Culture, Fiction

Wild Man Wyman

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The colossal statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee towered imperiously over New Orleans unchallenged for 133 years. As if from an alternate reality in which the CSA won the war, the 16-ft. bronze venerated Lee, arms crossed defiantly, still armed with his battle sword. Image Source: Wikimedia. Original image manipulated.


Author’s Note: This story was written in 2011. The city of New Orleans removed Robert E. Lee’s statue from Lee Circle in May 2017. The story grew out of an advanced writing group I belonged to in New Orleans under the guidance of author James Nolan. It was a finalist in the short story category of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society in 2012. The story draws upon some of what I observed as a full-time professional musician in my 20s. It also draws upon strong feelings of antipathy toward racism, past and present.


New Orleans 2009. Wyman sat on the front porch of their shotgun house, feet propped up on a milk crate, his unfiltered smokes and black coffee at his side. A saucer overflowed with stubbed-out butts. His tee shirt felt as damp as the grass below, where a galaxy of dewdrops reflected the streetlamp. When he heard the familiar clanking coming down the street, it was time to call it a night.

The rusted pickup had turned off Canal Street and began creeping down the block of shotgun and camel back houses, its driver tossing the morning paper. Wyman lifted his lanky frame with the typical groaning and creaking of bones. He wasn’t about to wave at that son of a bitch helping The Times-Picayune spread its lies about him.

Until days ago, Wyman had liked living in New Orleans in the house in the Mid City neighborhood that Bitty had inherited from a spinster aunt. Even the flood from Katrina hadn’t run him and Bitty away. But being ragged-on by the newspaper and having to face the neighbors at the store and his friends at church – it was enough to make him want to grab Bitty and move back north to Caddo Parish.

He knew moving wouldn’t solve anything, though. Their son David and his young family would still hear the news. Thoughts of his young granddaughters finding out one day about the lies splashed across the newspaper’s investigative series was like pouring acid into his stomach.

“You coming to bed?” Bitty called out.

“I reckon.”

Wyman hobbled to the kitchen to pour out the rest of his coffee.

“Wyman, I’m worried. You lettin’ this stuff eat at you, hon.”

“Well, if you got any suggestions,” Wyman said, stripping to his shorts, the darkness hiding the scars no one but Bitty ever saw, “I’m taking offers.”

He slowly climbed on top of the covers and lay on his back.

“You might could start by drinking decaf.”

“No way in hell. Decaf’s like kissing your sister.”

“Well, you asked,” Bitty said, throwing back the sheets. “I might as well get up. Some of us got to work for a living.”

“What you call all that stuff in the shed? People been bringing me more stuff to fix and paint than you can shake a stick at. If that ain’t work I don’t know what is.” Wyman ran a calloused hand, his good hand, through what was left of his hair that Bitty had insisted on trimming yesterday.

Bitty stretched, the silhouette of her small-boned figure still pleasing to Wyman as she left the bedroom. Wyman put his hands behind his head and listened as she got ready for her job at the hospital. He let out a deep sigh. Would there ever be a time when he’d be free of the slimy clutches of his past?

By the time he heard Bitty locking the front door behind her, he felt like his thoughts were coming at him almost as fast as the always spinning blades of the ceiling fan above their bed.

***

They began calling him Wild Man Wyman more than a half a lifetime ago – after he took a sledgehammer to the Cadillac of fast-talking J.L. Davis, owner of The Rebel Yell Bar and Grill located a few miles outside of Shreveport.

“I hope he likes the body and fender work,” a breathless, satisfied Wyman said to his new piano player, who had unknowingly agreed to go along for the ride with Wyman to “take care of some business.” They had spotted Davis’ car on a side street. The narrow street was dark enough and lonely enough. So they had stopped.

“Damn, Wyman, you’re a wild man,” the wide-eyed piano player said, staring at the severely damaged vehicle.

“Well that’ll teach old Jeffery Lee to think twice before trying to stiff us next time we play for his ass.”

Wyman and his band played countless times for Mr. Davis after that incident – a testament to their ability to bring in the dollars.

Wild Man Wyman as frontman and his rocking band of Southerners never had trouble filling north Louisiana honky-tonks, and by 1973 had no trouble packing them in anywhere on their rowdy circuit, running Florida to Texas. One of Wyman’s trademarks was the hundred-foot-long guitar cord which freed him to roam the dance floor and hop on the tables. Another was the rhinestones, lots of them, sewn onto his outfits by a bandmate’s mother. And behind all the glitz, Wyman had some serious chops, everybody could see that.

But everything changed one night in Alabama, outside one of the roadhouses where they were gigging. The blonde sitting near the stage had made no secret of what she was after. Neither did Wyman, after scanning the room from the stage.

She was the best he’d find in this crowd, so she was going to be the one, he said to himself, as he locked eyes with her during their set.

Ten minutes into their first break the two of them were out back walking to the band’s van.

“Gonna have to be lickety split,” she said. “Mah husband would kill me and you if he knew I was out here snakin’ with the star of the show.”

“Well let’s get it, then, darlin.” Wyman ran a hand across her backside, shapely and firm under the tightness of her cut-offs. He could feel the lump in his jeans growing. This wouldn’t take long.

“I knew I was right about you, woman.” They both turned. The drawl had come out of nowhere. The man had a revolver in each hand. The first two shots took off a part of the blonde’s face. The third took off one of Wyman’s playing fingers.

When the flurry of gunfire over, the blonde was dead and Wyman was clinging to life. Wyman suffered a shattered kneecap, a chest wound and two wounds to an inner thigh, barely missing his scrotum.

The gunfire had blown Wyman clean out of one life and plopped him down in another, one of surgeries, botched surgeries, addicting medications and screaming nightmares. Somewhere in those murky weeks and months of agonizing recovery, after he was transferred to a rehab center back in Louisiana, Wyman met Bitty. She was a petite but determined volunteer from the full gospel church nearby. Bitty kept after the former rocker who spent his days staring at the ceiling. She never gave up, until Wyman’s tears of bitterness turned to tears of growing surrender — his new reality. Along the way a mutual attraction developed.

Upon his discharge, Bitty took Wyman to her parents’ house and continued to care for him.

As Wyman improved, he began tinkering around in her dad’s garage and rediscovered his aptitude for repairing lawnmowers, bicycles and most anything that had moving parts. By then it was obvious that Bitty and Wyman could never say goodbye. After their marriage Bitty became an LPN while Wyman wanted to be as far removed from his former self as was possible. When music returned to his life, it was through singing in the Sunday choir.

***

The sun through the curtains of their shotgun showed it was full daylight now. Wyman wasn’t sure if he had ever dozed off and decided to get up. He grabbed last Sunday’s Times-Picayune from the computer nook he had made for Bitty. He hobbled to the kitchen and read for the umpteenth time the sidebar to an investigative piece on the rise of neo-Nazi organizations, white supremacists and armed right wing militia groups in parishes just north of New Orleans. Thanks to the goddamn newspaper, this had become the number one topic on local talk radio that week. Wyman felt his insides churn as he read:

FBI infiltrators of several of the extremist groups operating in the South noted the sudden popularity of an obscure song from the early 1970s glorifying the exploits of William Quantrill, a rogue Confederate, who has become a hero to some of the right-wing fringe. Most historians view Quantrill as the equivalent of a psychopathic terrorist of his time. Quantrill is best known for the St. Lawrence Massacre in Missouri in 1863. At that bloody encounter, Quantrill led his band of marauders, including a young Jesse James, in a slaughter of nearly 200 civilians. Modern-day extremists draw inspiration from Quantrill’s ruthless attacks on Union sympathizers, seeing in him a kindred spirit who fought to the death against the dictates of the federal government.

Thousands of pirated CDs duplicated from a 45 RPM record. “Quantrill Parts I and II” have been sold or given away for recruiting purposes by many of the extremist groups. The song’s popularity among extremists was exacerbated by the change of administrations in Washington D.C. It has become an anthem for those questioning the validity of the federal government.

The song’s author and performer is Wylie Wyman, who performed under the name “Wild Man Wyman” until he was severely wounded in a shooting outside a music club in 1973. He ceased performing and has shunned the spotlight since then. The once flamboyant rocker spent years in a psychiatric hospital, receiving dozens of electroshock treatments. He now lives in New Orleans. It is not known what he thinks of his revived fame. Attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. Some former fans speculate Wyman may try to revive his career based on the viral nature of the song, the only one he recorded before his career was cut short.

It was like getting punched in the face every time Wyman read those words.

“I went to the nuthouse once, goddamit, and I never had no shock treatment,” Wyman screamed at the article. As for the song, Wyman only wrote it for entertainment, the way people wrote songs about Bonnie and Clyde. He had simply taken one of the many tales his granddaddy told him about the War Between the States, made it rhyme, and set it to music. Those assholes had hijacked his song for their sick cause.

The phone rang. “You okay, hon?” Bitty asked.

“What do you think?”

“Look, I just got off the phone with David. He knows.”

“Goddammit.”

“I wish you’d stop takin’ the Lord’s name in vain.”

“It ain’t his name,” he teased, “it’s his job description.”

“Wyman, you are plumb crazy sometimes. Look, David understands, okay? You have to know that. It’s gonna be alright, hon. Now please, try to get some sleep, will ya?”

Wyman instead made a pot of coffee. He hoped to God David really did understand. The aroma of the coffee brewing anchored him a bit. Seemed like half his life took place over cups of coffee. It was right here in this very kitchen, over coffee, when Bitty dropped the bombshell a few years ago that was making what was happening now so painful.

“Wyman, don’t go nowhere. I gotta tell you something,” Bitty had said.

Wyman had sensed from her tone and the cast of her eyes that something big was afoot.

“I talked to David on the phone yesterday, and…” Bitty’s voice quivered. She had to pause.

“Come on, just spit it out,” Wyman said. With David, Wyman never knew what harebrained scheme he’d be up to next.

“Our son’s getting married.”

“Getting married! God almighty, I didn’t even know he was courtin.’ Who’s he marrying? Is that why you look like you about to jump outta your skin?”

“There’s more. You and me’s gonna be grampa and grandma.” Bitty took a deep breath. “But that still ain’t it.”

“What ain’t it?”

“David’s marrying a black girl.”

Wyman and Bitty were silent. Images of his larger than life grandpa passed through Wyman’s mind…grandpa’s cigarette lighter that played Dixie…that flag on the front porch…stories about his great-great uncles killing Yankees.

“I prayed hard over this before telling you,” Bitty said. “And the Lord put a word on my heart clear as a runnin’ stream: Just come out and say it. So that’s what I’m doing.”

Wyman so far had not signaled any emotion.

“The way I see it,” Bitty continued, “it’s a problem if we make it a problem, but really, it don’t have to be a problem.”

Wyman remained silent, staring at the floor, his hands cupped around his coffee mug. Grandpa would be rolling over in his grave. Hell, every ancestor Wyman had would be rolling in their graves. But Wyman had come to realize that what grandpa and the others used to say didn’t square with the Good Book. Not by a long shot. Wyman had been able to avoid ever confronting this part of his past. Until now. He looked up.

“It ain’t gonna be a problem. As God is my witness. If we say we all equal on Sunday, then we’re equal all the time.” Wyman smiled. “Ain’t this a hoot, grandma…I cain’t wait to see our grandbaby.”

Smiling over the memory of that morning eight years ago, Wyman filled his mug and sat at the table. He thought about the first time he had held Jasmine. And then a couple of years later, Hyacynth. His granddaughters meant the whole world to him. But then his thoughts turned to David reading that article. And Mignon, his sweet daughter-in-law. How could he ever face them again?

Wyman hobbled down the back steps and stood in his yard. He ran a disfigured hand across his stubble. Was David really alright with this or was Bitty sugar-coating it? What about his granddaughters when they grow up and find out their grandpa wrote an anthem for white-power bastards?

Wyman set the mug down and noticed how thick the dirt was under his nails. Had it been two days since he bathed? Three? And when had he last had a decent night’s sleep? His doctor once told him: “You don’t sleep, you go crazy.”

Something ain’t right with me, Wyman figured. He thought he heard Bitty speaking through the screen door a minute ago, but when he turned, nobody was there. Crazy or not, though, this news about him and his damn song was real.

Wyman cursed the day they recorded that song. They had done it in two takes on a January morning in a freezing studio on Camp Street in New Orleans. Warming their hands over a tiny space heater before starting the session, Wild Man had instructed the band, “Y’all remember that Johnny Horton song about the Battle of New Orleans? Or ‘Big Bad John’ by Jimmy Dean? Well this here’s a story song, too. Sorta like them songs, except I want this to be a kick-ass motheroo.

I’m gonna do them ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ kinda git-tar licks between the verses…show them fucking hippies what a real git-tar picker sounds like.”

The song had to be divided into two parts and pressed on both sides of the 45 to fit. The original pressing was 2,500 copies. The records had been shipped to Wild Man’s house about a week before he was shot. He had not yet begun to sell them at his shows when his career ended. Wyman wasn’t even sure what happened to most of the boxes of 45s. And he had long ago lost touch with his former band mates. For all his once red-hot popularity, the legacy of Wild Man Wyman ended up being as thin as the cigarette rolling paper on his dresser.

Once or twice in the early 1980s, if he remembered correctly, a couple of people told Wyman they’d heard his song on some late night trucker show on AM radio, when there was no controversy about the song. But that graveyard trucker show that played country music wasn’t on anymore. Wyman’s master tapes of the session had been destroyed in the flood. Still, some asshole got hold of the record and had made it into a CD.

Squirrelly from lack of sleep and brooding about what his son thought of him, Wyman was clear about one thing as he stepped out of the shower. Jasmine and Hyacinth were not going to remember their grandpa as some racist monster.

Something had to be done, and done now. The mowers and bikes out back cluttering up his shed waiting to be fixed or painted, those could wait. He needed to disown that song before the world. Hell, the lyrics had been mostly throw-away lines, anyway, just something he had concocted as an excuse for playing hot guitar licks.

Shaved, clean, feeling a second wind coming on, Wyman dressed and slipped into his boots. He looked up something in the yellow pages and tore the sheet out, putting it into his pocket with his flip-phone. He got a few items out of his tool shed, put them in a burlap sack and threw them in the back of his pick-up.

Driving up Canal Street, heading uptown, Wyman felt a sense of purpose. He was going to make sure those white power bastards got the message, the message that Wild Man Wyman, author of “Quantrill Parts I and II,” was a nigger lover.

A big one. He’d make sure they’d want nothing to do with him. Maybe those idiots would call him a disgrace to his race, light bonfires throughout the South and throw the CDs of his song in the roaring flames. Make my day, Wyman thought.

He parked near Lee Circle and pumped a few quarters into the meter. He wasn’t sure why he even bothered with that, considering what he was about to do. Wyman limped across St. Charles Avenue carrying the burlap sack and paused on the grass that surrounds the monument in the center of Lee Circle. He took the cell phone and the sheet torn from the phone book and set his plan in motion. His hands shook so much he had trouble reading the numbers. Look, Wyman, he reminded himself, you’re old, half-crippled, and people already think you’re crazy. How hard could they come down on somebody like me?

Wyman called the local TV station located two short blocks from where he stood.

“Put me through to the newsroom, please,” he said when a young woman’s voice answered. A moment later he heard a husky voice say, “Newsroom.”

“I’m calling in a tip. They got some crazy-ass fool trying to tear down the statue of Robert E. Lee over at Lee Circle. Y’all need to see this.” Wyman clicked the phone off. That ought to do it, he reckoned.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Wyman would know that voice anywhere. He turned. “Bitty, how in the world…” But Bitty wasn’t there. Nobody was there. Wyman just shook his head. He needed to stay focused.

“This is for you, Jasmine and Hyacinth. You too, Mingon,” Wyman muttered to himself. He hopped onto the base of the monument. He pulled the sack up with some difficulty. He stood next to the towering stone column atop which stood the likeness of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the entire Confederate army. The monument was one of the best-known sites in New Orleans.

Wyman took a can of black spray paint from the sack and sprayed a sprawling X onto the column. He hobbled completely around the column spraying more large Xs, like the ones they sprayed onto doors after Katrina. He then set the can down, reached in the sack and pulled out a pickaxe, being careful to keep his balance. His first whack at the column sent a chunk of cement flying into the grass. So did the next one, and the ones after that.

Wyman paused and saw a well-known news anchor and a camera guy running toward him. They were like the Pied-Piper as they drew people behind them running to find out what all the excitement was about. Wyman saw the TV camera point toward him, so he made sure his next swings took out the largest chunks yet. He stopped, leaned on the pickaxe and sucked in a huge breath – he needed to yell with enough volume that the news crew would pick it up on their microphone. Wyman pointed to the statue atop.

“People, that man up there fought to uphold slavery. Are we gonna let this statue stand?” Wyman screamed. “I DON’T THINK SO,” he shouted all the louder and began chanting, “BOBBY LEE HAS GOT TO GO! BOBBY LEE HAS GOT TO GO!”

A few voices in the growing crowd took up the chant and the camera pivoted around to capture excitement.

“Go ‘head on, brother,” yelled a woman with a cane, shaking her free hand into a fist.

Wyman hopped down from the monument’s base knowing that cops would surely be arriving. He limped over to the news anchor and stuck out his hand. “Howdy, sir, I’m Wild Man Wyman. That’s W-Y-M-A-N. You may have read about me in the papers. I’m here to set the record straight, no pun intended, about that record…”

He could hear sirens now. Wyman would not have long to talk to the newsman. Whatever the consequences, he knew the news footage of him whacking at the monument would be around forever. The newspapers would write something, too, and the switchboard would be burning up at that radio talk show. The thought of a grown-up Jasmine and Hyacinth, proud of their grandpa’s attempt to bring down the monument of Robert E. Lee – such imaginings turned his wrinkles into a beaming smile. He hadn’t felt this good in a long time.


Joe Barbara lives in New Orleans. He is a professional musician and a retired licensed clinical social worker. He released a CD in 2003 called “One Man, One Guitar” featuring original guitar instrumentals and vocals. His “retirement career” is quite active as a professional performer at assisted living facilities and nursing homes, as well as private events. josephbarbara@hotmail.com