Things I Learned from R. B. (July 19th, 2020)

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4468)

Episode 24

Long explanations are often an apology in disguise or unashamed huge chunks of bragging.

So suffice it to say, we founded a seventeen-piece pop symphony orchestra in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and made Janet the conductor.

Sumner County, our location, was not well-suited to such an endeavor. We didn’t care.

The God of grace extended mercy to us and the community showed up to our first several concerts, mostly out of curiosity, leaving surprised that they didn’t despise it.

All the music was original. Not a Bach piece or a Beethoven sonata anywhere to be found.

So naturally (at least in my thinking) for the fifth concert, I thought it would be fun to have two local composers offer their own interpretation of a symphonic piece that they could put together, and showcase them in an evening’s repertoire.

The two chaps I had in mind were both old friends. One was named J. T., a handsome darker-skinned brother who had worked with me in Shreveport during the days when we were trying to figure out if we were running an outreach or a vaudeville show.

And of course, the other one was R. B., who by this time had ceased to seek a job and was living off unemployment, love gifts and the cushion of credit cards.

When I presented the idea to J. T., he was thrilled and immediately launched into creating his twenty-two minutes of music.

R. B. was a different case.

Trying desperately to mask his enthusiasm, he decided to become “negotiator in chief.” He wanted to know how it would be promoted.

He wanted to know if there was a chance it would be recorded.

And mostly he wanted to know if there would be any money given to him for the composition.

I had already prepared for this eventuality, and out of my personal finance, had set aside four hundred dollars to offer him. I thought it was a good investment to awaken his soul from a slumber of sloth.

Lo and behold, he bartered for five hundred.

When I refused, he reluctantly agreed on the lesser amount, signed on the dotted line and we were off in the pursuit of the R. B. Symphony.

Rehearsals were set up, along with sessions with Janet, who was helping them organize their music into a structured form so the musicians could have parts printed out.

J. T. was a little confused, but cooperative, and stayed pretty well on the calendar we set out to achieve.

R. B. quickly discovered where the gears were—so he would know where to throw his wrench.

He was always late for the rehearsals.

He constantly complained that there wasn’t enough time to put together the music.

And he was convinced that Janet was despaired by his ability.

The material he brought was derivative and often sounded like old hymns given a gentle face-lift.

I reached the point where it was more or less a decision on my part to find the bitter end and envision myself arriving there.

We suggested that R. B. make a video, which could be played on screens during the performance of his piece. So we went out and shot great footage of him playing, laughing and cavorting around town with my granddaughter, Isabella. She was only five years old—in that glorious stage when anything still seemed fun.

The video turned out beautifully. It was touching.

Janet did a little magic on the music, inserting additional parts, and we finally reached the finish line of passable.

R. B. invited his whole family from Rhode Island to travel down and attend the production. They arrived, looking like the Pilgrims (if the rock had landed on them.) They were cold, religious, traditional and leery that R. B. had joined forces with some “hippies” who were in a non-Republican cult.

None of that mattered.

The concert was fairly well attended, the music was played and appreciated.

And for one moment, I saw R. B. in the position as a possessor—a possessor of time, a possessor of creative energy, but mostly self-possessed with worth. It was a transformative thing.

That is, until the concert was over. Finding myself alone, backstage with R. B., he told me he thought he deserved more money—because the turn-out sure looked good. I restrained my generosity.

I don’t know if I ever had another moment with R. B. quite like that night.

You will notice that I’m not critiquing his music, nor comparing it to J. T.’s, and certainly not giving anecdotes about audience reaction.

All of that is irrelevant. For the first time in a very long time, a grown man who had somewhere lost his way, got a chance to act like a little kid in a video with a five-year-old girl, and write some music that people actually got to hear.

It was heavenly.

It was the kind of thing that makes you glad you have four hundred dollars to fuckin’ throw away.

Things I Learned from R. B. (June 14th, 2020)

Jonathots Daily Blog

(4433)

Episode 19

It came in the mail.

I was very surprised.

I had never received anything postal from R. B., even though there were times we’d been separated for years. Not one letter or birthday card had ever come my way.

I didn’t expect it. He was a single guy, singularly focused on his own efforts.

So that’s why I was so bewildered by the arrival of this big, fat envelope. It was normal business-sized—but stuffed to the edges, nearly ready to burst its seal.

I opened it and pulled out what ended up being, after careful count, sixteen yellow legal-size pages, with R. B.’s scrawlings and notes.

At first, I could not identify what I was holding in my hands. Then I concluded that he had sent me a play, formatted in his own imagination.

It was entitled “The Reveal.”

A quick look-over told me there were three characters: Robbie, Papa and Len.

I found a quiet place, sat down and started to read. I don’t know whether I was preoccupied or tired, but I found it difficult to get through the entire piece. Finally, after two or three attempts throughout the evening, I finished it.

It was a rather simple story, about a young fellow who wanted to join the Boy Scouts. So he came to his father, who was a very austere man, and asked if it was okay. His brother, Len, came along, hoping that if Robbie was allowed to join, maybe he could be included.

The response from their Papa was very unusual. He began to pontificate about how difficult it was to be a young woodsman, and that if Robbie wanted to be a Scout, he would have to be tough.

At this point the piece took a bizarre turn. Papa asked Len, who was sitting and listening, to come over and punch Robbie in the stomach as hard as he could. Len was resistant and Robbie was startled. So when Robbie objected, his father scolded him on the dangers of disobedience—and how being a Boy Scout required him to always be prepared.

Even though Len did not want to punch Robbie in the stomach, at the father’s insistence, he did—once, twice—a total of four times. Robbie winced, buckled and finally cried out in pain, causing Papa to shake his head in disgust.

Then the patriarch asked Robbie to punch Len in the belly, but Robbie was unwilling to do it. Len seemed glad, but was concerned that if Robbie failed, there would be no Boy Scouts.

The father harangued them both, challenging their manhood in its boyhood form.

When I reached this point in the story, the writing stopped. Inserted were the words, “To be continued…”

Attached to the little play was a note:

“Jon, I know you put on plays for people. Would you help me put this one on?”

I had no idea what to think.

I was impressed that R. B. had found an envelope and managed to stuff the pages in. I didn’t want to say no. I also didn’t want to say yes—especially since R. B. had run out of money, was living on credit cards and certainly required a job.

The next morning the phone rang, and it was R. B. He wanted to know if I had received the package and what I thought about the play. I asked him what he wanted me to do with it.

R. B. matter-of-factly responded, “Produce it.”

My mind went haywire. I thought of a hundred things I needed to say to him about plays, productions, actors, theaters and advertising, but everything was so negative—and I just didn’t feel like throwing water on the only fire I had seen in him for months.

I agreed.

I agreed to do it.

I even agreed to fund it.

I told myself the only reason I would even consider being agreeable to it was that I knew it would never happen.

I did question why the play was incomplete. He said he would have the rest of it finished by the time it premiered.

I couldn’t help myself. I chuckled.

R. B. actually advertised for actors.

He held auditions. He picked two people to play the brothers, and he decided to play the papa himself.

He scheduled a table reading and brought about seven extra pages, continuing the story, though it was still not done. He made it through the table reading without directing the volunteer actors too much on what he expected them to do.

He even went out and found one of the old warehouses in Nashville which they had begun to transform into little theaters for productions just like “The Reveal.”

Matter of fact, R. B. got all the way to the fourth rehearsal. He hit two problems:

The actors had learned all he had written and needed more pages, which he was unable to supply.

But worse—the young man playing the part of Len started offering opinions on stage direction, and even some suggestions on the structure of the lines.

I was there, sitting in an advisory position (a name R. B. had come up with for my non-involvement involvement).

The conversation became heated. I wanted to interfere, but two parts of me refrained.

First was the promise I had made—to be solely an observer. And second—well, second was that I didn’t care enough to want to see the whole thing come to fruition.

But there, before my eyes, R. B. ran the gamut of his emotions.

First, he was calm.

Then he was offended.

Next, he was angry.

And at length, he was nasty.

The young man finally grew tired of spitting at the brick wall of R. B.’s resistance. He walked out. This scared the other actor, who explained that he was not accustomed to such conversational brutality.

R. B. made fun of his weakness—and in doing so, caused the young gentleman to quit.

Remaining in the room were R. B. and myself.

He looked over at me for comfort, support and a bolstering “attaboy” for standing his ground.

I found a chip in a nearby floorboard and stared at it silently, waiting for the moment to pass. After a while, R. B. rose, apologized and left.

I never heard another word about the event or the play. I never knew how it ended. The subject was just dropped.

About four months later, when I worked up the nerve to ask him about the experience, he stared at me as if he didn’t even know what I was talking about.

I did not pursue it.

For some reason, this little manuscript was written but would never be produced.

The importance of it lay deep in the soul of R. B., who apparently was still trying to overcome his father…and that punch in the gut.

 

Reverend Meningsbee (Part 35) A Finer Diner… January 1st, 2017

 Jonathots Daily Blog

(3173)

Reverend Meningsbee

Meningsbee was spooked.

He wasn’t exactly sure why–maybe it was being awakened by a stranger pounding on his door. Or it could be the haunting dream that Nico shared about empty boxes at Christmas time. Or maybe he was just baffled by why he was traveling through Texas, spending money to pretend he was a vagrant.

Whatever the reason, he gathered up his blankets, pillows and the few items he had brought into the motel room, threw them into the back seat of his car and headed out on the road.

He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew one thing for sure: it wasn’t Garsonville.

He wasn’t ready.

So he puttered around from little village to tiny burg for a couple of days, realizing he was going to have to call the church and have someone stand in for him on Sunday. It wouldn’t be a big deal–the congregation was practically on auto-pilot anyway. All the changes he had suggested had brought about a freedom and liberty which gave the people a delightful blending of humility and confidence.

So when he called the office to tell them he would be delayed, the secretary didn’t even question him.

He wasn’t going to Garsonville–but he did feel compelled to at least head in that direction.

So two days later, he found himself sitting in a small diner in Amarillo, Texas, when he looked up from his breakfast of two eggs, turkey sausage and toast, and saw Mercer.

At first his brain didn’t register. But after a second glance, he realized it really was Mercer, walking in the door of the diner.

Mercer was a member of the Garsonville congregation–a quiet, sturdy fellow who was so invisible that Meningsbee had never even learned his last name. He was also a little afraid of Mercer, because the fellow sometimes showed up wearing a camouflage tie.

But then, all of a sudden, in the middle of Amarillo, Texas, Mercer had appeared, with a little smile on his face.

Meningsbee could not disguise his shock, and as Mercer made his way to the table and sat down, he said, “Are you surprised, Reverend?”

“More than surprised,” said Meningsbee. “How did you find me?”

Mercer leaned back in his chair, peered at the Reverend and replied, “Well, I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I worked in Army Intelligence, and it didn’t take me long to follow the paper trail you left with your credit cards.”

Meningsbee frowned. Mercer continued, “Oh, don’t be upset. You can find anybody anytime you want as long as they’re willing to sign on the dotted line.”

“What are you doing here?” whispered Meningsbee.

“Well, I came to find you,” said Mercer. “Seems like I did a pretty good job.”

“Okay…” Meningsbee was not sure what else to say.

There was a slight pause and then Mercer filled in the silence. “What seems to be the problem, Pastor? Are you addicted to pills?”

Startled, Meningsbee replied, “Pills? No. Why would you think that?’

“Oh, it’s just that sometimes you have that pasty-white face of a heroin user.”

Meningsbee shook his head. “No, I’m not addicted to pills. Just pasty white.”

“Hookers?” asked Mercer.

“Again–no,” punctuated Meningsbee.

“Then it must be gambling.”

“Listen, Mercer. I don’t gamble.” Meningsbee realized if he didn’t speak up, Mercer would continue his probing. “If you must know, I’m very upset about what’s happening in our town with the broadcast, and also the intrusion they’ve made into my personal life.”

“You mean how they stole your computer?” asked Mercer.

“How’d you know that?”

“Once again–I was in Army Intelligence. If I want to know it, I can pretty well find out. What was on your computer?”

Meningsbee sat quietly. He didn’t know what to share with Mercer. He didn’t know anything about him. So he decided to be evasive.

“Personal things,” Meningsbee said flatly.

“Like pornography, you mean?” asked Mercer, leaning forward and lowering his voice.

“Maybe like that,” said Meningsbee, relenting.

Mercer chuckled. “Listen, Reverend. Nobody thinks you’re perfect. Lots of people don’t even think you’re good. There are even some folks who think you’re pretty bad. So here’s how it works–the people who know you aren’t perfect will forgive you. The people who think you’re kind of good will be alarmed that you made a mistake but they’ll get over it. And the people who think you’re bad will just think worse about you. You can’t win people. God’s been working on their hearts for thousands and thousands of years. Isn’t that what you preach? But you also can’t run. That’s somewhere in the Bible, isn’t it? So I came out here on my own to find you and let you know that our little town needs you. We’ve made some stupid mistakes trusting these big-town phonies. Now we look pretty ridiculous. We could sure use someone to help us get out of this. What do you say?”

“Are you gonna tell anybody about our conversation?”

“Well, I’ll tell you this, Parson. You got no business lookin’ at that trash. But it really ain’t my affair. Do I disrespect you for doing it? A little. But I’ll get over it. The point is–will you? Because pictures on the Internet will never replace the wife you lost.”

Maybe it was the tenderness of the statement.

Maybe it was too many days on the road in Texas.

Or maybe it was just dissatisfaction with his turkey sausage.

But Meningsbee broke down in tears.

Mercer stood to his feet and patted him on the shoulder. “Do you need me to follow you home, or do you know the way?”

Meningsbee chuckled. “I got my GPS set.” He looked up. “Thank you, Mercer.”

Mercer sprouted a big smile. “You don’t know my last name, do you?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“Well, good. That’ll make it harder for you to track me down.”

Mercer turned and walked out of the diner as Meningsbee stared straight ahead.

It was time to go back.

It was time to take on his responsibility.

And it was time to stop being afraid.

 

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