December - January 1996 : Edition
Volume 2, Number 10
Table of Contents
I've lived a life full of gifts and fortune, but I no longer feel the same carefree joy that allowed me to live freely without always thinking and considering
There's something about West Texas that I always hated as a kid. Maybe it was all the creepy billboards pushing Jesus to passersby or the perverted truckers glaring into the back seat at me and my brother. Or maybe it was the fact that my family was always driving somewhere, but never staying.
Thank you for once again picking up our little magazine. This is the one time each year that our staff writers and some of our friends get to relax and write about whatever they want
"Today I'm going to start my new life." This is a familiar phrase I adopted from someone I once considered wiser than me.
Chastity by Manuel Gonzalez
Water turned into wine, and time stopped. The second-hand paused in mid-tick, the wind blew its last breath, and the earth halted her rotation. Snow began falling from the clear, night-blue sky, and each luminescent flake, before it hit the ground, flew away on butterfly wings. And in that moment, the door opened and heaven walked in. Her name was Chastity Blue.
And with one step, she cut through the crowded barroom, glided across the dance floor and stood -- beautiful -- on stage. Skin black as pitch, teeth pearly as a shark's. She looked left, then right, nodded her head in a simple four count, and then, Lord Almighty! she sang.
Chastity Blue sang only one night every year, November first, in the same old tin-roofed wooden shack, and in it, waiting for her and her alone, an antique piano rested its wearied ivories on a raised wooden stage with room enough for drums, double bass, and trumpet. What she did the rest of the year was anyone's guess. Steal men's souls with her red lips and hot kisses or women's babies with sugared candies and sweet breads. Rumor had it Chastity Blue didn't exist except for those cold November nights: a ghost who appeared among them and sang her ghostly blues, only to vanish in a cloud of smoke before the sun peaked its head over the horizon. Her band -- trumpeter, bassist, drummer, and pianist -- all apparitions whom she called from their resting place to accompany her honeyed voice. Chastity Blue will sing for you -- Her voice, stolen from the devil himself, made women laugh, men dance, and children cry, brought you closer to death and her closer to life with every chuckle, foot-stomp, and salty tear. Sinful, tempting, wicked voice. Suffocating. And yet....
A goddess, an angel. Silvery wings, golden voice. Warm dark chocolate pouring from her fingertips into your mouth: sweet, bitter, rich. The smell of butterscotch cooling over an apple. The feel of down pressed soft against your skin. A mother's gentle fingers running through a child's tangled hair. Chastity Blue will sing for you reds and greensófill your mind with memoriesóSimple thoughts, simple dreams, simple wishes; the daydreams of children. One night a year, Chastity Blue made these come true. Her voice: Pure love. Of herself, of her music, of the snow weighing heavy on the old tin roof. The smell of smoke, the stink of sweat, the taste of whisky burning down her black, ghostly neck. The slap of the bass, the call of the trumpet, the roll of the piano, the thick beat of the drum.
She refused any and all requests, spoke not a word, tapped her foot lightly against the wood floor, clutched the microphone so her dark knuckles turned white, and like a gunshot, her voice carried to the thousands who came to hear her sing. Jumbled body pressed against jumbled body as a hundred or more forced their dance-crazed feet onto the floor in front of the stage. Outside, the other thousand or so, packed together for warmth, gyrated, jiggled, groped, and kissed each other in the snow, listening to Chastity Blue, their hips swaying together in perfect time.
From sun-up to sun-down, they waited in anticipation. Soon as the tired old sun fell, they rushed home and changed. Shiny black slacks, deep red dresses, two-tone spats, heels at least seven-inches. Then, ready and dressed, they plunged into the snow, walked down the block, walked five miles, walked from the next town, drove in from the City, took the train from across the country. Some came on trips that had been a year in planning, with every last nickel they'd spent the last year saving. Some, to catch a glimpse of Chastity Blue outside the aura of her singing, simply moved to within a mile of the small wooden shack. Come take a pilgrimage to the sanctity of Chastity Blue's music box advertised in big bold black letters in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and in every small, dust-filled town in the South. Man Woman Child -- Black, White, Brown and every Colour in between. They all came. They all danced. And not until the rooster crowed and the sun rose again did they stop. Because not once did Chastity Blue stop singing.
Chastity Blue will sing for you copper songs -- Romantic nights which never happened beneath full moons which made the sky black, black, black as her skin.
Black and wet. Bathing in the clear water of the words and music around her. Cleansing herself, like a cat, preening under the light and smell and taste and feel of the blues. Her lover left her, her children all dead, father in prison, mother laid up in bed. She let it all out, threw it away, tossed on the wings of Honey I Got The Blues! Chastity Blue will sing for you a silent summer sunrise --
Brown-sugared French toast, eggs over-easy, egg-in-you-face, mud-on-your-shoe, ache-in-your-bones, rust-in-your-heart blues. That's what she sang. Blue's blues.
Your blues, my blues, his blues, her blues.
Love lost, love forgotten, love won, love ain't never gonna' happen.
Lord! My baby left me without a home,
Now I wander these streets all alone...
as if she'd spent those days between each first of November storing the energy, holding in her heart the painful black and blue colors of her life, waiting for that one night where she could send it all home. She sang from the moment she stepped through the door until the sun rose, until every last dancer, inside and out, had collapsed, freed from the weight of her hungry, hungry blues. Until her voice was sputtering-red hoarse, the trumpeter's face beyond blue into violet from blowin' his chops, the bassist's fingers red and raw from plucking, bowing, and slapping, the drummer's broken sticks piled around him like a cage, and every last piano key limp with broken hammers. Chastity Blue will sing for you diamonds, emeralds, and red red rubies -- The color of her heart on spring afternoons, but hard, so hard. Hard enough to cut glass, sharp enough to cut your hand. So don't touch. Don't touch.
Last man to touch her shriveled up like a grape on a hot summer day. His skin turned to ash, his nails fell from his fingertips, and his hair caught fi -- Last man to touch her lived a life of thirst, wandering from town to town to town drinking cool water, red wines, thick, foamy beers, till his gut, near to bursting, bulged over his belt. Still thirsty toda -- Last man to touch her glowed with the power of the sun, smiled at heaven above, and vanished. Playin' that golden harp upstairs, he i -- Last man to touch her fell blind and saw the future. Went so mad howlin' at the moon and chasin' ghosts that never died, they shot him just to save hi -- Last man to touch her hurt her. He hurt her so. He hurt her so bad, you can't see the cuts. The scars across her eyes, she hides them well, behind the deep, blue voice -- Chastity Blue will sing for you and you will dance and you will sing and you will cry, and as her voice crashes down like an earthquake the earth will shudder and lightning will strike and thunder will rumble across the sky and --
And then it's over. Steam rises from the poor wooden hut, its only two windows shattered, its door swinging off its hinges, the roof bowing beneath the weight of melting snow and ice. Body piled on top of body, dreaming, sleeping, or dead, perhaps. But whether dead or alive, they'll be back. In a year, they'll be back again, huddled outside the small shack, waiting, because Chastity Blue will sing for you.
no one's prepared
when the bill of installments
reads "due in 00"
"i'm gonna get my name changed
legally one of these days"
to slough off the decay
which was marked by his birth
and that all of us
unprepared for the terror
time to work on the chapter
the instinctiveness of amoebae
cannot help but remember
structure and infrastructure
can be organic when life is gone
the play of light on a dual option
machinates the ghosts
In the yard a
grey green hose winding
as if poured suddenly lifts its finger to pause a
moment and drink from
the cold spout.
Growing Pains by Susanne Gross
Dedicated to my close friend and confidant Barbara Stammer
Since childhood I have been plagued by the gift of growing pains. Whenever I physically overexerted myself, as evening would fall, the slow and creeping growing pains would wake and spread like warm fire throughout my legs and rest in the space between my mid thigh and mid calf. Its low and achy throb would center itself in my knees, radiate outward and force me to lie still until it passed on through and decided to go away. Since I was easily tired out, I remember many nights of crying myself into a semi-unconscious sleep. Why would this agony ever be considered a gift? My mom made up the phrase "growing pains" because she said they came when I pushed myself beyond what my body was ready to handle. That one day I would understand its purpose, respect it and consider it a friend. This ache and its almost unbearable pain tells me when my body, my mind, my self has had enough and lingers until I fully understand my limits. I never considered this pain to be a gift, let alone a life saver, until I started getting growing pains in my heart and I realized that I would die if I didn't start to live.
When I moved to Austin, quite by accident four years ago, life's realities were not my own. I had no idea what being a human being meant, what it would entail, take from me and give back, what it would demand of me and how it would force me to change as I grew into my adult skin. They (whoever "they" are) say that people die many deaths before they pass from this life. I've lived a life full of gifts and fortune, but I no longer feel the same carefree joy that allowed me to live freely without always thinking and considering. I've been told that I've seen and experienced too much to live in that blissful ignorance any longer. That it's really a blessing in disguise because now I have the ability, the choice to develop a truer, more real freedom that can never be taken away or grown out of.
More and more life seems like a two-sided coin to me. No action without reaction, the dark night of the soul, the delicate balance between free will and faith. When life and responsibility of living became real to me, I tried and succeeded for a long time in lulling myself to sleep mentally and emotionally because it frightened me to death. The heartache, the pain of being a human being and being alive in the world seemed too much for me to bear, too much for anyone to have to face. I built a cocoon carefully constructed with thoughtlessness, careless action, stagnant emotion, distance and alienation from everyone and I fed myself lots and lots and lots of pot to numb this constant restless, unnerving and unnameable desire that lived with me day and night. Put a whole new spin on Lady Day's "Good Morning Heartache" for me.
In retrospect, I guess I took on a whole lot more than I could handle all at once when I moved out on my own. It wasn't that I had too much to do or too many responsibilities. It was more that I became overloaded because I never let anything out. Thoughts swirled around in my head, emotions filled my heart and demanded an outlet that I would not provide. But life, human nature or whatever has a way of bringing a person full circle so they can come out the other side of their soul, or not. The other side of that damn coin. My growing pains moved from my legs to my heart and caused me so much pain, anguish and anxiety. It stayed there radiating its fiery throb, true heartburn, and forced me to chose between life and death but required me to move from and heal the cesspool of my soul.
I met this guy, Jeff Kolinsky, in Colorado while I was traveling around the US who was and is dying of a type of genetic cancer. His father, brother and sister all have it and his mother has had to watch the entire family she helped to create die and leave her. Jeff has had tumors removed from a dozen places on his body, including his brain, and he has one-third of one kidney left to keep him alive. On top of this, he has to live with the knowledge that his life is being cut short and that he can die almost at any time. Still he hikes, plays, goes out on the town and lives his life to the absolute fullest. When I met him, I felt so ashamed of the way I had been taking life for granted. What a great mental kick in the ass to get it going on. So I did.
Anais Nin wrote, "...and the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." When you live in a self sustaining cocoon not only does it become harder to break out of it as time goes on, but the emotional interest goes up incrementally as well, pay back for existing and not living. Once you do crack the surface, breathe the fresh air into your mental lungs, and get through the initial freakiness of seeing life from different perspective, pay back is a piece of cake. It becomes impossible not to live, feel and enjoy life with this incredible sense of freedom from any type of barrier. Wake up to anything that will help you make sense of the world and your part in it. Put whip cream on it and eat life by the handful. Love it and make it your own.
It is an ordinary day. I just walked through my apartment in much the same way as I have for the past eight years. Out the dining room window, the sun is shining, but it is shining in the way it does on Sundays and holidays, casting light that signifies the suspension of normal activity. However, it is neither Sunday nor a holiday. I scan the apartment for some sense of difference, but notice no sign of outward change. But even if the apartment insists on remaining relentlessly neutral, I am changed.
"Wow, you look great," was the first thing he said to me. It wasn't the first time we met, but it was the first time we really spoke. We had met rather unceremoniously through work. We shook hands and he nodded at me with a professional detachment that very nearly shrouded his attraction. The second meeting he was more conversational, proffering insights like, "It looks like you like a shoe with a solid heel," referring to my supercool nobody-but-the-French-and-EastBerliners-wear-these ankle boots.
Two days later, after multiple cigarettes, a great deal of matted hair, and a lecture on how I didn't want to live with anyone unless we were married, he moved in. I remember thinking that it takes a letter three days to cross America, but in the course of two days, our lives had changed forever. Within six months, amid much felicity and none too inconsiderable fanfare, we married.
It was his sincerity that struck me. He was from the moment we spoke sincerely smitten and passionate for me. It simply took my breath away almost as easily as it melted my defenses. This was a unique experience for me. Men of my generation were too skittish, too unwilling to commit. But I shared a common culture with them, one built around similar icons, history, etc., so I was attracted to the lot of them, no matter how emotionally green they were. However, I was getting frustrated waiting for the proverbial wine to age into something finer. Older men were fine, but there was often something sleepy about them, some resignation. Like they had been blunted by having to live through the sexual revolution. More importantly, how could I discuss the social implications of "Scooby Doo Where Are You" with them?
I remember remarking to myself how lucky I was because I didn't have to compromise, as was often the case with relationships. He was my Sun, Moon, Earth, and Water, integrating all those elements into a fine friend, lover, priest, father, and son. "It's a gift," he would say slyly as he faded off to sleep.
I turn on the stereo and walk into the bedroom. The sounds of Crowded House mist through the house like fine sprays of valium. I hear voices: "What does your chart say?" he would ask semi-longingly. "My chart says that if you or your member come within a five-mile radius of my uterus, you will expand your family tree." He always liked my fertile nature, said it gave me a creative edge. Wrestling on the bed, I told him he was too much the literalist.
It was not a perfect marriage. There were the troubles, annoyances, petty attempts for control. Like how he smacked his food or cleared his throat or ate beef 16,000 times a week. Like how I procrastinated and whined about money and nagged him about his health habits. There were days of not speaking, feeling rejected, and wishing for those glorious first days when everything is so simple, so utterly geared towards making love, sleeping, or making love. Food was optional. Not a perfect marriage, but it was a strong relationship -- an A- in a C+ world.
And now it's gone. More precisely, he's gone.
It wasn't the excess of beef that did "it," or the cigarettes (he called those "dessert") or the lack of exercise (he called that his "encore"). He likened his body to a performance art piece, a monument to "dis" health. We laughed about this while I tried various ways of making broccoli look and taste like steak. Rather, it was an executioner on wheels that got him. A silver Japanese streak that slithered down the street like a snake, only with about 100 Gs more momentum. We were crossing the street downtown, going to get coffee, I think. Meanwhile, the vehicle made its inevitable trajectory from Point A, a bar, no doubt, to Point B, my husband's body.
I have what some might consider an irrational fear of crossing the street. Even I consider it irrational. I must have either been run down in my last lifetime or almost hit in the early stages of this one. Either way, I must look both ways at least sixty times before one foot drops onto the street. This process usually delays me about thirty seconds and anyone who is privy to my neurosis knows to simply let me be. "Oh, you silly girl," my husband would always say once I reached my destination, often accompanying his mockery with a bear hug.
His manner of crossing the street was precise, much like all his actions were. He would tip his hat to safety by looking both ways and then crossing like any other normal human being. This was not enough for driver X, who punished him mightily by hitting him in such a way that the only way he could break his fall was with his head. For the next two days, he and I battled for his life: he, in a quiet, swollen way, which provided the perfect compliment to my ad hoc primal scream therapy. When the underage doctor with a pen stain on his lab coat and crooked bow tie serenely told me that there was no hope, I quieted, trying to figure out my strategy for revenge. I decided that the acronym for Wives Against Drunk Drivers, WADD, sounded far too undignified to consider seriously. When they pulled the plug, I opted for sedation.
The funeral was not sedate. My husband's will specified that I was to first throw a big party at this posh restaurant that we had both come to worship, and then I was to spread his ashes anywhere in the world that I deemed worthy of him. (Did the irony that I deemed no such place worthy escape him?) The party was a civilized affair despite all my attempts to derail it. Lots of folks showed up: family, close friends, those annoying little peripheral friends who come because they think they should, and Sid. Sid is my best friend from college, who always has something irreverent to say and punctuates that with copious amounts of sarcasm and pot. After the party waned, Sid and I stepped outside onto the empty weekend street and lit up. The marriage of pot and alcohol proved just the right combo for making the stupidest thing sound hysterical. One burp or similar nod to bodily humor and we were melting with laughter onto the downtown pavement.
The cop who walked up and saw us, however, was not so amused. Sid ran to my rescue to explain the situation. I took the opportunity to invoke my God given right for inappropriate Drama Queen behavior. Didn't he see that I was shattered? . Couldn't he tell from my black attire and the sort of confused expression on my face? "Don't pigs have senses of smell?" I taunted. The cop made motion to his handcuffs. "I'm the walking dead," said I, trying to balance myself on the curb while striking my best crucifixion pose. "Incarceration worries me none. Let them all come." They would have, too, if not for Sid.
Disorderly conduct notwithstanding, it is Now and the Future that worry me. Now, I can remain mildly philosophical, thinking in that Eastern way about how this has to do with Karma and wondering if actions in a former life of mine somehow determined the outcome of this one. But this is not the East, and if it were, the only way I can figure that this is Karma is if I was Adolf Eichmann in my last incarnation. In the Future, I have the five stages of grief to embrace, and having to repeat "Table for one" to those silly little restaurant hostesses who will look blankly at me when I say it the first time. Rather like swimming in the Great Salt Lake with an open head wound.
The way I see it, life may as well be a holding pattern until I reach the next dimension. When my husband was alive, we had our whole lives to look forward to.
The dodo bird went extinct because it could not fly away. It wasn't always like this. Once the dodo knew how to fly; we know this because it must have flown to its island in the Indian Ocean long before the Dutch sailors ever showed up. There it made its home and, untouched by predators, grew fat on fallen fruit. Until finally its wings shrunk, and its body grew heavy, and it wandered the island looking like an overgrown chick. And it forgot how to fly. So that when the Dutch arrived with their clubs, the dodo had nowhere to go. Evolution hadn't counted on human bloodlust. And so on the bare-glaring rock of the island Mauritius, each bird was clubbed to death, and the dodo was exterminated in an evolutionary millisecond, an eyeblink of 170 years. Centuries later, evolution hasn't stopped. Clubs have turned into more subtle weapons, and human battlegrounds have been modified and expanded -- concrete and steel. And those who cannot fly haven't got a chance.
When I read about it in the paper the whole thing depressed me even more, and I hoped he couldn't see it wherever he was -- the article filling up a narrow space between two columns in the metro section, describing him briefly and inaccurately as a "13 year-old daredevil," lopping two years off a life already cut short at 15.
Omar hung around with a crowd at school that I witnessed more than participated in. It was a group of kids I stuck close to until I found my niche in high school, and eventually I would share little more with them than the subway ride home from school. I was already beginning to withdraw from them when it happened; I know this because I remember how awkward I felt at the funeral, like I had no right to intrude on their grief. It was around the time I was busy sewing patches to my jacket, marching for the homeless, and turning anemic as a veal calf, and the last time I remember talking to Omar was a distracted moment after school on the way to the subway. He tugged at one of the woven dolls strapped onto my jacket with yarn, and asked if I was "into bondage or something." Before I could gather up my self-righteousness and explain the symbolism of it all, he ran ahead -- looking himself much like a recently unshackled rag doll, flopping limbs in every direction. I don't remember much about his face, he was always moving too damn fast. In fact, the only time I saw him still was in the coffin, and that image of his face was burnt into my memory, a waxy, pieced together face that wore an expression clearly arranged by a stranger -- he never looked like that in life, that much I knew. Mainly I remember his arms -- too long for his small, skinny body, flailing around him everywhere he went.
The first time Omar got high all he did was run around outside school, entranced by the gulls. There were these sea gulls that would come in from the ocean, beguiled by the trash heaps that beckoned like sirens all over the Bronx. The birds would circle overhead, perhaps expecting a fish to jump out of that black sea of concrete. They would dive and scold, and then cling miserably to the edges of garbage cans, staring sideways in apparent disbelief at the water turned to stone. But Omar's vision was focused upward, he didn't even look where he was going. He just kept running around like a little kid, running around in widening circles with his too-long arms spread out, yelling to the birds overhead, yelling to us, "I can fly! I can fly"! He really believed it too, you could tell by the joy in his voice, the freedom of his sea gull dance.
And maybe we all have that delusion sometime in our lives -- some archetypal fantasy of wings. But for most people I know it was discarded long ago, back when we were small enough to fit into the playground swings with the safety bar, swinging metallic into the sun, closing our eyes to the glare off the steel. It was the closest thing we had to flight, and yet not even the gulls fooled us -- we all knew there was a ceiling to that city, that we would never escape through the sky. So I'm not sure what gave Omar that kind of hope at 15. Maybe it was the pot, maybe it was just the sea gulls in the Bronx, that they could live off garbage and still take wing -- maybe Omar thought if they could do that, then surely he too could learn to fly. But the only thing that flew was his hope, not up, but away. He began to tell his friends, with the detached certainty of a mystic, that he would not make it to the age of 20.
A typical afternoon took us from school to the D train, virtually empty at 3 o'clock until we invaded in packs, much to the dismay of late lunch-takers who had hoped for a quiet ride back to work. It was customary for everyone to make their way to the last car in the train, perhaps to avoid the cop who would periodically break up our candywrapper throwing, pole-swinging festivities to growl at us, "Ey! No grab-assing on the train"! To this day I really don't know what "grab-assing" is, but Omar was always certain to be the most grab-assing of everyone. On this particular day he had decided to try out a new trick, and he explained it to whoever was listening. I remember that I was engrossed in some other conversation, and I barely noticed Omar out of the corner of my eye, talking and gesturing excitedly, his arms jerking about in the strobe light flashes streaming in from the tunnels.
It was several stops before anyone realized he was gone. At first we just figured that he had wandered through the train to another car, but we searched through and found no sign of him -- the whole subway seemed so quiet, except for an empty bottle here and there, rolling back and forth across the aisle, in rhythm with the train. We all stood there, confused but not quite worried, until this guy -- some heavy-metal boy whose name I've forgotten, the type who was always drawing heavily armed robotic figures in the margins of textbooks, looked up and spoke. "He was talkin' some crazy shit about goin' between the cars -- ya' know, where ya' stand between 'em, and then he was gonna swing around to one of the windows an' wave from the outside -- like while the train was movin' he was just gonna look in and wave, ya' know to freak people out like he was just some face suspended there in the window in the middle of a fuckin' tunnel." We waited for him to continue, but he just sat there glassy-eyed, and we all started in at once, asking him what had happened after that. He shrugged off each question in a stoner daze, not quite comprehending our concern, each of us getting increasingly frustrated with him until everyone was frantic and yelling and "I heard a scream," Gladys said quietly, above all our voices. Everyone looked at her to see if she was kidding, and then it got quiet while we each imagined the worst in our heads. Someone pulled the emergency stop cord, and somewhere on that train, people were pissed and impatient to get going.
So it turned out that Omar had proceeded with his stunt that no one had watched, had hit his head on a signpost in the tunnel and been thrown from the train, just before Tremont Avenue. His parents refused to identify the body, and in the end it was Gladys who had to do it. It was sort of fitting, as she was the mother-figure of that crowd, a heavy-set girl from Astoria, with spidery ropes of black eyeliner and fishnet stockings. Gladys had this high-heeled arm swinging walk -- like a prostitute whose kid's in trouble at school, this I'm gonna-get-to-the-bottom-of-this way of walking, eyes directed straight ahead, ignoring the stares she always got (the stares a hooker storming into a principal's office might have evoked). That was how I wanted to imagine her swinging through the doors of the morgue. But I knew in reality that all her punkrock toughness must have fallen away the minute she revolved through the door. Inside the building she became no more and no less than a 15-year-old girl thrown into the part of a mother who had outlived her child, being asked to assure the authorities that this broken body was who he was before his head cracked open and his brain, his brain that had achieved the highest score in the city on the high school entrance exams, turned to ashes on the third rail.
I used to wonder if it was over in that split second, or if he lay there with his head split and spilling on the tracks in the iodine light of the tunnel, knowing he would never be found in time; not hoping -- not even hoping. The newspaper all but said it was suicide, but I don't believe it. If Omar had killed himself I know how he would have done it, and it sure as hell wouldn't have been with his face shredded among the rats and roaches underneath the ground like that. He would have gone to the highest place he could have found, maybe to the top floor of one of the housing projects in the Bronx, high enough to look down on all the garbage that the gulls love so much, those mountains of refuse that make them forget the ocean. And he would have flown.
There's something about West Texas that I always hated as a kid. Maybe it was all the creepy billboards pushing Jesus to passersby or the perverted truckers glaring into the back seat at me and my brother. Or maybe it was the fact that my family was always driving somewhere, but never staying.
I always knew when we were about to hit Abilene because we'd come across the life-size crucifix sponsored by the Pentecostal Hope for Life Church next to the Wonderbra outlet -- two things that I had heard about but didn't really understand. We'd exit off Highway 81 and I knew that just behind the Stuckey's sign would be the gravel road that led to my grandmother's trailer. The closer we got, the easier we could see the two porcelain green frogs sitting out front kissing underneath a red umbrella -- looking happy, despite the chipped paint and dying grass.
She would be standing on the porch waving and crying. My brother and I would always ask my mother why, but she'd never answer. Maybe she didn't understand either, but I'm sure she does now. We would jump out of the car and run like hell until we hugged her, nestling our faces deep into her "Someone in Graceland Loves Me" sweatshirt. She was only about two feet tall and even as children we thought she was the tiniest person alive. With her hair plastered about six feet above her head, her cherry red fake nails and thirty diamond rings, she was everything a grandmother from Abilene, Texas should look like.
Of all my family, it was my grandmother that I loved the most. It was she who thought it was cute when I gained weight in the fifth grade and she who sent my first diary when she found out that I had thrown up and ran out of cheerleading tryouts crying. She'd spend an extra long time picking out the perfect card, because she didn't want me to know that she had a hard time writing. I knew, and that made them all the more special. Whenever she'd come to visit, she would always avoid talking to any of my friends. "I don't want you to be embarrassed," she'd say. Somehow she thought our family was different from her. My mother had married a good man, which wasn't easy to do, especially when you grew up poor.
She'd never talk about my grandfather. I knew only that he had long eyelashes and could dance like the devil himself. It wasn't until I turned 13 that I learned from my older brother that he had been shot dead in a bar in Amarillo by some jealous husband, and it wasn't until even later that I learned just exactly what that meant. I always thought of this whenever my mother asked my grandmother why she never went out or remarried when she was younger.
I spent every summer at my grandmother's. My parents were always away trying to make a new life for us. Although her trailer was small, she shared the land upon which it stood with no one. It had been left to her a long time ago and she refused to move into town. Despite their pleas, she would tell her children that it was too much of a hassle to pick up and go. But I knew different. I had seen her wake up before dawn and walk down the path toward the lake. I had seen her glide her hands along the tops of the overgrown brush and stick a wildflower or two in her hair. She knew what was waiting for her "in town" and she would be damned before she'd give up her freedom. I remember those walks the most.
I'm much older now and the fears that haunted me as a child have faded or changed. It has been a very long time since I made the drive down Highway 81 toward Abilene, but I am forced to do it once more. As I drive down the highway, the warm, dry Texas night air seeps into my skin and I understand why my parents brought me here each year. I understand that they had lost touch with their families and were afraid that the same would happen to me. As I pass the crumbled Pentecostal crucifix and budding outlet mall, I grip the steering wheel with excitement and smooth my hair back, just as I did when I was young. I turn off the radio and throw out my cigarette because this is one memory that I can't let fade. I can barely see the Stuckey's sign behind the new condominium community, but it's still there. The gravel road glows in the moonlight and sitting where it has since the beginning of time is the trailer. I pull into the carport and slowly walk to the lawn. I lovingly place the frogs back under the umbrella -- they must have fallen when it rained last month. I notice that the storm shed has been broken into, maybe a bum off the highway or some teenagers are to blame, but it doesn't matter. I hold my breath and force myself to look at the porch. I knew this day would come, yet nothing prepared me for it. I realize now, under the sweet West Texas moon, that she will never be waiting for me again. Never again will I sit on my father's knee and watch her cook. I am much older now and my hate for this land has gone. Tomorrow I will wake before dawn and head down the path toward the lake. I will glide my hands along the overgrown brush, and I will fill my hair with wildflowers. This is my land, my home, and my freedom, and no one can take it from me.
three columns rise, stand, stare, support, gleam, shadow, cover,
flaking off at the base and cracking
they are El Mundo --
briefs like a fist
tightening his muscles thin as a
soap bubble --
the earth above pressing him oblong, the
rainbows in the bubbles
The chances for a sustained
-- though slim --
and you should wonder why
you are so dumb
why you watch this pass,
and slip through your fingers
like not even sand
you should wonder what will
shock you out of
and tumble you, new, back
screaming into the river's
Two planetary moons collide,
convincing tumultuous waves of stars
to follow in their footsteps,
their oceanic wake.
I startle awake to the sliver
of light under
my door -- awake with a start,
not knowing why --
A patch of birds ripple on the lawn,
awkward and restless in a graceless
dance with the scent of rain.
Writing the symbol of your name
with fingernail scratchmarks on
my brain, this brain that should
know better, that does know better --
Finally, visual heat streaks across the
sky. Sideways, and up from the ground,
never in the typical zig-zag pattern
you drew in elementary school --
the first in a series that has
kept you going until
That place in my memory
has opened up, that place
that allows some finite mass
to slide through my body,
reminding me of all that
makes me whole...
Since this is our last issue for 1996 / first issue of 1997, I am going to take the liberty to do a bit more rambling than I sometimes do: re-cap and forecast all in one. This December/January number marks our second birthday. Yes, we lived through another one and are going full steam into a new season. This too is our chance to take a bit of a break, spend some time with our families, and skip that monthly dealine one time as we prepare for our February issue.
Thank you for once again picking up our little magazine. You will (or have) noticed that our regular features, interviews and reviews are missing. This is the one time each year that our staff writers and some of our friends get to relax and write about whatever they want. This issue has lots of original fiction, poetry, an essay or two -- art for art's sake. We hope you enjoy the departure and will give us some feedback on what's good and what's not.
Our experiment here is only able to continue as long as folks like you read what we have to say and respond. We are blessed because the response to Austin Downtown Arts continues to be positive and encouraging. As we end our second year of publishing, we have hopes of expanding and improving what we do. With your support -- both in readership and advertisement -- our third year will prove to be a bit closer to our ultimate goal: to produce a well-written, widely distributed and read, arts and culture magazine that showcases the best of the Austin arts scene and its writers.
So for this, my 1996 post-Thanksgiving Day missive, I offer big thanks to all of our readers, distributors, and advertisers for helping us make it to another birthday. (Don't worry: we'll throw a big party in a few weeks and invite all of you to celebrate with us.)
As for the folks who actually work each month to get us through production and out into the streets, my thanks extend way out there into the realm of deep gratitude and priceless appreciation. During the course of the last few months there has been a buzz out there among a handful of bright young writers, photographers, graphic artists, and production people. That buzz has resulted in fresh ideas, an opportunity for us to get a boost from the outside, an opportunity for us who've been here from the beginning to get a bit of relief and gain some perspective on what we are doing. Now the list of newcomers (new during the last several months) is pretty long. If I list them here by name, I'd probably miss someone and embarrass myself by doing so. Just know that we are still alive because there is a group of folks who put their hearts into this mag. Nobody is getting rich doing it. They do it because they believe in the project.
Now, there are two folks I do need to mention by name: Sandra Beckmeier and Christopher Hess have been with Austin Downtown Arts since the first issue. No easy task! They have written, edited, distributed, planned, pasted-up, gone without sleep, gone without pay, gone the extra mile to insure continuity and progress of this little mag. Since their first Austin bylines with us, they have also gone on to be published in the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, 15 Minutes, a local health magazine and other media outlets. Chris is now our Managing Editor; Sandra, our Assignments Editor. And quite honestly, without them Austin Downtown Arts might not be alive today.
'Tis the season to be thankful. I'd just like you folks out there (especially those who know Chris and Sandra's work) to know how important they are to our organization and just how much we appreciate the good work they have done for the arts scene and Austin Downtown Arts. They embody the spirit of this work and we thank Christopher and Sandra for their longevity, creativity, and patience.
DiverseArts, the organization, is in the midst of a watershed year of its brief history. Having recently moved to our new home, the East 13th Street Heritage House, we are bustin' out all over with new ideas, programming, and services. Yes, some of what is going on is pretty ambitious, but we feel that now is the time to make an impact on the cultural community of Austin, from within that community.
We invite you to become involved with us. We invite you to take advantage of the offerings of our Community Arts School, beginning in January. We invite you to reserve and use our meeting room, to rehearse your mostly acoustic (i.e., low volume) band. We invite you to call on us for publicity support for your project. We want to see you at this season's Blues Family Tree Concerts, the Women in Jazz Concerts, and the Clarksville Jazz Fest. We invite you to join us in January for the Second Sunday Salon at Heritage House. We invite you to help us revitalize the historic Victory Grill and attend our East Side Circuit shows there. We invite you to let us know what you think of what we are doing. We simply want to be a good example of a hard-working, multi-cultural, multidisciplinary, community arts organization.
With that now said, and noticing that it is the season for giving, we also remind you that we are a non-profit organization that only survives with the support of the community. If you are in a position to help us accomplish our goals -- by cash contribution, labor, donated equipment or services, paid advertising -- we would love to hear from you and be added to your Holiday Giving List. It's a good thing to do. And we'd really appreciate the help.
We'll see you in the New Year. Be safe and healthy.
I LIVE TO SEE
A BRILLIANT PROMISE
WITH REVOLUTIONARY IMPULSES
AN ELEMENTAL WILL AT PALM
YOUR PHOENIX TAPESTRIES RISE
NAIVE TO YOUR DESCENT
MADRID IN BLOOD
PROVERBS IN NERVES
AND A DREAM OF REASON
WITH YOU IN ONE CORNER
AND IDOLS IN THE OTHER
WHAT'S A GIRL TO DO?
"Today I'm going to start my new life." This is a familiar phrase I adopted from someone I once considered wiser than me. I liked the idea that at any time I could stand up and reclaim myself, shout proudly and persuasively from high above the ashes -- take no responsibility and split. I guess you could call it freedom bound in disregarding reality. The real-deal I experienced in re-birth, however, has been an amazing process. While digging around in my wreckage, I pulled off a dirty pair of old pantyhose and held up the common desire among women, standing in the shadows of men whom we try and nurture more than ourselves.
I'm a woman, shaped into existence by a society where woman has been considered many things. Woman as object is fairly common (yet individually I know only a few men who have actually addressed the question for themselves), but woman as muse gets a bit more complex. Take Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance, who wanted to publish her diaries but her husband (F. Scott Fitzgerald) convinced her he needed them for his work. Zelda lived in a time not too far behind us, when women were not permitted to be self-expressive We were wife first, artist later. Luckily, there were many strong women who did it anyway, but for women like Zelda, who were not as far ahead of their time, what transpired meant losing the importance of mind. Zelda Fitzgerald was plagued with mental illness for most of her adult life.
My great aunt was diagnosed with schizophrenia after giving birth to her first child. I don't remember what her symptons were specifically, but she used to have visions in her head about things that weren't part of anyone else's reality. I guess it didn't seem important that she may have had something going on in her head that could only belong to her. What I do remember is how strange it seemed that no matter what was going on, she enjoyed herself at family gatherings. I only saw her during the holidays, and every year she would consistently find a chair and isolate herself from everyone. She sat alone in complete silence, except for giggling to herself from time to time. Whenever anyone would ask her what was so funny, she always ignored the condescending tones in their voices. Her unusual behavior always fascinated me.
Whenever I flopped myself in her lap she whispered to me in a softness no one else could hear, and told me what a smart little woman I was. Back then it was like hearing the observations of an alien -- confusing because everyone in our family feared what we only knew as illness, and intriguing because I was so young and enjoyed being considered a grown-up. I haven't seen my aunt in a long time. She has experienced a revolving door of hospital stays. Her present condition is Alzheimer's, and it's too painful for my uncle to try and deal with the opinions of family members. He told me she rarely even smiles anymore, but she still speaks to people no one in our family knows. I can't help but think my aunt knows a hell of a lot more than the rest of us.
Once I shed my fear of mental illness and stepped into therapy, I quickly began learning a foreign language. The deepest part of the experience was a rather rigid intellectualization of my imaginative mind. The most helpful part was recognizing a problem, and according to the definitions of anorexia, symptomatically I had an eating disorder. I freaked out. Later I realized that all the fashion magazines I read for so long infiltrated my perception of beauty, as if it were an exterior image attainable if I worked hard enough at it. At the same time it was pointed out to me that I had symptoms of extremities -- irrational opposite moods of mania and depression without the balance in between that is considered more "normal." I started panicking because it was pointed out that I was obsessing about a man -- who I worshipped because I'd never met anyone so honest. I didn't know there was anything wrong with essentially loving someone from far away.
I don't identify anyone as insane anymore. That to me is like calling an artist a liar. I think about Sylvia Plath, Tennesee Williams, Georgia O'Keefe, Charles Mingus and Cole Porter -- these were all folks treated for mental illnesses. I doubt any Napoleon would argue with me that these were amazing artists, and if anything simply ahead of their time. If society wasn't so rigid on the issues of right and wrong, no one would need any excuse for their behavior.
I am entering womanhood with a dream to always be who I want to be -- a modern human and striving artist. My great aunt and I share something in common. Like her, I have visions in my head of the theater. They are called dreams and no one person has the power to take them away or to treat me like I'm crazy unless I allow them the opportunity. It works the same way for everyone.
Considering what I observe everyday as power-plays in a so-called equality, the primal instincts I possess as a woman are much stronger than that macho bullshit that leans too heavily on the pseudo-idea of physical endurance. A primal kind of bond (and scientific for those who like to intellectualize) between men and women is sex. More specifically, the release. Whether it be woman and woman, woman and man, man and man, or a great big orgy, when we reach the point of ultimate release we pump it out with a set of rhythmic contractions at 0.8 second intervals. As I ponder life with my new pair of eyes, I like to remember that women and men are at the very core of ourselves equal without even trying.
Happy Anniversary, Austin Downtown Arts. I toot your horn as we all grow, ching-ching-ching.
I was sitting out on the back porch the other day, having a cigarette and watching the rain coat the ground. It was falling slow and lazy, the long blades of grass swaying in wavering arcs off time with the sporadic breeze, the lines in the only puddle, just off the edge of the concrete patio, bobbing outward from the fat splash and taking all day to hit shore. It had been raining a while, at least that's the way it looked judging by the even soak on everything not sheltered.
I noticed, not for the first time, that one of the garage windows on the side facing inward toward the backyard was out. The frame was there and in place, and there was no broken glass to be seen, but the pane itself was gone. Me and Laura had just bought the place and that's the way it was when we got here. There were two windows side by side and the other was there, and the amount of dirt on it made it seem that the wall was winking. I thought of the rain and how it may be getting in, and that there was a wood workbench under those windows on which lay scattered about my tools, wrenches and screwdrivers and I don't know what else, probably out and around the open toolbox. I thought that they should be moved, that even though they were mostly stainless steel or some other kind of rust-resistant alloy they shouldn't sit in the rain. I took another drag and petted the dog, watching the potted plants jerk and sway with every drop that hit them, and I didn't move.
Often these things happen -- or don't happen. Walking by a piece of torn newspaper laying against the floorboard, letting a past-questionable bagel sit in the fridge though I know I won't eat it. I can't simply call it laziness because many times it happens in the midst of not being lazy and I'm clearly disposed to be able to do it, heading to the bookshelf for a third reference book or making multiple trips to the vegetable drawer while making dinner. But I just don't do it.
And I'd never really thought about it much until that moment. Probably the reason I decided to think about it was that me and Laura had just got this place together. I'd lived alone for a long time and that kind of stuff just doesn't matter a whole lot when you live alone.
Laura came out onto the porch in the middle of this train of thought, breaking into it with her slightly-rough-from-cigarettes voice. "Hey kid, when you gonna fix that window? We've already been here, what, a week? I can't depend on you for anything can I? Big jerk. I smell divorce." Me and Laura had an easy time talking, we took jokes pretty far.
And I stared at that window still. It's as if it doesn't really matter if you do or not. Not just because a missing pane or a piece of paper on the floor is no big deal and not because you know that if you clean it up now there will be another piece of something there in the near or distant future so why bother. It's not like either one of those. It's just not that important.
"You want a divorce? Fine, I want half of everything and the dog," I said, pulling on the cigarette again. She handed me a drink and sat down, kissing me on the back of the neck.
"The dog I'll fight you for, sonny-boy. And I'll win, too."
She smiled and I kissed her. "Thanks," I said for the drink, "and I'm sure you would."
Laura is fairly tall, only an inch or two shorter than myself, and she has the posture of a pillar, only without looking like she's trying. She never looks like she's trying. Her black hair hangs around her face and shoulders in perfect disarray, and she wears no makeup. People tell her they envy her natural looks but she shrugs and turns. "What the hell is that supposed to mean, natural looks," she usually says later. And she honestly couldn't care less.
We sat in silence for a couple seconds, me tasting the incredibly hot bloody mary she had mixed up from all the leftover drink stuff. We'd had some friends over a few nights before and the bloody marys were ignored for the beer. "It's a great yard, ain't it?" I said.
"Mmm," she answered, then swallowed, and went on. "I been thinking about all the landscaping we could do. We will do. Xeriscaping and stuff, just like we talked about. I was at the nursery the other day and I saw these -- "
"I was thinking turnips," I interrupted. "Turnips and arugula covering the front yard. It'd be great, and so incredibly nutritious."
"Shut-up. You keep your vegetables out of my elodea and we'll get along just fine. Besides, that window requires your attention. I'm sure all of your lovely tools are being soaked as we speak. Channel-locks and what-not. I've heard that auto glass place up the street cuts panes cheap, and we've got plastic in there in the mean time."
As she told me this I slipped into the haze hanging in the air in front of me and floated there not listening or seeing but just feeling the air and the drink and her voice. I was often inclined to do this; it wasn't entirely voluntary. I could hear the drone of her speaking and the bumping of the raindrops off the wet earth, but it was all more like music than speech and rain. The sounds just blended together and carried me off, making me content -- even loopy -- for no real reason. I think I can honestly say these episodes are the highlights of my life.
"And just what's in that head that's got you so preoccupied?"
"And just what's in that head that's got you so preoccupied?"
"Yeah, I bet."
My stomach dropped. "What's that mean?"
She slipped me a sidelong half-squint and rose, heading for the door. "What do you think it means?" She closed the door behind me and left me to the rain. I couldn't tell if she meant anything by it or not, so as usual I chose to ignore it and assume she meant nothing. The stress and hassle of moving -- and of moving in together -- had been wearing on both of us and the last thing we needed was a confrontation. The other night had brought us pretty close. Nothing really happened, I mean nothing important, but it could have. It nearly did, and I had a flash of life without her in it. A vivid visual episode that was a year crammed into an instant. I thought of the things I'd no longer have, the hole left in everyday. Stretching over to an empty left side of the bed, no arguments about whose turn it is to give the backrub, no sex. No sex with Laura.
It all happened in a flash but it was the most horrifying thing that ever happened to me. I turned cold and nauseous, like I could hit the floor in the very next moment. The fire of the bloody mary and a hand on the countertop, I was in the kitchen, kept the episode from anyone's notice. For that I'm thankful.
Wendy had been a peripheral friend of mine for a couple years now, ever since I moved to Texas. I met her through a co-worker and, even after changing jobs twelve times, somehow I always ran into Wendy. I guess we just did the same things. On a few drunk occasions we hooked up, got together after a show or when there was nothing else to do. We'd have sex and talk about how shitty things were going with everything, how going out and drinking was the only thing keeping us sane. We provided a release, a necessary outlet for each other. Sex and bitching is what we had, and it was fine. But that's as far as it went, and no one really knew anything about it. Not that anyone would care, but it was an unspoken agreement neither of us wanted to break.
But I told Laura. It was one of those things that wasn't really important but I didn't want resurfacing later and catching me by surprise. That had happened to me before and it wasn't pleasant. So I told her. I was honest with her mostly. Maybe the actual numbers were a bit off, but she got the gist of it. And she seemed fine with it, even when Wendy showed up with another mutual friend to help with the moving and drinking. She had been dating this guy Tom for a while, nothing serious she said. I didn't doubt it, nothing was.
Later that night we, me and Wendy, were standing in the kitchen talking about nothing, making a new drink for me and opening a beer for her, and she asked me if I remembered the last Probably Nobody show I saw. They were a local band, crap mostly but fun, and that show was the last time we had got together. I smiled into my glass as I added ice and said of course I remember how could I forget that. The night welled up in my mind and I felt it, I felt the quickening warmth in my legs and head. I looked up and Laura was standing there, behind Wendy in the doorway, with empty glass. I had told her the week before that that Probably Nobody show was the last time. We all three knew. She smiled a malicious curve and shook her head, spinning on her heels and heading back outside. I heard glass shatter and the gate open, and that's when I started spinning.
I think Wendy thanked me for the beer and headed back to Tom. I can't be too sure. What I do remember are the pictures that lit through my mind. The empty bed, an old photo of my family camping on the Upper Peninsula, the four-leaf clover I pressed into page one-ninety of Treasure Island when I was nine, the string and stone necklace my friend David gave me a week before he died. And there were other things too. Some of these images shocked me in that moment -- things I thought I'd lost or forgotten about. Some were still with me though I couldn't explain why.
I didn't go after her, that would have been too dramatic. I fixed my drink and took a long sip, and went outside to see about the glass. I was thinking that's it, she's gone, my life as I know it is over. It's over for something that's been done for a long time, for months. But it's over. That's it.
As I descended the wooden stairs, three steps, Laura came out the side garage door with a broom and dustpan in her left hand. The drink was gone from her other hand, she was busy wiping it on her pants. She approached where I was standing, stunned for no apparent reason, and bent over to sweep the mess. She smacked me in the shin, I was standing in it, and looked up at me with a small smile. "Don't worry about it," she said "It's just a little broken glass."