This is the first entry of the traveling diary of a budding composer and musician. It will be, I hope, less an unreadably personal record of minutae, than a journal of my experiences put down in a way other thinking musicians and listeners might find edifying and, with any luck, fortifying.
Currently I am in two bands, both in the early stages of development, “No Love Songs” and “The Kissing Cousins Band”. Though I have been composing since I was a child, I did not begin to set the music to paper until I was seventeen years of age. Music has always been part of my life, and three years ago after clinical testing at the behest of an attentive and devoted friend, it was discovered that I am in fact quite deaf, a lifelong condition that has been obscured by my skills at reading lips, as well as people’s linguistic tendencies and their overall mannerisms. Hearing aids now assist me in observing the music of the universe around and within us all.
My musical education in elementary through high school was adequate for my general education and I have been fortunate to have learned more than the average American middle class student. I never learned to sight-read or read the bass clef with any proficiency, having studied the treble clef in choir and during childhood flute lessons. Now as a grown woman I continue my education mostly through reading books on music, on composers, and technique. I have had a handful of sessions with a few piano teachers, most recently Manling Kwok, a superior instructor from Hong Kong who holds a degree in Piano Pedagodgy from Oakland University. Learning any new language in one’s middle-thirties is a challenge and my slow progress is marked by frustration and hope equally.
In an early 19th Century book on piano study I found at a local book shop, I read words to the effect that performance is the bane of American musicianship. The author commented that many musicians are encouraged to perform before they are ready. While I see the point, I also wonder what America he was talking about, and how much experience he had had with cultures outside of the Western world even within the U.S. Border. In African-American or Latino households, for instance, cultures that explore rhythm extensively, early group performance is widely regarded as enhancing compositional abilities. In many European-American books on piano performance written in the 19th Century, I have found useful tidbits on how to increase technical skill and richness of tone, but increasingly come across warnings against novice performance. One book warns that no student of piano, however skilled, ought to perform until “he has make a careful study for at least eight years”. It is my personal preference not to perform or practice in public, but this may prove to be a weakness.
Keeping both approaches in mind, public improvisation and private study, I submit that knowing one’s self sufficient to maintaining a balance of breaking personal barriers and learning at one’s own pace is key. When drawing sketches abroad, for instance, or painting on a canvas in a tourist spot, I have felt pestered by the flock of no doubt well-meaning nosey parkers who inevitably wish to peek at what I am doing. After finding the courage to say “I am not comfortable showing my work at this stage,” I began to feel better about progressing at my own rate. This is to say that I think that my reaction to the crumbling 19th Century volume on piano study at Downtown Books in Rochester, Michigan, was a relief followed by skepticism.
As my 16-year-old godson, Nadim, also a composer of music, said to me recently, “I can get something out of every situation.” In his useful if precious book on the artistic life, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield encourages artists to view the forces that keep them back as creative folk as a type of evil force that exists to squelch works that might please the benevolent gods. He calls it “Resistance” and I found this to be a useful term and concept. I prefer to think of those forces as not evil (as I do not believe they are) but as teaching forces that exist to forge us and all beings into stronger versions of ourselves. In truth, I suspect that either way of thinking is mildly sollipsistic, but I am all for the pragmatic uses of such concepts if they dispell the clouds of apathy and stagnation that so plague us, thus sparking our gumption.
As a recovering Catholic, I reject the idea of heaven, hell and eternal hellfire, and original sin, finding in my experiences and those of my fellow earthlings as sufficient evidence that Heaven and Hell are here and now. We needn’t seek them out. The Hindu view of life as being ruled by gods in the form of Creator, Destroyer and Maintainer is helpful here. At the risk of sounding the blasphemer, we can see the creative force as The Creator, the Resistant force as The Destroyer. We ourselves, then, are the Maintainer or, if you prefer, beings capable of all three incarnations, aligning with the universal religious concept that God is Within.
Why do we exist? To me, it rings true to say that we exist to become “moreso” versions of ourselves, however defined, toward some unseen purpose or else simply for the amusement of forces unknown, but at the end of the day I do not pretend to know. Pressfield writes that fear is an indicator of what we must do and having read his thoughtful expansion on this theme brought to my mind C.S. Lewis’s maxim that “we read to know we are not alone”. The mastery of fear and viewing setbacks as indicators of a need for a change of perspective is important in personal and artistic development. That is to say, life is hard enough. Use what you can and pass it on.
The house is now buzzing with life, and I must take my tea with my family.
Cheers and chimes,
A newspaper headline caught my eye as I walked down the street toward my rented house.
“ENTERPRISE WILL CONQUER POVERTY AND WAYWARDNESS,” SAYS SENATE HOPEFUL MATT RIMROD.” I stepped up to the newspaper droid and peered at the opening lines of the front-page news. “We will realize the American Dream. It will unify America…”
It reminded me of something Gunther Wallace Phelps once said to me over a drink. We had been sitting at The Olde Tavern Pub on Main Street some summers ago, watching the Elm Harbor townies pay rapt attention to a lesser Vannah White revealing Michigan Lotto numbers on the bar t.v.
G.W. said to me, pointing his beer bottle toward the lottery junkies, “Working is not the American Dream. Not working is the American Dream.”
Walking back home, I realized it had been two or three months since I’d spoken with Gunther Wallace. When I reached my apartment, I pressed play on my answering machine.
G.W. telephoned while I was out, and this was the tail end of his voice message: “Get ‘em while they’re hot: binoculars, scissors, canvas, tape. Old sneakers, waffle irons and mail-order brides.” He was rooting through his stuff and invited me to cast my eyes over his kingdom of litter before he pitched it. During the last phone conversation we had, I had been debating about whether to get rid of all my belongings, or get a storage space.
“What do you think would be harder, G.W. Packing up all my stuff or leaving it all behind?”
“You know, you really aren’t a minimalist, Dolores,” he said by way of an answer. “You just amass more shit.”
When he wasn’t up North at Oberland, G.W. lived on the seventh floor of The Farwell, an abandoned building on the border of Elm Harbor and Detroit. It was just high enough to have a view, he’d said, and low enough to make it in good time down the fire escape in event of a high-speed chase. That day after G.W.’s message promising his treasures to me, I called him back agreed to make my way to his place at eleven o’clock the next morning.
In the 1920s the Farwell had been a hotel, and the chipped and dusty molding of the lobby’s twin fireplaces, the yellowed stain glass windows, the chipped and fading ceiling frescoes still radiated a shabby magnificence. Stony, twisted-tongued gargoyles glowered down from the rooftops and guarded the entryway.
What set The Farwell apart from many such buildings in many such towns was its original designer. The wealthy dowager architect, contrary to the advice of her fellows and quite against tradition, had included a button for Floor 13 in the passenger elevator. Most American hotels, apartment complexes and office buildings stuck to that superstitious cardinal order linking 12 to 14 for fear of dark and mysterious fates befalling their tenants and properties. Legends abounded of gruesome deaths, heated lovers’ quarrels, and so too came vague reports of rotten luck and abiding ill fortune…your basic life in the big city. The dowager’s famous response? “Scandal is great for business.”
When I arrived at his apartment building at the edge of 9 Mile Road, it looked as if the entire structure was in the process of being gutted. The Farwell had long been a favorite destination of mine and, well before G.W. moved in, I would often end my town strolls on its roof balcony, admiring the sweeping view it offered of both my home town of Elm Harbor and the great, lawless rusted ruin that was the Motor City.
Few cars were parked out on the little side street, the urban sign of exile. The entryway was strung with yellow plastic ribbons trumpeting: CAUTION! CAUTION! CAUTION! Inside, the industrial-carpeted floor was littered with rubble. Posted by the elevator were printed signs announcing the building’s demolition printed in bold type. It was dated six months ago.
The main elevator was not in service, and the lobby stairwell door was enthusiastically chained and padlocked. Undaunted, I cut to the rear of the building down a narrow hallway and located without trouble the service elevator. A stack of Yellow Pages phonebooks held open the door to the alley. I pressed the only button on the elevator’s exterior keypad and patiently awaited my chariot, thinking it had been perhaps ten years since I’d seen anyone consult phone directories. Doorstops were as good a use as any for them. The elevator wheezed to the ground and its stale iron door rattled open.
Once safely ferreted to the seventh floor, I realized I forgot G.W.’s room number. There in the hallway, I began to listen. A duet of chainsaw and hammer came from one direction, but the open door to the rickety fire escape meant that the activity perhaps sounded from any floor at all, even the rooftop. I tried again, this time catching two voices. A pedantic drone emanated from a nearby room, followed by a murmured sopranic response; a young woman and an old man were discussing The World in familiar, comic harmonies. I stepped past this door, and soon picked up the sound of my friend’s voice in laughter. Then an unfamiliar and lilting laugh set in a higher pitch came as an echo. With a few hairpins found in my mackintosh pockets, I set my tumbling curls in neat order in preparation of an unforeseen introduction.
The keyhole to G.W.’s door was surrounded with an old digital compact disc, shining and silver. The door was unlocked and slightly ajar.
I stepped into the apartment, and at once my senses were assaulted with light and sound. G.W.’s windows were all six of them open, and the fire escape construction and city traffic blared in chaotic roars. The giant fish tank and numerous plants shone in their colorful varieties, daylight seemed to bleach the floorboards of the otherwise empty room. Two mangy cats were engaged in a fur-flying hissy-fit in the center of the living room where a round young woman with pillar-box red hair sat holding a peacock feather in one dirty hand. She did not look up until I closed the door behind me.
We exchanged anonymous greetings from opposite sides of the room and for a time regarded one another without stirring. A minute later, we heard the clump-clump of boots as G.W. trumped out from his bedroom.
He waved both hands sideways in a childlike hello, and we embraced. After introducing Sadie to me and me to Sadie, G.W. said, “Let’s eat.”
Sadie was not hungry, but she said she would feed the cats. She did this, and then took to cleaning the fish tank.
The studio kitchen was open to the apartment. I sat back in a rickety chair at the card table by the kitchen window and asked my friend with a teasing smile, “Is this your mail-order bride?” I jerked my head toward Sadie, who was singing loudly to the fish, and grinned.
He waited until Sadie went to fill two jugs of water in the bathtub before saying, mildly, “She just needed a place to stay.”
“Do you?” I asked, folding my hands over my empty bowl and giving him my best schoolmarm stare-down. “I saw the signs.”
G.W. did not answer, instead he fixed me with his sphinx-like gaze and held it long. When I did not drop my eyes, he laughed somewhat tenderly and my lips twisted in a pursed smile.
“What signs?” he asked. “Oh, you mean the DEMO.” He swatted his hand at this. “It costs millions to demolish a building like this. I got time yet.”
G.W. whipped up an omelette, which he called The Phelps Special. Another name for it might have been The Kitchen Sink. G.W.’s approach to cuisine his brother Marcus called, “Ready, steady cook”, making miracles from scraps and with only his nose and palette as guide. I thanked him for breakfast.
“Have more,” he said, rising from his broken chair. G.W. returned with the cast-iron skillet, setting it on a folded towel on the table. It satisfied me to see that, for whatever reason, the building’s electricity had not yet been shut off, and this fact relieved me for G.W.’s sake, and for Sadie’s, too, I reflected. The rest of the mystery belonged to G.W., G.W. who would certainly survive, G.W. who would always shelter those who couldn’t make it on their own.
For a time he had studied stone masonry, working what jobs there once were, and now how he lived I hardly knew. He hadn’t been to Monty’s Diner in some time. On a few occasions, I had sent him some money, which he never asked for and which I told him was a gift. Knowing G.W., it was divided among a handful of others sharing the sphere of his immediate life.
Where once we had taken long walks together, we now kept in touch through phone calls and letters. Ours was the bond that time did not alter; after months apart, the difference was little to us and we remained close, despite or perhaps because of the yaws of time between our meetings. The silence and distance if anything seemed to feed our friendship and secure our places deep in one another’s profoundest confidences.
After breakfast, we left Sadie napping with the cats on a beanbag in the sunshine. Gunther took his guitar over to my place where we played music together for hours. I improvised at the keyboard as Gunther strummed on his guitar. Then we moved to the patio, smoked, talk and sang some more as the day turned to night. Some time in the night, I fell asleep on the porch swing. When I awoke, I was covered in a blanket, and G.W. Phelps was gone. A note taped to the coffee pot said he was going with his brother up to Oberland.
His family property in the Upper Peninsula neighbored what had once been my family’s land. Nearly fifteen years before, my parents split up and my mother sold our twenty-acre country home. My sister, Catie, once grown, had moved to California, and had never visited Oberland even once since our parents’ divorce. The boys’ father, Simon, had passed, and Mrs. Clara Phelps and my mother kept in loose touch. The last time I had seen Clara was at my mother’s funeral two years ago.
Though a few times I had visited and stayed with his whole family since the move, G.W. and I mostly spent our time together in Elm Harbor. A handful of summers across a dozen years I made my way up to Oberland, and I knew it had been some time since I visited the Phelps.
“Come back home for a while, Dolores,” Gunther’s note read at the end.
After meeting Lenny Dean Schiff, I finally felt brave enough to hit the road again. The very day I planned to light out for the territory would be just when Oberland called me home.
Since I began this post, I have suffered the loss of my mother to breast cancer metastacized to the bone. All my attentions were geared toward her care. Her passing is just under two years ago now.
The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a renowned American poet of the early and mid-twentieth century, was chronicled in Nancy Milford’s “Savage Beauty” which I was reading at the time I began “gotpw”(“Gotpow?”). One day I had taken the book with me to lunch at a local diner, and took my seat along the counter on a little red-leather and steel stool. The waitress took my order of fried eggs, sausage and toast when a burly, bearded working man in flannel and Dickies parked next to me. Being strangers, we’d said little to one another outside of “Good morning” when I picked up my book again. He placed his order and the waitress poured us out our cups of coffee.
“You could be her sister,” the man said gruffly, indicating the paperback I had cradled in my hands.
“Hmm?” I murmured, unsure he was speaking to me, so absorbed in the poet’s story. When it hit me what he meant, I turned the book over to get a good look at the dreamy blue-black and white portrait of a young Millay. Blushing a bit, I murmured my thanks to him. I was unaware at the time of how telling this man’s comparison turned out to be. It feels eerie to think on it now…
My mother, like Millay’s, died before her time, leaving behind three daughters, all of whom were very close to her. The girls’ father did not figure greatly into their lives, and so their family was very much a matriarchy. A beau of Millay’s compared the relationship the women had with one another as well as their home together as “an enchanted witches’ cottage” which mirrors how friends of the family saw our quartet, and how we saw ourselves. My mother was devoted to her girls, and when we lost her, we all lost our mooring. My mother’s closest cousin told me of a talk with my mother shortly before her death in hospice. “Do you have a message for your daughters?” cousin Dinah asked Martina, my mother. She replied, “All my life and all my love I gave to my girls.”
At a memorial for my mother at the home of my aunt, my mother’s only sister, I read aloud Millay’s poem “Interim” and never in my life have I felt closer to a poet’s work than I did that night. Mitford printed a few lines from an unpublished poem of Millay’s about the loss of her beloved mother that came to me after my mother’s death: “To whom may I go/ What door try?” One instantly envisions a young child reaching to turn a doorknob on tip-toe in hopes that here is mother in this last room. Where can a daughter turn when her mother is taken from the world?
Writing about my mother’s illness and death began as catharsis and before long grew beyond my own personal scope into an artistic project. It feels now, as I look at the filled notebooks stuffed with looseleaf additions and bundled with rubber bands, rather like an unexpected pregnancy. “No wonder none of my pants fit me anymore…” So now I prepare to release “What Door Try” into the wild wide world in hopes that, in the immortal words of George Elliot, it can be “the cup of strength in some great agony” for someone else in future.
Most of us were only semi-employed; we knew what little work we could we had could be taken from us at any moment. As friends often did, we pooled our resources: food from our gardens, items some of us needed and others had too many of, trades at which we were useful, and in addition to this, we shared our time and companionship, resources which never ran dry in hard times.
For years, we’d lived as privately as we could, opting out of visible participation in a society obsessed with social and commercial networking. Ours was the age in which everything about us was knowable, from personal banking to computerized medical records, from communication firms that read our electronic mail to insurance companies that bought information on what we ate and how we lived. While others in American society sought the antidote of hiding-in-plain-sight assimilation, this was not a solution for the many like us who could not hide if we tried. Many believed that blending in would protect them and keep their lives hidden below the radar; theirs was a steadfast faith in the safety in numbers. To our way of thinking, one that prized the freedom of privacy at a premium higher than any exchangeable reward, there was nothing more dangerous. Nonconformity became a precious commodity and, outside of one another, our only sanctuary.
Someone somewhere had coined the term: “off the grid” and news of its grand possibilities had spread like the intoxicating promises of a cult religion. Just who had first uttered it was a mystery. Was it a group of ham radio bikers dwelling in the deserts of Southwestern America as rumor had it, or was it international techno-terrorists with bottomless bank accounts and liberated minds? Was it the now mature first generation of open source software engineers? Was it holy roller Jesus freaks or privileged nouveau Krishnas? Did it come from prison culture or migrant workers?
The phrase was not jealously guarded but it was uttered so infrequently as if to suggest reverence among those who felt the its meaning. There seemed to be a general consensus, from those who employed it, that it ought to be guarded from becoming a fad expression, as such a fate which would destroy its fragile powers altogether.
Elena insisted that it was a direct translation from the Spanish and that as a concept it was centuries old. “Una Vida Cerradados de las Grittas”. This phrase did not strike me as a likely candidate for a “direct” translation. Still, I granted her that surely the nomadic solution to the dominating culture of city-states was ages old, such as with Roma cultures.
“I am not talking about the gypsies,” she sniffed contemptuously. Elena and I sat alone at a small table near the back windows of Pat’s Diner. We liked sitting far from the kitchen. It was typically only we out of our group who came to the diner on Mondays. Lately, Henry and some of the others had picked up substitute teaching posts and on Mondays they were most frequently called in to work at the schools. Elena worked online and I pretended to work on my composition studies, pouring over music theory books as slowly I ate away at my dwindling inheritance. I liked Elena because she never pried into my life, and she, I suppose, liked me well enough for her own reasons.
So efficient was Elena at her job that Monday was the day that she did the least work. Her employees avoided her at all costs and scrambled like mad behind the scenes to complete what they were supposed to have done over the weekend. As no one sought her out at the start of the week, she and I enjoyed leisurely talks together most Monday mornings.
In one flowing gesture, Elena dipped into her hand-sewn exotic leather handbag, produced a shining silver cigarette case and popped it open with the press of a button. I beheld the crisply papered cigarettes, white and neat as a row of fine teeth.
“Would you like?” she asked me slyly, well aware that I had quit over a year before. I thanked her but refused. “As you like,” she muttered, a fresh cigarette now hanging between her voluptuous lips. She lit her smoke with a lighter embedded in the side of her case. Elena took such a long, luxuriously deep drag that unthinkingly I looked away, as though I’d viewed something indecent. She replaced the items in her purse and tapped her cigarette onto the side of her plate. As Elena resumed her daydreams I blew at my black coffee.
Quickly a waitress appeared and deposited an ashtray at Elena’s elbow saying, “Next week, Elena. The law change.” It was a friendly reminder, and though I was trying to kick the habit, I felt a pang of regret that I would no longer even be able to smell the slow burning of cigarettes at restaurants.
Elena cast her bedroom eyes heavenward. “In that case,” she said, again retrieving her cigarette case, “I will smoke a second for you, my friend.” She tossed another smoke onto the table just out of my reach.
“More coffee, please,” I murmured to a passing server, and was obliged.
“I was amazed when Italy did not make a stink about the smoking ban,” Elena commented once our waitress had taken our orders and departed. “After that…” she made a gesture of futility. Meekly she tapped her ash into the glass tray provided.
It was my personal theory that the smoking ban in the United States was nothing but a red herring. It had passed in Congress to mask the real culprits who endangered public health. I shared this belief with my friend who listened patiently. It was the car companies’ backward emission standards, I said, that polluted our air and mass-scale factories and off-the-leash corporations that dumped waste into our rapidly vanishing fresh water supplies and their chemicals that poisoned our food. Oil companies were more powerful than tobacco farmers these days, I pointed out, and in an oligarchical system like ours, the big guns called the shots with our elected officials.
Elena considered this. “I have no illusions about smoking,” she said, “But yes, a single car pollutes far more than I do. And I puff away like the chimney.”
The words of my late grandmother came to mind: “Dolores,” she had said to me one day over the pages of the merged Detroit Free Press/Detroit News daily paper, “I miss the jokers and the smokers and the drinkers and the thinkers.”
Elena and I each took a section of the city newspaper, now printed three times a week, read for a while and then traded. We took our meal in silence, enjoying the lulling drone of mid-day diner chatter and clatter as it swirled into a dissonant symphony.
The Ballad of Patient 10/99. by Martine Compton (Previously published in INPATIENT Magazine in 2001)
It had started well along without her, and so she found herself in the middle of something strange. It began, for her, when she found herself hostess to her own party. Harriet was fully aware, as she entered her apartment with her groceries, that it had been instigated by someone else. For who else but someone else would know what caterer to hire for the meat, how much ice to stock in the freezer (just the right amount), what time the dessert caterers would be on each night (a woman in a white coat, a pushy realtor of a brunette, had said “seven-thirty”). Who else, then, would have washed all the glasses perfectly clean without a dishwashing machine? But it was you, you silly thing,–or don’t you remember? Harriet found herself believing she was part of some sick joke, the kind of foolish cruelty that only children and serial killers were capable of exercising.
Then the bills came. When she had timidly gone to the bank, intent on footing the darn yellow slip-of-a-bill, intent on making a deposit, she found her account to be overdrawn. In a flash of (what felt like someone else’s) genius, she requested a printout of all her recent transactions, withdrawals and deposits. Where on earth,–who on earth, but herself—could have managed to have sunk (Good God!) five-thousand dollars since the first of May? Harriet received the printed testament with the eyes of a freshly deflowered virgin. Harriet also, in keeping, had a delicious urge to sit down, but found it was, for the moment, impossible.
Though the details of the bill were absurdly out of character with her own spending habits, Harriet did not wish to go to the police, nor did she express any distress outwardly at the bank. No, it was all too fascinating—twelve dollars for pink paper cups and six on boys’ fashion underwear. Well, cups, and peanuts, but platform shoes— she hated those things. She never could see the point in a “retro” investment unless that reflected a lost part of one’s own childhood or early youth, and being twenty-five all she had were Velcro high-tops and jelly-shoes, NO THANK YOU.
At the dentist, Harriet concluded that her mouth, too had been invaded: Twelve cavities, instead of the usual two or three or “perhaps one coming, let’s see the x-ray” but no one bothered to take an x-ray. Didn’t they know her insurance would cover any piddly test? By God, she thought, what was the fun in having insurance if dentists didn’t run trivial tests, and show off those wonderful buzzing and blinking machines they kept polished and whirring in the back, back room for customers who could cover, perfectly reasonable, the ever-mounting costs of the supply of lollipops for the lobby—she knew full well that baskets of lollipops did not grow on trees.
Seated awkwardly in the papered dental chair, Harriet bore blossom to the most intelligent and sensible thought she would have all week, but which she chose, in her excitement, to ignore: She must be going mad. Perfectly reasonable. It happens all the time. When one is going mad, Harriet, there are safe places to go—white and sterile places with tight jackets made of canvas with wide straps, and where they serve you peas with your perfunctory-prepared, perpetually last (bad) meal. If you have a car, drive right into the lobby, and, boy, they hop to immediately; it isn’t long before you’re eating plump, green peas or reading “People” magazine. And, oh, heavenly, with the right coverage plan! But Harriet slipped from the brink of sanity and plummeted into creative thought: That, she reasoned, is what you do when you are losing your mind, but what do you when someone else is losing it for you?
Harriet found two teething rings in her purse. Still at the dentist, she demanded that they match the dental records. They were, she soon found out from a receptionist, who looked like a cross between Tweety Bird and Marilyn Monroe, a perfect match to Harriet’s own.
No matter, she told herself. Perfectly reasonable. She left the dentist’s with a large amount of cotton in her mouth (which she found vaguely erotic) and an odd feeling in her body. She said, “I feel as if I were an egg timer, minutes away from heralding the arrival of another soft-boiled egg into breakfasthood.” No alcohol, the doctor had cautioned her, not with pain pills. She rushed home in a dizzied frenzy.
Harriet awoke at half-past three, in a drunken stupor, suddenly aware of having lain all afternoon on a new Persian carpet she did not recognize. This must be the one that was purchased on her credit card last night at two-am. The most recent transaction on her printout. She picked up the printout again and scanned her eyes over it and learned, then, that sauced people, like herself, took an especially long time to read. At half-past four, she had completed the last two steps in this drunken reading process which were realizing that what she had read was in English, and allowing her brain the time required for translation. (Vaguely she felt it was not unlike the waiting one experiences at an ATM machine while on a drugged-out binge: “Just don’t ask me to tell you how I did it; I just know it’s legally my money, so push off.”) Harriet went to the kitchen to help herself to her large supply of lemons. And then it was off to the bathroom.
Whoever had finished the last shift with her body, Harriet thought, had terrible taste in clothing (although, admittedly, superior to her own) as she found herself to be clad in a light green pantsuit. Rather unreasonably tight. But no matter. The knobs on the sink had been changed, as if by some mad interior designer. No longer metal, but white rubber, and maddeningly soft and slippery. No longer did they serve their proper function.
After another two days of such unpleasant surprises, Harriet sat hovering over a bowl of Cheerios and milk, that she hadn’t remembered buying, and had a good think. By the time the evening paper had come, she realized that she’d forgotten how to do just that: to think, short of buying the proper things and making sure her signature wasn’t too irregular, oh, yes, and minding to replace things like the garbage, and light bulbs. She eyed the yellow paper with a newfound disdain and considered doing the crossword. All too certain it would be painfully easy, she instead turned to the Sports page, and, for no reason at all, memorized a brief editorial on protective football attire.
She finished her Cheerios.
The telephone rang. Harriet picked up the receiver.
After a long pause, someone said, “It’s hello, you chimp. Say hello.”
Harriet obeyed, and proceeded in stabbing a lemon with her fork.
“I suppose,” the voice went on, “you’re wondering what’s going on.”
“Speak up, I can’t see you, my girl.”
Harriet had a vague impulse to correct the voice and say, “woman, not girl” but her lemon pulp was more immediately satisfying to regard.
The voice went on, “There are business cards lying about. Take them in.”
Dial tone. Harriet clipped the phone cord rather than hung up.
And, of course, the voice had been right.
Harriet set about collecting small manila business cards. Ali’s Flying Carpet Express Co., Havvard’s Deli, Vienna Dessert Caterers, Lyle’s Lemons, Late-Nite Party Den, Footcare Brothers, Inc, Impossible’s Plumbing, Leopold ‘n Loab’s Wigs in a Jiffy. All these and three ripe bananas, Harriet deposited in her purse. In, she thought, where was in? All she knew was this was an emergency.
She hired a cab and was dropped a half-block from her destination, on account of the driver’s inability to accept members of the plantain family as currency. She mugged a adolescent skater and rode into the hospital emergency room lobby on a blue and black skateboard. And, yes, was served immediately.
“Please show some I.D.,” said the nurse at the small shielded window.
Harriet offered her a banana.
“And what is this supposed to prove?” the nurse snapped.
“That I’m high up on the food chain,” Harriet reasoned.
“No one here has any use of a banana, miss,” she replied coldly.
Harriet thought about informing the nurse that bananas were, in fact, high in potassium. Shouldn’t all health centers be informed? She decided against it and kept quiet. Then Harriet said, “I have these cards,” and pushed them through the office teller window.
Within a few moments, the nurse’s countenance displayed newfound interest, and near respect.
“Well,” she mooed, “that explains it.” She gestured down the hall. “Take off your shoes and enter the light green room.”
Harriet obeyed. For a moment she wondered whether her obedience was somehow her downfall, but rather enjoyed walking barefoot and so pushed the thought from her troubled mind.
The “light green room” was bright and cheerful, sunlight emanating from an open skylight, with no glass. Harriet was not alone. People within were reclining in the shade of parasols—large and in unpleasantly loud colors. Some listened to radios, others tried violently to listen to nothing. Harriet listened to the radio in her head: memory. Why invest, she had always reasoned, in a recording when one had memory? Then one could afford to take a trip, now and again…
Harriet passed the time thusly, seated in a chair, and watched patients being called by their credit card numbers. “Bring your printouts” read a large sign over the desk (manned by an airport arrival monitor with a parking ticket on it) labeled “MISINFORMATION.” Happily, Harriet clutched her printout in her hands, swinging her feet to an fro as she ate her third banana. Every eight minutes a tall, shapely woman entered the room, wearing a banner across her breast labeled with a trademark logo, such as “Energizer” or “AT&T” or “Chevy” or “Cheetos” and called out a credit card number. There was a catch, too: if you didn’t know your expiration flash cards until you were ready, you weren’t served.
When Harriet’s was read, she cried out, “Ten-ninety-nine!” The shapely woman smiled, and motioned for Harriet to follow her down the hall. Harriet thought, Success!
“Would you like another banana?” the woman asked.
“Oh, yes, please, thank you,” Harriet chirped.
The woman spun on her heel. “Wrong answer,” was all she said. She said it, Harriet supposed, because she could.
Harriet was left in a room with a small black leather-upholstered stool, upon which she sat. What else, she reasoned, was there to do?
A serious-looking, pinch-faced doctor entered the room.
“Miss 10/99,” he muttered, and then paced quietly about the room. (Harriet, by now somewhat annoyed at having been referred to as a number nonetheless waited expectantly for needed information.) “I suggest an x-ray.”
“Of course, doctor,” was all she could say at first. Then, in a momentary rush of boldness, she inquired, “What is it that is in me?”
The doctor seemed a bit put off at being asked a question he didn’t know the answer to. He paced again. And leaned into Harriet as if to admit a great confidence. “It isn’t of you, I think.” He swallowed. “An x-ray will tell us best.” He added, “I am a good doctor.” He looked with pleading on his female patient.
“I believe you,” she replied, for she did.
Then the self-proclaimed good doctor looked frightened and said, “Do you read?”
Harriet understood. “Quite,” she answered. “I even finish whole books.”
The good doctor marveled. “Really!” he ahhed. “You know, there is a colony in Texas, or is it Tennessee—that you ought to go to. Where people finish whole books.”
“So that’s where they live!” Harriet exclaimed. But then realized she had no care. “I haven’t found any in the city.”
“No, I’d imagine not,” said the good doctor. “Still, it’s a shame.”
The door was opened. The shapely woman entered wearing a RAID! banner. “Doctor, it’s time.” And she left.
The good doctor rocked absently back on the balls of his feet, and on his toes, with a sad expression on his face. He stopped and looked at Harriet. “I’d call you, but I don’t have a pen. Are you listed?”
“Oh, yes, she replied unthinkingly. “We’re all listed.”
“Ah,” he said. And then nothing.
They passed several minutes in silence together in what felt to Harriet very near peace. The shapely woman came in, changing her banner in favor of one advertising Scott Paper Products. “We’re losing funding.” And left.
Harriet looked at the good doctor.
“Well,” he said, “Perhaps I’ll see you one day in Texas. Or is it Tennessee?” He smiled. “Well, sit tight, we’ll fix your problem soon enough.” And upon leaving, he muttered to Harriet, “Yes, I think it’s Tennessee.” And left.
Harriet was tired, and so fell asleep.
“Your soul is black,” was the next thing she remembered hearing.
“What?” she cried. Her head was spinning.
“Well, more dark green, really. Here, but the color’s bad on this film. Better funding would allow for better accuracy. But I know the shades well. And, see here?”
Harriet was in another office, overseeing the display of her X-rays.
“Yes,” she said, to a doctor she knew had been speaking now for some time.
“That’s bile,” she was told.
Harriet heard a clock ticking.
“What can I do, doctor?” she inquired in a small voice.
He shrugged. “Take a vacation. It’s only a virus, I expect you’ll be back to speed in about ten days. Drink plenty of fluids, and don’t drive through stop signs…”
“But I don’t drive, I have no car,” she said, feeling bewildered.
“Ah, well, then, don’t worry.”
“But, doctor—my soul is dark green with bile?” This new doctor, Harriet thought, was decidedly not the good young doctor, although she could hardly tell; they looked strikingly similar.
He seemed to weigh the matter, and replied, “Yes.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” was all she could say.
The doctor sighed impatiently. “My God, girl, haven’t you been paying attention?”
Harriet blinked. “To what?”
The doctor chuckled snidely.
“What’s so funny?” Harriet wanted to know.
“Oh, indeed,” he said amusedly, “Indeed!” and continued to laugh mirthlessly. Then he said with a sudden seriousness, “I suppose you have a bill, then? A printout?”
Harriet handed it to him.
He grumbled academically, saying, “Hmmm. Yes, lemons. Yes. An abundance of q-tips, a new automobile muffler. Miss, if you don’t mind my asking, if no car, why a muffler?”
“This isn’t me!” she insisted.
“Oh, yes, I forgot,” he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm and waving a wan hand, “Well, there isn’t much I can do, then, is there?”
Harriet angrily spat on the floor.
“Well,” said this new doctor, “that isn’t very sanitary, now was it?”
“Who made my soul dark green?” Harriet fairly whispered in a hot rage.
He merely looked at her.
“I need to know!!” she insisted.
At last, he replied, “A visitor.” Long pause, wide, too-long awake eyes…
She asked, “What kind of visitor?”
“Well,” he said as if what we was about to say was likely to be over Harriet’s head, “ the kind, fortunately, that doesn’t stay; but the kind, unfortunately, that causes no small amount of harm.”
“Am I sick? she asked, as if asking God.
“Dying,” he said. “You’re middle-aged.”
“But I’m only 25.”
“Yes, well, that’s no matter. People these days are dead at 22!” he chuckled. And then looked tragic. “This,” he said, “is dying.”
Harriet wondered aloud, “When do I die?”
“Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s a process. Internal. It’s just set in prematurely. You’ll be fine.” He folded his arms.
“What can I do?” she asked mournfully.
The doctor again chuckled, and then brushed a manicured hand over his well-coiffed head. “There is one thing. Can you live without telling lies?”
“Yes. Lies. Can you subsist on total honesty?” This question offended Harriet.
Harriet frowned, and longed more than anything for the removal of this man’s judgment of her behavior. “Well, not without buying or selling, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hmm.” The doctor cleared his throat and said abruptly, “Well, then, plenty of rest, and remember, ten day vacation. Preferably paid.” He paused on his way out. “Do you have insurance?”
Harriet paused. “I don’t know,” she said honestly, feeling the room growing dimmer.
The doctor left. Soon after, Harriet did, too.
Not long after, Harriet declared bankruptcy. She filed showing proper identification, and brought no bananas to her hearing. Harriet’s memory of the entire incident was fading, and by the end of that week seemed to her little more than a dream. The number of cavities in her head was back down to two, or one, or none, and she no longer had an inexplicable penchant for pink paper cups and lemons.
One Saturday, a letter arrived in the mail set in a long, white, thick envelope. It was addressed to: “My Beloved 10/99”.
Harriet opened the envelope.
The letter was wrapped around two plane tickets. It read,
“I do not know how I found you,neither when first we met, nor now… Forgive my state—I am, I think, learning to be at peace—and it’s a most disturbing experience. Still, I am here, you are there. Hopefully, one of these tickets will remedy the situation. Please—choose the one that will bring you to where I am—I await your arrival.
My warmest regards,
Between Raid! and Scott.”
Harriet then examined the tickets. One was a one-way to Dallas Airport, leaving in two days. The other, leaving in one hour, was destined for Nashville. Whatever, she marveled, did this mean? Her memory was blank and green and dark, and she couldn’t think what it was she needed to consider.
Without further thought to the matter, Harriet placed the articles in the trash bin, and thought to herself, “That’s where such prank letters belong.” She passed a manicured hand over her well-coiffed head and muttered, “Yes; perfectly reasonable.”