some days are better than none
THANK YOU FROM THE COWBOY SINGER by Darcy Alvey (Printed in 'The California Times' August 10, 2009)
I'm sorry you're reading this letter on the obit page, because it's really a big old thank you more than anything. Sure, I've passed on now, but that doesn't have much to do with this note. I knew it was my time to go, right after I had that last talk with my kids. Don't be sad for me. I reckon I've had all the luck one man deserves. If you visit Cortez Park, you may have seen or heard me. I'm the old guitar player in the red felt cowboy hat who performs in front of the history museum--next to the huge fountain, the one the kids play in when it's warm. I been at the same spot most days for close to five years. Now, that's a good long gig by any measure. I didn't start out in this fair state; I grew up in Prescott, Arizona. Since I can remember, I wanted to be a singing cowboy--like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. I was the one in school who wore cowboy boots, rain or shine. My kindergarten teacher once sent a note home to my mother that I had some coordination problems, that I couldn't walk their obstacle course or skip rope as good as the other kids. My mom laughed cause, of course, I was wearing my pointy-toed boots when they did the testing. Other than that, I was an ordinary kid. I may have been the little boy on the rug next to you at story time or right behind you in art class finger painting a picture of our old house in the valley. I'm sure my momma or daddy never dreamed I'd end up sleeping under a freeway overpass and picking my guitar for quarters. Sometimes fate decides where you're going to settle and there's no fighting it. I don't blame my family. They did everything they could for me, and then some. Trouble was, long about junior high school I started getting headaches. Real doozies. Like someone hit me in the head with a rock. Writhin'-on-the-floor headaches. The pain would last for hours with me crying and screaming and nothing helping. Course they did all kinds of testing--brain scans, blood tests, punctured this and poked that. Found zip. Nada. They thought maybe my diet was the cause, so they analyzed what I ate, how often I ate, was I allergic. Every week a different food was put into my meals or taken out. I started calling them my color diets. At one time I was all green, eating salad, broccoli, avocados, even pistachio nuts. My favorite color was orange with macaroni and cheese, cantaloupe and carrots. Whatever the pigment, though, the headaches kept coming. When nothing worked, the doctors decided to teach me how to deal with pain through such rigamarole as relaxation and stress management, they called it. There's definitely stress in headaches, alright. Unfortunately I couldn't think the hurt away. Like the sun in the morning, the throbbing made its appearance, regular. Nothing left to try after that but drugs. Little sissy drugs didn't work; the pain was stronger than them. Finally they brought in the big guns with long fancy names--serious prescription drugs. For the first time something worked, actually stopped a headache in its tracks. Trouble was the medicine stopped me in my tracks too. Knocked me out for a couple of hours or more. Don't get me wrong. Getting knocked out, so to speak, was better than the pain, but hard on living an ordinary life. The headaches coming every few days without notice made it tough for me to go to school. Not only did I get behind in my studies, teachers said it got on their nerves not knowing when I was going to be afflicted. Result was, I ended up being home schooled by my mother, who loved me, but wasn't all that keen on spending her days teaching algebra and world history. We were both content for me to squeak by, barely passing out of high school.
What we did agree on was me playing my guitar. Practicing kept me occupied for the better part of the day. Other times I read up on legendary cowboy singers--also a good way to improve reading skills, momma said. Did you know Willie Nelson got his first guitar at the age of six? I figured I had some catching up to do. Anyhow, eventually I got pretty good and started playing here and there at parties or beer joints. When I was playing somewheres and a headache come on, I'd have to disappear for a couple hours. I'd take my prescription and lay down in the back of my '55 Chevy truck until the hurt got under control. Sad to say, the unscheduled two-hour breaks in the action didn't sit too well with some club managers, so manys a night I went home with no pay.
I did have a run of good luck oncet. I got a job with a rodeo. To a singing cowboy a rodeo's about as close to heaven as you can get. I entertained the folks in the stands between bull riding and calf roping. People'd call out songs to me and I'd play em--'Always On My Mind,' 'Seven Spanish Angels,' 'Good Hearted Woman,' 'Amazing Grace.' Often, after everybody went home, me and the rodeo people hung around telling stories and comparing scars and such. Manys the time I strummed musical accompaniment in the background of the tall tales. The cowboys liked that. I even met a rodeo gal and got hitched. She was the best barrel rider on the circuit, with a long blond braid down her back and a turquoise outfit with white fringe. Boy could she make that fringe dance thundering around them barrels. After tying the knot, we bought a little place in the valley for when we weren't on the road. Couple years later we had the twins--Patsy and Willie. The minute they was born, they became the center of my life. I'll never forget their wobbly first steps and calling me Papa in their little voices. I even sang them to sleep at night. Little Patsy loved 'I Fall to Pieces' best.
Having the twins, though, made it near impossible to travel with the rodeo. We had to leave the life and take up residence permanent at our place in the valley. To make ends meet I'd play my guitar whenever I could and the wife started waitressing in town. That's when everything went to crap. I made little more than spending money, what with my headaches, and she was left to putting food on the table. Reckoning the shopping list would be cheaper with me gone, she finally kicked me out. I didn't blame her, although I missed my babies something awful.
That's all water under the bridge now. It's been twenty years that I been on the road, playing my guitar for booze money and drugs. Always on the move, I couldn't get them prescriptions that kept my headaches under control, so I had to find remedies myself. Living off the grid ain't so bad, I learned, oncet you get used to sleeping light in case someone sneaks up on you. And being dirty most of the time. I like California because it's warm at night and you have the Pacific Ocean. The ocean brings me more peace than anything ever done before. Something wonderful about waves that keep coming in one after the other, day after day. I find that real soothing.
There's also a good community of homeless people here. I made some fine friends who are just as smart as anybody, but down on their luck. Two of them sleeps in the same spot as me under the freeway bridge. That makes us feel safer than spending the night alone. We got it set up nice with a pad of sleeping bags and an old shopping cart to store our stuff. We take turns ferrying the cart around during the day. You got to keep
belongings with you or people steals your valuables. Of mornings we go into the big library downtown to clean up as best we can in the lavatory. The library's also a fine place to take a nap where nobody bothers you. I have a favorite situation in a corner by the encyclopedias. No one reads encyclopedias anymore, what with the Internet and such, so I can get a good long rest some days.
My biggest stroke of luck happened when one of my friends, a lady who reads Tarot cards, showed me her set-up in the park where she tells fortunes for five dollars apiece. She sits there waiting for someone to walk by who wants their future read. She's the one directed me how to get a permit for guitar playing at the location next to the museum. Lots of foot traffic. When I get a headache, there's a big old fig tree out back where I lay in the shade until the pain passes. Sometimes I make enough to take us all out to dinner.
I been blathering long enough about me. That's not the intent of this obituary. It's for me to say thank you to all of you who walked by me in the park and smiled at me or clapped for a song you liked, or throwed money in my guitar case. You been mighty kind and made these years happy. I remember each and every one of you. There's been lots of fathers and sons walk by where the dad gives his boy some change to throw in my case--teaching his child to be generous with the less fortunate, I guess. That's a lesson worth teaching. The little boys come up to me shy and hold out the money. I point to my guitar case with the other donations already in there and they drop in their offerings and run back to dad. Thanks to the young couples in love who stroll past. They are so filled up with life they want to share with everyone around. Bless you for sharing with me. There's this one lady who sometimes sits on a patch of shady grass behind me with a book. She told me oncet that I provide the musical score to her reading, like in a movie. I liked that. On occasion, a shy woman will come up and ask for a particular song that reminds her of a special moment in her life. She'll stand there looking embarrassed while I play but always leaves a nice tip. Thank you to the gentleman who sets a can of Hawaiian Punch next to my case every Wednesday and Saturday. It's too sweet for me to drink but makes for good trading at dinnertime. To the young man with the guitar who spent a couple of hours one summer afternoon picking tunes with me, I wish you well and all success. To the classes of schoolchildren who walked by, all in a row, marveling at everything you saw and heard, you did my heart good. Once in a long while I get a fiver from a Johnny Bigbucks. Much obliged to you. Those were my best days moneywise. Even with all the friends and generous people who appreciate my guitar playing, though, I'm tired of the headaches. They still come regular as ever, so I guess they always will. A couple months ago I thought maybe I'd go see my kids as they's grown up now. Anyway I called their mother at the same old place and she give me their telephone numbers. They don't want to see me though. I can't blame them. I ain't been a part of their lives for a long time and my circumstances ain't the best. They got their own lives and families now. California, my true family, it's your faces I see when I fall asleep at night. I been saving up tips for a while to put this thank you note in the paper. You been so good to me; made me feel like one a your own. Next time you pass some old bum and wonder how he ended up playing for tips in the park, think of my story. It's time, though, for me to do something I been planning. I can't take the headaches no more. After I mail this letter to the paper, I'm going to swim out in the ocean as far as I can, so far there's no coming back. Then I'm going to float until I fall under and keep falling through the clear blue water. It sounds beautiful to me. And cool on my head.
I ain't got no regrets about this life. I've met lots of nice people and had two beautiful children. One more thing--my children don't get headaches. I asked.
Darcy Alvey reads with gusto and writes short stories and essays with equal relish from San Diego, Cal.
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