Excerpt: Déjà Vu You Too, Champ

The following is one story contained in Interesting Tales of Other People’s Woe, by Damon Stewart (2014)
"Deja Vu You Too, Champ," by Damon Stewart


Reincarnation is crap.

That’s a little harsh. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, trust me, it does. What I mean is that reincarnation is not what the popular mind has it to be: some sort of grand redemption for do-gooders and a cosmic dunce cap for those who do evil, doling out higher planes of existence for the former and new varieties of insect for the latter. Nope. Actually, it’s just the simplest interpretation of the word. Perhaps “recycling” would be more apt. That is, reincarnation is a literal event—living life over and over again. And again. Etc.

Sorry if I seem a little jaded here, don’t mean to be disrespectful about the Great Beyond and all that. But in my experience, it’s just the same song on an endless loop. Maybe there’s an enlightened individual out there who would tsk-tsk my ignorance about these things. Look, if you know of anyone who has a clue on what I’m doing wrong, please tell them to call me. I’ll pay.

But let me apologize for just up and throwing that at you with no introduction. I’ve had a few cocktails here in this bar—did you know this was a bar seventy years ago too? Swanky joint back then, Bombay Gin martinis, Jameson Manhattans, Hedrick beer and French wine. Cost 25 cents a drink, which was a lot back then, but I’d sit and sip on a hot summer night and the ceiling fans would hiss and I’d just stare at my drink until someone sat next to me that I could talk to. So thanks, and next one’s on me.

Anyway, there you go, the Big Answer, the 42 if you’re a Doug Adam’s fan. Sort of a letdown, I’m sure. But hey, you won’t even know it when it happens-it’ll be fresh every time. So you got that to look forward to.

That’s a lot, trust me.

You see, the problem is that unlike you, I remember every past life I’ve had.

I don’t go back to the beginning of man or anything like that. Near as I can tell, I winked into existence sometime in the late 1830’s or early 1840’s. It’s vague, because for the first few births, I wasn’t around that much. Instantly self-aware, but it’s confusing the first few times out of the box. Born, died within days of a fever. Born, lived until one or two, died of diphtheria. Born, died of tuberculosis. Malaria. Whooping cough. Influenza.

Around the late 1850’s, I made it as far as eight. I was born into a rather dour Kansas farm family. From day one I had memories of the previous lives, short as they may have been, but I thought that such recollections were normal. When I could talk, I would start reminiscing with my mother (Mom Number 7—“M7”), asking her questions like, “Where is my other mother?” or “Hey, that reminds me of the time I died choking in my own vomit,” in matter-of-fact tones.

They eventually threw me out of the house, muttering things like “evil” and “demons.” Religion and too many years living on the plains had warped their sense. Since it was in the dead of winter, I died of exposure sometime the next morning. Those plains. Trust me, they could use more roadside billboards. Like, one every ten feet. Liven the place up a bit. I’m not going back until they either bring in dirt and make some hills or paint the state some livelier color. All that flat. Ouch.

Shortly after that, I was born into a family that lived on a farm in northern Michigan, just outside of Traverse City. Mom8’s name was Mary Constance Dunning. I always thought it was charming and would often refer to her by her whole name. Since I was five when I started doing it, she spanked me, but only a couple of times, and after a while she thought it was cute.

Anyway, M8 raised me after my father—F8, naturally—went off to fight in the Civil War and died. Not in battle, there’s not even any indirect glory in my life; he caught smallpox at camp and was dead eight days after he joined up. Not there though, he managed to stagger home, collapse into a pile of hay in the barn for a rest, and stayed there for a Rest. Which reminds me, I thought I saw that guy in a St. Louis bar in the 1950’s, but he looked different of course and even he didn’t remember who he was, so it was hard to confirm. There was this vibe about him, and the guy in the bar kept rubbing his left ear with the knuckles of his right hand, an odd trait I’d only seen in F8. But you can’t just run up and say, “Hey, are you my father from that farm in Michigan, back in 1864?” You get punched.

I hung in there awhile in that life. The next ten years were spent helping M8 on the farm, milking, splitting wood, scything wheat, shoveling cow poop, chicken poop, pig poop, sheep poop and dirt. Lots of dirt. I can’t remember exactly why now, but it seemed I was always having to shovel dirt around, digging holes here, moving piles there. You folks have no idea how often people moved dirt back then. Lotsa dirt.

And those country meals. Contrary to what you might have heard about “old timey cookin’,” all I can say is that M8 couldn’t pick an apple off a tree without managing to make the thing bland or somehow underdone. Back then, a good meal was something burnt, with lots of salt. Corn whiskey to wash it down, or at least erase the memory of it.

When I was a tall, strapping lad of sixteen, I took off for the nearest city, Port Austin, to find a job. It wasn’t hard, the place was still booming, having taken off during the Erie Canal days and maintaining a good port business even with the competition from the railroads. I got work in a foundry, tending to a pig iron bucket that ran along a waist-high horizontal bar and transported molten lead from the furnace into rough forms that, when filled and their contents cooled, made small right-angle bars for general household use.

I dunno. I guess there was a need.

So there I was, sweating for fourteen hours a day at 3 cents an hour. “The good old days.” Let me point out one, of many, clear improvements in the human condition—child labor laws. Well, for those fortunate enough to have them. I guess most companies now just contract these things to other countries where they don’t have such inconveniences. But out of sight, out of mind, right? It’s a free country, you can get your slave labor anywhere you want but here, I guess. Me, I’d rob banks before doing that again. If some of those kids from Central America or Asia get the chance, they’re gonna come over here looking to kick somebody’s ass, but that’s not my problem.

Another good thing, while I’m at it—OSHA. Safety requirements. Such as, let’s say … shields. Shields on things like, I don’t know, how about for example on molten pig iron buckets, so that an exhausted, underpaid and distracted sixteen year old in Port Austin, Michigan doesn’t one day bend over to pick up a piece of licorice, get bumped in the ass by the bucket and have its fiery cargo spill all over his head? And while I was running around screaming, just before I died, my boss—this guy named Erastus Mann—kept yelling at me to go outside so I wouldn’t mess up his shop.

That hurt, and frankly, I’m still a little angry about the whole thing. Not as angry as I was, but back in 1932, before I totally lost it—I’ll get to that in a minute—I looked up his descendants and found out they lived in Erie, PA. Took a train out there one day, found his great grandson’s house, knocked on the door and when he answered I popped him on the nose. Vengeance, even twice removed, feels good.

I’ve done the research, was able to find my obit for that particular messy ending. I wasn’t born again until four days later, in August of 1878, so I must have floated around in the ether for a while. I usually do, but it’s all woozy and vague and I can never remember it very well, other than an impression of Styrofoam packing. You know, those giant, loose noodle-shaped things? Reminds me of death, that stuff.

Anyway, I was born the third son of seven children into a family in Boston. F9, Leopold Drumm, was a Presbyterian Minister (there’s some sort of sick joke there, but I can’t quite figure it out). M9, Lorella, was a community do-gooder who ran the church soup kitchen for the Knights of Labor and taught “Scientific Bible Study” class on Tuesday evenings to middle-class wives trying to reconcile their upbringing with their common sense.

The food was better, I figured that out right away. I kept complimenting M9 as soon as I could talk, so much so she got suspicious, thought I was being smart (“Have I told you how much I like this?” “Are you being a sass?” “No! —” “Whack” “Aaahh!”). She was a very, “spare the rod, spoil the child, beat the shit out of him, closer to God,” sort of person. But I eventually got the hang of her, and was able to deflect most of the day’s quota of beatings on my ignorant and amnesiac siblings.

The clothing was much more comfortable, though. Refined cotton—one of mankind’s unsung heroic inventions (shoes, however, haven’t gotten that much better in a hundred years, unless you include running shoes—truly the shodding of kings). The house was much cleaner than the farm or the closet-sized hovel I rented in Port Austin. Oddly enough, I had more body lice, which wasn’t much fun. I kept asking M9 about that, until she took me to a Dr. Philmont Glenridge-Drucker, “Specialist of the Torso and the Humors.” He actually had one of those thin, curly mustaches and a top hat like a cartoon bad guy. There’s a reason why the image is associated with wickedness—that oily fucker put me in sheep dip. It killed the body lice alright, whilst singeing my skin and turning my fingernails and toenails to goo (FYI—it takes about eight weeks for those to grow back. You want to be told this, not learn it). I was sore for weeks, and of course the lice settled immediately back in, but I was smart enough not to complain to M9.

But I got used to the lice and lived a tolerable life, if a bit dull. I tended to be a bit heavy during that particular go-around, and slightly nearsighted to boot. That, by the way, was very annoying. Damn glasses gave me headaches.

Anyway, at sixteen I was apprenticed to a barrow-handler. This profession is no longer, but back in the day, wheelbarrows were a popular and handy item, used for construction, transport of children, livestock, packages, dirt (it was still being moved around a lot), drunks, other wheelbarrows and an endless list of other shit, including actual shit.

Much like the auto industry today, the component parts of wheelbarrows were made by small shops—wheels here, the basin there, and so on. The one I worked in, owned by a quiet man named Nelbert Fullows, specialized in the construction of the two long poles that supported the giant basin and functioned as the handles used for lifting. That’s all we did. Four of us cut, sanded and painted wheelbarrow poles, eight sets a day. Nell had a good business, and he was pretty easy to work for. Personally, I think the man was stoned most of the time. He would go to the paint closet three or four times a day, shut the door and come out ten minutes later, eyes glazed and not say a word for hours, just work quietly on his poles. Mutter to himself a lot, in this high, strained voice. Since he neither brought to, nor retrieved anything from, the paint closet, I can’t think what else he was doing in there.

Anyway, so I had this job and despite the paunch and the spectacles I got a girlfriend, Nancy, whom I married when I turned seventeen. F9 did the formalities, and it was a pretty good wedding; food, friends, even some booze that F9 and M9 pretended not to see in the back corner of the reception hall. Nelbert made me crew foreman afterwards and gave me a raise. Nancy’s folks set us up in a nice house on Beacon Hill and I started leading a totally ordinary life. I almost forgot about the past-lives business, since after sixteen it was all new and I started hoping all the other stuff was some sort of dream. Nancy got pregnant, and nine months later had a baby boy. Nicholas.

She died during delivery. I still don’t like to talk about it. Nancy. Never met anyone like her since.

I was a little freaked by Nick, he kept looking at me like he knew me. I wondered if maybe he was like me and remembered the past, maybe even met me, though I figured the odds of that were pretty long. Anyway, I did my best to raise him, but he got appendicitis when he was five and that was the end of him. I keep looking for him even now, but he doesn’t even know who he is, and I’m not sure what I’d do if I found him. Probably get arrested as some sort of nutcase, trying to hug him and calling him son.

I was getting a bit distant from it all before this happened, it was getting hard to take things too seriously if you could always try again, no matter what. But then Nancy and Nick came and went, and there was no trying again there. I come back but (if you’ll pardon the pun), I’ll be damned if they can.

Sometimes I think that I keep coming back just so I can keep finding more to lose.

Anyway, Nell died in his sleep a year later. I’d be surprised if it didn’t have something to do with all those paint fumes. So I took over the business. Did alright, too, doubled production to 16 sets a day (we saved time by not painting the “standard” models—only the “luxury” product got painted, a cheap green which allowed me a quadruple markup and a tidy profit on the high-end units).

Things were looking up again, until one night when I got drunk in the local tavern, walked outside to relieve myself, and started peeing on a horse. Trigger had a more refined sense of dignity than I thought, and the resulting kick put the lights out on Life Number 9.

Life Number 10 was very, very strange. First, there was a long time in the Styrofoam, almost twenty years, and then when I was born, I came back as a girl. Someone lost the instructions on the procedure, I think. I never got the hang of the dresses M10 kept putting me in, and going to the bathroom was a real bitch (turns out they really can’t do it standing up, very messy). But overall I handled it with aplomb, if I may say so myself.

Then I turned twelve and the hormones kicked in. That totally fucked me up. I mean, I was miserable. Good looking, by the time I was seventeen I had this long black hair, a perfect figure with a decent rack and a great ass—shit, I took narcissism to a whole new level—but I was still miserable. Angry, depressed, even mildly hallucinatory at times. Left home at eighteen, worked in a sweat-shop in L.A. until I finally lost it one day, grabbed a Tommy-gun from a rum-running gangster friend and attacked a police barracks, figuring I’d end it all in a blaze of gunpowder and lead. Note to self—if I choose suicide-by-cop again, go after people who are good shots. I figured I’d hit a desk-cop or two, but assumed some street-wise veteran would take me out shortly thereafter. Turns out I mowed the whole place down and was beginning to think I’d have to find another and shoot slower. But a sergeant managed to pull his bullet-riddled body together for a final effort, got into a squad car and ran me over as I walked down the street. That hurt too, almost as bad as Port Austin.

Life 11 was another short one—died in a car accident on the way home from the hospital after delivery. I could see that F11 hadn’t slept much and I was trying to tell him to stay awake, but even my screaming wasn’t enough and he dozed the car into an oncoming milk truck.

L12 started in ‘48, and it was the best. I grew up in a small town in the Catskills. My folks were teachers who had a nice house in the village. I breezed through the first twenty years in paradise—the food just kept getting better, the clothes softer, the houses warmer, the girls easier—and went off to college in Vermont. I stayed out of the protest side of the ‘60’s. I agreed with the ideas but based on what I’ve seen, people haven’t changed all that much—those kids meant well but it all went to shit anyway. So I just went along for the drugs and sex, the former rather weak compared to nowadays, but the latter was fantastic and plentiful. I got drafted, figured that for once I’d see my end coming and wasn’t as frightened as I was interested in the process. But I got assigned to a desk in New York, helping track ammunition shipments to Saigon. Did my stint and stayed in the city to enjoy the ‘70’s. Now that was a decade. People talk about the sixties, but it was all so serious, really, you never found anyone with a sense of humor. In the ‘70’s, it was all a joke and the laughing was perpetuated by copious amounts of quality amphetamines, cocaine, increasingly powerful marijuana and better acid.

I sold all of the above ‘til ‘79, when I got busted. I was looking at some serious prison time, so for once this whole recycling deal proved handy and I used it to escape, if you know what I mean. Smoked a monster joint and went for a swim in the harbor.

So here I am in Life Number 13. I’m twenty years old, going on one hundred twenty, and, as I have recently been wondering, how do I get out of this?

Shit, how did I get into this? And why the 1830’s or ‘40’s? I did some research—well, paid some kid to research for me, actually—to find out if anything special happened back then. He gave me a long list of stuff but I only remember a few—the panic of 1837, the election and short, pneumatic tenure of William Henry Harrison (“Old Tippecanoe,” I remember that for some reason), the Great Famine of Ireland.

Nothing stands out, although I do remember one date—April 23, 1843. That’s the date that one William Miller predicted the Great Encore of Christ. Millerites—as the thousands that believed him were called—bought it hook, line and sinker. Sold their farms and got ready.

Whew—lots of disappointment on April 24th. I hate to be cruel, but April Fool’s day comes a bit early, know what I mean? And wouldn’t it be a kick if that was the day I was first born? No Savior—sorry folks, they sent me instead.

But shoot, maybe I’ve been around forever, maybe you have too. Supposedly we are all made of stardust. As in, the matter in our bodies is literally composed of the remains of exploded stars. But it’s not my body that comes back, each one rots. I was tempted to dig one up once, see if anything hit me, any revelations, maybe get some form of closure on this, but I just can’t quite get the motivation to go grave digging.

Every once in a while, when I’m sleeping, I’ll have this dream—I’m on a horse, holding a sword, swinging into … something, it’s at night and there’s a fire just off to my right but I can’t see and people are screaming and the dream isn’t that clear and I wake up feeling … whatever. So there, maybe I’m cursed, maybe I ransacked a Cherokee village, chased the Mormons out of Cleveland or just got drunk and mad and cut down a church choir having a hoot turned horrible on a Saturday night.

Or maybe I watch too much TV these days (and I watch a lot, it has simply not lost its fascination for me).

My point: it’s possible that some redemption is in order. I mean, even in the lives I remember, I’ve never done much for anyone else. I never saved anyone. Never helped anyone. Helped a few die.

No joy. No … taking part in things. Just watching and either bitching or laughing. I need passion, I guess. I don’t know, but I’m willing to try if it will end this cycle. I’ve had some good times, but that’s not enough anymore. And I’m tired of poverty or a middle-class ceiling. Immortality without cash is like being confined to Disneyland, only you’re prohibited from the rides and can only watch—interesting at first, a fade into boring, a freakish hell eventually.

But I did care for some people. Nancy. My son. F8, M12 and F12 meant something to me. During Life Number 12 I had a dog for two years, his name was Ozzie. That dog, I dunno. I started to connect again. With him, things began to feel real.

Word of advice my friend, apropos of nothing, but if you own a dog and wish to rid him of ticks? Rubbing alcohol works. So will a match. However, administration of rubbing alcohol followed by a match can have tragic consequences.

I once thought I heard a bark in the Styrofoam, but I never found him. Ol’ Ozz.

Passion. Does it have to be for people or grand ideas? Will it suffice if I get passionate about stamp collecting? Polished gems? Country music? Perhaps roses? Or something obscure, something I can master, make a name for myself and perhaps inspire others.

Flame. That’s it. I’ll seek and photograph flames. I know they are different colors, depending on what’s burning—beautiful alcohol blues, the ubiquitous wood yellows, metallic greens, and molten reds (that one I know very well). Flames. I can do a photo book, with the history of the flame. Little pop-culture sidebars, e.g. flame paint jobs on a motorcycle, flame tattoos, flame-broiled burgers and those Christmas video-flame fires. The flames of Hell.

I’ll donate the proceeds to charity. UNICEF, the Salvation Army or the SPCA.

I know what you’re thinking. I don’t fear that. I don’t. It’s a change, and Lord (or the Closest Approximation Thereof) knows I need a change. Saying “I’ve faced death and it has made me stronger,” is silly. That’s just the problem. Death is like losing your first tooth, a bit painful, but you just keep tugging and there it is in your hand. The next one is always easier.

I don’t need death. I need oblivion.

So here’s what I’m doing: I’ve sort of put an order in, a message to the Man in Charge. I’ve had myself hypnotized, with a phrase burned into the tangled mass of neurons in my head. I’m hoping it’ll stay with me, connect with that ethereal essence that’s really me and allow me to inform whoever is making the casting decisions: I quit. Let’s end this loop, or one last time, at the most.

I hope it wasn’t a mistake. I’d hate to be in the Styrofoam for a few years with that echoing around in there, only to come back into L14 to still have it repeating the nine month ride in M14. I’d have to wait until I was old enough to have it hypnotized back out (it’s not like I can go and have it done when I’m six, no one is going to do that to a little kid).

And I want to go out in style this time, do something unique. Inserting myself into a particle accelerator and getting zapped into another dimension sounds attractive, but a scientist friend of mine said that even if I managed to get near one, which was very unlikely, all it would do is give me a headache.

What I’d really like to do is shoot myself into space and let this body orbit the earth forever, sort of a monument to myself. That would make me famous, everybody would be talking about it. But I can’t figure out a way to get up there.

Maybe I’ll follow the lead of Frankenstein and the Eskimos—I’ll get a flight to the Arctic Circle and wander off into the wasteland, maybe catch a ride on an iceberg into the great unknown. Take a nap somewhere and see if I wake up here again (note to myself—downside is the possibility of being reborn in the same area, which means a long walk to the beach). It’ll give me some time to think, and will be a new experience, anyway. Or maybe I’ll blow myself up, or leap into a volcano. If I do come back, it could give me ideas for my Flame coffee-table book. Just as long as it doesn’t hurt too much. I never get used to that.

So time to get cracking, see if this will work.

If not, I have a back-up plan. No struggling through poverty again—I recently robbed a bank and used the proceeds to buy a life insurance policy. My beneficiary is my attorney, who is directed that upon my death (“accidental,” of course) he is to put the proceeds into trust and wait eighteen years. Then he is to give the lot (minus a very generous cut to insure fidelity) to anyone who gives him the password. Someone who is, say, me, only in a different body. I’m not telling of course, but I won’t forget it, right?

Drink up, I’ll get us one more round. Here’s to me, and wish me luck.