A couple of years ago I was backstage at a little music festival with my friend and guitar player, Richard.
It was a breezy blue-skied July day, drawing quite a decent crowd for a small town. I pulled back the velvet curtain a crack to have a sneak peek at our audience. The entire first row was a beefy, bleeding tattooed wall of biker-looking types. I swallowed and pulled the curtain back.
“Rico…” I whispered, “I think we’re gonna have to change up our set a little. I think maybe we need to drop the Francis story and do the fishing story instead.”
The Francis story is a tale about a little boy who liked to wear dresses. I thought maybe a less faggy, more fishing-oriented piece might go over a little better with this crowd.
Richard took a breath and gave me his I-am-about-to-tell-you-something-for-your-own-good look.
“First of all,” he began, “the truck is parked right backstage. Second, artists are always allowed to talk about shit that other people would get punched out for bringing up, remember? It’s part of the deal.”
I nodded, because this was true. Richard inhaled again, obviously not finished yet.
“But most important of all is, don’t be a chickenshit, Coyote. Have some balls. What, you only going to tell that story to people who don’t need to hear it?”
“You fucker.” I smiled at him.
He shrugged. He knew me. Knew what to say to activate my stubborn streak.
The biggest and most bad-assed looking of the bikers stood there in the front row, his veiny forearms crossed over his black T-shirt, for the first 10 minutes of my set. He even laughed here and there, the skin around his eyes crinkling into well-worn crows feet every time he smiled.
I started to relax a little, and when I started the first couple of lines of the Francis story Richard tipped his head in my direction in approval and played like an angel beside me.
Halfway through the story, I watched the gigantic man in the front row start to unpeel himself right in front of me. First he uncrossed his arms, and let them hang loose at his sides.
Then he bit his lower lip, and his handlebar moustache began to quiver a little.
By the end, he was crying giant man sized tears, unabashedly letting them roll down his dusty cheeks and disappear into his beard. He almost got me choked up too, just watching him.
I was used to the drag queens losing it in the last couple of paragraphs of the Francis story, but this was something else altogether.
After, when Richard and I were loading gear into the back of his pickup, I looked up and he was standing next to the table that held the cheese trays and the juice cooler, waiting to talk to me.
He rushed up and picked me right up off the ground in a cigar-scented hug. When he let me back down to the ground, he still held both of my hands in his baseball glove-sized paws, squeezing them until it almost hurt.
“I just had to thank you. Just had to tell you how much that story you told meant to me.” He pulled me up close to him, and lowered his voice a couple of decibels.
“My baby brother James died from AIDS, 10 years ago tomorrow. My only brother. I loved him like crazy when we were kids, but my Dad… well… let’s just say the old man wasn’t very flexible in his beliefs about certain things.
“He never understood Jamie, right from the get-go, and Christ, he was hard on the kid. Beat the living shit out of him one time when he caught him wearing my sister Donna’s lipstick. Finally kicked him out when Jamie was 15. Nobody knew, back then, and by the time we did, it was too late. I never stuck up for him, never said a word, and to this day I have never forgiven myself for it. My baby brother, out on the street. How else was he going to get by? He was only a fucking kid.”
He looked me right in the eyes. By this time, both of us were crying.
“He was the sweetest fucking kid in the world. Your little friend in that story reminded me of James. There were five of us kids, but he was always my mom’s favourite. The old man blamed her, said she babied him, but we all knew he was just born like that. That was just who he always was.”
He cleared his throat, and wiped his eyes on the hair on the back of his hands. Looked a bit sheepish all of a sudden. “Anyways, just wanted to thank you for that. Good stuff.”
He shook my hand and was gone.
I’ve never forgotten him, and I imagine him standing behind me whenever I find myself scared of the next story I am about to tell, or afraid of the people I’m about to tell it to.
Last week I walked into a classroom at the college in Powell River to tell stories to a bunch of Adult Education students. Working class town, working class guys all lined up in the back row. I found myself wishing with my whole heart I had not chosen to wear a paisley dress shirt that morning. What was I thinking?
Then I took a deep breath and told them a story. I started with the one about my Dad. The one where I had almost given up wishing he would quit drinking, but then one day he did.
Afterward, this guy with biceps the size of my thighs came up and thanked me. He had sleeve tattoos and could barely squeeze his muscles into his white Stanfield crewneck.
“I really liked the one about your Dad,” he explained. “I could totally relate to him. I used to be a welder, too.”