a.k.a. "Porchlight Red"

3:05:00 AM

The Apple of Discord

by JC Martinez-Sifre

You gave me this glass orb long ago, Lee, while you were still in high 

school — a birthday gift (see attached picture). I suppose it was originally meant to serve as a paperweight. I think you gave it to me when Nathan and I were starting to rub each other the wrong way — the period leading up to my moving out of the Biscayne Park apartment.

The birthday you gave this orb to me may have been in the same year our band, The King's English, played its three or four well-rehearsed originals at the Miami Shores Country Club, one of the songs, if you remember, was about necrophilia. I bet none of the “landed gentry” assembled there noticed what that song was about. They were probably too absorbed in their polite conversation and mini-quiches floating about at the fund-raising soiree.

That night at the Country Club, I remember Mr. Wicker — our acting “agent” rather than in his usual role as the school’s music teacher — was smiling broadly from the stage’s wings. I had thought at the time he was smiling out of pride at seeing his students, both current and former, fulfilling what he slaved over daily; what he had dedicated his life to; what has, at times, developed into a nervous twitch in his face.

We had written the songs; we practiced and polished them; we performed them. We channeled the Headmaster’s yearly litany to the student body of cultivating one's “Six Potentials,” revealing what the curriculum of our small, private, high school intended to foster in us -- future leaders. That night we managed to have our performance intersect, meaningfully, with the world we would, hopefully, inherit and replicate in time — just as our parents had for their parents.

Our performance that night was, ultimately, for the true beneficiaries of all the school’s endowments; and board of directors; and “tenured” teachers-become-institutions like Mr. Wicker; it was for our parents-parents — our grandparents. You know this to be true, Lee, now that you’re a dad like me; and, if you hadn’t thought about it like that, you know I’m right about the place our necrophilia song occupied there and then.

In retrospect, though, the music director may have been the only one listening to me slapping the strings of my bass guitar while Felix-Ramon belted out the chorus: “It’s natural; it’s natural; it’s only natural.” I’d like to think our teacher (and mentor) was getting a laugh at both our naivety and the subtle irony of “sticking it to them” for once … and with total, realized Grace.

No one complained — that’s for sure, because a few weeks later we were on stage playing to the hoi polloi of the village during their annual July 4th celebrations at the country club. Even though Felix-Ramon, our front man, was out of commission that day, having come down with a severe, immobilizing flu, the show went on. To my reckoning, no one littering the 18th hole that afternoon on their beach blankets seemed to mind the lack of lyrics to our tunes. We did it karaoke-style — like with that pop-song whose buzz was only beginning to die down on the radio stations ... the one by Lenny Kravitz.

I think, by then, Lou had come on board as the solo guitarists.

Man! You two were both wicked guitarists as teenagers! I can’t imagine how much more depth and feel you both must be able to add to the chops you had already mastered. These days, the pictures Lou's been putting up on his wall’s profile -- he looks like he’s rocked with Carlos Santana or Hendrix. Bet he (and you) could rip with them, though I suspect you’d be rolling with Prince’s entourage ;-).

* * *

Again, in all likelihood, you gave me this paperweight as a token of the friendship we had forged the same year we both played a set with the Miami Shores Community Band at the public tennis courts. We had been marshaled again by Mr. Wicker for some village groundbreaking ceremony. The town officials officiated with their speeches; and with their golden shovel; and with a small audience assembled on bleachers; and, … and all of us roasting in the summer sun.

Meanwhile, the small wad of LSD we had taken before we got there was still under my tongue. The colors of nature — the green-ness of the trees, the blue-ness of the sky — had started to get really amped up. I remember giving you the classic musician’s nod in the middle of our last tune, which was, perhaps, Appomattox March or a John Phillip Sousa arrangement. 

Those were some good times, man. To this day, I still sing the Star Spangled Banner’s harmonizing the part that I had played at every home, varsity football game and at every assembly throughout high school: “second chair,” B-flat Cornet.

If you remember, later or some other night shortly afterward, Nathan charged into a party we were at brandishing a cheap, nylon-string guitar with a warped neck over his shoulder. We were all tripping that time, too (ehem! band practice 🤔), and we were failing miserably at adapting the lyrics Felix-Ramon had given on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, into a song. It wasn’t five or six minutes before his tuning of the guitar to Open C before there was a song, brother; a song arose — born out of being frivolous; and carefree; and full of spirit; and from … from the recklessness of youth … from us being together.

You know that anyone who was there that day has that song branded in their psyche; it remains in lasting memory for all of us — just like Nathan still does — both as a memory and_

I don’t know if you’ve been back to the campus, but he also lives on as a wizard mosaic that was installed in the last five years along the art building’s facade.

I managed to make my peace with Nathan before he passed away. It happened a few years after I left the Biscayne Park apartment; after you and your class graduated and drifted away … to college, I suppose. Honestly, I didn’t pay much mind back then to all the people that merely drifted out of whatever hustle I had busied myself with; trying to whittle away at my own brand serenity … becoming progressively more settled; trading in my unhealthy passions for a more abiding sense of interdependence with the rest of the world; to arrive at an abiding sense of fulfillment. 

I can’t tell if it's me, Lee, or if it’s all the fear floating about in the air, and on every screen; the state of our Nation and history, but the pervasive sense of ease I’ve managed to carve out for myself is cut with an equally jagged edge of loneliness … much more profound than the one underscoring of all those daydreams of love during my teens.

No, Lee, that sense of being an outcast, East of Eden, the crusty character of an Ancient Mariner going Aqualung at a wedding reception. Yeah. Ripe, bro. Ripe old age. Everyone says I’m still young, but my daughter talks about Flock of Seagulls and Michael Jackson as if they are pre-historic. That’s how she puts it: “from the old days.” No shit!

Ripe, Lee. I’m feeling ripe.

At any rate, the night Nathan and I managed to make peace, was a July 4th. I was having a slice at Steve’s Pizza, when the stray thought of him crossed my mind. I could see him trudging the lawn, loaded down with milk crates and several orchestra stands.

Twilight was already well underway. I knew I would miss the fireworks, but I drove over after my slice to deliberately “bump” into him. I found Nathan sweaty and finishing up the last of his part of loading his Tuba and other equipment into the school’s van. We both expressed excitement to be in each other’s company.

I think I drove him home that night, and we caught up on the long ride up the Turnpike. Driving him past the Casino and the drive-through tailers you and I used to buy cartons of cigarettes from The Seminoles, tax free.  I don’t know if you ever noticed,Lee, but the house Nathan grew up in was also adjacent to a very large cemetery.

We stopped at a Miami Subs Grill before parting ways — the one near his mom’s place. Go figure, our last encounter happened at the same place we conceived the plan to move out of our folks home and into the Biscayne Park apartment. I can remember having the sense that I would not see him again for a very long time as I waved him goodbye, turning out of the driveway. It didn’t occur to me, though, that this would be the last time I would see him; but, then again, I couldn’t imagine what confluence of circumstances would bring us back in each other’s company. In that sense, I did acknowledge that we may never see each other again; it’s the same kind of a tacit acknowledgement I give myself every night going to sleep, thinking, “This may be it; what if I … ? What happens then … .” Like Seneca says, “[The Sage reckons] all that a man cherishes in life, even his own personality, as temporary holdings, and he lives as if he were on loan to himself, and is ready to return the whole sum cheerfully on demand;” in that sense, I said my goodbyes to Nathan — without regret or remainder.

I don’t have any regrets either about those days. They still resonate like the finely woven bubbles that form the swirling helix in this orb you gave me another lifetime ago. I don’t have regrets for the acid trips or having gone permanently and certifiably nuts from them.

I sometimes stare at this thing you gave me. It has fallen several times on hard floors, and it has developed some character beyond what the boutique or esoterica shop you bought it from had originally intended. You’d have to come fly over and visit to see the ripples emanating from fractures at a few spots along its surface, cascading into the glass’ lattice. It’s remarkably beautiful where it remembers the blows of Fortune from those falls.

I also don’t regret pantomiming Jedi lightsaber battles in front of Nathan’s lawn where he had nested during all of high school into his early adulthood like an angry dragon — the entire floor of his bedroom covered, two-layers deep in toys and yellowing underwear. I wonder from time-to-time about his mother and his sister … whatever became of them? I don’t really care for an answer; the thought crosses my mind every so often, though.

I’ll tell you what, Lee, the memory of Nathan that naggs me often, is the one of this night talking to Nathan on the porch of our apartment. It was the conversation that, eventually, culminated a few weeks later with me moving out.

It was the dead of night, and I swear, Lee, on that porch, I saw a glowing red aura around him even through the darkness and the sound of cicadas. I was sopping up a midnight snack of Fruit Loops in grape juice on the porch before going back to my bedroom for my “second sleep” when he opened the door and sat himself down in front of me. I couldn’t tell if he was intentionally trying to be theatrical about it. You never knew with him_

Like, you could never be sure if you should believe his staunch,purist rhetoric about how he’d never been stupid enough to try drugs or alcohol; or, if the rumors were true: that he had conducted erotic rituals drenched in Goldschlager with that polyandrous girl and some other dude. The thought of his natural odor of sweat that had fermented in the deep folds of his fat wiped clean by that girl’s armpit and leg hair;  by the dense, limp,  uncombed hair that could properly be called a “mane” … all washed by cinnamon spirits, the flecks of gold from the bottom of the bottle glittering on their flesh. The image still gives me the willies. Both extremes were equally plausible with Nathan, if not deliberately cultivated.

I was groggy, but since Nathan and I were now totally strained as friends, generally interacting little, I was cautious with my pleasantries as he sat himself in front of me. He seemed to be so angry in those “last days” in Biscayne Park, that whatever was on his mind had also resulted in him and Felix-Ramon growing estranged. The rage poured out of every part of him; and, to this day, others that would occupy our couch still talk about him as an agent of true evil. But, I never witnessed anything strange; just an overpowering sense of “the willies” — terror.

It wasn’t a far stretch to go there with his fascination and study of secret societies … his fervent, evangelical stance on the dogma surrounding Discordianism; his odd practices: asking my best friend to piss on a wooden cross made from table legs; his violent outbursts like the time he smashed a cardioid microphone into his forehead until he bled because, as he said, we fudged a take or two of his original composition during a rehearsal.

That night on the porch, he was clearly trying to communicate to me, in good faith, a revelation he had had. I couldn’t understand it. He tried to relate it to me with some analogy of three orbs swirling in and through his hands and arms and around each other. All I saw was the color red. Him. Red with rage, and I just didn’t get it. I still don’t get it.

I could understand by then why he would have been filled with anger — a morbidly obese giant raised by a well-meaning single-mom, self-evidently at the school as a recipient of some grant from the Alumni association and not because he came from a well-to-do family.

You know his whole life was spent in devotion to that school — just about all of it. I was glad when I came back a couple of years after his death and saw the tile-mosaic of him near the art room -- an effigy of him as a grand wizard — cape, hat, wand and all. Certainly he was the harbinger of magic — that magic anyone can assume when delving into the latent imagination of one’s childhood.

The night still puzzles me. I wonder what Nathan realized and tried to communicate. I still wince a bit thinking that he may have been pacified — unburdened if I (or someone) had managed to understand him in and around that night. Memory can be unreliable, mixing events up; mashing them together and turning deep, spellbound discussion and dark rituals into a color. As with this memory: Poorchlight Red.

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