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The Bard of Bayonne
"All stories are true, as soon as they're put into words."
This is the story of my cousin Kenny and how he became a bard. I’ll tell the story as best I remember it, as best I remember Kenny telling me.
It starts long ago in Bayonne, New Jersey. Kenny’s family lived in a tenement block downtown that everyone called ‘the projects.’ The outside walls were red brick, and in summer the apartments baked like ovens. The doorframes were made of steel, and the apartment doors clanked when they shut like the bars of a jail. The stairwells smelled of urine.
Kenny belonged to a poor Irish family, the youngest of seven children. His father was a drunk and seldom showed up at home. When he did, it wasn’t pretty. Kenny’s mom was my mother’s cousin, whom everyone called ‘Little Annie.’ The family survived on welfare. Little Annie used the checks to buy food for her kids, but it was never enough. They mostly lived on milk and cold cereal.
I suppose it was desperation that made Little Annie take up witchcraft. She started visiting an old Black woman who lived in the apartment upstairs. This lady had learned her arts in New Orleans or maybe the Caribbean. She had a long French-sounding name that no one could pronounce. Everyone called her ‘Mama Gro.’
One morning when Kenny was six he sat at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cocoa puffs drowned in milk. He wore an undershirt and pajama bottoms that had been passed down by his three brothers so they were stretched and faded, threadbare at the knees.
His mother stood at the stove stirring a pot of stew. This was unusual, since she seldom cooked stews or soups, and besides it was ten in the morning. Little Annie was slender—even after seven pregnancies. She had curly brown hair and a bulbous nose. A filtered cigarette burned at the corner of her mouth and, from time to time, she removed it to flick the ash out the open window so it wouldn’t fall into the pot.
“Here.” She handed Kenny the wooden spoon. “I need you to stir this while I run down to the store.”
“Buy me some candy?” Kenny said.
“Stir,” she answered. “And don’t taste it, whatever you do!”
Kenny pushed his chair over to the stove and climbed up over the electric burners. The pot was made of steel with a blue enamel surface. The steamy contents smelled good, but when he got up on the chair and looked inside, his shoulders jumped and his eyes opened wide. Unlike the brown of a stew, the concoction swirled with strange colors: deep wine red and puke yellow and olive green like snot. Among the potatoes and carrots floated nameless fatty lumps and dark leggy things like the skeletons of tiny lizards.
What was his mother cooking?
Kenny wished one of this brothers or sisters were here. Then he could fake a fit, whine on the floor, clutch his stomach and say he was too scared, so one of them would have to stir the pot. But all his siblings were at school. Kenny, in the first grade, had gotten off that day by playing sick. Now he would pay the price. Reluctantly, he stuck in the spoon and stirred.
Soon he lost all sense of time. It reminded him of one of those cartoons where a character is hypnotized by circling spirals. Maybe the vapors put him into trance. Dimly, he became aware that his shoulder was aching. Then it seemed that the spoon circled more slowly in the pot, as though the person stirring was growing faint. The heat rose and the stew bubbled and hissed.
A bubble burst near Kenny's hand and he felt a blaze of pain. He must have dropped the spoon, because he was suddenly aware of his thumb jumping into his mouth, and then a weird taste on his tongue. A few times, when adults drank at the kitchen table and left a little beer or whisky at the bottom of a glass, Kenny had snuck up and grabbed a sip. The drops of stew tasted something like that but more bitter and sharp.
The taste burned in his brain and Kenny swooned, falling backward off the chair.
He found himself in another world, in a long, dark cave. He was walking over rocky ground, barefoot, wearing his pajama bottoms and undershirt. He met a cartoon character he knew, one of his favorites—a tall lanky rabbit with buck teeth who could run very fast and always got the better of his enemies.
“Where am I?” Kenny asked him.
“Don't get excited, doc,” the rabbit said. “You've got a long way to go. A very long way.”
Then it seemed Kenny became the rabbit. His big white feet spun like propellers and he dashed through the cave. Something was chasing him, a huge dark woman. He glanced back and saw that it was Mama Gro. This made him very scared.
He rushed along the winding tunnel, his feet moving like spinning window fans. But Mama Gro was gaining on him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw her face. Her eyes were like the orange burners on the stove, and her mouth was open, showing teeth stained with tobacco.
Kenny came to the edge of an underground river. Without thinking, he jumped in. When he hit the water his arms and legs disappeared and he realized he had turned into a fish. For a moment, the wonder of swimming through cold, silvery water captivated him. Then he heard a loud splash and looked behind. Mama Gro had jumped into the water too and changed herself into a crocodile. Now she had many more teeth, pointy ones in long pink jaws that gaped as she approached. With fresh panic, Kenny thrashed his fishtail and swam out into the current.
He could see sunlight above the water. The waves sparkled around him with rainbow colors. He came to the riverbank and leapt out of the water.
His fish body was gone. He had turned into a bird, a yellow canary with a big head and enormous eyes—another cartoon character. Beating tiny wings, he circled over the river for a moment. Then the crocodile jaws surged into the air and snapped. He narrowly flew past them, leaving a tail feather floating in the air.
As he flew away, he saw the crocodile crawl onto the bank, grow wings and turn into a dragon. “You can run, little bird, but you cannot hide,” the dragon called in Mama Gro's voice as it lifted off in pursuit.
Kenny flew over a strange landscape. The roads and factories, junkyards and marshes of northeast New Jersey gave way to a sunny countryside. Rolling fields planted with corn and beans, lakes and trees and a line of hills in the west. He would have enjoyed the view and the sensation of flying very much were it not for the dragon chasing him. Mama Gro was relentless, and her black wings seemed to never tire. Soon Kenny was exhausted.
Unable to fly any farther, he dove into a broad cornfield and tried to hide himself among the stalks. To better the disguise, he somehow managed to change himself into a hard little grain of corn.
“Hah! I told you, you cannot hide, little colonel,” Mama Gro laughed.
Or maybe she said “little kernel.” Kenny later decided that was the case, because of what happened next.
Landing on the edge of the field, the dragon took a deep breath and exhaled a blast of fire. In a moment the whole field was in flames. As the fire blazed closer, Kenny heard popping—like a whole supermarket of Jiffy-Pop packages cooking all at once.
Kernels exploded all around him. Then flame reached him and he burned with a frightful pain, like the time he had walked into a lit cigarette in a stranger's hand in the five and dime store.
The pain vanished.
He had popped. He flew like a jet and collided with a whole mound of popcorn at the opposite end of the field. Being a piece of popcorn, he had no eyes, but still there were visions in his brain.
Mama Gro had changed too. She was no longer a dragon, but herself, a fat black woman in a head scarf and an orange dress like a tent. But she was still dragon-sized, as big as a whole block of projects. Her laugh was loud as cement trucks rumbling on the street. Her big stubby hand reached down, scooped up Kenny and stuffed him in her mouth.
He never felt the pain of being eaten, only saw himself ground up with the other popcorn pieces into a pulpy wet mess by her giant molars. Then he was swallowed down her throat, like riding the water chute at the amusement park.
Kenny felt dizzy, his head swimming.
But also hungry. He desperately wanted some milk and cocoa puffs.
“Annie, you is a feckless dope. You don't have the sense the Old Ones gave mud.”
“I just went out to buy cigarettes. I told him not to taste it.”
“Annie, you ninny. You don't leave a six-year-old alone in da house with a lit stove. Especially not when you is cooking up da Vat of Secrets.”
Kenny opened his eyes and saw the ceiling. It was dark and hung with crystals, like the broken pieces of the dining room chandelier at his aunt Margaret's house in the suburbs. The place smelled of vanilla and cooked chicken and the flowery perfume worn by Mama Gro. He was in her apartment upstairs, lying on the couch.
Kenny tried to rise. It felt like the ocean poured into his head. He groaned and sank down into tingling darkness. His head rested on a worn pillow. He still heard the voices of Little Annie and Mama Gro from the kitchen, but only caught some of the words.
“Knows all secrets.” “Not one so young.” “Don't know.” “Too awake.” “Leave him with me.”
Kenny slipped back into sleep. Once he had seen a robin's egg broken on the sidewalk. Inside was a slimy pink thing, half-formed: a little bird that had died before it could fully develop. Now he dreamed he was that bird, awakening to life, struggling to flap wings that were tiny, misshapen and featherless—a broken thing crawling along the rough concrete, leaving a smear of its life behind.
Then he dreamed he was a nickel, dropped into the fare-box on a Broadway bus, ringing and tumbling as it zigzagged down the chute, shuffling through the piled coins as it churned in the gears of the counter.
That dream woke him again. Still dizzy, he lay sprawled on Mama Gro’s couch. But now the room was dim and quiet. He gazed at the ceiling and thought about his dreams.
He had sometimes imagined how money passed from hand to hand to hand, how a single quarter might stay in a cash register drawer for months at a time and then enter the lives of a dozen people over a few days. He thought about these travels multiplied by all the coins in the world.
There were millions of people alive every day and all of them had eyes and saw things from different viewpoints; all of them walked around seeing one another, but knowing other people only from inside their own brains. And he thought of all the people who had lived since the beginning of the world and who would be alive till its end. And every one of them was just like a nickel tumbling through the machine and passing from hand to hand to hand.
But if people were nickels, who were the people who handled them? They were just bigger people, but they were like nickels too, and there were people even greater than them, and so on and on.
Kenny thought he could enter the thoughts of any of those people and see their stories—all of the people and the greater people and greater, greater people. And all of these stories were true. That idea scared him to the pit of his stomach, and then the dark ocean poured in again and all his thinking drowned.
Kenny told me all this later, when he was ten and I was twelve. My mother had gone over to visit Little Annie, which she didn’t do very often because the place was so unpleasant. I had tagged along; I don’t remember why.
Kenny and one of his sisters went out to the playground, and I followed. I hadn’t seen Kenny much the past few years, and I was curious. I’d heard he’d had some kind of breakdown at the start of First Grade and missed half a year of school. My mom wouldn’t say much about the breakdown, which led to believe it was a mental problem. Eventually Kenny got better and went back to school. He didn’t even have to repeat First Grade. Somehow, he caught up. The few times I’d seen him since he’d been quiet and withdrawn. Amid all the noise and chaos of the family gatherings, he would sit by himself, watching it all with a faraway look in his eyes.
It kind of creeped me out, but also, as I said, made me curious. So, while his sister and some other kids were riding the swings and merry-go-round, I sat down with him on a concrete wall.
Kenny reached into his pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Right: ten years old and already smoking. He held out the pack to me but I shook my head. He lit up, took a deep drag, blew out the smoke.
I asked how he was doing, and he just nodded.
“You’ve gotten very quiet,” I finally said.
He looked at me a long time, a look that made me shiver inside. Then he decided and said, “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
That’s when he told me the story of skipping school that day when he was six and burning his tongue on the mystery stew. I listened as it got weirder and weirder, knowing it all sounded crazy, yet thinking somehow it was true.
Out in the bay, a seagull settled on a black hunk of driftwood. At our feet, wavelets slapped against the oily black stanchions of the pier. I didn't know how we had gotten here. When he started the story, we were sitting by the playground at the projects.
“It's like this,” Kenny told me. “Ever since I burned my thumb on that witch's brew and sucked it into my mouth, it's like those drops got into my blood and that blood got into my brain and changed me. Now I see things nobody else sees and know things nobody can know.”
“How did we get here?” I asked. “We were just on the playground.”
Kenny stared at the misty bay and seemed to consider the question. But he didn't answer it. “Mama Gro says I have the sight, but Little Annie says it’s wisdom and the Silver Tongue. Seems that’s an old Irish thing they said about poets. She thinks I should be able to tell her things, like looking into the future and stuff. But when I try that I just see where the whole world is going, and it isn't a pretty place.”
The sun came out from the clouds and made shimmering gold on the water. The mist had vanished, and far across the bay I could just see the concrete ramparts of Manhattan like tiny teeth in the mouth of a monster. To our left, the peninsula curved in and out and ran north to Jersey City. Somewhere up there was the Statue of Liberty.
“Not sure why I told you this.” Kenny shrugged. “I just decided you needed to hear it.”
I stared at him.
“I know, you think I’m nuts,” he said. “But I’m telling you, this story is true. In fact, I’ll tell you something else: All stories are true—as soon as they’re put into words.”
He set his index finger against the filter of his Kool and flicked it away. It flew a long way into the air, but I never saw it hit the water.
Because, while I watched it, the light flickered and the next instant we were back at the playground with the swings flying and the merry-go-round spinning and pigeons strutting on the ground near our feet.
“Well, we’re back,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
Kenny shrugged again. “I guess I'll hang around a while—till I'm old enough to get away.”
I only saw Kenny a couple times after that—at those rare family gatherings. Then my family moved out to the suburbs and after that I didn’t see him at all.
Kenny left home at 16 or 17. I heard different stories of what happened to him, from his sister Maureen and from other cousins.
He hitchhiked to Florida and got a job at a marina, or else picking fruit in the orange groves.
Or he went out to California.
He got involved in organized labor and eventually was elected head of a union.
Or he got addicted to drugs and died on the streets.
But my favorite is that he moved to New York and took up the guitar. He sang in coffee houses in the Village and on the sidewalks, where he’d leave his guitar case open for people to throw in quarters and nickels. I was told he changed his name to Roscoe Birdsong and billed himself as ‘The Bard of Bayonne.’
But none of his songs were ever recorded, so I don’t know.
Maybe none of these stories are true.
Then again, maybe all of them are.
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