? And this place is nice, I mean we’re surrounded by people who never made a mistake in their lives. 60 year old women wearing cream coloured sweaters and pearls, man, I’m tellin’ ya, the whole thing.”
His stout companion was with him, but awkward, crossing his arms and looking at him from the side, tense but smiling. He gave Skates a quick ‘Wow,’ pushing through his reservation to show he wanted more.
“And we order whiskys. Had to tell the guy three times we wanted neat, had to yell it across the bar. I swear everyone in the place was staring. And then Jimi comes on, musta been a miracle, the only Jimi track on their playlist I bet, a bit of fun for all the squares you know? ‘Castles Made of Sand’. And I tell ya, something happened to that room, it turned around man, it was ours! Like all of a sudden it was ours. The guy got us the whiskys and we just turned around, like fuckin’ cowboys man, like we just rode into some town and everybody had to get a look!”
He got a ‘No’ from Stout, in eager interest.
James swallowed. Looked around. He was taken aback by all of it; the crimson room was not what he’d expected at all, nor was its inhabitance. The memorabilia, the painted guitars, starburst blankets, and photographs of Jimi’s notebooks covering the walls and ceiling, were in line with James’s rock and roll hopes for the night. The rest was surprising. These were not his peers; they were strange, mad, too often wearing roller skates. He felt himself increasingly aware that he was out of place, until it overwhelmed him. He followed the urge to move toward the exit.
He was exhausted, somewhat dehydrated. He’d been on his feet all day, and the cheap wine he held (thinly disguised in a sports drink bottle) was starting to swill around his head. He felt suspended, as if he were walking aboard a ship. He stopped at the doorway to the shrine, looked outside a moment, rested a hip against the doorway’s red bricks, paused, and took a deep breath. The sun was nearly set; James could see the day’s last contributions to the sky– oranges and purples. Cyclists rode east on the street in front of him. Casually talking to each other, they were care- free. There was a small amount of garbage on the grassy hill across the way. There was enough noise in the air that James could not hear individuality, and sound was a mélange.
James had found the open mic as a consolation, an alternative to plans he made while in Olympia, WA, to see a beautiful girl with short blonde hair. He’d met her at a concert, where she’d fronted a band that hit him with a wall of sound and brought him right to life. Her voice gave the music an air of confrontation, an answer to the trouble of life that resonated with the rock- and- roll energy James felt. Her lyrics were powerful; “we’re off to see the sea,” she sang. She played a Gibson through a Marshall stack, and when James talked to her she asked if he would join her band backstage. His head was full of love for the road and for her and for the music. After a time they said goodbye, but agreed to meet again just down the road from Jimi’s shrine at a hipster bar that her band had booked a month before. The bouncer was at least apologetic telling James the band had cancelled. He didn’t know why, and said so. He offered a discounted admission, but the bar did not attract James. The girl’s not being there was a downer, but James had been having such a fine adventure that he figured it may as well go on anyway. He picked himself up and checked the postings on the nearest telephone pole, looking for some music. The Mental Health Support Group Open Mic sounded fun and punky, had fun and punky graphics on its flyer. He thought of songwriters and rookie stand-ups. It never occurred to James to take the name of the event literally.
But he had no other place to be, and felt committed already to the jam. So he turned around, away from the bikers and the waning colour, and re-entered Jimi’s shrine, this time taking proper stock of the room. Skates and Stout still rambled and three others browsed the display of the walls. A heavy woman with thick- rimmed glasses, violet lipstick and passively downturned lips stood behind a counter at the room’s back corner, underneath puppet maker’s likenesses of Jimi and his grandmother, Nora Hendrix. Before being immortalized as a marionette, Nora used to take Jimi during summers, and he would play his music in the back of Vie’s, where she made her living. They say those Vancouver summers were very influential on Hendrix, who would practice hour in an hour out, finding in those times of isolated play foundations for a style that marked a movement. James approached the counter, still holding his re-bottled red, to introduce himself to the woman, the only other person not engaged in conversation or the decorations. Her name was Laura, and as she met James’ introduction it seemed she broke from a preoccupation. Her face changed only slightly from its frown, but she greeted James politely and shook his hand bravely, shelling the refuge of her private contemplation.
“It’s nice to meet you James,” after introductions, “what brings you to the group?” Her wording and tonality struck James, checking his feeling of anonymity. “The group,” she’d said, like attendance fell to some factor more discerning than a flyer. She was at least 10 years older than him, too; everyone was, now he thought of it.
“Well… I suppose I just ended up here– I’m travelling; and I’ve never been to Vancouver. I thought a friend was playing down the road. I saw your flyer.”
“Ah the flyer… We just started putting those up. I wasn’t sure about it, but we need a bit of fresh perspective. I guess it’s working, you’re the second- well, the fourth new face, we’ve got two just in from Maryland, but I’ve been talking to them online- the second to come in from the flyer.”
“Yeah,” suspecting strongly by then that this was not what he’d expected, “it sounded cool. I liked the name– I thought I’d check it out.” He held back saying that the name had made him feel like he would meet emerging artists exploring their individual fringes of expression in some wild and reinventing corner of the city’s culture. He smiled, trying to hide the awkwardness he felt. He held out his bottle, hoping the geniality of wine might break the ice. “Would you like a drink? If you’ve got a cup I could pour some wine. I’m sorry to say it’s quite cheap.”
Laura looked at him and shared the misunderstanding, sizing him up in the awkward air. He was six feet tall, still a little lanky, with blue eyes, shaggy blonde hair and a bit of stubble peppered through a few days’ fuzz. The confused moment hung just a second longer than felt natural, testing the feeble smile James still wore. Then there came to both of them a rush of unease, like a pressing of the wind. Laura shuddered– she hated that she shuddered. As his smell touched her nostrils, though, and corroborated the story that her eyes had pieced together, she couldn’t quell the reflex. She saw a young man, a dirty, fidgety one at that, half cut and hoping to some degree to find a lay. She couldn’t help but flinch. “It sounded cool. I liked the name” he’d said, “it sounded cool.”
“He’s a nice kid, Laura, come on,” she told herself, regrouping in a visibly trying instant, fighting to bring herself together with a shake. “You’re here to face this. Face this, he’s a nice kid.”
Though James was anxious, he softened as he watched her. His outstretched arm had fallen slightly in the strange moment– he pulled it back the rest of the way to his body and sheltered his bottle behind him. He sensed he was intruding, and looked away from Laura. His retreating gaze noted the sobriety of the room.
When she returned to the moment it was with new air, seeming like she’d sorted something out. “Great, James, great– welcome. I won’t have any wine, thanks, but there’s some juice and cookies you’re welcome to out back. The rest are out there. I think we’ll get started fairly soon.” She returned his smile, but he did not feel comfortable. The hiccough in pace had alerted him to a strangeness in the room of some order beyond what he already felt about the day.
James walked past Stout and Skates, out into a small courtyard. There were people just outside the door, four of them talking and one, a nervous woman, standing against the wall silent and small, avoiding the rest behind dark sunglasses. There was a strip of Astroturf leading past them and around the corner, to the back of the building. James chose to follow the green walkway rather than insert himself in conversation. As he poked forward, he gave a nod to the woman against the wall. Her dress was about as plain as could be, a long tan coat hiding the shape of her body and a frumpy, worn sweater topping baggy dark denim. She nodded back, almost without moving. Her lips stayed tightly closed, she gave no sound or warmth. Had she stood with confidence she might have seemed solemn, but she emanated a frail, scared aura that made her a weary thing, worn, as if she was just lingering in the world. She gave James a chill, and feeling the unfamiliar energy of the people around him he shook himself once around the corner.
There he faced a tight congress of chairs, enough for everyone he’d seen, gathered round a white gisebo. Inside the thing were paintings of Jimi and recently- placed flower arrangements. The scene was lit by a small light hanging from the rafters of the structure, and separated from the adjacent city streets by brightly painted red fencing. There were more flowers and some shrubs along the fence. In the soft glow of the light there was a single man, sitting in one of the chairs. As James took in the venue, the man turned around. He met James’ eyes as if he’d been expecting him.
The man was old but seemed spry; he had a short white beard and a bald head, and eyes of bright and jarring blue. He looked at James actively, his eyes cutting through both the oddity of the night and the cabarnet sauvignon. The man was present in James’ mind in a way things hadn’t been for weeks, and it concurrently defined and brought James to the moment. The two of them were still for a beat, before James introduced himself in an outright manner.
“Hi James, it’s very good to meet you. How are you? I hope things haven’t been too hard today.”
Just days ago James would have said they had been, as just days ago James was of the mind that lately things had almost constantly been hard. Somehow, though, now the bite of recent times let up. “Hard? No, not hard I suppose,” he said, “but I will say things today have been… new. I think I feel like things are new.” He stopped short of saying he was well, but politeness put the implication on his tone. He forgave the man’s lack of introduction, trusting in the warmth of his tone.
The man wore a poncho of deep brown, of a material that looked tightly hand-knit. Below it there was a grey woolen shirt with long sleeves. He wore black pants and sandals. While the outfit was unorthodox, James thought it was well put together. He was a picture of confidence. He smiled, his whole face smiled. “Well that’s wonderful James. That’s just wonderful. You know, I worry sometimes when folks are starting out. But it looks as if we’re about to begin; I’ll tell you, I’m excited. The trick is, James, to see things just as they are.” He turned around to face the altar, still smiling. James looked behind him. The cast was assembled and coming around the corner. And as they took their seats, James at the outside of the back row, Laura stepped up to the altar.