You are reading Fiddleblack #14
Nineteen seventy-one isn’t the first time in the history of pussy and poetry that the two have been linked like the elements in an equation, but only recently has that linkage been brought to my attention in a discussion with a friend. Now the reason I bust ass over a blank sheet of paper is that it’s my ticket into the Kingdom of Oh-My God-Yes, the Heaven of Cock-Say-Hello-to-Coochie. For every atom belonging to me—is Irish, and the Irish don’t mind working for what others are gifted with. They don’t mind waiting, as long as what they’re waiting for is a sure thing—in my case, it’s what I imagine to be a look from that first girl about to give up a world-class fuck. Whatever that turns out to be.
I’m no Bob Dylan, but words have always effected me. Words like hallucinatory will leave me jazzed quicker than thoughts of sex. I think a lot about the female anatomy, I suppose. I’m 17. However, my poems have little or nothing to do with that. The sixteen-line fart-in-a-Midwest-windstorm I’ve struggled with for the past few weeks takes place in the Afterlife and is, more or less, about what a prick God is. Go figure.
It’s a couple of hours after midnight, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, and me and Chance Gold, my best friend, are about to be good and ka-zonked since we’ve ingested LSD. This, on top of the reefer we huffed earlier—and the maybe-speed scored from a hitchhiker claiming to be a member of the Weather Underground and involved in the bombing of the Men’s Room of the Senate-wing of the Capitol Building that March, some guy who left us a tablet we halved on the front bench seat of my mother’s Ford Galaxie 500.
I’m whisper-reading to Chance: “Only so much room,” the man says, then ushers you through what you judge to be infinite space. He points out a rabble jigging in death clothes; he asks you to forgive the epic stench, the separation from pleasant breezes. A spidering nexus of roads and footpaths brims with a heady fecal smell, the walking new-dead—who are a plaintive winding flow of, mostly, soldiers. The uniforms are briared by the light-play from overhanging trees…”
I look up, but Chance just shrugs. “And?” he says. “Is that it?”
“Fuck no. There’s more,” I say and start in again: “You’re not sure this ‘He’ is the big He, the Almighty. Maybe it’s the Devil because he gossips about a crossing-guard priest who laughs with a brown-shouldered prostitute. Whoever it is, his eyes are like bad neighborhoods: they turn in upon themselves like the eyes of the poor. The place is a panel in a triptych for an empire of wailing—palisades are a rapture of ruined blossoms, graffiti, spray-painted messages in Vietnamese and English—“
“That’s too cool—that the graffiti is in two languages,” Chance interrupts. Then, in a whisper, he says: “Read to me, Jimmy Mann. Read to me.”
I continue: “Stepwise windows carry the darksome weight of crypts and mausoleums, puddled fields and unmarked mass graves. Black-winged angels sentry the ramparts, gripping great stones. Fronds of fern bisect an exclamation point of stairs. Thousands of fiery blowing ropes of bloom give off an unfiltered scent of lavender and sickrooms. There’s much you want to ask as perimeter flames scroll before reaching almost to heaven…
Chance’s expression says there’s a great deal about what I’ve written that works. But I wait for him to say something. Instead, he gets up from where he’s sitting on my single-bed. He puts on a record. The record drops, the tone arm swings into place and, pop-hiss, the needle finds the first groove on the spinning record. A guitar and a man’s voice overcome the crackle of static from scratches in the vinyl. I drop my notebook on the floor beside the bed.
I’m not sure when waking life became a “lucid dream,” a term I recall from Mr. Bowers’ 8th Grade honors class, but I see the vibrating “wild world” Cat Stevens is singing about shift focus then blur like a bee’s wings, a rising uproar, until I think I might be looking through the lens of a camera. A 60-watt light bulb glows above a white string as I sing. The drug we took, the Orange Sunshine, is beginning to flush Chance’s face, pinking the skin around his eyes.
I rock my shoulders. I guess it’s like I’m helping Cat Stevens make a point about the wreck of the world. Pussy is the farthest thing from my mind as Henry Kissinger and a frizzy-haired Art Garfunkel take turns flashing before my eyes in a psychedelic stageplay of The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
If pressed to describe Chance, I’d point to the Granny glasses and thick head of curly hair. I’d reel off, lickety-fucking-split, that Chance has worked as a paperboy for years now and has the work ethic of a first-generation immigrant; he’s devoted to his family, though I suspect his devotion isn’t for the usual reason—that their existence has brought about his own—but because the act of that devotion elevates Chance above his family’s “condition” among the working poor. Freud said analysis is wasted on the Irish. I’d add, after being Chance’s friend, that the Polish don’t benefit much from it, either.
To Chance, awareness coupled with action is an advantage when it comes to being carried along by the waves of your life, or so he explained once at the mom-and-pop corporate restaurant, in town, where the class of ’72 hangs out on weekends—I think he said something, conspiratorial, paranoid, like that this was the sort of detail that others might use to ridicule him.
Chance is pretty close to his mother Peggy. And Peggy Gold’s serial migraines and devotion to her hubbie Lou are why, I guess, Chance silently crosses himself several—make that beaucoup—times a day. I once snapped a Polaroid of Chance: We were horsing around in the Kaiser Aluminum field in back of my house at the end of my street, Lucky Avenue.
I raised my camera and snapped and caught Chance in mid-gesture.
“Do I do that a lot?” he asked me, looking at the developing photograph in my hand. I recall him saying, “If you lived in a house like mine, you’d make the Sign of the Cross, too—”
I know that the Manns, my family, are nothing like the Golds and that I’ve got something Chance can only dream of—a little goddamn privacy. My portion of the basement-floor space is squared off with a hanging tapestry and a worn-out bed sheet. Look there—both squares of fabric flutter as the furnace kicks on.
I bite off the last word of the Cat Stevens’ song—“baby”—which I chew like food. On the drug, this word tastes like a tongue—familiar, fleshy, vaguely metallic—or what I imagine a tongue would taste like. But I can’t be sure I’m not looping some part of the question back on itself, the brain being a masterwork of contradiction and finical pathways. Maybe the only thing I am sure of, come to think of it, is that Chance is someone I can trust. I know it like the fact that music comes from a spinning near-perfect-circle and a Christmas-gift J.C. Penney turntable that may or may not have a buffalo-head nickel taped to its tone arm.
I reach over and lift the needle from the spinning record.
Chance says, “That was amazing.” He tells me he’s getting off.
“You think?” I say, mockingly. “What was your first clue?”
I’m struck by a rush and start giggling. And fall the fuck off the bed.
When a head appears over the edge of the bed, like a fleshy sun, I push my fist into my mouth and bite the hell down to quiet myself.
I listen for footsteps from my parents’ bedroom overhead. Nothing.
“Did I ever tell you about the rooster we had?” Chance asks, affecting the chicken-neck pose we both refer to as the Lizard, since a flicked-out tongue oftentimes accompanies the exaggerated posture. And there it is, the tongue-flick. I break up, laughing. I know from recent shouts of Go to sleep, boys! and Jimmy! Shut the fuck up! that not only can my mom hear what’s going on but she may be about to give up the shouting and march down the stairs. My dad, on the other hand, can sleep through anything. He’s not my worry, she is.
Chance helps me back onto the bed. “Damn, you’re loud,” he says.
“Me?” I shoot back. I suppose that much of what dazzles the eye-on-drugs blooms in the biochemical equivalent of going from black-and-white to Technicolor, from a Lawrence Welk Show-predictable world to one of circus wonder on the order of feeling up a neighbor girl who likes it and says your name in a tone that detonates somewhere in your reptilian brain and hijacks both your futures. On the LSD, Chance’s head looks like a melon then like the planet Saturn with rings encircling the starlight-bounce of his hair. I see the head of my stoned friend as a paisley-patterned bowling ball at the precise moment I hear the record-player tone arm and needle drop onto the album and a guitar rift erupt at the decibel level of an ant’s whisper. I hear, in a wrapped-in-gauze whisper, the words Snot running down his nose as Chance returns to the bed where we’ll sit, him and me, until first light leaks in through one or all of the rectangular windows at ground level above our heads.
I crane my neck to hear Aqualung, don’t you start away uneasy…
At the edge of the bed Chance sings, softly, to himself.
I’m waiting until Chance is ready to speak of what might be more important than the voice that seems, some fucking how, to come from deep within the walls. I reach to the floor for my notebook, open to the piece of scribbling, and it occurs to me that I may have a title. A pretty good one.
I decide I’ll call it “Hell’s One-walled and Lovely Hanging Garden”—after the Hanging Gardens of Babylon I learned about in history class. The hell part is, of course, my own; the metaphor of a garden in the middle of hell is America.
Jim Morrison had been dead a month when I took the job washing dishes at Carlos’ Steak House. It’s a time of war, and zippered body bags and televised Death rooster-strutting across the TV screen like Mick Jagger. I don’t give a shit if I die, I don’t give it a thought. I trust that the long-shot odds of my heart failing are beyond knowing, the same as Nixon telling the truth. As a consequence of my not giving a rat’s ass whether I live or die, once a week, without fail, me and Chance shell out for a hit of LSD.
Which the two of us then halve and eat.
To me, who wouldn’t want to hear Joplin’s ballsy version of “Me & Bobby McGee”—Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free—while the sealer-green walls of your basement bedroom breathe? Getting blazed-to-the-bejesus is as sane a move as is possible, given that I’ll be eligible for the motherhumpin’ Draft in January. Not to mention, the absolute drought and unbroken-string of no-pussy days. Nada. Zilch. Zero.
Once, I swallowed a tab and went to work at the steak house. High as a kite in a hurricane. Noises echoed, reverberated. Dishwater reeled off gravity-be-damned saltations in the ol’ synapses. The cartoon at intermission, on break: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia. In the sink, islands of beef and butter and A-1 mapped out Lake Eries and 88-county replica Ohios complete with roads; on the grill, smoke-histories of the dead rose. That day, the owner of the steak house, Carlos, sniffed my glass and made a face and asked, “You been drinking, have you?” I said I hadn’t.
Not a drop, which was true.
What gave me away, it turns out, was watching a steak singe and darken on the grill until I saw what I guess you might call “the world that flies above this one.”
I imagine that world to be a place without the Draft, with pussy in abundance, sweet and glorious abundance; a world about to place a wafer of Grace on my inebriate tongue. Of course I stood there, thinking, I’d trade all of my tomorrows for one single yesterday. Like that song by Kristofferson says, a song that Janis has made her own.
Staring at a medium-well Porterhouse steak says you ain’t right or sober.
No one, not even Carlos, cares that much about steak. But he didn’t fire me. Carlos is like that, fair. He just ordered his “best dishwasher” home after a fairy-tale excuse about taking over-the-counter cold medicine on an empty stomach—a lie I sold with, “I guess lard asses gets loopy on Contact, huh?”
Woody Allen is on The Dick Cavett Show. He looks like Bozo the Clown, only thin. He’s plugging his new movie Bananas, saying how hostility is the engine of humor, when my mother comes into the room and asks whether I’m finished mopping the basement. She’s a woman given to dropping the epithet “kike,” my mother, but she doesn’t seem to know yet that Woody Allen is Jewish, or she’s simply more interested in the crossword puzzle she continues to work while waiting for me to answer.
I give her a “winsome look”—I pay attention in English class, so what?—that says I hope she won’t take offense. I say, “How ‘bout I do that after this?”
Sarah Mann, my mother, is one of those women you’ll hear other teens talk proudly of bedding: an older woman of intelligence and charm, someone carries herself like she’d cut your legs out from under you for a laugh but would fuck you like your best wet dream of Sex—or that’s what a friend of mine says.
Mrs. Robinson with better hair and a bright, Pepsodent smile.
I don’t think of my mother this way, sexually; however, Chance has said how nice she looked just that morning—when we came up to breakfast around noon. Tonight, Mom looks up from the recliner by the fireplace, then over at me like we’re both in line and she can’t believe someone has cut in front of us and then objects to being called on it. Like her son might be an alien life-form since he cares what sort of bilge flies out of the mouth of bottom-dwellers like the one seated across from Dick Cavett.
“All right,” she says. “But I want you in bed before 2, J.R.—you and that Chance were up awfully late last night. Giggling like school-girls.”
On the tv, Woody Allen tells Dick Cavett what it was like to play James Bond in a recent spy spoof. He gestures as though firing a hand-gun.
My “hot mom” looks at the comedian. She holds her folded newspaper out from her, gestures at the television as if to shoo away flies.
After another minute, she quips: “Jew. Damn Jew.”
I get the joke: Bond, James Bond—Jew, Damn Jew. It isn’t funny, and I don’t want to get her started. I’m sure, now, that Woody Allen is right about the engine of humor and comedy being hostility. And I’d like to finish hearing the interview before Dad drags in and commandeers the tv with that a-man’s-home-is-his-castle crap of his or calls me Lard Ass, his favorite name for yours truly.
“Maybe he’s queer,” she says. “What kind of a name is ‘Woody’?”
I might as well give it up. “I’ll go do the basement,” I say.
Heading down the stairs, I’m wishing I had a tv set of my own—the world above could be whatever it wanted, could ooze Nixon and corruption, Vietnam and death, if I could watch Star Trek or The Dick Cavett Show or Twilight Zone, once, without interruption. The words corruption and ooze send me off to write until the wee hours.
Near the end of my junior year I read to some classmates who were quiet just long enough for me to be heard over the hubub between classes. The reading, such as it was, took place in a restroom. Above the noise, I read:
So far the afterlife is damned annoying
A giddy riffraff in best rags argues
as it devours the continental breakfast
They’re all lying about a legacy of good
and sneaking in a surreptitious swift kick
at a house dog who begs and says hello
Everyone is talking at once in a crowd
that seems to await news of something
House staff and maids are former models
Aloof and uniformed in Moroccan blue
they glide by like a memory of eating and
being fabulously filled You rub shoulders
with a saint with a used-up look that says
it’s never enough this rising above one’s
animal nature He nods as if redemption
were mostly a matter of being recognized
and he had no more substance than air
As if the soul were used to rented rooms…”
Everything was different after those moments in the boy’s restroom.
Chance and Matt Chatham, a friend of Chance’s, applauded the poem.
While applauding, Matt slipped and fell into a half-wall urinal. He got his pants wet and started cussing. Chance and I were handed a detention for being late to Mr. Sheen’s chemistry class.
But my reading the poem was a start, and I walked out of that high-school restroom feeling like King Kong’s bad-ass older brother.
Even if what you write makes your friends sit up and take notice, it’s hard to be fat. Bury your nose in books and notebooks and homework and overdue library books all you like, hitch your wagon to whatever star of Irish or Welsh or English or American literary brilliance, but what you want is a Raquel Welch-looking girlfriend. Someone to make your wet dreams a reality, someone who overlooks the fact that you’re burdened with excess You. Someone who, God forbid, even likes that about you. Being fat draws the hostility out of others, like comedy, and lights them up like a pinball machine; it’s rare when anyone is even a little all right with me or my appearance.
Like Matt and Chance—they’re both swell friends. Matt and I became friends after I read that day in the restroom. Lately, him and Chance and me—we’re like the fucking Three Muskateers. (The Three Stooges, maybe, depending on your point of view.) Matt Chatham and Chance Gold are an inspiration, no kidding, since they quit sports to write songs and sing. They’re both pretty serious about learning to play guitar. A little, they remind me of Lennon and McCartney. At some point, though, I figure I’ll use what I can do—which is where the poems come in, where I get my ticket-to-ride punched.
I’ve got my eye on this neighbor girl—great hair. Straight-out-of-Playboy blue eyes. A smile to make your dick hard enough that all the flicking of the head with your thumb and forefinger wouldn’t make it lie down and behave.
Ann of the House Across from My House. Ann Longford.
Fast forward a month: Matt and Chance are busy, practicing their music, doing something. I get together with Ann for, remarkably, a bit of petting. Which prompts this—I think it’s my best work—which I’ve yet to show her:
Merriam-Webster says the word is ‘usually vulgar’
and refers to the vulva—Old Norse puss pocket,
Low German puse vulva, Old English pusa bag—
or ‘the female partner in sexual intercourse.’
There’s a way words lock us in. This is one of those
times, one of those words that omit everything freeing
and wondrous in favor of how the plumbing works.
The first I spent any time with scared me, left me
breathless—rather, it changed my rate of respiration
to something way beyond what’s normal. I’m in
her living room, both parents are in the kitchen,
and they’re not ten quick-time steps from the couch.
And she’s got her Levis down to her knees. Black
bikini briefs read Saturday because, it turns out,
there’s a multi-colored set of the underwear—
“a rainbow,” she says—and a product designer
somewhere having a laugh at Middle America.
I won’t bore you with descriptions, names,
but I am in. Her open-mouth pleasure cries—
like I said: both parents are in the kitchen—
the noises own me. Right out of the blocks.
I’m in my first relationship, though the word
relationship isn’t one I’d use. Maybe heaven
since I feel rewarded for something I’m doing
well enough that she wants more of the same.
I’m not thinking in words for once in my life,
and I know what we’re doing is more exciting
than jacking off any day, or looking at Playboy,
reading certain passages of The Carpetbaggers,
watching a favorite cheerleader do the splits.
“What about this?” I ask her. She whispers,
“Stop—and I’ll never speak to you again.”
I’m not sure Ann will like the poem, or that I’ve put pen to Big Chief tablet concerning our sex life, but I know it feels like something of a breakthrough. I think it’s great, and I’m at least not writing about the Afterlife. Now’s as good a time as any, I figure: a Sunday evening, both her folks at prayer services. (The Longfords’ blue Chevy pulled out a few minutes ago.) But I need to be sure everyone’s out of the house, just in case. The round phone-dial wheel spins like—what?—a Roulette wheel?
A voice answers. I say, “Ann?”
“Jimmy?” She sounds like she’s been sleeping.
“Yeah, it’s Jimmy.” Suddenly, I’m more awake myself.
I say, “Ann, can I come over for a little while?”
There’s a pause. Then she says, “You can’t be in the house—my parents are gone—but, sure. We can sit on the front steps.” She tells me how what we did made her woozy, giddy-happy. How it’s been all she can think about.
I hang up. And it hits me like the effects of a tab of acid: this is what it’s like, being a writer. I pat my front shirt pocket. The poem’s folded like, well, like it’s the key to the house across the street. If the world’s what I think it is—like that novel we read in sophomore English, The Lord of the Flies—then three cheers for Piggie, for whatever makes the cruelty let up for a goddamn minute.
Hip, hip!—you get the picture. I’m as happy as a kid with a bag of Oreos.
Roy Bentley has had stories in Foliate Oak, The Bacon Review and Eunoia Review. Roy is the author of a short story collection titled Boat in the Attic and a collection of poems titled Starlight Taxi (Lynx House, 2013).