Jailbird

By Laurel Woods

Memoir

The Eighties, you may recall, were an era of flash and decadence. Now think 1984 — Ronald Reagan was president, Dallas and Dynasty were on TV, Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the radio waves. It was all about pastels and lightning bolts, Aqua Net and Pac Man. I was fifteen, had big permed hair, and favored a pink and green polka dot sweatshirt dress, belted naturally, with white bejeweled cowboy boots. Country-western consumed my mom, who wore flowing plaid skirts with too much lace trim. Dad wasn’t immune to pop culture either. He began wearing pink and yellow blazers like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor. Dad had a museum of cowboy boots — about twenty pairs ranging in color and animal hide, his favorites being crocodile and ostrich. He liked big gold rings and chains, and wore a gold bull, a Taurus, around his neck.

Behind the curtain of Dad’s eccentricity was a loving father. He’d grown up in the projects in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of nine children, mostly unattended by his mother, while his father had been committed to an insane asylum. He stole food from the Twinkie and Tootsie Roll Factories to survive and as a result, had no teeth of his own.

Family meant everything to Dad. Spending the holidays away from home was not an option. My parents enrolled us in private Catholic school, nuns and all, to ensure a good education. Dad went to church with Mom on Sundays, not because he was religious, but because he knew how much it meant to her.

He ran a tight ship at home, and there were severe consequences for busted behavior. Once when I was sixteen, I snuck out of the house wearing a leopard-print tank top and leather miniskirt. This was after my parents had told me “no daughter of theirs would ever wear such a thing.” I went to the night club 3-2-1 in Santa Monica, and drank and danced and smoked cigarettes.

The next morning, my dad approached me.  “Did you wear that outfit after your mother and I told you not to?”

I loved him too much to lie.  “Yes, I did.”

“And were you drinking and smoking, too?”

“Yes,” I said, in shock.

“Okay.”  He walked away with disappointment in his eyes.  It turned out Dad’s adult entertainment attorney had spotted me at the club. Just my luck. Two days later, Dad sold my car, my beloved Saab, and grounded me for six months. I was so ashamed that I’d let him down.

In contrast to my flashy yet Republican, pink-blazered father, was his business partner, Mac. Dad tried but could never hold a candle to all 6’7″ of Mac and his ostentatious lifestyle. My sister and I visited Mac once at his penthouse apartment in Inglewood, and met his beautiful Cockatoo -– large, white and friendly. “Go ahead, you can pet him,” he insisted, in his Barry White voice. He also had a separate ranch full of exotic animals and fancy cars. Mac had a python and was too cheap to buy the live animals for the snake’s meals, so he’d peruse the Recycler‘s classifieds pet section, looking for ads that read “Loving pet looking for good home.” Let’s just say that Mac’s python fully enjoyed several beloved pets, with a special taste for rabbits. Dad never let us visit, but I was told that going to Mac’s ranch was like walking onto the set of Miami Vice — you could almost hear Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It,” synthesizer and all.

After the penthouse visit, Dad put the word out that he wanted a parrot too. His Doberman puppy had died suddenly from a virus, and he was ready for another animal. Dad had a knack for filling the house with novelty items — carousel horse, English phone booth — all things he purchased on a whim. So one day Big Wally came to the Jet Strip, one of the strip clubs by LAX Airport that my dad owned. Big Wally had spent more time in prison than on the street, mostly for theft. One day, Wally approached Dad at The Jet and said, “Hey, I hear you like parrots.”

“Yeah, I do,” Dad responded.

“You wanna buy a parrot?” Wally opened up his coat in the dark bar and revealed a red and green Amazon, shaking and scared.

Dad panicked.  He felt sorry for the bird and offered Big Wally a couple hundred bucks. Story has it, Wally got the parrot from a guy named Johnny Sanchez who owed him some money.

Dad brought the parrot home late that night, and in the morning we woke up and saw a beady-eyed, green-cheeked Amazon sitting in a black cage in our kitchen.

Mom was furious. “Who the hell do you think’s going to take care of it during the day?” 

I wondered how long we’d have the bird. It was just a matter of time before Dad would move onto something new. The bird kept wolf whistling and saying “hello” to us. He seemed friendly, so I stuck my hand right in the cage and he pierced it sharply with his beak, drawing blood.  He then screamed “ouch!” I had to shake him off me to release his grip, and my family laughed. My hand burned. The bird talked a lot and always said “Huey, gimme a whistle,” so we decided to call him Huey. We realized later that Huey was probably his previous owner’s name.

The vet confirmed that our Huey was indeed a boy and approximately fifteen years old, with a lifespan of fifty to seventy years. My mom hit the roof.  During the Eighties, with the Miami Vice hype, exotic birds became popular and people spent lots of money buying them from breeders. What people failed to realize was that parrots had a lifespan almost comparable to a human’s.

Huey slowly became a part of our household and he quickly warmed up to me, as I was giving him lots of attention. I felt sorry for him and wondered what home he’d been in before ours. I discovered that birds find a mate for life and I apparently, quite by accident, had become Huey’s. I was lathered in unconditional bird love. He tolerated my sister because we looked so much alike, but as soon as I came into the room he’d bite her silly. Once, my mom leaned in to kiss Huey and in an instant he latched onto her lip, hanging, flapping his wings, while my mom screamed loud enough to be heard on the East Coast. My dad beat him off and Mom began to cry. Her lip was swollen for a week, and she needed stitches.

Huey said hello, goodbye, Huey gimme a whistle, and screamed CRACKER! when he was hungry. He loved laughing, and rocked back and forth on his perch as he did. If he didn’t get the attention he craved, he’d scream and open his wings. And while Huey couldn’t really fly, when he tried he looked like a green chicken flailing around. He liked to sing along, especially when you sang “Happy Birthday” to someone. So many friends received phone calls over the years with Huey and I wishing them a happy birthday. Huey sounded more like Ethel Merman than Ethel Merman.

He also loved food, all food, and always wanted what you were eating. He would get very excited when Mom started cooking — his eyes would dilate and he’d pace back and forth on his perch saying “cracker.” That darling bird loved pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, chicken bones, ice cream and peanuts. He also loved grapes that mom peeled for him. (Yes, she peeled grapes for the bird she never wanted.)

I was off to college at UC Santa Barbara and only saw Huey when I breezed in every few weeks, with my beaded hair, tie dye skirts, humming Grateful Dead tunes. I felt guilty; he wasn’t getting much attention anymore. Dad teased him a lot by putting him on the floor and chasing him around. Huey would scream and violently attack Dad’s shoes. I yelled at Dad but he just laughed and laughed. Mom drowned out Huey’s screeching fits with John Denver music.

At home, I’d spend as much time as I could with my feathered friend, making up for lost time. He loved grooming my eyelashes and eyebrows, and would sit in my lap and groom himself. Bird dander and feathers flew everywhere. I kind of missed that, I missed him, our routine and our camaraderie. He loved taking showers, and I’d perch him on the shower curtain rod. He would get all excited and wolf whistle at me in the shower. We were convinced he learned that in the strip club.

During college, Dad’s partner Mac was gunned down outside of his ranch, my dad being the investigators’ prime suspect. Shortly after, my parents’ house was raided by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Police tore the place apart, just like in the movies. Huey ended up surviving two house raids, unscathed.

I graduated from university in 1990. Afterward, I lived in Los Angeles and worked at Playboy Enterprises before moving to the Bay Area. I saw Huey several times a year. My parents were always threatening to send him to a bird rescue sanctuary. Taking care of him full-time demanded a lot of work and attention, kind of like a petulant five-year old. Taking him meant being chained down, and I was enjoying my freedom too much to assume the responsibility. I somehow convinced my parents that he’d get more attention if he stayed at home with them.

In October of 2000, I moved back home after my dad was arrested for Mac’s murder. I didn’t have much time for Huey as I spent most of it in court, jail, and at Dad’s strip clubs. Nonetheless, Huey was happy to see me more often than our long distance relationship had permitted.

After Dad’s eventual murder conviction, we sold my parents’ house and cleaned out all the stuff that they had accumulated over the years. I equated Dad’s life prison sentence to a death in the family, except that he could still call us collect once in a while. It was hard to get any real closure; the appeals process began immediately. Mom was getting rid of everything — the cars, boats, guns, toy train collection, and Huey. I called up all the credit card companies and closed out his accounts. They asked me why and I’d tell them the truth: sentenced to life in prison. Silence and awkwardness always followed.

I drove Huey up to his new home with me in Marin County, California, before eventually moving to New York City. My best friend, Anne, was a flight attendant, and we flew Huey and one of my cats first class. I carried Huey through security at SFO.  He laughed the whole time and said “hello” to everyone. He sounded like an eager child. When we boarded the plane, the other first class passengers were not happy.  The flight attendant, lucky for me, was also a bird owner, and kept bringing Huey snacks and water. Huey stayed quiet for the most part — until I got up to use the lavatory. I came out and the other passengers were glaring at me as if I were the mom who had the screaming baby onboard — in this case, a screaming bird. Huey settled back down until we landed, at which point he began laughing hysterically. Some passengers even laughed with him.

In New York, Huey and I quickly re-bonded; we were like roommates. When I woke up every morning, he always said “hello!” with a southern ladies’ drawl. He showered with me in the morning and followed me around the house, laughing and cleaning his beak on my toe nails. He loved toothpaste and had his own toothbrush. Whenever I left the house he screamed “goodbye!” and I heard him all the way down the stairwell, into the street, still saying it. My poor neighbors. I loved his attention and companionship, and I didn’t have to worry about him eating all my food or hogging the bathroom. Some nights we stayed home, eating popcorn and watching TV. We’d take long walks in Central Park, and he’d sit on my lap as I read and returned phone calls. He mostly just groomed himself and greeted passersby. He was a bit of a celebrity, the laughing parrot in Central Park, and was always getting his picture taken. He was like the son I never had.

He also became a quick favorite with my friends. At parties, my guy friends played with him all night, covered in parrot pecks, convinced they could win him over. Huey was never much of a man lover, though. He did, however, have a thing for blonds and flirted whenever any stopped in. He was very social and wanted to be in middle of everything. He even had his own Facebook page, Huey del Fuego, with over sixty friends.

One day last year, I realized Huey wasn’t acting himself and took him to the vet. He had several rounds of tests before the vet discovered a tumor. He had stopped talking and eating.  The poor bird.  I soon realized it was time to bring him to the vet one last time. This was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was taking my green parrot for his last walk along the park. The vet offered to do an emergency surgery to see if she could save him. She said it was a less than ten percent chance that she could, but my little bud was worth it. As I sat with him in the clinic, I could tell he knew what was happening. My eyes and face were blotchy and red from all the tears. My mouth tasted like salt. As I left Huey there, I heard him screaming “goodbye” with a sense of panic in his voice, all the way until I was outside on Columbus Avenue.

The next day I was at the airport, en route to Tunisia for a trip long-ago planned. Just as I entered the plane, my vet called me to say that Huey’s cancer had spread.  He could not be saved. I was blubbering like a little girl and the Air France flight attendants quickly became aware of my unstable status. I made a mad dash to the lavatory to wash my face, and a male flight attendant asked in his finest French accent, “Excuse me mademoiselle, is everything okay?” I proceeded to tell him through my sobbing breaths about my dead parrot. He had a look of deep sorrow on his face as he rested his hand softly on my shoulder, “May I please ask you which parent this was?”

Parent? PARENT?

“Not my parent, my PARROT!” I shrieked.  The flight attendant backed away slowly, in silence.

I told Dad about Huey dying; somehow I felt responsible. He became sentimental, recounting the story of how he got Huey from Big Wally. “You gave that bird a damn good life,” he assured me.

Huey dying was not only the end of a unique, twenty-six year companionship; it was the end of an era. He was the last remaining possession from my dad’s crazy and outlandish existence. I had now lost both the main men in my life. Huey embodied the lifestyle I experienced with my dad — through his garish colors, his loud wolf whistling, his flirty behavior, his peeled grapes. Gone were Dad’s fleet of exotic cars and boats; our backyard that resembled a tribute to Disney’s Thunder Mountain ride; the family trips to Vegas and Hawaii; strip club Christmas parties; Dad’s managers doubling as my personal chauffeur at the airport; my endless supply of lap dance passes. Before I moved to New York, I owned four cars. Now I was riding the subway, with extra hand sanitizer, to my corporate job. I’d spent the last ten family Christmases in prison, most recently with Phil Spector and some very nice sex offenders. Dad’s wardrobe now consists solely of double denim and flimsy white tennis shoes.

I took Huey’s birdseed and donated it to his vet clinic. His vet told me they had a baby parrot named Rocky looking for a home. “Just think about it,” she said.  “You already have the cage.”  Trying to cheer me up. I ran it by my therapist, who quickly and forcefully suggested that I take my energy and focus it on finding a man.

My once rowdy apartment was now silent. There was no hello, no cracker, no Ethel Merman, no peanut tossing or celery crunching. All the things that drove me crazy about that bird — the noise, the mess, the neediness — I really missed. “He was just a bird,” friends would say. No consolation.

I finally threw away Huey’s toothbrush and donated his cage. I could still see his seed in the floor cracks and pieces of the kitchen cabinet he chewed off.

In the fall, I moved downtown; it was much easier finding an apartment. I didn’t have to answer the million dollar broker question:  “How loud does your bird chirp?” I could socialize without the need to rush home and let Huey out of his cage, and I could easily travel without having to find a bird sitter or worry about him being lonely and locked up. Most of all, it was now safe to invite a guy over knowing Huey wasn’t going to attack or suddenly fly into the room landing on the bed, saying, “Hello!”

I now eat popcorn in front of the TV with my lazy cats. Sometimes I still make enough popcorn for two, out of habit. I gaze at Huey’s ashes sitting in a box with some feathers on my bookshelf, and wonder if I’ll ever find someone, feather-free, who will love me as much as that bird did.

Then my dad calls — collect, of course.

 

 

As one of the few British writers at TNB I felt it was my duty to record the historic Royal Wedding for the site. It also helps that we have a Bank Holiday so we can all watch it, and that due to time difference I was able to sit through it without waking up at a ridiculously early time.

What I’ve done is record my observations as they popped into my head whilst watching the coverage on the BBC. Hopefully this will make you feel like you’re watching it with me… get out the good china and pour a hot cup of tea…

Woke up late— started watching just as Kate arrived. My first thoughts are: she looks very grown up, her eyebrows are quite thick, and she looks absolutely amazing. The phrase ‘lie back and think of England’ has never seemed more exciting…

 

A few clips of previous Royal Weddings. Kate is easily the most beautiful bride since the Queen married Phillip back in the 1950s. Incidentally the Queen has lent Kate a Cartier tiara from the 1930s…

 

Jesus, how long does it take to walk down an aisle? We could be done by now if they picked up the pace a bit…

 

The vows: William sounds like a posh actor whose name I can’t remember. This is the first time I’ve heard Kate speak— she’s terribly well spoken for a ‘commoner’…

 

Oh… is the ring going to fit?

 

Only just!

 

This is way better than when Charles and Camilla got married. Prince Harry is wearing more gold than Mr T and William looks like an ostentatious Thunderbird…

 

There are trees inside Westminster Abbey. Everyone is standing and facing the bride and groom. It looks almost exactly like the end of Star Wars.

 

A very young man is talking about good and evil. It sounds like a very posh pep talk…

 

There are far too many hymns. It feels like a Christmas service. I’m not actually sure if they’re married yet or not…

 

The Archbishop of London addressed William and Kate from a high vantage point and talks about setting the world on fire. This is questionable advice.

 

Oh, it’s a metaphor…

 

They’ve exchanged rings so they must be married, surely…

 

Was slightly disappointed no-one had a reason they couldn’t be married…

 

Is the Queen asleep?! She’s definitely asleep! In fairness she’s hosting the reception and there won’t be a time for a nap between now and then…

 

The Archbishop has started talking about starting a family… that’s got to be a bit awkward for Wills and Kate in front of al those people…

 

I’m sure he was expecting more of a response to that ‘Amen’… tough crowd…

 

Interesting selection of guests. William has invited David Beckham and Elton John whilst Kate has invited the Indian couple who run the Spar in her village…

 

A Holy man keeps begging for mercy… ah, the Lord’s Prayer. This is getting a bit sombre…

 

No response for the ‘amen’ again…

 

This is the first time I’ve heard Jerusalem outside of a sporting event. I fucking love Jerusalem.

 

Best. Fanfare. Ever… followed by an epic sweeping shot of Westminster Abbey as everyone launches into the National Anthem… This is fantastic!

God Save the Queen… It’s got be kind of weird for Kate Middleton… it’s her wedding day and everyone is singing a song about her (grand)mother-in-law…

 

They’re definitely married now. They’re going off to sign the register… it’s illegal to film it so everyone is just going to sing hymns until the come back…

 

Getting a montage of previous Royal wedding certificates… and they’re back!

 

There’s a wedding theme. It sounds very John Williams. Everything about this is awesome.

 

Prince Harry is terrible at walking slowly. He’s almost skulking…

 

The William and Kate— no, sorry, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge— step out to the sound of wedding bells. Lovely.

 

A carriage awaits— it’s from 1902 and I think it was the one the Queen used at her wedding…

 

A whole convoy of carriages going down the Mall… it’s like a slow motion chariot race…

 

They’re approaching the finish line… I think William and Kate might just win it…

 

They arrive to the sound of the National Anthem… it seems no-one knows what happens next…

 

The National Anthem plays again… Good lord, Princess Beatrice is wearing a giant pretzel for a hat!

 

 

Apparently it’s a whole hour before the traditional presentation of the bride and groom on the balcony… at least the Queen can sit down for a bit…

 

Now it’s just an hour of talking to people in the crowds… kids… Mexicans… Americans… Aussies… South Africans… but mostly people in plastic hats…

 

We have studio coverage. The historian Simon Schama is acting as a pundit. He liked the trees and the gothic vaulting…

 

Apparently there are five rooms in Buckingham Palace that can be opened up into one super-room. I wish I was rich…

 

There’s an announcement for anyone wanting to watch the snooker. Ding is playing Trump. Seriously.

 

The analysts are talking about the future of the monarchy whilst dancing around the phrase ‘she’s got to die eventually.’

 

An American girl has given one of the presenters her straw hat and is teaching him how to courtsey. This is lovely, they’re really enjoying this— no-one does this stuff better than us… Probably because we have the monopoly on gilded carriages…

 

There’s coverage from Kate Middleton’s home village of Bucklebury. There are about ten people there who didn’t get invited and they’re all incredibly fat.

 

There’s a sixty year old man wearing Kanye-esque shades!

 

Performance artists and incredibly camp Spaniards!

 

This wedding has everything!

 

The crowds marching on the Mall are pretty intimidating… they’re just flowing like water…

 

The place is packed like the front few rows of a Bon Jovi gig… I’m getting kind of bored now… Oh! Someone just peaked out of a window. Is it Princess Catherine?

 

No.

 

There’s going to be an RAF flyover in a minute. It doesn’t get any more British than this…

 

It was Harry at the window apparently…

 

The camera is now just fixed on the window and the shadowy figures behind the net curtains…

 

 

Here they come!

 

The Prince and Princess are on the balcony and waving. This is brilliant, the crowd love it!

 

The Queen looks sooo bored. There are some kids dressed like toy soldiers.

 

We’re still waiting for the traditional kiss…

 

There it is! It’s more of a peck on the cheek, but this is Britain after all… the crowd cheer regardless…

 

The BBC have a presenter in the Lancaster Bomber leading the flyover. There are all kinds of technical difficulties and the presenter looks like he’s about to throw up…

 

There’s a second kiss! A second cheer! The planes fly over right on time… magnificent…

 

A second wave of more modern fighter jets in tribute to Prince William who is a pilot himself…

 

They head back inside, but there might be an encore…

 

No, that’s it. It’s all over!

 

Y’know what? I think these kids are going to be alright…

To begin I have absolutely no place peddling love advice to anyone. In college I had my fair share of trysts, long distance relationships, one-night-stands but that was less romance and more “young horny people doing it.” There’s no trick to that, other than confining yourself in a small town with an unlimited supply of alcohol and surrounding yourself with people between 18 and 22 who don’t live with their parents.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been lucky in love, but I have been lucky once, lucky enough to realize I had a good thing and mature enough not to fuck it up. I’ve been married for ten years, but I’m not cocky  enough to call that success. Should longevity be the only standard? What about variety? Would I be more successful if like the late Liz Taylor I had seven marriages? Longevity in a marriage can mean many things aside from success in love, such as inertia, you’re too lazy to divorce, or busy enough with careers and kids to bother thinking about it. Wow, that was harsh. Minor reactor leak. We’re fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?

To quote from those masters of the persuasive arts, the infomercial writers, I know my Star Wars advice is effective because it works.  I have seen it. And more importantly the inverse fails every time.

This astonishing advice pertains specifically to men. Though ladies, if you want to jump on the band wagon and woo a mate by dressing like Slave Princess Leia, I will not stop you. But first a caveat. I have been to ComicCon. There are precious few body types that work with Slave Princess Leia: elven maids, dryads and anyone with the special effects support of Industrial Light and Magic. And Kristen Bell. It’s very easy to be either too fat or too thin to successfully occupy the outfit. The outfit looks a little better if you have a few extra pounds; if you’re too thin people will suspect you are actually one of Jabba’s slaves in real life. And they will worry.

My advice is for guys who have realized that they are too nice. You know who you are. You’ve all of a sudden been run roughshod in a string of relationships, your heart has been pulled violently from your chest on too many occasions, women think of you as a friend, that really safe friend with feathered dirty blond hair, a love of khaki and two quirky robot sidekicks.

The Star Wars advice for you Sensitive New Age Guys, those who actually like Ani DeFranco instead of just pretending to like her to get laid (and come on, who hasn’t?), is this:

Turn down the Luke. Turn Up the Han.

Learn it. Embrace it. Become it. (Yes, t-shirts are available).

Most guys who see Star Wars for the first time at a young age originally identify with Luke. He was the ultimate good guy, the farmer turned ninja/priest who could move stuff with his mind. The naive teenager who eventually brings his successful and powerful father back from his really busy corporate job so they can finally play ball together. The last Jedi, who blew up the Death Star not once but twice because come on, George Lucas doesn’t have time to think up new stuff.

When I played Star Wars with my friends during kindergarten recess everyone wanted to be Luke. But as we got older though we no longer whined to go Toshi Station*. We wanted to be the cool space cowboy who shoots Greedo at point blank range. Mal Reynolds, the Sergeant who called himself Captain in Joss Whedon’s Firefly is a clear homage to the cult of Han. The series was not at all harmed by a lack of Luke, and believe me: if Joss Whedon doesn’t need Luke, neither does your girlfriend. Even George Lucas realized the dangerous sex fountain he’d unleashed with Han Solo and tried to take it back, digitally editing Star Wars to make it look like Greedo shot first, and Han shot back in self-defense.

This is not to say that “you should start out like Han and end up like Luke,” because every girl is secretly attracted to The Bad Boy but wants to marry the Good Boy. Nobody ends up with Luke. Because seriously, even though Luke Skywalker is the chosen one and has enough midi-chlorians to fill an Olympic swimming pool, he lacks the kung-fu to realize immediately that Princess Leia is his sister? That dude is not on the lady wavelength and I don’t care if it was a long time ago in a galaxy far away: you do not bang your sister, Jedi.

To the Lukes out there, I feel your pain because I used to be one of you. You’re the guys who fall in love too quickly and too deeply, who pine away then can’t believe that anyone would deign to sleep with you much less go shopping with you for power converters. You are prone to jealousy, your wounded deer over-sensitivity eventually drives them off and you don’t know why you’re constantly nursing a broken heart. When women are with you they say “you’re so nice.” Behind your back they say you’re too nice.

It took me nineteen years to transition out of the Luke costume. I was in a stalled relationship, living with a girl with whom I held a mutual dislike. At a Berkeley Halloween party at twenty-five I dressed as Han Solo, and one night in his big leather space boots made all the difference. I noticed a new girl. We started flirting. There was risk, sure, and it led to more than a little heartbreak. The new girl was who I married ten years ago.

It’s not that you shouldn’t be a gentleman. But if you turn up the Han you’re an honorable scoundrel and a gentleman, you’re self-assured enough drive a shitty car without worrying what other people think. Turn down the Luke, turn up the Han and don’t be afraid to shoot first.

[Nerd Flame Bait: yes I recognize that there are two spellings, Toshi and Tosche, to describe the Anchorhead general store Luke whines about in Episode IV. If you don’t like what I’m selling buy your power converters elsewhere. But don’t give into hate.]


I was near broke, and entertaining

Suspicion.

He’d called me an hour
before, from a convenience
store, quite lost, but only

half a block
from the spot
he’d spent
the night before, a halo
of dirty dark around my door.
“You messing with me, bro?”
said a cell phone echo
of party line, of self… “It’s
just … these streets, they so
different in
day glow.”
Always nagging, half
a block from derision,
this entertaining
of Suspicion.
I drove on

down there,
where he waited
on a concrete re-divider for pumping
petrol. His Bugs Bunny gloved hands
hovered a twitch above

hips, eyelids swiveling like spaghetti
western Death. “Get in,” I said, and
he did.

This took place in Roswell, New Mexico,
half a block from the funky used car lot
with fifty foot dirigible in the shape of a
flying saucer, platinum shade of twin
meanings. And I do mean
twins …Suspicion shot me

a look in the rear view
that said I was part
and parcel now, of a plot
unfolding, throughout
the seasons, my
many sympathies
and leanings.
“Look, I’d really like to be
at that Blue Man concert by three
o clock in Phoenix yo don’t frigging
confront me,” Suspicion
said, tuning in AM talk
radio, for the theory, for
conspiracy.

“Oh, please,” I replied, my
mouth, so dry, all bearings
and blessings gone
south. I pined and
pined and pined for
the lime Slurpee

not taken. “Hang a left,” he said, “we got
time to pick up Doubt … if he’s in pocket,
that blighter owes me.”
“Please,” I repeated, to no
body in particular, ever sidelong
as a bad plan, a mirror. It was all
going wrong, Suspicion began
to shout.


The guy breezed into the room—a bit overweight, unshaved, in a belted trench coat (an important detail, and you’ll see why), and absolutely out of breath. He was, I recall, either from Queens or Brooklyn or maybe Long Island, was not noted for any athletic or criminal prowess whatsoever, and was in the process of explaining how he’d buried the body in the park in town.

“What body?” It was the only reasonable question to ask.

“The spy,” he said. “He’d been following me for months.” He patted his pocket. “I shot him dead and buried him.”

“You buried him.”

“I had to work fast.”

My asking where the shovel was only complicated matters. He had answers for everything, as insane people tend to have. He’d buried the gun in a separate place; the shovel was wiped of all fingerprints and thrown in the brook. The spy had been a dangerous man who wanted access to the secrets this fellow student apparently had locked away in his brain. Secrets he’d managed to get from the Russians when he was a double agent. Drugs would have been a handy excuse, but this guy was about as clean as Santa Claus. When the whole universe is located inside your head, there are no mysteries. All is echo, and everything makes impeccable sense.

I’m not sure if it was strictly homegrown or somehow contagious, this madness, or that simply living so far from the major cultural centers of the world gave rise to delusion, but I think many of us succumbed to it and found our own private remedy. All that mattered was how you played it. Me, I took drugs, saw things, heard things, occasionally babbled, but I may also have reached a certain level of sanity and balance, as an alcoholic will drink until his hand is steadied, his mind alert. I bring up this—no names, please—self-appointed spy, because I want to write about my sadly aborted music career. The Spy had absolutely nothing to do with it (though he also fancied himself a lounge singer of sorts, which, if placed on a scale of, say, one to hundred, a hundred being Mel Tormé, would have come in around Jimmy Durante), but he was part of the scenery—a walk-on, if you will, a supporting player, someone to goof on when you’ve smoked a few joints. A little Googling, incidentally, revealed what happened to him in the years afterwards, but I refrain from mentioning it here as he may still be under investigation for a number of other, ahem, “misunderstandings.” In short, once the whole spy business came out he became just a little too spooky even for goofing.

I had gone to college in southern Indiana by mistake. For reasons best known to me I wanted to get as far away from home as possible, and though California would have probably been a better destination (as would have been, say, Argentina or Pakistan), I opted for getting lost in a small town in the Baptist stronghold of southern Indiana. And that was before I smoked a single joint or dropped my first tab of acid. Okay, not necessarily a mistake as much as a misjudgment. In the days before the Internet it was difficult to investigate in advance the places where one was destined to end up. No Google image searches (which would have solved my problem immediately, especially for a town in which the high spots were the Waffle House and Mother Hubbard’s Pizza), no message boards with words of warning (“If you are from the New York metropolitan area please DO NOT COME HERE IT IS NOT LIKE MANHATTAN, THELONIOUS MONK WILL NOT BE PLAYING IN A NIGHTCLUB THREE BLOCKS AWAY FROM YOU!!!”), only a college catalogue with photos of a forbidding gothic building (which, attention wannabe directors, would make a natural location for a movie about monsters, ghosts or, uh-huh, the insane) and happy Midwestern boys and girls, none of whom resembled anyone I’d ever seen before, save on “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.” Some of them even thought I was weird.

As I’d pointed out in my previous fragment of memoir, this was where I was introduced to drugs, both hard and psychedelic, and so, in retrospect, I consider this a formative and not unliberating time for me. But it was also where I learned a hell of a lot about music, mostly the making of.

In terms of career hopes, I’d just graduated from a private school located on a rather beautiful estate on the Hudson River, overlooking Sing Sing Prison and founded by a banking wizard and his wife, both of whom were patrons of the arts and, when they weren’t having Paderewski around to play piano or Isadora Duncan to dance on their lawn or Sarah Bernhardt to recite, were socializing with John D. Rockefeller and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In my last year there our very cool history teacher decided to scrap his usual course and offer us a year in law. First semester: tort law; second semester: criminal law, the final exam being a mock trial and all the preparation it involved, maybe three months of interviews, evidence-gathering, and, in the case of my three-man prosecutorial group, jury tampering (it lost us a grade point, but, hell, it only cost us five bucks to guarantee a hung jury). That’s when I decided I’d become a lawyer. At around the same time, I’d been chatting with a family friend who’d clerked for Justice Black of the U.S. Supreme Court. He told me to major in English. “The law is really all about language. Learn to use the language well and fluidly and you’re halfway there.” The unstated point being that if you were good with words you could bamboozle anyone.

Of course, once I got to college I came to the decision to become a rock star, which back then was perfectly reasonable career choice, somewhere way up there with “Investment Manager” or “Biochemist.” Note that I put it as “rock star,” not “great musician”, or even a good and respected musician, but a rock star, which often required more attitude than aptitude. There were perks: 1) you look cool, even when not trying to look cool, because, as a Rock Star, as with a Movie Star, no one gives a toss what you really look like because there’s nothing like stardom to lend you a certain stature; in other words, my being short wouldn’t be a problem. I call to the stand Mick Jagger and Keith Moon. It also works for actors. You know who you are. 2) Drugs. Lots of them. At the time this was fine by me, because it meant I didn’t have to drop a line to my connection whenever I needed a hit; these would be handed to me by that other perk, Assistants, these days known as My Posse. 3) women. Duh. 4) ten thousand people shouting “YES!” as you step onto the stage—I’ll take that any day, and I speak as one who has done readings for three old-timers resting their weary Reeboks in a mall Borders, none of whom were even considering laying out the twenty bucks for a signed copy of my kinky, dark and disturbing novel.

Until then I’d played piano. And then only many years earlier. I’d had lessons beginning when I was four with a woman of Greek heritage who would eat chocolates out of my mother’s offered box of sweets and read Time magazine while I struggled through “Papa Haydn.” My lessons went on for several years, interrupted only when I decided I wanted to play the clarinet. There was no earthly reason why I chose it. It’s not a sexy instrument, per se, nor one to which I was unduly attached, and my lessons lasted exactly three weeks. I just didn’t have the breath for it. Nor the chops, as they say in the business.

When I finally got to college I met a guy who’d lived all over the world—his father was in the State Department and he enjoyed the fruits of reassignment. He was very cool, he looked good, he played bass guitar, girls liked him, and years earlier he’d formed a band with his brother—they’d even cut a record in Paris. He suggested he teach me the bass while he moved from bass to lead guitar. We would form a band. There would be drugs. Women. Ten thousand fans!

So we went into Indianapolis (one visit and I understood why it was referred to by some as “Naptown”) and dropped in on a music store (where impoverished musicians sold their instruments for drug and/or booze money) and walked out with a hollow-body Framus bass which looked a lot like Paul McCartney’s Hofner. The only problem being that I didn’t look like Paul nor was I about to play like Paul or be invited to join a band that would become as big as the Beatles.

Which leads me to the whole Beatles versus Stones issue, briefly touched upon in my review published here at The Nervous Breakdown of Keith Richards’s recently-published memoirs, Life. It’s hard to understand these days how very difficult it was back then to embrace both bands, as though one were being asked to support both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. This occupied a great deal of our time, especially if one was very, very stoned and had nothing else to do at half-past three in the morning. Some immensely democratic people could wholeheartedly embrace both bands at once, but it wasn’t easy, and they were instantly branded as relativists and phonies. I think we were pretty canny in knowing that the Beatles were clearly drug-fiends hiding behind a wholesome persona, while the Stones were a dangerous street gang hiding behind no persona at all. The Stones were a blues band, plain and simple, and when they weren’t singing they looked as though they might corner you in an alley and tear you to shreds (or at least once cherubic Brian Jones was out of the picture); the Beatles wrote great songs and delivered them, via a brilliant producer and set of engineers, brilliantly on vinyl. Both had the same effect on their audiences. As it was said by the janitor cleaning up after a Stones concert in the north of England: “Very good show. Not a dry seat in the house.”

I was a Who freak back then. This was perhaps the ugliest band in the known universe (by their own admission), which proved at least one of my points about being a rock star. They were aggressive, they got in your face, and when they were finished singing “My Generation” they destroyed their equipment, half the scaffolding around the stage and almost certainly the hearing of anyone within a half-mile radius. I had begun to catch them live, mostly in small clubs, and for three days after each performance I’d hear ringing in my ears. They were very, very loud, and, yes, I liked it. Oh, and Keith Moon once waved to me from behind his battery of drums, perhaps recognizing another small man with high hopes and big dreams.

I was taught the basics by my well-traveled friend, who wisely advised that I learn how to play bass lines for the blues, because then I could play more or less anything. I practiced over and over to Paul Butterfield’s first album (Play it Loud was the admonition on the back of the jacket, and I did), and we played once or twice in the sad little student union that, every week after my ten-to-midnight radio show on Wednesday nights, we robbed blind of half its food, flipping burgers and frenching fries while campus security, a Korean War vet with an arthritic German Shepherd and a two-by-four, sat in his car smoking Old Golds) to a dozen or so people who either stared at us or shuffled in place or gazed at our hair and wondered how they could kill us.

When I was asked to leave this college after two years (“you have been deemed socially incompatible with the ideals and practices of our Baptist college,” a comment which hardly surprised me) I transferred to a college in New England where everyone else was like me—they were either from New York or New Jersey, Jewish or Catholic. They talked with their hands, they liked to eat, and argument and debate was second-nature. A lot of them also drove Firebirds, and many of the girls were named Donna.

It was rumored (and evidence was everywhere) that the place was run by one of the Five Families out of New York. The reason why the Mob would want anything to do with a four-year college became obvious once “The Godfather” was released: just as Vito Corleone wished that young Michael would become a senator or, better, a judge, college bore an air of respectability, and, besides, it was a handy way to launder dirty money. Why New Hampshire? Drive past an open-air cathedral three miles away at two in the morning, and it would have been patently clear that something fishy was going on. When men are unloading a semi and shifting boxes and bags to a number of cars in the dead of night, it’s pretty obvious these aren’t people picking up the groceries for charitable distribution.

Though by then I’d had my Clear White Light experience and was absolutely clean of any drugs whatsoever, my practiced—nay, jaundiced—eyes told me that this was a drop point for the East Coast narcotics trade. It probably linked to Canada in some significant way, and this out-of-the-way place was an ideal location for the transferring of dope. Especially if the local and state cops had been paid off. And with the Mob within shouting distance, well, you get the picture. Or so I conjecture.

The school had a ton of money to throw around. While some small colleges were getting the usual retro acts, washed-up Fifties bands going through the motions and half the titles in their old songbooks, we were able to put cash on the table for pretty much anyone we wanted. We had Santana (before Carlos went solo; when he came into the fieldhouse just off the tour bus he asked me where he could smoke, “man, you know what I’m talkin’ about?”); we had Ten Years After (for whom I and a few friends did the equipment set up and also got to watch Alvin Lee smoke a joint while attending to his toilet needs (“You won’t tell anyone, right, mate?” Yeah, sure, Alvin); we had a gracious and delightful Janis Joplin and various members of The Band and Paul Butterfield, and other bands whom I’ve since forgotten. The Family did us proud, they did.

By this time I’d decided to take up lead guitar. I sold my bass for an alto sax bought second-hand at Sam Ash Music on 48th Street, for a shortlived career as a jazz musician. I discovered that not only is it very hard to play a wind instrument (my clarinet lessons had clearly taught me nothing), but practicing in a dorm brings on furious people with fists banging on doors and walls. I then put in an order with my old drug connection from Brooklyn to locate a guitar for me. He could get you anything, as he liked to put it, wholesale. Speed, acid, smack, grass, as well as household appliances and automobiles.

We met on an elevated subway platform in Bay Ridge. He was sitting there with a very nice hardbodied guitar case. I handed him $125. “Listen,” he said when his train pulled in, “if you’re gonna try to sell it, just make sure you get rid of the serial number, okay?” The guitar was brand-new. It had fallen off a truck. His exact words.

My career as a lead guitarist was doomed from the start. I was a bass player, and nothing I could do would change that. What were meant to be soul-shattering solos that would sizzle the eyeballs of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page turned into just another mash-up of bass lines. In other words, it sounded like shit. I traded in the guitar for a second-hand Gibson Thunderbass, which at least I knew how to play. It looked cool, which is half the game right there, and it played like a dream. And the music-store owner who took my guitar in trade is probably still puzzling over the fact of a missing serial number.

The band I was invited to join had no name other than that given at birth to the rhythm guitar player and lead singer. It was just something thrown together by a friend of a friend at Harvard Law School. We were hired, sight unseen (or sound unheard) to play at Friday night smokers, as they were called. We’d be paid in cash, amounting to something like $50 per person. We had a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist cum vocalist (also a law student there, hence his star billing), and our drummer, an old friend from my days in Indiana. According to calculations, $50 back then had the spending power of around $300 now. It could buy one a pair of Landlubber bellbottoms (eight bucks retail at the time from a shop on Charles Street), books, records, a late dinner at the Deli Haus on Commonwealth Avenue, the rental of an amp and speaker box, and leave you with ten dollars or so to burn through your pocket for the following week.

The venue was a dining-hall in one of Harvard’s law buildings. Our competition was a group of high schoolers, in a similar space on the floor below us, who were a Moody Blues cover band, guaranteed to clear the dancefloor. You cannot move in any meaningful way to “Nights in White Satin,” especially as played by these young wannabes. You couldn’t really dance to what we had to offer, either (it’s tough to dance to the blues, after all), and, should someone ask us to play something we’d just have to fake it. (“Hey, man,” a guy once asked from the floor, “can you play ‘Purple Haze’?” and as we hadn’t run through it, we offered him the Stones’s “Satisfaction” with Jimi’s words.)

The audience for this was what you might expect at America’s top law school, as it was back then. Guys in ties and jackets, many of them carrying their constitutional law textbooks, and their uneasy dates, who expected something perhaps a bit more romantic, or sexy, or at least some great music to enjoy, ambled in, barely paying us the time of day. Getting these people onto their feet wasn’t easy either. As bass player, it was up to me to get their guts vibrating, and when I went to turn up the volume to, say, eight, the rhythm player would shoot his up to nine, and thus we competed throughout the evening, until we reached the very limits of our amps which was not, as it was for Spinal Tap, eleven. At which point our law students were on their way back to their dorm rooms.

The band clearly didn’t have a future beyond the confines of Harvard Law. By the time I got to graduate school, where I was working my way towards a master’s in English, I’d decided I’d devote myself to jazz fulltime. I bought an upright bass with a huge crack in the side, probably caused by some other frustrated musician who’d decide to put the metaphorical and literal boot in, and began to practice, again without much luck. I needed a teacher, and though the university had some spectacular jazz musicians on their staff, among them drummer Max Roach and tenor player Archie Shepp, I was out of luck. Even when, years later, when I began teaching at the same school on the Hudson from which I’d graduated, where I discovered that bass-player Art Davis—who’d played with pretty much everyone in the business, from John Coltrane to Ornette Coleman—was on the faculty, by that time my becoming a musician was a likely as my being elected to the papacy.

As the days of graduate school dwindled I realized that what I really wanted to do was to become a writer, something I’d wanted when I was kid and would leaf through the Saturday Review and the New York Times Book Review and saw all these hip-looking novelists looking cool with their cigarettes and steely three-martini gazes. There were no perks, no groupies, drugs or a multitude of fans in an orgiastic frenzy. No, this was real risk: just one person sitting before a typewriter, clacking out one word after another.

Piece of cake, I thought, as all those years ago I typed out the opening sentence of my first novel.

Before there was Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, Allen’s Husbands and Wives, or even Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, there were two films which attempted to expose the reality behind so-called “perfect” marriages: John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973).While Bergman’s film is engagingly complex in its analysis of a marital breakdown, Cassavetes’ film is brilliant in its use of camerawork to isolate various “faces” of dissatisfied men and women. In both movies, there is a lingering dissatisfaction between the main couples that causes them to each seek love elsewhere. Throughout this search for a renewal of both happiness and excitement in one’s life, the couples succeed in doing two things: perfecting their façades and simultaneously evading any heightened level of self-discovery.

Falling

By Angela Tung

Memoir

It’s Friday night, and like every Friday night, we go to see Joe’s parents.

On the drive over, Joe calls: “What do you guys want for dinner?” Usually it’s Korean take-out, or occasionally Chinese, though that’s too salty. “Chinese people don’t know how to make rice,” says my father-in-law, no matter how many times I say that restaurant rice isn’t authentic. Tonight it’s Korean.

We lay the food on the table. I set up Joe’s mother’s bowl: duk mandu gook, dumpling soup, over rice. At this time, she can still feed herself, though she’s a bit messy. We don’t care that she’s messy, but Joe’s father fusses over every dropped grain of rice, every dribble of soup.

After dinner, we clear the table and do the dishes. Joe’s parents go up to their bedroom. Joe and I go down to the basement living room.  Joe’s parents don’t have cable so there’s not much to watch though Joe always manages to find some sports game. After an hour, I get sleepy.

In Joe’s old room, I change into my pajamas. There’s little of Joe’s childhood here. Some yearbooks, a few pictures. Mostly it’s his parents’ stuff. The room, like most of the house, feels crowded. His parents like to collect things. Jewelery, pocket watches, fountain pens. Vases, china, grandfather clocks. As the years pass, they collect more and more, and yet their house gets no bigger.

Soon Joe comes upstairs and climbs into bed with me. There are only twin beds in Joe and Billy’s old rooms. I try to sleep but I can’t. I’m squashed. I rise to go to the other room.

“You can’t take one night?” Joe says. He thinks that a husband and wife should always sleep in one bed, no matter how uncomfortable, the way he thinks of many things, that there is only one right way.

“Sorry,” I whisper, and steal down the hall. I stretch out on the empty twin. Outside a brook gurgles; somewhere a clock ticks. I sleep.




Joe’s father runs an acupuncture clinic on Saturdays. Some weekends, he has clients at the house. Once I met one, the daughter of his friends.

“What do you do?” I asked her before remembering she had been a trader on Wall Street before having a stroke at 35.

She bristled.  “I stay home with my daughter,” she said.

“That’s great!” I said. I’m not one of them, I wanted to say. I don’t care what you do.

By the time we’re awake, Joe’s father is already out the door. At Joe’s parents’, everyone showers and dresses immediately upon waking, even on the weekends. At my parents’, we lounge in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting, till almost noon.

While Joe picks up breakfast, I help his mother shower. I used to be afraid to be alone with her. I didn’t know how to hold her, and was nervous she’d fall. But now I know.

First, I take her feet from the bed and turn them to the floor. Next I take her by her left arm and hand, and lift her up to sitting. I shift my hand to her armpit, and help her stand. Then we walk.

When you walk, you don’t realize how you move. You don’t know you lift one foot while pushing off with the other, then again with the opposite foot, then again, and again. People with Parkinson’s disease get stuck, like cars revving in mud.

Joe’s mother is stuck now.  “C’mon, Mom!” I say. “One, two, three!”

She tenses. I know she’s trying. “Right foot,” I say instead, like a drill sergeant. “Right foot, left.”

Still nothing. She begins to drool.

“C’mon, Mom.” I nudge at the backs of her ankles, but she’s rooted. Instead of lifting, she pushes, digging deeper into the floor. All of her socks have holes in the same places.

I get in front and take her by both hands, the way Billy does.  Joe doesn’t like it. “She’ll fall like that,” he says, although Billy is a physician and knows these things. But Billy isn’t here now.

In front isn’t working. I inch her forward, but her lower half doesn’t move, which means she’ll fall. The last resort. I get behind her, line up our legs, and stick my arms under her hers. Then I walk her like a giant puppet. She doesn’t like this, embarrassed by the proximity of our bodies, though by that point I wonder how either of us can feel embarrassed about anything.

In the bathroom I attach her hands to the towel rack while I pull down her sweatpants and underwear. Then I sit her on the toilet. While she goes, I pull off her sweatshirt, undershirt, sweatpants, underwear, and socks. The whole time I keep my eyes averted. Her medicine had taken away her appetite so that she’s mostly bones. Her legs are broomsticks, her spine like dinosaur scales. Only her stomach is fleshy, a wrinkled yellow paunch.

When the water’s ready, I stand her up and get her in the shower. There’s always a moment of panic as she steps over the metal threshold. I’m always afraid her ankle will catch and she’ll cut herself, or worse, she’ll trip and, slippery and out of my reach, I won’t be able to stop her from falling. She doesn’t fall. She steps over the threshold, turns herself, and sits on her plastic chair.

At this time she can still wash herself. Later she won’t be able to. Later she’ll get so bad, she won’t be able to feed herself so that one of us will have to cut up her food, put it in her mouth, wait for her to chew, to swallow, give her a sip of water, then start again.

If this is what it’s like to have a child, I’ll think, then I don’t want one.



After the water shuts off, I return to the bathroom. I dry her off and get her dressed. I comb her hair. You can always tell who’s taken care of her by the way her hair is combed. The caretakers and I let it fall into its natural part and cowlicks. Joe and her husband part it severely and slick it back. Billy takes the time to blow it dry.

I bring her to the sink. She holds onto the edge while I brace my body against hers. My hands free, I can ready her toothbrush. I hand it to her and she brushes her teeth.

“Take your time,” I tell her. The longer she takes, the more time passes, and the closer we are to leaving. In the walls of my mind are taped the hours of the day. Twelve, eleven, ten, nine. In my mind I cross out each one. She spits and rinses many times.  Parkinson’s hinders swallowing so that her mouth is always full of saliva and phlegm. I wait.

I walk her back into the bedroom and onto her bed, easier now that her muscles have warmed.  I smooth moisturizer on her face, over and around, like a facial. I put lotion on her hands. I rub Ben Gay into her bad leg. Billy says this is no use. There’s no muscle there, only bone, but she says it helps. I wash my hands for a long time, the Ben Gay tingling the webs of my fingers.

I’ve bought a book on Parkinson’s disease. There are exercises to help keep limbs loose and supple, and I perform these on Joe’s mother after her shower.

“You should do these on your own,” I tell her, bending one of her knees, then the other. “You should get Wanda to help you.” Wanda is her caretaker during the week.

She shrugs, and I know she won’t, though she appreciates my efforts.

Joe comes home then.  I smell fresh coffee and fried potatoes. “Your wife practices damned good medicine,” she tells him. “My doctor said he could tell someone has been exercising me.”

I smile. But then Joe says to his mother, “You should have been exercising this whole time.” He returns downstairs.



I help her take her medicine. Joe thinks she takes too much. “You were a physician,” he says, “and you pop Sinemet like candy.” Sinemet is for stiffness. She does seem to take a lot, but sometimes she takes only half. Then again I don’t know what she takes when I’m not there.

Joe and his father are especially afraid she’ll take too much Valium, which is for extreme stiffness.  “I’m freezing,” she says moments before an attack.

“You’re not freezing,” Joe always corrects her, although that’s what my book calls akinesia. “Freezing is very cold. You’re just stiff.”

I recognize many symptoms from the book. There’s ataxia, or loss of balance. Dysphagia, difficulty in swallowing. There’s dyskinesia, that extra, involuntary movement from too much dopamine, such as that found in Sinemet. There’s the resting tremor I see in her chin right before akinesia. I often know that freezing is coming before she does. I can try to calm her down before she starts to panic.

They keep the Valium where she can’t reach it – in my father-in-law’s study, on the top shelf.  Usually I give in, figuring five mgs is so little. But sometimes I resist.

“Wait five minutes,” I tell her. “Let me watch this show till a commercial, and then I’ll get your pill.” For the next five minutes, she moans. Sometimes she cries.

I don’t think I’m being cruel.

For now though she’s not freezing and doesn’t need her Valium.  I bring her downstairs.




Joe has already cut up his mother’s eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns. He studies the box scores intently as he eats his own breakfast.

I close my eyes and sip my coffee.  Soon I’ll feel better.  “If you feel like going out,” I tell Joe, “go ahead.”

Sometimes he buys groceries for his parents, or hits a few golf balls, or goes to an aquarium store. We can manage without him, and when he returns, he’s more relaxed and less angry. Besides, he comes to his parents’ again on Sunday, although his dad is around, and I do not.

“Maybe,” he says.

After he finishes eating, he stands and stretches.  “Maybe I will go hit a few golf balls,”

I nod.

When Joe is gone, his mother and I sit in the kitchen and finish our coffee. She often tells the same stories over and over, how people have wronged her – her siblings, her husband, her mother-in-law. When she’s clear, she makes sense. But sometimes she tells the stories in circles. She reaches a point, then says the same point again and again, like her foot digging into the floor.

Other symptoms I know about now are hallucinations, delusions, and dementia.  Before this, I believed everything she said, like how as a girl she often visited a beautiful garden, where once a strange woman gave her a red coat. Or how at her medical school graduation the same woman appeared, bearing a white rose, the woman who is supposedly her real mother, not the woman who raised her, several years’ dead, but a woman who gave her up during the war, wealthy beyond our imaginations, living in nearby Connecticut, ignoring her daughter while she’s been sick for some unimaginable reason.

I believed my mother-in-law when she said this woman called her one day out of nowhere, after years of no contact, to ask if she wanted to get together for a cup of tea. When she said she pulled up to their house in a limo in the middle of the night.

“Your father-in-law told me,” she said, and pointed at the window. “He was standing right there. He said, ‘Your mother’s here.‘”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It wasn’t a dream?”

She was crying. “It was real.”

I wanted to believe her.  It seemed possible, not like probing aliens or talking dogs.  Later I found out for sure.

“Do you know what she said?” said my father-in-law one night at dinner. “That her mother came here, in a limo! And that I was the one who told her!”

She glanced at me. I didn’t know if her look meant she’d been caught, or see, her husband was in on it too.

“You’re like my daughter,” she says now.  “You’re like me.”

I don’t answer.




We finish our coffee and return upstairs. I turn on the TV and find a cartoon we both like. Next we’ll watch a cooking show, and then maybe Antiques Roadshow, her favorite.

“That’s our cake platter!” she’ll cry, pointing a wavering hand at the screen. “That’s my ring!” In her mind, her wealth grows.

To keep my hands busy, I darn the holes in her socks. She falls asleep, and Joe returns with lunch.  I bring his mother down; we eat.  I bring his mother upstairs; we watch more TV.  She sleeps again.  I fold laundry.  She wakes up, chin trembling, and panics till I give her Valium.

Three o’clock.  Four.  When will Joe’s father come home?  We don’t know.  He never calls.  He doesn’t feel he has to.

Five, and it’s getting dark.  “Stay for dinner,” Joe’s mother says.

I feel the walls of my head closing in. I want to leave, to breathe, to be in my house with my husband.

“I don’t know,” I say.

Finally, Joe’s father walks in.



By the time we get home it’s almost eight.  I’m exhausted.

“I feel like going gambling,” Joe says.  He’s looser now.  We’ve put in our time at his parents’, and he can, at least for now, release his guilt.  “Wanna go?”

I don’t gamble.  “I’ll be bored,” I say.

“I’ll get us a room at the hotel,” he says.  “I have enough points.”

He knows that if I go, I’ll want to say at the casino hotel.  That way, I can wander the gambling floor and head up to the room whenever I want.  That way, I know he’s right nearby.

“You’re sure?” I ask.

He picks up his phone.  He’s smiling now, humming a tune.  In a few moments we have a free room.  “A deluxe corner,” he says.

I feel myself getting excited.  I’ll eat some bad food, watch TV, take a bath.  Maybe Joe will win some money, and we can go shopping the next day.

We throw together an overnight bag, and head down to the car.  As we get in, he says, “I love you, honey, I really do.”  He turns on the motor and we’re off.

This is why I stay.


Excerpted from the author’s memoir, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl.

I. Where Past, Present and Future Collide

The first “psychic” reading I got some 12 years ago was involuntary. A shoddily clad heroin addict in Hamburg screamed my future at me: “YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS!” Pressing my face against the subway window I quietly started sobbing.

The next day I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested I go see a therapist.