by Michael Brodin
I want to tell you about one of my transitional periods.
It was during an era when I carried my music on a cassette tape player manufactured by
the Sony Corporation called a Walkman, and mine — although able to store maybe two dozen
songs, if memory serves — carried but one, “Good Night Irene.”
On the other hand, I had every rendition I could find of it, by Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits,
Eric Clapton, The Weavers, Nat King Cole, Billy Williams, Jerry Reed, and the original,
recorded in 1933, by the ex-con who composed it, Huddie Ledbetter, whose stage name was
Lead Belly, a moniker he had gotten in prison.
I also carried a homemade book from pages I had ripped out of a Gideon bible I found in
the nightstand at a Motel 6. There were only four chapters in it: Genesis, Proverbs, Psalms, and
Ecclesiastes, but also many handwritten and typed pages of my commentaries and emendations.
The cover said “Tetrateuch” in block letters I had drawn with black, red, and yellow Crayola
As I travelled with these props — trying to get a relationship I had fucked up out of my
system — the book provided all I needed to know, the music all I needed to feel.
I hoped that living in strange places would help let me bury a past that was waking me up
at two am, three if was lucky, four if my guardian angel happened to be perched above the bust
of Pallas at my chamber door.
On the advice of a friend I went first to Italy, where, at one point, wasted on Chianti, I
attempted to climb the five-hundred fifty-one marble steps of St. Peter’s on my knees, playing
the heart-piercing melody of “Goodnight Irene” over and over, reasoning that the pain would be
proper penance for being such a jerk. I didn’t get very far, however, before being arrested by two
officers of the Vatican City Police Department, whose official name is Corpo della Gendarmeria
dello Stato della Città del Vaticano.
After that unsuccessful sojourn, I decided to give Amsterdam a try. I had just seen “Pulp
Fiction,” the best movie ever made from the best screenplay ever written, and had read that
Quentin Tarantino wrote it in a rented room there. It took him three months working with felt-
tipped pens and spiral bound notebooks. I figured if it was good enough for him it might be good
enough for me. I would get over the girl and write a blockbuster. Some psychiatrists would call
this sublimation; others, delusion.
I knew immediately I had chosen wisely. With its museums Amsterdam is like Florence,
but not so stuffy. With its canals it’s like Venice, but properly maintained, with better sewers.
And it’s got a big river. I love big rivers.
A river represents the flow of life, and the flow of time. Its presence comforts me, as
much as a person like me can be comforted. And Amsterdam has the wonderful Amstel. In fact,
that’s where its name comes from: The damming of the Amstel, hence Amster-dam.
When I get close to a river — any river — my mind drifts to this verse from “Goodnight Irene:”
Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion,
To jump into the river and drown.
That’s the other reason I like a good, deep river: It’s there in case you need it.
I conducted my therapy according to a strict schedule. I would take a long clockwise
walk along the canals in the morning and a counterclockwise one at night, Walkman clipped to
my belt, headphones to my head. In between those bookends I worked, starting my sessions by
reading a passage or two in my Bible to seduce the mighty Muse.
Day after day I scribbled, working with Pilot G-2 pens (I’d bought a dozen at a Staples in
New York before I left), scissors and tape, and, most important, a wastebasket. I took no days
off, nourishing myself with bread and cheese in the morning, meat and potatoes at night, washing
everything down with cheap wine. This is where Rome and Naples had the advantage, obviously,
in the Department of Food, but it was also part of my penance — eating like a monk.
I did that for two and a half months, running out of ink just as I was running out of mojo.
But that paints an inaccurate picture of it, because I’d left quite a few pens behind in various
cafes around the city. Unconsciously, I’m sure, I wanted to put an end to it, and the deal I had
made with myself was that I’d stop writing when I physically couldn’t, for how can you possibly
write when there’s nothing to write with?
The symptom of no mojo, by the way, is that one’s brain feels like cement, one’s blood
like ice water. There was nothing left in me that could properly be termed alive. Of the three
choices in “Twenty Questions,” animal, vegetable, or mineral, I had moved from the first,
through the second, and into the last. I had killed myself, in a manner of speaking. Outwardly I
looked the same; inwardly I had been obliterated.
The day I abandoned the screenplay I slept through the night for the first time in years.
Till seven a.m. No doubt this was a result of pride in my accomplishment, but clearly more
important was the morphine I had bought from a pretty whore in De Wallen, a blonde with a lazy
eye who reminded me of my mother.
And for the following two weeks I rewarded myself this way every evening, reading my
version of Psalm 23:2 out loud before taking a hit:
Verily, I say unto thee:
Morphine is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
It setteth me down in gentle green pastures.
It leadeth me into quiet warm waters.
It restoreth my soul.
This was what I discovered by my experiment: In a strange city you can always find a
friend to sing you a lullaby before bedtime if you have enough cash... and a vein.
Back home the consensus of my writing group was that the story I had written was pretty
good. It was that of a boy and a girl. And of another boy. And the two boys liked the same girl,
which is of course a story as old as the oldest story ever told — except for the one about the guy
who killed his brother — but mine was different. For several reasons, they said, the chief being
that many of the most important words in my cheap notebooks had been smeared into illegibility
by my tears.
Michael Brodin is a physician who spent his most formative years in Brooklyn, New York. He has written one novel SKIN GAME (Zebra) and was featured in the anthology HAVING BEEN THERE (Scribner's). His work has appeared in 101 words, Flashfiction Magazine, Friday Flashfiction, Fairfield Scribes, and Passager.