Sunday, October 31, 2010

sans Halloween story, i give you this . . .

Livin' on Silver -- an Afternote

These pieces about my time living on Silver are for Kimmie.

The last time I talked to Kimmie was in the summer of 1991. She called me from a hotel room in Oklahoma. She had left J. and was living with a younger man. They were trying to make a go of it out there on the prairie. She tearfully and joyfully told me she was pregnant. She had always wanted to have a little girl, so she could raise her better than her mother had raised her. She said that J. was too controlling. But now she was pregnant and she loved this redneck kid she was shacked up with in a motel. I imagined her in a place like the hotel in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love . . .

I was insistent she get settled soon. She sounded manic. She told me she missed living near me, that she missed her girlfriends, but she was "happy! oh so happy!"

That evening, I felt strange about her call. There was something wrong about it. I hadn't heard from her in two years and the way she said Good Bye was too final. But I chalked it up to the oddness of growing old, of growing apart from friends, distance would create these conundrums for me, I thought.

Two days later, the phone rang during dinner. Py answered it. It was J. He was calling to tell us Kimmie had shot herself with a shot gun in the motel in Oklahoma. J. wanted us to come to the funeral in Jacksonville. Of course, we said, of course we will be there. J. wanted the young boy investigated, but the police insisted Kimmie killed herself. She left no note. But apparently she had called all her old friends and told them how happy she was, how pregnant she was, and her Good Byes were said, and I thought, she didn't need to write a note, her phone calls were her Suicide Letter.

Bless you Kimmie, I miss you.

Livin' on Silver -- Part Six -- I'm Movin' Out

Spring came and with it a family of Mexicans. Actually I think it was four families, living in one house, three doors up from me. They owned a blue ford pickup truck, an old F150, not unlike a truck my grandfather owned once. In the mornings, the men would pile in the truck and drive away, to some job, I supposed construction. The wives would all stand on the porch with their babies in their arms, "Adios!" and then another little crowd of them, the ones between the ages of five all the way up to 11 or so would stand in the road and wait for the big yellow school bus, and whoooosh, off they would go for the day.


I would walk by and hear the women in the house, talking, talking, talking, and Cooking! Oh the good smells that drifted out of that house!

In the evenings, the men would arrive home and the there was such a fuss, such a commotion over their arrival home, that you would think they had just returned from fighting the Spanish American War. And the evening would deteriorate from there. Music would play, food would be eaten, lots of cerveza would be consumed. And then the Truck Fiesta would begin. The sun would begin to sink behind the mill houses across the street and the Mexicans would pile all the children into the back of the pickup truck and they would drive up and down Silver Avenue. The children would wave like beauty queens from the back, and the men would blow the horn and wave too, like they were political candidates, "Hola! Hola!" The truck would make a few passes and then when it was dark, the children would be put to bed and the men would drive the truck up and down the road with their wives! But the wives only put up with this for so long, and they would retire and finally, it was just the men driving the truck, up and down and up and down, but a month or so into this nightly ritual they added something . . . guns and fireworks. One of the men sat up front and drove and the other men rode in the back lighting firecrackers and shooting guns into the night sky. This pissed the Lumbees off big time. The Mexicans and the Lumbees started feuding.

I was beginning to think that my time on Silver was coming to an end.

And just when I began to think that way, I happened to read a small article on a forgotten back page of the Greensboro News & Record (a rag I had been the weather girl for at one time) -- the small headline read something like this: Greensboro's First Crack House Raided on Silver Avenue.

It was time to leave, and besides, the ceiling over my bathtub was caving in.

Livin' on Silver -- Part Five -- Fire!

There were two reasons I felt safe on Silver Avenue: One being that God's Miracle House of Deliverance was located on the first block and while I was not a member of the church, I basked in its claim to be divine. Secondly, the street was home to several hardened Greensboro criminals; it was their home turf, they left Silver Avenue to do their robbing and their mugging and their stealing, they didn't mess with the neighbors.
One night I was walkin home from the library. It was close to 9:30 when I rounded the corner off Lee Street, bright with lights from the 7-11, the Beef Burger, and the pawn shops. It only took a few steps into the first block of Silver to be swallowed by the darkness of the street. The city attempted to replace our street lights every so often and no sooner did they fix them, did someone shoot the lights out. The first house on the left, before God's Miracle House was the Lumbee Indian house . . . there were at least three families living together in there and they tended to fight with one another on the front porch, so it was right there, that you stepped off the side walk and positioned yourself on the center line of the street. This is how everyone walked on Silver. It was just safer in the middle of the street.
So on this night, I'm walking home, and the lights from Lee Street are pouring past me down Silver and I catch sight of this tall lanky black woman hurrying down the sidewalk into the maw of my neighborhood. She was just past the Lumbee house and melting into the shadows in front of the House of Deliverance, and I could tell by the way she was walking that she was afraid, looking from side to side and obviously not from around here, cause she was walking on the sidewalk. I decided to trot down the street to catch up with her. I called out, "Hey . .. hey there!"
"Oh!" She nearly jumped out of her skin when I spoke to her, "Oh, oh my goodness!"
"Do you want to walk with me? Its not safe over there on the sidewalk, really, you should be out here, in the street."
She stopped and sized me up in the dark. She was elegant, in a long top coat and her long legs in high heels. She was like a black Olive Oil. "Are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm serious. Nobody walks on the sidewalk here, even during the day." She looked both ways and stepped out on to the street.
"You really gave me a scare!"
"I'm sorry. I just wanted to help you. I live a couple of blocks down, where are you going?"
"To my cousin's house, she lives on the fourth block."
"Oh okay, I'll walk with you, no problem."
"Can I tell you something?" She shivered and crossed her arms, she was still hurrying, practically running, and I was striding out to keep up with her.
"Yeah, sure, do tell."
"I'm down here to visit my cousin. I've never been to this town before. I live in Queens. Do you know Queens?"
"Yeah, New York!"
"Well, I live in a bad neighborhood up there, but I've never been so afraid in all my life as I have been here!"
"Didn't your cousin tell you to walk on the street?"
"No!"
"Maybe she assumed that you knew that rule cause you live in Queens." She laughed and slowed down.
"We walk on the sidewalks in Queens, honey! Aren't you afraid?"
"Sometimes"
I escorted her to her cousin's door, she asked me to come in, have a drink with her, but I declined the offer, my cats were waiting for me.

******

I remember a blizzard coming one February. Greensboro was blanketed in two feet of snow, maybe a little more. The whole city shut down. The light off the snow was blinding. Silver Avenue glistened and sat silent and purified. Py showed up at my door, "The library's closed." We spent the day drawing and making love and eating stir fry.
That night Kimmie and J. knocked on our door, we went outside and built snow men all over the front yard. Snow balls began to fly, but something went wrong, J. hit Pyro too hard or Pyro hit J. too hard and last thing I remember was Kimmie dragging J. into her apartment and me dragging in Py into my apartment, all while swear words were being exchanged. Later that night I knocked on Kimmie's door. We sat in the cold hallway for a while, "Py asleep?"
"Yeah, J?"
"Yup?"
"What the hell happened?"
"Men!"
"I know . . . that was ridiculous."

*******

Ken kicked the lesbians and their baby boy out of his apartment not long after they had moved in. I came home one day and all their stuff was piled in the front yard. Terry was sitting on the stoop with the boy, rocking back and forth. She looked cold. And the sky looked cold too, and full of rain. "He can't do this to us, he ain't got no right." I felt sorry for her, but I was glad Ken was getting rid of them, I only foresaw murder of some sort if they remained. "He changed the locks." I stood in the yard, and pondered turning around and heading back to Tate Street for the afternoon, see what was happening at Hong Kong House, let this thing blow over without me around.
"Where's Mandy?"
"She's still at the garage. Can I use your phone to call her?" I hesitated, but I figured if she called Mandy, then this thing would be over sooner rather than later. And she didn't need to be sitting out there in the cold with that baby.
An hour later, Mandy pulls up in the driveway, the driveway that no one ever drove in. I watched from my window as she loaded their belongings into the old sedan. Terry sat patiently in the front seat. I heard some commotion in the hallway, Mandy was pounding on Ken's door, "You bastard! We'll get you for this!" My cats paced the hallway and I sat quiet and still, as though moving might let Mandy in my front door, as though she might take it out on me. I heard the car roar and back out of the driveway, the bumper scraping pavement as they swerved into the Avenue. Tires squealed and they were gone. Never to be seen again.

********

My apartment filled up with smoke one afternoon. I was studying for my final in Primatology, the best class I took in college, bar none. At first, I thought I was just tired, that my eye sight was foggy from lack of sleep, but the air took on a strange smell, like hair burning, and then Keith was suddenly banging on my door, "Hey! Is your apartment filled with smoke?"
Keith never came up to my apartment, he was always down there writing, or leaving for his girlfriend's house. She never came to our building. I went out in the hall and now the hall was filled with smoke. Kimmie came out of her apartment holding Pussums, "The building's on fire!"
"Kimmie call the fire department!" Keith ran downstairs and we followed with our cats in tow. We busted out the front door and stood in the yard. A large plume of smoke was billowing from the back of the building. I put my cats in my Volkswagen bug (they were not outdoor kitties, this was absolutely traumatic for them.) Keith ran up the driveway and around the back of the building. Kimmie, clutching Pussums, pursued Keith and I brought up the rear.
What we found in the back yard was not at all what we expected. Smoke was pouring out the basement door and rising up the back of the building like a genie from a bottle. I didn't even know the building had a basement until that very moment. Keith hopped down the concrete steps that led to the basement door, which was painted green, a marvelous shade of leaf green, which seemed like some sort of cosmic joke to me, and just as Keith went to open the door, it flew open and a middle aged black man exploded out the door. He was coughing violently and he blasted past Keith, up the stairs and fell to his knees gasping for air in front of me and Kimmie. Pussums hissed. Smoke was falling off the man like he had just emerged through a portal to another world. He looked up at us, "Who the hell are you people?" And then he coughed some more.
"Jeeeezus!" Keith hollared, "There's a mattress on fire in here!"
"Keith come out of there, you're going to get hurt!" But Keith went back in and started stomping out the fire. Acrid chemical black smoke flooded out the green door and carried Keith with it. We heard sirens in the distance.
Kimmie was incensed with the man, "Who are WE? Who the HELL are YOU?"
"Ken told me I could live in the basement for a while."
"Ken? You mean Ken in Apartment one?" Kimmie put Pussums down on the ground, Pussums sat like a dog and whipped her tail angrily at the man.
"Yeah, that Ken. We were in prison together." He rose up off the ground and started to brush the soot off his pants. He coughed some more and spit at our feet. Kimmie looked at me and I looked at Kimmie. Keith came up the steps, he was coughing too.
"Why the hell was the mattress on fire?" Keith looked like he was going to punch the man in the face.
"I lit it to stay warm. I been down there freezing my ass off for a few days now."
"You lit the mattress on fire? To keep warm? You coulda burned the whole building down!" Kimmie lunged for the man, the sirens were coming up Silver now, they were getting louder and louder.
"Did y'all call the police?" The man's eyes went wide. He began to circle like a cat in a cage.
"Of course we called the fire department! Our apartments are full of smoke!" With this from Kimmie, the man took off running. He hoisted himself over the back neighbor's chain link fence and disappeared into the December light.
The fire trucks arrived and oddly enough so did Eddie -- someone in the city called him to tell him his building on Silver was on fire. They all ran in the front door and we called to them and they all came back out, "Where's the fire?"
"The basement, in the back of the building. Its a mattress, but its out now. I stomped it out." Keith was entering mild Hero Land now. "Some dude lit it on fire to keep warm, can you fuckin' believe that?"
"What dude? Where is he?" The fireman with the most authoritative uniform asked -- he obviously had powers to arrest dudes who set mattresses on fire. Eddie puffed up and pulled his pants higher and cleared his throat, "You girls okay? Is everybody okay now?"
"We're okay Eddie, we just need to open some windows upstairs."
"Who was in the basement Keith?"
"Some friend of Ken's . . . says Ken let him move in down there."
" Lord love us!" Eddie shook his head and feigned more concern than he really had at that moment. He looked to me slightly like a man disappointed that the builidng hadn't burned to the ground -- that would have been a real win -win situation for him. He looked around, his stance shifted, his moods were changing at lightning speed, "Where the hell is Ken?"
"Don't know, he's been missing since the lesbians and the baby moved out."
"Lesbians? Baby? What in the HELL is going on around here?" Eddie turned eight different shades of purple. The firemen were dragging the smoldering mattress out of the basement. All hell was breaking loose. Kimmie scooped Pussums up off the ground, and I noticed a fireman stop, drop the mattress and watch Kimmie walk away. He was smitten. Amazing, I thought, Kimmie is honey to the Bee Men.
The firemen inspected the building. I was sure we would be condemned, but Eddie must have slipped them some cash. The fire trucks and the rescue squad all drove away. And Ken's stuff was out on the curb by dinner time. Eddie padlocked Ken's door and drove off in his big Mercedes. I sat in my apartment with the windows wide open, freezing and wondering if it was going to snow that night.
By morning Ken's stuff was gone. I figured he'd returned in the middle of the night and found that fate had done him, just like he had done the lesbians and their baby. Apartment One remained empty for several months after that. It was quiet, real quiet down there without a tenant, but worst of all, I had no one heating the rooms below me. My apartment was twice as cold now.

Livin' on Silver -- A Miscellany

Me on the front stoop
1987
 
 Pyro in the Snow
 Silver Avenue Blizzard

 Starlings

 Spring Shower
Dusk



 Marley

 Marley and his Blue Jay
They spoke daily

i wonder what i scribbled out
 The Old Bitch's House
(note: i did not manipulate this old photo, 
and oddly it looks like the water
color effect you can get
with photo shop nowadays)

 I drew my cats . . .
Alot


 One day
a hot air balloon 
flew over Silver Avenue


Bill the Cat
with his Slinky Toy
and the Old Bitch's house in the distance

Friday, October 29, 2010

You Birch . . .

white like bones

white like a Geisha's cheek!

oh!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Livin' on Silver -- Part Four

The old woman who lived next door was an angel . . . her house sat below my windows and I could see into all her windows through the veil of yellowed curtains. I imagined her to be the widow of the light house keeper who held the post before me. She was 90 year old and weird as it may seem, her name was Mabel--she shared my grandmother’s name-- it was comforting to have Mabel nearby. I would watch her at night. I pressed my face to the cold glass of my windows, the wind coming up off the cliffs, and there she would be, sitting in her living room, in the blue light of her TV or wandering back toward her kitchen. I closed my eyes and saw her tending sheep, the wind whipping her skirts, her hair neatly braided. She spent her days spinning wool from her fat sheep, to craft sweaters for her husband who stood on the rocks looking through binoculars all day, signaling ships. They never had a child . . . and this made her ache, but the sheep were her little children, with their black faces and their wiry wool coats and their little tails that switched when a gale was coming. And now, he was gone, and she haunted the western side of the island, occasionally she would come to tea and she would tell me stories about the storms that had come to the island, of sunken ships, and her long gone husband's heroism. I could never aspire to be as fine a light house keeper as him . . .

There was a Thanksgiving that came so suddenly I made no plans. Pyro went home to Raleigh and I decided to stay on Silver. Kimmie said she wasn’t going home either, she hated her mother, her mother called her FAT. We decided to make a huge dinner. I would roast the turkey in my little gas stove, I wasn’t sure if a turkey would even fit in there, but I would give it a try. I had never cooked a turkey. Kimmie was going to make sweet potato pie and there would be peas and onions just like my grandmother made. It would be me and her and the cats.

But I went down to Tate Street the night before Thanksgiving because I had a craving for Amelia’s Macrobiotic soup, and while I’m sitting in the Hong Kong House, the door swings open and in walks J. It was raining and he looked cold and miserable. He slid into the booth next to me and hung his arm over the back. His coke bottle glasses had steamed up in the warmth of the Chinese restaurant that so many of us called our second home. He smiled a crooked smile at me and I was struck by what a big lanky animal he was, "Hey Wolfy! What 'er you still doin' in town? Seems like you'd be back in Connecticut by now, for the Holidays and all."
"Nope, not this year J. I'm staying put. Kimmie and I are going to make dinner with all the trimmings though."
"Ah, you and Kimmie. Bravin' it alone. How is Kimmie?" This was what you call a Loaded question. I knew J. held a torch for Kimmie. There were alot of guys down on Tate Street who had the same affliction. Kimmie was zaftig, maternal, sweet, earthy as all get out . . . and she was often alone. She was honey to the Bee Men . . . she looked like a woman who needed a man to take care of her and yet, she looked like the kinda girl who would Mother any man. But what a lot of her admirers didn't know was she was a mess of a girl. She was bipolar, leaning heavily to the downward side and less to the manic side. She holed up in that apartment for days on end, crying to her mirror, baking cookies and pies, gorging herself and then disgorging herself. She wore the same powder pink bathrobe for days at a time and tossed that ball for Pussums over and over and over. Her saving grace was a few of us girls who would bang on her door and barge in on her. And she loved books. Kimmie was a voracious reader--I brought her books from the library and she devoured them and left them in neat piles by my door, asking me to bring her more.

So I answered J.'s question with Kimmie's desire for solitude in mind, but somehow it didn't come out right.
"Well, J. she's doin' just fine.What are your plans for Day of the Turkey?"
"I'm on my own Wolfy . . ."
"You don't say . . ."
"Yep, looks like I'll be eatin' take out." And with that a voice came from the kitchen, it was Amelia, "Oh no J. we're gonna be closed! Nobody comes in on Thanksgiving, so this year I'm taking the the day off!"
J. threw his head back and sighed, and then he put one eye on me and I knew what was about to happen, "Say, you girls wouldn't mind a guest would you?"
"Well, J., I mean I guess I'd be fine, but Kimmie's not here."
"Oh c'mon Wolfy! I'll give you guys Cable!"

J. had been a speed addict -- “I don’t speed ball anymore, nope, nope, that stuff makes you CRAZY” -- but he was still crazy. Now he was a Cable Guy. He drove around in a truck all day installing cablevision in people’s houses. AND he gave cable to all his friends. He’d be over for supper or just to hang out and he’d say, “Hey, do y’all have cable?” And when the answer was no, he’d run out of the house open up his van and get his equipment. He’d bring you a little cable box and then he’d climb the pole outside your house and there we’d be at the window, late at night watching Jay give us cable! He’d string it all up, and come back in the house and we’d all be drinking beer and he’d futz with the TV, maybe drill a hole or two in the walls, and then voila! He’d turn on the set and you’d have 50 channels! For Free. He was the Johnny Appleseed of Cablevision. He wanted everyone to have cable and not have to pay for it.

"You did WHAT?" Kimmie put Pussums down on the floor and the cat picked up her little ball with the bell in it and pawed at Kimmie . . . throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball.
"I invited J. for Thanksgiving dinner. . . he sorta well,  hoodwinked me."
"I suppose he told you he would give us Cable!"
"Yeah . . . don't you want Cable?"
"Wolfy, I don't even have a TV and last I looked, neither do you!"
"I know, I know. It just happened so fast."
"He's totally crazy you know."
"Well, its not like a date, I mean you and I can stick together!"
"He doesn't drink and we like to drink Wolfy. He's going to preach all night."
"Nah, it won't be that bad . . . we'll give him a plate of turkey and send him on his way."

Thanksgiving morning came and Kimmie and I started cooking. We decided we were going to be old fashioned and serve Supper, which meant everything on the table by 2 pm, just like our grandmother's used to do. J. wouldn't arrive til 1:30 or so, this gave us plenty of time to cook and start drinking, Round noon, we had the whole meal under control -- The Joy of Cooking had spoken on the finer details of cooking a turkey and I listened, and I was so pleased with myself, with the help of cheap red wine, that I was ready to invite half of Silver Avenue, but Kimmie was already burned that we had one guest coming.

But she wasn't that burned . . . ever the woman, ever the flirt, Kimmie disappears into her apartment round noon, leaves me with the turkey and to peel pearl onions, and when she returns an hour later, she is transformed. She's prettier than I've ever seen her, in a lavender dress, that she's kinda busting out of all over, but in all the right places, and that long deep brown hair of hers is curled and cascading, and she's got makeup on! Lipstick and eye shadow and she smells like House of Chanel. I'm standing there holding a turkey baster in a black t-shirt, blue jeans, my black low-top Chuck Taylor sneakers and my hair only an inch long . . . i looked like a roadie for the Eurythmics and she looked like The Breck Girl!
"Kimmie!"
"What? Its Thanksgiving! Somebody has to dress up around here."
"J.'s not going to know what hit him." I put the turkey baster down and pour another glass of wine. "I'll be damned if I'm going to get dressed for dinner."
"Well of course you're going to stay like that. YOUR boyfriend is out of town, you don't have to look good."
"Kimmie . . . what are you up to?"
"I dunno. Now I'm kind of excited that a man is coming to dinner."
I was right, J. never saw it coming. He thought he was going to shimmie up our telephone pole, give us Cable and in return get a free turkey dinner and maybe, just maybe a chance to snuggle up to Kimmie. What he got instead was a wife. They were married six months later.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the yes

absent minded talk with the grocery boy
about the thunderstorm at midnight
and girl dogs . . .
putting zucchini
tomatoes
a single perfect eggplant
in bags

is this dinner? yes
i suppose to myself

i put my hand on a container
of Turkish figs
and decide i need them
more than anything
tonight

down near the yogurt
and the tempeh
and the eggs
and glass bottles of
pure white milk
i find myself
singing
out loud
every word
of a Billy Joel song
. . . I need to know that you will always be
. . . The same old someone that I knew

the song comes from somewhere
in the ceiling over the cheeses
of the world
but it also comes from 30
years passed

i answer the Ultimate Yes
and my money goes from
one place to another
and so the girl
hands me the paper bag
tells me good night
she’s lovely
with a diamond in her nose
she’s raven like

i eat a fig in the car
pass the fire station
where a fireman
hoses down a small red engine
the water goes up
like silver fireworks
and shines

there’s a white birch
in an empty lot on King
its become a celebrity
in the high fall light

a bull dog comes up the river bank
bow legged
with a half and half face
the bowsprit of a Mack Truck
he watches me drive by
and he crosses the road
in my mirror

Got to scrape the sh*t right off yer shoes . . .

She countin' up de days . . .

Monday, October 25, 2010

Livin' on Silver -- Part Three

Mike, the diabetic English boy who lived in Apartment One moved out, and Ken, the Ex Con moved in. Mike was going to San Francisco, he never made it, turned around somewhere in Oklahoma and moved back in with his parents when he returned to Greensboro.
I don't know what Ken was in Jail for.
But he was very intent on assuring everyone that despite the fact he'd been in Jail, he was a nice guy. He was a handsome, burly black guy. He burned a lot of incense, which came up through my floorboards, this was to disguise the smell of pot that was also rising up through the air, the combination was heady and fine.
By the time Ken moved in, I had a second cat. A little fat tabby that had belonged to a homeless guy -- my friend Billy was keeping him for the homeless dude and one night he called, "This guy is never going to get an apartment. He's a loser. And he's rough with the cat. I can't afford the vet bills. He's a nice stupid cat, can you take him?"
"Yeah, but . . ."
"Look, I'll tell the dope that I let the cat out and he never came back. He'll be sad for a day and forget all about it. And you get a nice stupid cat out of the deal."
3 o'clock the next morning, Bill shows up at my door with Marley, named for Marley's Ghost, not Bob Marley, "Sorry, here's his food, I had to bring him over now, otherwise the guy might have seen me leaving with him." He put Marley on the floor, Bill the Cat came down the hall and hissed. Two cats, now I had Two Cats.
One Sunday, I was blowin' off pre-exam jitters and I was running up and down and up and down the apartment . . . it was a shotgun apartment afterall, good for laps, and the cats were chasing me. I had the Talking Heads blasting . . . Psycho Killer, fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa . . . It was nine or ten at night. There was a furious knock on my door. I opened it, keeping the chain in place, and there was wide-eyed Nice ex-con Ken, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm great!" I was huffing and puffing and the cats were waltzing and taking swings at one another behind me. The music was blaring. "Why? . . . oh! I'm sorry, I guess I'm making alot a noise!"
"Well, its just I thought your boyfriend might be beating you up." Ken put his hand on his forehead, he was peering in the crook of the door.
"Oh no! He's not even here! And anyway, he NOT like that. I was just playing with the cats."
"You got cats?" He started to press his face inward on the door, I could tell he wanted me to invite him in. I didn't want company. It didn't matter if it was him or Pyro or whoever, I was just in my own world, I wanted to play with my cats and be alone.
"Yeah, I got cats, but don't tell Mr. Eddie. He's okay with one cat, but if he found out I had two, he might get sore at me."
"Well, if you ever need any help, just yell through the floor, okay?"
"Thanks Ken." I shut the door. A few nights later, he had a woman down there. His bedroom was right under mine and I heard her wailing and screaming all night. He kept turning up the music to drown her out. But the louder the music got, the louder she moaned. I finally took my sleeping bag out to the front room and slept on my Therm-a-Rest on the floor under the windows with Brian Eno's Music For Airports on repeat on the stereo . . . finally I went to sleep.
I survived final exams and I graduated from college with no fanfare . . . it was December graduation. No one came to the ceremony. I picked up my diploma at the Administrative Offices. They spelled my name wrong, I had to return it. They told me to come back after Christmas for a new, corrected Diploma. Four and a half years of hard work came down to a missing O.
****
Christmas came and Pyro and I went to NYC to celebrate my graduation. We stayed in my father's rent controlled apartment on Lexington Avenue, somewhere in the 70s. Pyro had never been to New York City. I took him to the Museum of Natural History and we had Christmas dinner with my grandparents in Connecticut. We flew back to NC on New Years Day.We hadn't slept the night before . . . we were still drunk when we boarded the airplane in Laguardia.
I returned to Silver Avenue to find Ken had two new roomates, actually, two and a half. A lesbian couple and their baby boy. I had been home for fifteen minutes when I heard the baby crying down in Ken's apartment. The cats were pacing. They didn't like the desperate screams of the child. And I was a bit unnerved by it too, but I put it up to holiday visitors. Two days later, the baby was still crying and I met one of the Mothers on the front stoop, she was bringing groceries in the building. She was wearing dark gray, grease covered CoverAlls with her name stitched in red script over her left breast ... Mandy it sang. "Hey" I said, and held the door for her, "You living with Ken now?"
"Yep, me and Terry. And our baby Lonnie. You wanna come in for a beer?"
"No, sorry, but thanks, I'm going to work."
"This time a night?" She cocked her big head at me. She didn't look like a Mandy, her hair was thick and dark and cut real short. Her shoulders were broad, she filled her CoverAlls with masculine bones.
"Yeah, I do the night shift at the library a couple of nights a week . . ."
'Library?"
"Oh yeah, over at the University."
"Sounds boring." She disappeared into the dark of Ken's apartment. The baby Lonnie wailed. The door shut.
Next day I met Ken on the steps, "So, you got roommates?"
"Yeah, wanna come over for a beer."
"Not really  . . . um, the baby, it cries alot."
"I know, I think Terry is on Meth or somethin' -- Mandy's straight though. Hey if you need work on your car, Mandy can take care of it for you."
"No Ken, my car is fine. Um, so is Terry down there all day with the baby while Mandy's at work?"
"Yeah, they got a real Man and Wife relationship goin' -- Terry's the wife and Mandy's the bread winner."
"Oh . . ." I didn't care that they were Lesbians. But that baby sounded hungry and sad. My cats were getting more and more nervous by the day. Something about cats and hungry babies, have you ever noticed that?
Next night, there's a knock on my door. Its Terry. She's got the baby, and she's stoned out of her mind, on somethin', she's got one eye looking south and one looking west. The baby smells bad, hasn't been changed. Terry's one fisting two beers. She has short brassy hair, a permanent gone wrong, but there was something about her face, she was pretty once, I think to myself. I open the door wide for her and she practically falls into my living room, "Hey neighbor!"
"Hey." I close the door and shoo the cats to the back of the apartment.
"Wanna beer?"
"Sure, sure, um, why don't you have a seat?" I direct her to the only thing to sit on in the living room, a little second hand love seat I found on the street. She hands me the beers and I take them to the kitchen, fumble for an opener and return to find her with the baby slipping from her arms. I scootch the boy back into her grasp and hand her the beer. I was freaked out. Pyro was due to come over, I wanted him there right away. I didn't know what to do.
"So Mandy got mad at me tonight and left. She's out drinking, pickin' up sluts. And so I was lonely and thought I'd come up here and find out what yer deal is. Mandy says yer a Librarian?"
"Well, I work at the library, but I'm not a Librarian really."
"Wherez yer glasses?"
"Excuse me? Oh, you want a glass for your beer?"
"Naw, that was a JOKE -- glasses! Librarian! Get it?"
"Oh, no, oh, gosh, yeah yeah, sorry."
"That's okay. I guess yer real smart aren't ya?" She shifted the baby around like he was not a living thing. He belched and cooed and god, he smelled bad, poor little thing. And I didn't know anything about babies back then, still don't really.
"Smart? Oh I don't know, probably not. I mean I live here don't I? So that makes me . . ."
"Stupid! Ha, yer livin' with the stupid people!" She took a long draw on the beer and her head wobbled and then she sort of glared at me, "Do you know how I got pregnant with this boy?"
"Well, I have an idea, I mean . . . '
"Nah! I mean, Mandy ain't the father, although, she likes to claim she gotta d**k . . ."
"Oh, oh, well . . . um . . . " I squirmed, I drank the beer.
"Nah, I'll tell ya. About a year ago, I was roller skating . . . "
"Um, roller skating?" The thought of Terry on roller skates was hard to conceive of for me at that moment.
"YES! I was ROLLERSKATIN' home from my waitressin' job and these two guys hit me with their car and raped me."
"Wow, really?"
"Yeah, really! Why? Don't you believe me?" Terry leaned forward and spilled her beer all over the floor. I grabbed the bottle and took it to the kitchen. I found another beer for her in the fridge and took it back to her. When I returned to the living room, she was up and stumbling for the door, "Listen, Miss, I ain't known you too long, but I want to ask you somethin." She held the baby Lonnie in one hand and had her pale thin hand on the door knob, "Will you loan me some money?"
"Um, well, no, sorry Terry, I don't have any money to loan you."
"That's bullshit and you know it."
"Really, Terry, I think you ought to leave now. I'm sorry I can't loan you any money."
"I'm gonna come up here one day when yer at work and kill yer cats."
She slipped through the door and I closed it. I listened to her stumble down the stairs. I hoped she would make it down the two flights without falling or dropping baby Lonnie.
Next morning, I knocked on Kimmie's door before I left for work. She came sleepily to the door. She was absolutely stunning beautiful even when she had just rolled out of bed . . . Kimmie rarely left her apartment, she was a movie star you see, "Wha, what is it, Wolfy, is everything okay?"
"Can you just check on my cats while I'm gone today? Here's my key."
"Are they okay? One of them sick?"
"No, just make sure no one kills them while I'm at the library."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'll explain when I get home, right now I'm late. I have twenty students to train how to shelve books today, I don't have any time."
"Okay . . . honey?"
"Yeah?"
"I'll just bring them over here for the day, they can play with Pussums."
"Great! See you tonight."

Livin' on Silver -- Part Two

Kimmie gave me a dress. She came over one afternoon and knocked on my door, "This dress doesn't fit me anymore, its too small! But it will look great on you! Take it." It was a black linen dress, very plain, with short sleeves, but it was sort of elegant, like something I would pack for a weekend on the Canary Islands, those couple of days to get away from the light house for some sun and flirtation with fishermen who didn't speak my language.
I wore the dress to work at the library the next day. I hadn't worn a dress in a year at least and it transformed me somehow. And what ever color it put in my cheeks, whatever it did to lighten my step, was noticed by a stranger on my walk home. He was neatly dressed, weighted down by a backpack, he carried himself like a Graduate Student. I passed him in front of the Tate Street Post Office, in the shadow of the train trestle that I walked under every night to get home to Silver. "Beautiful!" He said to me as I passed him, "You are just lovely." And I smiled and he kept walking toward campus and I kept on my trail home. I had never seen him before, and never saw him again, but I've never forgotten him. Occasionaly, that rare phenomenom of feeling beautiful comes over me now, all these years later, and I think of the Graduate Student who told me so. The dress is long gone though.
Not long after I moved into Silver, the old Bitch who lived across the street called my Landlord. She spotted me walking into the building with my boyfriend, the Punker who would be my husband some day, and she called Eddie the Landlord's office and told his secretary, "Tell Eddie that Animal is Back!" Eddie showed up in his big black Mercedes the next day. Now, he was no Waddell, he was Big Greensboro Real Estate, he wielded alot of power in that town and he brokered it in Church on Sunday and on the Golf Course on Friday afternoons.
There was a knock on the door. I looked out my front window and saw the Mercedes. I grabbed my cat, he was a kitten, Bill the Cat, and I put him in the bathroom and told him to be quiet, he looked at me, and seemed to say, "Fish? For fish I'll keep my trap shut." I ran to the door and opened it, "Hey Mr. Eddie, what's up?"
"Can I come in?" His face was red as a summer tomato and he smelled of a just smashed cigarette. I opened the door, I let him in, and my eye immediately fell upon a cat toy sitting on the floor next to Eddie's feet . . . shit, look up, don't look at the cat toy. He sniffed. He put his fat hands on his hips and pulled his pants up. "Young lady, I received a distressing call from the neighbors this mornin."
"Yessir?"
He sniffed again, he looked down and kicked the little cat toy . . . a grey mouse with a pink tail and a bell hidden inside, there were holes in it, and cat nip was poking out . . . "cat drugs," I thought. Eddie cleared his throat, looked out my front windows, the old Bitch across the street was sitting on her porch, rocking in that chair that I would see her rocking in for the next coupla years, Waitin' To Die, I used to say about her. Her rake leaning by the front door, like her broomstick, "You gotta cat in here?"
"No sir, no Mr. Eddie. No cats, you told me no cats when I moved in." He kicked the toy again, it went across the cold hardwood floor and richocheted off the base board heaters, the heaters I would never be able to afford to turn on when winter came.
"Well, never mind that, its not cats that I'm worried about Young Lady."
"Sir?" I looked across the street and saw the old Bitch hoist herself outta the chair and disappear through her front door. It was cloudy and I saw a light go on through her window, I thought she's was probably checking on her cauldron.
"Its Pyro that I'm here about. Is that young man Pyro living here with you?"
"No sir." Pyro had warned me that Mr. Eddie hated him for something he'd had no control over a few years ago.
"Well, neighbor lady seen him walkin' in the buildin' with you. She said he didn't leave til the next morning." Boy, I thought, that old thing keeps SOME hours!
"Well, sir, Pyro is my boyfriend, but he doesn't live here with me. He lives over on Mendenhall street, in his own apartment.He's in school, studying Math." I added that part about school, cause I thought it might be impressive to Mr. Eddie. I knew what was coming, Pyro had prepared me.
"Do you know what that boy did to my property Young Lady? Did he tell you that he lived in Apartment Four? He abandoned it and left me with dog messes and holes in the walls and a missing refridgerator and a toilet laying on its side. And graffiti Young Lady, graffiti that I don't care to mention . . . " I knew that it wasn't Pyro who left this mess, it was his roommate, Pyro had left the apartment and his roommate destroyed the place, but Pyro got the blame. And the old Bitch across the street hated him cause he gave her the finger one day . . . and who wouldn't give her the finger? Standing there with her rake, pinching her face, sucking on a lemon, not minding her own damn business.
"Sir, I understand your anger and your concern . . . "
"Does your family know this boy? Have you introduced them to this boy?  Because, you seem like a nice enough girl, and I don't think your Mama and Daddy would be happy if they knew you were datin' a low life like him." I listened to Mr. Eddie and then I heard Bill the Cat meow and scratch at the bathroom door. Mr. Eddie looked down the hall toward the cat commotion, he shook his head, "Never mind the cat, I don't care about the cat Young Lady. Its this Pyro that I'm concerned about. He cost me money. He owes me money. And I don't want him comin' on these premises. You hear me?"
"Mr. Eddie, can I show you something?"
"Yes, but make it quick, I got a lunch meetin' down on Elm Street in 15 minutes and that's money to me, all my meetins are about money."
"Yessir, I'll be quick." I asked him to follow me down the hall. Pyro and I had begun painting the apartment. We started in the bedroom and worked our way forward. We had only the living room, up front, to complete. Pyro had repaired all the rotting plaster, with Kilz and putty, he'd filled holes, he painted the rooms lovingly for me. He'd put down a new kitchen floor, all 8 square feet of it, in black and white checkerboard. I opened the bathroom door, Bill the Cat flew out and like an escaped convict dove under the bed, Mr. Eddie, took a pack of cigarettes out of his vest pocket and lit one. He took and long drag and inspected Pyro's handiwork.
"Young Lady, he did all this?"
"Yessir and we payed for it all ourselves, I wasn't going to ask for help on the rent, I just wanted to fix the place up so it was clean you know. Pyro did all this, and he's going to caulk the windows for me this weekend and finish painting the living room. He's in school now Mr. Eddie, he's made Dean's List every semester for two years. He's really trying to make something of himself. He's not a bum."
"The Good Lord smiles on men who try to make somethin' of themselves Young Lady, yes he does. You've made your case, I will let it stand." We walked back to the front door and he opened it to leave, I looked across the street and saw the Old Bitch was standing at her mail box, there was nothing in the mail box, but she continued to peer in, she was waiting for Eddie to come out, to tell her that he had rid the street of vermin. "Take good care of that cat, don't let him outside, the niggers'll run him over." I shut the door and sat on the floor, Bill the Cat came running down the hall, his bright orange tiger stripes looked like a sunrise and when he got to me I covered his stiff little ears, he bit me and scratched my arm, I owed him more fish, "We're all niggers here Bill, don't you forget that."  Bill flipped over on his back and held my forearm between his back legs and beat and beat and whipped his tail.
My mother came to visit. I hadn't seen her for two years. Not since my old pony had been put down on her farm, only a two hour drive from Greensboro. It was the coldest time of our relationship. I had one more semester of school to go, I had wanted to change my major, from English to Anthropology, like K. V., but the family insisted I be done with it, it was time to get this school nonsense over with. I had seen her exactly three times during my college career. The day she dropped me off at the dorm with my trunk, a brief hug, and a good luck, and then a couple of visits down at her farm, I took the bus to get down there, and I stayed away after those visits, because my heart broke when I got near the horses, I missed them so much, but I wasn't to love the horses, I was to get an education, a degree, "You can't work in Allen's Clam House all your life.You can't be a polo groom. You need to get a degree and some sort of job unlike anything WE have ever done." And then when I thought it might take longer than 4 years, they said, "Get a hurry on kiddo, close it up."
I'd been left to my own devices in Greensboro -- I was like an astronaut who went out to fix some sewage line to space and my anchor let loose and I was floating around the moon, muttering to myself, "Goddammit, I'm going to miss out on the dehydrated apricots and the broadcast to Earth tonite. . . where is my lovely wife anyway? Ground Control! Ground Control! Where did you go?" But checks would arrive in my mail box and I had fallen in love with Pyro. He took me camping and that was the next best thing to horses, as far as I could tell.
"So I have a boyfriend . . ." I handed my mother a bowl of brown rice and peas, and a cup of tea. Its all I could offer her, her eyes were wide. She took comfort in the sight of my cat. Animals are the thing that she loves most. She was clearly in shock -- her daughter was living in a dump, a fire-trap, an industrial suburban landscape that screamed of poverty, crime, and well, the life she led when she first worked on the NY race tracks . . . this was the last place on earth she wanted me to be.
"What's his name?"
"Pyro . . ." I answered, and then I thought, maybe I should have told her his real name, not his nickname.
"P - Y - R - O?" she choked down some of the hot tea I had given her.
"Yes. He's going to be a mathematician."
"Is he white?" She was completely serious.
"Yes."
"That's good . . . is he Greek? or something . . . I mean, with a name like that . . . "
"Yes, he's white. He's from North Carolina." I didn't expand. I didn't explain that Pyro was short for Pyromaniac.
"Your cat is terrific." This was the highlight of the day. She approved of my cat.

Two

Two crows flying slow against the wind and the rain under gold...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Livin' on Silver -- Part One

Twenty five years ago I rented a three room "shotgun" apartment in a brick building that looked kinda like a place the fire department might set on fire to train new recruits.
The building sat between two mill houses, in fact, it was surrounded by mill houses, inhabited by some old white folks, some black folks, and one college photography professor and his wife who never came out of the house. The mill houses were low and my second story apartment allowed me to look down on all of them. They all had long covered porches and they matched the sky in its various states of gray, ashen white, dusky yellow, late day blue, before the storm asbestos siding. Silver Avenue was just that, it was chrome and aluminum and overcast with clouds . . . the sun always came through a dirty filter on that wide thoroughfare, it was always cold there, even in July, it was cold.
There were four apartments -- two downstairs and two up. Apartment Number One was on your left when you came in the front door. It was forever changing hands. Apartment Two, on your right at the entrance belonged to Keith - a blond boy, a classmate who wrote lyrically -- Coltrane and Bird were always seeping through the spaces between his door and the hallway.
Go up the stairs, you're met by double 12 over twelve windows that gaze out onto the wide boulevard, and West to the rest of the world. Turn left and you can stand outside Apartment Four, that's Kimmie's apartment. You can hear her in there. She's cooing to her enormous pewter cat Pussums, "She's half Siamese and half Persian!" Pussums fetches small colorful balls with bells in them, all day long, like a Border Collie. And you can hear the ball rolling around a ringing . . . if you didn't know the truth, you might think Tinker Bell was haunting the place. Kimmie was depressed, and overweight, and sweet, and she looked exactly like Elizabeth Taylor in the Richard Burton years, the Second Marriage, not the first . . . covered in freckles that seemed lovingly hand-painted across the bridge of her nose. It was as though Tennessee Williams came and wrote Kimmie into my lease and she was forever meeting me at the top of the stairs, asking me to come in, to eat whatever she had baked that afternoon, to throw the ball for Pussums.
But if you can tear yourself away from Kimmie's door, with the 4 hanging all askew, you can make an about-face and knock on my door, Apartment 3 and there's no number on my door, someone took it, long ago. But the fact that it was Apartment 3 was enough for me. Three's had always been fortuitous to me, and they remain so today. The address was 3 somethin' Silver Avenue and the Apartment was Number 3 -- it was an abundance of threes, so I took it.
There was a front yard and a back yard -- nothing lush, nothing anybody spent any time on, I don't think anyone every attended to it with a mower or seed or fertilizer . . . the grass was always the same height, it never grew or died or bloomed with violets in the spring or burgeoned with crocuses in a warm Southern February, we, the tenants, took it completely for granted, it was buffer, and nothing more, and nothing less.
There was a driveway too, but we never parked in it -- we parked on the street. The driveway was paved with two licorice stripes of concrete that stretched from the street to the back of the building, to the foot of the Fire Escape. We all had Back Doors, they were in fact Kitchen Doors, that led to small cramped screened in porches that opened onto the Fire Escapes. We considered these to be one thing and one thing only, portals for criminals, and so we all had no less than four locks on our kitchen doors, we might as well have nailed those doors shut, with their frosted glass window panes -- those doors were unloved, deceitful, and disdained.
Every Southern town has its divide -- the Train Tracks -- one side is White and one side is Black.  Silver Avenue was on the Black side, although the Whites who lived there denied it, defied it, and we were all Black for living there.
There were sidewalks on Silver, but no one who lived there walked on them. You walked The Line, you walked the middle of the road, always. This kept you safe, from that which lurked in the shadows, in the alleys between the mill houses. You kept to the Open, if an attacker or a dog or a ghost came your way, the Middle of the Road gave you the advantage. Just as I learned that anyone swimming in the Winter Months in Bermuda was a Canadian, I learned that anyone walking the sidewalks on Silver was an Outsider.
There was not one working street light on Silver. They were all shot out. The only thing that lit your way down the street at night were porch lights and the light you could gleen from the 7-11 back on Lee Street, the 4 lane thoroughfare at the head of Silver. Sometimes it was so dark that the essence of the changing red or green lights out on Lee cast shadows ahead of my feet as I made my way home from the library late at night . . . like the light of a star long dead reaching Earth. The light of televisions through windows rayed across my path sometimes. No place was darker than Silver at night and no place was more like the Universe with its satellites posing as bedroom windows and even the orange burn of a lit cigarette that rose and fell in the hand of an unseen god sitting in a rocking chair on the stoop at midnight . . . and when the moon shined on Silver, oh, we rejoiced. Silver swallowed light and yet, it was a beacon, it bellowed its weird energy out to Lee Street, down to the Beef Burger, under the tracks, to meet the 3 a.m. train to Penn Station. Silver vibrated in its darkness.
Nature on Silver consisted of cyclones of starlings and a blue jay who sat on the half dead myrtle outside my window .  . . the Jay that spoke to my half-wit cat named Marley. The Jay would utter guttural notes and Marley would answer him in the same vein and I would chalk their friendship up to dysfunctional loneliness.
The first winter: the wind blew through holes in my rotting plaster walls, through the seams around my 12 over 12 double windows in every room. I finally determined I was living in a Light House on a rock somewhere north of Greenland. The wind howled in high pitched banchee voices round my bedroom, westward past my workroom, and let loose out to the sea over Silver Avenue. There were Puffins perching in the crevices in the rocks between me and Apartment One downstairs. The Puffins never slept -- they cooed all night, and swooped and waddled and nested during the frigid daylight hours. I spied freighter ships miles off shore, they're lights twinkled like icicles nightly and during the day I saw them rock on the rough gray waves of the Avenue. I lit candles and sent out hazard signals to them, warning them to avoid the rocks, and occasionally they were dashed upon my glacial shores and my white shepherds, played by my two cats, donned our Shetland sweaters and Wellies and saved the sailors before they succumbed to the black seas. I kept a diary, the diary of a Lighthouse Keeper, I waited for Donald Sutherland to be washed up on my rocks, and terrorize me with his Nazi Intentions, as though I was Kate Nelligan in Eye of the Needle.
It was so cold . . . how cold was it Wolfy? It was so cold that when I ran a hot bath (there wasn't a shower) that by the time it was deep enough for me to get in and wash, the water was something close to freezing. It was so cold that I slept in my sub-zero North Face sleeping bag under blankets while wearing a hat, gloves, socks and thermal long johns and long sleeve T, with the cats fighting to get in with me. It was so cold that some mornings I couldn't get water to boil for tea and the kerosene heater complained to the authorities.
My pathological fear of the dark returned while living on Silver . . . I had been temporarily cured by the presence of roommates, in my dorm room, in my first apartment, but my entrance into solo life on Silver relapsed me. I kept my kitchen light on all night and it drifted down the hall and comforted me enough so that I could fall asleep. But then I would dream of marauders climbing up the cliffs to the lighthouse, silently strangling puffins on their way, climbing like gargoyles up the serpentine stairs of the tower, cutting my radio lines, silencing my voice to the Mother Land, and then? Sitting on my chest, pressing the life out of me, while the sea roiled outside and the ships on my watch became helpless, lost, wounded on rocks, and sunk, I was raped and left for dead. I would wake, and startle, tear my wool hat from my head, push the cats out of the sleeping bag and take in air, as though I had experienced a fall from a great height and had the wind knocked out of me.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I Killed My Landlord

My first apartment in Greensboro was in a lovely old mill house on Tate Street. It was divided into three apartments, one tremendous apartment on the ground floor and two upstairs. Mine was upstairs, and on the right side of the house. It was roomy and flooded with light in the afternoons. It had two things I most most required in a dwelling back then, it was close to campus and it had an enormous bathtub.

I shared the place with a big girl named Beth. She was an Actress. She sang show tunes in the morning, and well, I hated her for that. She thought I was a floozy and I suspected she wanted me to sleep with her. We didn't see eye to eye on the bills or food, but we did agree on one thing; our landlord was a pervert.

Mr. Waddell was the spitting image of Burl Ives. The house had been his mother's house, in fact, he had lived in the house with her til she died, poor old thing. He had a heart condition, and often, he would show up at our door, unannounced, huffing and puffing after climbing the two flights of stairs attached to the back of the house. He'd let himself in to our kitchen and shout, "Is anyone here?" and I'd be in various states of studying or undress or what-have-you and I'd shout back, "Mr. Waddell! Please get out of here!" He let himself in one evening when I was in the bath. There I was, all alone, soaking in bubbles, the Rolling Stones blasting out of my stereo and here comes old Waddell. I didn't hear him standing in my kitchen, so he came down the hall and opened the bathroom door! I screamed. He slammed the door and ran for the kitchen. I threw on a towel and ran after him dripping wet. "Mr. Waddell! We're putting a chain on the door tomorrow! Get out of here!"

It was the eighties and I was a kid. I didn't think to call the police or even my family. Next day, my boyfriend helped Beth and I install a chain on the door. Two days later, Waddell showed up and tried to get in. I heard the door open and the chain ratchet and then the door softly banging open and shut, open and shut. Waddell stuck his face in the two-inch crack of the door, like Santa Claus in The Shining, "Miss Wolfy! This is an outrage! This is my property. I need to be able to access all of these apartments at all times!"

"Mr. Waddell, we will call you if something needs to be fixed. You have no business coming in here. Please leave now."

"But my mother . . . "

"Your mother has nothing to do with this, hmmm, or does she?"

He shut the door and I heard him standing in the hall breathing. Finally, he went down the stairs and I saw him get in his truck and drive away.

Beth was a terrible student. She failed half of her classes in the two semesters we lived together. The weird thing was that she was very conservative and seemingly responsible. She rarely drank. She stayed home on Friday nights, yet she couldn't keep her grade average up. Me? I smoked. I drank. I came home at all hours, but I maintained a B average, and every once in a while I got an A . . . in Animal Behavior classes, those were a cinch for me.

That spring, Beth quit school and left town. I was left to find a new roommate.

Mr. Waddell started coming around again when Beth moved out. He'd show up every other day, open the door, fight the chain, and then holler in at me, "Have you found a new roommate Miss Wolfy? Will you be able to pay the rent?"

"Not yet Mr. Waddell. Please go away now. And the rent's not due for another week!"

I met a girl on the street, out in front of Hong Kong House, which was not just any old Chinese restaurant. It was our Public House. Only a block from my apartment, Hong Kong House provided me with lunch, dinner, and all my social needs. It was a place to network. It was a hippie joint extraordinaire. And the wall out front with the myrtle tree growing up through the middle of it, was an equally important gathering place. So I met my potential roommate Chandra on the wall. She had just come to town. She was thinking about going to school in the fall, but she wasn't sure. She had been following the Dead for a couple of years. She was a mountain girl and came with only the backpack that sat at her feet. But she said she had money, she needed a room.

Chandra moved in the next day. And not surprisingly, she moved out three days later. Gone like a circus, someone on the street told me she'd found a ride to Berkeley. "Shit, now what am I going to do? Rent is due and I've got no damn roommate!" It took me about an hour to figure it out. I called home, like any good college kid does and they wired me extra scratch for the month. But that wasn't going to go over well next month, and besides, I was due to graduate soon, and that meant the golden fountain would go dry for good.

I put word out on the street that I needed a cheaper apartment and it didn't take more than a few hours to get news of a place that was half the price of Waddell's House of Fun. The new place was across the tracks, in a questionable neighborhood, but I didn't care, I was ready for a life free of roommates and Waddell.

Lease? Yeah, I had signed a lease with Waddell, and it didn't run out for another year, but I found two girls to move in on the day I moved out and I handed them the lease and said, "Call Waddell, tell 'im you two live here now. Keep the chain on the door, pay your rent, and it'll all be cool." I thought it helped that they were cute southern girls too. Waddell would like them. They would probably let him in the door occasionally and bake cookies for him, just like dear old Ma used to do.

8 months later, in the dead of winter, I'm futzing around with a kerosene heater in my rundown apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, only a few steps away from God's Miracle House of Deliverance and a good mile from campus, when there's a knock on the door. I open the door, keeping the chain in place, cause, yes, I was going to have a chain on every door from then on, and there's a Greensboro policeman standing outside my door. I'm going to tell you this now, and I will expand on this thought in a future story, but back then, the Greensboro Police were a thing to be feared. They wore all black uniforms, not navy blue, and they were dangerous. If you want to start reading up on them, read about the KKK shootings back in '83 in downtown Greensboro. That will begin to give you an idea of why we were afraid of those guys. And in the neighborhood I was living in, it was just standard that when something went wrong, you called your neighbors for help, not the police.

"Are you Miss Wolfy?" He had his right hand on his gun holster and he held a manila envelope in his left. I thought if I am Miss Wolfy do I get the envelope or a slug in the face?

"Yes, yes, I'm Miss Wolfy." I left the chain on the door. The cop pushed the envelope at me through the crook of the door.

"This is a summons. Read it and appear in court on the dates stated." He turned and went down the stairs and got in his black cruiser. My nosy old neighbor across the street stood in her front yard holding a rake. She looked up at my window and I knew what she was thinking, "I knew that girl was no good."

It was a summons from Waddell's lawyer. They were suing me for breaking the lease. They were taking me to court to recover one year's rent . . . $4,800. I nearly passed out. What the fuck was I going to do? I couldn't call my grandmother. And then it hit me. I would call my bulldog, my father. My father loves nothing more than a fight. He'll fight anybody and he doesn't always win, but I was pretty sure he would tear Waddell to pieces. I had no idea how swift a job it would be.

I called the elder Wolfy and felt the hair growing on the back of his hands while I told him the story, "So you found sublettors and he's still suing you? Are the girls still there, they didn't walk out too, did they?"

"No, I walked by the other day, and they waved to me from the porch. And I even told them he was a pervert and how to handle that so they wouldn't leave."

"Pervert? He's a pervert? Whatdoyoumeanhezapervert!?!"

"He used to let himself in the apartment."

"And?"

"He would come at all hours, afternoon, nights, and come in without knocking. He let himself in once when I was in the bathtub!"

"WAT?!"

"Yeah, but . . ."

"Did he see you in the tub?"

"I told you he was pervert."

Next thing I get is a phone call from Waddell, "Young lady! You're a liar!" And then he hung up. Seems my bulldog of a father filed a counter suit with Guilford County accusing Mr. Waddell of Sexual Harassment. Waddell went down to the court house to pick up papers and they gave him the summons right there in the hallway and he blew a gasket. He had to be removed by police escort from the premises. And then, he was in such a state they had to call an ambulance and take him to the ER. That night I went down to The Night Shade Cafe, a seedy little bar beneath The Hong Kong House and I danced barefooted to the beat of Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin. I was outta my mind happy, there were few times that the old Bulldog came through and this was one of them.

But the story doesn't end there . . .

We were due in court just a few weeks later. Waddell was going to say I skipped on the lease and my Bulldog father was going to stand next to me and accuse Waddell of being a pervert. But we never got to court.

Waddell died of a coronary two weeks before the joust was to go down.

I killed my landlord, yes, I did.

i wonder where she is . . .

i used to know a girl who wrote like Faulkner of the Trailer Park . . . and she looked exactly like Claudette Colbert. i would give a lot to read one of her stories again. she was devastating.

last i heard from her was twenty years ago. she'd quit writing, been married and divorced, and fainted often from hypoglycemia. i should have kept track of her, but i let her fade away.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dorothy Parker says:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful; 
You might as well live.

red light . . .

Richmond, VA 
August, 2010

"Well, Is she or isn't she?"

You know what that’s from don’t you? It's from Breakfast At Tiffany’s -- Holly Golightly’s manager asks this of Paul Varjak and Paul’s response? “A phony . . . I don’t think so, do you?”

Breakfast At Tiffany’s changed my life when I first saw it. I was nineteen and home on Christmas break from college. I couldn’t sleep, so I went down to the old TV room in my grandparents’ house and turned on the set. They still had a black and white TV and it was 1985. And I bumbled into the opening scene of a film that I had never seen before. I was well-read, and I already loved movies, but I had never seen anything like this movie before. The story was vibrant, and the people were complex, and though it was 24 years old at the time, it was as contemporary a movie as I had ever seen. I had been given Capote’s In Cold Blood to read in the 9th grade -- and it terrified me, I wouldn’t have finished it if it wasn’t assigned homework. I was so frightened by it, that I avoided anything by Capote thereafter, until, Breakfast At Tiffany’s came into my life. It was because of Capote that I found the period of writing and writers that I wanted to spend the most time with. The mid-twentieth century, The New Yorker crew; E.B. White, John Updike, John Cheever, and this branched out to Nabakov. I had a good foundation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I needed these modern suburban writers to finish the job for me, with a little Beat Generation and Expat lit from the likes of Paul Bowles . . . my mother said of Bowles upon finding out how much I enjoyed his stories, “He’s a bit decadent isn’t he?” and I think she meant Gay by that, but I decided to only reply by saying, “Yes, very decadent indeed.”

And so lately, I’ve been feeling all afloat, I’ve been trying to ground myself in what I want to accomplish with all this, where is my creative fountainhead? Its with movies like Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Sweet Smell of Success and On The Waterfront and the stories of Cheever and Updike . . .  I need to revisit this foundation again, and build confidence in my direction again, and not be concerned with the fact that my Voice is born of something just slightly older than me. Who knows, maybe Old will become New again.

Well, am I or aren’t I? A phony? I hope not . . .

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who says . . .

Spring is the time of love, when the trees are taking off all their clothes in autumn?

The Jesus Lizard, Part 16 -- That's Notta Ledge

I got drunk when we got to Cha Creek. I stepped off the bus, took a deep breath, and said to myself, “Wolfy, tonight you’re going to get blind.”

We had made it back to Belize by the skin of our fan belt and only London, Nigel and I knew it. Not ten minutes after crossing the boarder, the belt gave way, and I swear it said “HA!” as it went, as though it knew that we had sweated all the way down the Western Highway, praying to every deity we knew, including some we didn’t know, and it took great pleasure in torturing us. When it finally committed suicide, we were within walking distance to a small service station. London smiled his gold checkered smile and off he went up the road to get a new belt. Nigel and I slipped him some cash and said, “Please, buy three! We’ve got four more days to go.” Did I say that I had carried a wad of cash on this trip just for tips and unexpected disasters like busted fan belts? I did -- and I was a poor girl back then, my non-profit salary was not the kind that afforded me the lifestyle of a big tipper. But it said right there on page 3 of my job description, below that line recommending that I be helpful and above the paragraph about the First Aid Kit, that I was to be responsible for all tips -- tips to guides, to inn keepers, to ferrymen, canoe paddlers, and I was supposed to collect tips from the members of my party for certain special situations -- but apparently no one put this in their package of information, so I was looked upon as some sort of grifter when I made requests for their cold hard cash to make tips . . . I mean Americans just don’t get the idea of tipping, they abhor it, and they will do anything to avoid tipping. Tipping is the way of the world -- and I have learned over the years, as an expat especially, that if you are a consistent and generous tipper, the Karma payback is stupendous.

So there we sat on the bus, the Guatemalan sun was behind us and the Belizean sun beginning to set. The natives were cantankerous -- they had no idea how close we were to being stuck on the side of the Western Highway in Guatemala with a busted fan belt and no way to get help. And now they were cheesed-off because we were going to be late for dinner in Cha Creek. The bus ride had been so rough, they’re hemorrhoids were acting up . . . and they had no compunction about sharing this with me, Keeper of the First Aid Kit.

I was very tidily returned to sherpa status the morning after Thanksgiving -- the morning before we would make that long drive back to Belize. It was only natural really, there were bags to be loaded on to the bus, lunches to be made for the trip, tips to be given to our Mayans, and there was to be one more short outing in Tikal. We got the bus packed and everyone checked out and then we walked to Temple Five, the one temple that had not been ascended on our three day adventure in the holy city.

I walked at the back of the group, in fact I trailed them by a good 25 yards or so. Nigel was trying to quiet them so we could see birds, but they were tittering away. I had been up half the night, ill, “too much turkey . . . ” I thought to myself, but I would find in the coming days that it wasn’t turkey, but something else. By the time we would reach Ambergis Cay, I would be unable to eat at all, and my bones would ache from the curse of the Tikal swimming pool, and only Nigel would notice, he would see me picking at my food, pushing it around the dinner plate, “Wolfy, you’re not eating.” . . . I can’t Nigel, something’s wrong. But at the moment, it was just indigestion, and I pushed on, “brought up the rear” and we reached the base of Temple Five. It was a hefty climb, and half of our party chose to remain earthbound, including Rockbottom, much to my relief.

We spotted a Red-capped Manakin and a Social Flycatcher at the top of Five and it was fairly thrilling to be up there. I hung back and took as many varied photos of the view and our group as I could. I was on my 30th roll of film by then -- with only five more film canisters left, I was having to conserve, ahh, something I had forgotten about in this age of digital images! And it was slide film, I have thirty five boxes of slides from that trip! Nigel lead us into the entrance of the Shaman’s chambers -- Mayans believe that caves are entrances to the underworld and their temples took that idea to a higher idea -- these pyramids reached for the heavens, put their shamans in touch with the sun and the gods at an immortal height and provided a portal to other worlds. Just when I was drifting off into my own world, and trying to think what I would do if the bus broke down on the way back to Belize, Nigel came to my rescue, “Wolfy, I want to show you something, follow me.” He told the others to explore the chambers, while we took some photos. Nigel led me to the norhern side of Temple 5, there was a good sized ledge to walk on, probably 4 or 5 feet wide, nothing I couldn’t handle, “Nigel, where are we going?”

“I want you to walk the backside of Five with me Wolfy, its something you can tell your grandchildren about someday.”

“Grandchildren?”

“Yes, Wolfy, that’s right.”

We got to the backside of the temple. I now I knew what Nigel was talking about. It was a good 100 yards from the corner we stood on to the southern side of the temple. The ledge was practically not a ledge at all, it was a foot, maybe a foot and some inches wide. I looked east and saw Temple 4 in the distance. I looked down, all canopy. No Net. Grandchildren? How am I going to have grandchildren if I fall from this thing?

“Nigel, how about this, I’ll play Japanese Tourist here. You walk it, I’ll take your photo and I will greet you on the other end, Congratulations!”

“Nope, that won’t do Wolfy. You have to walk it. It will be the thing you remember, the thing you did without Them.”

“Oh, you noticed . . . ”

“I’ve seen alot of these trips Wolfy. Some of the trip leaders have a grand time, and some, some are like you, they get roughed up. The one’s who get roughed up get to walk the backside of Temple 4, its my gift to you.”

“I dunno Nigel, that’s a hell of a walk.” I thought of Stan Laurel negotiating the ledge of a high rise apartment building, of pigeons landing on his head, of a piano being lowered by Ollie, ‘That’s it Stan, steady as she goes!“ The ropes fray, the piano falls, Stan goes with the piano and lands unscathed in a pile of white dust and piano keys. I eyed the ledge and stared down in to the jungle below. And just then a grey fox ran below us, ”Nigel! a fox!“

”That’s a fortuitous sign Wolfy! Let’s go!“

And he was gone, Nigel was already ten yards out and the fox had vaporized into the deep green. I shifted my camera, zoom lens and all to my back, and did like Nigel, put my face to the back of Temple 4, breathing its sacred cold stone air into my lungs, my hands and belly flat against its being as I sidled step by terrifying step, and I imagined being an old woman telling my grandchildren of this moment. I didn’t look down, I watched Nigel and I could see he had done this many times. Was he insane? Probably. I would learn only a few years later that most expats are insane. I felt the infinite air at my back. I was walking, I was flying. Yes, I was flying.

Nigel reached the southern corner and disappeared. I felt very alone without the sight of him, but I told myself he was still with me, waiting for me. I took one, two, three, four more steps, and there I was, around the corner and I let out a long breath, exorcising myself of the weird gods I had inhaled. ”Congratulations!“ Nigel hugged me, ”Now take a picture of your ledge.“ And I did, I put the camera round the corner and pressed the shutter, ledge immortalized. Me? Alive.

So, you see, by the time we reached Cha Creek, I was ready to run amok. I was 29 years old, the youngest one on this trip by a good twenty years -- my oldest member was 80, Nigel was 49, and Mizz Ghandi was fifty something. The rest of them resided in their sixties and seventies. I had been crammed in a self-destructing bus for thirteen days with these people, unable to say a word, my utterances were never appreciated, my humor was inappropriate, and I was part of the establishment. Rockbottom made certain that she had the troops on her side -- I was not to be trusted, it was a well-known fact that I was in fact planted by the international environmental establishment to gather confidential information about each and everyone of them, and make myself so familiar to them that at the end of the trip I would have all their wills signed over to me. You see, that was part of my job really. They were donors to the organization that I worked for and I was supposed to “cultivate” them during this trip -- that is, get to know them so well, that I could provide information useful to fundraisers to make asking these people for money easier.

But its assumed that your donors aren’t hostile to your overtures, they’ve been enamored of your organization’s work for years, so impressed, that they pay good money to travel with you and see what you’re up to in foreign lands, so why wouldn’t they expect to be cultivated? And I had been in the business of dealing with donors for close to five years at that point, I was young, but I was subtle in my approach, but Rockbottom was a cheap old thing and she let it be known that I was an interloper, “This one thinks we’re just going to hand over our money, but we just came here to watch birds, didn’t we?” And for some reason they all looked to her as boss. She had her own agenda. And her heart was hard like a meteorite. She made my task, to be helpful and to represent my organization, almost impossible. Friends and colleagues who had gone on these trips enjoyed some sort of mild hero status on their trips. I was told they felt admired by their trip participants for giving up the high-paying jobs that college educated kids like us could have, for pushing Wall Street aside, and instead working to Save the World. The members seemed to know that we were good kids working for practically no money to ensure that endangered species got a fair shake, but this crowd saw me as some kind of Freeloader. Who was paying for my trip? What exactly did I do to earn a trip abroad with my own private rooms and “nothing to do”? I was suspect in every way.

And by day twelve, I didn’t care anymore. I was going to have some fun, even if it killed me, even if it got me fired. My closest friend at work had done the same trip one year before, and she told me, “Don’t worry, the old folks go to bed early, and then you can stay up, get drunk and have some fun! You’re going to have a great time!’ But she was wrong. My crew was so damn serious, that even when they went to bed, I was left with this storm cloud of anxiety about the next day, and I sat there with London and Nigel at the bar, nursing my one beer, planning the next day scientifically. I wanted nothing to go wrong. I was desperate to please these old codgers. But I had reached my limit . . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Autumn wheels . . .

Krishna man in robes the color of a just sliced open cantaloupe
wheeling a tangerine bicycle at dusk . . .

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Colt 45

Smoking Honda Civic -- gray like my autumn's stormy sky above the gas station. There's no driver and the car sits there by the pumps, ready to burst into flames, and I hesitate, maybe this is my day, my day to die at the service station in Efland, just a quarter mile from I-85 south, I should have stayed on the highway, abandoned my thoughts of Root Beer.  In the go-mart, there are four men, and me, the unlikely blond girl. Its 10 am and I'm on my way to my volunteer job. I look for the Root Beer and find it next to the Ginger Beer and near the Cherry Cola, and I wonder if its a Twist Off or will I need an opener? Hells Bells, who cares, I grab the beautiful amber bottle and almost swing into a young blond boy making his way through the Isle of Potato Chips and Roasted Peanuts to the register. He cocks his hip in his baggy blue jeans and I admire his strong left arm and the brown beaded choker that rests on the back of his tan neck just below the place where his blond hair falls, dirty but determined. And the pint bottle he sets down announces Colt 45 and I can't help but wince, cause its ten in the morning and the boy looks too much like someone I know to be drinking 45 in the morning. He pays with handfuls of change from the pockets of his pants and leaves.

I pay for my Root Beer and carry it out in the brown paper bag, not unlike the bag the boy carried his Colt 45 off with, but I think, I have nothing to hide, not at this time of morning at least, and I see him sidle into the passenger seat of the near-on-fire Honda Civic and the smoke is still drifting downward from the hood, and I see the driver, an old man, an old black man, with a sharp pork pie hat, and a cigar hanging in the corner of his mouth. The boy is handing him the Colt 45, the twist-off cap is gone and the man takes a long drag from the bottle, deftly keeping the cigar in place, and they drive off, with the acrid smoke pouring off their engine and i wonder what the day will bring for them?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Jesus Lizard, Part 15—Thanksgiving Cease Fire

“They are cooking a turkey for us.”
This came from Secret Agent Jeanne when we returned to the Tikal Inn. All the women were in the kitchen. The Mayan women and the American women and they were huddled over this tremendous pale bird and speaking broken English and broken Spanish. But not Jeanne, she was at the empty bar, nursing a cold Belikin beer. She looked rather perturbed, perhaps she had missed her connection that day, the one that she was to pass the secret codes on to. But it became apparent very quickly what was really gnawing at her, “Do you think its really a turkey? I mean do they have domestic turkeys here? Or is it a coatimundi they just found out back and put an arrow through?”

“Its a bird Jeanne, I’m sure of that.” Nigel was craning his neck to get a look at the patient, splayed out on the table being stuffed with mangoes and chili peppers.

“So, its not a buzzard is it?” Jeanne took another long sip of her beer and there was a twinkle in her eye, she was just playing Nigel.

“No, its a turkey. The indians raise turkeys, not many, but they do raise them. But they don’t roast them whole in the tradition of American Thanksgiving.” Nigel waved me over, ordered three beers, one for him, one for me, and one for Miss Ghandi, who announced very pointedly that she was a vegetarian and would not be eating any turkey, Thanksgiving or no Thanksgiving. London appeared in the doorway, he started to giggle. “London! Where have you been?”

“Went to Flores with a friend. Tried to find a new engine belt. No luck man, no luck.” London plopped his black scarecrow frame next to me at the bar. He made the sign of one to the Mayan boy behind the counter and the boy quickly produced another cold Belikin beer. There we sat with our backs to the bar and faces toward the kitchen watching the women truss the gigantic turkey. The Mayan women looked bewildered and the American women determined to make certain that bird was cooked properly. Jeanne, Nigel, London, Miss Ghandi, and I were like the men out in the living room watching football. We had no business in that kitchen, our only business was to belly up to the table when we were told to do so.

Hours went by and the Guatemalan sun god retreated beneath the crest of the jungle and sent up a pure white crescent moon to dangle in the sky just above the pool. Candles were lit, music began to play, and our party joined the opposing environmental party for a real down home Thanksgiving. Suddenly everyone was lonely for family and we began to tell the stories of our family Thanksgivings -- if we couldn’t be home at that moment, we could conjure the spirits of home, just like Mayan shamans conjuring the jaguar goddesses and bringing the rains to the indians’ crops. It was a holiday for sure and weirdly the Americans explained the story of the pilgrims to the Mayans who joined us that night, never mind the fact that the Pilgrims betrayed the indians who feasted with them on the first Thanksgiving, never mind, what mattered was we were there and a turkey had been slaughtered and roasted.

Mizz Rockbottom even partook of a glass of wine that evening, which made her ever so tolerable. She approached me and raised her glass, and I in turn raised my bottle of beer to clink delicately, “Happy Thanksgiving Wolfy!” yes, yes, “Happy Thanksgiving Rockbottom,” you old battle ax, maybe you aren’t so bad after all, perhaps your near-death experience in the jungle has transformed your dark heart? But it would only prove to be temporary. I would return to Sherpa status at dawn.

The generator kicked off at 10 p.m., leaving us all in the glow of candlelight, full of turkey and mashed plantains, and thoughts of our loved ones far from this old stone hotel in the heart of darkness. As the guests faded away to their rooms and the candles burned down, I listened to my Mayan humming to herself while cleaning the night kitchen. I felt happy, but only briefly, because I remembered what London said, that he hadn’t found a new engine belt for the bus. We would be leaving the next day, and it was a long rough ride back to Belize. I just hoped the belt we had, or what was left of it, would hold.

Francis Yeats-Brown says:

"Those nights I lay on a sofa with him, couché a gauche, as opium–smokers say, weaving a tissue of deceit into the grey–white clouds encircling us, will always remain among the strangest memories of my life. The couches, the medley of cushions, the pipes, the profile of my host as he leaned over the green glimmer of the lamp which burned for the god to whom his heart was given, and the growth of that god in him, as pipe followed pipe; and the beatitude in his eyes when they found the dream–world where the princes of the poppies reign, seem no more part of me now than a play, yet I did and felt and saw many unaccustomed things during that month of make–believe. And instead of reading philosophy or playing chess, I was engaged in a game whose sake was liberty"

From The Long Descent of Wasted Days in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1930)