After decades of silence, I wrote the original version of this piece 3 or 4 years ago in response to a TIBU challenge. Since then I return to it on this day, revising and polishing and, mostly, remembering. I don’t think it will ever be “finished” — there’s always something missing — the man and his music, perhaps; perhaps the Baby who believed so blindly in so many things. Read again if you like, if not, well, I certainly understand.
It’s 8 December 1980. I’m 19.
I walk into the three bedroom apartment that I share off and on with four other people to find Shelly and Paula weeping uncontrollably on the living room floor while Pete and Kyle are cleaning weed on the coffee table behind them. All of them are staring at our tiny thirteen inch black and white television; I notice that someone has even wrapped fresh aluminum foil around the rabbit ears antenna. None of this is all that strange (I’m a Drama Major) but there is something unusual in the girls’ keening and the guys’ almost frantic need to get high as soon as possible.
“What’s going on?”
They stare up at me like they’ve never seen me before, then suddenly, Shelly, who’s been my roommate since Freshman year, jumps up from the floor and throws her arms around me.
“Oh, Baby,” she cries into my shoulder. (They all call me “Baby”, but that’s another story.) “Oh, Baby, you don’t know!”
Now, I’m scared. This is not the usual break-up-homesick-flunking-chemistry-didn’t-get-the-part histrionics that I’m used to. This is something bad. I pull Shelly off me, look her in the face and demand to know, “What is it?? What’s wrong??”
She looks at me, black tears running down her cheeks. “John Lennon’s dead. He’s been shot.”
For a minute, I stand there trying to remember who John Lennon is. Is he one of Shelly’s many “friends”? Someone older? Younger? Someone who transferred out? Then it hits me.
“Lennon?” I whisper. “John Lennon?” As though it might be some other Lennon that we could better afford to lose.
Shelly nods. “Come sit down with us,” she says, lowering herself back to the floor.
I’m frozen. Completely unable to move. The room has grown very large and very cold and yet the floor is rising up, threatening to hit me in the face. I turn around and walk into my room, closing the door very quietly behind me. Leaning against it, I hear Shelly say, “No, no — leave her alone.”
I silently thank a God in whom I no longer quite believe for Shelly.
I sit down on the bed and try to get my head around what I’ve just been told. I chide myself for not staying to see what was being said on television and for a moment, I think maybe Shelly was lying, maybe they were playing some kind of cruel trick on me. But, they all know what a bad idea it would be to play a trick on me. Besides, none of them would lie about something as horrible as this — who would?
Pulling my legs up under me, I try to imagine a world without John Lennon. Try to imagine a world in which The Beatles really would never get back together. I begin to shake. No, it’s not possible. John Lennon had been there my whole life — literally — and no one in my life had ever died unless they were old. And he wasn’t old. I mean, I know forty is old, but not that old.
Sitting there, I suddenly realize that mine is the first generation to be born into a Beatles’d world. They were not a “radical new sound” for us — they were the music playing when we were born and their songs had been the background for every major event in our lives. How could anyone kill one of them? Why? And why John?? Paul, maybe — he’s such an ass — but John? No way. There’s just no way.
I pull off my coat and lay back on the bed. From the front room, I hear the muted sounds of my friends and the television as the sweet smell of cannabis drifts under my door. There’s a quiet knock.
Shelly steps just over the threshold. Her plain face is red and smudged black and she’s holding up what I recognize as one of Pete’s finely rolled joints.
I sit up. I nod. She gives me a weak smile and motions with her head toward the front room. I slide off the bed and follow.
Two joints later, I am possessed with the idea that we can’t just sit there alone, watching the television while the rest of the world mourns John Lennon.
“Come on,” I say, standing up and looking for my coat. “Who’s got a car tonight?”
Four blank, pin-eyed faces stare up at me.
“Come onnnnnnn.” I pull at John who is the only one of us who ever reliably has a car. Or a reliable car. He shakes his head.
“No way, Baby. No fuckin’ way. Where the hell you wanna go anyhow?” He is trying to uncurl my fingers from his shoulder.
I hit the top of his head. “Didn’t you hear? They just said that people are going to Morgan Park. That everyone should get candles and go to Morgan Park — come ONNNNNNNNNNN.”
They all know it is easier to give in than to fight me, so everyone stumbles to their feet and after calling half a dozen people to find the location of Morgan Park (“Goddamn, Baby — it’s clear on the other side of town!), we all climb into Pete’s tiny white Toyota.
After a quick stop to grab candles, we make the drive in record time, the radio blaring Lennon tribute music all the way. Morgan Park is filling up with people of all kinds, many crying, some wrapped in blankets against the December chill, most already holding lit candles. We’re circling for a place to park when Pete makes a sudden, sharp right and says, “Yeah! TV vultures!” and slides into half a parking space beside the Channel 10 van.
Scrambling out before anyone can stop us, we make our way to what looks to be the densest part of the crowd. We light our candles and another joint and stand looking around. Someone has blown up a face shot of Lennon from about the time the Beatles broke up — the famous one with the long hair and the little round glasses — and hung it from a tree. Others are making their way to the photo to lay flowers and notes and albums, then returning to the crowd to stand. Pretty soon, that’s what we’re all doing. Just standing. Standing and waiting. Waiting for someone to speak, someone to explain, someone to make sense of this, someone to tell us what to do now.
But no one does. It is strangely silent. Weirdly silent for that many people. Aside from whispers and the softened sounds of crying, the night air is empty. I look around. People are beginning to fall away from the edge of the crowd. It looks as though even the TV people are about to give up. It’s late, it’s cold and everyone is tired of waiting for what they don’t know to happen.
“No…” I think.
And holding my candle tight, I begin to sing.
“Love… love… love. Love… love… love. Love… love…love…”
People turn around to look at me, but I don’t mind. I never have.
“All you need is love. All you need is love. All you need is love, love, love. Love is all you need.”
By the time I get to “Love is all you need”, my friends and the people around us have taken up the chorus. The song grows from where we stand out to the edges of the crowd, stopping those headed for their cars. Soon, a man’s voice, much stronger and better than mine, begins to sing Lennon’s “Nothing you can do that can’t be done” and the rest of us fall into back up. I close my eyes and play with the harmony, dropping down in my chest when the tears take me, flying up above when I can. When I open my eyes, the crowd around me is beautiful — wet, candlelit faces are smiling and singing and swaying. And in that moment, I think, “Ok. Ok. Maybe it will be alright. Maybe we can be alright. Maybe. Maybe.”
Ten years later, I will be standing in a tiny kitchen in a tiny house when I will get a telephone call from Pete. I’ll have not talked to him in years. I’ll have not seen Shelly since I was Maid of Honour at her wedding. And two of the five of us will already be dead. Pete will call to tell me that he’s just seen a Dallas-produced tribute to the 10th anniversary of Lennon’s death.
“And guess whose face they splashed up under the closing credits?” he’ll ask.
Elbow deep in cookie dough with my daughter on my hip, I will have no idea.
Pete will say, “You, Baby,” then laugh that laugh that tells me he’s not had a straight day in these ten years. “YOU — You holding a candle and singing, ‘love is all you need’. Fuck, Baby- we were YOUNG.”
I will try to laugh and after promising to keep in touch, I will hang up the phone and wonder if I should change my number.
I will sit down with my daughter and as she sucks sugar from my fingers, I will close my eyes against the sound of those voices, close my heart against the power of those memories, and it will be almost another twenty years before I meet any of them again.
© s rogers 8 december 2010