The End of Mandolin Monkey
Henry Dumont thinks the lake is sad. The state issued air quality warnings which he hears on the radio. Jet skis roar across the water. Coretta implores him with her look. Her arm withers and drops and she twists back her head towards the gently rippling surface. Yes, I will light the barbecue, he thinks. He walks unchallenged through the horseshoe pit. Young men with thick torsos toss horseshoes silently, with occasional comments of disgust or encouragement accompanied by spitting or swigs from beers propped in the sand. Henry is a stocky man with long prematurely grey hair, thin handlebar moustache and a layer of fat he makes no apologies for. He has tried it all. Released from the service in 1996, he spent five years in Florida, Alabama and New Orleans. Mandolin Monkey released three self-produced CDs in those years, but Henry always knew they would never make the jump to a recording contract. For him it was about the good times rolling. His calm demeanor in the face of rampant unsuccess earned him a reputation as a savant if not quite the bon vivant he had featured as in the service.
The RV awning ripples tautly. Henry’s proud of the job he’s done, the tarp going over the picnic table, the little flag propped in its holder by the door. Inside, he pops a CD on for Dennis, something by John Meyer. He knows Dennis is relaxing to the music. Henry stands by the door and waits. When he sees Dennis is relaxed, (a certain air comes over his head is the only way Henry can explain it,) he goes back out with a bag each of dogs and buns, lighter fluid and matches and begins the process of preparing their evening meal.
He works at perfectly roasting the hotdogs, raising the grill to the required height so that the heat sears but does not scar. He realizes that he is obsessive about this minor point of cookery, but believes that if he gives up on this it will signify a long downward descent into barbarism and selfishness. He gets this madness from his Catholic upbringing and French Canadian genes, he believes. He heats up the buns and sets out two plates, the little plastic bowl with relish and the large metal bowl with the pasta salad Coretta prepared before they left Nashua. He removes the aluminum foil and sets out the bottle of wine, a cheap Chardonnay from California, from the cooler and three glasses.
The sun is sinking behind the trailer park when Coretta will begin her trek from the sands. The horseshoe game is over and the roar of jet skis is momentarily replaced by the whine of motorcycles and the throttling of pickup trucks. A pack of mulatto children roam back to camp, triumphantly wielding a string of pickerel and catfish one of them has landed from the swamps. The effort of getting the barbecue done right, supervising the flame from a close distance, is making Henry sweat. He needs to sit down and have a drink. He opens the wine and pours himself a glass, refreshed by its color and chill before it even gets to his lips. There are six franks done and six on reserve, sizzling at the corners of the grill. Henry feels he can eat all twelve if needed.
Coretta’s trudging, folded beach chair in hand and tote bag with towel, book and assorted sundries over the opposite shoulder, has a distinctly Southern feminist, college educated aspect, Henry thinks. Her long, black hair and Texan limbs recall hootenannies past, motel rooms on the edges of towns on the itinerary of Mandolin Monkey, ravaging the moral fiber of the Bible Belt with its rehashed lyrics espousing liberation.
“How’s Dennis?” She’s out of breath.
“Good. I’ll check on him.”
She goes in and comes back out. Henry has fixed her up with a couple of dogs with relish and pasta salad on the side and poured her a glass of wine. She sits and removes her sunglasses, revealing soft brown eyes with the light of the Texas sky still in them. Henry can finally relax, he thinks. The sky is now blood red with tangerine highlights. The cries of children sound distant, tied to the passage of time like they’re drowning and at the same time exultant.
“Are you hungry, Henry?”
“Good. I’m not.”
“You need a eat.”
“Oh, stop. Dennis should be here, shouldn’t he?”
“You’re right. I’ll get him.”
Henry stands loyally. From behind Dennis he issues a question.
“Dennis. Do ya want a eat with us?”
Dennis remains passively, aggressively, silent.
“I’m going a assume that’s a yes.”
Henry unlocks the wheel and pushes the chair down the narrow passageway of the Airstream.
“Where are we?”
“It’s the lake, Dennis.”
“Is it tonight?”
“If you want, Dennis,” says Henry, with an air of routine.
The RV has a moveable ramp for Dennis’s wheelchair. One of the original Mandolin Monkey, Arto Santoalloyo, insisted on disabled access on principle, despite all the members of the band being in those days essentially able-bodied. Ironically Arto is still, according to the latest e-mail from Jerry Kunkel, their former agent. He lives on an organic vegetable CSA in the San Juan Mountains near Taos. Jerry lives in San Diego and works at a spiritual bookstore emporium part-time. Henry, Coretta and Dennis, the last of the Mandolin Monkey, live together in a small house they bought in Nashua where Coretta works for social services and Henry works as a substitute elementary school teacher while he gets certified. Dennis is on disability.
Coretta feeds Dennis. He takes a bite of hot dog without relish and turns down the pasta salad. She mouths feeding movements like a mother. Henry’s sadness becomes thicker, more resinous, with the wine. He pours off the last of it into their three glasses.
“Coretta. Do you remember the Axle Grinder in St. Louis?” Dennis would rather reminisce than eat.
“Of course. How could I forget?”
“I was thinking of it today. We used to hate St. Louis but those memories are so vivid to me now.”
“That’s because we were in our prime, Dennis.”
“No, I think something happened to us in the Axle Grinder. We actually began to believe in ourselves.”
“Well, it’s ovah,” says Henry, raising his glass. “Let’s drink to it.”
“To it,” says Dennis. “To how we used to be. Quick, Coretta,” he implores. Coretta brings his glass to his lips and he snaps his head back, a remnant gesture of his impetuous rock and roll lead guitar persona.
Dennis constantly harks back to St. Louis. He’s like a broken record, thinks Henry. He tries to come up with a more contemporary metaphor, but he can’t so he stops trying. Coretta is inside the trailer getting Henry stoned on grass and methamphetamine. It’s her nightly duty. She’s like a priestess in some cult of Dennis. It was on their last tour in St. Louis, oddly enough, that Henry realized he was in love with her, that it went deeper than the sex or the drugs or their love of the music. Theirs was a shared journey, and Coretta would be a great traveling companion if she weren’t so devoted to Dennis, who is increasingly sad. Dennis, the creative force behind Mandolin Monkey, thought it would fly. When it didn’t, he fell off a balcony in a motel in Cheyenne and snapped his neck. He thought he wanted to die. He wanted Coretta and Henry to help him, but they can’t work up the nerve. Henry believes in a person’s right to choose, but he isn’t convinced Dennis is of sound mind. On the other hand, who is? It is only when they are on the road again that he can forget, most of the time, Dennis and his burdens, the sorrow that he shares with the last remaining members of his band.
The lake reminds him of his New England roots. He would be content just to sit and swat at mosquitoes and sip at the Jim Beam poured into a plastic cup with Poland spring water from the casino it wasn’t for thoughts of Dennis. Snatches of lyrics from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America album run through his head.
I’m a winner
I’m a sinner
I’m a loser
What a joker
Its seminal sensibility continues to inform his emotional life.
The cries of a loon sound out on the lake and the moon, a big orange moon, like the summer blossoming in a fruit of mystery, is rising. Henry thinks strangely of his grandmother, half Penobscot, whose resilience others took as stupidity. She’d worked in the Berlin mills until they shut down and then operated the bingo game at the St. Joseph of Arimethea church for many years. The lung cancer killed her before the chemotherapy even started. Her death came as a surprise, but strangely Henry, who had taken time off from his touring to come back to New Hampshire for those last days of his grandmother’s, does not think of them as sad. His mother and father are also dead, but it’s his grandmother he thinks about as he watches the moon rise. Perhaps tonight is the night, Henry thinks. Dennis will take his walk on the wild side of St. Louis.
“Dennis. Stop,” Coretta orders.
Dennis laughs and continues singing. It’s his favorite Mandolin Monkey song. He wrote it in ten minutes on a rainy day in the Florida Panhandle.
Mr. Sancho. Mr. Sancho
Life in your funhouse is too hard to handle.
Don’t even think of me
When you’re trying to set her free
Henry, alongside Coretta, hums along, doing the background vocals. Coretta pushes the wheelchair down the gravel road to the casino. They reach the sand and she pauses, reaches for the bottle of whiskey Henry is holding in one hand. Dennis stops his singing. In the moonlight, the line of rental canoes is pushed up on the sand. Henry hoists his paddle, holding it like a rifle across his chest, as he walks across to the canoes. He picks one and rolls it over. The muffled thudding of the aluminum hull on the sand causes him to turn around. He sees Coretta and Dennis and the empty, darkened casino. He drops the paddle in the stern and walks back to where Coretta and Dennis are waiting by the edge of the road.
Coretta is still beautiful to Henry, despite the extra pounds she’s put on. They exchange a deep look and Henry thinks she deserves to be free.
“Dennis, I’ll carry you now.”
“Oh, goodie. Henry, you’re a saint. I always said it.”
Dennis in his arms feels like a bag of cat litter. His head, with its noble profile, reminds him of Cyrus the Great on an ancient Persian coin. Perhaps, he’s thinking, if we’d believed more in it, it might have happened for Dennis. Our lack of faith is like the grit in an oyster’s shell that has turned Dennis into a pearl. Dennis’s head certainly has a luminescence despite the bagginess and inert nothingness of his extremities.
Henry props Dennis on the floor of the canoe, holds the gunwale. Coretta is holding back, still standing by the wheelchair.
“Come on, Coretta,” he yells, encouraging.
She half trots over to the canoe, tests the water with a toe like an excited filly.
“It’s so beautiful, Dennis,” she gushes.
Dennis, stubbornly, does not respond.
Henry pushes them out in the water and then paddles, softly, unhurriedly, towards the center of the lake. Ahead he sees a fish flopping, breaking water.
“Dennis. Is this what you really want?”
“How many times, Coretta?” chides Dennis.
“We love you, Dennis.”
“If you love somebody, then set them free.”
“Where do you think you’re going, Dennis, when you’re free?”
“I don’t know. That’s Henry’s department. Ask him.”
“The other side. The other side is where he’s going,” he says with an exasperated air.
Dennis laughs. His laughter makes Henry even sadder. He breaks his paddling and lets the canoe drift.
“Dennis you’re our friend and companion. You were with me at Fort Dix. Your guitar…”
“No speeches, Henry,” Dennis cuts him off.
“Dennis, don’t be mean,” chides Coretta. Henry has the feeling they are momentarily back in the kitchen in Nashua, the wallpaper faded behind their heads, and Coretta late for work.
“I want oblivion. I don’t need cheap remembrances.”
“We’ll always love you, Dennis,” says Coretta.
Henry rests his head on the paddle athwart ship, listening to the exchange between Coretta and Dennis. The truth is he feels compelled to speak, to soften the guilt made worse by the true silence between them. It’s as if a wall of words has grown up through the years encapsulating each of them in a world of ideas that has frozen their hearts, he thinks. If only he could write a song about it, but he doesn’t think he can using the English words he knows. For this he would need his grandmother and her words for the lake and the seven winds and the moons of winter. He envies Dennis for his escape into the next world while he and Coretta must carry on with their confusion, emotion and longings. Henry looks up and sees the black of the night, and thinks this is pure and meaningful. He begins to paddle again, the only thing he can do. He’s going to miss Dennis.
“Dennis, do you think it might be selfish of you?”
“Coretta, stop torturing me. Everything is a torture to me. Let me go, honey.”
Dennis’s voice has a strained, reedy quality, as if the words were being forced through a sieve of unidentified heart pain. He’s shutting down, thinks Henry. He was hoping for more from Dennis, some clarity, some wisdom, some love to help the two of them, but now he realizes that Dennis is scared. Henry continues to paddle in an obsessive, monomaniacal rhythm, making circles in the middle of the lake. The moon is now well on it way across the sky, near its zenith. Henry’s thought reaches to God, praying for forgiveness of his failure, lack of faith, purpose and courage, and realizes he’s praying for Dennis; involuntarily he has become Dennis, as if instead of words he has vaulted the dividing line and entered his friend’s mind.
“That’s good. This is good, Henry.” Dennis wants to get off.
“Okay,” says Henry. He puts the paddle alongside, scoots up kneeling behind Dennis and thrusts his arms underneath his armpits, lifting him.
“Come on, Coretta,” says Henry.
She has a hard time getting Dennis’s legs, fighting back her tears, her hair in her face. Henry finally heaves and goes over the side with Dennis. He’s hanging onto Dennis by the chin with one hand and onto the gunwale of the canoe with the other. He kicks furiously. Coretta’s sobbing by herself in the rocking canoe. A loon wails, upset in its sleep. The water is soft and warm. Henry strokes Dennis’s dead cheek one last time, and finally Dennis slips away into the deep.
“I can’t get back in the canoe.”
“I don’t know what to do about that.”
“Give me the paddle.”
“No. You swim.”
Coretta paddles the canoe surprisingly well, thinks Henry. He’s proud of her, he thinks, but he doesn’t know how long he can tread water. He begins to swim, churning his arms, on his back for a while and then on his side. To someone perched above he would seem sleek, cutting aerodynamically with seemingly little effort. But he is breathing hard, and his thoughts assume the shape of the water, frothy at first, becoming thicker and colder until finally he is not aware at all of anything. Because the moon has disappeared, it is hard to make out his body.