12 bar blues
by tobias crabtree
my mind clocked in at about 4:49 this morning. it does this, my crazy monkey mind. overhead a lone raven was flying out on some mission, and as she flew she issued tiny croaks. she woke me. it’s raining in the desert and a cloak of clouds is touching the tops of the joshua trees. there’s a glow from the moon that’s allowing me to see through the dark.
what if we were born with our ingredients listed on us, you know, like a box of cereal. i always picture how funny that would be; a list of the parts that make the whole; a summation of sorts. some would make us proud and others we would want to erase, but you gotta list them all. don’t lie on your ingredients list.
i need to tell you about j.p. palmer. his ingredients list was extensive. he was no easy make. i knew him in his mid sixties when he lived in a commercial flat in balboa, california. he knew many folks but his good friends were on a real short list. i imagine j.p.’s ingredients to go something like this: painter, mechanic, veteran, music connoisseur, psychedelic traveler, photographer, writer/poet, master of cooking on a hot-plate, strong coffee proponent, salsa maker/deliveryman, lover of women, personal guide through matters of the heart. he was a cross between lawrence of arabia and edgar mitchell (my favorite astronaut, yeah, i have a favorite astronaut, he’s the one who looked back on earth and gave one of the most beautiful soliloquies about our lovely blue world that i’ve ever heard. he’s an old man now, but back then he looked like a strong-jawed stunt-man, his voice was a cello and his message was something that should make us all fall on our knees and weep for our planet.)
j.p. called his flat the tree house. i was still a marine when i met him. i went up to his place every chance i had and i listened to him as he spoke about the mysteries of the universe while making toast and pasta. he told me my frustrations were a good thing. he told me that women were the wonders of this earth. he told me that i would have a life-time friend named jeff shotwell, the guy they call noodle, who is a big wave surfer and who was trapped on a building in indonesia watching the country fall to pieces. he told me to relax and think about the stars. he lived outside of the time of google and smarty phones. his posts and updates were written on his bathroom wall. oh my, what a wonder his bathroom was! pictures and clippings and writings on every square inch, all across the ceiling and even on the floor. it was such a pleasure to use his restroom. i spent time in there and walked out both relieved and rescued. sometimes, j.p. held court. he would rant at times and his stern jaw would flex while he gesticulated furiously over some worrisome matter. he called down the fire of the gods and was discourteous to divinity. when he was done he always settled, like a skinny brown buddha, into some small task like watering his cactus or choosing a blues record. he used pot as medication. he baked it into little 1×1 inch, square brownies. sometimes, like a doctor, he would hand me a square and say, “take this and drink some coffee, we need to talk.” i never thought twice, it seemed better than a real doctor when they would send me to the drug place with a chit of paper and tell me to check back in a week.
he mighta weighed 115 pounds in those days. his bed was built off the deck near a sky-light where he coaxed the ravens in with bread. we sat up there on the roof and the big, black soul-birds would hop and scratch to within a foot or two. they barked and danced and we laughed at their bossiness. me, j.p., the ravens, the forever sky. we both turned dark as mud in the california sun.
one night, after i had graduated from some school in the marine corps, i went to j.p.’s and it was 4 a.m. i was in a turmoil about my life. my compass had begun to spin and i wondered about whether i would ever find a horizon that might stop my heart from spreading out so thin. i knocked on the big metal garage door. a pause. a voice. it’s tobias, i said. the buzz of a garage door opener and the lifting of the door. at about 4 feet the door stopped, i peeked under and j.p. was standing in a yellow light with not a stitch on. he was covered in flecks of color with a paint-brush in his hand. “let me find my drawers, tobias, no need for you to see all these wrinkles. come on in.” he had a big ol’ canvas laid out on the floor and there was sea-weed and driftwood colored in greens and blues and yellows. he looked at me and saw the hollowness of my heart. “do you know the 12 bar blues, tobias?”
that night he put on his blues records and counted through the bars for me until the repeat. 12 bars. the blues. it was wonderful. he said that life was like the blues, that’s why he loved them both. sometimes it looks like you’re lost but if you hang in there, you’ll find a kind of re-birth. as the blues played, each bar moving off from the original and then finding it’s way back after the twelfth bar finished, i saw my life in a similar fashion. and a curly smile at the corner of the old man’s mouth as he saw me see what he was showing. and we danced the jig at 5 a.m. and i smiled from deep and he knew i had ahold of the line.
in the wind of patagonia i found my way to a little cafe. i walked in and sat down at a computer. it had been 2 years since that night in the tree house with ol’ man palmer. i saw an email from a person i didn’t recognize. i opened it up and it was a girl from the coffee shop where j.p. and i met. she explained that he had died. she also said she found my information at his pad and knew how close we were, so she thought i should know. she also mentioned a letter, addressed to me, that was found on his body. she said that it was stamped and had been confiscated by the police even though she tried to get it to me. i felt something leaking out of my soul when i read those words. it had been a rough year for me in terms of loss of life. i worked my way back to the states in a typical no money fashion; buses and hitching and trains and cheap, late-night flights. i got to california and went to the cop station. i signed a paper or two and they handed me the letter that had been unceremoniously ripped open and then taped back shut. “suicide,” the cop had said. i went to the coffee shop and sat where he and i usually sat. i opened the letter and read with the whirlwind of thoughts that came with the words from a man in the grave. his writing was familiar on his signature yellow paper. he told me what he was doing in the moment. inoperable brain cancer. he had known for a while, probably since i first met him. pot brownies no longer did the trick, he refused heavier treatment. he explained the options. as he wrote he was sitting in a circle of tea-candles inside the garage with his faithful ol’ van running. he was breathing exhaust as he wrote. soon his letters began to be loose and loopy. he said he felt like a teenage boy at the prom just before he kissed a girl. in his last bit of writing, as the carbon monoxide did what it does, he said that he was sorry he couldn’t see me in the flesh one last time. “you, my good friend, are a golden eagle that is searching some great distance. i am an old raven that knows where he’s been. think of me when you here them barking from the wind…you never know, it might be me. what a break that we met!” not so coincidentally, a raven did happen to be in the palm tree above the outdoor table at which i sat. and, believe me or not, it did happen to be croaking and clucking. i tossed a chip on the ground and he carefully picked it up and walked around the corner of the fence. i looked at the return address on the outside of the envelope, there in letters of the man, it said, “in transit.”
post script: i happen to disagree with j.p. on something. i don’t believe i’m a golden eagle. they are far too wondrous and powerful. i am, perhaps more appropriately, suited to be a rolley polley, you know, like a pill bug. i am a dirt lover and i roll up under a hard little shell when i’m afraid. i did meet jeff shotwell, who has become a great influence and wonderful friend. i still love the blues. and i still say hello to the ravens every time we cross paths…even at 4:49 a.m. in the rain. this one is for you j.p., i hope you are dancing with your pants off.