I only met Skip Brooks twice. The first time was at a Devo concert in Austin. My wife pointed out a guy who resembled Skip, her cousin Jenni's husband, but we didn't say anything because we weren't certain of it being him. I don't know if that really counts as a meeting. The second time was at a Fixations gig in San Antonio. Skip was playing guitar for the Fixations, who were tremendous, and we spoke briefly after their set. So I didn't really know Skip and now I never will. He was fine this time last year. In April he discovered that he had cancer, and now he's gone. He had forty-seven years and that was it. It seems very unfair.
I know Jenni a little better, and it seemed to be mainly down to timing and circumstances that I never got to know Skip; which is a shame because I'm sure we would have had a lot to talk about, at least with the music. He had two young boys and was a great father and husband, which I know because it was plain to see, and so much so that everyone remarked upon his being both a great father and husband - which seems a rare thing.
The cancer was in his mouth. The operation sounded nightmarish. They had to remove his jaw, clean out the cancerous material, then reattach it. For a while he was doing okay, and then he wasn't. The cancer had returned and spread, and was so located as to cause fractures in his spine as it grew. It's difficult to imagine how his situation could have been worse. The end seemed inevitable. Jenni maintains that he kept his spirits up throughout what might justifiably be called his ordeal, communicating with sign language.
Today is his remembrance service.
We're at Trinity Baptist Church.
Skip was introduced to me as a punk rock preacher - mohican, tatts, piercings, and prone to belting out hardcore thrash numbers at his sermons. Coming from England, this combination took some getting used to on my part. I don't have anything specific against the religious, but belief in the man upstairs does not come natural to me. I refuse to identify as anything so tediously dogmatic as atheist because I don't see why I should have to identify as anything; and if your religion works for you, then I'm probably fine with that. Dealing with the world by means of metaphor is as good a way as any, up to but definitely no further than the point of voices in the head.
As a preacher, it seems Skip was tireless in his work with the homeless, those brought low through addiction, and others traditionally spurned by the more clean-cut - and not particularly Christian, it has to be said - representatives of the Baptist church. He was a guy who spent his life doing good things, and now he's gone.
Trinity Baptist is huge, and is presently full of friends, relatives, and those who probably wouldn't be here today were it not for Skip picking them up and setting them back on their feet. About half of the assembly have studded leather jackets and tattoos. One guy has the cover of the Subhumans' The Day the Country Died album painted on the back of his jacket.
The record came out in 1983 and it's now 2018 in a different country. My own pretend noise band once played on the same bill as the Subhumans, and I hung out with Dick Lucas and Trotsky - respectively the Subhumans' vocalist and drummer - as we watched Opera for Infantry, the other support act of the evening. They were nice people. I feel like I should tell this to the guy in the jacket, but I don't.
Jenni talks for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.
It's tough to imagine what she must be going through, what her kids are going through. She talks about how she met Skip, what he meant to her, and she gets through it just fine. It doesn't seem like she's reading from a script. She expresses herself very well and it's very moving.
Prayers follow, then further testimonials with greater emphasis on Skip the preacher, part of his world which I don't really understand, and to which I don't find myself drawn. It isn't that the sermons are all just words but I honestly don't know what else there is to be said. I barely knew the guy and yet his passing feels like something which had no right to happen, a great wrong which no amount of prayer can ever set right; but I guess it's just me.
At length we leave, Bess and myself, and we head to St. Luke's - straight there without first going home because time is tight. She and the women of her rock group have an event - referring here to a group of women who paint various designs on rocks, transforming them into objects given away in hope of bringing cheer to someone's day. The event is a Christmas rock exchange, the occurrence of which has been publicised through social media.
We are the second to arrive at St. Luke's parking lot. Sandy is already waiting.
'Where do you think we should set up?' she asks.
We gaze down at the St. Luke's rock exchange, a small circle of decorated stones on the grass verge at the side of the road. Members of the public are invited to leave rocks they have painted in exchange for anything which has taken their fancy. We have a table and the rock exchange is on a bit of a slope.
'Over there.' Bess indicates the corner of the parking lot, which is on level ground.
We unfold the table, spread out a table cloth, then set up the Christmas tree. Sandy wraps it in tinsel as the others begin to arrive. Some hang things from the tree. Others bring tins of cakes or cookies. Everyone seems to have brought more painted rocks, but it's still just five or six of us beneath a slate grey sky and it's kind of cold. Bess has told me this won't take much longer than half an hour. We're a sort of festive flash mob, you might say.
Another fifteen minutes pass and abruptly it all comes together. There are twenty or thirty of us now, and plenty of children. Santa strolls across from where he's parked his truck.
'Ho ho ho,' he informs us.
Santa is actually Byron, Bess's first husband. He's a goofball but in a good way, and without really trying. Being a first husband, his deeds occasionally give rise to the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but there's an honesty to the guy that's difficult to resist, and he's consistent, and when you need someone to dress up as Santa, Byron's your man. He's done it before and Bess called in a favour, so here he is handing out candy to the kids whilst cracking jokes about reindeer on the barbecue.
Bess and I watch, impressed in spite of ourselves.
'He's one of life's natural Santas,' I observe.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe - attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, Byron as Santa at the St. Luke's Christmas rock exchange…
The children hoover up all the available candy, and we hang out with gals for a while. Then, once we're done, everything goes back to the trunks of trucks and cars, and we drive home.
'Funerals and Santa,' I say to my wife. 'It's been quite a day.'