by Th. Metzger
1- Wes Kobylak (and Lulu, nude)
I made myself a White Russian (Kahlua, vodka, Splenda and cream) and there appeared before me the ghost of Vaclav Kobylak. I don’t care much for girlie mixed drinks. But I was alone, far from home, and the ingredients were there for the taking and using.
Wes (as I knew him) wasn’t Russian. He was Czech. Nonetheless, this drink, his favorite, conjured him from the land of the dead.
We’d met a quarter century before, in a claustrophobic office: six badly-paid community college teachers, three desks, no windows, no future. Wes read a couple of my early novels and said, with no irony, that they were “worse than obscene.” After a few semesters he moved on to a job that provided health benefits (and some modicum of dignity) and we lost all contact.
One year before his heart and lungs shut down, Wes got drunk and e-mailed a dozen people from his old teaching days. “Sure. Let’s get together,” I replied, “but why does your message read like it was written by a brain-damaged thirteen year old?”
On the phone, Wes’s words were a raspy whispery remnant of his classroom voice. “You’re the only one who responded,” he said. “What’s wrong with you?”
In the interim years, he’d read all my books that he could get a hold of. There is no one on the planet about whom the same thing can be said. He claimed to dislike my work, but kept returning to see what else I’d published.
There was always – at least in my presence – an astringent bite to Wes’s words. He mocked me for not playing any sports in high school and I mocked him for playing too much football without a helmet. He insisted, when playing cards, that there always be a winner and a loser. Our last game – hearts – ended with us exactly even, so he demanded that we cut cards to see who came out on top. My queen of clubs beat his nine. Knowing there was a winner, all the way to the end, seemed to give him some comfort.
He lived in a studio apartment crammed with houseplants and pictures of the supernally beautiful Louise Brooks (AKA Lulu). After Hollywood and Berlin, she moved to Rochester, just a few blocks from Wes’s apartment. There she took up the pen, trying to make sense of her life as a dancer at the Ziegfeld Follies, a movie star, a prostitute, and then this city’s most illustrious secret resident. A gorgeous nude shot of Lulu hung in Wes’s bathroom.
Wes once asked me about my relationship with my mother. I said, “cool.” (I didn’t mean Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk cool.) “Why?”
“You’re so totally messed up,” Wes said, “but you get along so well with women.” There was a flicker of envy in the statement.
I called in July of ‘15 to see if Wes wanted to play cards. Diane, his girlfriend, answered. Still in shock, she said, “Wes died three days ago.” I knew he’d been sick – toting around an oxygen tank – but Diane’s words came from nowhere, pitching me into a state of numbed vertigo.
There was no funeral. Some of his friends got together at a greasy chopstick restaurant (Wes’s favorite) and told tales (mostly true) about him. My wife got violently sick from the food. Eventually the place was closed down by county health officials.
A few weeks after our celebration dinner, the nude photo of Louise Brooks arrived in my mailbox. With her hands raised and fingers extended, she’s a girlish hierophant casting a spell. She gazes down at me as I write these words: gorgeous, pale as the moon, serene in her nakedness, supremely cool.
2- Charlie Russell (and the gun)
The rumor went around quickly: “Charlie’s dead.” It spread by word of mouth: guys he’d played with in various bands, an ex-girlfriend, a housemate. By this time Charles S. Russell had been gone from Rochester for about a decade. But in those years we kept hearing about his exploits: making a precarious living as a backgammon shark, running the soundboard for the Grandmothers of Invention (after Frank Zappa died), witnessing Goethe’s Faust performed by residents of a German mental institution.
What was true about Charlie? This much I’ll stand by. Of all the musicians I worked with, he was the one who I thought would make it into the Big Time beyond Rochester. He was a great bass player. He had big bountiful hair and plenty of optimistic ambition. He released a 33 rpm single in 1987: “Daddy’s Gun (Handful of Nails)” on which he played all the instruments. He built, and lived in for a while, an art-car named “Cinnabar Charm.” I’d coined the phrase and used it first as the title of a poem.
He joined Health and Beauty (the best band I was ever part of) and contributed two pieces. The first was a totally un-ghetto rap (“My name is Charles S. Russell, I’m the King of Rock. I’ll be beating my thing around the clock.”) The second was his maniacal cover of “Daytripper.” He played Lennon’s riff perfectly, but as exactly-even eighth notes with no rests, like an autistic machine, while I bellowed at the baffled audience, “Me hungry! Me hungry!”
The last time I spoke with Charlie he was in New York City. He’d told me to call when next I was in town. I got through, but he said he was three days into a game of poker with Israeli arms merchants and it would be very unhealthy to quit just then. “Maybe next time,” I said.
So when the rumor went around that Charlie was dead, I didn’t doubt. By that time, Charlie was living in the desert on an abandoned military base. No water, no power, no sewers for his trailer.
I called Sean, a drummer he’d worked with, to confirm the bad news. Though he wouldn’t tell me the cause of Charlie’s death, Sean said that Charlie really was dead. Soon, someone had the brilliant idea to call Charlie and make sure. He answered, having gotten no word of his untimely demise. It turned out it was his father’s obit (same name) that triggered our confused grief.
A few days later, Charlie posted a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The caption: “No, this isn’t a cry for help. And no, I’m not dead.”
So a year or two later, when news of Charlie’s death began recirculating, I said to my informant: “Yeah, right. He’s dead again.”
This time, the story was true (or at least truer.) A friend had left him sitting at a table in his trailer. When the friend returned the next day, Charlie was still sitting there, at room temperature. No gun, no obvious signs of drug abuse, no funny suicide note.
The first band Charlie had been in was called Woody Dodge. I ran into Sean, the drummer, not long after Charlie’s second death, and he gave me a fakey hippie Woody Dodge T-shirt. I doubt very much Charlie would’ve liked the tie-dyed design.
I hardly ever wear it. I suppose I’m saving it for the day when I hear Charlie has died again. Third time is the charm.
Th. Metzger has lived his entire life in the Burnt Over District of Western New York. Soaking up the weird vibes of Mormonism, spiritualism, Love Canal, the Publick Universal Friend and the original electric chair, he explores his area’s strangeness in a number of works (fictional and otherwise). His latest published work is, Undercover Mormon: a Spy in the House of the Gods.