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Michael Cornrows

photo of waving wheat

Michael Cornrows sat in a sunbaked field in Oklahoma; blinding white light, painful blue sky, iron red earth. A gentle warm breeze blew through his shoulder-length hair as he contemplated the yellow waving wheat around him. He squinted into the sun, and holding his guitar firmly, inhaled slowly and fully and rang his fingernails down onto the bronze shining strings. A single chord flew out at the speed of sound, raced for the edges of the infinitely flat expanse and disappeared, swallowed by space. Michael was stunned. A chord that would nicely fill his room at home had been devoured by the vastness of an Oklahoma wheatfield.

He remembered another time when he had visited his friend Bill in Indiana and they had gone out at dusk to play some music in the field in front of the house. A thick fog had settled in, obscuring everything except a large spidery tree about fifty feet away. They tried to play a few songs, but the oppressive, almost malicious spirit of the fog gobbled up their efforts and left them weak and lame. Bill had come up with the idea of trying to play along with the spirit of the fog, to express it, perhaps to mollify it, but this fog was inimical to music and musicians. As the last few pathetic notes leaked out into the mist, the broken-spirited pair hastily packed their guitars and beat a retreat into the warm safety of the house. It seemed as if you could almost hear a muffled, sinister chuckle emanate from the moistness outside.

But today was different. Perhaps it was because his power as a musician had grown, or that it was a different setting, the brilliant sun inviting him to try again, coaxing him to see if he could make his presence felt. So he squinted into the sun again, holding his guitar out in front of him as if making an offering to a god. He took another deep breath, more slowly and fully than before, and he drove his hand down toward the sound hole in a sudden, almost violent manner. The strings sprang to life, the lower ones vibrating crazily, forming weird, sinusoidal interference patterns, and the chord shot off the spruce soundboard and spread out like ripples from a stone tossed into a mirror-smooth pond. Michael watched and thought he could almost see the waves running through the wheat, flattening out rows of stalks as if some strange circular wind had emanated from the point where he was seated. The corners of his mouth curled up into an impish grin. Finding the temptation irresistible, he once again sent his hand boldly hurtling against the strings even more adamantly than before. This time there was no doubt - a smooth wave rolled through the wheat like a swell through a golden sea, and even a few startled crows flew up from the field, cawing into the endless blue sky. With surging joy rising within him, Michael slashed at the guitar again and again, each stroke sending a new pulse through the wheat. He did strange things with his left hand, hammering on and plucking at the strings while his knifelike right hand cut off the harmonics. He did things that his guitar teacher had never told him about, or told him never to do; he did things that he had no idea he was capable of. Some of it was wild and powerful, sending strong broad pulses arcing through the field. Some of it was haunting and delicate, causing small bunches of stalks to undulate and dance gracefully. Finally he came to the crescendo, striking chord after vibrant chord, the multitude of waves crossing and interfering with each other, creating tall spikes and deep troughs, until the entire scene was one of a raging, storm-filled sea. And each stroke pushed back the darkness that filled Michael's mind; the cold glazed cinder block corridors of school that he should be in, the comfortable but sterile tract home that he lived in, the taunts and aloofness of his peers that he met with an uncomfortable smile. As his guitar bowed as if made of rubber, he plunged determinedly ahead, heedless of the gathering billowing white clouds in the sky that soon knotted into masses of dark purple and blue. And as the last full, harmonious chord rang into the air and ever so slowly decayed, filling space, Michael heard a low grumble of thunder and felt the first drops fall against his skin, tasting the delicious metallic tang mixed with salt on his lips. He fell back onto the warm earth, sprawling arms widespread under the lightning dark sky, and laughed.

MR. MICHAEL B. CORNROWS sat on a solid oak sofa in the den of his suburban house. He read the newspaper under yellow light while the blue light of the television flickered across the screen, bringing the latest news of a bombing in Beirut, delivered by the usual too-somber faced reporter holding his microphone like a popsicle. Mrs. Cornrows was off in the kitchen peeling and chopping vegetables, preparing the evening meal. The sweet smell of onions being sauteed in butter wafted through the rooms. The aluminum screen door swung open, and in came Michael, in cold soaked clothes, carrying with him his black dripping guitar case. He smiled briefly and foolishly as he came in the door, then straightened his features as he warily eyed his father in the den. His mother called out to him as he walked stealthily toward his room; he briefly returned her greeting as he continued on, hoping to escape further notice. He was only ten feet away from safety when the papers in front of his father's face drooped, and there was his father looking distastefully at him from above the rims of his half-frame reading glasses. Michael stopped in his tracks, and half turning toward his father, stood there awkwardly and guiltily, water dripping off his hair and further soaking his sweatshirt. Not knowing what to say, he giggled nervously.

"Looks like you got caught in the rain," his father said.

"Yeah." Michael tried to force some words out. "It was raining pretty hard." The sentence sounded weird and empty to him.

"It really was quite a storm," his father continued, half returning to the paper. "Weatherman said we got 2.7 inches of rain and there were winds up to 62 miles per hour. I hear that there were even some corkscrews around."

photo of Solano crop circle

Michael could feel the fear building inside, could sense his vision being eroded bit by bit. Here he was standing in the living room of his home, feeling as if he were a stranger. And everything was so normal and ordinary, and seemed so solid, and here was his mind spinning away engaged in some childish fantasy. And what if it all had been just an ordinary storm? Maybe he ought to stop taking mushrooms...He could feel the hot lump of fear rising in his throat, and he grunted an unintelligible farewell and turned to escape from this nightmare. But his father cut him short with a loud cutting phrase.

"So how was school today?"

Michael felt the tension shoot through his body. He squeezed out a reply.

"Oh, it was okay...okay..." He started to turn again, but his father's newspaper drooped once more.

"Don't tell me you didn't go again today." Michael stood there, paralyzed, half turned toward his room, unable to flee and unable to face his attacker. "Were you out in the fields playing Indian again? I don't know what's gotten into you. How are you ever going to get into a good college if you keep goofing off like this? That friend Jeff of yours has given you the craziest ideas." Michael slowly glanced back at his father and felt the anguish of pain. He knew his father was right; he just wished that he could get to his room and lay down and forget it all. "I tell you, one of these days I'm going to take that guitar and break it over your head."

Michael turned away again and headed for his room, this time determined to get there. Feeling a mixture of guilt and anger, he forcefully closed the door and locked it. He roughly tossed the guitar into a corner and threw himself down on the bed, shutting his eyes tightly. But his eyelids could not close out the confused thoughts and feelings that were pouring through his head. He lay there for a long time, his faced clenched, the storm of emotion coursing through his rigid body, wishing that he could somehow burrow through his bed into a deep hole that would be covered by miles of rock. He wished that his bed was on top of him, that some enormous weight was on top of him, crushing him, crushing out all consciousness and hope. He held that thought in mind until the dusk grew ever deeper and the lamp post outside began to throw tree branch shadows onto his wall. He watched the shadow branches wavering in the wind and he began to relax, to settle into a place of dark comfort. "It's all right," he said to himself. "It's all right," and he carefully avoided bringing up those recent painful feelings into consciousness. He watched for a while longer, and then he sadly put on a pair of headphones and began searching in the dimness for the album he wanted to hear. In spite of the murkiness he could still make out the picture of the atomic bomb explosion, now drained of its yellow and orange colors, and the shadowy strange figures in front of it. "Crown of Cremation," he murmured to himself with a small twisted smile at his pathetic pun. He pulled the record out of its dust jacket and placed it on his cheap turntable, using a worn out cloth to pick up static. He pushed the start button and lay back down on the bed, wincing at the pops and hisses at the start of the record. And then on came the lush, sad guitar sound and the whispered accusation. And then Grace Slick began to sing: "Lather was thirty years old today, they took away all of his toys..." He snickered at the terrible appropriateness of it, then exhaled and settled in for the journey he had taken many times before into a world of weaving instruments and voices that seemed to fill him totally, to somehow be residing within his being. He floated, suspended in this world, hearing the cries of sadness and anguish, the utter loneliness of existence, the terrible crying out for something better, for something beautiful and holy, the crying out for love. And the final piercing wail of Grace sent shivers coursing through him: "All the idiots have left. " And he knew that it was true, and he let himself wind down with the music - "suuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnnnn" scrambled bass drums, feedbacking guitar wailing wildly and fading, fading...and he heard the phonograph click off and he found himself back in his room in the darkness and felt beautifully, terribly sad.

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