Robert Mitchell is a working, published musician, film editor and songwriter, living in NYC.
Due to the pandemic, Mitchell has redirected his story telling focus towards the adventurousness of short form fiction.
Robert’s stories have very recently been published in: Rejected Manuscripts, The Literary Yard, The Reflex Press, and The Galway Review
In 7th grade there was an English teacher all the boys had a crush on. Miss May was so cute; they managed to ignore her little moustache and never mention it. At the end of class one day she asked if anybody played guitar or wrote poetry. Seeing the number of girls who raised their adolescent hands, Derek Lee and Jake agreed that they played guitar and wrote poetry. Miss May announced that all poets and guitar players were to meet up after school the next day and share their work. Folk music and time with girls were on the proposed playlist but only two people showed up. Jake Martin and Derek Lee both brought their guitars. Derek had Bob Dylan song books. Eureka, the maps! The way in. There were no girls at the poetry get together but Martin & Lee formed that day, without their knowing it.
Does like attract like? Is it a universal law?
Jake grew up in the drive-in movie era. He and his brother, Tim, wondered why they had to hide under a blanket in the back seat. They knew it was in order to save a couple bucks, but the Martin family were not poor. Regardless, it was exciting and beautiful to see that giant outdoor screen. Forgiving the sonic quality of the small, pewter, metal ribbed speaker box attached to the rolled down car window, he loved the exotic sounds of far away. Modern movies and movie trailers projected ‘60s rock ’n roll, changing hormones, exotic faraway adventures, and romance.
Jake learned about life by listening and observing. No one was telling him much. Occasionally, his father played country music on the radio. When he drove the fire-engine red pick-up truck with the full-length black roof rack, John Martin would sing. He had a clear and big voice with a high range, and his own version of the Robert Kenny hillbilly classic, Hillbilly Brew:
Those summer days, that winter chill,
they keep me climbin’ up the hill
to find that old country elixir.
Stirrin’ up his stew, right into the wind it blew
and he pours me my Hillbilly Brew.
His father sang in tune but Jake didn’t yet know that that was a good thing, it just seemed natural, like how you’re supposed to sing. John was also a confident accordion player. From his repertoire, Jake picked up some lyrics and a melody that came in handy one vibrant autumn afternoon. Jake had been invited to a birthday party. Other than him, only girls had been invited. Jake’s mother simply informed him, on a Saturday morning, that he was going to a party.
“What? Me and all just girls? Hell no!”
He rarely said anything due to fear, shyness, and habit. The party was such an awkward scene, Jake with all the girls. He wished he had the coolness to say, “Hey, hi,” but he stayed quiet and tried to seem like he was fine being there. Suddenly, near the end of the party, there was an announcement for a talent show prize. It was a singing contest, which came as more brand-new news to Jake. There had been no mention of singing, or a prize, when just as suddenly, a miniature pool table was presented as the grand prize. It was lust for a material object that Jake had never known. That pool table had to be his. A few girls sang and everyone clapped as Jake’s eyes owned the world of potential miniature billiard mastery.
Without thinking he stepped forward and belted out:
“Stirrin’ up his stew, right into the wind it blew and he pours me my Hillbilly Brew.”
It seemed like things were going pretty well. All of the girls were wide eyed and surprised with their mouths open. They smiled and pointed as Jake launched into some made up country style dance, singing the song again, modulating a whole step higher without knowing that modulation was a savvy move.
“… and he pours me my Hillbilly Brew.”
Not really thinking about what had just happened, the pool table was his when Mary came to pick him up in the Oldsmobile.
Across the street on Cedar Lane was a confident and blossoming fifteen-year-old, Margot Blum. Margot barely gave Jake any notice other than to be annoyed by him because he was her little brothers friend. She really needed to see the brand-new film, To Sir with Love, and Jake happened to be in her home with Walt, her little brother, when Margot pleaded with her parents to take her to the movie. No one would go. Margot stomped her foot and then spun on her bare heel to face Jake and ask, almost in a dare,
“How about you Jake, do you want to go to the movies with me?”
Staring, incredulous, eyes wide and eyebrows raised, he offered a quiet,
The bus ride into the city revealed a strange and foreign place with brand new energy coming from all directions. It was a noticeable contrast from their little town of apple orchards, streams, and rolling fields, a mere fourteen miles away. Margot was glad to be in the city and as a traveling companion, Jake would do. Sitting next to her and her luminous scent, he was hyper aware of her femaleness, the ridges of her bra poking through her pale blue sweater, her silver chain and cross securely resting, but moving slightly between gentle slopes when she breathed, and her fearless green eyes. Jake was mostly silent as she led him around Hartford.
“Here’s our bus. Watch the light … let’s cross. It’s over here.”
Her eyes were alert, and Jake felt like a spy, aware that he was noticing for the first time, the color of a woman’s eyes in the daylight. Brilliant green.
“I’ll get the tickets … C’mon, Jakey.”
To Sir with Love was mind expanding on so many cultural and biological levels. Transformed, Jake wanted to talk to his mother about the movie. There was no opportunity for sentiment with his frightening, fighting father, but seeing the film lubricated Jake’s inner workings. His love for movies, great characters and great story telling, all had to do with humanity, desire, and truth. Jake’s young spirit was hungry and in that few hours with Margo, seeds were planted. He knew that he would leave small town USA one day, one way or another.
In 1967 there was music in Jake’s home. His mother enjoyed radio and the popular music of the 60’s. She also had records, 33rpm albums and 45s, that were played on their very large Magnavox console stereo. It had a big sound and Jake loved how the bass filled the room. On Sunday mornings, John Martin blasted Polka music. It seemed out of character but he loved Sophie and Victor Zembrusky’s, Polish Eagle Radio Hour, which was a four-hour program.
“I don’t want her you can have her she’s too fat for me”
Why write that? Jake wondered.
At twelve years old, he was writing lyrics. He loved the typewriter in the finished room, in the basement. The mechanical freedom from penmanship gave him a writers’ anonymity and freedom to say anything, from any perspective. The mechanical certainty of Jake’s typewriter contrasted the peace and stillness of his forest. Comfortable in the great outdoors, all seasons were great. In the warm weather, boys from the neighbourhood would hike out into the woods and camp. They would gather wood and haul large stones to make a fireplace. Someone had permission to bring a large radio from home, and they would carry on loudly, acting out their crazy juvenile energy. Eventually, they would settle into sleeping bags.
Looking up into the night sky, clouds blended with campfire smoke, and Jake heard, for the first time, Nights in White Satin. His imagination soared beyond the intermingling vapours of night. The moon became a thing of attainable detail and he was listening deeply. The moment seemed to bring the past to the present with a beautiful peace and timelessness. His creativity was in full, fertile bloom, and that music locked into something that locked into something else. Jake was pregnant with the need to write and play music, but he wasn’t ready. Writing songs for his hopeful dream unfolding, he wrote beyond his age, Always:
As I tried to sleep, my head upon a pillow
my knees were scraping on a quilt.
Somehow, I’ve found somebody else’s blues
I have no reason to feel any guilt.
I’m waiting for a telephone to rip apart the air
are those bells ever gonna ring?
Listen to the silence of the night time,
the night time offers me nothing.
Well, I know this feeling, yeah
I’ve had it before and it’s bad.
One thing that’s always been good to say …
Sadness always goes away.
Yes, it always goes away.
Part of camping included the midnight illegal swim. The guys would get pretty dirty and hot while messing around in the woods, building fires, and breaking branches. The Lions Club public pool was an easy hike from their wooded hide-away, and the hop over the wire linked fence was nothing at all for young lads. They tried to stay silent but that’s a tall order for buoyant boys. To cool off from summer, they would slide into the cold water, being careful not to splash in loudly. Eventually Jimmy Deloy would mount the diving board and spring off, deliberately making as much noise as humanly possible, causing everyone to scramble for dear life. Angry at Jimmy, the fugitives were back in the woods before the closest neighbour could call the police. Poor Jimmy. He was gay, and in those days, people got beat up for being gay. It wasn’t easy for him and he never talked about it. Everyone knew something was up but no one really cared because Jimmy was their buddy. So what if he really liked flowers? Flowers were cool. Over the next few years Jimmy would take the bus into the city, but would return with black eyes and bruises after being beaten up. Jake felt the same “why?” that he felt about the race riots. Being on the receiving end of his own father’s fists, he understood fear, but so far, Jake was free of hatred.
On another camping adventure, Walt, Margot’s brother, brought along a portable TV that ran on batteries. Knowing that the battery life would be limited, the boys agreed to wait until dark, just before midnight, so they could watch the Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson. It was surreal enough having a TV in the woods, but when Johnny introduced Richard Harris to sing MacArthur Park, all was silent other than the Jimmy Webb song pouring out of the portable TV. The other guys had fallen asleep but Jake was transfixed by the emotional voice, the strange lyrics, and the many turns of melody and orchestration.
The unpredictable turbulence of drunken violence kept Jake alert. When tensions escalated at home, he spent more time in the woods. Alone was fine. By the time the Woodstock generation took over, Jake was alienated, beaten, and in need of repair. Laying below tall branches swaying from quiet winds, he could stretch out on the dirt floor and listen to FM radio. Hearing Whispering Winds, and Black Magic Women, by Santana, he was transported.
When Jake became a freshman in high school, he tried weed for the first time. He was at a Battle of the Bands, at school, when his friend, Marc, asked if he wanted to take a hike to Camp Happy Hill. Marc said that Karen was going. Jake had a crush on Karen but didn’t know how to talk to her, so, yes. They all went together. The camp was a Girl Scout camp in the summer. For the other nine months it was uninhabited, except by local kids who might pass by and spend time in one of the lean-tos. Marc pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and started fussing with leaves, sticks, and seeds. When he rolled and lit the thing, Jake assumed he had rolled a cigarette, but the smell was new. It was new like a changing season that you never noticed. Mark passed the J to Karen who instructed Jake,
“Now take a deep drag and hold it in.”
Ok, he did what she said. He was ready to do whatever she said. She wore a scent of strawberry and Jake was excited by being close to her. She had gorgeous, electric eyes and a sweet confidence. He smoked but felt nothing. Marc and Karin started speaking suddenly, in a weird accent and kept saying,
“Happy Who Day!!,” with much laughing and silliness. ‘Overrated’, Jake thought. He had heard about pot but had no interest at all … until he stood up. Whoa,
“Happy Fuckin’ Who Day!”
Jake’s voice bellowed out into the night, illuminating the darkness. He was high but the thing that really caught his attention came as a surprise. For some inexplicable reason he felt immediately free from his father. His rage, his standards of behaviour, his fat beer belly and long ass side-burns could finally just shut the hell up and be out of Jake’s head. Just like that, Jake became his own man. Within a couple of minutes, he was taller and his hair was longer.
Eventually he did win some time with Karen. Karen Ferini was popular, an athlete, a cheerleader, she sang in the choir, and was very pretty. She was also noticeably short but Jake was short too. His winter growth spurt was about to stretch him six inches taller. Jake didn’t know how to advance their time together, or how to be a boyfriend, but for a short while he was that. Jake was momentarily elevated in school popularity by the rumour of his romance with Karen.
The telephone used to be a thing that was affixed. With enough wire, you could walk several feet, or maybe fifteen feet from the base of the phone. Point being, it was tough to have a private chat while mom was cooking or doing dishes. When the phone rang, Karen Ferini’s voice had an urgency. Jake shyly and adolescently cracked his voice, while commanding his mother,
“Let me go downstairs to the other phone!”
Karen Ferini never let Jake see her bikini, but she dove right in with,
“Hi, hey, I just wanted to tell you that I’m going to go out with Hank Morgan. He has a car and we’re going to the basketball game tonight. Just wanted to tell you that we’re breaking up. OK, bye.”
Click. Bzzzzzzzzzz dial tone. That was that. Jake found his way to the basement and felt sorry for himself for a long while. He was in 9th grade. She was in 11th. Hank was in 12th, had a Mustang, and was a giant man on the football team who stunk up the locker room with giant man smells. Jake was too young to legally drive a John Martin & Sons fire engine red pick-up truck with the black metal rack over the back. He would have a choice between two or three of those trucks next year, as soon as he turned sixteen. But Hank, right at that moment in the present, was captain of the football team, the Farmington Indians. Jake was recognizing how the world turned.
Thank goodness he had his knucklehead buddies. As goofy as they all were, stumbling together, they fumbled forward and found confidence. Jake found ways to come out of his shell even though doing so was often accompanied by an embarrassing stutter, or cracked voice. Joining the soccer team was a great idea. Jake was not a star athlete, but he discovered that he could out run almost everyone. He made solid friendships and felt like he was part of something strong. Some of the guys were very cool and he tried to blend in with their sense of style and speech.
Silent life was unbearable when the monster was present. Out in the free world, Jake could embody whatever voice popped from his teenage larynx. At the fresh water spring, with the parsley green leaves on long cheerful stems, Jake set up a large canvas tent and claimed his campsite. He needed his own scene. Other friends had campsites not far away, and that was good too. Jake’s camp was sunlit and secluded. There was plenty of firewood and it was easy to wash up at the spring. Next to the lightly gurgling water, with the sound of leaves moving in the wind, sleeping was peaceful, although it was easy to notice an outside sound, or something compulsory from within. No Need to Roam.
The quiet night was disturbed by the sound of me
kicking leaves by the curb.
The silence pounded louder by a call, the sound of an acorn fall
being used by the earth good and old, the warm air slowly turns to cold.
I’m going back to the old ways.
Maybe tonight will show me that it’s all right.
A walk away from the city to the leaves I know so well
Ahh, but I could stay, could stay till my dying day.
No need to roam when you have a comfortable home.
I’m going back to the old ways.
Maybe tonight will show me that it’s all right.
Jake was comfortable enough, set up there and away from angry dominance. When the monster was gone, Jake would stay with his mother, but if his infuriated father was in town, Jake would stay in the tent, at least until one mortal autumn night of rain. Jake arrived at the soggy scene only to find his cheap thrift store Stella guitar floating, warped and unplayable. Jake was with his friend, Max Royce, the rock climber. Jake would have to return to clean up the destroyed campsite, but for tonight, in the moment, it was raining hard. They hiked to another campsite a few miles away. It was close to the river but much higher above ground. They would be fine and they would be much higher. Max had pre-rolled a super fat joint to share, and they had one giant bottle of Schlitz beer. It was easy to buy beer in Farmington in 1970. Hippies all looked the same and no one cared. Keeping the fat J safe and dry, they walked in the rain. They talked very little but when they did, it was either referencing Lord of the Rings, or spontaneously belting out some Led Zeppelin.
Eager for dryness and highness, they finally made it to the other tent. They were so patient and now it was finally time to light that thing up, that fat J. By candle light, Jake held the J between his lips and struck a wooden match. Sloppily, he let the joint fall from his face and … what are the odds? … the thing dropped directly into the small opening of the 20-ounce Schlitz bottle.
“Oh fuck! FUCK!” Another fuck!
Dominant rain became the only song for the rest of the night and they listened well. Max was kind not to say anything but his face revealed bleak anti-climax. In damp, squinty silence, with paper and weed floating, they took their time and drank from the giant Schlitz bottle.