I am on a stage. I am playing guitar and doing my one-man show. The same show that critics often hail as a remarkably powerful sleep aid.
I see a redheaded man in the audience, sitting in the balcony. I almost lose track of what I’m talking about on the microphone. The redheaded man is grinning at me. He reminds me of someone I once knew. Someone from long ago.
The very first time I was ever on a stage I was six years old. My father was the reason. I don’t know why he had such a bee in his bonnet about getting me in front of people, but he was hellbent on it.
He practically begged the preacher to let me sing in front of church, even though I REALLY didn’t want to do this. My father could be relentless. Soon I was standing before everybody and their mother’s house cat singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”
Something I’ll never forget: Just before I took the church stage, the old preacher introduced me by calling me a forty-year-old man trapped in a six-year-old’s body.
Everyone chuckled. But I didn’t see what was so funny. I sang the best I could, but I was godawful. People applauded. My redheaded father, who was in the balcony, whistled with his fingers.
After that, I started doing some singing in public. I was shy and I hated it. But my father said the only way to get over stage fright was to simply get over it. He kept making me audition for local plays. I couldn’t understand why he found this so important. All I wanted was to go back to making mud pies in the backyard.
I got a role in one play where I had to memorize nearly a hundred lines. My mother and I worked on these lines every day after school. She’d read the script while standing at the stove, cooking supper. I’d recite sentences until my brain hurt.
On opening night, during my scene, I got my cue from the woman who was playing the role of my grandmother, and I was supposed to say my line. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and…
I blanked out.
I looked at the audience. They were gawking. So I moseyed to the edge of the set. I leaned offstage and I whispered, “Psssst! What’s my line, Miss Peggy?”
The very next thing audience members heard was Miss Peggy’s voice whispering my lines offstage. But she was speaking too softly, so I shouted, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU MISS PEGGY!” So she screamed my lines. Everyone howled with laughter.
And that was the night I discovered comedy.
I was in a bunch of local productions following that. It wasn’t long before I discovered that I was a terrible actor, but I was suited for comic relief. The funny roles came flooding in.
I played Elvis, for instance, in a local patriotic production. Imagine, if you will, a chubby nine-year-old Elvis with an American-flag cape, a bald eagle belt buckle, and indoor-outdoor shades.
The funny thing is, Elvis was considered demonic by the evangelicals who raised me. To my people, the words “rock and roll” were as bad as the words “Satanism,” “Jack Daniels,” and “Three’s Company.”
I wore a white jumpsuit with rhinestones and I shook my pelvis so hard that I made the newspaper.
When my father passed, I retired from the stage and turned to a life of playing music. I hated being on a stage, so I quit. I played piano and guitar in my own room.
When I got a little older, I started playing in dimly lit establishments where nobody could see my face behind the pool table. I was barely old enough to reach the barstools, but the guys in the band all vouched for me. Thus, I came to enjoy poorly lit rooms, and I learned how to play a lot of Conway Twitty songs.
Years went by. I got older. When I started writing, someone asked me to come speak for a fundraiser. I turned them down several times.
“You don’t want me on a stage,” I told them. But they kept asking. Finally I agreed, even though I regretted it.
I was nervous for weeks. Backstage, I vomited a few times. I actually had to change my sport coat because I ruined it with the contents of my own stomach.
When I took the stage, it was before a crowded auditorium. I was trembling. I will never forget what happened when I was tuning my guitar. I made one slight remark over the microphone. I said, “Whoops, I’m sorry, I forgot to tune my guitar.”
The whole auditorium laughed. I couldn’t believe it. These people thought I was making a joke.
And it was at that moment, time stood still for me. I was nearly moved to tears. All of a sudden, I was a child again, and my old man was in the balcony, looking right at me. Back from the dead. Smiling. The eternal redhead who once believed in me even though I didn’t. Who somehow saw his child’s future, even though this man would never be in it.
Sometimes I feel like a six-year-old trapped in a forty-year-old’s body. But tonight, on this stage, I am the son of a redhead.
And a remarkably powerful sleep aid.