Chapter Nine, “Rat House”

HOWARD

Howard was a follower of astrology, both traditional and Chinese, and any other line of bullshit Eugene fed him. He had an aversion to me because he assumed I was a potential threat to his friendship with Eugene. I am a blunt, pragmatic, no bullshit kind of guy so that didn’t go over well with his fantastical superstitious beliefs. Since I was a Rat in the Chinese Zodiac and he was a Horse he had another reason to hate me. The two are inimical, however, I’m also a Sagittarius and that’s half a horse and half an archer. So why didn’t he cut me half a break, or is it a quarter of a break? It’s not like he didn’t love the shit out of that fucking little hunchback Ritchie who looked more like a rat than I did.

All the things Howard disliked about me were the things he didn’t possess…humor, sarcasm, intelligence, charm, and grace. He envied those things in me, items he himself couldn’t pull off. He was a clumsy awkward child in a man’s body.

The characteristics that Howard possessed I found annoying:  his naiveté, his childishness, his awkwardness, his lack of mental agility. He had no style, no class, and no grace. Yet he was living in a state of grace that had no precedent. He found work effortlessly and left those high paying jobs just as effortlessly.

Howard looked like Ichabod Crane, tall and lanky with a large Adam’s apple. He must have been at least six foot five. He was taller than me, and I’m six foot three. I’d say he was gangly and awkward, but that really only came out when he was drumming. When he worked on a car, whether it was auto body or engine repair, he was well-coordinated. He could have had lots of money if he didn’t hang around Bill and Buzz, or listen to the delusions I was sure Eugene was feeding him about untold wealth in doing nothing. Auto repairmen were paid good money and auto body was also lucrative. He had skills in both, but he let Bill and Buzz feed off him, bumming cigarettes and small change from Howard’s limited resources and leeching beer from me. It pissed me off, but I didn’t say anything because of Eugene.

Howard would spend the day fantasizing about money, not what he would do with money, just money, the symbol was lost on him. Money wasn’t power, or sex, or politics…it just was.

I never saw Howard read a book or go to the movies. He would sit in front of his television for hours on end, slowly eating a loaf of white bread. It was strange, him eating plain, dry white bread, no butter, no jam, nothing. All washed down with a glass of tepid tap water.

He dressed like the rest of the gang, i.e. Bill and Buzz, in flannel shirts, dirty jeans, and jungle boots. The boots were important. Regular combat boots didn’t breathe in the summer, but jungle boots did since they had a mesh around the ankles and lower leg. This was a fine distinction among them, one I was privy to during long boring talks on the front porch smoking and drinking. If I was drinking it didn’t matter who I was with, so I ended up with the Three Stooges.

They were tongue-tied and useless around women, yet they ogled the bathing beauties whenever we’d go to Alki Beach that summer. I’d go over and talk to the women, ask them if they wanted a drink or to see the band. The Three Stooges would stand around in flannel, yes, in the summer they wore flannel, and their jungle boots, looking out of. Eugene would talk to the girls also, as would Clark, if he was inclined to join us. He was stuck teaching a summer class, and I would sometimes drive over to campus to pick him up. We’d have a few beers at the College Inn Pub and listen to Bo Diddley and James Brown on the jukebox.

Howard even had a complete tool set in a rolling case. He could have set up his own business if he wanted, but he had no desire to earn money. I wasn’t sure if he was brain damaged or not, but some part of him recoiled from honest labor. I should have respected that, shirking work as I was, but it pissed me off instead. I had to look for work and as my unemployment drew closer and closer to ending I was looking for work in my field, but there was none. Personal computers were taking over from mainframes and my entire career had been operating mainframe computers and their peripherals. To throw away a valuable skill like auto repair to do nothing all day made no sense. He’d be rolling in cigarettes, loaves of white bread, and one dollar bills if he wanted to make the slightest amount of effort. I couldn’t understand it.

As for his drumming, it was improving, and I’d found that his lack of time keeping was making us a more interesting band. Drums as a melodic instrument as opposed to a rhythmic one was unique. Clark had to devise all sorts of bass lines to anchor the songs and still add something melodic to the drone I created. It was dynamic, if unconventional. Howard probably would have been a good lead guitarist if he hadn’t chosen the drums.

 

 

One night Howard was up past two in the morning, smoking cigarettes in his trailer and burning the 100 watt bulb that hung incandescently from the ceiling. Hunched over his notepad, cigarette ash falling on the cryptic and hieroglyphic ramblings of his diseased mind and inhibited mental processes I would roll over and see the light burning in through my window out to his window. A shared connection, the only one we had.

He left his pad in the house once after one of his all night sessions and I was greeted with a page fully inscribed with kites, all shapes and sizes with the heading “HOWARD’S KITE SHOP”. Oh sweet Jesus, I thought, and quickly got Clark so we could laugh over this latest creation.

“Go fly a kite,” Clark said, staring at the sheets of paper with kites all over them.

“Indeed,” I said, shaking my head. I needed to shake some sense into it, because this was surreal beyond comprehension. Howard wanted to open a kite shop.

“Do you suppose he’s serious?”

“Maybe he found that brick of hash you have and smoked some last night,” I half-joked with Clark.

“That would explain a lot,” he answered back.

A kite shop! Perhaps in anyone else’s hands a kite shop in Seattle would be successful, but Howard was incapable of rational thought.

Howard bought a new Gretsch drum set, a beautiful maple rock set, with the money he earned at the auto body place. There was a method to his madness after all. He had a goal. When I saw him unpack it from Bill’s truck I immediately went to Eugene and asked him point blank if he told Howard to buy a new drum set. He shook his head.

“The only thing I said to him was that he was getting better and better on the drums and he could be louder.”

Howard’s drum kit became an immediate sticking point with me. Now we’d all have to upgrade our equipment, I thought. It’s keep up with the Joneses. However, Howard’s drumming ineptitude started to spill out over those brand new drum heads. He had to adapt to the new set so it was like beginning at square one again. I had little patience wasting band practice so one player could get back to where they were just a week ago. I stated so and Howard, damn him, stepped up and started practicing every day, morning and afternoons, to get better on the drums. Just to make me look bad, probably. I started playing my guitar more often and had songwriting sessions not just with Clark, but with Eugene as well. Soon the house was a cacophony of instruments attempting to make music.

Clark and I did well together, but I had a hard time co-writing with Eugene. His playing tended toward the esoteric, some Brian Eno influences were evident. He didn’t like to stay in the three or four chords I was playing, or he wanted to use the minor key instead of the major, and he didn’t articulate this to me. He’d start playing the minor and expect me to join in, even after I started the song out in the major key. It was frustrating. I decided to let him make the music and I’d write the lyrics. It seemed to work better that way.

After all this practicing and writing we had a ton of songs to rehearse. Howard was back to his usual drumming within two weeks of constant practice, and with the new set he wasn’t as obnoxiously off-beat as before. Something happened and he could hold 4/4 time as long as he didn’t do rolls, but of course, he did rolls all the time. I couldn’t dissuade him from doing them. I looked at Eugene helplessly, but Eugene let Howard do what he wanted. Perhaps he, too, realized the futility in trying to rein in Howard the Horse. Gallop free and easy, Howard, out to the meadows and pastures you so desire and crave. Maybe you’ll find money there.

I never met Howard’s family. Howard was vague when he spoke of his family, when he spoke at all. I gleaned he was an only child and his family was still alive. That was about it. He and Ritchie drove to his family’s house once because Ritchie mentioned it, but he wouldn’t elaborate. Bill and Buzz never talked about it. I conjured up all kinds of family scenarios that would make Howard so close-mouthed about them, everything from their being a family of hillbillies who distilled moonshine to their being rocket scientists and Howard was subjected to rocket fuel fumes as a baby that made him slow. Why I conjectured so much about Howard’s family isn’t clear. It was something to occupy my time and it was puzzling. I wanted to know more about this aberration of a man, how he could live so long under such conditions. If I could fathom his secret perhaps I, too, could live in a constant state of grace.

I wondered if a preoccupation with money was the key. Or was it insomnia coupled with fantastical ideas on how to make money. Perhaps it was the notepad jottings themselves that were a talisman, a Rosetta Stone to living hand to mouth without ever going hungry or for a lack of anything. I had the chain-smoking down, if that was part of the puzzle, but what else did I need? What more could I learn from Howard the Horse?

Howard’s scribbling had taken on a maniacal feeling, a caustic hallucinatory quality. He took to coming into our kitchen and eating white bread while chain-smoking. He would do his notepad jottings there, in the kitchen, and leave the pad on the table for all to see. There were lots of drawings of horses, and a rich tableau of dollar signs, as well as every permutation of One Hand Clapping you can design into a logo. Perhaps he was going to sell t-shirts at gigs. At $10 a shirt, he could make fifty or sixty dollars a show. That was certainly more than we made playing. Maybe he was onto something. Maybe there was a method to the madness.

He also drew lots of astrological symbols as well as a Chinese character that I took to mean “luck”. All of these things had a furious quality to them, like they were dashed off in a hurry, then later added upon and layered with other signs and signifiers.  Somehow they also had a hieroglyphic quality to them, something even primeval. If only I had kept those pages Howard created, so I could show them to you, they’re like Christian relics, the bones of the saints, a piece of the true cross.

It surprised me that of all Howard’s drawings, including the kites, he never once drew a car. It was as if he were avoiding reality, the one thing that was real and provided him a living. Automobiles. Maybe I should have offered to pay him to fix my car, but there wasn’t any assurance he wouldn’t have cut my brake lines or fouled my gas tank. He didn’t like me. He was a Taurus. There was little compatibility between Sagittarius and Taurus. Taurus is a Fixed Earth sign, they’re  stubborn. Sagittarians are fun and adventurous, they like going out and meeting new people, having fun and partying all the time. People who have the Taurus sign like to stay at home. They prefer an organized and more cautious way of dealing with things. I don’t believe all the astrological analysis, but Howard did think that way and projected all that nonsense on his relationship with me. He couldn’t help but notice that Eugene was a Gemini and Sag and the Twins were very compatible in friendship. It probably ate him up inside knowing that Eugene could be a closer friend to me than to him, astrologically speaking.

What annoyed me most about astrology is that it claimed to be a short-cut to knowing yourself. Instead of deep meditation and the constant questioning of Zen, it defined your life by the position of the planets. There are no short-cuts to self-discovery. It takes years and years of your life to not delude yourself and to clearly see who you are and what life is. I hadn’t found it yet, but I was on the path to discovery. I would find it, ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find. I was a seeker and I wasn’t going to be distracted by something that said I was going to find money, for example, when there was no money to be found or that I was going to be successful, but doesn’t say at what.

Howard also practiced divination with the Chinese book of changes called the I Ching. There are 64 hexagrams in the I Ching. You could divine the future by tossing coins and reading the hexagram. Of course Howard kept throwing the coins until he got a prediction he liked, defeating the purpose. He always threw the coins until they picked a “favorable” prediction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the oracle got tired and gave Howard false information. How he learned about the I Ching I can only guess, probably from Eugene, although Eugene wasn’t that into Chinese astrology, so this is only a guess on my part. I gathered from my limited interaction with Howard and my conversations with Eugene that, predictably, Howard’s queries with the I Ching involved money and the success of the band. Not surprisingly, the responses ranged from vague to extremely positive, depending on how many times Howard threw the coins and asked the question. Howard would also take the hexagram literally. If it said the activity was in the north, he’d walk north. If it had to do with wind, he’d wait for a windy day.

I must admit that at times I have also used the I Ching to try to ascertain certain unknown and unknowable answers to unfathomable questions, such as “why are we here” and “will I ever be in love”. The answers always point to the superior man knowing his place in the universe and accepting what comes his way with strength and fortitude. Of course, I wanted to think I was the superior man, but since none of the answers completely satisfied I was left with the feeling that I wasn’t that superior after all. Sometimes it left me with the feeling of emptiness that I prescribed to God, the vast black void I experienced that night on mescaline.

“When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”  This quote attributed to Confucius explains my thoughts about Howard. Somehow I turn back on myself when I think of Howard’s contrariness. What was it about me that made him so? Was it my own contrary nature, the one that lead to all my trouble in high school, all the disobedience and rebelliousness I had with my teachers? Could my nature have been to fight the status quo or was that not my true nature? Now my rebellion uses music and noise as its weapon.

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