Love and Theft
By Donovan Bridgeman
Just outside the university building was a large shed with a bar and pool table. You could get a cheap meal and an overpriced drink there. I was sat at a table near the bar, sipping a beer and taking it all in, when Luke walked through the door.
Luke was a student at the university, trying to make it in music. He was from some town in England but could easily have been Greek – black hair, olive skin, dark eyes, narrow nose. He was built like some of the knuckle boxers from back home, had a wide chest and strong neck. Wouldn’t make much of a boxer, though. Too gentle, too philosophical. He was a cool cat, I liked him from the moment we met.
We shot some pool, drank beers and talked for a few hours. Soon the subject got to how we came to be in the city.
“I don’t think much about it,” I said. “I had a few people tell me I was at that age, had to try and make something of myself and the city was probably a better place to try. Had some people tell me there wasn’t much use in trying, mind you. But I guess I figured I didn’t have much to lose, home isn’t going anywhere. Good kicks, at least.”
He told me if I wanted kicks then I ought to go to Bristol with him the next day. Said he was playing at some bar out there and looking to meet up with some girls he’d met in Spain. I said I was down and so the next day we got the train over to Bristol.
If he was nervous, I couldn’t tell. When he finally got up to perform it seemed everyone in the bar was there just for him. He didn’t even play long, maybe half hour. Midway through his set, he sang this sweet little song I’d never heard before, but it didn’t sound much like the songs I knew he’d written. In the second verse, I spotted a pretty girl singing along. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
He finished up, spoke to the owner of the bar a while and got paid. Not far from this place was an old fishing boat where you could buy cheap cider, strong enough to kill horses. We found somewhere to sit and I asked him about the song. He seemed surprised I hadn’t heard it, said it was a Bob Dylan song called ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and if I wasn’t familiar then I really should check it out. I knew who Bob Dylan was, but I never had paid much attention to his music. That would soon change, though.
We met the girls and headed to a bar called O’Neill’s. Luke went off dancing with one of them and the other, Sarah, stayed with me near the bar. I bought us a couple of beers but she said beer made her sick, so I kept both and bought her a Tequila Sunrise.
We talked a little bit and she was very pretty, but my heart wasn’t in it. Some blues singer was playing in the corner of the room and electrified the whole place. He sure could play but I couldn’t stop thinking about that Bob Dylan song. I needed to hear it again and I needed to hear other songs just like it.
Back in the city, things were getting complicated. I was at a crossroads, it seemed. In one direction was home, my little town with the river that runs through it. The people I’d scraped knees with and drank beers with. The people I’d fought and loved and fought again and laughed about it with later. There was Kay, too. We’d been going steady for years and she’d been holding my hand through it all, but that grip was softening. I couldn’t make out much of what lay in the other direction, and if it was a beacon I didn’t know if it was a warning or a welcome. One thing was clear to me, though: it was all one way or the other, and it didn’t seem like I had much of a say in the matter. I’d just look back every now and then and see I’d inched a little further from home.
One day, not long after I’d moved to Cardiff, my old friend Al had come to visit. We’d been close since we were little and I’d always looked at him as though he were a brother of mine. I’d say he rightly considered me family too. We’d have taken broken ribs for each other back in the day, and as a matter of fact, once or twice, we damn near did.
We sat outside a typical student bar drinking beers and gin. There were a few small groups of people around, but it was fairly quiet. He’d been quiet, too. He’d knocked the gin back and was circling the glass with his finger. He got like that every now and again.
“This place is too fucking expensive,” he said. I knew exactly what sort of conversation this was going to lead to. Might as well get it over with.
“What’s bothering you?” I asked him.
“Nothing. I’m just saying, this place is too expensive.”
“It’s no more expensive than back home.”
“Never said anything about back home.”
“You didn’t have to.”
We sat in silence a while. When I finished my beer I grabbed his glasses and got up.
“Where are you going?”
“To get more drinks.”
“It’s my round.”
“I’ll get them.”
He stood up, but didn’t look up. “I’ll get them. It’s my round.”
When he came back we talked a little about the girl he’d been seeing. He sounded pretty happy about it, and I liked that.
“What about you and Kay?” he asked.
“Six months ago you told me that you and her were dead in the water.”
“And here we are six months later.”
“I can’t believe she moved out here with you. I never thought she’d leave town.”
“I guess she moved out here with me to show support. She didn’t have much going on back home anyway.”
“Support what? You think you’ll actually sign up for that university?”
“I already have.”
“I don’t get you.”
“What don’t you get?”
“All those tuition fees. You’ll rack up all that debt and then just end up selling insurance back home with me.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But maybe not. You stay back home though and there ain’t much maybe about it, is there?”
“I guarantee it. Ah never mind. Let’s go somewhere else.”
We walked around for a little while trying to find somewhere that looked cheap. “You ever listen to Bob Dylan?” I asked him.
“Nope. Guns N’ Roses did one of his songs, right?”
“Yup. You’ve got to hear this guy, man. The way he puts words together is incredible.”
“Sounds like a blast,” he replied sarcastically.
“What’s your problem? You come all the way up here just to give me shit for trying to do something besides fuck around in the town streets every night?”
“You don’t even know what you’re doing here! I’m supposed to be impressed? You do what you want, man. You might be smarter than me and I don’t drink at fancy bars but I still visit my mother and I didn’t move in with a girl who’s got one foot out the door already.”
Turns out he was smarter than me. He’d been trying to get a rise out of me all night and he got it. I punched him square in the face and he punched me right back. It didn’t go any further. He just looked down at the ground and told me we should just go back to the place we left.
I guess we must have hit each other pretty hard because when we went back inside the bartender looked at us funny. He didn’t mention it, though. We ordered two beers and two gins and talked about our old friend Adam who just got six months for assault and battery. When we said goodbye later that night, we hugged like we always did.
When I got in, Kay asked me what had happened to my face so I told her. I started getting really upset as I was talking and when she came over to comfort me, I broke down completely.
“I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me.”
“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
What Kay and I were going through was tough business but she knew how to care for me when I needed it. Always did, right from the start. I didn’t know back then the kind of thing that does to a person.
Eventually I calmed down and told her it was okay, I was okay, and she should go to bed. I’d be in soon. She went and I sat at the window. I sat there a long time, just thinking.
When I eventually got bored but still not tired, I put on Bob Dylan’s ‘Oh Mercy’ album. I’d read about it in his autobiography but hadn’t heard it yet. I liked every song that came on, but when I got to ‘What Good Am I?’ I was blown away. Played it three times back-to-back before I let the album continue.
When I went to the bedroom, Kay was awake. “You can’t sleep?” I asked her.
“You just woke me up.”
“Do you feel better now?”
“Yeah, I do.” I kissed her on the forehead and told her to go back to sleep.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I am. Are you okay?”
“Do you like it here?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“I don’t know. I think so.” I kissed her again and she lifted her head to kiss my lips. Then she turned away and went back to sleep.
Autumn time I got a call from Luke. He said Bob Dylan was coming to town and we should get tickets. At this point, I was very well acquainted with the man’s music and was getting my hands on anything else he’d done. Saw the movies about him, read the books about him, read the book he wrote about himself. That book was powerful. I could hardly put it down. He seemed pretty modest for a man who meant so much to people.
I kept listening to the songs, didn’t listen to much else at the time. A lot of those recordings had this fierce, fearless quality to them. Songs like ‘Masters of War’, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’. ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was sang with such intensity it was like Dylan had the owner of the farm pinned up against the wall and was slapping him in the face between each line of lyric.
He had songs that touched my very soul. ‘Most of the Time’, ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ and ‘What Good Am I?’ all made me think about myself, my true self, and what I wanted it all to amount to.
Some songs were just there at the right time, when I needed them. Songs like ‘Buckets of Rain’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’, and ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine’. Those songs didn’t guide so much as they held my hand through it all. Of course, there was still ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, which sounded just as confused as I felt.
On top of all that, this guy was hilarious. He was a folk hero who alienated half of his crowd at the Newport Folk Festival when he plugged in an electric guitar. Having established acclaim in the rock realm, he moved to Nashville and put out country music with a new voice. Following this, he put out an album of covers, an unbelievable act for a man who was, at that time, hailed as one of the greatest songwriters in the world.
He released a trio of Christian albums, an 80s pop-rock album, made a modest comeback in 1989 and then followed that with an album of nursery rhymes. He followed that with two albums of traditional folk songs about prostitutes and death, amongst other things. In his twilight years, he released fifty-two traditional pop songs, most of which had previously been recorded by Frank Sinatra. You’re goddamn right I want to go see Bob Dylan.
On the day of the show I walked into that arena not knowing what to expect. He called his tour never-ending and had been playing for decades before I was even born. Luke and I grabbed a few beers and took our seats near the stage.
When he stepped out, he walked up to that microphone like a preacher to a pulpit, about to deliver a long and powerful sermon. But he didn’t speak. The first words he sang were “A worried man with a worried mind” from a song I didn’t know. In fact, there were a lot of songs he played that I didn’t know. He didn’t sound much like he did on the recordings either, but I hung on to every word. I found out the name of that opening song later.
The drive back home was long and we were tired. Luke rolled the down the windows and sharp, cold air kept us awake but neither of us talked much. A few times, driving through residential areas, we saw jack-o’-lanterns in windows and fake gravestones in gardens.
“I don’t know how to use a knife and fork,” I said, as we were approaching my street.
“A knife and fork. I can’t use them properly. Sometimes I use the wrong words, too. I thought about it earlier when we were eating. No one ever taught me how to use a knife and fork properly. I mean, I use them but not like most people.”
He stopped the car outside my place. The bedroom light was on. He turned to me and said, “Is everything okay?”
“I don’t know. I miss being back home, but I don’t want to go back.”
“What is it about that place?”
“It’s home. When I walk around that town it feels different to any other place I’ve ever been to. I can’t explain what it is.”
“Why don’t you go back?”
“Being there lights me up, man. But living there? I don’t know if it’d be the same.”
“The town’s not the same?”
“Maybe. Or the people in it. I don’t know. Either way it feels like something’s slipping away from me the longer I’m away, but I can’t stay there too long when I go back. It’s hopeless.”
“I’ll show you how to use a knife and fork, man.”
“I know. It’s not just that. That place is a big part of who I am, you know?”
“I don’t see why that has to change. But it sounds like you’re changing whether you like it or not. Somethings you don’t have a lot of power over. You can try stop it, and you might succeed, but I’ll bet that comes at a hell of a price.”
“The people who stay there, my friends, my brothers, my sister. What’s going to happen to them?”
“Same thing that’d happen if you lived nearby, I bet.” Then he turned and looked straight at me, eye to eye. “That,” he began, “is one hell of a burden to put on yourself.”
When I walked through the front door Kay’s bags were packed and she was sitting on the bed. She motioned for me to sit next to her.
We sat silently for a long time, her head rested on my shoulder. She grabbed my hand, squeezed it hard. “Why do things have to be so hard?”
“It’s alright,” I said. “Am I going to be alright?”
“Yes. Yes, you are. And if you ever need me-” She stopped. She squeezed my hand harder, kissed me on the cheek and left.
I went to the living room window. It was late, but the light was still on the little shop across the road and I could see right in. The few people inside were mostly buying beer and cigarettes. The last purchase of the day. Some things just can’t wait until tomorrow. I watched them a little while, then closed the curtains and went to sleep on the sofa.