There is smoke. It has grown thicker over the last hour, invading my lungs and stinging my eyes. I take another hit and begin to cough. Someone laughs, which is to be expected. With six joints circulating between the eight of us, there is a certain etiquette that is expected. The chuckles die down and leave us in silence in the cool dark of someone’s basement that is lit up with Christmas lights. I guess I don’t know where I am. I guess it doesn’t matter.
Someone’s finger taps my knee. Jerking upright in my seat, I realize he wants me to pass. Numb, the joint leaves my hand and I wait for the next one to come around. My heart starts to race and I tamp down an anxiety attack down by watching red lights wink in murky dimness. I remind myself of what my therapist said: “If you’re feeling out of control, try and focus on the things you can see and catalog them. Order without order.”
The room is large, well-furnished but threadbare. There are moving boxes stacked in the corners. I think there’s an old record player sitting on top of a milk crate. My buddy Ray is sitting to my left still wearing his delivery uniform. He works at the pizza place on Nine Mile, but I always forget its name. The pizzas are shit but the calzones are decent. Not really sure how that one works out. Our friend John sits next to him in that lawyerly suit he seems stitched into five days a week. I’m dressed in my Sunday best: holey jeans and a 5K t-shirt from the days when my lungs weren’t that of a fish out of water. Everyone else, whether they be sitting on the couch or floor, are no more memorable than the smoke leaving their lips.
The anxiety ebbs for a moment but the shaking doesn’t leave me until another joint finds its way between my fingers. I take a big drag, letting the smoke fill me up and supplement my empty places. I puff until I’m topped off like an old diesel engine. My tongue tingles as weed particulates rest against it. The room is too quiet.
I stand for the first time in an hour and feel lazy pain settle into my muscles. Smoke billows from my mouth and adds to the haze. I pass along the shrinking joint and walk with the grace of newborn giraffe towards the record player. It’s covered in a film of dust that I brush away with a clumsy sweep of my hand. With delight, I discover a box of records on the nearby table, and start thumbing through decades. A voice from across the room warns, “Yo, be careful with that shit. It’s my dad’s.”
Looking down, I resist the urge to comment on the record player’s state. It hasn’t been played in several years. “Sorry, man, I’ll be careful,” I promise and go back to the collection with reverent hands.
After a few more flicks, I stumble across a copy of Louis Armstrong and pull it out as though it was the Holy Grail. It’s an original 45 with a well-worn stick sticker. It slides from the decomposing wrapper with no resistance. I place the record on the turntable and flick on the switch. To my delight, it begins to spin. Mustering all of my remaining concentration, I lay the needle into the vinyl’s grooves.
At some point someone had lovingly wired a half dozen speakers to allow the room to be filled with loud pops that are replaced by low grumbling. Then: a soulful trumpet. A shivering sob chases through my veins. We are drowning in sound.
“St. James’s Infirmary” is playing.
There’s the lowing horn, moving up and down with a sensuous slide. Even when the higher notes pipe their way across the track, I cannot help but feel my mourning. It’s like listening to a heart break in real time. I close my eyes and let the raspy voice of Armstrong pull at my soul.
“I went down to St. James’s Infirmary,” Armstrong cries. “Saw my baby there.”
I’m happy my eyes are already red. My shoulders slump towards the player. I’m worried someone might see through to my heart and the trumpet-shaped brand on it. Keeping it together, I stumble back to my seat in time for a new joint. Incredible how the fragility of a song can be all that holds you together.
Resting my head against the back of the chair, I discover the glow of a single dark star adhered to the black ceiling. “Catalog,” I can hear my therapist say.
The music dips. Armstrong croons about his dead lady love. I feel like I’m going to explode. “How old is that thing?” I ask.
A guy, I assume the host, sits up from his beanbag. “What are you talking about?”
“How old?” I ask again, pointing up with a wavering finger. The star glows, reminding me of green eyes.
The host comes close, resting his hip against the armrest and follows my hand.
“Oh, my dad put these things up when I was a kid,” he says in a soft voice. Then he hums. “Thought I got ‘em all.”
My gaze stays up with the stars as Louis plays on. Around me, the guys talk to one another in slow, purposeful tones about things that sound best in a philosophical haze. Despite my quiet, I can feel that someone is staring at me. Glancing over, I can see Ray’s glazed-over eyes focusing on me. I refuse to acknowledge him out of some irrational stubbornness.
Somebody crinkles a Sno-Ball wrapper when they pull it out of the Costco-sized box someone brought as an entrance fee. I sit up with heavy lids and hold out my hand, satisfied when the spongy cake hits me in the chest. With clumsy fingers, I peel away static-laden plastic and am rewarded with a mound of pink coconut flakes. Ripping it in half, I shove it in my mouth, pleased by the vision of a cone of cotton candy dancing on a deserted island. The image makes me laugh for the first time in a month, though no one seems to notice.
A full ten minutes later, when the hilarity finally ebbs, I notice that the room has grown quiet again. Silence is pressing in on my chest. I jump up and hurry back to reset the needle and song. The trumpet rings out through the room and my breathing comes easier. I return to my beanbag chair and fling myself down with my eyes fixed up at the glowing star.
“You freakin’ out?” Ray asks.
“Yeah.” I sigh and concentrate on the music. “I guess I am freaking out.”
John leans over to look at me with red glazed eyes. “What’s up? You’ve been acting weird all night.”
I’m quiet as Armstrong’s low voice comes back into the room. Goosebumps run up and down my arms. Something about the way his consonants trip over Louis’s lips makes me want to cry. “I just…want to know what it’s all about,” I whisper at last.
“Ain’t that the truth?” the guy sitting to my right says. “But what you gonna do?”
“Not a damn thing,” someone responds from across the circle.
“Ain’t that the truth?” The guy sitting next to me kills the joint, plopping the sad, soggy remains into an ashtray on the coffee table.
The guys start to discuss the implications of my observation beneath the sound of Louis’s singing. Ray leans closer and asks with weed-tainted breath: “On the real, what’s wrong?”
I don’t answer right away. The trumpet takes me back to a time full of Coco Puffs; cold mornings in a warm bed; playing on the floor with toy cars while a phantom in a pink nightgown makes pancakes, humming along to Louis as he stretches through time.
“My mom died,” I say finally, louder than I meant. Everyone goes quiet.
“Sorry, bro, that sucks,” Ray tells me, briefly laying a hand on my shoulder. He quickly returns to his joint to get lost in embers.
There’s little conversation after that, but what did I expect? We’re all just burying our lives behind a smokescreen.
Our host moves to kneel in front of the coffee table, opening a hinged box full of rolling paper and a sealed glass container. “I get what you’re going through,” he says in a muted tone. “My dad died a year ago, and it just…sucks.”
It made sense then: the untouched record player, the lone star that remained on the ceiling. Sometimes, minute details can give more meaning to a lifetime than a scrapbook ever could. People preserve things without meaning to. We’re trying to find slivers of comfort.
Our host bends over his work, breaking a large nugget from his collection into a grinder before rolling the remnants into a joint that is then carefully sealed. It is tested for structural integrity before it’s passed to me. Someone tosses me a lighter from across the room. I catch it, surprising myself. I hold both objects like they are holy. I light it and smoke to Louis’s tempo, wishing I could fly with the sound.