Red Light Mama, Red Hot
written by Jason Hillenburg
There ain’t no backin’ out when you’re born to lose.
- Humble Pie, “Red Light Mama, Red Hot!”
When Anthony doesn’t find anyone to fuck, he will fuck himself instead.
He tries to get me to have sex once. It is late at night and we are sitting on a railroad bridge in the middle of the city. We are off on the rocks alongside the track and a quart bottle of vodka stands between us. It is our second in the last six hours but we are still talking and understand what one another is saying. It is a minor miracle. I know him four years then; he is twenty six and I am twenty one. We know each other three years by this time.
We are talking about a mutual acquaintance going to jail because the cops found three ounces of marijuana in his backpack when he steers the conversation in an one hundred eighty degree direction.
“Karl, let’s fuck.”
I burst out laughing and he smiles before dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
“Don’t lie to Mama, Karl. You know you’d like it.”
A hard burst of laughter doubles me over. Everyone calls him Mama. I start hearing the nickname a little over a year after first meeting him and it sticks. Few ever call him Anthony anymore. He picks up the moniker because he drinks too much and bellows out Janis Joplin tunes, most of the time “Mercedes Benz” or “Me and Bobby McGee”, when he has the glow. In those days alcohol never slows Mama up. Instead, the liquor charges him and gives him wide-eyed energy.
“Nah, Mama, I don’t think so. Let’s just be friends and stick with drinking, okay?” I grin. “Besides, I have a headache, bitch.”
His loud laugh blends with the low watt hum of a small city night. He reaches across and slaps my shoulder. He is still laughing when he says, “Very funny, motherfucker.”
Those moments are common in those early years of knowing each other. It is the time before rehabs, jail terms, funerals, narcotics and pills stand tall as landmarks in our lives. It is the mid nineteen nineties and I can control my fate. I will do this until I am twenty five, stop on a dime, and turn my world around. I wonder now what went through Mama’s mind.
I know less and less with every new year. His skill with a tattoo gun and translating his fine freehand artwork from page to skin sets him apart and makes him money. He is never sober long enough to work in an established parlor. He draws a lot and inks many tattoos in that time before rehabs, jail terms, funerals, narcotics and pills, but a television set takes it away from him.
He finds love after we know each other five years. Bryan is a sinewy eighteen year old with high cheekbones and brown hair running a little long. He has a muscular build despite his delicate features. He is Mama’s type. Mama wears motorcycle bandanas around his head, a leather vest of some sort, a t shirt and jeans with a score of heavy boots over the years. Mama is a slap in the face rebuke of those who picture homosexuals as lisping would-be sirens of the stage. The pock mark scars on his face ages him far more than his twenty eight years. Bryan is the pretty boy he can never be.
He is also violent. Bryan lives in youth homes throughout much of his teenage years thanks to fights at school and home alike. Mama fights with him as well. One or both of them are sporting some sort of facial bruise, a black eye perhaps, or a swollen purple cheek. Mama likes it. The mutual beatings are foreplay for him. If he has worries, he hides them well.
He needs to worry. They argue on a Friday night, drunk as usual, fuck, and then pass out together on the floor. Bryan wakes up first on Saturday morning. It is a little after eleven am. I can only picture what happens next. Maybe he is still angry from the night before when he decides to pick up their large television set, raise it above him, and bring it crashing down on Mama’s head.
Bryan leaves the television sitting on Mama’s head while he calls the police to report what he has done. Maybe he is still angry from the night before, but I know he is out of his mind.
The call saves Mama’s life however. Skull fracture, check. Brain bleeding, he has that too. He is in a coma while the local hospital treats his skull and stops the bleeding. On the third day he wakes up. His older brother Anton is there. Everyone refers to them as “the twins” though they do not share the same birthday; they share a close resemblance to each other and nothing more. I drink a lot with Anton as well. He has a reputation for hair-trigger violence, roughhousing women, and selling marijuana he claims comes from Fort Shiloh Indian Reservation. I am never clear about what discipline but he has some martial arts training.
We are standing next to Mama’s hospital bed watching him eat ice cream. “Karl, I’m gonna kill Bryan. He gets out of jail or bonded out, he’s a dead man,” Anton says.
Mama involves himself before I have a chance to answer. “Anton, shut the fuck up. Bryan is messed up,” Mama says. I remember how he slurs some of his words and sounds a little woozy. He pauses. “Besides, if anyone is gonna do anything to him, it’s going to be me,” he says. His voice softens.
No one ever kills Bryan. The county sees fit to ship him off to state prison for a long stay and he finds trouble there as well. Wave goodbye to credit for good behavior. He is still talking, breathing, eating, drinking, and sleeping, but Mama dies when the television smashes into his skull. Nothing is ever the same again and everything post-television is anti climax piling on.
He tosses self regard out the window. The first time we are in country jail together I am twenty three and spending thirty days downtime on the heels of a shoplifting charge. Most of my preceding summer washes away in a tide of stolen Manischewitz wine, but they catch me after drinking too much and stumbling back in for more one hot August night. He shares the same cell block with me and fourteen other prisoners and guards bring him in on my second day. Police pick him up for public intoxication every other month and he walks the next day, but spitting on a cop this time has him staring down a likely sentence.
“That’s what they say I did, at least. Fucking pigs,” he says. A sneer curls a corner of his mouth.
He disappears into his cell for a hour or so the first afternoon and comes out with wet clothes. The county jail’s inmate laundry turns whites into browns and it isn’t outside the lines for inmates to do their own laundry with nothing more than water and jail issued bars of soap. Mama does not care if the county locks him down with a baker’s dozen of homophobes; he is gay, wears lingerie under his street clothes, and wants to dry them out over the rail of the cell block’s second tier.
Grumbling and an assortment of fuck that shits peppering the cell block do not impress Mama. He arches his eyebrows, bobs his head from side to side, and says nothing. No one gets in his face. Most people know his reputation or don’t know enough to dare try. Mama is a big guy, takes a punch and keeps coming, and will try pulling an eye out if you get too close. So, instead, one of the fuck that shits stands and presses the dayroom call button.
The jail guard sounds half asleep. Fuck That Shit says, “Uh, unless the jail wants sued, I think you better get in here ‘cause a fag is gonna get killed.” I remember the guard’s voice booming we’ll be there through the small speaker and can still see Mama walking out of the cell block within ten minutes smirking with lingerie in tow.
Something about him tells me he wants beaten. Mama wants those angry inmates pummeling him so he can spit blood in their face and ask for more. Most human math is simple and his life is no different. He has an arch macho brother, a rogue gambler for a father, and growing up as an overweight homosexual boy in love with drawing and music doesn’t add up to a happy childhood. His public face to it all is cocking his chin in the air and clenching his fists. I think to this day his private face is a cowing little boy sure he will be whole against once the world exacts its due for his defects.
He never draws again, retires his tattoo gun, and drinks more than ever before. I never ask about his artwork again. Something new creeps into his voice however. He talks more and more about needing to quit drinking. Anyone capable of coherent thought will agree especially when he lives through days when alcohol shatters his mind to such an extent he walks downtown oblivious he has shit all over himself. When his brother points it out to him in a near whisper, Mama sits down on a bench and stares at him.
He quits drinking. I remember talking to him after he is two weeks sober and he beams with pride. I see him near the city’s bus stop one day. He is waiting for a ride home.
“I hadda quit drinking, man. I got sick, went to jail, or both every time I’d get drunk. Fuckin’ shit is evil,” Mama says.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I say. “You’re crazy on the sauce anyway. Scare-ee. You need to discover calmer recreational pursuits. Smoke an ounce of weed a week.”
He smirks and waves his hand at me. “Nah. I’m doing about thirty Xanex and Percosets a week though. Makes the not drinking thing a lot easier to do.”
I roar with laughter. “Mama, you can’t be gobbling thirty pills a week! It isn’t any way to quit anything. You’re gonna kill yourself!”
He cocks his head backwards taken aback by my response. “Don’t worry, Karl, it’s cool. I’m doing alright,” he says. His voice is relaxed but hushed. Butting heads with his alcohol abstinence plan wounds him a little. You can’t argue against addict logic. It is like persuading a dog to be a cat.
Hemingway says once that all stories, if continued far enough, end in death. All addicts, if they keep using, die at the feet of their chosen high. He lives another year, another ring of hell, soon dispensing with the pills for outright narcotics and his use picks up even more. I find out about his death in the newspaper. Overdose.
There’s a post-overdose as well. A city day shelter for the homeless and poor stages a memorial for Mama at a downtown church. I see it then and now as a full on shot of melodramatic grief and know then a chunk of attendees will be those who avoid or laugh at Mama when he is alive. I do not attend. One thing makes me smile. He has a pending court case for a charge of disorderly conduct when he dies and the court dismisses the case. Mama sticks it to The Man one last time.
Something within him wants him to die. I dare not call it a demon. There is nothing mystical about it. It is a shadow self some wrestle with off and on throughout their lives. Mama wrestles more than most. It is a quaking in our guts when we get what we what we want. It is the darting search for shadows when we hear someone’s laughter. It is the fathers who did not love us enough or never fully understand how. We are broken somehow and do not deserve to be here so, instead, we will pummel our bodies into dust. I don’t know why we ever call it partying. We are celebrating nothing.