I love this book. Love it. If I do say so myself! Which I do, which I have to, to keep on keepin’ on. When sales are shit and site traffic is low, and you ask yourself, what’s it all for? How do I go on? Why do I go on? Because THIS IS THE SHIT! Because I Rock! You have to. You have to be a crazy fucking megalomaniac to be a writer. Or you’d just hang it up, any day. Thank the FSM for my hardcore fans who are here every day (Hey Dan-O!). This is for you!
Faith went home and shut herself in the little walk-in closet, and prayed on it. Prayed for guidance on what to do next.
On one hand, there were the positives. Norman’s schoolwork was still exemplary, but then, the public school curriculum was hardly challenging. He was finally making friends and socializing with others. He was being exposed to the musical education she’d always known in the back of her mind that he would need. Just…not yet. And not this way.
On the other hand. That hair! That attitude! And she’d looked up the song he’d been playing, “Black Hole Sun.” She’d read about the music video for it. Special effects that made good decent people’s faces twist up horribly, as if there was something wrong inside them. A tornado, or black hole, or whatever, that sucked them all up to their deaths, as if they deserved it. A clean bright shiny world portrayed as a sort of hell for anyone who didn’t belong.
Faith had played the country music circuit, as part of an all-girl band in the 1950s and 60s. She had drank and caroused and, yes, given in to lust. But she had found Jesus Christ, her Redeemer, and she’d put all that behind her. And she had no regrets. Well, few. But when she did, she always thought about what was most important.
What was most important for Norman, too, more important than his mind, his music, his friendships. And that was his immortal soul, which was in jeopardy, right now, this minute.
And once she realized that, her next decision was easy.
Reverend McCoy shook his head as the three of them sat at the kitchen table, he and Faith on one side and Norman on the other. As if Norman was on trial, even though the verdict of this hearing was pre-ordained.
“I knew this day would come. The Devil has been waiting for you, son. Fifteen years, he’s waited. And now he’s found you.”
Norman had heard about the Devil all his life. When someone erred, the Devil was involved; he was casually mentioned in conversation as if he wasn’t the next door neighbor, but lived no further than the house past that, a member of the community.
Now he wondered if there was such a person after all. If the Devil was responsible for all bad things, how could he have anything to do with music, which was so obviously wonderful? If the Devil had brought him to these discoveries, if this was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge…
“You’re not to hang out with that black boy anymore,” the Reverend pronounced.
Norman’s fury rose. “Why did you call him that?”
“What?” Norman, Sr. said, his eyes wide, hardly able to believe the back talk coming out of his own son.
“The black boy. Why didn’t you just call him the boy?”
His father slammed his hand down on the table. “That is enough. What you need is a penance. And I know just the thing.”
The quiet in the megachurch was oppressive. Norman’s father had shut the doors behind him and locked him in for the night. He stood there with his bucket, his can of Comet, and his toothbrush.
“Scrubbing that altar clean should take seven nights,” the Reverend said. “If you do it right.” He nodded at his own wisdom at picking such a Biblical number. “You serve the Lord for seven nights and I guarantee your soul will be cleansed, too, of all this…disobedience.”
He’d never been lonely in his life, until now. Until he’d had a friend who’d been taken away from him, he’d never known what he was missing.
On the third night, he couldn’t take it anymore. There was a window in the Reverend’s office that opened on the grounds, and the alarm system was off – the Reverend had feared that Norman would trigger it accidentally and bring the police. And in this part of Georgia, even hardened criminals knew better than to rob a church.
It wasn’t far to Korey’s house, not that it would have mattered. He was single-minded enough this night to walk a thousand miles. He gathered up some pebbles and threw them at Korey’s window.
The window opened. “What the fuck!” Korey said. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Let me in, I’ll tell you all about it.”
But when the front door opened, it wasn’t Korey at the door. Norman looked up at the tall figure of Barrett Springfield, in his robe. “So you’re the little rocker, eh?” He shook his head, hardly believing this little dude could possibly be the raging talent his own son had told him about. Then he saw the fierce light in the boy’s eyes, and thought, well, maybe.
“Come on in,” he sighed.
Korey shocked him by racing down the stairs and hugging him. “Dude! What happened?”
Norman told him, leaving out the Reverend’s “black boy” reference.
Barrett laughed. “And on the third day, the rock rolled away, and behold! He is risen!”
Norman was shocked. He’d never heard anyone make a joke about religion before. “Oh, lighten up, Todd Flanders,” Barrett said, making a reference Norman wouldn’t get for years. “Come on in the kitchen, you look like you could use a peanut butter and banana sandwich, am I right?”
As the two boys devoured their sandwiches, Barrett watched them. “So,” he sighed. “What are you doing here tonight.”
“I…it’s stupid,” Norman blushed. “But. We were listening to a record the other day. Sly and the Family Stone. And we didn’t get to finish. And I just, well, if this is the last time I ever get to hear a record, a real record, I wanted to…I wanted to hear the rest of it.”
Barrett shocked him by laughing at him. “Well, hot damn. That’s some heavy drama you got there, mister. ‘The last time ever,’ like they’re gonna hang you tomorrow. You’ve got the rest of your life, you know, and you’re how old now?”
“Fifteen. In three years you’ll be eighteen. And then you know what? You can do, whatever, the fuck, you want,” he said, emphasizing each beat by tapping out a little rhythm on the table.
Norman’s eyes widened. It hadn’t occurred to him, that one day he’d be an adult. And then he’d be able to do anything. If he wanted to listen to sinful music, well, he could sin till the cows come home. But three years! To someone at the age of fifteen, you might as well say ten thousand years.
“So. Let’s hear you play, little rocker.” Barrett got up and walked out of the room, and the two boys followed him into the home studio. Norman picked up a guitar, selected a pick from the bowl on the piano, and sat on the stool. He tuned it by ear, then took a breath, and began to play.
Barrett’s eyes widened as Norman adeptly played the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” singing in a more than passable voice. Not only did he play it without sheet music, which Barrett had expected in such a young performer, but he’d managed his own arrangement of the piece.
When he finished and looked up at Barrett, the seasoned musician nodded. “You know what that song is about, right?”
“It’s about a man having an affair. Which I guess is what you got caught having. An affair with the Devil, isn’t that what they told you.”
He sighed. “Well, you’ve got talent, no doubt. But,” he got up, “I will be in a shitload of trouble if they find you here, you know. Double shitload for being a black man, aiding and abetting a white boy getting out of his punishment.”
That didn’t make sense to Norman, but he let it slide.
“So.” Barrett steepled his fingers together under his chin. “You say you’ve got seven nights locked in there, eh?”
Korey gave him a leg up back into the church, then handed up the bag in which Barrett had packed some blank sheet music pages and a dozen sharp pencils…and an Audioslave t-shirt, several sizes too big for him, that Barrett had fished out of an enormous pile of record industry swag.
He scrubbed the altar with a vengeance, knowing his father would be back in the morning to check his work and make sure he was on schedule. By the time he’d done another seventh of what Barrett had called his “Labor of Hercules,” (he made a note to look that up and see what he was talking about), it was one o’clock in the morning. That left five hours before his father took him home to get ready for school.
His first song. What would it be about? He stared at the blank page, the flip side of the sheet music, where Barrett had told him to work out his lyrics. “Write what you know,” the man had said.
What did he know about, what in the world did he know anything about other than…nothing. Nothing but religion. He sighed. The words of so much Christian music were already ringing hollow for him. They were so thin, so empty of deeper meaning. Praise this, hallelujah that, the end.
When did he feel what they were feeling, what he used to feel when he heard that music? When did the spirit take him? He thought of Chris Cornell, of “Like a Stone,” of his idol, his obsession, his…savior. He thought of the lyrics to that song, which he read over and over again, trying to unpack the meaning, trying to feel what Chris felt when he wrote it, trying to understand his soul so that when they met, Norman could say, I know what you’re singing about.
I feel the Rapture when I hear that song. I’m taken up when I sing along.
His skin tingled. That was it. That was it! He scribbled the words down. He would write a song for Chris. He would send it to Chris and he would love it. Norman would be invited to join the band, to tour with them. To be with Chris, all the time…
Of course it was a ridiculous, delusional, foolish adolescent dream. And if we didn’t have them, what the fuck would we ever accomplish in this world?
That morning, he sat in the back of the class for the first time, so he could sleep. He really didn’t give a shit if the bullies bullied or not. Which was exactly the armor required against bullies.
But it wasn’t necessary – the word was out in school that he was doing penance. All the other kids’ parents had been abuzz with it, the preacher’s son in trouble, cluck cluck around the dinner table, all of them alight with the gossip.
All of which automatically moved him in the Great Ledger of High School Status from the “dork” column in to the “cool kid” column. Especially because Korey had made sure that the other kids knew why, that it was because he was a musician now, and he’d been caught playing “the Devil’s music.” His status went from zero to hero, just like that.
He slouched in his chair, his hair spiked as much like Chris’s hair as he could make it, wearing jeans and his new Audioslave t-shirt, both of which he’d changed into behind the school dumpster, shoving his slacks and button down shirt into his backpack for the day.
He would sleep in his next class, the math class where he’d do the assignment on the board in five minutes and then be left alone by the teacher to do whatever he wanted. Now he doodled in his notebook as his homeroom teacher called roll. He was drawing eyes, Chris Cornell’s eyes, over and over, trying to get them right, trying to get their clear calm beauty on paper.
The kid next to him saw it and whispered. “That’s awesome, man.”
“What’s your name?”
He opened his mouth. Shut it again. Who was Norman? Preacher’s son. What rhymed with Norman? Normal. Boring normal Norman. Norman Rockwell, painter of the wholesome American life he was leaving behind as fast as he could. He couldn’t go by Rockwell, that sounded so gay.
Then he remembered Barrett’s gently mocking name for him. “Little rocker.” He was. He was a little rocker. And in a moment, he shed his old skin, just like that. Like the folks in church, he had it, the epiphany, the moment of grace.
And he was Born Again.
“Rocky. My name’s Rocky.”