Sunshine and Stones
By Cynthia Wilson
We were on our way to school in Jack Spyder’s truck jammin’ to the tunes when an announcer’s voice broke in the middle of “Blinded by the Light.”
“Late last evening, a Convair 240 carrying the members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, crashed in a swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi.” The announcer had tears in his throat. “Dead are lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist and vocalist Steve Gaines, his sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, along with both the pilot and co-pilot.” We sat with our shirts stuck to the back of the seats, a sudden sweat upon us, while the truck slowed down as if from its own shock. We could hear the announcer shuffling papers, attempting to collect himself before going on. “The plane was en route from a concert in Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana when sources say it ran out of gas and went down. Injured are drummer Artimus Pyle, Gary Rossington, and Leslie Hawkins. Guitar player Allen Collins and bassist Leon Wilkeson are both in serious condition. We will have more details as information comes in. Again, the plane carrying members of southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd has crashed in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines are dead. And now, a moment of silence.”
The truck drifted over to the side of the road. The silence was black. The decision to skip school that day was unspoken, and Jack went off to find dope. Sarah and I went to raid her parents’ liquor cabinet. All we came up with was a bottle of cherry vodka. We met up in the cemetery. It seemed the appropriate place. The headstones were a scattered Stonehenge baked silver by a hot sun. We sat among them, legs crossed Indian style.
It was 1977. Like the sixties without riots about black and white and protests against war. Free love and drugs floated like good incense into the next decade. The kids in the sixties had experimented and we were the receivers of the results. We knew what we liked. Southern Rock and hard partyin’ was the flavor of the time, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was our icon for freedom, southern style.
Jack and Dane were already there when Sarah and I showed up, cherry vodka in hand, Skynyrd shirts on from the last concert tour over hip-hugging angel flairs, and Candies slides. Jack sat on the open bed of his truck, legs swinging, licking the tip of the paper on the joint he had just rolled. Setting it down with the pile he had already rolled, he picked up the bag of yellow-green weed and stuck his nose deep into it as if it were a brandy snifter full of Louis Tres. The doors were open to his truck, the eight track playing “Gimme Back My Bullets.”
“Nothin like it, man. Makes ya high just thinking about it.”
Dane leaned against a headstone, Budweiser longneck in hand, peeling the label off bit by bit, dark bangs covering his face. He looked up.
“I’m tired of thinking. Spark one up.”
Sarah took a seat next to Jack. Stuck the bottle in front of his face.
“Cherry Vodka. The folks keep the good shit locked up.”
Jack smiled and stuck a joint in her mouth. “ ‘salright, Dane brought beer. Couple cases.”
He dug a matchbook out of his pocket, Millie’s Craft and Head Shop it said on the front cover. We’d been there many times. He struck a match and lit the joint. Sarah sucked in the smoke, and coughed while she exhaled. She grinned. The unmistakable smell of pot and sulphur filled the air between us.
“Yeah, well pass it over.” Dane reached out his arm, just out of reach from where Sarah sat. I walked the joint from Sarah to Dane, taking my share on the way.
The sun was a juicy peach by the time Dane stuck out his hand, uncurled his fingers, and showed us the tiny orange barrels in his palm.
“Orange Sunshine,” he grinned.
“Holding out on us?” Jack reached his long bony arm across the space between us, his snake tattoo uncoiling its full length. He took a tab and rolled it around in his fingers before popping it in his mouth. He smiled so wide that his cheeks touched the ends of his hair that fell in brown strings around his face.
Dane put his palm before Sarah and me, offering the goods. We each took one and put them in our mouths. I curled the end of my tongue around mine. It felt like a jujube. Dane licked his off his palm like the things he wanted to experience had been written there. Ronnie Van Zandt’s voice came from the truck, “Swamp, swamp swamp, swamp music…”
Jack opened the cooler for another beer. He tossed one to Dane. “So, what do you think they were thinkin’ when they knew the plane was going down?”
“Shit, we’re gonna die.” Dane began peeling the label from his beer.
“No, really, man, like do you think they had the whole life-flash-before-your-eyes thing, or what?”
“I think they probably prayed to whatever they prayed to, I mean God, or whatever.” I said. I took a swig of cherry vodka, and curled up my nose, looking at the label as if I had grabbed the wrong thing.
“Do you think they can see us? Right now?” Sarah’s face was shadowed in the dimming light. A bullfrog squawked somewhere behind her.
“There’s your answer, man!” Jack rolled on his back, holding his stomach, laughing.
Sarah looked behind her as if someone might actually be there. “Don’t be a dick. I mean, do you think there’s anything after we die?”
“You mean like heaven?” Dane peered into the opening of his beer bottle.
“Or ghosts,” Jack got up and skipped between the headstones around us. “Woooooooo,” he jumped on top of one and stretched out his arms, “woooooooooooo.”
Sarah took a long pull from the bottle of vodka and jumped up, throwing her arms in the air in a whiff of cherry and sandalwood. I could tell by the extra light in her expression that she was starting to get high. She was on her way over the rainbow.
“Woooooooo,” she waved her arms at Jack, chasing him, “wooooooo.”
I turned to Dane, who sat peeling his beer bottle, smiling after them.
“So, it’s like an ending, man, like the end of something. With Skynyrd and all,” I looked at him, pushing a stray bit of hair out of my face. I could feel my skin turning to rubber.
“There’s no ending, just a beginning. All endings are beginnings.”
I looked at Jack dancing on top of a headstone, all golden purple shadows.
“I am the ghost of music past!” He did a little tap dance and fell, laughing.
Sarah came dancing between Dane and me. “We’re all the ghosts of music, man, we carry the music with us. That’s why we have music, man, so we can vibrate with the universe.” She did a sort of pirouette and deposited herself cross-legged next to me.
“Ronnie Van Zandt was the best, man, the best. Every man feels he has to be exceptionally good at something. He’ll keep those closest who both know and admire this thing.”
The peach sky had turned to black velvet with holes in it where the stars should be. Just as I was about to comment about the missing stars a single light began approaching us from across the cemetery illuminating headstones as it came towards us and we all stopped, froze, not sure if it was the drugs or not.
“What the hell you kids doing here?” came the voice behind the light. “This ain’t no place to party, this here’s a cemetery, don’t y’all have any respect at all for the folks resting here? Ever since that goddamn Easy Rider movie, suddenly graveyards are the place for you kids to trip out or whatever it is you do. Not on my watch. Y’all get now, go on home.”
Dane smiled angelically, his dark hair hiding his brilliant eyes, eyes that changed color with his voice, like one of those colored strobe lights that changed with the music. “Dude, we’re not hurting anybody. I mean, c’mon, everyone here is already dead. What could we possibly do to them? Just chill, dude, chill.”
Sarah stepped into the light and made a grand sweeping motion with her hand and said, “The cemetery is a great place to picnic, if you don’t mind aunts.” Then she took a deep bow, turned to us and said, “Haiku.”
“Gesundheit,” Jack shot back.
Everybody laughed, even the man behind the light.
“Well, don’t do no desecrating and take all your trash with you. Don’t let me catch you here again, got me?” the voice said.
“Don’t worry man, we don’t like to desecrate in public, we can use the bathroom at the 7-11 down the road. Thanks for considering our bowels though,” said Jack.
The voice made a hmmmph sound and the light turned away, illuminating the headstones again.
“Watchman for the dead. How cool is that? Think Ronnie and Cassie have a watchman?” Dane looked at me, his eyes flashing purple, pink, orange, then black. “I think it would be cool, I want someone to watch over me when I’m dead.”
I could feel the top of my head buzz like it was a radio receiver. My tongue felt thick. “Geez Dane, don’t you ever get scared of dying? Doesn’t death scare you?”
Dane considered me for a moment, looked out where moments ago dozens of headstones were lit up like monuments. Suddenly the dark became intense, like it was emanating from Dane’s words. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a dark hole, falling, and I can’t see where I’m going. Then I get real sad and afraid, and it feels like a million ants with frozen feet are running up and down my skin.”
Sarah held her hands in front of her as if she were looking for ants. She rubbed her arms and shivered. “Bad scene, man.”
Jack jumped off a headstone and landed next to us, pulled a joint out of his shirt pocket and lit it with a Millie’s match.
“I’m learnin there are no absolutes,” he said as he inhaled, his voice strained. “There’s no definites, no solutions,” his words came out in puffs with the smoke. He passed the joint to Dane. “It’s all just how we deal with it, you know?”
Jack was still gold and purple. Suddenly we were our own counsel, an ancient counsel of druids bathed in our own light among the headstones. Our own private Stonehenge. The October night was warm, the moon was cut in half like the day had been.
“Yeah, but it’s still just another entrance to the dark hole of unknowing,” Sarah took the joint, a rainbow trailing her hand, took a long drag, then passed it to me. I looked at it, the fingers of smoke dancing up toward the sky, rainbow-like, like Hindu goddesses. I got up and raised my hands to them, then danced on the nearest grave and said, “Look at me, I’m Kali, the Hindu goddess of Tantric eternal energy. The Goddess of change. She danced on Shiva’s dead body, and he was her lover. But she could never separate herself from him, she is his creative energy.” I danced around and stomped my feet as if I were dancing on someone. “Just like a man to need a woman for creativity and eternal life. Funny thing is, it happens again and again, without end. Shiva always dies and Kali always dances.” I stopped my dancing and fell to the ground, laughing, watching the holes where the stars used to be turn into a kaleidoscope of color.
“Maybe there isn’t an ending or a beginning,” Dane said, “ maybe all we have is feeling. Like when the sky’s so red it feels like the world’s life is bleeding over me. Other times I feel like the world wraps itself around me like a blanket. Pure feeling, man, that’s the wisdom.”
“Merry-go-rounds are my favorite,” Sarah announced, “I mean, you go round and round, and up and down, and you just keep going in circles – never going anywhere and never expecting to. Just comfortable in the ride. Round and round. Yeah, Merry-go-rounds. I like ‘em.”
I looked at Dane through the Goddess-smoke, his black hair hanging over his eyes like he held some ancient mystery there. His eyes were so dark they looked like the ancient springs at Delphi. I thought he was crazy and beautiful.
“Where do you think you’ll go when you die?” I asked Dane.
“Depends on who’s taking me there, maybe I’ll go to Gillsburg and hang out with Ronnie. Yeah, that’d be cool. Free Bird live whenever I want.” Dane turned into a Sphynx.
Jack bounced back between the silver and purple stones, rainbows trailing behind him. He was a jester, a God, a muse.
“We can just go then,” Jack announced.
Sarah looked up at him, eyes wide, her face awash in color. “With Skynyrd? With Ronnie? Now? I mean, don’t we have to die first? I know, it’s a suicide pact, right? Just like the Kool-Aid. I like grape.”
Jack swung Sarah around and sat her atop a stone and told her, “This ain’t no suicide pact girlie. I’m talking driving to Gillsburg, man, see the place where they went down. Talk to ‘em, like maybe there’s messages there that only true Skynyrd fans can get.”
“Yeah, man, like to where they landed. Crashed. It would be so beautiful. To crash,” Sarah mused, still intent on understanding death from first hand experience.
My life came back to me. “To Gillsburg? To the swamp?”
Dane jumped up, animated with purpose, his hair parted over his face. “To the swamp!”
Sarah looked at me, her eyes palettes of color. “I’ll plant some resurrection ferns.”
“No resurrection fern is gonna bring back Skynyrd. Besides, you can’t plant resurrection ferns, they just grow. You know, like when it rains, then after the rainbow comes the resurrection ferns,” Dane explained.
“Hey man,” I said, “Maybe that’s it. Ya know? Like the resurrection ferns. Maybe they’ll come back, you know, if it rains.”
Jack wove back and forth between headstones, leaving a long trail of rainbows behind him. He started singing:
“I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a haaarrrd rain is gonna faaaaallll.”
“Bob Dylan, man, he’s like, Jesus or something, like, he always has the right message.”
“What is it with you and messages anyway, Jack? Dude, there’s a message in everything.” I watched him as he turned from gold to purple to orange, then back to gold again. “Jack, you’re golden, man. I mean really golden.”
Jack immediately pounced on to the top of a large headstone and stretched his arms out wide. “That’s because I’m a God! Didn’t you know all Gods are golden? Ever see a picture of them big ass Buddhas? They’re golden. Golden Gods.”
I got up and walked to where Jack was still perched on his stone, looked straight into his kaleidoscope eyes and said, “If you’re a God, then why did you let that plane crash? Why did you take Ronnie and the Gaines? You’re a shitty God, man.”
Jack crouched down, still atop the headstone, and said in a conspiratorial tone, “We’re all shitty Gods. That’s the secret. That’s what everyone is trying to figure out. That’s the secret of life, man. That’s it right there. We’re all shitty Gods.”
“But what about Ronnie, and Steve and Cassie, they weren’t shitty Gods, they were musicians. The greatest southern rock band to ever live!” I protested.
“Yeah! The greatest band to ever live!” Sarah joined in, twirling in circles; rainbows followed her every move, she became lost in the light.
“You mean to ever die,” said Dane.
* * *
Cynthia Wilson holds and MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Hyperbole, The Aquila Review, The Pitkin Review, Fine Flash Fiction, and several small house publications. She is currently working on her novel and lives at home with her life long love and her two dogs.
You can visit Cynthia at her blog, www.cypresswillow.com.