Saturday, June 28, 2008
When I woke up I was already walking inside of an old institutional building, a hall of doorways with transoms evenly spaced on both sides, and Diedre was at my side, pushing me along from the back of my arm. We were in a hallway adjacent to Death Row in the state penitentiary. I was surprised that no one was there to stop us, but Diedre’s momentum kept us moving right into one of the rooms. It was like a classroom in the oldest building at my high school, dirty green walls with darkly over-stained wood trim around everything from the dusty hardwood floors to the high water-stained ceiling. All that was missing was a chalkboard. “Diedre,” I said, “our moms?”
“Asleep,” she said. “Don’t worry. I left the AC on.”
Immediately inside the door I recognized the prison electric chair from what I’d seen on TV, but it was much smaller than I had envisioned. The cleaning people, all of them old and black, were in the process of taking it apart, producing things in their pink wrinkled palms for us to inspect. Some copper plates had been removed, and an old woman in a kerchief held one up to me. It was just a little bigger than her outstretched hand. I laid my hand on it, and where I made contact it was cool to the touch for just a moment before it reached body temperature. She held it silently, never looking into my face. The workers all seemed cowed by our presence, tentatively presenting the small parts in their calloused hands to Diedre and me before wiping them with rags and returning them to the chair. She took back the copper plate and wiped it free of my handprint, and before she laid it on the chair’s thick oak arm she showed me that it was clean. It was as though she and the others believed Diedre and I belonged there.
At the far end of the room, two skeletons were sitting upright on a church pew. Their postures were like riders waiting at a bus stop, aloof and unaware of one another. The skeletons weren’t as pristine as the one I’d seen in science class. Some flecks of flesh were still attached to the bones. As we moved farther into the room, the chair cleaners ignored us. Next to the church pew, a box was piled up with miscellaneous bones, disconnected ribs sitting on top, scraped clean of most of their tissue. I glanced around but did not see anyone scraping bones. Tucked between the box and the pew was a lone skull, one that looked more like an ape’s than a human’s, like the skull of a prehistoric man. I knelt down to it and saw something familiar about the shape of its empty eye sockets. This must be Sid, I thought. Cro-Magnon man, we used to call him. Waiting for his bones to be reassembled to make a skeleton like the others that had been seated on the pew.
So there had been three executions, I guessed, Tim, Sid, and some guy I didn’t know, and if I’d guessed right about the skull being Sid, then one of the two skeletons on the church pew must be Tim. Tim and Sid, neither particularly good students, were both going to spend eternity as props in some classroom.
Diedre was examining something that looked like an intact spine. The snake-shaped thing was in a box on a low square table and had the most flesh still attached to it of all the specimens lying around. The fresh tissue was pink and glistening, but it showed signs of severe trauma, red and purple splotches and scorches like a bruised gum. Diedre was leaning down so close to the spine that her shirt sleeve was brushing against it, becoming wet in the surrounding fluid. I was disgusted, almost crying. Clearly someone had died in agony only a short time ago. Diedre had a spinal birth defect, a deformed vertebra she once told me, that caused her chronic pain. She was probably examining the disembodied vertebrae with her own in mind, performing her own personal autopsy. It might not be Sid, I thought. It might be from the corpse of the guy I didn’t know about until we arrived in this room. The stranger seemed to exist to diminish my horror for the same reason that one gun in a firing squad is always loaded with blanks.
“Poor old Sid,” I said, tearing up, “poor old Sid,” just like I was eulogizing a beloved pet. He was a classmate, but he had never been my friend. Now he was dead and Tim was dead, too. Tim’s bones sat on that church pew just like he was ready to start shooting the shit with the stranger, looking right through me from the bench outside the school cafeteria, waiting for Kay Bradley to finish her lunch and come outside. His death already seemed old to me, and I accepted it because it was acceptable. But dear God, for some reason I just couldn’t get over poor Sid.
To be continued…
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
the Arctic Monkeys at Glastonbury, summer 2007
'Poor Sid' will return one day soon.
Vernon Reid, leader of the band Living Colour, was asked to provide commentary on 2 films that will be shown at the new visitors center at Bethel Woods, NY, the site of Woodstock in 1969. In speaking of the influence of that event on the future experiences of younger musicians, he articulates a philosophy that has become a religion for me: the need for openness of heart and mind to opportunities that exist in each moment. In other words, in my own spiritual terms, God=Opportunity. That’s all; recognizing the opportunities that lie in our path, often disguised as obstacles, is the same as recognizing this Being or Force or Spirit that is supposed to give cohesion to our lives.
I was only 9 the summer of Woodstock, and I think Vernon Reid was even younger, but he tapped into what became possible that summer when he said, “It was about being where you are, in the moment you’re in, and making things happen as much as you could in that moment. That’s something that’s not tied to any one time period; that’s a value. When my snare drum gets torn, when things go wrong, what do I do next? Woodstock, from beginning to end, was a series of things exactly like that—a production that ran on spirit, will and improvisational experience.”
Monday, June 23, 2008
I saw Tim one time when I was home from college, pumping gas into his rusty Buick at the StarFlite while I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s mint green Cadillac in my Sunday clothes. He had gray bags under his eyes, and the beginnings of a gut extruded over his belt beneath his T-shirt. He had puffed up like a rooster to become the overweight redneck his adolescent frame had foreshadowed, but his hair was still dirty black and straight to his shoulders. Our eyes met, and I slid away from the window to the hump over the transmission (which is pronounced even in a Cadillac) so that I made myself into an unapproachable princess stuck up there on the middle of the seat, not even acknowledging that I knew him.
Sid McCarthy was the other kid that was executed that night that I had known. I hadn’t seen him since High school, but I remembered Sid as The Dumb One, a big sweet blonde jock that everyone liked but thought was really stupid. Recently, I had to rack my brain to know how I’d ever had a class with someone as dumb as Sid, but then I remembered that Sid was surprisingly good at math and ended up in my calculus class senior year. He was sort of an idiot savant of derivatives.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
A new short story, working title POOR SID
Part 1 (Deidre)
Deidre and I had taken turns driving our mothers on about half a dozen of these jaunts since I moved back from California. She was two years older than I was, so she didn’t pay much attention to me and my friends in high school. But I told her last night when we were planning this trip that I was a classmate of the two guys whose pictures had taken up half of yesterday’s front page. I confided to her that I was particularly uneasy about Timmy Reardon—I’d always felt pretty bad that I had snubbed a lot of people in those days when I decided I was going to California (never to return, of course), snubbed them on principle because they were still here, Deidre included, and I was ready to be anywhere but.
However, since I failed at what I went there to do, I came back to swallow my pride, and for the time being, live with my widowed mother.
Part 2 (Mom)
I shrugged at Deidre from the front porch where I had been holding the screen door open for about three minutes while my mother disputed something Aunt Cookie, Deidre’s mother, was saying in the kitchen.
Deidre was smart to be in the car. I was sure she already had the air conditioning on full blast because I saw dry wisps of blonde hair blowing straight back from her temples. The AC was so palpable that I almost smacked my lips in anticipation of it. When I stamped my foot impatiently, for Deidre’s benefit only, it was because I knew my mother would never be able to find her missing Cover Girl pressed-powder compact if she was preoccupied, so I prayed silently that Aunt Cookie would just shut up for a minute.
“You count your carbohydrates, not your calories,” Aunt Cookie said, explaining the diet for the second time.
“How do you lose weight if you don’t count calories?” My mother’s voice trailed from the kitchen to the hall, her eyes trained down to any surface where she might have left the compact.
Because you count your carbohydrates, Gracie,” Aunt Cookie insisted, as though my mother were missing the brain cells needed to understand her premise. Each time she repeated her new dieting mantra, her pitch rose and fell like the refrain from a nursery rhyme. Like jack and Jill went up the hill to count their carbohydrates. Like Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall, Humpty Dumpty counted them all.
Finally, my mother found her compact in her other purse, and they were out the door. We now had a two hour drive ahead of us through the flat Carolina piedmont to the old country road known as Antique Row. My sweet cousin Deidre smiled at me in the rear-view mirror, and I smiled back. I suddenly felt very tired. Deidre agreeably kept silent, and I sank down, wedging my head between the seat and the window so it wouldn’t do the dashboard-bobble-head-dog roll that it always did when I slept in cars or on the plane.
Part 3 (Timmy)
At two minutes after midnight the night before, the state electrocuted two men I’d known when I was younger. The two were executed for shooting a family in their station wagon—the mom, the dad, the three kids in the backseat—who happened to pull into the parking lot of the convenience store Tim and Sid had just robbed, momentarily blocking in the getaway car.
One of the men was Timmy Reardon. He had been a kind of thuggy kid that I once liked in that way that adolescent girls say they “like” someone. Tim wore his black hair long, and it separated into greasy strands where it broke against his shoulders. In seventh grade he wore zippered velour shirts that matched his Peter Max corduroy pants, a sure sign that his mother still picked out his clothes. He was my boyfriend for three glorious days that year until he found out my rival Kay Bradley had broken up with her beau. To this day, if I catch the scent of cheap musk cologne in a drug store, it reminds me of that moment with my face against Tim’s chest, the cologne making an odd caricature of the vestiges of baby fat that concealed his chest muscles, just before he walked away from me to Kay’s waiting arms across the school cafeteria. But Tim and I stayed friends, and that year at Christmas he gave me a tiny gold-plated cross on a delicate gold chain. He said that he’d asked his mother to help him pick it out. I wore it even though it turned my neck green, and eventually the little cross was completely encrusted with a pale husk of aquamarine brine.
To be continued…
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Now there are five people here in this house who love me, if you count the baby, four in this room and Estrella, it has just dawned on me, in the kitchen. Should I say it out loud? “Three year ago I would have been standing in this room alone. Now there are four people here who love me, if you count the baby.” My wife smiles up at me from the couch and says, “Ummm.” My boy and the little girl take their eyes off the baby’s face for a moment, look at me, and wonder if I’m going to cry or say something else. The baby continues to breathe.
I’m standing in this room of perfect love. At this minute my family is poised before me like a snapshot of all my desires being fulfilled. I am struck by a vision of Estrella kneeling behind my wife and supporting her as the baby is pushed out into my trembling hands, Estrella’s smooth brown hand calmly stroking the side of my wife’s face. She is whispering a prayer in Spanish.
It will be another year before I sleep with the maid, and one of those times will be just inches away from the very stain the baby’s birth left on the carpet. When my wife finds out and I tell her it meant nothing she will say, “She is our maid, for God’s sake. You screwed her in the afternoon and three hours later you sat here and ate the meatloaf she made for dinner. How can you compartmentalize your life like that?” She will be pointing at the head of the table where we eat, but my eyes glide past her hand to the floor. I can’t answer her. By then I will have realized that desires are never fulfilled; they are only temporarily satiated.
In five years we will try to have another baby. My firstborn son will be married, and my wife will turn to me as we leave the church, the gleam of hope in her eyes utterly crushing me. During the ceremony she prayed to be pregnant, she will tell me. At that moment I will pray that Estrella, who is no longer our maid but still my lover, is not.
In ten years I’ll be diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Close to the end, I will tell my wife she and the children are going to be all right without me. My wife will cry, “No, I won’t. We were supposed to spend the rest of our lives together.”
“This is the rest of my life.”
But Estrella will tell me with her eyes the very last time we make love, “I will know you beyond the grave.”