I played guitar in high school and a couple of years while I was in college, but I never developed sufficient skill to play with any of the bands I sang with. I think my inability on that score could be reduced to what my guitar instructor described as a tendency to hear better in the upper register and play toward it. Without a pitch guide of some sort, I tended to tune the instrument sharp.
I still played, in order to write, or just to try and deconstruct other people’s songs.
One of my hallmates in college my freshman year played a lot of pop-folk, and we learned many Pink Floyd and Neil Young tunes in between taking bong hits and steadily waking to the realization that we were cruelly out of our depth, even at a goddamn cow-college.
When he and some other friends of mine started using intravenous drugs, they moved off-campus to an apartment where they could shoot up without having to worry about redundant layers of authority, and they could be closer to to their most reliable source of (probably tar-process) heroin.
They called me up one day and invited me over. “Bring your guitar”, they said. They had a slightly higher estimation of my playing than I did, perhaps encouraged by their use of opiates.
They weren’t, of course, poster boys for college success, but they weren’t the shivering stereotypes of addicts either. When I showed up at the apartment, Tom (a diabetic with shoulder length blonde hair and the face of a girl, who’d taught his housemates the mechanics of popping a vein) was just leaving with his tennis racket to play in some intramural tournament. He was the only junkie I knew who was actually good at tennis. I’d met other druggies who were rumored to be demons on the court, but they stuck mostly to the cheap, powerful hallucinogens, plentiful as salt. Philosophy majors.
Keith told me he was trying to kick. He’d just spent a summer knocking on heaven’s door, and had just about succeeded in banging the sucker open. It was the inauspicious beginning of a career in drug counseling for him, throughout which he has remained a Republican.
We played guitars for awhile, and a couple of young women showed up who’d somehow forgotten it was tennis night for Tom. They stuck around, sitting on the floor while we strummed through some excruciatingly long Neil Young covers.
I used to be a folk singer
keeping managers alive
when you saw me on a corner
and told me I was jive
They didn’t tell us we were jive, but they were forced to leave after old Neil’s song strangled the blood flow to their legs and they had to walk somewhere before they passed out. On the way out the door, one of the women gave me an odd look over her shoulder.
It was a look that said we had reached some unspoken agreement that she was aware of but I wasn’t, because I was too young and dumb, but she’d be happy to teach me in a series of at-home telepathic courses I could receive free of charge while I rode a stationary bike, watched TV, or mended socks. It was a look that said she could simultaneously deliver a hand job without opening a fly, and cut my living heart out on the altar of some demiurge a few moments later, all the time wearing an inscrutable half-smile.
Looking back on it, it was a lot to pack into a look.
After they were gone Keith said, in an already laconic voice made more even more laconic by methadone “I don’t want to prejudice you, but that girl is a damn succubus. Seriously. Watch the fuck out.”
Although I’d been thinking pretty much the same thing, I found Keith’s statement a little jarring. It made me feel slightly ashamed of myself. Anyway, it’s not like I was going to look her up. I was already seeing a hometown girl, and we were fully committed to a raging vortex of mind fucking paramutual destruction. I might be masochistic, but there just wasn’t enough room in the deathboat for anyone else.
And at least my current girlfriend wasn’t apeshit, at least by the limited yardstick of experience I had to consult. She wasn’t like my poor agorophobic mom, or my mall queen sisters, or my previous girlfriend, who taught me numerous ways intelligence intersects with the crazy, the two feeding one another until the most mundane situation can be transformed into the closing minutes of an Ibsen play or spin off into the harrowing silences of a Bergman film. You never knew what was going to pull the pin on that grenade, but once it was pulled there were a series of clues that it might be time to abandon the room, if not abandon hope altogether.
One warning sign was the echolalia.
It could be amusing, initially. She was gifted at it. She’d repeat the words instantly as you formed them. Then, as she got to know you a bit better, she didn’t seem to need to read your lips anymore. She anticipated what you were about to say by a couple of milliseconds, although I have to confess it would be misleading to insinuate it would have been hard to anticipate anything I had to say in those days. Man.
But she had an equal facility with others-members of her family, classmates, the Desi clerk at the Fast Fare…
Related perhaps, was her ability to learn foreign languages quickly. Her father was a Baptist minister, and she was prepping to enroll in Div school to follow in his footsteps.
She was reading texts in Biblical Greek a couple of weeks out of the gate. She had assigned her own variant of pronunciation to the words and could quote huge blocks of text from memory, followed by translation. I found this slightly more unsettling than the echolalia: She sounded like the exchange student from Komsomol. Fortunately for me, she left for college before there was any repetition of “The Easter Dinner” incident.
I had attended church with her and her family that day. She had a beautiful alto voice. I played guitar and sang a duet with her in my best shot yet at an award for strangulated tenor, gospel division:
Come, Holy Spirit, take hold of my life. Sign me with Your holy love! Give me Your gifts, confirm me in faith,. Spirit, come!
After her father’s sermon I ate lunch with them at their home. I was already an atheist, and (thought) I had bolted the door shut on numinous spirits. This is no small task in a region of the country saturated with dead who refuse to quit walking, peeking in or out of windows, or swinging on the damn curtains out of sheer fucking malice.
But going to church wasn’t a problem. I’ve always been easily astonished by ritual, in addition to blacklight posters and bug zappers. To this day, I’ll sit enrapt through the whooptiedoo of any denomination that doesn’t take up the serpent.
I was comfortable with the saner branches of the Baptist saints at that time. It was only when Laura decided to out me as an unbeliever at the dinner table things got a little spooky.
Laura’s older sister complimented us on the duet. She was more conventionally attractive, and a bit of a hellion herself (I didn’t even know she existed until she rolled her boyfriend’s Fiat at college and was laid up at the hospital nearby recovering from numerous broken bones and puncture wounds. Laura felt threatened by her, but dragged me along for the visit anyway).
There may have been a spat before I got there that Easter Sunday, but if there was anything rebarbative in her sister’s remarks, it flew right past me.
Laura was incensed.
“Naturally, you’d approve of it. It was only half in earnest.”
“I’m sorry, but what do you mean?”
I mean one of us was just mouthing the words while he strummed away on that guitar.” She said, looking directly at me.
Her father looked into his plate. “Laura, give it a rest, honey.”
“…a rest, honey…
Consider it rested.”
Her mother said firmly ”Stop repeating your father”.
The dinner proceeded as if that exchange had never occurred, and while I had a slightly difficult time keeping up with the conversation afterward, I had already convinced myself things were not trending any farther toward the abyss of Not Cool.
Perhaps the moment was otherwise salvaged by my stoner’s reluctance to indulge higher brain function, and eschewed any concentration above what was minimally necessary to get through a meal with a bunch of people who understood me to be a healthy candidate for eternal torment. And I damn sure wasn’t ready to get frogstuck right there, right then, metaphorically or otherwise.
By the time I was preparing to go home, I was nursing a tenuous faith that the shitstorm had subsided.
At the door, I kissed Laura, and she uncharacteristically slid her tongue in my mouth.
“Cool!” I thought.
When I returned the gesture, she bit down slightly on mine. She held it a little too long.
When I finally got my tongue back, she whispered ”If you were a woman, you’d be a whore.”
Then she shut the door.
I couldn’t really blame her for calling me a whore, but I can’t help but think in retrospect think the more correct term would have been “delusional metal douche”, or “dawg”.
I drove home, trying to remind myself that she might be “vulnerable” because she was a little dumpy. I remembered her at a rehearsal for a high school play, weeping because the costume they’d assigned her at the last minute deprived her of the last shred of dignity.
I could have wept right along with her, but damn if I was going back to makeup. They’d already tormented me enough.
They’d stretched a frosting cap over my head through which they teased a few of my already scarce hairs to make me “a septaguenarian”. Then they slathered the whole with deep brown foundation; the effect , when I got round to checking it out in the mirror, was of a man who’d had a giant scorched glans penis grafted to the top of his head as a cosmic punishment. Dore would have approved.
But I had the consolation of being able to remove my cranio-genital prosthesis. Laura was bright, sensitive, and stuck in a hausfrau’s body. She minded much more than all but the basest of people.
Maybe this is where it all began to spin out of control, I thought. And then I didn’t think much more about it, because soon enough she left for an all girls’ school where the flower of Southern womanhood used to go to prepare for a lifetime of sitting in partially darkened rooms and thinking to themselves in a romance language.
I, on the other hand, added some humbuckers to my electric guitar and embarked on an STD safari.
When I finally parted ways with my sane girlfriend in college, it left me free to explore the whole DSMIV catalog just sitting there ripe for the plucking at what was then the nation’s premier party school. I didn’t know where to start, so I just “let go let God” and assumed the crazy would eventually just latch on to me like nits.
Didn’t happen. Even the crazy have some standards. I think it was because we were all entering the age where employability was fast becoming part of the sexual selection process. Even for short term encounters there was an established applications procedure and probationary period, or so it seemed to me.
About the time I discovered you could short-circuit that process with a pint of tequila, I ran into the woman I met at Keith’s place. She was however, attached to one of my bandmates. She gave me the same odd look she had upon our first meeting. I didn’t even think about telling anyone she was rumored to be a succubus. I didn’t want any part of that crappy college community backbiting infuckery anymore.
Fuckery alone would have done.
She was sitting next to our guitarist in his dorm room. He introduced me to her as Janet. He had just broken up with his sane girlfriend, and subsequently bagged Janet on his first trip into the bush.
One thing I’ll always remember about that meeting was the soundtrack. They were smoking a little weed and listening to Gong.
“I am Your Pussy” to be specific.
In retrospect, that song could have been inserted as one of those floppy vinyl 45’s on the school’s brochure, and it would have been the singularity of truth in advertising.
I got along with Janet, but she didn’t strike me as any less crazy once I got to know her better. She just hopped in that safety orange dinghy and kept rowing farther and farther out. Sometimes she was just a little speck on the sea. Fortunately with the guitarist from my band, and not me.
Stories about them began to accumulate that suggested their relationship was entering a less than healthy dimension. The guitarist himself told me this one:
The campus town was located on the only eminence approximating a hill in what proved to be a vast, lethal floodplain during Hurricane Fran. Janet and James were returning from seeing a band at one of the large venues in town when they noted a shopping cart pitched over on its side on the sidewalk.
Either one of them would have been capable of suggesting the next course of action, but I suspect it was James. He had a platinum card death wish and Could Not Resist situations that promised to max that motherfucker out. Rebar spiked foundation pits, the unsheathed steel frames of new municipal construction, ladders dangling from the rusted hulks of abandoned water towers- these exerted a strange magnetic power over his natural intelligence, like a bulk eraser.
Janet was of little help here. She probably wanted to be with him at the moment his soul broke free from his mangled corpse after they careened down the hill at speeds that must have approached thirty miles an hour (in a vehicle steered solely by the hands of whatever agency created the universe) hit the curb near the bottom of the hill, went airborne and came to a sudden stop in a wall of kudzu and greenbriar. With the exception of the souls managing to snap cleanly away from the bodies suspended in the vines, this is pretty much what happened
I eventually got to experience a couple of similar outings with Janet, including a clothed swim in the heavily polluted river that neatly belted the town and deposited truck tires, mattresses, and the occasional bloated corpse in the trees along its banks. I recall this particular incident with horror, and a duly uncomfortable sense of self recognition because it required me to return to her apartment, darting across streets and between parked cars at twilight in mud spattered briefs to the accompaniment of much honking, shouting and whooping.
Need you ask if I was shitfaced? No. You need not.
I can vaguely imagine a situation where it would have been lucky not to have ingested the mescaline that made James want to practice his guitar so severely he was willing to ignore his angry girlfiend leaving the house with me, the singer, to drive a short distance out of town, across the river, and sit in the moonlight in a cemetery where she told me she often went to “unwind.” But it wasn’t quite that. It was something other than that.
She pointed out an old stone that must have been designed for the poorer interees, a fired clay tablet incised crudely with a stick. We sat over the slightly sunken grave. I found myself trying not to look at her, and beginning to chain smoke. She was wearing a simple white cotton dress. We talked for about a quarter of an hour. We kissed, clumsily.
When I looked at her face in the blue shadows, she was wearing that curious half smile she had when I first saw her. She laughed and said we’d better get back.
We’d locked the keys in the car, and had to walk about a mile and a half to get to a house to get a coathanger to unlock it, but once we returned to the car it was easy enough to pop the lock. We drove back to the band house.
As we got out of the car and headed up the sidewalk she turned me around to face her, and said “You know, if you were a woman, you’d be a whore.”