The Scream in My Heart

Chimps are funny.

When I was a kid there was a television commercial for Red Rose Tea. Four chimps, dressed in plaid jackets and black slacks, playing swing music at a club called The Savory Ritz. On stage there was piano chimp, trombone chimp, and string bass and drummer chimp.  Also, in the foreground, lady and gentleman chimp swing dancing. How could they resist? Man, that chimp band could swing. In the last seconds of the commercial, piano chimp channels Louis Prima, leaning into a bistro microphone and chanting, Red Rose Tea! Red Rose Tea!  

It was a great commercial. What made it great was the stressed syllables. Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Red rose tea (rest). Those stressed syllables were hammers. The message was pounded into your brain. What great pounding.

It is not an exaggeration to say that over the years, those four chimps and their Red Rose Tea have posed an occasional threat to my marriage. Anything vaguely trochaic like that (a stressed syllable, followed by an unstressed one), I’m likely to get the chant. The latest occasion was just the other day. My wife and I were out for our morning walk. 

On these walks we look forward to meeting dogs that have become our friends. One dog in particular, named Echo (Ech-oh), has stolen my wife’s heart. He’s an ancient collie that lives on Pine Tree Trail. 

“I hope we see Echo this morning,” she says, innocently enough. 

“Yeah, Pine Tree Trail,” I say, relishing those sounds. And like magic, the two stressed syllables call forth my fond memory of the chimps, and I start chimp-like chanting as we walk, “Pine tree trail. Pine tree trail. Pine tree trail.”

And she says, “Don’t do that.”

“Pine tree trail.”

“Please, don’t do that.”

“It’s trochaic,” I say. 

“I don’t care. You know I hate that.”

I know she hates that. But I can’t help myself. Or I choose not to. We carry on with our November walk. I shudder against the cold.

“Why don’t you wear a hat?”

“You know,” I say.

“You lose most of the heat in your body through the top of your head.” It’s 8:00 a.m., 39 degrees, it’s Michigan gray, damp, bone-chilling cold. 

“I know that.”

“So?”

I take off my scarf and reapply it, giving it a double wrap around my neck. I tell her my head will get used to the cold. My head will be okay. “Unlike you,” I say, “I do not look great in hats. You know that.”

Hats and I do not really get along. Fortunately, an instance of my great good luck: that morning back in January of 1974, the hat I was wearing did not come between us, did not point to a flaw in my judgment she could not overlook. This hat was a knitted thing the color of pie crust, with a short bill on the front. It lay across the top of my head like an overturned pie, or a large deflated balloon. It had a pom pom the size of a tennis ball on top. I could feel it bounce when I walked. Still in college at the time, I wore this hat when I walked across campus. I imagined it made a one-word fashion statement, panache. 

Years later, after we were married, looking back at that hat with disgust, my wife suggested a different word, dork. 

I wore it the morning I walked into the Quirk building to sign up for Shakespeare’s Richard III auditions. There was an actual British director, a visiting professor from Reading, who was going to direct the play. He was tall and thin. He favored heavy turtleneck sweaters and tight pants. He exuded panache. The costume designer’s office was in the front of the building. That’s where you signed up. And that’s where my wife, who was working in the costume design program, saw me for the first time. Our coming together would be months in the future. She told me later she was repelled by my hat. 

We walk together now, in the cold. 

Our marriage has lasted 44 years. In any marriage you can picture a balance sheet, in one column “how do I love thee,” in the other “how do you piss me off.” Keeping things in balance, or better yet, slightly tilted in the direction of “how do I love thee,” requires self-control and casting off old habits.  Old encrusted, deeply rooted habits you may take simple pleasure in. I have a few of those. For her, I know, I am a struggle.

The problem with music is that it nests in the synapses of your brain. Red Rose Tea! My brain is like a jukebox. I have only partial control over what’s playing.  Once it’s in there, to paraphrase Chaucer or Shakespeare, music, like murder, will out. I heard her say to a friend the other day, “When we’re out walking, he sings all the time. He whistles, he hums. He never shuts up.” 

It’s true. For my birthday a few weeks ago, my daughter bought me the Paul McCartney book set of all those Beatles lyrics, all those songs. So I’ve been singing a few of those while we walk. Today it’s that old song of theirs, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” I didn’t need the book to remind me of the lyrics. 

I’m singing, “I wanna be your lover, baby. I wanna be your man.”

She does not hum along. She does not snap her fingers. She does not look at me. That would be encouragement. 

“Tell me that you love me, baby. And that you understand.”

Nothing.

“There’s a great scream in this song,” I say. 

“Oh.”

“I never learned to scream.”

These past weeks we’ve both been through minor cases of Covid. Both of us were twice vaccinated, so you could call it Covid-lite. But heavy enough we haven’t walked our long walk in a while.  And just before our Covid we were out of town for a month. This morning, feeling like survivors, we’re looking forward to resuming our long walks, where we will see our dogs.

Our dogs.

Neither of us, in point of fact, is a dog person. I had a dog when I was a kid. What kid doesn’t love a dog? Then, when I moved to Detroit for my first teaching job, I lived with an aunt and uncle that had two dogs, a young, skittish Irish setter named Itty Bitty, and a doddering, incontinent Labrador named Joe. One barked; the other farted. Both incessantly. The experience cured me of living with dogs, an antipathy that deepened when I got married.  

But these dogs, the walking dogs, are casual acquaintances we look forward to seeing. We know their names; we do not know their owners’ names. Today we might see Evvie and Snoopy, two rescue hounds with velvet ears and baleful barks; Bruno, also a hound who exudes confidence and would like to sniff and jump; Halley and Basil (rhymes with razzle), two youthful, powerful, slobbery Great Danes we do not approach; Max, a brown dog of a pugnacious breed, who happens to be deaf or blind. I think its owner told us which. I’m also a little deaf, and becoming forgetful. 

And Echo.

Echo sleeps on the driveway, next to his garage. The last few years, if we got his attention, from his prone position he would emit a wheezy bark in our general direction. His collie mouth would open and close once or twice. Now, all is silence. My wife calls to him from the road. Hey, Echo. Hey, be-be. If he sees us, he nods his head. Some mornings the lady owner sits on the front porch. He was a rescue dog, she says. He was wary and fearful, then gradually became timidly companionable.

One day, she walked him down the driveway to us. 

“He doesn’t walk much now,” she said. “I have to help him.”

“Echo,” my wife said.  “Hi, be-be.” He stood still. We patted his beautiful head. 

I learned to play the guitar in junior high. I never learned to scream. You could come home after school and practice the guitar, and remain, shall we say, unobtrusive. You could not come home from school and practice screaming. I’m working on my scream, mom. It’s not anger or despair, it’s music. Nobody I knew in the garage band culture I was part of was capable of an authentic, persuasive scream. Through the 60’s and early 70’s I heard screams I admired. Paul McCartney in “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Alice Cooper’s vocal-cord-shredding scream in “Elected,” Roger Daltry’s long affirmative scream in “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” In “Let it Ride,” on the song’s exit, Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Fred Turner lets loose a howl-shreik-scream that still gives me goosebumps. In Pink Floyd’s “Be Careful with That Ax, Eugene,” continuous blood-curdling screaming is interrupted only when the screamer, a woman, takes a breath.  

It occurs to me that a musicologist might undertake a research project. Call it scream studies. When, in popular music, did screaming begin? As far as I know, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams, Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney did not scream. Not once. So: Who screamed the first scream? In what years did screaming increase? Was race a factor? (Consider James Brown, Wilson Picket). What about gender? (Enter Janice Joplin.) When did screaming wane in popular rock? Did British rock groups scream more than American groups? In what part of a song did screaming most commonly occur? Informal observation suggests between the second and third verse, but that’s just me. What the world needs is a database. We need rigor.

A few years ago my son-in-law and I went to a local club where we thought we were going to see and hear big band jazz. Wrong night. The band played hardcore punk. The lead singer screamed so much, I got a sore throat listening.

“I’m afraid of what we’ll find,” my wife says. 

We’ve just passed Lillian’s house, a friend who stopped her car the other day, put down her window, and told us she was a grandmother. “We have a baby girl,” Lillian said. We stood and talked. Her name is Suzanna June.

Traditional names are in these days. Especially boys. Charley, Jack, Gus, Sam, Henry.  For girls, I think, not so much. Norma, for example. Or Hazel. I’ve yet to meet a little Hazel lately. But Suzanna June, wow.

Or was it June Susanna?  

After Lillian’s we come up the hill where Echo lives, where we should see him lying on the driveway at the edge of the garage. 

“What was it,” I ask my wife, “June Suzanna or Suzanna June?” 

“Do you see him?” 

I don’t see him.  “Maybe he’s inside today.”

“He’s never inside,” she says. “He likes the cold. That’s what she told us. Echo likes the cold.”

We stop for a minute at the bottom of the driveway. No Echo.

“Not today,” I say.

“He’s gone.”

“Maybe not.”

The sun is coming out. We resume our walk. At the bottom of the next hill we usually see Max, who totally ignores us. 

“I hope it’s Suzanna June,” I say. 

“What?”

“Lillian’s grandbaby. It sounds better. It’s iambic. Suz-ann-a June.” 

Not June Suzanna. Like Ole Suz-ann-a, it’s trochaic. Pine Tree Trail. Red Rose Tree. June Suzanna. 

I drape my arm around my wife’s shoulder and hum “I Wanna Be Your Man.”  It comes to me unbidden. I can’t help myself. Thinking, as I hum, she just might scream. I ask her: “Am I your man?” 

A short pause. “Yes.”

“And you’re my woman.” I punch the first syllable. Wo-man.

She slips an arm around my waist. Says I am such an ass.

Well, that’s good.

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