The worn-out wipers smeared mist across the windshield blurring boundaries between the interstate, sky, and my own foggy mood. Industrial smokestacks rose like ancient Roman columns around the upstate city of Syracuse, New York. It was as if a gray veil had been pulled across the world. Within that veil lay the timeline of history: humankind’s yearning for spiritual transcendence locked in struggle against our ceaseless cycles of birth, sex, death, and survival. I didn’t know that murder lay ahead. I didn’t know that reuniting with my old friend would rescue me from isolation, but cost the last vestiges of my youth. As I drove through dark stretches of bleak October earth, there were ghosts in every dip of featureless landscape between Ithaca, New York and Burlington, Vermont. The sky bled with moisture that was neither snow, rain, or sleet, but some mixture of all three.
This was all familiar territory.
By the time Richard and I were young boys growing up in Utica in the late 1980s, the former industrial city was already a husk: hollowed out, abandoned, a concrete skeleton stripped of flesh. It was then that we came to understand that in a world of shadows, two boys’ comings and goings were of little importance to most. It was there that I learned how to be an observer, then a writer. It was there that Richard came to understand that he was an artist, then a musician.
In Utica, Richard was always leaving or arriving. He was never truly there. There was the anticipation of Richard, the echo of Richard, the thought of Richard; those sensations overwhelm the physical memory of Richard.
Richard’s father died when a bulldozer he was driving flipped over an embankment at the site of the new Price Chopper grocery store, killing him instantly. Richard was nine years old. His mother was crazy. Not crazy in the way that all kids think of their parents as crazy, but truly sick. I couldn’t define it at the time, but I suspect now that Richard’s mother had a severe personality disorder. Possibly even schizophrenia, or bipolar on top of that. Who knows? It doesn’t matter at this point. She is merely another cocktail of destabilized human consciousness, and I have seen more than I can take. In a more thriving environment, maybe she would have been managed, overseen, properly treated, and medicated. But not in Utica. Not then. Instead, Mrs. Knight was a woman left to her own devices — caring for a young boy, no less — until some public incident would force her to be hospitalized, and then Richard would be shipped off to his aunt’s house in Troy.
Poof! My best friend would be gone.
Poof! My best friend would return.
The phone would ring: “Hey, Virgil, come on over.” There would be no preamble, no explanation, no “Hey, buddy, I’ve been in Troy for a while, what’s happening?” He’d just reenter my life, in medias res. “Okay, I’ll ride over now,” I’d answer. And just like that — a ten-minute bike ride, up the driveway, and in through the garage door — I would walk back into Richard Payne Knight’s world.
To understand my friendship with Richard Payne Knight, it helps to imagine growing up, going through school, sitting in homeroom beside a full-grown Jim Morrison. Say, Morrison after he moved to Paris. Say, you are twelve, and he is Jim Morrison, the Lizard King: dark, mystical, the intensity of holy rivers coursing through his veins in ways you’ll never comprehend; a mysterious presence; a magnet with sliding glass doors pulling you in until you can taste the magic, then slamming you back out onto the concrete threshold.
As I escaped graduate school and made my way toward him, this was the image of Richard that I held. It was clear there was nothing left for me as a creative writing student. All I did in Ithaca was smoke too much, think too much, and sink deeper into self-pitying loneliness and depression. My writing paled in comparison to my excuses for not writing. It was during a particularly hopeless night of staring at the blank page that I called Richard on the phone to complain about my life. His response was simple, direct: “Screw that place, man. What the hell are you doing there anyway?” I had no answer. “We’re taking off for another East Coast tour in two weeks. We still need a roadie: someone to haul equipment, work CD and t-shirt sales, mailing list, shit like that. You make it to Burlington and you’re on it.”
Richard’s words were a siren’s song. I could not resist diving off the safe, predictable shores of graduate school into the choppy, dark waters of a touring rock band. I was in my truck the next day. It had been a week since the sun shone, and even the vibrant autumn leaves looked monochromatic through the chilly drizzle. I didn’t even bother letting my two roommates know I was leaving. We had met through an English department message board that connected students with potential roommates. Mike and Dave, both second-year students in the PhD in English Language & Literature program, had lived for two years on the right side of a beat-up duplex on Linden Avenue in Collegetown. The exterior of the house was slathered in thick yellow paint, and the entire structure leaned left as if it were trying to escape. It appeared intentionally built for grad students to neglect — and Dave and Mike were doing their part. Their last roommate had abruptly decided that working fishing boats in Alaska was a better fit than obsessing over Modernist poetry, so they brought me in to sublet his tiny corner room. It was about the size of a walk-in closet: just enough space for a mattress the fisherman had left and an end table cobbled together from crates scavenged from GreenStar Food Co-op.
Before classes began, I spent a couple of nights attempting to bond with Mike and Dave over cheap red wine and obscure literary references. But once the semester started, they had actual work to do — and I had work to pretend to do — so we retreated behind our respective bedroom doors to read, write, and endure anxiety attacks alone. Other than my designated refrigerator shelf being empty (which it usually was anyway), it’s quite possible they would never even realize I was gone.
It took only minutes to shove all of my clothes into the green duffel bag my parents had given me for grad school. I decided to leave my books piled in the middle of the mattress. Who knew? Maybe I would be back. If I wasn’t, they could be a welcome present to the next potential drop-out. I only knew that I was leaving now. I was still enrolled in the MFA program and my cheap rent was paid through the end of the semester, so I had a little time to figure it out. With less than two months elapsed in the semester, it would be easy enough to find an excuse for a formal leave later, if needed. Or not. Eventually, I would have to decide. But for now, I was just gone. I didn’t bother making any phone calls, even the big one to my parents in Florida. I was in no mood for heavy discussions about enrollment, scholarship money, loans, commitments, or rash decision-making. I was in the mood to make rash decisions.
As I sped past Syracuse toward Rome, I pushed Laverna’s new demo, Aventine Hill, into the CD player on my dashboard. I immediately recognized Richard’s musical fingerprint in the first crunchy guitar riff. Even with the heavier, darker sound that Laverna was developing, Richard’s guitar playing was as vivid and unique as ever. His college bands, even the first Laverna CD, were more jam band style: sandy islands of structured music surrounded by the roiling, uncertain riptides of improvisational playing. It was largely upbeat — perfect for the kind of loose, floppy dancing the college kids, hippies, and college-kid hippies who populated Richard’s shows enjoyed. But this new music had a moodier, heavier tone. The songs were more formally structured, and the solos lurked in an atonal, almost menacing, territory. Still, Richard’s fingerprints were all over them. While I listened to his dexterous left hand lock into a repeating pattern, my thoughts drifted back to the very first time I heard him play.
It was an afternoon after middle school, and, as was often the case, I’d let myself into his house and wandered down the hall to find him in his bedroom. Richard’s house was perpetually drenched in the odor of dead flowers mingled with herbs, which I now know to be frankincense and myrrh. The walls, shelves, and every spare corner of the house were filled with heavy crucifixes. There were iron crucifixes, wooden crucifixes, twine crucifixes; there were crucifixes spotted with fake rubies, emeralds, and gold encrusted leaves; there were primitive carved wooden images of Jesus, and folk art depictions of Golgotha that looked as if they’d been scribbled by a four-year-old in a trance. There were also miniature altars to the Virgin Mary glowing in prominent corners of the dining room, bathroom, master bedroom, and kitchen. No matter what Mrs. Knight’s state of mind, those candles were kept burning and the roses were replaced soon after their petals withered and crisped.
As I stood in the hallway surrounded by crucifixes and pungent smells, Richard played guitar on the other side of the thin white wall. The music I’d heard up to that point in my life was mainly 1980s radio hits. Most of it left the impression of cotton candy: sweet going in, dissolving immediately. But Richard’s music was different. Soulful. Pained.
Richard had just run away from home again. He’d slept on my bedroom floor for three days. My window was on the first floor, so it didn’t take much for him to sneak out in the morning before my mother woke me for school, and then come back in around dinnertime. I’d smuggle him extra food. Deny knowledge of his whereabouts. At night, I listened raptly to his tales of afternoon ramblings through the woods beside the blue water tower where he’d spend hours, leaning back against the encircling chain-link fence, watching deer, rabbits, foxes, grackles, clouds, dirt, the sky. But mostly, for those three days, Richard just wandered around smoking stolen Old Gold cigarettes and bouncing rocks off the tower to hear the echoing, metallic ping.
I realize now that my mother could’ve done more to figure out where Richard was hiding. She never pressed the matter too hard. I’ve never asked, but I imagine she knew he was staying with us all along. There was no true look of surprise on her face as she opened my bedroom door at 11 p.m., staggered just in front of Mrs. Knight, to discover Richard and I huddled in dense conversation. No earnest disappointment as she half-heartedly punished me for my deceptions. It wasn’t pleasant or satisfying for either of us to see Richard hauled outside by his elbow; an elbow I knew from experience would soon be wrenched hard behind his back. My mother’s gentle scolding and soft punishment (no television for one week), along with a warm palm nestled between my shoulder blades as she escorted me back down the hall to bed, told me these things.
It took two days before I got the courage to check on Richard. He’d missed an entire week of school by then. Although I knew Mrs. Knight was at work, I tucked a sheath of his back homework papers under my arm for protection. I came in through their garage. Mrs. Knight’s Duster was gone. I didn’t bother knocking — cracked open the door, slid off my Timberlands, and padded on moist socks through the herb and rose-scented kitchen, down the narrow hallway toward the sound of Richard’s guitar. It was the first time I’d really heard him play. I knew he owned the guitar, but many twelve-year-olds own guitars, trombones, hockey skates, and lacrosse sticks that seem like good ideas until the hard work of mastering them becomes a reality. Richard’s guitar was white with a black pick-guard, I remember that. The amplifier had a small gorilla emblazoned on the upper right corner. It was turned up loud. I listened outside the door as his late night confessions, bruises, teary admissions, and stiff-jawed bravery became music too knowing for twelve. Too hurt, sad, revealing. Richard’s guitar sobbed. He’d thought he was alone. I nudged open the door. Richard’s cheeks were swollen, purple, his bare torso showing a right arm bruised from shoulder to wrist. I glanced from bruises to guitar cradled on his lap to the amplifier that had already answered the only question I needed to ask: “Does it hurt?”
And I will always see Richard Payne Knight’s twelve-year-old face nodding back at me. “Yes, Virgil,” he is saying. “It does.”
From MERCH TABLE BLUES: A Novel by Peter Conners. Used with permission of the publisher, Manic D Press. Copyright © 2022 by Peter Conners.