I was born by the Cross River in a little tent and just like the Cross River, I’ve been running ever since.
—Phoenix Starr (from his remake of Sam Cooke’s Change Gonna Come)
Snow fell again like feathers tumbling from the sky and when they hit the concrete, they dissolved into a clear liquid.
The old joke that Phoenix used to tell Jalen when it snowed back in Cross River was that he’d spotted two snowflakes that were exactly alike. It was never that funny, or even original, but year after year he’d tell it and cackle as loudly as he did the first time Pop Pop or his father (he couldn’t remember who told him the joke) first said it way back when he was five or six. Now, Jalen wasn’t around to hear the joke. Cliff was, but he was a poor substitute. It seemed he had forgotten how to laugh.
Phoenix sat out in the cold on his porch in a t-shirt and running shorts. He sat with his legs straight out in front of him and grabbed his toes, then he followed that with a round of jumping jacks while Cliff sat in the living room cleaning his drum set and checking the recording equipment. Phoenix stopped exercising to look into the window at Cliff. The drummer’s face was nothing but an open scowl. He hadn’t smiled since he arrived the day before.
Exiled to this cold, gray rock of a town away from his wife and children, delivering newspapers for a living and aching physically and mentally from the bullets that had lodged themselves in his body, Phoenix still found things to laugh about. He thought of a few as he did a series of pushups right there on the icy wood of his porch. There was the way people here said crick instead of creek; there was the frozen stares his snake-like dreadlocks inspired as if he was Medusa; and of course, there was Cliff’s grumpy old man demeanor, which was the funniest thing of all. What was Cliff’s problem? Sure he was working at a factory in Port Yooga instead of drumming. Sure he had to hop in his car and drive several hours to upstate New York—Endicott, part of the Southern Tier of New York, or as he called it the Cold Asscrack of America—to work on music with the guy that fronted his band. Was any of that Phoenix’s fault? Did he ask to be set up and shot? Sure his exile affected others: Jalen and Cliff; Shirley and the kids he now rarely saw. The only one who didn’t complain in some way was Jalen. What love his friend had for him. Would everyone else rather he wave a banner announcing himself to those that wanted him dead?
Cliff opened the window a crack. Rog, he said. Rog.
The truncation of his birth name annoyed Phoenix. He ignored and continued his pushups.
Cliff opened the door.
Roger man, come on it’s time to make some music. We’re already behind. Stop playing around.
Phoenix paused mid-pushup and rose to his feet. Then he started jogging in place.
When Phoenix Starr first arrived in upstate New York, he was little more than a wrecked human being. His mind swirling, swirling. Separating. Coming back together. Sometimes he thought in doubled drumbeats. Sometimes they were tripled and accompanied by backwards notes. Other times he thought in fevered lyrics.
Marijuana had the power to steady his mind, except when it didn’t. He copped thick bags from Syracuse and often smoked into the night. Dave, had he been there, would have said, Why you want to waste your mind with that stuff? And when he wanted to assert his power he’d say, Not in my studio or my house, fool. It was the reason, Dave said, his group’s apprenticeship had been so long. The smoke dulled their sharp edges. You don’t listen, Dave would say. Bullshit, Phoenix would mutter. Bullshit, Phoenix muttered sitting there in that Red Roof Inn across from the mall in Johnson City. The stuff was good for easing migraines and now good for quieting the mind. It had been about a week since he’d been shot. Phoenix was still bandaged and bleeding. He wrapped his lips around a psychedelic red, yellow, green and blue pipe. He sat sketching things that were on his mind; that was the first time he drew the flaming bird with the scarlet three on its chest that would become the Phoenix Starr Trilogy’s logo.
How did it all happen? Perhaps it was chance. Random. Another botched break-in by a jittery thief with a gun. Nothing, his life told him, was ever random.
He looked out the window, eyeing every car, every face with suspicion. Was this how Dave dissolved a relationship—a hastily arranged assassination? Or perhaps it was bigger than Dave. Phoenix was a man who saw things. A dangerous man. John on the island of Patmos.
In the first few months, only Jalen knew where he was hiding. Not even his wife and children could say where he rested his head.
It was all such a quick thing. One night Jalen learns his friend is in Cross River General with three gunshot wounds, the next day he’s driving his car north convinced by his bandaged friend who is in the passenger seat laughing, then agitated, then sedate, then puffing on a reefer.
Every 50 miles or so, Phoenix would reach into the backseat and snatch the map. Unfolding it neatly, he’d run his fingers along the white dotted rendering of the highway.
Man, he said, you got about as much driving sense as a stuffed animal. If they was following us they’d be on our ass now.
Man, we ain’t never gonna get there. I think I seen a bicycle pass us.
Why are we going to New York?
Phoenix found what he was looking for about a week after he arrived in upstate New York. Jalen had left, a bit confused by his friend, but convinced by his assurances that he’d be OK.
Ask some questions for me, chief, Phoenix said. I don’t want to think it was Dave that did this.
Phoenix walked downtown Binghamton until he could no longer take the pain and then he took the BC Transit bus back to his hotel room in Johnson City. There he wrote songs and plotted his days. She was somewhere in these cold barren interconnected towns
It didn’t take long to find her, after he got his head together. Once he figured out that Binghamton University wasn’t in Binghamton, but in a neighboring town, he hopped on the bus and wandered the campus, wide-eyed staring at every woman who shared even the remotest physical trait with her. Perhaps he looked insane, though he didn’t much care.
After the gray sky turned a shade of dark blue, he happened upon a sad woman in the student center with a look of displacement in her eyes. It was a look he had seen all over the town. Everyone here was unified by their isolation.
There’d been so many false alarms all day. Could this really be her? When she looked up, she smiled. It was a quizzical smile.
Roger? she called.
What are you doing outside of Cross River?
I got shot.
I know, I heard…
After Cleo’s mother exiled her from Cross River, she headed to South Carolina where she lived miserably with her aunt and two cousins all the while dreaming of flying away. The end of high school was her chance.
She longed to return home, sending in applications to Alfred McCoy University and Cross River Community College. Her mother refused to pay for those schools, still unconvinced that her daughter would not fall back into sinful and corrupted ways. They still calling you Cleo the Cocksucker here, her mother said. Why you even want to come back? Cleo argued with her mother over scratchy long distance lines. If not Cross River then how about New York University? Cleo asked. Ha, her mother said. How about I send you to the University of Gomorrah? As a compromise, they settled on Binghamton University, in the same state as New York City, but far enough so that it didn’t infect her daughter and, most importantly, she was safely away from Cross River and Roger Griffin, Jr.
At the same time, Phoenix and his band had begun to rise on the Riverbeat scene. They appalled Cleo’s mother as did most Riverbeat. It was full of such anger and rage, so much misdirection and irreligiousness. It had been a close call, but her daughter was safely delivered from this boy’s influence.
They felt they were fifteen and untroubled as if they were living the nostalgic lies they told themselves about the old days. It seemed that his first few months in the area were spent staring into her face. Phoenix moved to an Italian neighborhood in Endicott. He wrote syrupy songs about her dark hair and her brown eyes and he sung them to her while they drove out to where there were no streetlights and gazed at the stars together. But they weren’t teenagers or carefree even if they pretended to be. Cleo had paid so little attention to school since Phoenix’s arrival that she’d begun to fail most of her classes. The little money Phoenix had was dwindling. He took a job waking early in the morning and delivering the local newspaper around his neighborhood.
Around that time, Phoenix received the first of many letters from his mother. They alternated between lucid and delusional, sometimes in the same letter. She called him Phoenix and asked him to get ahold of himself. Sometimes they were poetic and he tossed her words into his lyrics, but most of the time it was too painful to read. He made to write her back, his floor was often littered with crumpled balls of paper with just Dear Mom or some variation scrawled on them. When he began to feel too haunted by her, Phoenix stopped reading the letters. He left a neat pile of them in his kitchen.
Before she passed, she sent him a short letter that read simply: I’m going to die now. Her heart stopped the next night and Phoenix didn’t read about it for months.
And what of the Phoenix Starr Trilogy? Jalen found work with the local government while he attended Cross River Community College and Cliff worked at a factory. At night they both dreamed about that last show. People said the band dazzled their minds’ eye with a colorful mural masquerading as song. It’s what kept them going even when it seemed like Phoenix just wanted to lie around and be paranoid and in love.
Sometimes Cleo disappeared for days, studying for an exam or doing make-up work. Phoenix felt his mind slipping into unease. For her sake, he left the reefer in his closet untouched, but she didn’t even appreciate his sacrifice, becoming a ghost when he needed her. She’d turn up and they’d argue into the late hours.
It became tiring and boring like most things. Every time he saw a movie in which a man quested for a woman, he always wondered what happened after the credits. Now he knew.
Back in Cross River, Jalen had indeed kept his eyes and ears open. He had seen things. Heard things. Dave refused to return his calls. Throughout the Riverbeat community, speculation sat on everyone’s lips. Perhaps Dave was involved, or he maybe he knew something that he wasn’t saying.
Cliff and Jalen lounged in Cliff’s basement smoking and drumming. When the music stopped Jalen said, Should we tell Rog about Dave?
Think it was him?
Jalen nodded tentatively.
Why not? Cliff shrugged. Maybe it’ll shake the crazy off him and get him back to work.
That cold day in which Cliff came to visit, Phoenix felt a sense of dread flowing through him. He thought if he could only harness it, he would be powerful.
He stepped inside from the porch, his head not fully clear. Wasn’t it always like that, even with the smallest things such as singing a song, you’re never really prepared. It is never quite the time.
Phoenix paced the living room counting his breaths then he mumbled his new lyrics to himself. Even those burbled rumblings gave Cliff chills, but he was a romantic. It was early in the morning and they played till noon.
Phoenix made spaghetti for lunch. He and Cliff ate in silence until they started to bicker about garlic bread. Cliff played back the music and dreamed. He’d later play it for Jalen and Jalen would also dream—guitar here, bass there. Phoenix didn’t give the songs second or third thoughts. He hadn’t heard from Cleo in a while and as much as he hated it, her absence made his stomach feel hollow no matter how much spaghetti and garlic bread he shoveled into it.
That night, as his mind raced and Cliff lay sleeping on the floor, Phoenix decided that counting his breaths as Cleo taught him couldn’t properly center his thoughts. He smoked a joint of the Syracuse weed. Not as good as the black leaves that were grown in the Wildlands back home, but it would have to do. Dave, the man who saved him, had tried to destroy him. It was beyond understanding.
There was a rapping on his door—hard and swift—and both he and Cliff jumped. Phoenix wondered whether or not to run for a kitchen knife. Every knock sent a feeling like fireworks shooting through his entire body.
Who is it?
There was a muffled sound coming through the door. Phoenix peeked out the window and all he could see was a dark form shivering in the cold.
The more he stared the more the figure took shape. It was a female form. She had hair like a fright wig, her face buried in a zibeline coat.
The voice shouted again, in frustration. It came together. Cleo. Phoenix opened the door and she looked strange. Her face pale and ghost-like, but still shimmering like the euphotic waters of the Cross River.
Were you going to let me freeze? Damn.
He introduced her to Cliff. His voice was polite, but Phoenix sensed disapproval. Once he mentioned Cleo and Cliff said, Aren’t you married? Phoenix never forgot that. She returned Cliff’s nod and leaned into Phoenix. Let’s go to your room, she said.
Her eyes were wild, Phoenix thought. She wrapped her arms about her torso as if they were not made of flesh, but of steel and there to protect her from any sort of assault.
First she leaned into the corner, with her head against the wall. She said nothing.
Baby, what’s wrong.
She didn’t respond. Instead she walked over to the window and pushed it open. I need fresh air, she said.
Phoenix wrapped his hands around the guitar and plucked at the strings.
Could you stop that?
The silence was a great gulf, Phoenix thought. It was the first time he had seen her since she stood him up at Town Square Mall in Vestal. He waited with the movie tickets in his hands until the final credits rolled. He had cancelled a gig at a downtown bar for the date. She had forgotten. Always her excuse. She showered him with professions of love. Her sweet voice softened his heart always and then he was again Charlie Brown with his eye on a football he would never kick. She made part of him tender and raw just like the bullets had done to his flesh and muscle.
Sometimes she was just a voice over the phone, if that. What’s the difference? he told himself, with or without her or anyone else for that matter, life was a lonely place.
Where you been at? he asked, putting down the guitar and walking around the room.
Failing all my classes, she said. Oh, Roger, I messed up. I’m supposed to graduate in May.
I thought you were studying. I imagine you got plenty time since I don’t see you.
Funny, Phoenix Starr. Not the time.
Is that all?
She buried her face into his chest and they stayed like that for a while. Instead of sleeping that night, they joked, laughed, made love, ignored the music Cliff played in the living room below, called each other names, argued and joked some more, but then there wasn’t laughter. Sometime early in the morning, just before the sun rose and after they each had a second orgasm., Cleo said: Roger. I think I’m pregnant.
Yeah, you probably are, he replied. I really was on tonight, wasn’t I?
I’m not playing. I tested myself before I came over. I’m pregnant, Phoenix.
As the months passed, the world slipped from an unbearable winter into a damp, tolerable summer. Cleo swelled until she looked like the dugong of the Indian Ocean, her skin appearing just as slick and shiny sometimes. The dream of music became as elusive as a forgotten melody. Cliff accepted a promotion at the shoe factory and Jalen signed up for another semester.
In Riverbeat Magazine, Dave was quoted as saying: Phoenix? That boy ain’t brave enough to make Riverbeat. Where he at? He ain’t set foot in Cross River since he been shot. Shot? Yeah right. Ain’t no one see no wounds on that nigga. Some people think they want this life, but then reality strike they ass like a bullet. Phoenix Starr’s punk ass is like a real bad dream to me. I’m done thinking about him.
Jalen mailed Phoenix the interview. He read it on his way to work. He was now an account executive at the newspaper. Phoenix wasn’t very good at selling classified advertisements, and it pained him to put on a tie go to his windowless office each day, but he was down to his last piece and nearly checkmated. He sent money off to Shirley and the kids and then turned around and peeled off some dollars for Cleo. And there was Cleo again asking for more and more of his time. Where was the time for music?
One night he dreamt of a bird pushing itself out of Cleo’s womb and flying off a bloody mess, whistling against a blue sky.
A pain rose in Cleo’s stomach one night as if the baby was churning, trying to tumble out. Phoenix had a gig in Ithaca. He arrived home with a smile and some cash to put toward the baby. He’d name her Robin. The house was empty though, both Robin and Cleo gone. There was no note, perhaps she was with friends or back at the dorm. Wouldn’t be the first time she vanished. She needed her space. She needed to not feel boxed in. Sure her absences never sat right, especially now that she carried his child inside of her, but he was careful not to shackle her. That would only make her fly into the ether more frequently. Besides, how could he worry now when he felt such a profound exhaustion. Phoenix fell asleep and woke later that night to a ringing phone.
He arrived at the hospital, not with the drawn face and a heavy heart he’d later wear, but with hope that it wasn’t true. That somebody had made a mistake. But in reality, Cleo’s womb had turned into a morgue, littered with cold bodies, that’s how he thought of it. He cursed himself, but he couldn’t help imagining it that way.
Their silence was no longer a gulf, but instead it became a great ocean. He’d sit downstairs playing his guitar while she lay in the bed. Sometimes she would chastise him, That guitar is your best and only idea, isn’t it?
His lungs plunged into his stomach every few hours. His job, taken for the sake of the new baby was a reminder that Robin would never cry in his arms or smile at him. He called Shirley for solace. She was good at that. She spoke flatly, robotically. Now you can come home, she said. How insensitive and cruel, he thought. Didn’t I just lose a child? Isn’t my whole world a dying planet? Why did he think she’d be filled with empathy? Why did he fool himself into thinking she’d provide him peace? Instead, Shirley said she would be defying him: ended the conversation by announcing that she’d be returning to Cross River. It doesn’t make any sense to be away from everything I care about, she said. If me and the girls matter at all, you’ll come too.
But it’s not safe, he said. Dave…
He heard a click, then a dial tone.
On a Saturday morning, Phoenix moped about, strumming his guitar. As he played, Cleo told him she too would be returning to Cross River.
He shrugged. Perhaps part of him didn’t believe her. She was bluffing. Cleo was a good bullshitter. They didn’t say anything about it for the rest of the day. The next morning she wished him peace, dragging a suitcase behind her. He saw the cab pull off and still it wasn’t real, even though he watched it happen.
Phoenix moved sluggishly after Cleo left. He felt his whole life was a dance around a black hole that threatened to swallow him. After work one evening, he lit a joint and a candle and climbed the steps to write a new song. Perhaps all was not wasted. He’d start with that bird he saw escaping from the brown folds of Cleo’s vagina. Its hair matted by blood, twitching its head in confusion. Was it such a bad thing that it flew away?
After some moments, his smoke detector screamed sharp clean bursts of outrage, troubled and angry like an indictment.
He rushed down the stairs. A thick, black acrid smell entered his nose and choked him. His skin felt hot. He covered his eyes with his sleeve.
Phoenix knew he could save the day. Put out the fire and set everything straight to the way it used to be. He moved toward the kitchen where the extinguisher was, coughing and gasping. The fire moved quickly around the room, taking over every corner. Bleary-eyed, he looked around for an exit, but could see little.
He broke out a window and cried for help. When he retold the story, Phoenix said a tall old man with a long singed beard, dragged him from the flaming house. That’s all he remembered. No one ever saw an old man. The firefighters found him lying in front of the house alive, but unconscious.
There it was, Phoenix ended his time in upstate New York as he began it, at the Red Roof Inn in Johnson City, smoking a joint, observing his mind twist and separate and return to sanity only to crack up all over again.
The next day, Jalen and Cliff came to pick him up. Exile was done, they said. It would be about making music from here on out. If the music was good enough they reasoned, it would be a shield. Cross River would never let him die, not by Dave’s hand, not by anybody’s. Phoenix didn’t mind singing to save himself, so he agreed. Everything was back in Cross River, the whole world and the rest of his life.