I Am Sam Bram
The laughing saint Eifuku Ishimoto stood barefoot upon a waterfall's lip on March 27, 1902. He wore only fundoshi underwear and a tiny black ascetic's cap on his forehead. He gazed upon the sluggish ayu fish in the pool below and yodeled a sacred song.
A knot of villagers concentrated on his every move from the snowy bank, men in fur hats, old women in wraps, children in clogs, Eifuku Ishimoto's wife with swollen belly smooth as lacquered wood. Earlier that day they had belted out huzzas at the laughing saint's return from the mountainside as children leapt about him. Now they stood mesmerized, sure a great wonder must be at hand.
• • •
On March 25, 1952, Billy Bud Rose tripped onstage in Rapid City, South Dakota. The spotlight jerked after him as the guitar strap slipped off his shoulder and the curtain-raiser by the Wandering Wayfarer Band died in flats and feedback. He steadied himself at the mike, blinking and rubbing his nose.
Catcalls rained down, the heckling of the righteous: ranch hands that had ridden palominos and duns twenty and thirty miles just to see Billy Bud, café girls who'd scrimped tips and gone for weeks without lunch, mechanics and carpenters and cops and boys from the rail yard, calling pool girls and typists and downtown sales girls and a pair of Catholic school teachers risking their jobs to see the secular star. Billy Bud's people, and he'd kept them hanging on for over an hour, sweating and fingering the coins in their pockets, murmuring to strangers.
Billy Bud straightened his guitar and strummed a chord. This goaded the crowd to silence, ready to forgive all for the absolving grace of his voice. Billy Bud cracked that cockeyed grin they knew from posters and album sleeves and every girl in the room trembled and wanted to sin.
"I guess you all come a long way to see ole Billy Bud," he said. The roar was deafening and he waited for it pass. "Well," he said, "I guess you done seen him."
He unstrapped the guitar, set it on the stage. It plunked and the mike squealed. With the very precise gait of a long-gone drunkard, Billy Bud Rose stalked past the Wandering Wayfarer Band offstage.
• • •
The last time my daddy had my mama was the same day she had me. While I came yelping into this world through a passage slicked with my own daddy's seed, he did like the song says, hit the road and never once looked back.
Mama stuck it out in Grants, New Mexico, probably the only Japanese girl in town and for sure the only Japanese girl toting a crumb-gobbler. Breathing uranium dust and working the café and waiting for him.
Half the kids at school never heard any more about their daddies beyond whispered tones of resentment and longing so I never considered myself anything special. In our one-bedroom apartment there was green tea and a little household altar for kowtowing to and meals on the floor with rice bowls and chopsticks, but outside I was just another mongrel American kid who grew up playing on the banks of the weed-choked canals where the sludge runs slow out into the desert and in the rail yard where the cars sit with ladders and switches begging to be climbed and at the truck stop where the big rigs idle on the oil-splotched tarmac. I used to imagine that one day I'd climb up in one of those cabs and go a-helling down the road in a blaze of black smoke.
• • •
Eifuku Ishimoto had rambled into the village of Ayumi-cho the previous spring, sprig of sage in his teeth, singing about the moon-ring and the buddhas, clear eyes upon the Pure Land. The mighty peals of his laughter were so loud at first the villagers feared the onslaught of a merrily homicidal demon. The laughing saint was famous throughout Japan for his quest to discover the gate to the Pure Land, if not in this life, then one to come. Stories abounded: he put his foot upon the neck of a demon. He did not sleep but levitated. He silenced the chattering buddhas with profundities. Now he was here in this obscure indigent hamlet where no stray dog escaped the winter soup pot.
The villagers of Ayumi-cho did not ask why. Holy men are hard to fathom.
Eifuku Ishimoto was in no hurry, though. Another mountain was before him. Atop it he would perform the ascetic rites and mortifications. Which any charlatan could accomplish in the swelter of summer. He waited for winter.
So the laughing saint took up residence in an abandoned hut, took a wife. Or so the villagers designated the homely girl who first brought the saint the evening meal and then ceased returning home at evening's end. Thereafter the villagers left small bags of rice, vegetables, meat, silk and firewood outside his spartan hut, offerings such as they could afford. He laughed and cast protective spells on their children and goats.
On many nights the villagers were kept awake around their summer braziers listening to the booming sutra chanting and the resounding echo of great happy laughter. Mothers hugged their children, and their children smiled.
• • •
By rights Billy Bud shouldn't have gotten further than backstage before passing out, his blood frowzy with whisky and pills, but Billy Bud Rose never did abide by the laws of man or God. He stumbled into the night and proceeded to smoke out a roadhouse where the booze came in mason jars. He bought a round for a muttering knot of drunks who didn't know who he was. Palmed a glass and set his Adam's apple to bobbing. Down the bar sat a girl.
His manager located Billy Bud three days later in a jackshack fifteen miles back in the hills, lying next to that girl naked. Her name was Maybelle Marie Standing Deer.
Now, besides Billy Bud Rose having wife and son back in Nashville, besides being booked for an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry Family Hour not two weeks hence, besides his smiley mug sharing the billing on a Gospel Greats album sleeve with the Right Reverend Willis Portershire, Maybelle Marie Standing Deer was a red-skinned Indian, and looked every inch the part. His manager swore long and hard under his breath.
Billy Bud was used to being roused by the man, who would soon shrewdly bilk Billy Bud's scheming widow out of copyrights worth a fortune. On many days he could not have functioned without him. Therefore Billy Bud sat up upon command, probing a cottony mouth with a cracked tongue. He shivered a little – March mornings are chill in South Dakota – and reached for a shirt. His hand alighted upon the soft breast of Maybelle Marie.
"Well, now," said Billy Bud. "Morning, Maybelle Marie."
Various biographers have cast the manager as the villain of Billy Bud's sad saga. Rather than getting Billy Bud dried out – as if he would have consented to that! – the manager put Billy Bud on the road, hard. Doubled up his tour dates and shoved him onto every stage that could be found. Thus was born the legend of Billy Bud Rose, prototype Drunken Cowboy Bard, public disgrace, slurring scofflaw, hero to a legion of guitar toters that have tried to booze their way into his footsteps in ten thousand smoky barrooms across America.
Today he's a legend. But Billy Bud passed the summer and fall of 1952 getting booed as he lurched across the stage, giggling and plinging strings. God-fearing venue bosses began to shy from Billy Bud like dog shit in a church aisle. His manager booked him for a tour of England, where his reputation had not quite preceded him.
"I thought the music would cure him," the manager famously said later. "I thought I could keep him from himself."
A flat-out lie. He wasn't trying to keep Billy Bud from himself. No sir. He was trying to keep Billy Bud from Maybelle Marie.
• • •
Eleven years Mama waited. She didn't budge until Grandfather contracted inoperable lung cancer in the spring of 2002. It had been against Grandfather's wishes that Mama study abroad in the first place, let alone stay on and become an unwed, abandoned mother. She sobbed for my daddy when we left that cinderblock apartment, at last accepting that she would never see him again.
I gaped at Albuquerque and LA and Osaka from the air. No one greeted us at the airport. Grandma feared cities and Grandfather was too sick to get up. This made for one long train trip up into the rice paddies along trestles blasted into mountainsides to the village of Ayumi-cho, Hyogo Prefecture, where my grandparents occupied a rambling old house situated just below a Shinto shrine.
I bowed at feeble Grandfather's futon. He jerked the oxygen tube from his nostrils and dismissed me in verbiage customarily reserved for animals. He did not speak to me elsewise the rest of his abbreviated life.
Exiled outside, I wandered through the torii gate of the shrine and ambled the grounds, kicking pebbles and eyeing the mossy walls, the wooden clappers, the little bamboo water dippers. A little stream babbled behind a row of colossal cryptomeria trees. I inspected the ripples for fish but saw none.
The shrine was dedicated to Eifuku Ishimoto. I knew nothing of the man, then. Could not read the name carved into the stones, had no idea who the idol wrapped in red was meant to embody. But the place soon became my refuge from a house laden with sickness and shame. I spent so much time there Grandma eyed me over a tea cup and said I must want to be a shrine priest.
"Fitting," she murmured, "that the little gaijin would desire just what he can never attain."
The dictionary will tell you gaijin means foreigner. But what the word really means is person on the outside. This is an ontological statement, immutable and forever. I might have remained in Japan all my days and never been any more accepted than that first day of school when I stood itchy in my starched stiff-collared school uniform before those ranked desks, mumbling my foreign name in a bad accent. I am Sam Bram. The kids laughing and gabbling as the teacher led me to my desk in the rear and on the left hand side, the hand you use to wipe your ass. The only one in the room who missed the implicit insult was me.
• • •
Jolly Eifuku Ishimoto was healer, soothsayer, exorcist, fortune teller, always with a secret song upon humming lips, secret no longer. He instructed the famers when to cast their rice seeds and that fall they almost ran out of places to hide the sacks from the tax man. He cast a demon from an afflicted child with a great sonorous repetition of incantations that went on for two days, breaking only to tug at a skewered rabbit with his teeth. He made of himself a living conduit between the mountain-dwelling gods and buddhas and the villagers eking out survival on the lower slopes of the peak, a bulwark against the tide of modernity rising from the lowlands, soon to dispossess the village in industry and imperial glory and atomic dust.
The homely girl was with child before the Equinox. Eifuku Ishimoto grinned over her belly and sang the Sutra on the Boundless Salvation of the Four Jeweled Truths. His peals of laughter echoed up the mountainside where the buddhas and gods danced.
• • •
As Billy Bud's manager often ruefully recollected, he failed to order the red hussy to stay right where she lay. When she threw the blanket back and leapt up flopping naked, he fled. Billy Bud laughed uproariously.
"Ain't she something?" he said. "Ain't she just something?"
A few minutes later the couple emerged, arms about each others' waists. Billy Bud pulled the cork from a bottle with his teeth and spit it into the roadside frost and they climbed into the big black '51 Ford.
The manager spent the rest of his short tenure on the job keeping this scandalous pairing from the public eye, a pairing which had a papoose kicking in Maybelle Marie's belly before summer was out. In this the manager succeeded. No one questioned him. No one came forward, not even Maybelle Marie. The manager made Billy Bud a legend and himself a fortune. All it cost Billy Bud was his life.
• • •
I'd been a decent student back in Grants but in Ayumi-cho, scarcely literate, blue-eyed and bad-accented, my academic career stalled out. The teachers were happy to leave me alone in my corner, where I taught myself to read with a stack of old manga comic books and the internet on my phone. I slurped my lunchtime noodles alone and ignored the tittering girls watching to see if I'd read the boy's room sign correctly this time.
At Eifuku Ishimoto's shrine in the soft shadow of the titanic cryptomerias, I turned on a pack of boys for my first Japanese fistfight. Half a dozen fist fights, actually. The boys lined up one by one and I showed them how we punched balls and elbow-butted chins back in Grants, New Mexico. That fat little coward Kohei ran away with chin wattling and delivered a hysterical account of the proceedings to the headmaster the next day. The headmaster delivered a stern lecture which as yet I could barely understand, having only been in Japan six weeks. Then he set my attackers to work weeding the school grounds and sent me home. Thus was made official what my classmates had already surmised: I was a pariah. An untouchable. A gaijin.
Mama was summoned to meet the principal and she arrived in an indigo and cream kimono of the old formal style. She looked very dignified performing an obsequious bow to the man. The lecture went on a long while, all bureaucratic malapropisms: extenuating insubordination, unharmonious happenings, unprecedented protocols, etcetera.
Mama's head remained bowed. "Hai," she said over and over. "I understand. My most sincere apologies."
I started to say something but Mama shushed me with a single sideways glance. The principal's eyebrows sank back to their usual station.
"Hai," said Mama. "Hai."
Walking back to the train station Mama moved in the mincing steps her get-up required, drawing curious stares. She had taken the kimono out of the rosewood drawer days earlier but I still caught a whiff of mothballs. We boarded the train and settled on the heated seats. At every stop the doors opened and a blast of cold air washed over us. We fiddled with our phones a while.
"Will you do as your principal says?" Mama asked. "Stop acting this way?"
"Will I stop being a gaijin?" I asked.
I thought a lot about Grants, New Mexico. In particular this time down at the Gas 'N Go when we watched a cop trying to convince a drunk Navajo leaned against a dumpster to move on. The cop was gesturing with his baton.
"Look at those kids," he said. "Do you want those kids to see you like this?"
The Navajo's unsteady eyes ran over us. "Fuck em," he said.
Fuck em. A talisman for my lonely years being the nail that sticks up and must be pounded down. I am Sam Bram. Fuck em.
• • •
At first snowfall, a fox impaled itself in the trap Eifuku Ishimoto set in a bamboo grove just above the last rice terrace. He butchered the animal and donned the skin about his waist and ascended the mountain. Took along only the copy of the Sutra on the Boundless Salvation of the Four Jeweled Truths he had copied himself on thick hand-pressed paper, its every character long memorized.
Eifuku Ishimoto remained atop the mountain ninety-nine days. In the cutting cold he maintained the lotus position on a boulder for three-hour sessions, three times a day. Recited the Sutra into the wind, sang the secret songs, belted out the incantations, guffawed at the swirling sky and snow. He slept in a snow bank and lived on nuts, roots, and berries and yet grew wiry and strong.
All winter in Ayumi-cho the talk was of little other than the laughing saint. Telling and re-telling the exploits of the conquered demons, the exorcised sicknesses, the trees that bent to shade his passing. His pregnant wife was welcome in every hut, her belly stroked for good luck. They did not expect to see the laughing saint again.
• • •
His manager pleaded and cajoled, but Billy Bud kept homing back to Maybelle Marie. Like the time he jumped on a northbound bus in Abilene, Texas, and when the bus hit the end of the line in Colby, Kansas, paid the driver three hundred dollars to drive it on to the Roubidoux Reservation. Then he paid three hundred more for a ride to Rapid City, where the couple spent three days carousing in a cheap hourly hotel.
Another time he commandeered a taxi in St. Louis. When the cabbie halted at the border of the reservation and refused to go on, Billy Bud threw him a fistful of dollars and walked, gaggle of children for an entourage. His manager tracked him down a week and three cancelled shows later in a tumbledown tin shack at the end of a gravel two-tracker eleven miles from the nearest highway, laid amongst a bevy of old women and children, Maybelle Marie's relations, in a room scented with crushed sage, strumming a guitar, happy as an egg frying in butter. He had given away everything he had. He was sipping raw Lakota moonshine. He had a show in Flagstaff, Arizona, the following night. The grim-faced manager got Billy Bud there but never could get Roubidoux off his star's mind.
• • •
Mama didn't bring much back with her from America besides me, but she did very carefully pack up The Songs of Billy Bud Rose, two-LP set, First Edition. She got the records from my daddy. Mama would lock herself in a room at the rear of the house where the pines leaned lovingly over the roof, drop a platter on the spotless record player and listen straight through, songs One through Thirty-Seven.
I would squat outside Mama's door and listen. The walls in that house were thin as cardboard. Mama knew I was there. One day when I returned home from school bruised and bleeding she showed me how to operate the turntable and left me alone.
The spirits crept in from the shrine and perched upon my shoulders, crawled into my lap, nestled in my hair. Nodded along like bluesmen. I stared at Billy's portrait on the album sleeve, the white hat, the dark eyes, the cocksure grin.
Listen to that music. Listen! Wasn't it worth it? Wasn't it just?
I marched outside and begged for a guitar. Upon a promise of perpetual good behavior, I got one.
• • •
Winter howled cold and empty upon the mountaintop. The woods huddled under the cries of wolves and crows and shattering tree branches. Still Eifuku Ishimoto stayed dogged to his laughter, bereft and alone and freezing, chanting and meditating upon his rock. Often he had to clear away the snow first. Demons shrieked his name and boiled about him with obscene dancing and lewd posing, tempting him to surrender and sink into the common sludge, taunting him with a future of war and industry, where there would be no room for yelping maniacs like him. Where were the singing gods, the buddhas tinkling golden bells? He observed his own hoarse voice and rasped out a laugh.
Perhaps he was weak, unfit. Maybe he required several more lifetimes to find the gate to the Pure Land. Perhaps the roar of progress truly had been heard even on this mountain and the buddhas and gods had fled the clamor and the old pieties had no place.
On the ninety-ninth day Eifuku Ishimoto tumbled from the cold boulder to the snow. As all feeling fled his bones, at last he glimpsed the Pure Land, where the earth is made of emerald and the ponds covered in jade lotus leaves as a hundred thousand subtle scents perfume the pellucid air that is full of jeweled cords upon which hang the treasure bells that ring with the Supreme Truth of the Buddha all the way up Mount Sumeru which shades the golden stems and silver branches and coral blossoms of the treasure trees as the gods and buddhas repose in their shade.
Winter was over.
• • •
Billy Bud Rose and entourage blew into Cheyenne, Wyoming, off a fourteen-hour all-nighter from Omaha. Billy Bud's manager put him up in the best hotel in town, told him to get some sleep. The entire staff was put on strict notice to deliver no alcohol to his room. Let him walk onstage sober. For God's sake. That's all the manager wanted.
Billy Bud knew about this prohibition. He'd consented to it, drunk, the night before. He looked out on the town eddying fourteen stories below. So shaky he could hardly tie a hundred-dollar bill to the bucket he lowered to the room one story down along with a note asking, friend, if he couldn't be provided a bottle or two of whisky. Or brandy. Or both. Waiting, hands atremble. The booze arrived. Billy Bud handed over an additional hundred in thanks. He was glugging straight from the neck before the door swung shut.
He sat on the edge of the bed and let the quicksilver contrails flame into his blood. They were going to have to carry him on that stage, by God. Hefting the bottle of brandy for its final slug a telegram came scooching under the crack.
It was from Maybelle Marie:
"Almost winter the wallsre cold Your not here But hes kicking my belly."
A little incantation, a little song Billy Bud might have written himself. He stood and shook his head like a bear, though his lips failed to flap like one. Money clip in one pocket. Whisky bottle in the other. Hat on, jacket buttoned. Valedictory swig of brandy. Door open, door left swinging open. Gone.
• • •
Grandma had no use for the celebrants who would trek to the shrine for Eifuku Ishimoto's festival each March 27, some from far-flung cities of Japan, bound by ancestral ties to the place, some locals I would see around Ayumi-cho where they would flash me secretive smiles but in public deny me sure as Peter. Drunken louts, Grandma would say. Mama forbade my attendance but only in Grandma's presence. I slunk past her room to where the torches guttered in the chill spring breeze.
The celebrants gathered about the idol punctiliously wrapped in a new red wrap, stripped down to fundoshi underwear and white towels knotted about their heads and then, breath pluming into the dark, they chanted the incantations, the sacred sutra, the watchwords to the Pure Land. They knew who I was. Pleased to have someone more outlandish than themselves present, these eccentrics welcomed me. I learned the sacred songs and incantations and by my third year they let me ring the gong hung over the idol's head, cheering and hefting sake.
Afterwards they consumed gallons more sake and went sloshy with sentiment and remembrance. Each year the same pucker-faced celebrant with a twitchy upper lip and a mole sprouting a tuft of black hairs protruding from his left earlobe would wrap an arm around my neck and shout amazement that the jewels of Eifuku Ishimoto's wisdom could be comprehended even by a half-barbarian. He would hand me a square bamboo flagon of sake. I slurped it down to a roar of general approval.
At evening's muzzy end my third year, I pilfered the man's sacred songbook and traipsed wobbly away from the shrine. I immediately committed its contents to memory, toting it everywhere in my backpack to place in the crease of whatever textbook I happened to be ignoring that day, its pages tattering as Eifuku Ishimoto's legacy etched itself in my brain.
I walked the house crooning Eifuku Ishimoto's incantations set to Billy Bud Rose tunes, envisioning that someday soon when I would light out for my own Pure Land, out where the singing drunken saints stand and sway, roaring with laughter, strumming guitars.
Meanwhile I picked mine till my bleeding fingers callused over. I paced the shrine grounds warbling the Sutra on the Boundless Salvation of the Four Jeweled Truths to a country-twanging lick, trying to render verses in English. I was sure a hit single awaited me. I planned out the dedication to my first album: "To Eifuku, Billy, and Mama."
"Shall we have the little gaijin committed?" Grandma would ask Mama.
"Mother," said Mama.
The festival celebrants told me over and over that Eifuku Ishimoto's waterfall was long since obliterated but I tramped the nearby mountains anyway, seeking it. I believe I found the spot, transformed into a cemented grid running alongside the train trestle overlooking Ayumi-cho, little more than a bend in the tracks.
Somewhere here Eifuku Ishimoto stood, somewhere he leapt. I drew up my legs on the cement, yodeled sacred incantations as trains clattered past, laughing. Brooded about the ditch where they found Billy Bud Rose, one boot protruding from a snowdrift. One day I would sit cross-legged there, too, and yodel this same song.
• • •
Eifuku Ishimoto led the villagers through snowdrifts to the waterfall. From this height the mountains marched in misty serried rows to the sea where the cities were wedged on the seashore. They exchanged knowing looks as the saint stripped cloak and fox skin and sandals down to fundoshi underwear and tiny black cap. Yes, some great wonder must surely be at hand.
Eifuku Ishimoto stood in the water, chanting and singing, laughing. He bowed once to the watching villagers, the pregnant girl. Then he pressed palms to forehead and peered into the mist. The gate to the Pure Land was there, whether he could see it or no.
He stepped over the ledge, to reach it.
• • •
Billy Bud hitchhiked out of Cheyenne. Made quite the dandy on the road in his custom-tailored beige Western suit and alligator boots and it took him only the one epic night to traverse the 227 miles to Roubidoux. The conductor and rancher and trucker and traveling salesmen who picked him up surfaced for the newspapers, stunned the great man had graced their front seats. He laughed the whole way, they said.
The salesman let Billy Bud out at the T-Bar Cutoff, a one-lane cinder road seventeen miles south of Roubidoux in the early morning of October 26, 1952, into the teeth of the year's first snowstorm. Billy Bud said he knew someone just a piece up the way, thank you kindly. Tipped his flask and got out.
No friendly ride came along the T-Bar Cutoff that night. Billy Bud stumbled the seventeen miles through the snow. He thudded to the ground two body lengths short of Roubidoux, Maybelle Marie miles away and their son kicking hard against her belly.
• • •
The teachers droned on verbatim from thick curriculum manuals and I ignored every word. What did I care for their endless lectures, their endless abstractions? Until one day a history teacher began a lecture on the postwar reorganization of local shrines.
"Spurious superstitious associations and reverence for individual deviants were suppressed," read the teacher in his standard monotone. "Wholesome, harmonious community spirit was fortified." The teacher cleared his throat and went on in his own words. "Not like this asinine yokel tradition of worshipping the miscreant Eifuku Ishimoto, such as you may have heard of in our community." He looked around and was startled to see me staring at him. So startled he almost dropped his manual.
"What?" he said.
"Deviants?" I asked.
"Like Eifuku Ishimoto?" I said, rising from my desk. "Was he a deviant?"
"Impertinent little gaijin," the teacher said. "Eifuku Ishimoto was a miscreant, a simpering imbecile who thought he could fly. Look and see, class. Another simpering imbecile joins us today."
My classmates joined in obliging snickers. The teacher smirked.
I pushed my desk aside, strode to the front of the room. My classmates started to hoot.
"I bet you all been hoping to see me do something," I said. I picked up the curriculum manual. "Well," I said, "I'm about to."
I smashed that teacher's nose with the manual. Bedlam erupted among the desks as I slid open a window and stepped out on the narrow ledge five stories up as a train clacked past on the trestle. I yodeled a sutra and searched the haze for the Pure Land.
But I didn't see the treasure trees, the jade lotus leaves. No, not yet. Mortifications awaited. America awaited. I hopped back into the classroom, laughing.