Or, The Impassionate Dreams of a Famous Rap-Star and the Woman who Beats Him for Rapping Whilst Eating Sandwiches  

Blossoms in the Dawning Winter of Augustine



"I found the simple life ain't so simple / When I jumped out on that road / I got no love - no love you'd call real / Ain't got nobody waiting at home / Ooh, running with the devil / Running with the devil / Running with the devil / Running with the devil"
- Van Halen. "Running With the Devil."

    Thomas was mesmerized. The shrieking of David Lee Roth filled his brain like so much lemon-lime jello in a balloon. "Running with the devil," cried Roth. "Ooh-aahh-AH. Running with the devil!" He gibbered mindlessly, sounding like nothing more than a monkey given a microphone and an endless supply of gin.
    Thomas, who had been changing the channel from the Jazz Station to National Public Radio, had immediately dropped his glass of diet cola upon hearing the howling of the famous eighties band. "What is this?" Thomas wondered to himself for a while. "What is this?"
    It was a revelation.

    After the DJ announced the song's title and artist, Thomas scribbled down the information furtively in his notebook. He jumped on his bicycle and immediately went to the music store, grabbing the last copy of Van Halen's album "Van Halen." Even though the girl at the counter snickered and showed her boyfriend exactly what he was purchasing, Thomas smiled righteously and paid the $15.28 without even the slightest glimmer of anger. "She probably thinks I'm buying this for my cooler friend," he thought to himself, heart flashing with heated ferocity. "What if she knew that I was buying this for ME?"
    "I'm buying this for me, and not my cooler friend," he confided to the girl. She rolled her eyes and popped her gum, handing him his change. Thomas stood at the counter for a minute, fury filling his body, compulsively making a fist out of his left hand and relaxing it repeatedly. The other hand desperately wanted to make a fist, but it was holding the CD. After a minute or so, he whirled around without a word and quickly and rigidly walked out of the store.
    At night, when his mother was asleep, he placed the CD into the CD-Radio alarm clock that she had purchased him for his birthday and - furtively - pressed play. The song began. Thomas smiled, relaxed, made a pretend-pipe out of a rolled up piece of notebook paper and listened to the song eighty-four times in a row. Every time the ending strains of the song played, he scrambled up out of his bed and pressed the "back" button so he could hear the song again.
    During the next two weeks, he thought about nothing except the song. He wrote the lyrics repeatedly in his school notebook, ignoring his teachers' bewildered glances and his increasingly poor grades. "I Heart Van Halen," he scribbled on the front of his notebook, drawing an elaborate heart around the sentiment. He tried to start a "Van Halen" club in his computer class, but everyone else was only interested in allocating memory and goto statements, not the brilliant guitar playing of Eddie Van Halen.

    Thomas wanted to live his life like there was no tomorrow. HE wanted to run with the devil like Van Halen did. There was only one problem. Thomas had asthma. He could no more run any distance than a drunkard could give up - for one lousy minute - his gallon jug of whiskey. And like the drunkard, this was no fault of Thomas's. God had simply blessed Thomas with a pair of lungs that were - honestly - all but worthless. Thomas had spent many a night cursing God and his fate until a revival preacher and his funky band taught him a lesson or two about God's role in human lives. Now, Thomas was too frightened of God to curse him. Instead, he secretly harbored a seething grudge and hoped that, perhaps, one day, God's lungs would collapse like a basketball slammed into a nail-studded board.
    Thomas knew that he could never, ever run with the devil. But he could maybe do something close. Thomas decided that he would swim. And maybe - someday - the devil would swim with him.

    And Thomas took up swimming lessons. He learned to tread water, to doggie paddle, and with time and increased confidence, he mastered the breast stroke. He began to dive daily, at first only jumping into the six-feet end while holding his nose, but later digging up enough nerve to dive off the diving board into the fifteen foot end. The first time he did this, his heart raced so fast that he needed a hit off of his inhaler, and he even cried a little, his swimming instructor hugging him and telling him it was okay, it was okay. But Thomas kept trying, because he hoped one day that the devil himself would come down and say, hey, good job, buddy. Good job, let's do laps. And he would say, sure, devil, and then maybe Van Halen would jump in and David Lee Roth would wail and Eddie would grind on his guitar, grimacing furiously. The girl at the counter would be there and she'd squeal, "Thomas, that CD was for you! You kick ass!" And he would high-five everyone at the swimming pool, and then God's lungs would collapse.
    Thomas kept swimming lessons up for six months, but the devil never did show up to swim with him. Thomas sold the CD to the used CD store and just started listening to his old B-52s CDs again. And one day, it was July. The winter had ended, but the winter of Thomas's discontent was still burning like a blackened marshmallow in his stomach. And it was the last day of swimming lessons.
    His teacher told him that she'd miss him, and all of his classmates shook his hand. Thomas wiped a single tear from his cheek and toweled off, the rest of his classmates going outside to wait for their dads to pick them up.
    And suddenly, he smelled something - was it burning sulfur? His heart raced. He whirled around. "Devil?" he asked, his voice wavering with excitement. But there was no one there. Thomas thought he saw a forked tail disappearing into the sauna room, but upon entering, he found no one.
    Thomas smiled and left the YMCA, shrugging his shoulders as he left. Perhaps it was never meant to be. Perhaps the hateful, vengeful God had a plan for him, and - perhaps - swimming was not a part of it either. Thomas nodded to himself and walked home in his purple and yellow swimtrunks, ignoring the hoots and catcalls of passing drunken teenagers. It had been a long day. And swimming season was over.

       All text copyright Robert Chatham 2005