I half-seriously considered boosting the copy of the Beatles’ “White Album” I gave my sister Tess on her tenth birthday in 1972. I didn’t care who made it; I didn’t care if it was a double album–seven bucks for a four-year-old record was bullshit. I figured I could easily outrun the young clerk who looked like the only person in The House of Values remotely fit and crazy enough to give chase. For if I did make the move, it would come to that. Getting away unnoticed with an album was impossible due to its shape; almost as dumb as trying to conceal a basketball under your sweater. But a little voice told me that it was bad luck to steal a birthday present if you have the money. So, I wound up buying the goddamn thing, but I hooked a Rocky Road bar at the register so I wouldn’t go away feeling like a complete chump
Still, I walked home unhappy about the situation. The income Tess and I had made from a lucrative porn business at school had dried up because a new Richard Speck type of person had taken over the magazine drops behind Elmo’s Adult Books; he stayed until the dirty old bastard answered the bell–the previous Speck often drove away before Elmo waddled back, thus giving us plenty of time to help ourselves to some of the delivery. So, the loss of our source ended the picture business, which was probably for the best because one boy got pinched holding an especially vile group sex thing. If he had squealed the money his parents had laid out for braces would have been wasted. But he kept his mouth shut about us and said he found it lying in the street. It was a miracle we never got busted.
“Happy birthday, molecule.” I said handing Tess the album, on the morning of her birthday.
As it also goes for basketballs, there’s no need to gift wrap an LP.
Tess was almost as amazed by the receipt I’d taped to the album (in case it turned out to be a skipper) as by the present itself.
“You actually paid for it?” she said, for Tess often spoke first and thought later. She was in the kitchen, eating her idea of breakfast–Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, dry, straight out of the box.
This prompted a dark look from Mom, who was lurking hard by, shrouded by Winston smoke the same way Saturn has rings, but no comment. She was busy getting ready for work. Mom had tired of welfare and got a job at Howell Hardware through her best friend Nora. She had been threatening to go to work for a long time. I figured it occurred to her that she may as well because it would hardly cut into her parental duties–like, say, making breakfast. To be fair, I honestly don’t recall ever seeing her eat anything before noon. And to be fairer still, she had actually wrapped the art supplies that were her presents to Tess, and had bought a cake at Gavin’s bakery, which was parked in the fridge as were all things we didn’t want to share with the roaches.
“This is so cool,” Tess said, “Thank you, thank you.”
I grabbed the box of cereal from Tess and poured a bowl. Unlike her, I ate mine with milk. I opened the fridge and discovered that there was maybe an inch of milk in the bottle. Even though I was the person who’d left it that way, the nearly empty bottle placed me in a pissy mood; whenever that happened I had to rain on Mom; I had to fuck with it.
“I hear some mothers buy milk and bake cakes for their kid’s birthdays,” I said.
Mom could twitch her head the same way that Elsa Lancheseter did in The Bride of Frankenstein when you fucked with it . She’d quickly “flit” her head like a sparrow or a hawk–depending on the mood of the room. It was a strange movement so sudden that it appeared to finish before it began.
“Something wrong, Miss?” Mom’s head twitched twice more and she measured me with a gunfighter gaze.
That remark was, of course, expected, since I’d earned it. And I would have replied in a manner that suited the situation if not for a pleading look in Tess’s eyes. She always got anxious when Mom and I flared up. But the best I could do was shrug and shake my head no as I began to eat my mostly dry cereal. After all, it was her birthday.
“You sure about that, Miss? I’d hate for there to be something wrong with buying your little sister a birthday cake.”
That was another problem with Mom. She pushed. Even I, at twelve, occasionally displayed a general understanding of the concept of letting shit slide, but not Mom. Often, I’m surprised that her attitude allowed her to live to almost eighty.
Tess wouldn’t always have the luck of the timely interruption going for her, but Nora’s arrival at that moment wasn’t unexpected, and it removed the stress from Tess’s eyes, and prevented me from criticizing Mom about the lack of milk, thus leading hell knows where. Nora was close enough to have the right to sort of knock on the door on her way in, which happened instead of a mother-daughter showdown.
“Hey, hey, hey,” she said, “Troy’s gonna give us a ride if you get a move on.” Troy was her boyfriend, nice enough, and though not a Speck, he was illiterate; yet he had served in the Korean War and worked at the shipyard, even though he could barely sign his name to his paychecks. I could hear his car rumbling out front–a ‘66 Olds Dynamic 88 that was hell on mufflers. Still, it beat the bus.
Mom dropped her gunfighter gaze and grabbed her coat off the sofa in the living room, then her keys and two packs of smokes off the kitchen counter. She dumped the last of her coffee in the sink. “Ready.”
“Wait a minute, hon,” Nora said. She ran over and kissed Tess on the check. “Happy birthday, kiddo.” She pulled a small gift wrapped package out of her pocket and handed it to Tess.
“Thank you, thank you,” Tess said. We used to call her Auntie Nora when we were small. But as we got older there was an awkward in between phase between that and just plain Nora, in which we avoided calling her anything.
“Go ahead and open it now,” Nora said, “I can’t make your party tonight.” (For the record, it was a Mickey Mouse wrist watch.)
She filched a Crunchberry out of my bowl and popped it in her mouth. “These taste like shit without milk, sister,” Nora said to me with a wink.
I had to smile, unwittingly, or perhaps otherwise, Nora had bit Mom for me.
We were too young to have gotten infected with the original strain of Beatlemania. I was two and a half years older than Tess and held only fuzzy memories of their arrival (mainly, I recall a stupid cartoon show, voiced by pretend Beatles). Save for Mom’s kitchen radio eternally set on “Kountry KAYO,” music was never a big part of our lives until Tess discovered the dreampurple beauty of the sixties. It was like her to support a dream that had died, to root through the cold ashes of torched martyrs for moods and glimmers. Tess in all ways was all about the beautiful loser. It made sense that big winners like the Beatles had to break up before she could like them. Still, she once told me that she didn’t trust the Beatles “all the way” until Lennon was killed. I understood.
We had a kiddie record player that Tess had received for Christmas a couple years before. It was actually pretty good for 45’s by silly bubblegum acts such as the Ohio Express, Archies and 1910 Fruitgum Company–but was plain dumb-looking with a serious piece of music on it. Plus the needle had dulled to the sharpness of a carrot stick and the speaker was not much better than that of a clock radio.
Fortunately, the Moonlight Moving Company soon came by.
“Here,” I said. I’d carried a set of small stereo speakers down the fire escape in a laundry bag and passed it to Tess from my perch on the first rung.
“Hope they work,” she whispered.
“Be careful with those. Any signs?”
“I would’ve said so, Sar-duh,” she replied.
“Kinda hard to say anything with a busted face– Get those in the house, come back and I’ll be down with the rest in a minute.”
“What’s the magic word?”
“Rightfuckinnow,” I said as I began to climb back up the fire escape. I needed her to hide them in case someone did see us. Better something than nothing, even if at the temporary cost of my lookout.
“The Moonlight Moving Company” often visited our building. It was usually engaged around the tenth of the month, which was the very last day you could pay or get eighty-sixed. Whenever we figured someone had skipped, we’d check to see if there might be something to gain from it.
When I had to look up “slattern” in the dictionary at school, years later, Iris Roebecke instantly came to mind. She was married to an alcoholic handyman named Carl, whose neck was coated with perma-dirt; I couldn’t imagine touching him.
There was no such thing as a live-in manager of our building. A title company uptown owned it and most of the other tenements at the foot of Torqwamni Hill. You had to take your rent to the firm in person, and if there was a problem with the building, you called the office and would get the Robeckes instead of professional plumbers or electricians. The Roebeckes lived in the West Park Section 8 housing development on T-Hill (Rockcandyland of the local poor). She was a hard worker, though a fellow thief, who cleaned the halls, laundry room and vacated units; when he wasn’t sober, Carl was capable of maintaining the building at a prayer and duct tape level of proficiency. His hands shook too much otherwise.
We got home from school on the eleventh and Tess went around to check for padlocks. If you didn’t pay by the fifth, you got a notice taped to your door on the sixth, and if still in arrears after the tenth, that’s when the padlock happened. All the doors were fitted for such an event–except ours because I’d pulled the rings out of spite. Tess found an eviction notice on a padlocked door on the third floor. You had to be awfully hard up not to make third floor rent; they shared a bath at the end of the hall and ran all of twenty-five bucks a month. Carl must have had enough control over his hands to set the lock. Sometime soon, that afternoon, or the next morning, Mrs. Roebecke would be along to clean out the room in more than one sense.
The fire escape was slapped on due to city law. It ran up the side of the house sheltered by a large maple, and would have been perfect for burglars if there was anything there worth the trouble. It was the part of the day when people were either at work or at welfare or social security. Anyway, although it was impossible to prevent detection if someone looked out a window or happened to come around the side, I really didn’t care about the risk, as long as I was the only one on the hook.
Moonlight Movers always left something behind. Especially those who were one step ahead of the Law. Naturally, they left shit behind for the most part–but sometimes there’d be good stuff. Nearly all the long term residents (us included) owed a great deal of their furniture to Moonlight Movers. This guy had abandoned a cheap Montgomery Ward Stereo system. After Tess had discovered the padlock, I went up and peeked through the open window. Carl Roebecke was hardly Elliot Ness when it came to sealing a room. I scaled back down and told Tess about the stereo and to fetch both laundry bags from our room. It was going to take two trips.
Tess was always the lookout. She could whistle like steamed souls passing cracks in hell. If she sounded, it meant hurry. Now.
There was other stuff in the room I could have boosted. Scattered tools, a cheap looking cowboy guitar with no strings or knobs, a large flashlight that didn’t look too beat and a new coffee pot, but other than the stereo and sixty cents I pocketed off a counter, I left the rest for Mrs. Roebecke. If Carl had looked and told her about the stereo, she’d have chalked it up to his “visions.” Besides, even they knew you couldn’t bitch about someone stealing something before you could.
About halfway down the fire escape during my final trip, Tess whistled. I hustled, at any instant expecting to hear Mrs. Roebecke’s estrogen free squawk. I jumped from the second rung, dropped four feet while doing my best to protect the bag containing the turntable and tuner from slipping out of my grasp. Lucky for Tess I landed just fine. She was smiling.
“Sorry. False alarm.”
“Someday you’re gonna false alarm yourself into the hospital.”
The thing I remember clearest about our stereo was the tuner button. If you wanted to adjust the volume, you had to give the big silver knob a solid smack to get rid of an insectile buzzing; it worked almost every time. That’s one thing lost when tube driven items went away–you can’t swat a digital device and expect a desired result.
Albums used to come with cool stuff in them; you’d almost always get a poster from the big acts (Cheech and Chong released one that had a giant rolling paper in it). The White Album came with a montage poster, but I can barely remember it because Tess never fixed it to the wall, for she liked to read the lyrics that were printed on the back, and it eventually went wherever such things go after a time. It also came with four separate reprints of 11 by 8 color headshots of each Beatle: Paul needs a shave, John looks unhappy about posing, George conveys a desire to be taken seriously, and Ringo appears to be high on something.
Although Tess was already too human to live long, she was still a ten-year-old girl who did stuff like tape pictures of the Beatles to the wall by her bed.
“Kiss your hippy boyfriends night-night yet?”
“Har-har-dee har har, Sar-duh.”
Mom never did say anything about the stereo. Maybe things would have turned out differently if we had the mother who’d toss our room like a prison guard while we were at school. But wishing for that is also nearly as dumb as boosting a basketball.
We’d listen to the radio at night. There was nothing quite as wonderful as the radio blending with my dreams. There used to be an overnight “Weird Radio” show, hosted by some burned out hippy named Artemis, on a small station that played stuff you never heard on Top 40–Harry Chapin’s Taxi, comic stuff by Martin Mull and–once–an uncut version of Kick Out the Jams by MC5. It was a red letter night hearing “motherfucker” over the airwaves. But mostly it was a secret world with music best suited by darkness and light rain filling the space between sleep and reality. It was a type of feeling that only comes once in life. Tess saw it as endless dreampurple possibilities.
Prayer is an attempt to explain pain to an eternal being who cannot feel anything except displeasure. There are only increasingly cheaper synonyms, escorted by very and so. But we know it when we feel it, though not always when we see it.
Only music knows how to accurately explain pain. Music tells of joy, too, but not nearly as well. Musc isn’t very and so.
Don’t like poetry much, for it seems to me a verbal imitation of music, an attempt to recreate a form already good enough. There’s music that plays within me whenever I think about the last time I saw Nora in the hospital; I was eighteen and she had been reduced to seventy pounds by the uterine cancer that killed her at just thirty-four. Ever since all my previous memories of Nora, before she got sick, are accompanied by oboes and strings. It is as though some pains are too large for one time to handle alone.
Tess held onto those same goddam Beatle headshots for thirty-eight years, until her quiet death from a methadone overdose. She died with the radio on. But I hear no music there, for there are some things that lie beyond its reach. Which is a good sign; gives it something to shoot for.
14 thoughts on “Music by Leila Allison”
Before I regurgitate my initial notes, I want to say that without reading this again or the others of the same ilk, they make me feel a bit weird. Melancholy, sadness, reminiscing and realism are always apparent when I have read these stories of yours. They actually make me quite emotional! Not so much the exact circumstance, but just the feel of the whole situation takes the reader to their own places of times gone by!
That is another talent you have my lovely friend!!!!
Beautiful tone and wonderful pace.
What makes this is the add-ons that reveal what has happened to a few of the characters.
I never understand folks who have little or no relationship with music. In a way, I was saddened to see the whole song with a video movement. I preferred to tie songs in with my memories. The videos showed you what to think and I believe that was what made music just not as personal.
This was a very realistic piece of writing which was poignant and that little bit sad – As is anything that we look back on.
Just as an aside, there is a very interesting musical quiz. Get someone to look up the top fifty when you were 13 and then 15 and see how many artists you can get from the song name.
My score for 1980 was 90%
And for 1982 was 98%
(Doug, I reckon you will hammer that!!!!)
But to bring me back down to earth – I asked Gwen to ask me the top 50 from 1976 (The worst year ever for music. After 1986 wasn’t much better!!)
48% – I think I was even lucky to get that!!!
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Thank you for the great compliments. Standing outside waiting for a delivery outside the warehouse in sideways snow. Three years to retirement keeps repeating in my head, for if I had to wait a minute longer I would dump this outfit for a tent in the woods.
Retired guy here. Sometimes I wondered how I had eight hours a day to go to my desk where I daydreamed. How would I have time to read LS, FOTW, 50 Give OrTake, Short Humour and idiot political commentary abusing my eyes with what about, optics, receipts (the latest ubiquitous brain dead cliche), and watch the morning cartoons.
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Hugh and Leila – First one big mistake in the story. Ohio Players were not bubblegum – listen to Roller Coaster (pause) Of Love and see if you get your rocks off.
I’m about ten years before this story, but much of it rings true. Teen guys humping air guitar to Elvis. For better or worse my family was more Nelson than Manson, so I can’t relate too closely. Just thought of the Manson -Beatle connection “Helter Skelter”.
Signs of age – takes me longer to recognize songs. Is there anybody who reads LS that knows –
Larry Williams – Boney Maronie, Slow Down
Jimmy Dee – Henrietta
Little Richard – Ooh My Soul, Slippin’ And Sliding
Diamonds – The Stroll
Fats Domino – The Fat Man, Natural Born Lover
Jerry Lee Lewis – You Win Again (Hank Williams cover)
Elegants – Little Star
I’m about to make a new cd for our High School 80th birthday reunion (note what was Madison (a slave holder) has been changed to McDaniels or something). To quote the Beach Boys (I knew the woman who said she was Rhonda of help fame), it will be fun, fun, fun.
LS gang – Choose one or more of Rock or Roll
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You are right, The Ohio Express was the intended group. The two bands could not be further apart. Yummy song. How I hated that one.
Thank you and have a good reunion
I’m very sympathetic to memory failures. Tell me my name again.
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You are without love in your tummy? I feel for you.
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Indeed I am. Nor can my pancreas tolerate Sugar Sugar by the Archie’s. Yet I am fine with Mr Young’s Cinnamon. Guess it’s all in the dosages!
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*Cinnamon Girl –not that idiotic “Cinnamon, let me in.”
Could the Cinnamon Girl with which not so Young Neil wanted to dance be the Cowgirl In The Sand and or the Baby he shot Down By The River?
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I always find the Tess stories to contain wit, effective nostalgia, relatable details and, above all, poignancy. This piece is no exception. Very nice.
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Thank you David
I appreciate your continued support. Now if it would just stop being winter all would be well. (Been somewhat snowed and north winded at work today, not even noon yet!)
A picture of the kids’ lives, that was one bad mother who lived til she was eighty, and a tough growing up for the two sisters, who supported each other, the older one trying to take care of the younger. There’s was the major connection. Music does help with pain as it reflects and echoes emotion and/or a time and place, I ran a music program at a psychiatric hospital for many years. People who otherwise couldn’t socialize well would sit together and listen or sing along.
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Thank you Harrison,
A bit clobbered by the flu today, but I appreciate your compliments.