The idea of a benefit for Jo Novo came to his ex-wife Lori on a late April morning. Sara had already left for work when Lori arrived at the small bungalow style house in Portsmouth. The air was sweet and moist, fog swirled like dry ice and the trees wore the new green of spring. The opal white of the sky promised the fog would burn off soon. Unlocking and opening the back door, Lori called "hello" quietly. No answer. Lori placed a bag on the counter. She brought Jo a lemon poppy seed muffin and coffee from The Coffee Shop.
The house was quiet save for the birds whose chatty morning chirping could be heard through the closed windows. Lori walked through the dining room into the living room and up the stairs to the second floor. Sara had three bedrooms, one she used as a music room. Jo's door was closed. Lori tapped it lightly. No answer. Quietly turning the knob she pushed the door open just a crack. Jo lay on his left side, his round belly, like a woman seven months along, pushed at the buttons of his pajama top. The doctor said this protuberance was the result of Cirrhosis of the liver.
Jo had stopped drinking soon after he arrived. He was surprised by how easy it was, though he imagined it was probably already too late to do much good. He was sleeping better and his appetite was good for the first time in years. The fog that had settled over him alone in that mobile home in Warwick was lifting. The presence of his only daughter filled him with a kind of joy he had long ago given up ever feeling. He was proud of Sara, her job, her house and her music.
She didn't know it, but during the day when Sara was at work, he would listen to her CD's. The first time he was embarrassed. After all, he was looking for clues. Had she felt abandoned? What were the things (he was sure there were many) she blamed him for? Did she love him? Each song was like those little love notes that middle school kids fold into tight triangles. Opening one was a slow deliberative process. You expected a small message, but as the pages of words came into view, the depth of the love in the note was revealed. Not that every song was a love song, or about him. Jo knew it had been many years since he'd known what was important to his daughter, what events, loves and losses had affected her. He wasn't surprised to see how guarded Sara was. Though her voice suggested vulnerability, the words tended to cut through to what the singer believed was the truth, no matter how much pain that truth caused her and the subject of the song. He was impressed with her taut but simple arrangements, how the music supported the songs, sometimes fragile, like old bones, other times with the strength and resolve of muscle that has learned hard lessons through repetition.
Secretly Lori hoped that Jo had heard her enter his room. She wanted him to get up and talk with her. The happiness of their reunion - if you could call it that - had surprised them both. The anger that Lori had carried for so long had almost disappeared. She remembered the handsome soulful singer she had loved. Jo, remembered the honeyed blond with pink flowers in her long hair, her long arms wrapped around him. Both admitted that there was little left of either of those two. This agreement allowed them to be friends in a way they had never been before. Sara breathed a sigh of relief at this truce between her parents. She felt that if her mother could forgive him, perhaps she could begin to forgive her father too.
Lori was taking the muffin and coffee from the bag when Jo came around the corner
"Morning. Ready for some coffee?"
"Sure thing," Jo paused, stretching and yawning. “Lo honey, thank you."
"It's no problem Jo."
"Did you see Sara before she left?"
"She was gone when I got here. She went in early. They're getting ready for some big roll-out and she's testing the software, I guess. How are you feeling this morning?"
"Tell you the truth, I feel like hell. The only big rollout here is me getting out of bed." With that he yawned again and patted his distended belly. "You know people die of liver disease?"
"That's true, I suppose," Lori stopped in mid-sentence. Grabbing a small plate from a cabinet to the left of the sink, she placed the yellow gold muffin dotted with poppy seeds on it and set it in front of Jo. "What if you were to get a liver transplant?"
"You heard what the Dr. said. Finding one and paying for the operation are just two of god knows how many obstacles."
"Suppose we could find one and pay for the operation."
"Even if we could, it's complicated. My drug use, plus years of smoking. My lungs are just about as bad as my liver, which makes me an even greater risk."
"Well, it's worth considering." Lori placed a plastic pill box with a separate compartment for every day of the week next to Jo's coffee cup. "Don't forget to take your pills."
"Once on drugs, always on drugs. Seems like you need a new one just to quit the last one. I wish I could say I regret it."
"Regret what?" Lori turned quickly at this.
"I'm not saying I don't have regrets, particularly when it comes to Sara, and you. No, I'm talking about the fun, the crazy years, the pot, the acid, and the booze."
"And the women?"
"Sure, yeah the women - of which you were the one and only for a very long time."
"That's not what we agreed to."
"What are you talking about?"
"The vows we took that day on the beach, until death do us part."
"O Jesus Lo. And it's still going to be that way, isn't it?"
"No Jo, I may be here with you when that times comes, but it will only be in body. Our spirits were divided long ago and after much pain. Don't mistake charity for love."
"What about Sara?" Jo asked.
"What about Sara? Sara's your daughter, your blood. That's different, she has no choice but to love you."
After Lori left, Jo lay on the couch in the living room. The coffee wasn't much help against the warmth of the buttered muffin and the oxycotin he was taking for pain. His stomach and bowels hurt, but he knew he had no chance of going. It didn't make sense to climb the stairs to the bathroom just to try and fail. Later he would try one of those fiber drinks or, if that didn't work, an enema. The pain medicine made him itch before it began to lull him to sleep. The scratching continued into his dream.
It was the early 80's, he knew this because some asshole in the audience kept yelling for "Freebird." The Phantoms had long since dropped the Lynyrd Skynyrd tune from their set list, though it still played well with a slightly older crowd of mostly guys. Jo was on stage but didn't recognize the venue. He could tell it was near closing time by the pitch of the crowd. Waitresses were rushing from the bar to the tables and back again. People at the front of the stage were holding two drinks each to take advantage of last call. He looked to his right expecting to see Chaz on bass, but he wasn't there. He looked behind him to see if Dave was ready to count them in to the next tune, no Dave. He was starting to panic, but careful not to let it show. Off to his left he'd expected to see Max on keys. The little farfisa organ he'd bought to cover the new wave tunes with its orange cabinet, reversed black and white keys stood alone. The calls for "Freebird" intensified. Jo looked over to the bar for the other guys. Where the hell were they, he wondered? He held his baby blue Fender Strat close and fumbled with the knobs. "Freebird, Freebird, Freebird”, the crowd was chanting now. Jo was sweating and scratching at his chest. He couldn't breathe in the cigarette smoke filled room. Turning up the volume knob he blasted a swath of feedback out into the crowd. Take that you bunch of fucking assholes, he thought. He should just fuckin' walk off the stage like Costello or Strummer would - fucking Freebird. But then he remembered he wanted, needed, to get paid. It was closing time, fuck the other guys. I'm not leaving without pay for this shit. He wasn't sure he remembered the words. He relied on muscle memory for the simple chords. Inching up to the microphone, the crowd going quiet at the intro... Jo sang,
"If I leave here tomorrow
would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on now
cause there's too many places I've got to see.
But if I stayed here with you, girl,
things just couldn't be the same.
Because I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change,
Early evening sunlight filled the kitchen. Sara was grateful for daylight savings. She hated coming home to a dark house. Leaving her keys and laptop on the kitchen counter and with no sign of Lori or her dad, she made her way up the stairs. Dad must be sleeping, she thought. He seemed to be sleeping more and more each day. Pausing for a moment on the landing she saw a short line of crows perched on the electrical wires running from the house to the street. As she turned away from the window she heard her father's voice coming from the room at the end of the hall. He must be dreaming.
"oh, oh, oh, oh"
"Daddy, Daddy, wake up," Sara said, "you're just dreaming."
"O Jesus honey, you won’t believe the dream I was just having."
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