Posted by: G. Lane Cavalier | December 14, 2008

Lagniappe: Writing a Shapeshifter for School

My final project in English was to create a “shapeshifter” – A shapeshifter is a literary form in which an author takes someone elses work (novel, short story, etc.) and reworks it from a different perspective or to take a piece of the story and expand it.

For my project, I choose the story “To Hell with Dying” by Alice Walker and did the story from the perspective of the character Mr. Sweet as he was brought back from his death bed by the author/narrator, who was a little girl at the time.

I call this “To Hell with Living – The story of Mr. Sweet Little”

“To Hell with Dying Man, these children want Mr. Sweet” is what the man is saying somewhere off in the distance. I want to reply, “No, to Hell with Living man. I’m tired and I don’t want to come back,” but the slight weight of what must be a child lay upon my chest. The weight of this child, a beautiful little girl, shouldn’t be able to compare with the weight of my memories, or the weight of my pain, but in some ways it’s heavier. I can’t disappoint this child for she might just be my future, she might just be the thing that saves me.

I slowly open my eyes to see there is a boy here as well. He picks up my guitar, my most treasured possession, and starts to fumble with the strings. The sound that comes from it could hardly be called music, but to my ears, it is the sound of angels singing. Maybe the boy or the girl will one day carry on my song.

How I got here, it’s a long tale, but one that I can remember like it was yesterday, maybe it was. I once was a boy, much like the child with the guitar. The world lay before me. Some people say I was smart, some say I was funny, I just remember that I had a drive to be something special, someone that was important.

Back in my day, school was something you went to with a chalkboard, and maybe a book to read. You had better listen in class or the strap was sure to come out. This didn’t bother me, because I loved to learn. I was going to be a doctor, I was going to make everyone healthy and happy. Maybe I’d be a lawyer, but I did know I was going to solve all the problems in the world.

As I grew older, I realized that not everything would come easy. There are a lot of people in this world who don’t want you to be successful, people who don’t want to give away what they got.

As a teenager, I found the guitar, it ain’t the same one the boy is plucking away at, but it was one that was similar. I wanted to play the blues, and finally it was something that people said was ok for me to do, the problem was that I couldn’t ever get it right. My music didn’t move people the way the blues is supposed to. An old man told me that you can’t play the blues until you live the blues.

So it was on a dark cold night in the dead of winter that I jumped that train, some people call it “The City of New Orleans”, but I know the truth, it was just another train, their ain’t no real romance in that train. The freight car was loud, I was scared, and as it moved further north, the air got colder.

With 10 dollars in my pocket and a guitar on my back, I found my way through the Chicago bar scene. There was a lot of southern folk in this part of the city and some of the most melancholy blues you could ever hear. I got by sleeping in a tenement and occasionally doing dishes and odd jobs for the bar owners.

That was when I met Jo Lee. Jo Lee was the most striking girl any man could ever set eyes on. The mocha skin offsetting her big brown eyes made me stop breathing when I saw her. Jo Lee was the daughter of a man who owned several of the night clubs. I met her when I was running packages to and from his house.

Jo Lee inspired me to play my guitar for her, she eventually talked her dad into letting me play early in the day at the clubs before they got crowded. Sometimes there would be just a few old drunks, and Jo Lee sitting in the bar as I played my guitar. I always remember one of the drunks telling me, “boy you pretty good, but you gotta get hurt, before you’ll be real good.” If only I had known then.

One day, I found out Jo Lee was pregnant, I assumed the baby was mine, but others were shooting off rumors that Jo Lee had more than one ‘favorite’ blues player. I never got to find out, cause her old man up and shipped her off to Detroit. I finally learned what the blues was about. My music got much better, but so did the booze.

After six months of playing blues and drinking myself to sleep, I met Mary. Mary was a good woman and she reminded me in some ways of Jo Lee. Mary always thought she could fix me, because she knew that I was broken. She convinced me that I should move back south with her and we could start a farm and a family.

The farm and the family thing never quite worked out the way Mary hoped. We had a boy, but he was useless. I figure that’s my fault. It’s hard to learn how to be a good man when your papa is always drinking, fishing, and then drinking some more. Mary tried to fix him to, every chance she got.

A couple years ago Mary died. The boy is gone, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see him again. Probably just as well, not sure there is much this old man can offer him. I don’t have any more money, I shore ain’t a good role model, and I sure know that boy will never settle down.

Back to now, “to hell with living,” that’s what I want to say to the man. He don’t know the pain that comes from knowing you never became who you wanted to be, he don’t know what it’s like to raise a bad child, he don’t know what it’s like to not know if a child is yours, and he sure don’t know the blues. He loves his wife and could never understand how I loved the one I couldn’t have, and married the one that deserved better than me. He’s a hard working man with love and caring to go around, he has beautiful children, responsible children. They are gonna be something special someday – like I thought I was. They gonna do it – while I just dreamed it.

The girl is tickling me now, damn it if I can’t help but laugh. I can feel the love in this girl, I can feel the love in this family. It’s time to come back to life, maybe I’ll give up the booze.

When I’m feeling better, I’m gonna go down to the man and ask him about farming. I need to learn how to do it right. One day, I’ll plant that crop and I’ll tend it better than any man ever has. I’ll show this little girl and little boy how you’re supposed to be when you’re an adult.

I’ll bring that old guitar down to their house. I’ll play for them, but not the blues, they don’t need to sing the blues, they need to sing of joy and hope. They need to learn to play the guitar.

The kids will be able to go fishing with me. There are still things this old man can teach them. I can teach them to bait a hook, I can teach them where the big fish hide. I can teach them where to get the night crawlers and how to catch crickets.

I can help the man and his wife around their house, maybe they can let me watch the kids for them when I prove I’m fit and capable. Maybe I can become part of this family, maybe I can start over.

Someday, I’ll go find Jo Lee. I want to ask her that question about my child, ask her if it is my child. Maybe, I can be a part of his life. Maybe he became a doctor, or maybe it’s a beautiful girl like the one at my feet.
I’ll also find my boy, maybe I can make him understand it’s never too late to change. Maybe I can make him understand that he doesn’t want to be an old man, drunk and melancholy, relying on other people’s charity.

Then I can write some new songs. Not songs of loss and despair, but songs of joy, hope, love and religion. Songs of working hard and taking pride in who and what you are. Maybe someday kids will sing them with me.

The sad part is that I know deep down inside that I ain’t gonna change. I come back to the girl because I’m really a coward. I’m scared to finally let go. I brought this pain on myself, through my actions, and I should live with it every second of my life. The only thing I can do at this point is try to not inflict my pain on any more people.

So I come back to the world of the living. I’m full of promise and dreams, but unfortunately, I’m also full of reality and I know that when I can, I’ll look for that bottle. I know that this will happen over and over again, but I can look at the girl and hope. I can hope that I give her a little joy. I hope that one day I can leave her something of value.

As the blues has taught me, life is about pain and hope, fear and truth. It’s about hearing the music, not listening to the music. It’s about being true to you, but mostly it’s about living.

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