So all day I’m sitting in the back of the van, frowning out the window at the passing Midwest. I knew I looked angry, ready to kill, in fact, but that’s how I get when I’m worried. It’s almost like I get mad at life (and the eventual troubles that beset all lives) for encroaching on my existence… So instead of looking overwrought and getting Pepto-face (named for the schlocky acting in antacid commercials from the seventies and eighties) I tend to look like I’m raring’ to chew on the universe’s ass for a minute before I move onto the main course.
Why was I worried? At some point during the last leg of our tour (it was in Toronto, I think), I developed a little throat tickle that grew in to some overall scratchiness and difficulty swallowing. We were about to get a couple of days off so I thought that I’d wait it out. I was otherwise healthy, no cough or runny nose… I figured it was just a bit of vocal overexertion that would be fixed by a few days’ rest.
The swallowing difficulty blossomed into outright pain, like I was trying to swallow a tiny porcupine. I had to swallow in stages, slowing down this, usually reflexive, process to the point where I could feel the individual muscles in my throat working, clenching, pushing -the undulation not unlike a python coaxing a rodent down its gullet.
So we return to the road. First stop Cincinnati. We’re back at MOTR Pub and it’s packed. These people want A SHOW and the opening band, Buckra, got the crowd hot and ready. Of course my throat is in terrible shape and we put on a fine show, but I feel like I owe Cinci a little extra for putting up with my cracks and yelps during the set, not really dancing (because I needed extra breath support to hit pitches and smooth out the gravelly tone in my compromised state) and declining an encore. Even with all the resting, saltwater gargling, warming up and down, and all the other emergency [read: standard] vocal care my voice was still all fucked up. I had none of my top, little of my bottom and the middle sounded like a bad Dr. John impression.
So the next day we drive to St Louis and I’m scowling at …I don’t know…circumstance? For not making me invincible. It was supposed to be a triple header that day too: a recording session at KDHX (our first STL supporters and the reason that in the past 2 years we’ve played there 7 times), an in-store session at Euclid Records (big ups to Joe and Sandy Schwab who put us up both at their home and in their store) and then the show at Off Broadway.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Once we arrived at the Schwab house I dropped off the guys and I took the van over to East St. Louis where my friend Chaz told me I could get some help.
“In the Fairmont City part of town, right off 62nd St, there’s a guy”, he says. “He’s not on the street or anything”, he was in a super-cluttered, yet impeccably organized apartment that smelled like one of the Nag Champa spin-off scents. “He works by appointment only. I got you in, you owe me …big”, and then Chaz signed off of Gchat and left me to my fate.
The man himself was almost as tall as me and old man skinny. He must’ve been in his early seventies but he took good care of himself. He was black, a little darker than me, with light grey eyes that I could’ve mistaken for cataracts if his gaze weren’t so sharp. The buzzer said ‘Hodges’ but he told me to call him Mister Obie. He asked me what was wrong and he cut me off about three words in. He grabbed my throat, not aggressively but for a hot second I saw my stupidity from the outside: I took off without letting anyone know where I was going, I was on the outskirts of a city I didn’t know, in a stranger’s apartment with his hand around my throat, and I wasn’t [repeat: Wasn’t] getting laid. I wondered briefly if I could take the old feller should some danger-shit suddenly pop off, and realized I may as well relax because if it came down to that I wouldn’t stand a chance; this man was a practitioner.
All that flashed through my mind in a second, then I realized that he wasn’t choking me but massaging, almost like a doctor checking for swollen lymph nodes, albeit aggressively. He was staring at the wall just above my head and whistling through his teeth as he pressed and squeezed and then suddenly his finger was in my mouth, swabbing the back of my throat. It happened so quickly I didn’t even taste it until he was inspecting my sputum between his thumb and forefinger. It seemed that he had arrived at a diagnosis.
He lit one of the apartment’s myriad candles and stuck a penknife in the flame. I was instantly visibly nervous and Mister Obie saw this and chuckled and told me that he never killed anybody he didn’t mean to, and as weird as the ENTIRE situation was, I relaxed some. I had come this far and if this was the end dictated for me; at least it wasn’t dull. Mister Obie came over to me with the sterilized knife and asked me if I wanted to start with the cutting or the scraping. I chose the cutting and he grabbed a small plastic bowl that looked like it was a cereal box top mail-in prize. There were worn Disney characters on it; I think it was a Goof Troop promotion and sized perfectly to hold a child’s serving of breakfast sugar. Looking directly into my eyes, he grabbed my hand and squeezed in an almost-handshake before flipping it over and flicking the knife across the surface. A moment later I felt a burning welling up along the line the knife made. I looked down just in time to see first blood coming up through the perfect incision he had made there. That pen knife was scalpel-sharp and the stinging burn of such a deep cut was radiating both ways now: buzzing out through the wound and alternately sinking into the bones of my hand and wrist as a dull, pulsing ache. He gently turned my hand palm-up and let my blood drip into the translucent bowl, transforming the nineties-irreverent, saccharine characters that decorated the dish into Disney devils, goofily grinning murderers skipping and playing in the blood of their latest kill.
Mister Obie reached behind himself without looking and grabbed a linen strip from a fully dressed side-table that I hadn’t noticed before. It was laden with bandages, cotton balls and swabs, bottles of varied antiseptics… I guess bloodletting was a regular part of his routine, and for some reason this calmed me further. Next was the scraping; he told me to open wide and stick out my tongue, then drew the flat of the blade down the right side -stripping off a piece that, once in the bowl, looked like a finely shaved piece of ginger. Finally he told me to dig deep and hock a loogie into the bowl. I did and he announced that the “tough stuff” was over.
He instructed me to cup my hands, like a supplicant, and placed the bowl into them. Then he grabbed my wrists and told me sternly to focus on the bowl, and to not drop it -no matter what. He said that I was “gonna be a conduit” and that I’d “feel a lot of weird stuff, but don’t stop focusing on the bowl and don’t try and grab onto any of the thoughts or images going through your mind while it’s happening. You’re just a waterspout connectin’ me to the bits of you here in this bowl.” I said I understood and he blew out a deep breath and began.
It felt like a breeze was picking up in the room but there was no wind. Gooseflesh ran up my arms, across my shoulders and down my back. I felt a tingling in all of my chakra areas as they suddenly snapped into alignment like a collapsible tent-pole. The bowl was getting hot in my hands and there were tiny bubbles forming in the blood. His hands twitched on my wrists, silently telling me to focus -which I accomplished, surprisingly, by letting my eyes un-focus, blurring the scene before me to pseudo-inessence. I could feel what I could only describe as waves of energy coming from his hands, reinforcing the gooseflesh dancing across my whole body with each pulse.
He took his hand off my right wrist and my vision reflexively responded by honing in on it sharply. His eyes were closed but nonetheless he put his fingers directly onto the sliver of my tongue that lay in the bowl. There were tiny bubbles like menacing little eyes that churned across the surface of the blood all the way to the edges of the bowl. He plucked out the piece of flesh and his eyes snapped open suddenly. He was staring at me and through me at the same time. I realized that he was looking into my eyes, but seeing into my mind. Holding the scrap above the bowl he spoke a word: Burn; and suddenly the chilly gooseflesh became a heat prickle. Fire erupted in my thoughts and simultaneously the piece of tongue burst into flame. He held onto it for a moment, feeling no fire, and then dropped it back into the bowl. The piece hissed and he quickly covered the bowl with his free hand.
We were still then. I could feel the pulsing energy from him and I would’ve sworn I could feel something moving around in the bowl now. The motion was sporadic and never strong enough for me to be sure, but the image that sprang to mind was of a tadpole splashing in muddy shallows it’d soon outgrow. After about a minute he nodded and slowly slid his hand off the bowl. The liquid was still. Atop it was a dense smoke that sat on the surface like a heavy mist. He let go my other wrist and told me to breathe it. The moment that he broke contact with me I felt the tingle disappear like he was turning off an old television. There was a dwindling afterimage of the energy that was running through my body, then nothing.
I lifted the bowl to my face and inhaled deeply, the smoke smelled like burnt copper, but left an aftertaste like mint and orange peels. As I lowered the bowl he reached in and once again plucked out the bit of tongue and tossed it back over his shoulder. It landed on the linoleum floor of his kitchen with a tiny, almost comical splat. It seemed to twitch a bit, almost like it was trying to flip onto its other side. Then, out of nowhere, a tiny yellow cat leapt across the doorway to the kitchen, deftly scooping up the bloody chunk and bounding out of frame to the other side of the kitchen. I opened my mouth to remark on this and Mister Obie hushed me as he dabbed his fingers back and forth in the blood like a grillmaster sopping up barbeque sauce onto his grilling’ brush. He traced some shapes on my throat, it tickled a bit, and then he told me I could wash it off once it had dried. I was also instructed to not speak for at least an hour, then he bundled me out the door.
My mind was racing, the dreamlike-haze brought on by his apartment fading from my mind leaving me wondering what had really just happened, if it would work, and if I had to pay him somehow. His last instruction proved incredibly difficult once I got back out to the van and turned on my phone to see that I’d missed several calls from Ben and Kev. I started driving and the phone rang. Ben. I just let it ring, call after call, wishing the whole way back I could answer it and allay their worries.
I got back to the Schwabs’ neighborhood and parked about a block away to wait out the rest of the hour. There was no way I could go back to them crusted in dried blood and pantomiming my excuse for hijacking the van and not answering the phone. So I waited.
The show at Off Broadway went so well that I felt a bit sheepish for canceling the radio session and in-store earlier in the day. As I stepped offstage I noticed Mister Obie by the merch table, I briefly thought of avoiding him. Why? I couldn’t say. But despite the fact that he was turned away from me when I noticed him, I could feel that he knew that I knew that he wanted to speak with me. I cut through the crowd, distractedly glad-handing my way across the room until I got to the skinny old man in the back corner. I raised my hand to tap him on the shoulder but before I could touch him he straightened and turned toward me in one fluid motion. My mouth was open -a withered greeting peering out from the back of my throat, having fled from this new, severe demeanor. He gently shut my gaping mouth, lifting my chin ’til my teeth clicked together. Then he spoke.
“Now that you can speak again, we should discuss payment.”