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The Fireman Song, by Josh Hattam

In this special edition of BKP, we get a little insight

into what makes Josh Hattam tick.

The Fireman Song by Josh Hattam


I don’t know when the voices drown our song. I remember hearing them at three. But I remember as a child, Mom and I would sing to our favorite songs on the radio and, no matter what, I would see the houses. The firehouse where I would one day work, and the house I would someday buy her. To my young eyes then, Mom was utterly flawless. 

Stockton, California
Summer 1979
We’re on the move again, the few items we own packed our Volkswagen bus. Mom turns the radio down. I let her weave her fingers between mine like a basket.
Squeezing my hand, she says, “Baby, don’t worry. Everything is okay. We’ll go to your Uncle Johnny’s. Soon my eye will heal, and we’ll go to Grandma and Grandpa’s.”
Hours later, her boyfriend’s voice rings in my head. “You fuckin’ whore, where’re you going?” The strike that followed was like a bundle of newspapers thrown from a high truck. Her eye now seems to blacken before me.
“Mom, I can’t wait to grow up and buy you a big house. I’m tired of moving in with other people.”
“Oh, baby, we’ll have a place soon,” she says.
“You promise we won’t go back to him this time?”
“I promise, Josh, but how do you expect to grow up and be a fireman if you can’t even help Mommy put out these little flames?” She leans over and blows air in my face.
“Stop,” I say, giggling.
 “Oh God, Josh, your fireman song!” She reaches out and cranks up the volume. At once, I recognize the song: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man. She would use it as a reference of communication throughout our lives. Calling it “The Fireman Song” for years. Repeating it so often, at times I’d forgot its actual name.
Dipping her head in exaggerated riffs, she turns to the chorus and says, “This song is my wish for you, Joshua,” as she again takes my hand.
Our arms swing between the seats and we sing: “Oh take your time and don’t move too fast, troubles will come, and they will pass. You’ll find a woman, and you’ll find love, and don’t forget, son, there is someone up above.”
Her way penetrates me. The man’s voice becomes hers. The words become her own, and in perfect sync we finish the hook: “Be a simple kind of man. Won’t ya’ do that for me son if you can…”
As the song fades I come to a familiar lightheartedness only she can channel at will. Thoughts of her big house and my fire truck fill my mind. The warm summer air slides through the buzzing bus as we trek into the unknown. Yes—even homeless, broke, and with her black eye—we are utterly flawless. My mother will stand alone to face what frightens us most: my fatherless world ahead.
But as time goes by, our ability to channel the music suffers under a weight of broken men, steadily suffering for decades, until everything once good in me becomes a spectator to all that isn’t.

January 26th, 2009. 
234 E. Tokay Street
Lodi California 

“I know where you live,” the voice says.
“If you know where I live, why in the fuck aren’t you here?”
“I will be,” the voice says. The call cuts short.
I toss my cell phone to the side of the bed and think, fuck him, nobody threatens me. I lie in quiet, thinking into the dark.          
I have voices too. Me—Josh Hattam—thirty-six years old. I spent the first half of my life pounded by voices, and the rest silencing them. It’s easy.
I move by my own fear. A man threatens. I move hard. Whether he’s alone or not. Has a weapon or not. In front of the gun tower or not. I move hard on him until one of us stops moving. And as I move, I carry certain voices.
The voices of the men who beat Mom before they beat me. The gargled voice of my father, from the gutter, half pint of Royal Gate at his side, soaking in his own filth for decades. My own voice as I look down at him, saying to myself, “You’re looking into your future and, no matter what you do, it won’t be good enough.”
The voice of the man who climbs in Mommy’s window. Holds a knife to Mommy’s throat. Rapes Mommy as I hide in the bathroom like a little coward—her voice crying as his says, “I’ll cut you bitch. Don’t you fuckin’ move.”
I hear the voice of the only man who loved me. My superhero. My Grandpa. On his deathbed. “Be a good boy Josh. Promise me you'll be a good boy.” I hear my own voice, from my knees, pleading—begging: “Please, God, don't take Grandpa,” before God takes him anyway.
I have other voices these days—Mom’s in the hospital again, and they’re talking leg amputation this time. Her voice haunts me: “Josh, are you on drugs again? Baby, you promised.”
It’s been six months since I paroled from San Quentin and I’ve only seen her a few times. I’m tormented by misgivings. But it’s been a week since I slept, and there wasn’t enough crystal meth in the world to keep me up another day. Mom and the voice on the phone would have to wait. I’m wasted, tired beyond belief. I turn over and pass out to darkness.
I awaken to what seems like a truck running through my head.
Gunfire. Crack, crack.
My head explodes. Liquid light stabs my opening eyes.
From above, a shadow says, “Die, motherfucker, die.”
I jump out of bed. We stand toe to toe. The gun reports again. Crack. Shielding my face with my arms, a bullet shreds my left arm, dropping it limp. Time to move!
I move through him. Over him. I move through the hallway. I break right into my bathroom and slam the door. I put everything I had against that door, and he pushes back.  “I’m hurt bad,” I say, my shoulder shoved against the door.
“It’s me. I told you I would come,” the voice from the phone says. He pounds against the door.
Turning, with two long strides and a big thrust, I launch myself through the bathroom window and out to the crack of dawn.
I land ass-first between a dead rosebush and a beat-up garbage can. I lay spread out on the hard dirt at the side-yard of my dilapidated house. Blood leaks from two bullet holes in my head, and another in my arm, painting the earth around me with each drop.
My labored breaths rise hard and fall mean but do little to quench my thirst for oxygen. Sweat, thick as oil, beads my brow like a wet windshield. My face, ghost white, stretches in shock with blood splatter and smears. I become polarized by a revelation: the fence, running parallel before it cut back against the house’s side, leaves me boxed in. I brace myself for him to circle the front yard and finish me. There is no tougher wait than the wait for the next bullet.
Waiting, I take in no new breath and soak in his proclamation. “I told you I would come,” he’d said.
Yes he had, I think, yes he had. I’d greatly underestimated his voice.
My left arm is bludgeoned. Its bend flecked with needle marks. Below them, a bullet had found flesh and bone, jagging the bone outward and raising the skin like a tent.
From my head, blood—sticky and wet—slides down my neck, to my shoulder, and down my back. I know what bullet holes to the head mean. I don’t need to see them.
I let watery snot run in my mouth and down my chin. My breath puffs white clouds. I peer through slits. The bullets in my head can’t be helped, but for one thing, there is time. Looking to the sky, with what I believe are my last words, I say, “Mom, forgive me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” My strained unnatural tone withers in the dawn as a thought wedges in: “I have come to despise the sound of my own fucking voice.”

One Mile Away
Lodi Hospital, Emergency Ward
There lies love and hope: My mother sleeps on the hospital bed, covered to the waist in a crisp white sheet. Her face soaks in the band of light cutting under the closed door.
She abruptly wakes to confusion. “Where am I?”
But looking down to her mangled legs, she remembers why she is here. It’s almost a year since the car struck her from behind, leaving her stretched out across the hard asphalt, her legs destroyed. Soon her doctor will arrive to discuss the pros and cons of amputation.
Closing her eyes, she holds back an emotional storm, telling herself, “Don’t you do it, Diana May, don’t you feel sorry for yourself.”
Her nurses’ voice breaks her mind’s spell. “Diana? Diana, your son—Joshua, is his last name Hattam?”
“Oh yes, is he here to visit me?”
An uncomfortable silence settles between them, their breath mingles and becomes one. “Diana, he’s been admitted to the E.R ... with gunshots to his head and arm, I think. I’m sorry, I have to go, they need me—pray for him, I’ll be back.” The nurse rushes out the door.
Crying, and with a familiar motion, she snatches the device and presses its button. The button collapses, signaling the I.V. more drugs are needed. The I.V. dispatches the morphine, landing it nicely in her bloodstream. A hot glowing ball grows in her stomach. A thick nirvanic numbness clogs her broken legs. The metal rods and pins and screws in her legs become buoyant. Her music returns in a smooth breath.
A brain aneurysm ten years prior fractured her short-term memory. This made it easy to live in the past. And from that past she manages to remember some of the song they played at her mother’s funeral. Her eyes drown and her mouth sings, singing, “In the Arms of an Angel,” the song she wept to at the burial.
 “In the arms of an angel, fly far away from here,” she sings. Her tears grow heavy, roll fat; she prays, and hums on.
Her prayer song is answered. I survive being gunned down, and she keeps her leg. But I have more prisons to see, drugs to do, vengeance to seek, and she will further use the opiate to channel her songs.
Within days of my release from the hospital, I am arrested for allegedly returning to a bar with a knife to slice a man’s throat. A few months later after a lost jury trial, I stand in shackles.
Mom’s caregiver rolls her into court to sing every mother’s song: “Your Honor, he’s my only child, he’s a good boy, he’s all I have. Please give my son another chance.” She sings her mom song as the life I live reflects on the surface of her face, pleading as the judge gives me a second strike and five years.
The following day I’m led from my cell to visiting. I sit in front of the glass partition, and watch my friend Ron walk in and sit on the other side. We pick up the two-way phones.
He says, “Well, court didn’t go to well.”
“You heard already, huh?”
“I sat right behind you.”
“I didn’t even notice. Thanks for going.”
“Five years ain’t so bad, with your credits you could be out in four.”
“Ron, I have strikes. Any felony and this is me for life. Mom’s gonna die, I’m gonna be struck out by another jury of my peers that couldn’t walk through the shit I had to endure and still pump fucking air. My life is shit. Revenge is the only thing keeping me from swinging myself from the ceiling by a sheet when I get back to my cell.”
“Josh, you’re still free, do you hear me? You’re still free.”
“Excuse me, Ron, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Leaning closer he says, “Sometimes we hear things now, that save us later.” Pausing, his eyes penetrate the glass, “You’re still free; you’re free to love, or to hate. Free to drink poison, hoping other men will sicken, or free to forgive them and take personal responsibility for your life. I know you carry a great pain, but in spite of that pain you’re still free, even here, you’re free to carry that burden, or to drop it…and this decision, that you are still free to make, will write the new story of your life.”

Deuel Vocational State Prison
Tracy California, December 2009
In prison books are a commodity, so when, in a prior letter, Mom said, “Joshua, I sent you a book, and this book will change your life.” I’ve been anxious for its arrival since.
The day comes. A corrections officer drops the book on the tier, kicks it under my cell door, and says, “Hattam, sign the book log and return my pen.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, picking up the slender book and the receipt.
I feel let down. It’s so thin. I will tear through it before breakfast. Books are my salvation. I learned, as a little boy – after reading my first book, Where the Red Fern Grows – a book’s ability to move me.
I’ve read thousands of books and this one, The Alchemist, doesn’t look like much. I pick up the little book and turn to its first page.
I finish it hours later. The book rests on my stomach, still open to its last page. The book’s after-glow has its way with me. Like a piping hot cup of cocoa, it works its way inside my chest and sooths me in a warm embrace. I contemplate the spirit of the story and it stretches and expands to an idea: “Maybe I should write a book.”
I run my fingers over its cover and down its spine. I admire its simplicity, open it to its first page, and start again. The following day I finish and as before, I bask in its afterglow.
The seed again presents itself. “Maybe I can write a book.”
“But, you can’t write,” a voice says. “And you will never finish.”
I push the voice back, trying to shear my mind against further invasion.
The voice returns, stroking and searching for weakness. In a barely audible whisper it speaks again. “You dropped out in the 7th grade. You can’t write a book.”
This is the moment—I realize the voices in my head have been sabotaging me for decades. They speak, I listen. They were the factor to which nothing would multiply. The rock I smash my fireman dream against.
I thought about what the man in the book had told the boy about following dreams. In prison dreams fade until you hardly remember what they were. But I remember with absolute certainty what my dreams once were. Picking up my prison pencil, lowering my hand, I write the proceeding sentence, “I don’t know when the voices first drowned our song, I first remember hearing them at three.” I write that sentence and the voice is silenced.
 Into my fourth year, I speak to Mom by phone and, like times before, her drug use has increased. Her lips slur to the opiate. She nods out and drops the phone.
“Mom, Mom, can you hear me?”
Silence. I walk back across the prison yard with a gun slinger’s stroll as I cry inside. A week later, March 20th, 2012, she succumbs to the absolute weight of the drug stone, overdosing and drowning her music forever.
On the day of her memorial, a letter she sent prior to her death arrives under my prison cell door. I stand on the cold cement, amongst the lonely steel, on this boulevard of broken dreams, and open her final song to me. It reads:
Joshua, please don’t be mad at me. I’m in a lot of pain and it’s hard to write. I’m tired baby. I can’t walk or drive any more. The doctor gives the pills. I have no choice. I’m sorry about the phone call, but I was in a lot of pain and took a few too many. I’m tired Josh.
Please don’t do drugs anymore and hurt people. I didn’t raise you like that. Please be a simple man! Just like your little song we used to sing. I worry about you in there. I watch those shows, I know how it is.
You’re my only child, and when you turn your life around it will make everything bad go away for both of us. You are so smart and talented, I wonder if you know that.
God has a plan for you. I love you. I can’t wait to read more of your book! Please write more, I love reading it. It gives me worth.
Love and hope,
Mom                        
There is no God, and prison is no place to grieve. I close the letter and pick up my pen. I write like my life depends on it and—like Ron said—I’m still free. For the next fifteen months, I write and read—to learn to write better. I write to the bone.
It’s May 15th, 2013, a breeze gooses my skin as I walk out of Soledad State Prison with one-hundred forty dollars, two strikes, a sixth-grade education, and a dormant drug habit.  I stand at the gate clutching a banker’s box filled with withered manila folders containing two-hundred and twenty-four stained and dog-eared pages of pencil and pen, my manuscript of The Fireman Song, Mom’s letters, and my copy of The Alchemist. It’s not much, but it’s all I got. That and Mom’s dying wish, “Please finish your book, please finish our song, I would be so proud if my baby became a published author,” echoing my mind.
I think of the little boy in the book when he realizes his treasure was beside the place of his original dream. I also think of the men who hurt Mom and my pulse quickens— men who falsely testified against me; and the man who I beat in a fair fight, who later crowbarred my back door open, put a gun to my head and shot me in my sleep. I stand thinking of them—many who can now be touched.
I stand in front of a gun tower, at a crossroads, and my life isn’t a fairytale. But maybe it could be.  And like Ron said, I’m still free.
I stand free clutching my box as parole pulls up at the front gate, steps out of the car and says, “Hattam, F94976?”
“Yes, sir,” I say, closing the distance to the car.
“We’re not stopping anywhere, I don’t care how much time you pulled.” Popping the trunk, he adds, “Put that box in the back.”
“No Sir,” I say, opening the car door. “It doesn’t leave my side, it’s all I got.”

Joshua A. Hattam, dropped out of school in the seventh grade, to pursue a life of crime. He learned to write while serving over a decade behind bars. He quit his job as an enforcer for a outlaw motorcycle club to change his life and pursue writing full time. He lives in San Francisco, with his fiancé, their two dogs, and cat, where he is finishing his memoir, The Fireman Song.