An Open Letter To The Reader Who Goes Before Me

Dear Whoever,

Hi. I’m the guy who comes to the library after you: the bloke who takes home the books upon which you expend such painstaking effort.

I really appreciate the time you put into grammatical correction, especially the delicate way you obliterate the last three letters of the word “gotten”, or substitute an alternate phrase of your own making where “got” or “gotten” occur. May the Flying Spaghetti Monster preserve the King James Bible from your hen-scratchy ballpoint, as the “begat” verses in Numbers would certainly overtax your mind.

My respect for you is immense: your unerring ability to correct dialogue, even the colloquial dialect of characters, in story settings spanning the entire width of my fiction and nonfiction interests, leaves me in search of a preposition to beat you with with which to beat you.

I am grateful for the marginal notes supporting your elite hypotheses on any and every tangential scientific and philosophical notion. The large, clumsy “Bull! Another piece of Zionist claptrap!” and similar axiomatic (to you) statements are balanced by your wavering red double-underlines of phrases or paragraphs that coincide with your views.

You are obviously a person of distinguished appetites: only the best chocolate, cake, curry, cigars, red wine, coffee and cookies will do to fuel your efforts. I could probably even discover your distinguished pedigree from the various DNA samples you have left when a difficult text proves to be a real head-scratcher, or from those occasions when, despite a bad cold, you have persevered in Making Literature Safe For Humanity.

And while we’re on the subject of effluvia, bearing the aforegoing in mind, I’m very glad I don’t read the Romances With Rearing Horses On The Cover!

And, oh, don’t you make it safe? I presume that’s where some of the pictures from the art reference books went, to protect the Youth Of Our Nation from prurient interest. And your protection saved me, too, from seeing the colour plates of the Gibson ES-335 or the Rickenbacker 370/12 in that Bacon and Day guitar book. I must salute you on that: Herself is very understanding about guitar pr0n, but it was a close call.

You are very unassuming for one whose work touches so many so deeply; still, I hope one day to visit you at the library and discover you going about your work. I’d like to shake you firmly by the neck.

The picture is from the Flickr photostream of Queensland State Archives, and is in the public domain.

“Worshipping today, Euey?” Doug’s grin was especially cheeky.

“Devoutly, if you’ve got the sacraments.” I wasn’t equipped today.

So it was, that the Lunchtime Mob walked out of the cool, paper-lice-infested, government office, into the heavy, palpable sweat of a December Brisbane noontime.

It wasn’t far to St John’s Cathedral. Thanks to the way the southerly (altar) end overlooked Adelaide Street, via a steep, rocky slope scattered with yucca plants, bamboo and small trees, it was relatively easy to dive around the corner and find a sanctuary of quite a different sort.

There was never any foot traffic down that end.

There’s a pic on Flickr that shows the altar end of St John’s in 1927. We’d have been in the corner behind the first pointy tower thingy on the left.

There were four of us: almost-interchangeable, junior public service droids. Our work was all paper forms, filing and archiving – there’s probably no modern equivalent.

If there’s a machine that now does our semi-mindless tasks. It’s no doubt faster, and it certainly doesn’t take lunch breaks and smoke drugs, before coming back to complete a very slow afternoon’s work.

The lunchtime smoke came from a wide range of sources. Early 70s Brisbane was a minefield of social randomness, and none of us were smooth operators, although Doug was generally good at scoring low-to-medium-grade weed.

My social connections weren’t all the best, and certainly not up to shopping for illicit fun, but I got invited because I was generally good for a loan when money got a bit short before fortnightly paydays.

Doug’s fortunes had been especially good, from what we could see in the crumpled Alfoil. This dope was mostly heads, and tied to a thin bamboo stick with a double helix of bamboo fibre, like a leg strapped into a Hercules sandal.

“Thai stuff, eh?” grunted Wallaby. He was a good roller, who mixed just the right amount of tobacco for a good burn, and always seemed to make joints just thick enough for the occasion.

Doug kicked off, inhaling, nearly exploding with a repressed cough, and eventually dribbling smoke out his nostrils as his eyes streamed freely. He’d already passed to Wallaby, who drew on the jay a little more warily and handed it on to Reggie, whose pale face reddened rapidly, as always.

Then it was my turn.

The smoke was a little more acrid than I expected, but I’d gone through a period of smoking Dutch dark shag rollies. I held back a cough and kept the smoke in as long as I could, like a druggie freediver.

When the rush crept up on me, it was a little more intense than usual. There was a touch of that cold feeling I’d experienced before herfing up a pizza with unexpected traces of crab meat.

We were normally not terribly chatty little stoners. There’d be a bit of a joke here, a lame, random thought there, and long, long silences in between, then somebody would look at their watch and mumble that we’d better get back before Clockboy started checking for late lunchers.

Not to be content with inhaling THC, the quartet ate whatever food they’d brought, and each took on board the caffeine plus thirteen teaspoons of white refined sugar in his can of Coke.

A second little number rolled out under Wallaby’s nimble fingers, and we smoked that down to roaching off a repurposed Government paperclip. The Commonwealth wasn’t going to get much value for money in the coming afternoon.

The cathedral was a real bounty to our straggling stoner coterie. Its vastness and coloured windows were perfect for the “Aaah!” phase, if added awe was needed. And the church had provided for more of our needs, with a handy, secluded stand of big bamboo, a godsend for urination.

My can of Coke had joined forces with the ten o’clock cup of Intentional Rust from the guvvy tea-trolley: the tide was in, and I had to stand and find my wobbly sea-legs for a voyage to the Grove of Empiddlement.

I don’t really think it took me a minute of realtime to stand up. Reality was a mite distorted, as could be expected.

Other things were more clearly noticable than usual. The stones of the church, the light through the bamboo and the trees, the way my lips felt tingly and wanted to make orangutan faces of their own accord.

I peed, as surely no mortal had peed before in all known history. Looking down, I was surprised to see only a trickle, where I expected a sizable, muddy torrent.

This weed was clearly fucking epic stuff.

But, no! Things had maybe reached the point of no return. I had seen what could only have been a full-fledged hallucination. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and I could only think in dark, horrid fantasies of locked psych wards, or me thinking I could fly and taking a more direct route down to Adelaide Street.

Choking back my euphoria, I stumbled around the curve of the apse and sat down with the others, silently looking at my knees.

Time passed. The real stuff and the subjective stuff used different lanes. Eventually Reggie went round the corner.

When he returned, our token redhead was more pallid than usual. I’d swear even his freckles were white. The Horror was upon him too.

With company in my unease, I could be brave.

“Donkey?” I said.

He nodded affirmation.

We recovered, and went on to lead happy lives, apart from Doug, who became a traffic statistic a couple of years later.

The Dean of St John’s apparently wowed the kiddies with his lunchtime Nativity act.

We didn’t see the show, but we did meet one of the cast.

Select Pickup

He stole that first Les Paul.

The way Travis told the story, years later, he was sorry, and went back with his first gig money to pay the store owner, only to find that whole row of shops had burned down.

There’s probably a grain of truth in there somewhere, but you’ve got to remember Travis was a guy whose whole life centred around improvising and making it sound good.

Like that “Me and Sunburst Betty” album from last year – that “one guitar all my career” stuff was utter bullshit, but the fans lapped it up. They weren’t there, seeing the nicks and scratches applied to a succession of Betty replacements and spares. There was a “damage template”,  for fuck’s sake, and that dark tobacco sunburst conveniently hid the swap from all but a few conspiracy dweebs.

It’s been more than one guitar. It’s been at least a few dozen, all Gibsons, as identical as my Dad could make them.

I know. I know too much, and I wish I didn’t.

The only thing I know for sure is that all those Bettys used the same three-position switch when Travis played them.

One of the reasons Dad, Dave Stringer, worked so long as Travis’s personal tech was that he could replace a broken G on the current Betty in the time it took for the drummer to tell one of his guaranteed-to-get-a-groan jokes.There was a book of those, and all the drummers had to have one ready.

Another reason was Dad’s reticence. That switch was the Coca-Cola Formula at the core of the Travis T Poesen machine, and there were other secrets too, damn my father.

Like the black drink’s logo changed, a succession of drummers and bassists came to Travis from obscurity, eventually fading back into obscurity. That magazine which eventually tracked me down couldn’t find one of them.

Dave Stringer was a Betty, too, or maybe a patsy. We were never close, and I don’t look like him.

If I was the gambling type, I’d put money on Travis being responsible for a lot of things, including Mom’s troubles, and me.

That’s going to remain a moot question now, though. Mom’s been gone nearly twenty years.

Travis won’t be talking. Who knows what the motivation was, leaving Betty with Dad, and going out with one of those digital modelling guitars on a solo tour called “Playing My Own Way”?

Travis used to joke that Betty “had all the talent”.

The tour flopped. He either suicided, hung himself on purpose, or slipped during one of those half-choked masturbation sessions some jaded dudes try.

Perhaps he was feeling a scar where his conscience used to be. I mean, those “private guitar lessons” that were supposed to be a secret, even if everybody else on the bus knew. Your own daughter, dammit!

Magazine didn’t get more than a “Go away!” out of me either. I hope Jan wasn’t too displeased.

I’d left Lucille Stringer behind years ago, anyhow. It was that or take Mom’s way out, the big sleep.

Sure, Lucille couldn’t go on. I mean, fuck – named for a guitar, with the last name of a spineless lackey whose job was his title?

Yeah, even down to the liberties lords take with the peasantry.  Mom didn’t say much, but I think I understand now.

Maybe I should have come up with a better name, but I had to think quick. It was Lucienne Stronger who got the first job, and it was easy to change the papers I had just a little bit, in those days before everything was cross-checked.

I’m Lucienne Stronger on the papers of my apartment and the bar I run. I’m Luce to those I know.

After I got off the tour bus that last time, I told a lot of lies, but I left the big lie, and its liars behind. I was hoping it was for good.

I’ve put a lot of truth back into life in those years. I eventually admitted that nobody could live up to my trust issues forever, and that my life was a solo gig.

The job doesn’t mean I sacrifice my principles, either. My workers do okay before tips, and nobody stays long if they pull any dick moves.

Ruth doesn’t work for me, but her name opens doors if you ask at the bar. There’s a back entrance, and cab drivers I know, for anyone who has trouble they’d rather leave without.

I don’t know what happened to that guy who tried to slip roofies into that girl’s drink a few months ago, and I’m not sorry the newsreader named the bar on air when they searched for him. My place is safe, unless you’re a danger.

And if anybody on that tiny stage played Travis T Poesen numbers, up to now, I just counted my luck and the years I’d been free.

But I wasn’t, fuck it. I wasn’t.

I keep busy with my present, and try to make sure I have a future. There’s a few kids on staff, and in my neighborhood, who I’d like to see get a future too.

I can’t win ’em all, but I owe karma because I dodged the bus.

Now I’m only here because Dave Stringer somehow kept tabs on me, and I’m the listed contact they called when the ambulance took him away from where he’d fallen, right at this workshop bench.

The paramedics say, basically, that Dave is now deaf, blind and speechless. I don’t know about his financial arrangements, but the medical bills can have the house. I’m admitting nothing, and I won’t be back.

The last thing he would have seen or heard is Betty #144, or whatever. It’s still on the bench, and the back’s off the switch cavity at the top.

The old, battered road case is nearby. From the look of it, that thing’s been working since Betty #1. It has a few papers inside. Among them is a Canadian birth certificate for a Lucille Mae Poesen, which I tuck away in my jacket.

That might come in handy some day.

As for the rest, I’m taking the guitar and a few bottles of vodka into the backyard, to the outdoor grill.

Time for a real sunburst finish.