Whatever happened to the power-chord?
To which my boyfriend lit a bowl
Was A Stairway to Heaven really the greatest song?
Think it over as you pass that on
Said he’d love me till the end of time;
Forever came to stay in 1989
Still, he was never all so great;
For me that bell had tolled in ‘88
Thirty years go by in the glaze of an eye;
Can it be it’s always the promising future that lies?
When my sister Tess and I were girls we’d often visit our father’s grave in New Town Cemetery. Although he had died suddenly when I was two and Tess an infant (thus destined to be little more to us than a face in the family photo album and a grave in the cemetery), we’d make time for “Dear Father” because we had agreed that it was the sort of thing daughters should do. I would recite a psalm memorized from Granna Ivy’s Bible, and Tess would lay a hastily clapped-together bouquet of daisies, buttercups and bluebells on his headstone. I recall admonishing her for the frequent inclusion of dandelions to the arrangement, “Those are weeds, numbskull.” Tess would defend the addition of dandelions on the grounds that “Nobody grows daisies, buttercups or bluebells on purpose, either, bonehead.”
Before leaving, Tess invariably insisted that I follow her around the cemetery as though she were a tour guide. She knew where all the old graves were and got downright sentimental over the angel-topped tombstones of the many children lost due to the Torqwamni County Influenza Epidemic of 1906. This caused me to figure that Tess probably came to the cemetery on her own, even though Mom would have had a major conniption if she had known that her carefree, “head-in-the-clouds” youngest daughter routinely crossed busy 11th Street by herself. I never brought the subject up because Tess knew that I had a cache of filched make-up, a bottle of Emarude (the sort of “perfume” drugstores sold by the pint), and, perhaps, the longest lasting pack of Camel cigarettes in world history, all stashed in a cubby-hole behind dryer #3 in our building’s laundry room–certainly not items you want your mother to know about when you’re twelve.
Tess saw something special in the cemetery that I never got until many years, and Tess, had passed. I reacted to the place the way I guess most people do–with a quiet reverence, similar to what you feel in your grandparents’ house, which quickly degrades into boredom and spawns the desire to go do something else. I once asked her “What’s so special about a graveyard anyways, birdbrain?” Tess’s reply became her stock answer for things she had keen knowing of yet lacked the words to express her feelings about, clearly: “It’s the dreampurple light, meathead.”
Methadone, when cut with cherry syrup, isn’t quite dreampurple, but it comes close. Once, shortly after my divorce, Tess got me to take a nip off her Sunday carry so I too could see the dreampurple light (junkies are notoriously and rightfully stingy about sharing their dope, but since she had–with my money–purchased two extra carries that Saturday, she could afford to be generous). After my stomach had turned cartwheels on its way up to my mouth, my system suddenly settled down and I experienced a giddy euphoria far superior to a liquor high, and, yes, a dreampurple light, that I had never dreamt possible. When reality finally slouched its way back home a few hours later, I looked at it differently and with great suspicion: Just a teaspoon of the right stuff can make you fall to pieces.
Tess and I followed different lifepaths that had been inspired by the same cause. Neither of us wanted to end up like Mom. (Right here I must fight off a seemingly irresistible urge to qualify that last statement; to somehow gentle it; to cut it with the verbal equivalent of cherry syrup. You know, “We loved Mom, but we didn’t want to wind up like her.” Do you now see how strong an urge that was?) All right, to hell with it; I’ll let it have its say:
Life is so goddam arrogant. It casts you aside and then comes bopping back around later as though nothing had happened, and then has the gall to wonder why you have let yourself down. I see that for Mom, now. I see myself in the role of life wondering why a woman who came from abuse and poverty, had no education, had married at sixteen and was widowed in the 1960s by twenty, hadn’t done more with her life. What was it I had expected to happen? Then again maybe she too had seen the dreampurple light in the taverns and dancehalls she went to on Saturday night, after a long week of stocking shelves at Charleston Hardware. Maybe she saw it in the eyes of the sailors (aka, squids) and yardbirds she occasionally “stopped” when her resistance was low and loneliness high. I can afford to be generously philosophical about that now; not so much when I had to wrap a pillow around my head to drown out the groaning and pushing out in the front room. How I hated her for that.
Small town ghettos are no less dangerous or desperate than those you find in big cities. In a way they are worse because the antisocial, self-described lone wolves destined to never depart from their way of thinking tend to paradoxically huddle together in areas in which the division between day and night is found where shadows lay crooked–and where the villians all know one another, if not by name, then by deed. Such can be said about Charleston’s Corson Street and Torqwamni Hill districts. I’m one of the few to have escaped T-Hill and prospered. And like most escapees, when I return I seldom get out of my car. But lately I have come to the realization that I never have really freed myself, for a little voice in my head reminds me that, “There hadn’t been enough future for two, was there, hammerhead?”
I’ve always been a big sucker for the Loser Makes Good stories that you see in the movies; those which usually involve plucky, put upon heroines like Anne of Green Gables, or down and outers, such as Rocky Balboa. People Who Overcome; Cinderella to infinity. I suppose I can claim the same distinction, although it had begun with one of the uglier vignettes in my life. You see, my way Up and Out was lighted by an incomprehensibly stupid decision on my part at the start of summer vacation between sixth and seventh grades. Mom finally caught me painted up like an old whore, steeped in Emarude, smoking a Camel, and sharing a bottle of Mad Dog 2020 with a pimply faced young squid (who had unwittingly, or otherwise, wandered within yelling distance of committing a major felony) in the alley when I was thirteen. What actually sealed my future was that she had attempted to spank me right there in the alley as though I were a little kid. I struck her. Hard. Right “in the kisser,” as we used to put it. My victory, however, was short lived. Mom got a look in her face that said, “All right, so that’s how you want it, sister,” and laid me out with a left cross. “On the button,” as we also used to say, in those long dead years (never to be confused with The Good Old Days) when there was no CPS and domestic violence was considered a result of marrying poorly. I came to on the sofa to the sight of Tess holding a dish towel full of ice cubes against my jaw and the sound of Mom’s excited voice on the horn with my Aunt Lisa, my father’s older sister, who lived out in the countryside. But what I remember most was the pride and love in Tess’s face. For whatever reason, I lay basked in dreampurple light.
The old rebel in me so does want to relate that Aunt Lisa and Uncle Ray were violent religious fanatics who beat me and put me to work in the fields from dawn to dusk; and that I subsisted on stone soup and rat meat until I ran off to the big city and Made a Big Noise. But, in fact, they were good, if not overly spectacular, people. Especially she. What a cliché I was back then. I mean, really, is there anything more hateful than a thirteen-year-old girl who knows everything?
I stayed there for three months, all goddam summer. Call it attitude rehab, I guess. Funny thing was that it took my own version of the dreampurple light to nudge me off a path that most likely would have led me to the Mission Camp State Girls’ School (never to be confused with Vassar) and/or dropping out of high school because I couldn’t find a sitter. I found it in a box of old magazines and books in Ray and Lisa’s attic. They had belonged to my late father.
The box contained copies of The New Yorker, some of which dated back to its early days in the mid-1920s, along with books of verse by Dorothy Parker (including her “portable”) and Ogden Nash, plus a great deal of James Thurber. I think if it hadn’t been for the sleek art-deco covers of the magazines that I would have blown it all off as just another box of junk. I don’t precisely recall sitting down and opening the first magazine, but I do remember coming out of a trance of sorts some two hours later when Aunt Lisa had to call me three times for lunch.
I wanted a world like that. I wanted wit, a cloche hat and a little dog on a leash. Mostly the gaiety. Here, I guess, you should think something like The Thin Man, if you know it. And for the first time I thought that I could create such a place in my own mind and put it down in my own words.
Write what you know. Right? Trouble was I didn’t want to think about what I knew. In my world nobody was all that witty beyond “That’s what she said”; no one under sixty wore a cloche hat, and the dog always seemed to have the runs. I also knew about the addicts and perverts who oozed unchecked on Corson Street during the late sixties and early seventies. One time, Tess and I were lucky enough to happen on a sick bastard masturbating with one hand while holding a copy of “Jugs” in the other. This cherished memory happened when I was ten, and Tess, eight–right behind Elmo’s Adult Books, in the alley that ran between Corson and Wycoff–about ten yards from our front door. The piece of shit saw us, grinned, pointed his penis at us and
said, “Show me your titties, little girls.” We ran like hell into our apartment, both of us laughing and not at all afraid because he couldn’t very well chase us with his pants down around his ankles like that. This color of thing happened almost all the time. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood that the “good” people believe such things happen only in places like Corson Street, and not in our neighborhood. Self-described good people are fools who support their own devised truth regardless of the mounting evidence against it. The plain fact is this: most perverts go where there are no cops; and nearly all of them live in your neighborhood.
So I wrote. Poorly at start, but it got better, if never good. I’m the first person in my family ever to graduate from college, at which I majored in Accounting and minored in English (I had been advised, wisely, that most people who write for a living do not live high on the food chain; and that the reason they wear tweed jackets is for the ample pockets into which free buffet items slide nicely). I’m a CPA/writer who owns her own firm. Last year, on my never to be considered fictional tax return, eight-percent of the gross came from writing, the greater bulk from CPA-ing.
Such is the world in which we live–or so I had been duped into believing.
Tess never found anything even socially acceptable to love or settle for in the dreampurple light. Hers was a world of dreams that she refused to let go of or express beyond the acknowledgement of the dreampurple light. For years on end I sent her to the best rehab facilities I could afford and I never abandoned her when she had her inevitable relapse; and I know that I was the last person she had spoken to on the night she died. “Love ya’, chowderhead,” was the last thing she said to me. “Uh huh,” I said. “If you still feel that way tomorrow, then you won’t pretend to have slept through your goddam alarm. I mean it, Tessie, don’t leave me hanging. Love you,bye.”
The worst thing was that she wanted to do better for me. If there is one thing I could go back and have a chance at doing over again, the elimination of her need to do it for me would be it. But, damn it, how many chances did I need? What was I waiting for? Wasn’t a lifetime enough?
After all this time I have learned that some people are just that way. The only path that leads them to happiness requires the physical alteration of the brain via chemistry. For me, this means that everything we feel, from the high to the low, is nothing more than the result yielded by the mindless secretions of stuff that looks like fish guts. A voice in my head asks me, “No shit, knothead. What do you think causes it, magic?”
I need magic for certain things the same way I need the assurance of eternal fairplay for those persons whom God has cheated.
I opened my checkbook for the last time for Tess in order to see her out the best I could. She’s buried in New Town Cemetery, between Mom and “Dear Father.” I gave the mortician a small lock box, and I slipped the key to it on the charm bracelet I had given her on her last birthday, and that would be on her wrist upon her burial. The mortician is a friend, and he knew not to look inside the lock box. If he did he would have found four of Tess’s last five carries from the methadone clinic (whose patrons composed most of the funeral party), five-hundred dollars cash, a check for a thousand more, clean works, a teener of black tar heroin (never mind how I got it, although you’ll probably guess where), and a strip of four black and white pictures taken of us in the Woolworth’s photo booth, back when we, and the world, were much younger. All of it symbolic, of course, and all of it designed to make only me feel better–unless God suddenly decides to stop being a shell game street hustler and gets back on the job.
I went to see her yesterday, on the one-month anniversary of her death. I laid a small bouquet compose of daisies, buttercups, bluebells, and, yes, dandelions, on her tombstone. I purposely omitted the recitation of a memorized psalm. I sat down and uncapped the fifth methadone carry that I had held back from the lock box, drank half of it and poured the rest into the soil under which she lay. Even if only to the degree of sentimentality, I had done my best to give Tess what it had been she loved most. After swallowing back the sparse contents in my stomach that the drug had evicted upon its arrival, I said, “Love you, numbskull. I hope there’s nothing now for you but the dreampurple light.”
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