Crazy Old Mud
The October air was cool and the cigarette smoke felt good. Joe Hornsby stood outside the entrance of Lake Street Studio with his guitar at his side, studying the cars as they drove past in dribs and drabs. Scattered machines doing the night work.
A group of drunks were leaving Tom’s Bar, a derelict pool hall just a short distance from the studio. One of the drunks shouted something and they all laughed. That was Slim. Hornsby recognised the voice. The group dispersed, with all but Slim heading in the direction of Paisley. Heading home. Slim, however, was heading toward the studio, no doubt on his way into town. Filthy and drunk as he was, he’d have no trouble finding a place to drink. Everyone knew Slim and everyone liked him.
“That old thing looks heavy.”
“You been making new songs. They good ones?”
“Sure hope so. We’ll find out, I guess.”
“Saw you boys at the Theatre the other week. You was good.”
“First one without Mud.”
A car horn sounded and someone shouted an enthusiastic hello but neither knew who the wild greeting was for.
“I heard Mud was giving you boys some shit.”
“Oh yeah? What you hear?”
“Been kicking and screaming you all abandoned him. Calling you traitors and such.”
“Well. That’s what you heard.”
“No one pays him much mind. Y’all will patch it up, I’m sure.”
“I’ll speak to him when he’s out.”
“Last week, I think. Staying with his folks.”
Hornsby flicked his cigarette at the pavement and stepped on it. “Well then,” he said, “I’d better go talk to him.”
“Y’all will patch it up. I’d best be going. You keep on singing, Joe.”
The old drunk had made it a few steps when Hornsby called out to him. “Slim, you talked to Mud?” “I saw him buying beer. He was talking to his self.” He carried on up the street. Hornsby watched him until he was gone, then picked up his guitar, fished his keys from his pocket and drove home.
Bear knew the sound of the engine. Hornsby could hear him sniffing and scratching at the apartment door. The dog leapt up at him when he entered the apartment, licking his face and whining. Hornsby placed the guitar against a shoe rack and grabbed Bear’s face, smothering him with kisses. “Love you too, boy.”
He emptied a tin of stewed steak into a bowl and checked his messages. One was from Len reminding him of a nine o’ clock meeting. The other was from Janine, telling him she had a nice time last night and he needs to do a grocery shop.
He grabbed a beer from the fridge and sat in front of the television. Bear joined him and they sat still in the quiet. A low hum from the air conditioning unit, the occasional car pulling into the complex.
He got another beer and went to the stereo. Scanning through the records, he pulled out a small white sleeve labelled with a red marker. It read: JERRY’S HOUSE – ‘FOR SAMMY’ 7 INCH TEST PRESS.
He put the record on and stood at the turntable. The hiss and crackling gave Bear cause to look up, then he returned to his sleep.
After twenty seconds of muddy guitar chords, he heard his own voice coming back at him from the speakers. Words he had written and sang for an old friend, long dead now. Then Len sang his verse. Hornsby remembered how Len had rewritten those words over and over, just to end up using the first thing he’d written. And finally, he heard the voice of Mud, hardly singing at all but whispering the words he had written for his dead brother. My ma says I don’t look the same now that my brother’s gone. Hornsby cut off the record, downed his beer and went to bed.
Hornsby sat down to a plate of bacon and eggs at the café across the road from the studio. Its walls were black with old grease and the tablecloths were mismatched; some were checked, some were plain blue. Len hadn’t ordered anything except coffee, which he guzzled though it was piping hot while he quizzed Hornsby about the nine o’ clock meeting as he was trying to eat.
“They want to put some of the old singles on a charity thing. Some compilation,” Hornsby said.
“‘Every Grave’ and ‘Lower Man’.”
“Nothing new, then?”
“Nope.” Hornsby wiped his plate clean with a slice of bread.
“Does it pay?”
“Dammit.” Len put down his coffee and leaned back in his chair. “Goddamn charity. What can you do?”
“Did you know Mud was out?”
“Slim told me. Said he’s staying with his parents.”
“Well he probably ain’t welcome at his old place.”
“You going to visit him?”
“Thought about it. Guess I might.”
“I doubt very much that he’ll want to see us.” Hornsby continued eating and the two sat listening to the café clamour – jazz music, plates clinked by cutlery, a myriad of conversations in all manner of volume. A father was making his little girl laugh hysterically by sucking in his lips and pretending to be mute. Put your mouth back, silly. Put your mouth back.
They met up with the engineer, a lanky, clean shaven friend they called Tooki, in the studio lobby. He was excited by the progress of the album and laid out several suggestions for two of the songs. “Then we’ll start mixing. Unless you got any more heat in the can?”
“Ten songs ought to be enough. I’m beat anyway, couldn’t write a grocery list,” said Len. Hornsby nodded in agreement.
“Fair enough. Let’s get to it.”
The songs sounded good, and with the business of some final edits and overdubs complete, they began mixing later that same morning.
“You guys thought of a title?” asked Tooki.
Len got up to stretch. “No title. Self-titled.”
Hornsby looked up at him, impressed. “Jerry’s House. That’s a good idea.”
“Fuck that. You’ve got to give it a title. You don’t think self-titling the first album without Mud is a little passive aggressive? ‘This is Jerry’s House!’”
“Aw hell, Took, you know I didn’t fucking mean it like that.”
No one spoke for some time. Len tuned a guitar that didn’t need tuning.
“Ya’ll ain’t got to find a title yet. You got time.”
“Let’s listen back to the last two again.” Hornsby grabbed his coat. “I’m going for lunch. You listen, do whatever.”
Lowell Avenue on Southside. They had played here as kids. Five of them, all inseparable. Hornsby, Lenny, Mud, Marco and little Sammy, Mud’s shadow. Then Marco’s parents split and so did Marco. He moved somewhere out west with his mother long before any of the others picked up a guitar. They had sang, though. Was it Mud or Marco who’d played Prince on their father’s stereo? Hornsby was pretty sure it was Mud.
Hornsby parked in front of an old house with a big and beautiful garden. There were two apple trees, bright flowers and a picket fence marking the perimeter. The day was overcast but not dark. Still, a light shone in an upstairs bedroom. Mud’s old bedroom.
He thought about turning around and driving back to the studio, but Anne Hudson spotted him from the lounge. He waved at her and got out of the car. She stood, waiting in the doorway.
“Little Joe. When are you going to shave that thing off your face? There’s a good-looking boy somewhere underneath.”
“Hey Anne.” Then, smiling, he asked, “Can Mud come out to play?”
“Michael’s not doing too good, Joe. He’s up there banging away on some drum, making all kinds of noise. Can’t get much sense out of him. Won’t eat.”
“May I see him, please?”
She looked at him contemplatively. “Joe. How come you didn’t come to see me while he was away? You know none of this is your fault.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I could say.”
“Yes, he did. I’ve a feeling he had a bit much to drink beforehand, but he came.”
“I’m sorry, Anne. Can I come in? I really want to see him.”
“You can come in. I’m warning you, though. You won’t get anything out of him.”
He walked up the two flights of stairs to get to Mud’s room. Same carpet, same photographs on the walls. Mud, Sammy, Anne and George Hudson. Even one of himself, at Mud’s tenth birthday party. Arms around each other, little Sammy with cake on a paper plate.
The bedroom door was open. Mud was sat on his bed with a pillow behind him. He stared vacantly at Hornsby.
“Nothing to say to you. Go away.”
“Come on, Mud. It’s only me.”
“I’m busy. I’m painting.”
“Mud, you can’t paint.”
“Didn’t realise I needed your say so.”
“That ain’t what I meant.”
“Well, what did you mean?”
Hornsby sighed and walked in. Mud folded his arms and turned his head.
“Alright then, Mud. What are you painting, buddy?”
“How’ve you been?”
“I missed you, man.”
“Shit, Mud. We tried to work it out, it got to be too much.”
“It was too much for me! Get the fuck out of here. I don’t want to speak to you, you goddamn traitor.”
“That ain’t fair, Mud. I tried helping you. Tried helping you with the drinking, all that shit with the police, I damn near moved in when Sammy died.”
“I got that letter about you kicking me out of the group and a day later they threw me in the loony bin. I know you called them. I ain’t stupid.”
“You know that ain’t what happened.”
“Oh. What happened then?”
“You threw all your stuff out of a fifth-floor window. You nearly killed two kids with a sofa.”
Mud flinched. “Go away, Len.”
“I’m Joe.” “You ain’t shit. Get out.”
“Did he say much?”
“Joe, George and I don’t blame you and Len. His mind was all over the place.”
“We told him it was only temporary. Just until he sorted himself out. Hell, we still feel like that.”
“Michael won’t be coming back, honey.”
“He just misses Sammy. He needs help.” “It’s a lot more than that and you know it. He’d been acting up long before Sammy passed. Talking to himself all the time, the drinking, the lies. You and Len, you’ve got to move forward. You hear?”
Two messages on the machine. Both from Len. Hornsby hadn’t gone back to the studio. Instead, he’d picked up some beer and a frozen pizza, come home and drawn the blinds.
He unplugged the phone and sat with Bear. He thought about his old friend, how much he seemed to have aged since the last time they’d seen each other. He thought about that stare. He thought about his friend’s mother, who knew he was a madman.
Hornsby went to a cabinet near the television, selected a tape and put it in the VCR. They were all there. Hornsby, Mud, Len, Sammy, Marco, the parents, Hornsby’s old dog. Hornsby’s birthday, nine years old. Christmas decorations in his old house. The boys stuffing their faces, Marco with a Christmas outfit too big for him. It wasn’t lost on him that Marco’s parents hadn’t appeared in any of the same shots. Couldn’t have been long after that. The tape clicked and the screen turned blue. Hornsby wept until his head ached. He took aspirin, drank a tall glass of water and got into bed. He wept again until finally, from pure exhaustion, he fell asleep.
The following day passed slowly. He kept the apartment dark and the telephone unplugged. Len and Tooki had come at around midday and he had shouted to them that he was sick and that he’d see them tomorrow.
When he arrived at the studio the next day, he looked like he hadn’t slept. He drank coffee and listened to the mixes of some songs. Hornsby thought they sounded just fine.
“You think that’s a wrap?” Len asked.
Hornsby took a final gulp of the bad coffee and set the cup down. “I got something.”
“You want to play it?”
Hornsby considered it, then shook his head. “Just set up to record.”
As Joe watched from behind the glass, he saw the faint reflection of Len behind him, his head down, forehead resting on his fist. He was still staring after Hornsby had set his guitar down and had re-entered the control room.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Beautiful,” Tooki replied.
“Len, you okay bud?”
“I’m straight.” He wiped his eyes and looked up. “Good tune, that.”
“You going to sing on it for me?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, you got to do something on it.”
Len nodded. “Play it back.”
He took the guitar into the recording area and played some blues licks at different points in the song. During the third verse he hummed the vocal melody, caught himself and stopped.
When he had finished the take, Hornsby gave him a nod from the control room. Len spoke into the microphone, “Did the hum come through? Will you be able to edit it out?”
“We’re keeping it in.”
Tooki agreed and began applying some tweaks on the large desk that spanned the whole length of the room. It didn’t take him very long, there were so few elements to the track. Hornsby and Len left Tooki to it and went to grab lunch from the canteen downstairs.
“I didn’t know you went to see Anne.”
“I didn’t intend to. Had a few drinks and ended up there. Probably didn’t say much.”
“She tell you it wasn’t our fault?”
“Yeah, she did. So did George. George said Mud had been losing his mind since the day he was born. Then Sammy died and it just sped the whole thing up.”
“But he was alright, dammit. After Sammy died, he came out of it for a bit.”
“He wasn’t alright,” Len said. “He was on autopilot. He recorded because that’s what we was doing. He played shows because that’s what we was doing.”
The man behind the counter called to them that their sandwiches were ready and Hornsby went to get them.
“You saw him.”
Hornsby set the plates down. “Yeah I saw him.”
“How is he?”
“Well, he didn’t want to see me. Said he was busy painting.”
“He can’t paint.”
“He wasn’t. He was just sat on his bed. Whole room was damn near empty, not a canvas or a piece of paper in sight.”
“He say anything else?”
“He called us traitors and told me to fuck off.” “Oh, Mud.”
Tooki had copied the eleven songs, roughly mixed, onto cassettes for Hornsby and Len. Scribbled on the insert of each cassette case was “JERRY’S HOUSE – ALBUM 2” and underneath, alongside the left margin, were numbers one through to eleven. Some of the numbers had a song title written next to them, others did not. “Each of you make you some notes, we’ll meet back up on Monday to finish this thing. Have a think about the sequencing of the songs too.”
Four of the songs were untitled, including the song for Mud. He listened to the whole cassette from start to finish and wrote on a separate piece of paper the order he felt the songs should play. He titled three of the unnamed songs but left the final track, the song for Mud, blank. He’d come back to it.
He ordered Chinese food and opened a bottle of wine. He took an old Western VHS and remembered the home movie that was still in the player.
He held the tape and called Bear to him. “I’m not a bad person, Bear. I tried. I really tried.” The dog looked up at him, licked his lips and walked away. Hornsby took the cassette from the stereo and grabbed his keys.
The drive to Mud’s was a quick one. He’d had no time to think about what he was going to say, which he figured was probably just as well.
Hornsby hadn’t seen George Hudson in almost a year. He looked tired, but he was still a fit man at sixty. Broad shouldered, a well-defined man. Well groomed. Proud. “Well look what we have here.” He yanked Hornsby toward him and hugged him tightly. “My boy, what is that thing on your face?”
“Nice to see you George. How’ve you been?”
“Oh, just chipper.”
“I’m just screwing with you, Joe. Come on in.”
Anne fixed some tea and they spoke quietly in the lounge, exhausting almost every topic worthy of discussion except Mud.
“What’s that you’ve got there? Tapes?”
“I was hoping to play something for Mud.”
“He’s not long had his medication. Probably out cold.”
Mud was not out cold, but he was docile and greeted Hornsby with a slow and gentle nod.
“Am I allowed in?”
“Sure you can come in.”
“I’m sorry I upset you the last time I was here. I’m worried I might upset you again today but I had something I wanted to show you.”
Mud spotted the cassette. “Joey I ain’t got a stereo.”
“Where’s your stereo?”
“Threw it out.”
“Oh? Oh. Yeah, of course. Dammit. I’ll go grab your folks’ and we’ll plug it in up here. It’s only the one song, it won’t take long.”
“You got a pretty voice, just sing it.”
“Just sing it? No guitar?”
“You got a pretty voice.”
“Can I sit down?”
Hornsby sat at the foot of the bed. Mud shuffled closer to him and grabbed the cassette. “Which one you going to sing?”
“The last one.”
“It ain’t got a name.”
“I know. You really want me to just sit here and sing the whole song to you?”
“Yeah, Joe. Just sing it.”
Hornsby didn’t look at Mud while he sang, but he felt his friend move a little after certain lines. When he was done, he rested a hand on Mud’s leg. “Was it okay?”
“I like the line about Sammy. About him being my shadow.”
“I’m glad you liked that line, bud.”
“I miss him.”
“He always wanted to play. Always hide and seek. When we were kids once, we were playing hide and seek and I got bored. It was my turn to hide and I just walked out of the house and came down to see you but you weren’t home. Then I tried Len and he wasn’t home. I must have been out for nearly an hour. When I came back, he was still looking for me. You should have seen his face when he saw me. He was so excited he’d found me, he didn’t even realise what I’d done.”
“No harm then, Mud. Can’t dwell on that. He found you, right?”
“I felt so bad that I told him now it was his turn to hide. I knew he’d hide behind the shoe rack, but I just let him hide there. Walked around the house saying out loud how good he was at hiding. God, but his face when he thought he found me? ‘I found you! I found you!’”
“He was the coolest kid. He loved you, Mud. You made him a very happy person.”
“He was a good painter, you know. Could have been an artist.”
“Yeah he could have been famous. Best painter I ever knew.”
“I never knew he painted.”
“I guess I’d better get going, Mud.” Hornsby turned and hugged him. The two sat and embraced each other for a very long time. Hornsby felt he might cry, so he withdrew and stood up. “See you bud.”
“You go on and tell them about crazy old Mud. Just make sure you sing it real good.”
“You got it.”
He said goodbye to Anne and George and promised he’d keep in touch more often. Outside was a heavy rain. He ran to his car which he’d left unlocked, got inside and sat in the dark, looking up at Mud’s room. The light was still on. No sign of Mud. He turned on the engine, took the cassette out of the plastic case from his coat pocket and put it in the stereo. He drove past three or four houses and stopped. He took the insert from the cassette case and a black pen from the glove compartment, scribbled a title next to track eleven, and took the long way home.
Donovan Bridgeman is a writer of poetry and short fiction. He has a creative background and a degree in the musical arts, with production and performance credits on several works. His most recent work has been published in Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Stardust Review and Coffin Bell Journal. He currently teaches English at a school in South Wales and is working on his first novel.