I can’t remember how I met the philosophical Texan Hugh Parker. It may have been Honke who introduced us, or maybe Garrett. We’d gather at a table in this spot called The Trail Room, and the topics were Sufism, Dostoevski, Wittgenstein, Monty Python, and what Hugh called “The Floyd.” He always called them “The Floyd,” by which he meant Pink Floyd. We were crazy diamonds shining on. We were trading heroes for ghosts, hot ashes for trees. The frame was Notes from Underground. Hugh was the underground man. “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man,” he used to tell me, though he looked and sounded like neither. To me then it seemed like youthful melodrama, wanting to be more fucked up than you were. Hugh proved it later though, after I stopped knowing him. So they say.
Hugh was a transfer student from some vague community college where rivers converged, three rivers, and he lived alone in a bare apartment. The living room had one thing in it: a stereo against a wall, two waist high speakers. I never saw the rest of the house. I never saw his bedroom. I never used his bathroom. He smoked Dunhills from the one place in town that sold them, and he drank Ballantine’s exclusively. I drank brandy, cheap brandy, or gimlets, and I thought I was Thomas Wolfe. Later I’d think I was a succession of other people. Writers always think they are someone else at first. Then, if they are lucky, they think they are who they are. Some never get to this second stage.
There was one thing Hugh always wanted to do with me, one experience he thought I should have, and it was oddly important to him. It sounds unnecessary, unexceptional, but he wanted me to hear, as if I’d never heard it before, “Comfortably Numb.” Of course I knew the song. But he wanted me to know it more. He wanted the erotics of perception. Total immersion. Your face in the speakers.
A lot of planning went into the evening. We used to get handfuls of cheap weed from some insane biology prof who kept the stuff in a grocery bag under his desk. There was that, in a bowl on the floor, and beside it, the Ballantine’s. The weed was unpredictable. You never knew how much of it you needed to smoke. One moment, you’d be lucid. The next, you’d be high as fuck, words coming out of a mouth you didn’t recognize, making sounds you didn’t intend. You’d hear them, then ask yourself, “Who said that?”
(Once this old woman ran a stop light, her car charging onto the curb. Her passenger said, “You need to be more careful.” She said, “Am I driving?” It was a lot like that).
At some point we were ready, our backs against the facing wall. With religious specificity Hugh cued up the tune, its thick, abrupt beginning and rise, like it fell from a tree it then reclimbed, its second person address. It told you hello, it wasn’t sure you were home, it said to relax. All songs are about receding. You disappear into them. This was a fever dream, your hands two balloons. Hugh had it very loud, very very loud. He’d timed it out. The song would finish before any perturbed neighbor knock on the door. In my memory it was 2:45 in the morning.
We didn’t say anything. Words weren’t the point. All Hugh did was smile, beatificially. It was a smile I knew well. It was a grin. Hugh was always grinning. He seemed to know a little more about stuff you hadn’t figured out yet. It had something to do with Texas, oil, money. He used to tell me, “Welcome to the machine.” A lot of what we talked about was where you started and where the machine ended.
I got a message from Hugh’s ex-wife. They met in divinity school. That didn’t surprise me. Hugh had a lot of worship in him. Anyway, she wanted to tell me Hugh was dead. I could see she wasn’t grieving. Her Hugh was not my Hugh. Her Hugh was a lonely angry isolated drunk. My Hugh was Syd, young Syd. My Hugh is the true Hugh. I’m saying to him, nod if you can hear me.