“Simple Music” by Karl J. Sherlock

Issue 8 / Winter 2017


W hat a nuisance, to wake up with a song already repeating in your head. The earworms I’m especially prone to are those infantilizing jingles with all their half-assed folk whistling and dreadful ukuleles. Like serenading simpletons, they sweetly crawl into your daydreams, then colonize them with a ridiculous nostalgia, the sort where homeowners insurance and colorectal health make you feel like a nine-year-old again, and the gritty world of online dating evokes your favorite pop-up book and the comforting taste of your mother’s macaroni salad. This one was at least straightforward enough: a simple and discordant cloud of brass. But . . .

. . . not an earworm this time. Rather, a real song, bumbling in, violating my sleep from somewhere just outside our townhouse. I drew the end of a pillow over my ear, but instead of dulling, it trebled with the shrill flutters of clarinets and out-of-tune flutes. Trumpets shouted into a half-asleep memory, of an early ‘70s Malibu ragtop that took a wrong turn once, down Georgia Street after the bars closed; I dreamt it rumbled cautiously past our apartment with its A.M. radio blaring Al Hirt, until it Doppler-shifted sharply into the steep cul-de-sac, and then, after a startled screech of tires, ascended and roared back up the block as drunkenly as it arrived. But then, the half of me still conscious remembered, we weren’t living in Hillcrest anymore, and the dream, like a wheelbarrow, tipped me back out and onto the steps of our El Cajon townhouse.

I’ve lived in enough places now to know a neighborhood also has a song that worms its way into your head. You become part of its ambient symphony, and each one is unlike the next: a morning in downtown El Cajon began with a city bus fuming and halting its way down Douglas Avenue, not the null sound of traffic threading up Florida Canyon; Main Street gunned with the sudden motorbike instead of wild macaws ululating in the palm trees. At the intersection with Magnolia, it was all about glockenspiels and bad mufflers—none of the dull, far-off petards of elephant trumpets, nor the zoo’s squeals of free-ranging peacocks I woke up to when we lived in Hillcrest.

I was still getting used to El Cajon’s music, but what the hell was this? Flutes pin-wheeling around a note? I hadn’t heard flutes in a modern pop song since the 1970s. All at once, a French horn eructed into flats and sharps and shook the windowpane, and beneath her coverlet our Lesser Jardine’s, Bubo, suddenly kerfuffled her feathers. This may have been a real song, but it wasn’t from any A.M. radio station. It was live music, and in my head I was beginning to drape the melody around a familiar trellis of lyrics: Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” I’d never willingly listened to Bon Jovi before, but this sounded the kind of awful that sparks within you the panic-stricken notion that you’re not being serenaded by music so much as under attack from it.

It was a huge deal for Max and me to move here from Hillcrest. We didn’t understand how piebald the East County neighborhoods could be: one street hummed like a commune of tolerance, and its nearest cross-street felt like a gay-bashing already in progress. In the little pocket where we eventually found our three-story townhouse, it was no different. At the intersection, a sparkling blue galaxy optimistically frescoed the white cinderblocks of the Unarius Academy of Science, while the Chamber of Commerce, a pragmatic red-brick building as pretty as a carriage lamp, sat primly on the opposite corner. Even Stetts Bar and its tattoo parlor, where every night a phalanx of hogs grumbled under the balls of hardcore bikers, shared a sensible easement on the Boulevard with a Felliniesque espresso café. In that respect, I thought, maybe—just maybe—the neighborhood here could be no different from Hillcrest and those bars where leather daddies met for apple martinis and exchanged their oatmeal cookie recipes.

But of course, no, it was different. And so were we, especially now that we lived here. Just three weeks earlier, blue and yellow “Yes On Prop 8” signs hemmed the medians of the boulevards like ugly straight-pins. After the election, we languished under the empty, bankrupt shops of Main Street malls, stumbled by uncertainty about who hated us and who didn’t—who might want to attack us, or even kill us. It felt like the very streets were at war with us.

Even the Argentine ants wanted us dead. Since July, they had been savaging every room in the house, and they attacked us aggressively. They lead suicide marches into the freezer compartment, where Max found a frostbitten tar pit of ants once, just inside the door. And we labored daily to keep them away from the floor of the birdcages. They were merciless biters, too, contorting their thoraxes to plunge their mandibles as deeply as they could into anything soft. Once, they even scampered into the bed and tried to bite the whites of my eyes while I slept. Disgusting. It’s no wonder I often woke in a headspace for battle, ready to rage against anything.

For all these reasons, I was certain the noise outside had to be a staged protest. Clearly, someone—perhaps even someone living in our complex—discovered a public record of our marriage ceremony at San Diego City Hall, then coordinated this anti-gay pogrom on Orange Avenue in honor of Anita Bryant, and somehow Bon Jovi featured prominently as their anthem, amid all the shit-kicking and goose-stepping: two middle-aged married men with a love so bad-ass, it dare not speak its bad name. If I upset the blinds now, even a little bit, would they begin to bang the timpani at our door and trebuchet their spit valves through the windows?

But it was no joke. Not if this were really happening. God, how I didn’t want to have to pull up stakes and move again. We’d made ourselves sicker just to get here, and we used up every penny of my father’s inheritance for a down payment. I’d lost three months and a fifth of my body weight double-boxing all of our vintage pottery for the movers. What’s more, we genuinely loved the home! All my adult life, I’d had dreams—real REM sleep dreams—of living in a three-story house, and here we were at last, already planning for the stair-lift we’d need when I retired. For another heartbreaking sixty seconds, I just stayed in bed with the pillow over my eyes and imagined how I was going to apologize to Max for bringing him to this angry, intolerant place. It roiled me, enough to want to seethe at our attackers and call the police, if nothing more.

I helped my legs out of bed, stood up, and hobbled to the window undressed. They wanted faggots? I’d show them one in his underwear. I cautiously lifted back one of the slats, like a sleepy eyelid, and bells jingled inside the birdcages. I wondered what half-waking dream the birds were dreaming.

Outside, 7 a.m. was all glare and drizzle. Something gleamed in the parking lot, below the rusty corrugated roof of Elmer Sweetwood and Sons; quivering among curves of polished brass were damp plumes and shakos with gold cordons and epaulettes. I searched for protest signs runny with quotes from Leviticus. I scanned the crowd for dirndl skirts and effigies of Ernst Röhm. Nothing. It wasn’t a mob and a Nazi orchestra. It was just a high school marching band.

And this was the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It never occurred to me the annual Mother Goose Parade would go on right outside our house. By random chance, a band coach had chosen the empty parking lot across from us to rehearse the song last minute. I dialed down my adrenaline. I didn’t know if a marching band could ever do justice to a song like “You Give Love a Bad Name,” but I wouldn’t begrudge them the practice.

Other windows in the complex, though, began booming shut, and some of the band members caught the grumpy, unshaven looks of men in wife-beaters holding coffee mugs at the windows. They shuffled farther up the parking lot with their band instruments, as though moving a few feet away were the only polite thing to do, but they came to their senses soon enough and scattered into the cross-streets.

Later, when the parade got underway, floats dipped over speed bumps, and oversized storybook characters, like giant Bakelite toys, swept ponderously down E. Main Street. Somewhere in the spectacle, Tori Spelling waved her tolerant hand in our direction and, in graceful procession, glided past gay kids and straight kids standing on the sidewalks where the Prop 8 signs used to be. They pantomimed their little fingers across bugle valves and marched in place when the nutcrackers, like two punch-drunk Titans, swayed on the flatbed. They held their parents’ hands with all their might and hummed nursery rhymes. They were the same simple songs stuck in their heads from the moment some little voice said to them, Wake up.


“Simple Music” was previously anthologized in The Far East: Everything Just As It Is. Eds., Melinda “Mindy” Solis and Justin Hudnall. San Diego: So Say We All, 2012. 160-163. Print.

Karl J. Sherlock is a poetry writing instructor and Co-Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at Grossmont College in San Diego. His poems, as well as his queer and disability-themed narrative essays, have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Dickinson Review, Alsop Review, South Coast Poetry Journal, The James White Review, Cream City Review, Lime Hawk, The Radvocate, Assaracus, Wordgathering, and others.

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