It always amuses me to listen in on people debating whether or not ghosts exist. For me, there’s no debate. I have one.
When I was 27 I didn’t believe in life after death. The proof just wasn’t there for me. In that same year, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited a psychic (Frank Andrews) for the first time. I had a problem. I was temporarily homeless, spending nights in an upstairs guest room at my parents’. I’d never used this room before, but after I went to college my old bedroom had been taken over by my dad as a study. I didn’t sleep well from the beginning in this unfamiliar room. I would start to fall asleep, and then strange things would happen: sounds like something rolling across a wood floor (the room was completely carpeted) or once I had the sensation my head was in someone’s lap who was stroking my head. Another time, I felt my toes being yanked sharply, as if someone was impatiently demanding my attention. I was frightened, and didn’t know where to turn for help. A friend suggested I see this psychic.
Towards the end of the reading, and without my prompting, he mentioned there was a spirit around me. “It’s male, and you knew him. Don’t worry,” the psychic said, “he’s protective.”
I returned to the guest room without fear, and was able to identify, from clues in the room, exactly who my ghost was. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t see it right away.
My grandfather was not someone I remembered much of. We didn’t see him that often. I recall his knees and his fancy cane. I recall the circus he sent us tickets to. I recall his house in New York City. He died when I was eight.
But here in this room were his furniture, his books, his portrait, and a bas-relief of his family crest. My parents had stashed all these things up in this guest room to keep them out of harm’s way (we were five rowdy children and a couple of dogs).
The question remained: why me? Why was he trying to make contact with me? I stood and addressed the room: “I know who you are now. I’ll try not to be afraid anymore, if you find some way to communicate with me that doesn’t frighten me as you’ve been doing. I’m open to knowing what it is you want from me.”
Thus began a relationship between a family phantom and myself, which has endured, off and on, until the present.
My grandfather was a composer and music publisher. He was also, according to the New York Times, one of the wealthiest young bachelors in New York, and very social, belonging to a host of exclusive clubs plus the Freemasons. Thus his output as a composer (mostly songs and choral music) was relatively small. It reduced to a trickle after he served in World War I, married my grandmother in Paris, and returned to a life of hob-knobbing and carousing, dividing his time among his three homes. Soon after they were married, my grandparents got the son-and-heir thing over with by producing my father and then turning him over to the household staff and a string of governesses.
My father, too, wanted to be a composer when he was in his twenties. Like his father, he too retreated from composing after serving in World War II. Instead he became a professor of law at Columbia and raised a family. I became the next generation of composer in the family in my mid-twenties, when I landed a recording deal with RCA as a singer-songwriter. My first album, House of Pain, came out in 1974. I had composed most of the songs for my second (Beat Around the Bush) when I had my first encounter with Grandpa’s ghost.
I mention my musical provenance because, not long after I opened myself to communicating with him, I began to receive fragments of music in my dreams. I would be on my way to waking, in that twilight between states of consciousness, when a phrase or snatch of melody would come, along with an urgency: memorize this so you can recreate it when you wake up. The figure would repeat and repeat until I had it down. Upon waking, I would go directly to the piano and pick out the notes, transferring all to music notation paper and then building a song on them. It was a bit like taking dictation, except that once I started fashioning the song it became my own.
Sometimes instead of music I would be shown a story for the basis of a song. For example, right before waking I witnessed a scene unfolding between a pre-adolescent girl and her new stepfather in his study. I even got his name; she called him Mr. Sloane. (The resulting song "Mister Sloane" can be downloaded from my website.) It was a feverish time, as if I was on speed. Sleep became work from which I would awake to more work, the borders dissolving between conscious and unconscious. I knew where these directives were coming from. I had opened the door, after all. But the increasing force of creative imperative started to frighten me. I felt like I was being blown around in a gale.
I was also feeling more than a little crazy. There was no one to talk to. My shrink admitted she didn’t believe in ghosts and kept trying to link these episodes to my early life, especially to my relationship with my father. And I was totally reluctant to talk to my dad, because my dream-time interlocutor was his deceased father, or so I believed. Dad was also an avowed atheist who often said that death was the end, period, and nothing followed.
I called the psychic, Frank Andrews. “You told me I have a spirit around me, a man whom I knew when he was alive. I’ve figured out he’s my grandfather, and I need some advice now.” Frank said, “Don’t tell me any more. Come back to see me, and bring a picture of him.”
Great. The only way to get a picture of Grandpa was to ask my father for one.
“Why?” My father looked at me skeptically when I asked him for a photo of his dad. I couldn’t very well tell him I was in communication with his father’s ghost. And I’d never before shown any interest in my grandfather. Maybe because Dad didn’t talk about him much.
Dad still resented both parents. They had fobbed him off on nannies from the time he was born. Once they even left him for months with a strange couple in Italy while they blithely toured Europe. They were emotionally restrained; my grandmother wouldn’t greet him or give him a kiss whenever he came home from school because she was afraid he’d become a mamma’s boy. They stuck him in St. Marks boarding school when he was only 12. He was passionate about music, and Grandpa provided him with the piano and teachers but never gave him a word of encouragement when he started to compose seriously. Dad once said, “Why did they have me if they didn’t want to be around me?” He became estranged from his mother, finally, when he was in his twenties and mentioned that he was going to an analyst. His mother hit the roof. “You can’t do this to our family! People will think you’re crazy!” They had a falling out; possibly he pointed out that he had to go to a shrink because of his parents’ utter failure to be parents.
So he wasn’t that happy to dig up a picture of his father for me. I told him lamely that I was just, um, interested in Grandpa, without giving a reason. Dad gave me what I wanted, and off I went to Frank Andrews, the psychic, for a second visit.
I started to give Frank the photo when he stopped me: “Don’t tell me anything, and put the photo face down.”
He started off by describing the man in the photo without having seen him. I still have my notes from this session: “Sloping forehead, hair receding on either side, used to be thicker.” He got that right, judging from the headshot I’d brought. But I had no way to corroborate the rest: “Beautiful hands, long tapering fingers, with a big puff of Venus [the part under the thumb]. He has a Mercury forehead – all mind, too fast a thinker. Used to having his own way but easy to work with if you’re doing it his way.”
Frank looked up. “I see him darting, pacing, agitated around you. Impatient. You’ll get signs, like things falling off the wall, or he’ll steal things. Do you know his birthdate?” I didn’t. “I’m getting that he was a Sagittarius, Gemini rising. Healthwise, his heart was his weak spot. I’m surprised he got married because he was an independent sort. He was buried with a ring. Another ring of his will appear in due time. Did he have an east coast retreat, in the Cape Cod area?” That much I could confirm. We had gone as a family to Grandpa’s beach house in Martha’s Vineyard after he died, a trip I remembered very well because we got trapped in a major hurricane. “You should go there,” said Frank. “Something’s there for you.” Oh yeah, I wondered, whatever happened to that house?
At length I blurted out my problem: that I was being bombarded by music before waking and I didn’t know what it was for. My recording career was over and I wasn’t performing anymore. I’d stopped writing songs – until now.
Frank said, “When he was alive, he was working on a long piece like an operetta, which he never completed. He wants you to complete a similar type of piece, kind of like Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. And then he might go.”
“Might?” I look at these notes now, and I have to laugh at the “might” part. Because he did go…but then he came back. He goes and he comes back, still to this day.
It’s 36 years later and I’m still stunned how accurate Frank’s reading was. Some of it I could corroborate when I got home afterwards and got my Dad to talk a little about his father. I found out Grandpa’s birth date. Yes, he was a Sagittarius. No birth time was recorded so the Gemini rising wasn’t verifiable, but he certainly sounded, from Dad’s description, like a quick-witted, impatient, dominating man. As for the physical characteristics, you can see for yourself from this photo of Dad with his parents:
Grandpa did get married later in life, age 37, after a lot of clubbing and partying. And he did die of a heart attack – in the Martha’s Vineyard house, in fact, while he was getting dressed to go out for yet another night of carousing with his rich WASP mates.
Some other details given by Frank took longer to confirm. I’ll write about the ring later. But things like Grandpa’s hands: Frank had described pretty much what my dad’s hands looked like, so I figured he got them from his dad. None of the other pictures I ever saw showed my grandfather’s hands. It wasn’t until 2008, a year after my dad died, that I finally saw them. We had just sold Grandpa’s house, and my brother and I were clearing out the attic when we came upon a decrepit oil portrait of Grandpa. He was seated in front of his piano. A cigarette dangled between his beautiful, very long and slim tapering fingers. They looked like a cast of Chopin’s hands I once saw in a Paris museum: made for playing music. And there was a handsome ring on his pinkie.
And the house on Martha’s Vineyard? There was something there for me after all. But I didn’t get it until ten months ago. I was finally able to buy the house next door.
The only person privy to my haunting was my friend Vivian, who had sent me to the psychic in the first place, and who had no trouble believing my story. She had long claimed to be, God love her, a white witch. So anything of a paranormal nature gave her a boner, so to speak.
“What about the ring?” Vivian pestered me without cease. “He said there’s a ring for you somewhere!”
The road to that information led once again back to the parents. I still quailed at the thought of telling my dad what was behind my sudden interest in his father. Consider what was in the balance: either the ghost did exist or I was psychologically in deep trouble. I wasn’t even sure myself. But my mother could be relied upon to give me tons of slack; within the family, she was known to be fantastically gullible.
When I finished telling her, Mom was silent. Her face carried an expression I’d never seen before. Then she related her own story – or rather, it was her father’s story. He had told it to her in strict confidence. But this seemed like the appropriate occasion to bring it to light.
At this point I should insert the title “The Other Grandfather.”
My mother's background was similar to my father's, both raised in old-money wealth. Born in 1920, she grew up on a huge estate in Lake Forest near Chicago. She and her four siblings were raised by a string of governesses (there was high turnover). Her mother had zero interest in mothering. Once, when Grandma didn’t want to deal with Mom coming home from boarding school for the holidays, she had her daughter delivered to a hospital to have both her tonsils and appendix removed. Her children marinated in constant uncertainty; you never knew where you stood with her. She seemed only intermittently engaged by their presence; she had an air of absence.
Mom’s father was physically absent much of the time, first serving in World War I, then serving as Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then running the European Red Cross during World War II, then serving as Truman’s Under Secretary of Commerce. My mother had a hardcore case of hero worship - and who can blame her. I chiefly remembered him for his ubiquitous glass of whiskey, his chain of unfiltered Camels, and his rumbling cough. He had died of emphysema eight years before this conversation took place.
His own mother (hope I’m not confusing you here) died when he was a young man. He had been very close to her. He missed talking to her. Around the time he fell in love with my grandmother, he was working very hard and late into the nights. One night his attention strayed from the page he was writing on; it was the wee hours, and he was exhausted, starting to lose focus. And then his right hand, with its pencil paused on the paper, started to move. Of its own accord, as if separate from him, it started writing. He watched his hand in dazed fascination as the words formed, in a script that was all too familiar to him. The handwriting was not his own, but his mother’s. She was talking to him.
He became hooked on nightly bouts of “automatic writing," communicating with his mother. She comforted his feelings of loss. She encouraged him in his ambitions. When he asked for advice, she gave wise counsel, just as she always had when she was alive...until the night when he asked her about a fascinating girl who had beguiled his heart. He wanted to propose to her. What did dear Mater think of her?
His mother replied that it would not be a good match. In contrast to his own nature, the girl was irresponsible and spoiled. Ultimately he would not be happy.
He was shocked by her reply. It was not what he wanted to hear. In that moment, he realized what he was doing, that he was in thrall to a dead person whose power over him increased with every night he sought her company. What he had allowed to happen was utter madness. That very night, he broke it off. Not with his fiancée, but with his mother. Never again did he petition the “other side” for comfort, love, or sustenance. For that he would go to his wife.
Mom’s implication, in telling this story, was that in the end her father didn’t get much of comfort, love or sustenance from that corner. The marriage indeed disappointed him, and became part of the reason for his long absences. (After his death she, who had never learned to economize, blew through her entire fortune.)
It occurs to me as I write this that I got the ghost from one grandfather, and the receptivity from the other.
My mother had held this secret for a long time. Who would believe it anyway? This account came from a man who was the opposite of fanciful, a wielder of facts and figures: in short, a man of the world and not the beyond. Mom believed him because he was her father whose every word was golden.
Thus she had no problem believing I was being contacted by a family member who happened to be deceased. If I was crazy, that would mean her dad was crazy, an impossible thought to entertain.
So when I asked Mom if there was an old ring passed down to us, her response was immediate. She gave me the key to a safe deposit box.
The attendant in the small local bank brought me a long metal box and withdrew discreetly. I turned the key in the lock, lifted the lid, and beheld the family bling.
I went into shock, recoiling.
I’m not into diamonds, or any faceted jewels. They trumpet their presence, they glare, they garish (garish really should be a verb). Usually anyone who can afford to wear jewels is too old to be calling attention to their decrepit selves. For example, the diamond collar I unwrapped first must have held up somebody’s wattles in the previous century. I pawed through more gaudy stuff, pendants, brooches, thinking it all very ugly and unseemly. I deplore the conspicuous display of wealth. It’s an attitude I got straight from my parents, so it’s worth the digression here to explain.
My Dad was deeply embarrassed by his parents’ affluence. He remembered riding with them to his first day of boarding school in a chauffeured towncar, at the height of the Depression, even though he’d begged them to take the train. His parents didn’t seem to realize that wealth made other people feel bad: resentful, envious, diminished, denied. They were, after all, Republicans.
Almost as bad as their being wealthy, they were indolent, he said. His father didn’t even bother with a college degree, or read anything beyond lurid murder mysteries; he didn’t even compose music much after the war. Instead he played the market a little, ran a vanity music-publishing company, but mostly frequented half a dozen private clubs in New York and three more if you count Tuxedo Park and Martha’s Vineyard.
In reaction to his parents’ lifestyle, Dad made it his mission to pursue the opposite route. He refused any money from them, and threw himself into his studies, earning first a Harvard BA and then a law degree from Columbia. A beloved professor, he taught tirelessly at Columbia Law for the next five decades.
Mom and Dad were both compulsively thrifty. World War II rationing shaped their sense of economy forever. We bought cheap, or we did without. Eventually my father’s teaching career seemed assured. By now they had four children; it was time to buy a house. They bought a piece of land in the ‘burbs and started building a modest house befitting Dad’s income. And then Grandpa died.
Dad, being the only child of an only child, inherited the fraction that remained after his father’s lifetime of hobnobbing. He sold two of the houses but kept the Martha’s Vineyard cottage for rentals. The money he stuck in a bank, and then tried to ignore it. We still lived within his income. We kids had no idea we were anything but middle-class. We did get a slightly bigger house out of Grandpa’s bequeathal (a good thing because a fifth child was in the future); and one time we got to go to Europe.
So for me, staring into this safe deposit box was like looking into a bygone, very unreal world that I didn’t feel remotely related to. Mom and Dad weren’t party people. On the rare occasions they did dress up, other than her engagement ring I never saw my mother wear anything but costume jewelry. Not only that, they were Democrats. Socialism good! Excess bad! No wonder my parents hid this shit away and never talked about it. The contents of this box were…Republican. I couldn’t help a shiver of revulsion.
To be fair, Grandpa and Grandma weren’t so into the bling either. Most of the pieces in the safe deposit box came from a couple of generations before: the Belle Epoque. You never see Dad’s parents wearing jewelry in the photos that survive. However, Grandpa clearly liked small, understated pinkie rings. There were five or six of them, and fairly alike, so maybe he bought Grandma a few that matched his. At any rate, I was looking for a ring, and these didn’t call to me.
But the last one did. The center stone was a cat’s eye, a stone I’d never seen before: pale green, cloudy like a moonstone, with a vertical vein like a cat’s iris that shifted as you moved the ring, similar to a portrait whose eyes follow you.
Too large for my pinkie, it fit nicely on my middle finger. It was totally cool, and very inconspicuous – except for two tiny diamonds that flanked the cat’s eye. As I’ve said, I don’t like diamonds. But they could be removed.
Or so I thought.
I left the bank with Grandpa’s ring in hand, the circle of warm gold warming my palm. I felt myself aligned to his spirit now. He’d made me a gift, which I accepted, and in doing so I accepted his presence as my protector. The ring could have been made of brass and paste for all I cared; I felt there was love in it.
When I showed the ring to Mom, she didn’t remember ever seeing it. Then again, she hadn’t been in that safety deposit box since Grandpa died seventeen years ago. I asked if I could appropriate it for the time being. (Meaning, indefinitely. Otherwise known as: forever.) She said that the plan had always been to let each of us children pick one piece from the box when we got married. Two of my three brothers were married already and had each taken something for their wives. Didn’t I want to wait?
Was she kidding? I’d told her a hundred times I was never getting married. A legally binding state-sponsored commitment was anti-romance, and besides it got in the way if you wanted to jump ship. Which was kind of a pattern with me. So no, there was no point in waiting for that happy day that would never come.
In short order, the ring became mine. Next there was the matter of those two pesky diamonds. I wanted to swap them out for a pair of cat’s eyes that would match the center stone. My friend Vivian offered to escort me to the Diamond Exchange in New York, a completely foreign territory where I didn’t speak a word of gemstone. Since Vivian was Jewish and grew up in the garment industry, she was the perfect translator.
And that was how we came to be wandering around the warren of dismal shops in the Exchange, looking for someone who sold cat’s eyes. Nobody did. When we were about to give up, somebody suggested we try a little cubbyhole at the end of a corridor, saying that the owner sold offbeat stones but often wasn’t there. We knocked. No response. We turned to go and almost ran into a narrow little Indian man who had his key out to open the shop’s door. Yes, he had cat’s eyes.
Once inside, he examined Grandpa’s ring, puzzled why I wanted to get rid of two perfectly nice diamonds. They’re not to my taste, I said. He offered to remove the diamonds and put in two cat’s eyes as an even trade. I assumed he was getting the better end of the deal but I didn’t care.
He rooted around a cardboard box until he found the right size of gem, carefully opening a folded tissue on his desk so I could examine my choices. There were about ten of them. Most of the stones were milky and too small to show the hypnotic shifting band of light that characterizes cat’s eyes. But there were two, and two only, of the same green clarity as the center stone: two with the bright vein gliding over the surface.
“I like these two guys.” They were so small I couldn’t pick them up with my fingers, so the man separated them from the others with his little spatula. He gave me a loop so I could see them magnified. Then I was certain: “They’re perfect.”
“Good.” He held a small manila envelope ready as he slipped his spatula under the pair of gems. He lifted them carefully to transfer them to the envelope. As we all watched, the stones sprang up from the blade and disappeared.
The jeweler ordered Vivian and me not to move. He grabbed a pen flashlight and dropped onto all fours, scouring the floor for the two cat’s eye gems that had vanished from his spatula.
Vivian whispered to me, “Your grandfather doesn’t want you to change the ring.”
“I don’t care what he wants,” I muttered back. “I have better taste than he does.”
I had in mind what the psychic had told me: that Grandpa, when he was alive, was accustomed to having his own way and was easy to work with if you followed along. I thought, well, I’m headstrong, too. I figured that with a ghost, it was the same as with children and pets: you had to establish who’s in charge at the beginning of the relationship; otherwise they will become unruly and scorn your wishes.
The jeweler continued his search of every nook and cranny of his office, even asking us to remove our sandals and brush our skirts. Finally he gave up, looking both desperate and mystified. “It’s very strange. I saw them fall…Maybe you can leave your number, in case they turn up.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll pick out another pair.”
I had him open the tissue to look at the remaining gems, and selected two that matched. They weren’t anywhere near as nice as the missing ones, but I was determined to get this done and show Grandpa who was boss. The jeweler took no chances this time, placing the envelope a millimeter away from the stones and quickly sweeping them inside.
A week later, the ring was ready. I returned with Vivian. We knocked; the jeweler opened the door. His brow was furrowed; he looked thoroughly flummoxed now. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “After you left last time, I took apart everything in the office looking for those stones. I couldn’t understand how they could have disappeared so completely. They were a financial loss to me. Finally I had to let the cleaning crew in to vacuum. Then, just now, a minute before you arrived, I happened to look down at my feet. And there they were – in plain sight, in the middle of the floor.”
He opened his palm, displaying the two missing gems. Then he gave me a look of nervous suspicion. “This isn’t one of those rings, is it?”
“Yup.” I knew what he meant: an heirloom with spooks included. I imagine that jewelers once in a while experience weird stuff when they handle pieces that carry a paranormal attachment. Curses, tragedy, or just mischief.
I knew I could have insisted that he remove the inferior stones to replace them with the original pair I’d chosen, but the jeweler was clearly anxious to be rid of my ring. I didn’t want to tempt more trouble either. I emerged on the street with the band of gold on my middle finger. The diamonds were history, and in their place two nondescript cloudy cat’s eyes flanked the center stone. I’d won.
I wear the ring to this day. It’s discreet, rarely attracting notice, the way I like it. A secret in plain view.
In time I would get used to my grandfather’s attempts at imposing his will on me. His favorite signals of displeasure were breaking glass and making things jump. Or sometimes he would just be reminding me that he was here, that I wasn’t alone.
But right now I’d let him have his way with one thing: I would write the music he was pressing upon me. The sooner I completed what it was he wanted me to do, the sooner he would stop plaguing my sleep, funneling melodies and images. He might even go away.
We talk nowadays about the cyberspace “cloud.” Back when this ghost story takes place, there were no personal computers. But you could say that there I was, in a half-asleep state, downloading music from the Cloud.
The songs came in fragments. I would be aware that these were assignments, to be developed and finished when I was awake. Sometimes I would be afraid of forgetting the material. The musical phrase or a lyric would obligingly repeat and repeat until I’d committed it to memory. Then I was free to wake up, whereupon I’d start work right away, notating the music or jotting the lyrics, eventually building a song around them.
My grandpa’s music, which was written before World War I, had a heavily romantic feel flavored by chromaticism (he idolized Sibelius, a fellow Freemason; they both wrote ceremonial music for the brotherhood, which my grandfather also published). For the most part he wrote art songs for piano and voice, and choral music.
But the music I was channeling from the Cloud didn’t sound like his. It wasn’t that much like mine either. The songs I’d recorded on my two albums for RCA were, loosely speaking, pop songs. While I wrote them initially on the piano, they were meant to be played with electric bass, drums, etc. This new material didn’t fit anywhere. (To see what I mean, you can download one of them, "Sleeparound Town," from my website.)
The other weird thing was, they were all in the voices of pre-adolescent kids. Four of them so far.
It was the fifth song that pushed me to the edge. It was the fevered stream of consciousness of a kid sitting through a Protestant Sunday service while remembering the horror movie he’d seen at the Saturday matinee. I received the music in a hopeless jumble, because the horror movie music was threaded together with the church music. The kid identifies with the persecuted monster, a reviled misfit, which he then confuses with the persecuted Christ.
The kid feels like he’s going crazy. And so was I, being stuck inside his psyche. The words to the song came out in a rush after waking, but the music was fiendishly difficult to write. Snippets of hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Turn Back O Man,” or the priest’s call and response, collided with scary Theremin howls. The piano part was beyond my abilities as a pianist, so I had to write out every note slowly, and then write a second keyboard part, which was supposed to be a church organ. Then there was the solo kid, backed by another four voices, kids in the church choir. It took me days to write the score for Creature From the Last Off-ramp.
I was still living at my parents’, though I’d moved my piano and rudimentary two-track recording equipment into an outbuilding a few steps away from their house. The only way I could hear what I’d written was to play or sing each part, bouncing back and forth between the two tracks as I recorded, until all the voices and keyboard parts were layered.
At the end of all that effort, I was crushed. The playback didn’t sound like what I’d heard in my head. I was also making a ferocious racket, banging away on the piano deep into the night, trying to master what I’d written. I got pissed-off calls from my father to for God’s sake go to bed. I could tell that he (a composer, too, remember) thought the music was nerve-flayingly awful. My exhausted appearance didn’t inspire confidence, either. I had a wild-eyed, hypomanic aspect, and I stank of psychosis.
It was too humiliating to see my mom and dad trade anxious glances; they were clearly wondering if I was on drugs or irretrievably wigging out. So I called a halt to the whole enterprise.
No more, Grandpa.
I was done as a medium to his message. I didn’t want to write any more music. What was the point? No one wanted to record, publish, or even listen to a collection of art songs from some 12-year-olds’ point of view.
I was angry and felt used. I’d taken to talking to my grandfather out loud. I told him to back off and leave me alone.
Things calmed down, then. The mad shoveling of song material into my dream state stopped. I titled the score Songs of Puberty and put it away. I would not return to composing for a long while.
Nevertheless, he didn’t leave me alone.
“You need to change the bulb,” he said. The floor lamp across the room was flickering.
“Just ignore it,” I said. The light blinked a few more times, then stopped.
My guest was an actor. Greek lineage, Mediterranean good looks, my type. I forget who drummed him up for me. He had taken the last train from Grand Central to Connecticut, where I was living in a detached studio on my parents’ property, so we both knew he was there to spend the night, even though I had only met him on the phone earlier in the day.
We were drinking a bottle of brandy from my grandfather’s liquor collection, one of the things Grandpa had bequeathed to his son, my dad. The champagnes and wines had long since turned to dreck, but there was still a lot of fine booze from the 30’s and 40’s stored in our garage. For example, there were cases of fantastic bourbon in brown bottles labeled “For Medicinal Purposes Only” – issued by the government during Prohibition.
At this time, I was helping myself to the stash. Drinking was one way of dramatizing my heartache. The love of my life (or, my life up until age 27) had fallen for someone else. I’d tried hard to get him back without success. I wrote a mocking song about him for my second album, and that certainly didn’t work either. I was alone with my anguish. One of the reasons I’d moved back to my parents’, besides to save money, was to lick my wounds in solitude and also to write a lot of songs about heartache.
But sometimes I got horny. Here in the quiet, safe ‘burbs, there were no suitable sex objects I could espy besides delivery boys. (I tried one. He did not deliver.) My friends in the city kept a lookout for me and passed on recommendations. One friend even opened up her little black book and asked me if I wanted Warren Beatty or Michael. J. Pollard. Without saying which one I chose (duh), the result was a new rule: do not date actors.
Actors seem out of phase. They can be right before your eyes but you’re aware of a second image slightly overlapping the other, an image of the character they’re playing. There’s an uncertainty about whom you’re dealing with. Sometimes you feel like you’re there to help them with their lines.
Desperate times demand stupid moves, and so here I sat with an actor on my couch. And now another lamp, on the table beside him, started flickering. “What is it with your light bulbs?” he asked.
Instead of answering him, I addressed the room: “Okay, I know you’re here. You can stop annoying us.”
The actor looked at me with a touch of fear. I was talking to somebody who wasn’t there. Maybe I was delusional. Maybe he had made a mistake by coming. Tough luck, the trains had stopped running.
Whatever the case, I seemed to have an uncanny ability to make bulbs stop flickering, because table lamp was back to normal.
I knew what was really going on: Grandpa didn’t like this guy. My actor didn’t know that he’d just gotten a bad review.
It wasn’t the first or the last occasion that my grandfather would meddle in my sorry affairs. He would make his point by doing something creepy, thus conveying his opinion that these were not appropriate men for me. I agreed with him. No one would ever measure up to the one who broke my heart. I was exploring my freedom to self-destruct. And Grandpa was in the way.
Delaying the inevitable, when I would lead the actor from couch to mattress, I offered to read his Tarot cards. I’d just begun learning how to predict the future and I needed the practice. I asked the actor if he had any questions. Without hesitating, he wanted to know, “Will I become a famous actor?”
I know it was a bit cruel, but I told him what the cards unequivocally said: “No.”
From my point of view, Grandpa had already put a damper on the evening. From the actor’s point of view, after my Tarot reading, the evening was beyond damp: it had drowned.
About 30 years after I put him on the morning train back to New York, I searched for the actor’s credits on Imdb. Minor roles, mostly in TV, petered out around 1997. Guess he didn’t make it.
It’s good to know when it’s better not to know.
I will state at this point that I have never seen a ghost. I neither saw nor heard my grandfather. I think it would have terrified me. That was our deal, from the beginning: that he would do nothing to frighten me in the course of our contacts. Communicating in that foyer between dreaming and waking was far more productive. When it came to an occasional glass shattering or a door opening by itself, these manifestations were actually kind of welcome. They proved to myself, and to any witnesses present, that I was not making it all up.
But others saw him. One friend who really did see dead people – she became a professional medium a few years later – reported seeing a man with a moustache behind me, and that he stuck his tongue out at her. This would be entirely in character. My grandfather apparently had a juvenile sense of humor; he loved bawdy limericks and potty jokes. One time when my dad visited him in the hospital, the nurse knocked on the door and Grandpa yelled, “Who goes there? Friend or enema?”
Another time he was sighted was in Martha’s Vineyard, six years ago. I was in charge of renting out Grandpa’s old beachfront cottage, the house where he died in 1958. A tenant and his family were in residence for the month of July. Midway through their stay, the father approached me to ask if there was by any chance a ghost in the house.
“Maybe,” I answered evasively. I was surprised because no renters had ever reported any paranormal activity.
He told me about two incidents. In the first, his wife had been alone in the house, puttering about the ground floor, when she plainly heard someone coughing upstairs. She called her son’s name but, upon glancing out the window, realized he was outside on the lawn. By now throughly creeped out, she went outside, grabbed her son and made him go upstairs to look around. There was no one there.
The second incident, which prompted her husband to speak to me, concerned their twentysomething daughter. One evening she was bringing some groceries into the service entrance when she encountered a tall gentleman with a moustache who politely escorted her to the stairs and waited as she opened the door and went inside. His presence was so benign, his demeanor so very nice, that it wasn’t until she put down her bags on the kitchen table that she realized what had happened and freaked out. By then, of course, he had vanished.
I was kind of jealous, to be honest. It felt like he was cheating on me. He was mine. What was he doing, popping in on some complete strangers? Well, I guess he was still the sociable sort he’d been in his lifetime.
The other thing that bothered me was that his behavior, as reported, had been typical run-of-the-mill ghost stuff. There are plenty of reputedly haunted houses on Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquidick, enough so that there are “ghost tours” for the tourists during the summer. Now and then there are sightings of whaling captains’ widows and tavern owners and the like, always associated with a certain place they’re attached to.
But, in spite of the title of this story, in my mind grandpa was a spirit, not a ghost. What’s the difference? I think of ghosts as being the after-image of a human life that has not fully retracted from the mortal world. They cling to place, and often pursue the habitual routines of their former existence. Sometimes they are unaware they can leave. Sometimes they have unfinished business. But they associate with a specific locale or an object.
Spirit, on the other hand, is an elastic filament from the departed soul which can extend from its natural dimension into our dimension, kind of on a visiting basis. Like angels – except with more personality traits, such as a preference for dirty limericks. Grandpa wasn’t stuck to one place. He could turn up anywhere I went (except Morocco, where I really could have used him, but that’s another story).
I have a photograph of my grandfather standing behind my dad, and that’s the way I sometimes picture Grandpa: looming behind me, keeping me company, an advisor, protector, and sometimes a pain in the ass. I can’t see him, but I know he’s got my back.
A Personal Remembrance of John Lennon:
I hadn’t planned on writing another blog today, but someone made me aware that it’s the 21st anniversary of John Lennon’s death. I’d like to share a personal story about John that relates to the ghost tale I’ve been telling over the past 10 posts. Those who have been following this saga will remember that in 1974 I visited a psychic named Frank Andrews when I was 27 (see Part 1 and Part 2). I was being troubled by a paranormal presence in my parents’ house, and Frank helped me learn more about the ghost’s identity.
It was in this same year that I was dating singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, off and on. John Lennon was in his “Lost Weekend” period, and also producing Harry’s “Pussycats” album. I’d met John before when he first arrived in New York, so I knew him already. John and Harry were stoned to the eyeballs whenever I saw them. The L.A. recording sessions were apparently like a zoo with the cages open.
They both came to New York to mix the record, checking into a two-bedroom suite at the Pierre Hotel. In order to do the work, John was trying to get a handle on his over-indulgence, and even Harry went on a fast (which he ended after 24 hours by ordering up a double Brandy Alexander). John was also trying to get back with Yoko. He was on his best, subdued behavior when she came over to the Pierre and the four of us sat down to a room-service dinner.
John and Yoko seemed rather tentative around each other, so I tried to fill a silence by telling a story that took place only a few nights before. I’d been eating at a sushi bar next to an exquisite young Japanese woman who struck up a conversation with me. For some reason she confided in me that she was Mayor John Lindsay’s mistress. True or not, her descriptions of their rendez-vous made for very entertaining conversation.
At one point the woman suddenly remarked, “Sometimes I am psychic, and I have a feeling that you will be famous.”
I responded: “That’s funny, because a professional psychic just said the same thing to me.”
“Oh yes,” she said, with a weird confidence. “You mean Frank.”
How could she have known that? I wondered to Harry, John, and Yoko.
Yoko interrupted to demand the name of the psychic. She wanted to see him. Immediately.
So I put her in touch with Frank. Yoko went to see him alone; John was too afraid to go (he went later, though). The next time we were all four together, at their apartment in the Dakota, she reported that Frank had impressed her hugely. But the one prediction he made that struck her the most was a cryptic statement about John: “He sleeps in blood.”
She and John had discussed the meaning of Frank’s words, and both decided he was seeing something from the past, not the future: the blood referred to the miscarriages Yoko had suffered when they were together and trying for a baby.
The image returned to me six years later, when I heard that John had been shot and killed. I pictured him the way Frank must have seen him: lying in his own blood, as if asleep.
‘Night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
At the end of my period of “channeling” music from my dead grandfather, I turned away from the five-song cycle (“Songs of Puberty”) I had composed with his help, and turned to a new project. I considered my career as a singer-songwriter to be over, and an opportunity had come along to pursue my long-held ambition to be novelist.
I don’t want to dwell on the subject of my book “Dry Hustle”; suffice it to say that I spent part of 1976 traveling with a pair of women who were con artists. They specialized in preying on males, raising the men’s hope of sexual favors and then absconding with their money. I go into greater detail in my author video:
This adventure went against everything I’d been raised to respect. I could legitimately call it research, but the fact remains that I did participate in behavior that was immoral, illegal, and ungrammatical. I readily absorbed lessons for lying and psychological manipulation; I was thrilled to be in the world of criminals; I adopted their patterns of speech, employing lots of double negatives: “I don’t got no morals.”
I ignored the cries coming from my lacerated conscience, making myself deaf through routine applications of Irish coffee. This is one of the evilest drinks ever: an over-the-counter speedball. The coffee makes you manic, the third-rate whiskey makes you morose, and the Reddi-Whip is the final insult. In case the whiskey won out over the coffee and I blacked out, I carried a concealed tape recorder in my purse and taped our encounters with our “marks” so I could replay it the next day and thus remember what the hell I did.
On one such morning, following a blackout, I woke to find myself in a Las Vegas hotel bedroom which I shared with one of the con women. Her bed was empty. And sitting in a corner armchair, silently observing me, was a strange man.
My blood froze. Then the phone beside me rang.
The guy continued to stare at me as I picked up the receiver. It was my roommate. “Happy birthday,” she crowed. (It was not my birthday.) “I picked him out for you as a present. You need to get laid. He’s the drummer in Elvis’ band,” she added before hanging up.
Ah, a musician. Somehow that made him okay, because otherwise he looked like a drug dealer. My curiosity aroused, I surreptitiously reached into my purse and turned on the tape recorder. Thus I have it on record that he was not Elvis’ drummer. Later I learned he was not a drug dealer either. He was a drug runner.
I liked him, though. He was surprisingly witty and courteous. I told myself he would make a good character in my novel, my excuse for deliberately courting disaster in those days. He was consistent with my ongoing romance with the criminal underworld.
Months after my “research” period, I holed up in a cheap apartment off the Pacific Coast Highway to continue writing my novel and drinking Irish coffee. I suppose I can blame the Four Roses for contacting the drug runner, who lived south of L.A., and inviting him over. So he made an excuse to his wife and drove up.
He seemed sort of wobbly when he showed up, but his wit was intact and I still liked him. So we got horizontal for a while. The tape recorder in my purse beside the bed was on, of course. But even without the tape I can well remember his face inches from mine as he told me he shot and killed a guy in Mexico once, for being a snitch. When I looked horrified, he explained, as if it was normal,
“That’s the only thing you can do with a snitch. ‘Cause he’s just gonna snitch again.”
I did not feel very secure after his confession. I was relieved when he excused himself to go into the bathroom so I could be alone to consider my situation. I told myself: Now you’ve really gone and done it. You’re alone with a murderer. You don’t got no more sense than a turnip.
I was about to throw on some clothes to escape, when he emerged from the bathroom. He could barely walk. Instantly I knew he’d shot up in there. Make that a murderer and a junkie. As he made his way back in my general direction, he lost his balance and fell to the carpet.
He was trying to struggle to his feet when there was a wrenching sound from the wall heater. The entire metal cover burst off the heater and was hurled at him, slamming him hard on the shoulder.
As I said, Grandpa did not approve of some of my boyfriends.
The last thing the junkie heard before his eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out on the carpet was me yelling at my grandfather.
The above photo is of my grandfather's Prohibition bourbon. We inherited cases of it. Each bottle was government-issued and came in a green box labelled "For Medicinal Purposes Only." I successfully medicated myself with the stuff.
It’s not that uncommon for folks to use a bit of psychoactive help to meet deadlines. Nowadays it’s Adderall. In my Dad’s day, it was a Judy Garland cycle of bennies and barbs (benzedrine and barbiturates) that got him through law school. He may not have believed in God but throughout his life he worshipped at the altar of prescription drugs.
Maybe that’s how I inherited my little problem, though, unlike my father, I didn’t draw the line at illicit drugs.
And my deadlines in 1976 were punishing. From the time I began work on my novel “Dry Hustle,” fortune shot me like a cannonball into the career heavens. Before I was half done writing the book I had a deal with a mini-major Hollywood studio to write the script plus direct the film adaptation. In order to meet the schedule I had to finish the book in four months, complete the screenplay in the next three, then shoot the movie and deliver in time to coincide with the hardcover publication.
Simply drinking Irish coffee didn’t work anymore. I’d never been able to afford cocaine, which was a good thing, but there was a coke dealer living a few doors down from my rented crib on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, so I took to running over now and then for a freebie. Eventually I became non grata, so I talked my gynecologist into a prescription for diet pills. Pretty soon I was climbing the walls: awkward if you’ve got a typewriter.
I did make the book deadline. The novel reads now as if it was written in a white heat, but the reckless, breathless drive of the prose matches the subject matter of life on the lam. I turned to the script assignment, intending to fly through it on wings of amphetamine. However a script, unlike a novel, is a mechanical piece of business. The writer assigns shots and locations, action and effects, along with the drama. The prose is all punchy directions – sort of barked – while somehow keeping the flow. It didn’t help that I had no idea how to write a script. I’d never even read one.
Halfway through my script struggles, I realized that I was failing. My panic, magnified by drugs, was agitating the air around me to such an extent that my pet rabbit started thumping.
Suddenly the phone receiver jumped in its cradle. I knew my dead grandfather was weighing in: Hello! Pull over! Get out of the car, keep your hands to your sides and do not reach for your drugs.
My poor bunny was now tearing around in crazed circles on the shag carpet as if she sensed a thunderhead moving in.
This wasn’t about a screenplay deadline anymore. I felt I might leave my body any second – and never be able to get back in.
I found my rabbit a nice home, packed up my typewriter and battered pages, checked into a hotel in West Hollywood, and, incommunicado, went clean. I totally gave up drugs and alcohol and also watching soaps.
For the first week I passed my days eating a lot of very large salads. By the time you were done munching to the bottom of the bowl it was the next mealtime. I did no writing. I think I was terrified that not only would I be unable to write without chemicals but also my true quivering self would be exposed to all. I would have to give up my fake flamboyant personality, revealing a shy rabbit self that wouldn’t survive long in the open.
I felt like I was looking, in fact, at the end of me. And yet if I turned back and went the other way, I was going to be dead in the classic sense.
During the second week of my recovery, the script deadline came and went. I made the naïve mistake of telling the studio the truth, that I needed a rest. When you are a wunderkind, never tell your investors that you’re shit out of wunder.
I spent a lot of time reading in bed. I don’t know what made me buy a paperback about Bridey Murphy, except that I like spooky stuff. Bridey Murphy was a famously controversial case of an American woman in the 50’s, who under hypnosis described in detail a past life in 19th century Ireland. The question was left open at the end whether her story proved that reincarnation was possible.
By the time I got done reading the book I was tired enough for sleep. As I put the book aside, I felt the mattress move underneath me, rippling. Quickly, before I could react, the ripples became strong undulations driving me toward the head of the bed. With every wave, my head was forced harder against the wood frame until something had to give. A final convulsion pushed me through the barrier and I was released. The movement stopped, and I found myself panting with relief on the bedspread, in exactly the same position as before.
Ever since my contact with my grandfather and things paranormal had begun, I privately worried that there was some psychoactive agent to blame, even when I’d only ingested something mild like coffee or beer. Or maybe I'd been just dreaming. But here I was, fully awake and cleansed, full only of salad. I couldn’t dismiss what happened as a hallucination; the physical sensation, the propulsion, had been too strong. And what did it mean?
Suddenly I realized what the sensation really was. I’d been in the contracting and rippling birth canal, being pushed head first through the bone cervix. I’d been reading about reincarnation, and then I was reborn.
And so I was, from that time forward. But first had to come the shuttering of the past life. I turned in a 200-page script. The studio head refused to read it until I cut 70 pages. I was exhausted, and I could tell he’d lost interest in the project and in me. I counted out 70 pages in the middle of the script, ripped them out and handed it back.
I began my next life with a whimper, back at my parents’ place, in the mud of March, contemplating the debris of my might-have-been film career. Humility is not fun, especially without a menu of harmful substances helping your slide into the much funner state of self-pity. There was nothing to do but wait for my book to come out in May.
Things were eerily quiet. I found myself staring at my abandoned piano. I asked Grandpa, why do you bother with me, anyway? And the music you made me write: what was all that for?
I shouldn’t even be talking to him, I thought. That was all in the madness of a previous lifetime.
Soon April arrived, and I got a call from my agent. “Do you have anything for a musical?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, some songs or whatever. I met a couple of young guys who are just starting a new division for Joe Papp at the New York Public Theater. They’re looking for material for musicals.”
“I have five songs. But they’re for kids.”
“They might respond to that. Joe’s got a hit show on Broadway right now with ‘Runaways.’ That’s an all-kids cast. Let me get you a meeting.”
I hung up and opened the piano lid.
(To be continued.)
Wanderchild The lyrics are anonymous, from an old book of children's verse:
Little Wanderchild there
On the cliff by the sea,
In the soft summer air,
Little Wanderchild there
Looks around everywhere,
And thus pondereth she:
Little Wander child there
On the cliff by the sea.
Little Wanderchild thought
She could sail to the sky
If a sea bird she caught,
Little Wanderchild thought,
Or a broad white sail bought
From a ship moving by:
Little Wanderchild thought
She could sail to the sky.
Little Wanderchild stands
On the cliff all alone,
She has folded her hands,
And mutely she stands;
For, to far sunny lands
All the vessels have gone,
And still Wanderchild stands
On the tall cliff alone.
Happy holidays, everyone.
THE FOOLISH VIRGINS
Catchy title, no? Makes you want to read on? It's the title of a cantata written by my grandfather. I've posted an excerpt below. You may appreciate his way with melody in this radio broadcast of 1913. Unfortunately the hilarity of the title overwhelms the music, which could be called, um, wet. (The libretto is based on Matthew 12:1 - 13, The Parable of the Ten Virgins as told by Jesus.) Foolish Virgins by Marshall Kernochan
I presented myself to the New York Public Theater for my meeting with Joe Papp. I was to perform my five-song cycle “Songs of Puberty” in its entirety. I could sing and accompany myself on piano for the first four songs, but because the fifth involved two keyboards and a four-member chorus I home-recorded everything but the lead vocal and brought the tape along on my portable audio-cassette player.
Thus I sat with the tape recorder on my lap and sang 25 minutes of music non-stop. Joe listened with an air of puckish amusement, which could be read any number of ways. I’d seen that expression before in auditions for club owners, prospective managers, music publishers: it meant I was cute, but bizarre (one music reviewer called me “weird and willowy.”) It also meant: without a future. I drew more encouragement from Joe’s wife Gail Merrifield who grinned openly during the first four songs.
It was the finale, “Creature From the Last Offramp,” that terrified me. This was the phantasmagoria channeled to me in a semi-dream state by my deceased grandfather’s spirit – a wild melange of church and horror movie music with a torrent of lyrics (to believe me, click here). And I’d never played it for anyone before.
When I finished, I was sheathed in flop sweat.
Joe and Gail looked stunned. They glanced at each other wordlessly.
Joe inquired if I could write more material in “that vein.” I stammered yes, self-programmed to hide self-doubt. He then asked me to come up with enough new stuff to convince him there was a whole show, and to present the result in a workshop performance. Since I’d directed a documentary film, he assumed I could direct the workshop.
I left the meeting in a stupor. This was my first contact with non-profit theater. I was not a theatergoer. Apparently this was a world where bizarre was celebrated, and nobody expected to make any money from your art. As Dot sings in “Sunday in the Park With George”: “All it has to be is good.”
Of course! I realized. I totally belonged in the theater. By now I was on my fourth career (after filmmaker, recording artist, and novelist) and still looking for a home. Theater used everything I could do: write words, compose music, and direct. So that’s why Grandpa had me write those songs: to create a wonderful show that would achieve a greater success than he had in his lifetime. It was worth all the craziness I’d endured to receive the material. What a great guy.
I didn’t want his help now. No more purloining music from the spirit plane. I could see my way clear to what the show would be. The five characters who narrated the five songs were already distinct. The title of the show would be “Sleeparound Town” (the name of the first song). Five different children would go to sleep and meet in a place called Sleeparound Town, and go through the changes of puberty together.
Here is the demo I made of the title song:
…In my dream I sing and windows open wide
Pillowcases breathe up and down
Warming to my song the blankets curl away
From the shores of Sleeparound Town…
A month ago, as I was gathering material to write this story, I unearthed my grandfather’s sheet music, which was among my father’s effects after he died in 2007. I was astounded to find that Grandpa wrote a song called “City of Sleep.” The lyrics were from a Kipling verse, describing the “town” where we go when we dream:
…Know ye the way to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams
Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,
And the sick may forget to weep?
But we – pity us! Oh, pity us! –
We wakeful – ah, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!
|Grandpa in WWI uniform|
|Dad in WWII duds|
My Dad and I shared a love of music and smut.
It was August 1977 when I returned home from a tour promoting my raunchy novel “Dry Hustle.” I immediately launched into composing material for the NY Public Theater workshop of “Sleeparound Town: Songs of Puberty.” At the same time my father came back early and alone from a sabbatical in Paris while my mother and sister stayed on.
So for a month we lived in close quarters: I in a detached studio, and he in the house where I’d grown up. I could hear him practicing his flute, and he could hear me raging away on the piano. I could tell he enjoyed rattling around his house in solitude because he stopped wearing anything but underwear. (There was a heat wave.) He also applied himself to a favorite hobby, writing dirty limericks. Here is my favorite, composed much later after he retired from teaching law:
Directions for sex may be found
In any old phone book around.
You connect with a dame
Who is ready and game
And then you press ENTER and POUND!
Sometimes we would get together for dinner when I would cook for us (he dressed for the occasion). I used the opportunity to pump him for information about Grandpa, though it involved delicate footwork. By now I knew that my mother had told Dad that his father’s ghost was making regular visits to me, but he considered her to be mildly bonkers and me to be habitually overwrought. I did catch him checking me covertly now and then to see if any more screws had worked themselves loose.
I kept my questions to personal history and avoided the paranormal. Dad and I were enjoying our time together, and any mention of ghosts would have ruined everything.
The Holy Ghost would have been enough to set him off on an atheistic rant. I wondered privately if his big problem with God was “Our Father.” Merely the word “father” triggered such aversion that he couldn’t get beyond it. Since he perceived his own father as distant, negligent, frivolous and lazy, why sign up for an even bigger dose of bad parenting from God the Father?
One night at dinner, I remarked about the coincidence that both he and his father had given up seriously composing music after returning from wars in Europe. Neither of them had seen combat but worked in liaison and operations. What happened over there, to make them turn them away from a vocation they loved?
“I can’t speak for my dad,” he said. “I just remember after coming back I felt very depressed and lost and I had no confidence in myself. That’s when I went into psychoanalysis.” (It had been thirty years since the war ended and my father was still going to an analyst five times a week.) “I didn’t think I could succeed at composing. I’m sure I got that from my father. He never offered one word of praise for my music.” He told me about a time when he was a teenager, when he wrote a minuet for string quartet. A friend of his father’s, a cellist, liked it so much that he arranged for some professional musicians to play it as a surprise at his dad’s birthday party. The guests applauded enthusiastically and then demanded the quartet to play it a second time. Afterwards they clustered around my father, congratulating him and calling him ‘another Mozart’ – and through it all his dad said nothing.
“But then he never had much to say about my music and never asked to hear it.”
“Do you think he might’ve been threatened by you? He wasn’t writing music anymore, and you were showing him up.”
“I don’t really care. Actually he never showed much interest in anything I did.”
Dad set his jaw grimly. I could tell the subject was closed, he’d had enough.
Then I felt the most extraordinary pressure build up around me, as if I was being crowded out by an intentional force. The words were pushed up my throat, making me open my mouth to say something so invasive and presumptuous that I knew it might drive a permanent wedge between us. I blurted:
“He wants me to tell you that he’s sorry.”
I was miserable, seeing Dad’s expression change. Not only was he angry at me, but also I’d confirmed his fear: his daughter was certifiably delusional.
“It’s a bit late for that,” he snapped.
As he got up and left the table, I wanted to beg him, “Please don’t blame me! Grandpa made me say it!” But that would hardly have helped my case.
We avoided each other for a few days.
And then one day he suddenly crossed the lawn and tapped on my door. He had something in his hand to show me. It was a music manuscript. He’d just completed a song, with piano, vocal and lyrics. It was the first song he’d written since he’d come back from the war: a despondent and anxious young man, for whom music was out of the question.
The Ballad of Patty Pease
As a footnote to the previous post, my dad's claim that his father never praised his music was not strictly true. One song, which Dad improvised at the age of 15, not only earned the old man's plaudits but also Grandpa would ask Dad to play it (and replay it) frequently for guests. Dad was 15 in 1934 when his father purchased the summer cottage in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard that has remained in our family up until last September. Edgartown is a tiny village on a boat-filled harbor where once the whaling industry held sway. In 1934, because there were very few streets Edgartown had only one streetwalker, and everyone knew her name. Dad's tribute to the misfortunate Patty Pease is below. (You may find it very hard to listen to, as it was a home recording on a hopelessly scratched platter of some kind. Also, none of Dad's adolescent friends who sing the song can carry a tune. They are pretending to be drunk, and my father is playing the piano. But you can enjoy the lyrics all the same.)
The Ballad of Patty Pease (to listen, click here)
You hump with ease
With Patty Pease
She aims to please,
Does Patty Pease
A long, long time ago,
As everyone should know
Her soul was white as snow –
Oh Patty Pease
Then one soft summer night
The stars were shining bright
A frigate hove in sight –
Oh Patty Pease
A handsome sailor boy,
The Vineyard’s pride and joy,
Came off the ship. Ahoy!
For Patty Pease!
And up the street he came
A-looking for a dame
To play his little game –
Oh Patty Pease
To Patty’s Pa he said,
“Has Patty gone to bed?
I’m looking for a thrill.”
“No-o! She’s ‘way aloft
Up in the hay loft.
Go find her if you will.”
The sailor had his way,
And up there in the hay
Was a red letter day
For Patty Pease
Her father didn’t “keer”
Enough to interfere
With Patty’s black career –
Oh Patty Pease
Still, he had an awful fright
When fourteen men walked in one night.
But Patty took it,
She’s all right!
Now if you want a treat
Go down South Water Street,
Then you’ll be sure to meet
With Patty Pease.
“Give it back,” your mother says loudly.
“Give it back,” your mother says loudly.
There are only two people in the room: she and you. But she’s not addressing you, nor is she talking to herself. She does this whenever some object is missing that was definitely there earlier. Everyone’s looked everywhere. So she thinks it must be your great-grandfather who took it. He’s dead and he thinks it’s fun to inconvenience the living.
The thing is, sometimes it works. She says, “Give it back,” and then whatever you’re searching for turns up in some place where you definitely looked before. It’s just weird, but you don’t want to give it much thought. As you often tell your friends, your mom is a total freak.
And, if you’re my daughter, you roll your eyes.
But you’re not my daughter. You should thank God for that, because when this story takes place she is twelve years old, which you may remember as a time of secret torment and unwanted hair.
The missing-object incidents can happen anyplace, but at the moment we (my husband and daughter and I) are in the “big house” on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. Next door is the “little house,” where my parents built a small cottage in 1987 to spend their summers. The big house is for their children and children’s children to enjoy, whenever it’s not rented.
The "big house" in 1934
Grandpa bought the big house in 1934, a couple of years after it was built by his brother-in-law. (The two of them also built a 9-hole golf course across the road: why not?) He adored the place. It was in the master bedroom where, felled by a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died at the age of 75.
Kids love the big house because it’s full of bizarre stuff like antique harpoons and ship models, and a box mounted on the wall of the kitchen that has little flags marked with room numbers that pop up whenever someone buzzes a servant. The buzzers don’t work anymore but the servants’ quarters above the kitchen are perfect for kids, the rooms are so tiny; and there’s a door and then a step down and then a second door that used to separate domestics from their employers, or now, rambunctious rascals from their parents. There are many, many doors; some are closets and some are hiding places that you open with old cast-iron turnkeys, if you can find the right one for the lock. If you pull on a ring in the second-floor ceiling, a panel opens and a ladder unfolds, but no one dares explore the attic. It is vast. At the top of the ladder, you see nothing but broken glass, rolls of rotted carpets, and bird dander. At the other end is whatever you can’t see, and you can bet it’s covered in dust, feathers and ooky cobwebs, so you don’t want to investigate. Plus you aren’t allowed up here.
The days are spent on the beach or biking into town, but at nightfall, around 9, when everyone’s exhausted from sun and supper, and the DVD du jour has ended, the house takes on a kind of creepy aspect. Old brass floor lamps with fraying cords are all that light the rooms, casting the corners and eaves into darkness. If the wind off the water is up, a classic eerie moan rattles the old windows, maddening to hear (we used to call it “Blithering Heights”).
On this night my 12-year-old daughter and I are lolling on the couch, trying to summon the energy to go to our beds. She likes sleeping in the servants’ wing as far away as possible from me, but sometimes I have to escort her up the backstairs because the wind moan spooks her.
Tonight the wind is quiet, though. When we switch the TV off, the house is silent. Then we hear a creak. Or more precisely, creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeak. We look in the direction of the sound. The door is opening slowly. My daughter tenses up, huddling against me, and mews with terror.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I say calmly to the empty doorway. “Wow, it’s been a while.” The door opens a little further.
“Mom, shut up!” I guess it compounds her fear to see me blithely entering lunacy. So your mom’s a freak – whose mother isn’t? – but when she starts talking to the dead, it’s a whole other matter.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s completely harmless.”
The light across the room blinks rapidly, then stops. My daughter whimpers inarticulately as she waits for the dude with the mask and the knife to crash through the window.
I sharpen my tone. “Okay, that’s enough. We know you’re here. You can go.”
The light blinks again, as if to acknowledge, and then the opposite door creaks open just a hair, as if to let something out.
“It’s over,” I tell my daughter. “He was just kind of giving us the high sign.”
She spends the night in my room.
There were a couple of more incidents that summer of ‘98, once when my husband was present. He frowned on my ascribing the blinking-creaking thing to Grandpa; he didn’t want our daughter to believe in ghosts since it clearly frightened her. I thought it best to show her it was no big deal, that she could tell the spirit to go away and it would. She’d get used to it. But she never did. Thankfully, she never got a visit from her great-grandfather again.
The odd part was, I had almost forgotten about the old guy. There had been no manifestations for a very long time, since before I got married. I figured he’d completed his mission with me and gone home to glory. Why did he come back now?
I posed this question to an astrologer friend later that year. “How old was your daughter when this happened?” she inquired straightaway.
“Puberty,” she nodded with satisfaction. “There is often increased paranormal activity around children that age. That’s why the writer of ‘The Exorcist’ made the little girl twelve – he obviously did his research.”
That was helpful, but I took her explanation a different way, and smiled to myself. The moment she said “puberty,” I realized: it must have been one of his little winks, to remind me of the time we worked together, back in 1977, on a show subtitled “Songs of Puberty.”
Actually, I would have preferred not to be reminded. It was a venture that didn’t turn out too well.
Writing songs about kids and puberty was a departure for me. Up until then my MO was raunch. Sex was a ripe topic. It provided endless material that was funny and fucked-up and bitter and sweet. Located at the base of the trunk of humanity, sex said everything about human rapport. Plus it got me plenty of attention.
Back in the 70’s, in spite of the sexual revolution it was still verboten for a recording artist, especially a female, to get down and dirty with the lyrics. For my second album I recorded songs like “Can I Get On Top This Time” and “It’s Alright, It Won’t Bite.” I wanted to call the album “Box Lunch,” and even though those words were not exactly obscene, RCA demanded another title. So I called it “Beat Around the Bush.” After I terminated at the label, I wrote and performed a pornographic song cycle called “Biology and You,” this time making free with the obscenities, as in tunes like “Get Head.”
My obsession with sex actually began in puberty, with a book.
When I was 11, my family embarked on a trip to Europe, starting in Paris. Our 18-year-old babysitter was very uninterested in childcare (she quit mid-trip). What did interest her were racy books banned in the U.S., and Henry Miller's "Sexus" was one of those. She picked up a copy in Paris, intending to read it before she went back home so she wouldn't be caught smuggling it past customs. We took a boat from Italy to Greece. I shared a cramped cabin with her, in which I occupied the top bunk. I woke to the sound of sniggering. Looking down, I saw my two older brothers perched on either side of the babysitter on her bed, looking over her shoulder as she read some book. A few months after we returned, I turned 12. I don't know if this is a symptom of pubescence, but around then I started sneaking into other family members' rooms to look in their drawers. I found a "marriage manual" (sex guide) in my parents drawer. It read like a science book and thus was unmemorable. Still, no one had ever told me anything about sex so it was a start. I rifled through my brothers' drawers. I found books about male sexual development given to the boys by my parents. There were gross cross-section illustrations of the male genitalia and descriptions of erection and ejaculation. Again, highly scientific and scrupulously designed not to arouse anybody. My older brother was trying out photography, developing his own prints in a bathroom upstairs. I found a stack of photos taken of individual book pages. He must have photographed the "dirty" parts of the babysitter's illicit copy of "Sexus." I stole them. My brother could hardly complain that they were missing: he would be admitting to his own crime of possessing them in the first place. Locking myself in my bathroom I assembled the pages in order and read. What the hell was this? What was a "cunt"? It wasn't in the big dictionary in the living room. What was a "prick"? It sounded sharp. Why were people always "coming" and never going?
And what was "fuck"? (This is 1959.)
I searched my brother’s room more thoroughly and found the original pages torn from “Sexus,” about 30 of them. I folded them carefully, inserting them into a metal Band-Aid box, and buried them in a remote corner of the yard. Digging up the box from time to time, I pored over the pages incessantly. I managed to put all the pieces together and figure out what each word meant and what these characters were doing, also incessantly.
The writing was blunt and crass, but the text gave me a feeling of arousal that was new and mysterious. Therefore, these pages held power. You could write about sex and people would perk up; they would pay attention. They would even take the trouble to ban it, smuggle it, or bury it in the yard. Power and attention are two big things that children crave.
It was only a couple of years later that I decided to be a writer. Add fourteen more years and I finally got the chance to write explicit prose about sex with my first novel “Dry Hustle”; it featured a five-page five-orgasm scene. By the time it was published I was tuckered out on the subject and practically celibate.
So it was odd that my grandfather’s ghost pointed me back to puberty, with its feelings of powerlessness and social invisibility. And there I found a richer soil in which to dig up the Band-Aid box. Final note: Eventually, after the ban was lifted, I read Miller’s “Sexus: The Rose Crucifixion” in its entirety with a more critical eye. The writing meandered and maundered and bragged. I decided Henry Miller was only fitfully a great writer and more consistently an asshole. For erotic descriptions I preferred "Lady Chatterly's lover," which I stole from my mother's drawer.
1977 summer’s end found me onstage at the New York Public Theater, presenting my new material to Joe Papp, his wife Gail Merrifield, and his creative staff. I’d composed a scene called “Boys’ Bunk” between two pubescent boys, one who just wants to sleep and never get up, and the other hopped up on hormones and terrorizing his bunkmate with gross descriptions of his body’s changes. Followed by a ballet.
The director was myself. I’d never staged anything or worked with actors before. I chose to cast a couple of boys in their early 20’s instead of actual 13-year-olds. It worked because both performers had a lot of kid still in them and seemed age-indeterminate. The sleepy boy was played by Gedde Watanabe, later to be unforgettable as the foreign exchange student in “16 Candles.” The hyper boy was played by Tom Hulce, fresh from “Equus” on Broadway and destined to play Mozart in “Amadeus.” They were outrageous fun to work with, and the workshop went over great. Joe immediately decided that I should write and direct a full-length show, to be produced the following summer.
In the audience, aside from Joe & Co., were assorted friends and curiosity seekers, plus my mother. Seated behind my mom and unbeknownst to her was the married man with whom I was having a deep love affair. He was three years younger than my parents. If you had suggested he was a “father-figure” or even “grandfather-figure,” I would have retorted, “So?” If you had deplored May-December romances I would have laughed and said, you got it all wrong; I was born in December and he was born in May.
I knew the odds were poor that he would leave his wife and we would wind up together. But ya never know.
But…what if you could know? That’s why I went to a lot of psychics.
I was by now addicted to clairvoyants. Any time I heard mention of a good one, off I went. Palmists, astrologers both Eastern and Western, mediums, numerologists, channelers; readers of runes, espresso grounds, cards, charts, chop suey (not kidding), wrist pulses, token objects. I encountered two different spirit guides, an ancient Chinese sage who was clearly bogus and a celestial being with an unbearable personality.
I took notes on each session; thus I had a permanent record of their predictions, so that I could review them later in the future to assess the percentage of accuracy. The good ones had a 25-30% rating. The only one with a stellar record was Frank Andrews, but his readings got markedly less accurate after the first three times.
I also developed a case of ESP envy. How did they do it? I wanted those powers, too.
Because Frank Andrews was grateful that I sent him John and Yoko as clients (Yoko eventually put him on retainer as her private on-call psychic), he and I became friends. He began teaching me how to read Tarot cards; I hoped they would wake up my own supposedly dormant psychic abilities.
To test all these clairvoyants, I asked them each the same question: Was I going to get the guy or not? It demanded a simple up/down answer, yes or no. Thus, when the day arrived that I knew the answer myself, whether I had won or lost, I would also know which psychics were good, and which ones I could rule out.
The psychics were evenly divided. Many counseled me to get out now, or my heart would get broken. Others told me to hang in there, the married man would be mine one day.
One of them suggested that I wasn’t supposed to know. I considered this a cop-out, but then again it engendered a bigger question: what’s the point of knowing the future? If it can’t be changed, then you’re just sitting around waiting for it to happen, bored and checking your watch, like knowing the ending of a movie within the first five minutes. And if the future can be changed, then how can it be predicted?
The other pitfall was, if you believed a prediction, then it had an influence over your actions. You would look for signs; start nudging things along, rushing toward the goal you assumed was yours. Living with high expectations is both exciting and nerve-racking. And then, what if you find out the prediction was wrong? You stand to feel like a giant idiot.
I came to refer to this heightened anticipation of a known future as Louis Malle Syndrome.
Around 1980 I went to a psychic who predicted with certainty that I would have an affair with a French producer married to a famous American woman. In the end, his marriage would explode in a highly public manner, I would be roundly vilified, but when the wreckage cleared we would be together and happy at last.
I told a friend, even if I'm passionately in love with this French guy, whoever he is, I just don’t know if I have it in me to bust up another marriage.
My agent was trying to sell my second book to the movies. He sent it off to Candice Bergen’s agent, who wanted to read it for her to play the central character.
Not too long after, out of the blue, her French director-producer husband Louis Malle called my agent in person. He liked the book – what did we have in mind for it? My agent, somewhat surprised, said that the script had been sent to Candice. (Apparently it had been put on Malle’s desk by accident.) But it would be great if Malle could direct and his wife star in the production. Malle said he would get back to him.
I called my friend in a fever of excitement and dread: “Oh my God, it’s happening already! It’s Louis Malle! ”
“Oh no,” my friend moaned. “Poor Candice. She’ll be devastated when you run off with him.”
“I can’t help that. He’s handsome, and I worship his early films. I’ve seen 'Murmur of the Hear'” five times. I speak French. I could easily live in France.” It was clear what would happen next: I would take a meeting with him. There would be instant intellectual rapport. As we worked on the script together, try as I might to fight it, our attraction would grow until it could no longer be denied. And then, ka-boom.
What did transpire was: nothing. Louis had his agent call mine to say that he and Candice had long ago decided that they would keep their careers separate and not work together. This project was not tempting enough to change their minds. My agent asked if Louis could see directing the film without his wife. But the door was closed. My agent surmised that Louis was put off that my book was sent to her instead of him.
I never did meet Louis Malle. But I had wasted a lot of emotional capital on expecting I would, my mind running amok in the future instead of staying safely tethered to the present. A state now defined as: Louis Malle Syndrome.
But back in 1977, I had no clear expectations for my affair with the married man. The psychics had differed widely on what would happen. And so I groped forward into love’s shadows without knowing. As we are meant to.
(Final note: I only see two clairvoyants now. One uses Tarot with astrology and his counsel is always calm and wise. The other is a well-known medium, the most talented psychic I’ve met since Frank Andrews, and I’m pleased to call her my friend. She says I’m going to be a best-selling author. I’m waiting.)
(To be continued)
P.S. Not too long after that prediction, I did get involved with a famous married man and his marriage - not to a celebrity - did founder as a result.
In past blogs I’ve described the many things my grandfather shared with me, across the dotted line between life and the hereafter. Now I’d like to mention his great genetic gift: the Kernochan legs.
They begin in the ordinary place, fitted to the pelvis and proceeding downward. And down. And down. About halfway down a Kernochan leg is where most people’s feet would sprout. But our legs continue their plunge endlessly. They hardly taper at the base of the thighbone, nor bulge as they pass the knee, but instead form a straight and narrow column. Any shapeliness is only achieved through strenuous exercise, which might produce a calf or two. The feet almost come as a rude interruption, with toes as long as fingers.
Not everyone in my family has the legs, but I do, my father did, and his father, too. Going back in time to trace the origin, the legs disappear into the mists of history; I don’t know whom to thank among our ancestors.
There’s a photo around here somewhere of Grandpa revealing his gams on the beach but I just looked for it and it’s missing (he probably hid it). However there is a De Zayas caricature of him, drawn at the time he was hobnobbing with the Stieglitz crowd on the 30’s New York art scene. Even covered by eveningwear, you can see the line of the legs from where they begin, which is just south of his hands:
Here is my father’s whooping-crane version:
I often had to fold mine up to fit into camera frame:
When my daughter was a newborn bundle thrust into my arms at the hospital, the first thing I did was unwrap her blanket to check that she got the legs. She did. When she reached that self-conscious age of 11, she saw them as a problem. Once, when we were shopping for school clothes, I wanted to buy her a pair of velvet jeans with vertical stripes. She wailed, “Mom! They’ll make my legs look too long.”
I grabbed her arm and fixed her with a look of such intensity that she fell silent. I said, “If you don’t understand this now, you will soon. Legs cannot be too long. You will be very glad you have them.”
All the same, I remember feeling the same way as my daughter did. During my high school years, the ideal silhouette was curvy, and skirts were to the knee. I retreated into the shadows with my stick figure. By the time I got to college, the mini-skirt had hit the stores. From then on, girls with hips did a fade and now I owned the place. I hemmed the minis myself to make them even shorter. My legs exploded out of the gate and never came back.
They paused long enough to pose for both my RCA album cover, and the cover of my novel “Dry Hustle” (my editor-in-chief’s idea).
There was another reason to be grateful for the Kernochan legs. They worked. My mother’s didn’t.
During World War II, not long after my two older brothers were born my father was stationed in Fort Leavenworth to complete officers’ training. My mother fell very ill, very suddenly. The medical staff, hardly the best, had no idea what to diagnose. She got worse, until finally an doctor friend of Dad’s took a look at her file and said, “Polio.”
The virus stopped short of her lungs, but she lost the use of her legs, and some of the musculature in her arms and hands. At the time, her father Wayne Chatfield-Taylor was employed in Roosevelt’s cabinet as Under Secretary of Commerce, so Mom didn’t have far to look for a role model. FDR set the standard of courage for a lot of the polio victims of that wartime era. You just got on with it.
While her husband went overseas to fight the jerries, Mom scooped up her children and traveled down to Warm Springs, where she underwent rehab, learning how to use braces and crutches.
Mom in Warm Springs with my elder brother
To us five children growing up, ours was like any other American family. We played baseball in the yard. The pitcher just happened to be in a wheelchair. We got spanked. I have an indelible memory of being hauled onto her lap, slung over a pair of thighs that were almost pure bone, my head pushed against the cold metal spokes and dirty rubber rims of the wheels on her chair; and then came the wallop on my butt, delivered with the formidable upper-arm strength she had developed from cruising on crutches and working her wheels.
Just like our peers, we were delivered to and picked up from lessons, school events and outdoor activities by our mother in a station wagon. She’d learned to drive at Warm Springs. I still have no idea how she operated the stick shift, lifting her foot from the brake to stamp down the clutch. Later, when automatic shifts came in, she invented some system using a thick book wedged under the brake, and crossing her legs to work both brake and gas pedal. She never used a handicapped vehicle. She just got on with it.
The only way we knew we were different was because people always stared at us. I recall my first worried reaction was that they were staring at me; but then that look of pity tinged with curiosity would cross their faces, before they quickly turned away. The look said, “Oh, that poor woman, she’s crippled.” And then we kids would realize, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Mom’s crippled.” Because we usually forgot. That’s what she wanted.
We were used to life slowing down when we walked beside her. We instinctively downshifted from allegro to andante while she looked down, saw the next spot, planted the rubber tips of her crutches, and swung herself forward. Look, plant, swing. Look, plant, swing. Stairs were even slower, but up and down she went. Just give her time, and she would invariably arrive.
Years later, when the four older kids left home for college and careers, she got fitted for a new clear plastic brace, threw away the old metal-and-leather-strapped monstrosities, and parked the wheelchair in the closet. Now she could go faster on her crutches, speeding up the rhythm to a rather beautiful and graceful swinging, undulating stride. She only used the wheelchair provided at airports so she could get special treatment and not have to wait in line, for she had begun to travel a lot, alone, to the corners of the globe, visiting schools for Unesco.
Mom in India with Indira Gandhi
We her children can’t remember her former legs. From photos, we can see that they were like her parents’: not too short, not too long, sturdy and well built for sports: the Chatfield-Taylor legs. In those photos she is most always in action, running, riding, diving, skiing, playing team sports of every kind: relentlessly, manically, ecstatically athletic. She once told me that, had she known she would never run again, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. In fact, it was almost as if she did know it was her last dance, because she could not have used her legs any more vigorously than she did.
People used to joke about the long, long Kernochan legs that, just when you thought they would stop, they kept on going. And Mom’s legs did the same.
“Books, films, a musical – wow!” exclaimed People magazine about me in 1978. I had become enough of a personage to be a People, with the paperback version of my novel coming out, the film rights sold, a fat advance for my second book, and my musical “Sleeparound Town” to begin rehearsals that summer at the New York Public Theater.
The People article ran a photo that showed me playing new material for Joe Papp and Carrie Fisher, a newly anointed star from “Star Wars.” Carrie had just moved to New York and I’d talked her into performing the lead in my musical.
I was also in love, and my love was requited. Never mind that we couldn’t show it; my lover was afraid his wife might find out. They’d been married 33 years, almost as long as my parents. Aside from this one pesky complication, all was bliss. I seemed to be coming into my power, spectacularly.
By the end of the year, all would be rubble. But before then, summer arrived, and the start of rehearsals. I was commuting to the theater from Connecticut where I still lived next door to my mom and dad. One morning, I opened the door to find a snake on my doorstep. It was a very long, slim garter snake, forming a loose S. I screamed. I had a consuming terror of snakes. There were very few places I felt safe from them. This home had been one of those sanctuaries; in all the time since we had moved here when I was 8, I had never seen a snake. In an instant, my security vanished. I would never again be able step out of my studio without a quivering awareness that those whip-quick creatures were now in my safe place, coiling and uncoiling.
I don’t remember not having this phobia; I seemed to have been born with it. My first memory of seeing a snake was on a morning when I was about 4. We lived in a different house then. I was watching my dad at the end of the lawn; he held a stick with something long and ropey draped over it; my two older brothers danced around him excitedly as he headed to the woods, where he tossed the stick away. There was a tension, an urgency in his movements that I’d never seen before. I recall being seized by fear, as if every sure thing in my existence had disappeared.
I felt it again, the draining away of my faith, as I looked down at the dreaded reptile at my feet. I slammed the door shut, hoping the vibration would rouse the snake to slither off. I eased the door open again. It hadn’t moved at all, scrawled like a glyph on the concrete stoop. What was it doing there? Certainly not sunning itself; the entrance was always plunged in shadow. Was it dead? I slipped out another exit, racing to my parents’ house, where I found Dad and begged him to get the horrible thing off my doorstep. Then I stood at a distance, wringing my hands and hyperventilating while he approached the stoop and peered down. I could tell the snake was still there by the way Daddy stopped and retreated a few steps. Finding a long stick, he went back and prodded the shape. I saw my father tense up, suddenly trepidatious, and my childhood image returned: he lifted the stick with the struggling snake on it, carrying it to the woods where he flung both stick and cargo into the trees.
Returning, Dad patted my shoulder and went back inside. The bête noir was gone. I was left alone with the question: why had it been put there? What did it mean? What was the message?
Once, when I was 22, I tried to get rid of the phobia. It followed me everywhere there might be snakes – forests, lakes, deserts, mountains – so that I was afraid to travel anywhere except Ireland and Hawaii, or Antarctica. If I came across a picture of a snake in a book I would fling the volume across the room rather than touch even the image. I went to a hypnotist who had helped a friend stop smoking. I asked the doctor to put me in a trance and inform my unconscious that I was no longer afraid of snakes. Then I could wake up a free woman, calmly roaming about with eyes lifted to the horizon instead of scouring every pile of rocks or patch of long grass for the telltale flicker of scales.
As the hypnotist droned on stereotypically – “you are falling into a deep, deep sleep” – my attention drifted away, bored, already knowing the experiment wouldn’t work. He was receding in his armchair, voice fading, forgotten.
And then I found myself standing on a cliff above a limpid green ocean. I wore a long garment with the bodice open, bare breasts to the breeze. In each hand I held up a serpent, grasping each under its head. And I felt no fear, none at all. I allowed them to twist and flex their long bodies around my wrists and arms like bracelets. Nothing new in it; I was accustomed to handling them.
The doctor called me back from the cliff. I described what I’d experienced. He was puzzled by the vision, but also encouraged that I hadn’t been scared of the snakes. That meant his hypnotic suggestion had worked and the phobia was removed.
“I don’t think so,” I said, gathering my things. “If you handed me a snake right now I would scream my head off and jump out the window rather than touch it. And please, don’t tell me it’s about penises.”
Maybe I had seen myself in a former life. Maybe I was a Minoan priestess who wrangled snakes routinely in sacred ceremonies. Maybe they bit me and I died, and the trauma followed me into my present life. Or not. The question remained: what do they mean?
At a certain point I decided to learn about them. I made myself look at the pictures, read about all the different kinds, their markings, habitats, family life, behavior, their genius (efficient use of unusual structure) and their handicaps (poor vision). After a time I could even enter the snake house at the zoo; I could deal with them if they were in cages. As long as I never had to touch one.
Along the way I researched their mystical meaning. Snakes are such a ubiquitous symbol in so many cultures, where they represent everything from evil all the way, antithetically, to healing. For myself, I’ve decided that they are power. To handle my power with grace, with ease, without fear, is the challenge. After the garter snake writ itself on my doorstep that summer of 1978, the challenge was on: I was coming into my power. That year I tried to pick up my snakes, and couldn’t.
Follow me forward to 2011. My husband, my elder brother and I have bought my parents’ Martha’s Vineyard house after their deaths. One day in July I am using my father’s study to write, and I break off work to go out and water the lawn. Opening the door, I am startled to see a garter snake lying across the rubber mat on the stoop. It forms a languid S shape, and doesn’t move even though I'd swung the door right over its body.
Oh no, I thought. Not this again.
I pull the door shut with force, assuming the vibration will scare it off. I wait a beat, then open the door again. It still just lies there. I notice that I'm not particularly scared. I close the door again, putter around the house a bit, then go out the front door to check on the garden. I approach the stoop to see if the snake is still there, in which case it's probably dead. But it has gone.
Thanks for the message. Guess I’m going to have to handle my power again. It never gets any easier. A snake doesn’t frighten me the way it used to. But I still can’t touch one.
In the previous post, I wrote about the snake left on my doorstep. I was sure my grandfather-in-spirit had placed it there. I realized that one of the songs he’d “channeled” to me, the fourth song in the cycle about puberty, mentioned snakes:
…We moved to the desert
I don’t like it here
I fear the presence of snakes
I know they’re out there
Got a boyfriend who’s fourteen like me
And his name is John Luke
And if a snake up and bit him on the other arm
He’d lose that one too…
(You can play my demo below.)
Called “Mister Sloane,” this was the song that Carrie Fisher sang for Joe Papp as her audition for the lead in my musical “Sleeparound Town.” She gave a killer rendition; Joe was very excited to have her in the show. Unfortunately, as rehearsals progressed, I discovered that Carrie was unfamiliar with the theater work ethic. The prospect of a month of rehearsals must have triggered a fit of overpowering laziness, such that you might feel standing at the base of Everest and looking up.
If I’d had any sense, I would have felt the same, too. But in those days I had a mania for placing myself on the path to possible disaster. I had spent the first 18 years of my life in the sleep of suburbs. I was a writer with no suffering to write about. If failure overtook me, then I could make use of the pain in my writing. If I risked too much and went too far, and actually died, then I would have my posthumous publication to look forward to.
And so it came to pass that I charged ahead to write and direct an Off-Broadway musical with a fiercely ambivalent star.
Soon after the start of rehearsals, Carrie started dating Paul Simon. She was out on the town most nights and, in short order, her focus swung away from the show, she got bronchitis, and missed the first run-through for Joe and the theater staff. We presumed she was home recuperating, but a cast member got word she’d been spotted the night before at a late-night party at the Odeon, in an allegedly altered state.
I had to confront Carrie when she finally showed up for work. She denied everything and hotly protested being spied on; she then complained that it was hard having the show resting on her shoulders. I blew up: “Hard?! I have to rehearse all day, then spend the night rewriting, doing music sheets, and then I don’t have you around to learn the new material. You think you have it hard?”
Carrie shot back, “This is not the suffering sweepstakes.” This is one of those classic one-liners she’s known for, and I had to laugh. (To this day we still use that line around my house.)
The rest of the cast was angry at her for missing the run-through, which hadn’t gone very well. To be fair, Carrie didn’t deserve the blame. The show itself was proving to be shapeless. I didn’t really know how to construct a story to bind all these disparate songs together. I had a vague idea that these five characters, on the verge of adolescence, were collectively dreaming a place called Sleeparound Town, where they would all undergo puberty together. There was no spoken dialogue; the whole thing was sung through. The audience didn’t get what was happening, although they enjoyed the individual songs.
I don’t know. It just refused to work. Joe suggested that I make things clearer by writing dialogue; make it all Carrie’s dream and have her narrate. If the change didn’t work, he would have to cancel the production rather than subject a badly flawed piece to the critics. That meant the fate of the show now rested on my ability to write a lengthy narration pronto and Carrie’s ability to memorize it quickly and sell it.
I set to work in a panic, typing into the night and feeding drafts to my married lover, who was also a writer. He took the risk of staying out late, enlisting friends to validate his cover stories to his wife.
The night I finished, he took me out for a drink to calm me down. (Because he was fond of booze, I’d started drinking again, although this time I had it under control.) We were sitting at a table in a darkened bar where he wouldn’t run into anybody he knew. Sipping bad whiskey, I started talking about Grandpa’s vastly superior swill in the liquor collection he’d left behind. Then I found myself unraveling the whole story about my grandfather’s ghost. I’d never told him before, for fear he’d write me off as nuts.
When I ended, there was a bleak pause. I could tell he didn’t believe me. Sure enough, he asked, “Do you think there might be some other, scientific explanation for what happened?”
I sighed. “Probably. Let’s try schizophrenia first.”
Suddenly we heard a loud crack. We looked down at the table. The glass ashtray between us had split down the middle and broken neatly in half.
I said, “There he goes again.”
My lover was rattled, to say the least. But then his rational nature rode to the rescue, and he decided that the ashtray was placed too close to the candle on the table; the heat cracked the glass. Before he went home, he made me promise to call him with a report after Joe Papp had seen the show with the new changes.
Meanwhile Debbie Reynolds had flown to New York to work with her daughter in private, help her to learn handfuls of pages of speeches, and have Carrie ready for the run-through with Joe. She sat in the audience while Carrie delivered the narration and songs with perfect professionalism.
But it was too late. Joe’s idea didn’t work, and I was out of gas. Two weeks before previews, he pulled the plug. I apologized to a devastated cast. Desperate to cry on my lover’s shoulder, I called him. And called and called. After a week, he finally got back to me.
It was a brief conversation. He sounded shell-shocked, as if he was calling from the front. One of his friends had forgotten to cover for him, and his wife found out that he wasn’t where he said he was on the night he was with me. She was waiting for him when he got home. The red phone was in her hand and the nukes were launched. He told me, “You have no idea what hell it’s been. All we do is drink and yell at each other.”
“Then get out of there. Come be with me.” “I can’t,” he stammered. “Even for a few minutes. Please! I have to see you.”
“I can’t. I promised her.” I got it then. The night the ashtray broke was the last time I would see him for three years.
Joe Papp had not given up on my show. He brought in another director, who quickly put together a private workshop. Reducing the cast to two teenagers, a girl to sing all the girls’ songs and a boy to sing the boys’, the director eliminated any connective story and simply had the kids lying in their beds and delivering one song after another.
I didn’t much like his approach; I thought it was so stripped down and static that the show seemed slight, a cabaret revue. But Joe liked it. The director said he would mount the official production next year, when he got done directing another workshop of a little thing called “Pirates of Penzance” with Linda Ronstadt. (As it happened, he would be busy a lot longer than a year; he directed “Pirates” on Broadway and then the film version.)
Meanwhile I sensed that my grandfather’s presence had faded. Once he’d delivered the music, his mission was done. But I kept talking to him anyway. I preferred to imagine him there. Misery loves company, even if the company’s not actually there. “Dear Diary” became “Dear Grandpa”; I confided in him and he silently received all my drivel; and I was quite the addled package in 1978, with my show capsized, my heart broken, and my spirit sapped. Again I asked him, Why? What was the point of having me write all that music? I don’t mind being a pawn, but what’s the game?
I had no energy and, for the first time ever, no will to write. Yet I’d signed a contract for my second novel. My first, “Dry Hustle,” had sold well as a paperback (mainly in airport carousels). The idea for the next book had come to me a year before, when I was in a more fertile state. Ever since my musical collaborations with Grandpa, in the hours of lighter sleep before dawn, I’d become more attentive to my dreams, because sometimes, after the usual wacky cavalcade of dream sequences, there might come some bit of creative help relating to my work.
Whether these helpful suggestions were sent by my unconscious, my grandfather or other heavenly mentors, was moot to me. I remember one time when I was writing a song cycle about (what else) sex, two titles were offered in a dream. The first, which I eventually did use, was “Biology And You.” The second, which made me wake up laughing, was a big front-page news headline: “GIRL, 29, ESCAPES REALITY.”
It was true that I did love to sleep. I was on the lookout for useful stuff. Dreams became a sort of transcendental scavenger hunt, which you won if you could recall your haul when you woke up, the messages and stories you’d picked up along the way. But remembering them was really hard, they erased themselves so fast. Before you awoke you had to remind yourself sternly that you were dreaming, that you had to stop and review and commit to memory what you needed to carry into the daylight. Even harder, you had to remember to remind yourself that you were dreaming, difficult when you were distracted by that giant snake growing out of your ear or the blender that was chasing you.
But once in a while I’d receive an image that glowed in brighter colors, as if highlighted, accompanied by a tacit command: “Remember this.”
The image that became my second book was simply this: a white-washed room, a window with no glass framing the turquoise horizon of the sea, and a tawny young man in silhouette. I was given to understand that the man belonged to me as property. He was my slave.
I wonder now if I was mistaken in taking this image as a suggestion for a book. It might have been a glimpse of a former life. Or a shred of ancestral memory, from when my ancestors were slaveowners.
It was only last year that I came full face to face with my family’s southern history. When clearing out Grandpa’s house for sale, my elder brother and I found two big boxes of the letters and papers of previous generations of Kernochans. We didn’t have time to read them, so we decided to consign the papers to storage (until this coming summer, when I’ll be able to peruse them). Just before sealing the boxes, my brother suggested we pick just one item at random to read. He stuck his hand deep into a box and pulled out a folded document.
It was a land deed dated 1855, written in an elegant scrupulous hand. The multiple pages were yellow and fragile; when we opened them, they clung to each other and threatened to tear along the creases. The contract deeded a sugar plantation near New Orleans to one Eliza Kernochan. The purchase included 54 slaves.
Each name (first name only) was noted in descending order of age, from an 89-year-old down to the babies. Many of the names were French: Christophe, François, etc. Fifty-four souls, who had now become the chattel of our ancestor. We’d heard that a branch of our family maintained plantations in Louisiana in the 19th century.
We assumed they probably had slaves, but it was an embarrassing detail we didn’t like to think about. Not until we read the physical document did we feel the full horror. If I’d held that contract in my hand back in 1978, I might not have thought the idea for my second novel was the stuff of comedy.
Because “Dry Hustle” was so raunchy, my editor expected me to write another sexy darkly comic romp. I converted the mysterious dream-image of the young man at the window into the story of a woman who’s tired of American men, bored by their emotional cowardice and their “lying down on the job”; so she goes to an Arab country and buys a slave, whom she tries to teach to be the ideal boyfriend.
Or, perhaps the dream image was precognitive, because only six months later I stood in that same white-washed room.
I recognized it immediately. By then I was in the research phase of my book, touring North African and Middle Eastern countries – Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, the Emirates, anywhere I had contacts – to absorb the Arab culture and mentality. My last stop was Tunisia, where I’d rented a house in Hammamet for a week. The open-air bedroom window framed the turquoise Mediterranean. The house came with a male servant. He was the same young man I’d seen in the dream. When I arrived he said in broken English, “I am for you. You say, I do.”
I returned home only to pack up for a longer trip. I’d decided to live in Morocco while writing my book. It seemed like the safest of all the countries I’d visited for an unaccompanied woman to navigate. It’s all very well to receive an idea from the ether. What you do with the idea, that’s the big test. The songs I wrote, the show, the novel – I was on my own after receiving the inspiration; failure or success was on my head. I would eventually learn that, if my grandfather was indeed my protector, he could not protect me from the consequences of my freely made choices. And I was headed for a bitch of trouble.
January of ‘79, I prepared for the coming year in Morocco. Problem: there were snakes there. But I reasoned that I would not be alone. I’d made some Moroccan contacts on my previous recon trip. I could avoid the snakes by walking behind someone.
I’d given my address to nobody, because I didn’t have one yet. I completely understood those dudes who joined the Foreign Legion, fleeing some failure or dishonor at home, to get as far away as possible, preferably the ends of the earth where no one would notice if you fell off. I would be beyond the reach of show biz, without even a telephone. In the North African desert, chances were good that you wouldn’t run into your ex-lover, agent, producer, editor, or someone asking, “Whatever happened to that show you were doing?”
I had no desire to be around Caucasians of any kind. I wanted to meet Arabs. My fascination with them dated way back to the first time I saw “Lawrence of Arabia,” which is, in my view, a movie without flaw. However, after my recon visits to the Emirates, Yemen, and Tunisia, I’d found that Arabs were a fairly private lot. One’s home life was hidden behind green doors and high walls. One’s self was screened as well. An outsider had to grope through infinite layers of veils. What could get me invited inside? That’s where the Tarot cards came in.
I first started learning Tarot from Frank Andrews because I wanted to be psychic, too: to know, to feel, to “see” events and details in another person’s life; to acquire that certain spookiness. Although I didn’t get those powers, when I practised reading people’s cards I did notice something curious. First of all, they really enjoyed being the sole object of attention. Then, if the reading turned up something personal, even secret, they were fascinated and disarmed that I’d seen through them: there was an instant intimacy. At that point, the mask would fall away, and they started confiding things they would ordinarily never tell a stranger. And for a writer, people’s stories are paydirt.
The awkward part of the reading was when it came time to predict the outcome. Sometimes the answer was obvious, and not necessarily positive. Was it such a good thing for them to know in advance? I had the option of lying, but then the prediction would be wrong, and I hate like anything to be wrong.
One time (1980) when I was staying at a hotel in Haiti I read for an American entrepreneur who was about to buy a big parcel of land for sugarcane and the manufacture of his own brand of rum. All his money would be tied up in the venture. He asked if his investment would turn out well.
The outcome cards were familiar; I’d seen them before when I’d read for the hotel owner’s wife. I told him to back out of the deal; there was a time of huge upheaval ahead. I stopped short of the word catastrophe because I could see how upset he was by my answer. He went on a three-day bender and then bought the land anyway.
Years later, I ran into the hotel owner’s wife in New York. They had sold the business and ankled Haiti before dictator Baby Doc Duvalier sowed total chaos; all the hotels eventually shuttered and foreign investors fled. She said she often remembered my prediction. I wondered if that businessman got out with his skin.
One time in the mid-80’s I had a job rewriting the script for “Nine and ½ Weeks” and the director Adrian Lyne asked me to read his cards.
Shooting hadn’t begun but already the project had been through the wringer. Tri-Star Studios had cancelled production only three weeks before start of principal photography; some higher-up had actually read the script and freaked out that the studio was on the hook to make a porn film.
The producers raced around Europe, slapping together the money from foreign distributors while Adrian suffered through the suspense. He was fresh off the monster success of “Flashdance,” and to have his next movie cancelled was humiliating. In the eleventh hour, the money arrived, production could begin, but Adrian was already a nervous wreck. He asked me to tell him how the film would turn out.
I hesitated. “Are you sure you want to know before you’ve even begun?” I asked.
“Sure.” Adrian was nothing if not reckless.
I had him shuffle and cut the deck. I laid out the six cards which would give him the answer. Even now I remember three of the cards very well.
I said, “Be very careful of your physical well-being, or you’ll totally deplete your energy.” (Eight of Pentacles.) “The critics will beat you up” (Nine of Swords) “but the movie will make huge amounts of money” (Ten of Pentacles).
Adrian only focused on my forecast of the critics’ reaction; he got very depressed and was heartily sorry he’d asked.
During the shoot Adrian was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion. When the movie came out theatrically in America, the reviews were scathing and no one went to see it. In Europe, on the other hand, it was a massive hit, an instant classic, played for years, made buckets of money, and when it came out on video in the U.S. it was a cash cow all over again. I wasn’t all that good at Tarot, but sometimes the cards were dead clear.
And so I packed my things for my year in North Africa: my Olivetti Underwood typewriter, a ream of yellow paper, three pairs of shoes, a small wardrobe of entirely pink clothes (for some reason I’ve forgotten, this was part of my forging a new identity), and my Tarot cards, which would serve as my key to the inner lives of Moroccans.
How would it all turn out? I wondered in my excitement to get gone. I gave myself a reading, even though fortunetellers are notoriously bad at taking their own advice.
Seven of Pentacles: a long trip. The World: abroad. I pretended not to see the third card, the Six of Swords: a stern warning against recklessness. Like Adrian, I wanted to know but I really didn’t.
I woke every morning at dawn to the sounds of mopeds, cartwheels rolling and donkeys braying as their owners, the tangerine farmers, thrashed them through narrow streets to the market. Household maids with trays of rounded dough on their heads hurried to the communal oven so there would be freshly baked loaves for their employers’ breakfasts. Then came the mint-sellers’ cries as they trundled their wheelbarrows full of the fragrant herb that, later in the morning, would infuse the hundreds of thousands of glasses of mint tea downed by thousands of Casablanca inhabitants throughout the day.
After breakfast, matrons emerged on the streets, heading for their married daughters’ houses for a morning of serious interfering. Their short veils, edged in lace, were tied under their noses to cover their mouths; they wore long djellabas over their clothes: gray and beige were in favor because this was a big city where the women considered themselves, relative to the rest of Morocco, sophisticated. Their daughters were so modern that they never wore djellabas at all or never spoke Arabic; they insisted on quarreling with their mothers in French. A local tailor was making me a pink djellaba, which I would wear for the rest of the year. Not that I would ever blend in.
Wrapped in a blanket, listening to the street noise, I lay on some banquette cushions in Khadija’s living room. On the other banquette, her 15-year-old daughter slept on. I met Khadija through her cousin Ali, who worked in the local Citibank. I met Ali through my elder brother who was stationed in the Athens branch of Citibank. The Ali-Khadija connection tied me into a respected and very numerous family that extended into every major city in Morocco. Thus, wherever I went I had contacts.
My intention was to hole up in Marrakesh until the summer heat from the desert grew impossible, then move north to somewhere I hadn’t decided on. Khadija was going to drive me to Marrakesh and help me find an apartment. But her boss wouldn’t give her a week off until next month, so I was stuck in Casa for all of January.
I folded my blanket and rearranged the banquette. Khadija came in from her bedroom, the only other room in her small apartment, closing the door quietly so as not to wake her boyfriend. Khadija’s daughter, awake now, got on all fours to brush the carpet. Her mother lit her first cigarette of the day while waiting for the part-time maid to finish pummeling the laundry in the bathtub and bring in our breakfast. The new Bob Dylan cassette tape I brought her from America bawled from the hi-fi.
Khadija wasn’t used to having her daughter around. Her ex-husband got custody of their little girl after the divorce. Khadija had been sixteen when she married him. They divorced shortly after the baby was born but remained on amicable terms. Released from child-rearing, Khadija went back to school, learned English, and now had a good job working for a wealthy businessman related to the royal family.
As far as her own family was concerned, Khadija had done her social duty by getting married and producing at least one child, so they tolerated her increasingly modern behavior as she enjoyed the independence that only a divorced woman was permitted. They even accepted her live-in boyfriend, largely because he played on the Moroccan soccer team and was therefore tantamount to a prince.
Khadija’s neighbor Asía joined us for breakfast. Her husband had gone to work; she left her kids with her maid. Asía envied Khadija a lot; she would’ve given anything to be divorced. She too had been married at sixteen. Her brother picked out one of his friends to be her husband, extolling his virtues: “He’s well-mannered, hard-working, makes a good salary, doesn’t smoke or drink or chase women or boys. You are very lucky.” Asía protested, “You mean he doesn’t know how to have fun!”
Twelve years and three children later, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She never let him touch her, told him she didn’t love him, but still he wouldn’t consent to a divorce. His attitude was: why should he go through all the trouble and expense of getting another wife, when his life was just the way it should be, and the way things usually were, in Morocco? That is, not so good and not so bad.
Asía was quite downhearted. To make things worse, her affair with Khadija’s ex-husband wasn’t going very well. Khadija didn’t love her boyfriend anymore either. He seldom made love to her, stayed out late, filled her living room with his rowdy teammates without asking her permission or paying for the food they expected; and, like them, he was stupid. He had “shit for brains.” She loved this American expression I taught her. But the one that really had her rolling on the carpet was “Needledick the Bugfucker,” so she called him that as well as “shit for brains” to his face, howling with laughter because he didn’t understand English.
Khadija told the soccer hero a hundred times: it’s over. He was unimpressed. His attitude was: why should he move out of her apartment where he lived rent-free and the maid washed his clothes?
Both Khadija and Asía wanted me to read their cards. They’d asked me to read for them every morning since I arrived. By now I was bored with it, and I couldn’t believe they weren’t bored, too, because their future didn’t change much from day to day. But that was exactly their frustration: they wanted their lives to change. Waiting for a miracle wasn’t practical. As I mentioned, these were modern, sophisticated women.
So they told me their plan. Khadija would borrow a car from her boss and take the day off on some pretext. Asía would lie to her husband about where she’d be all day. Then they would drive to Khouribga, a mining town about two hours from Casa.
What’s in Khouribga? I asked.
Khadija put her index finger to her lips, the universal gesture for strict secrecy. She told me they were going to see a “sehúra” – a witch. Did I want to come?
The road to Khouribga was impossibly rutted. Khadija drove like a demon, her high-heeled French boot gluing the pedal to the floor; every time we hit a pothole my head bumped the ceiling of the Fiat. The only good roads in Morocco were in the areas where the King had palaces.
Asía rode up front beside Khadija; the two rattled on in Arabic, in a vitriolic tone; I assumed they were discussing the myriad ways in which they going to fuck over their men, with the help of this witch. The sehúra we were about to see had a reputation for efficient spells.
Meanwhile I sat in the backseat congratulating myself on my good fortune. I had my notebook ready: what a story! I’d managed to instill enough trust in these women that they were willing to bring me along on their mission; and I would get a rare glimpse into the secretive underworld of sorcery, which was highly illegal. Even fortunetelling was banned. Though Moroccan Arabs and Berbers were committed Muslims, the animism that had filtered up from Africa long ago was inextricably entwined with their spiritual culture. Superstition, magic, and a thriving population of spirits jostled up against the seven pillars of Islam.
Basically the King had outlawed witchcraft to stop people from poisoning each other. The sehúrs were providing lethal substances folks could easily mix into their enemies’ food. I hoped that my two friends weren’t planning to go that far.
A hundred kilometers later we arrived at the cinderblock hovel where the sorceress lived. She was out visiting a client. We waited inside for her return. Obviously magic didn’t provide her with a lot of income: the rooms were cramped, furnishings humble, with the notable exception of a new TV and refrigerator, a European toilet, porcelain figurines of German shepherdesses, and a truly weird cuckoo clock that ejected a raucous wooden bird every fifteen minutes. These were all gifts from her son, who lived in a better part of town and picked up presents for Mom when he traveled abroad on business.
The witch returned. Taking off her djellaba, she stripped to the short drawstring trousers that Berber women wore under everything, and sat crosslegged on the opposite banquette, feet tucked under her capacious bottom: a dumpy Buddha-like figure with traditional tattoos on her forehead and chin. Her gold teeth vigorously exercised a wad of bubble gum. Dangling from a chain around her ample neck was a gold hand of Fatima (the prophet’s daughter), a common Muslim talisman; two more hung from her ears. A lot of Moroccans didn’t use banks; they immediately converted their money into gold jewelry, wearing their savings accounts, so to speak.
The sehúra’s name was Fatima, too. Eyeing me suspiciously, she asked Khadija in Arabic what the hell she was doing, bringing along a “nasrani” (Christian).
Khadija assured her that, not only could I keep a secret, but I was also a cardreader. She turned to me then with a big gold-flecked smile. So I was a fellow outlaw! To welcome me, she offered to read my cards for free.
Khadija translated patiently as Fatima did a couple of spreads, using a deck that seemed a cross between the Tarot and ordinary playing cards. “She says, there is a man coming into your life. Much love is there. You will have a lot of money soon.” Later that year, when I had acquired a small Arabic vocabulary, and after I’d been to many more fortunetellers, I found that most readings boiled down to: “Man coming. Lots of money.” Or sometimes “Bad man coming. Takes your money.” It seemed that love and money were all their clients were interested in.
I wasn’t there for either one. I only wanted a story, and so far Fatima was a very good one. Where it was going, I had no idea, but somehow it was going to enrich my writing, or at least make for some colorful dinner conversation when I got back to the U.S.
Fatima turned to Khadija next. “What is it you want?”
Khadija explained her dire boyfriend situation. Nodding, Fatima replied at length. I understood nothing; Fatima spoke neither French nor English. Khadija handed the witch a crumpled handkerchief from her purse, along with some money in payment.
Fatima asked Asía what she wanted. While Asía took her turn, Khadija filled me in: the sehúra had agreed to make Khadija a potion to be liberally applied to the insides of her boyfriend’s clothing and shoes. Once his skin came in contact with the potion, he would experience an overwhelming repulsion for her apartment. He would pack up and leave without delay. But Khadija should take care that no one else put on his clothes by accident, or that person would never come to her house again.
In order to concoct the potion, the witch required something from the boyfriend’s body, like hair, saliva: a sort of DNA sample. Khadija was prepared: she had brought a cloth she’d used to wipe off his semen after they made love the night before.
I looked up from our conversation to see Fatima was shaking her finger sternly in Asía’s face and talking animatedly. Khadija said the sehúra refused to do a spell for Asía; that if Asía’s husband gave her a divorce, she would lose everything: home, kids, security, and a man who in spite of everything loved her. The sad truth was, Asía’s life would never get any better than it was now.
Inwardly I had zero belief that Fatima’s magic spells actually worked, but I was impressed with the woman’s honesty, that she wouldn’t take the easy money and just give Asía what she wanted. And while I was thinking that, Fatima suddenly turned to me with an unexpected question.
“She’s asking you,” Khadijah said, “what do you want?”
What did I want from a witch? My first thought was: I need help with my book. I’d had to submit the opening chapters of my second novel to my publisher before leaving for Morocco. Utterly fatigued from a four-year marathon of continuous writing (first novel, screenplay adaptation, and music and lyrics for a show), I felt I had nothing left. I forced myself to grind out the requisite pages nevertheless. The result was mechanical and pretentious, and no wonder: I was pretending I could write.
My editor had great faith in me anyway. But I didn’t. And now it was time to make good on my contract, as well as meeting my own ambitious standards, inspiration seemed out of reach. George Sand, who had to churn out reams of romantic novels for her public, once lamented that she had worn out her muse; and now, when she appealed once again for inspiration, her muse came forward all painted up like a whore, delivering empty kisses and a cold embrace, as if faking sex with a client. (I’m paraphrasing from memory.) My muse had been my grandfather’s spirit, and I felt as if he too had deserted me: absorbed back into the great cosmic continuum, or just gone on vacation. Maybe he’d balked at following me into Morocco, which was definitely not his kind of neighborhood. Maybe he was in Paris or Martha’s Vineyard. In any case, I missed and needed my beloved protector, his company, his comfort, his creative generosity, even his snits. I’d lost my shadow. Whom could I turn to now, to get genius?
To a genie. Natch!
I was in the right place for it, after all. I’d done my reading. According to legend – and many Moroccans’ belief – the atmosphere of this country teemed with “jinnoon,” spirits that interacted with humans, beings made of fire and air that ranged from beneficent to demonic. From the myths, I gathered that with careful diplomacy and clever negotiation, a “jinn” (genie) could be engaged to improve one’s situation. You know, get the palace, get the princess…or get the genius…
I turned to my friend Khadija: “Tell her I want a jinn.”
Khadija did a double take, reluctantly translated my request to the sehúra, then turned back to me: “You are a crazy girl! These things do not exist!” Which I thought was hilarious, coming from a woman who had just bought a magic potion to get rid of her boyfriend.
Fatima the witch interrupted, speaking sharply to Khadija, whose expression changed from scorn to bafflement. Again Khadijah translated, “She says you are not crazy, you are wise because if you have a jinn then you don’t need a witch anymore. He will do everything you want.”
I grinned at this. The conversation moved rapidly now, Khadija continuing to interpret the sehúra’s answers to my questions. “She can do it but it will be expensive.”
I wasn’t surprised. “How much?”
It would be $100, plus $150 for the sheep.
“What’s the sheep for?”
“To please her jinn. He’s the one who gives her powers.”
It was quite a lot of money for what I thought of as a mad lark. I knew I was being hustled, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the “spell” to the end. I saw myself as doing deep reconnaissance inside the top-secret sorcery business. I was going gonzo. And it would all go into my book.
Khadija agreed to bring me back in a week so I could undergo the Big Spell. I forked over the money for the sheep, the rest to be paid after the ceremony. I think Fatima sensed I was not taking the whole thing entirely seriously. She assured me, “You will believe it when you see him with your own eyes! You will talk to him!”
“English, French, whatever you want. He will even make love to you.”
I wasn’t enthusiastic about the sex part. “Does it have to be a male spirit?”
“Female spirits are no good for a woman. You need a jinn who has recently left this life but he still wants to be attached, so he looks for someone alive to have a relationship with.”
I muttered to Khadija, “I just want help with my book. This is starting to sound like I’m getting a boyfriend. Ask her if he’s going to be the jealous type.”
“No, he will be very nice,” came the answer. “Unless he falls in love with you.”
“I’d like a homosexual.”
Khadija gave a little shriek. “No more! We are finished here!” She beckoned Asía: we’re outa here.
As we three got in the car, Khadija collapsed, laughing and banging her head on the steering wheel. “It’s too much! You talk about spirits like they are real people!”
“Some of them used to be,” I averred, thinking of my grandfather.
Upon our return to Casablanca, Asía went home to husband and kids, and Khadija unlocked her apartment next door.
Entering, we stepped into darkness. The electricity had been turned off. Her boyfriend was eating some hardboiled eggs and dates the maid had left by candlelight. He admitted that he’d forgotten to give Khadija the utilities bill. Fuming, Khadija asked me in English to sit with him and keep him distracted while she went into his closet.
I kept up a running conversation with him in French while Khadija got busy applying the sehúra’s potion to the lining of his jackets and inside his shoes. If it worked, he would be gone from her apartment and her life forever, which couldn’t be soon enough for her.
Meanwhile the boyfriend was flirting with me in French, “You are so beautiful when you laugh.” Then he unexpectedly switched to English, which I didn’t think he knew a word of. He pronounced the words slowly and awkwardly: “I want to make love to you. I am Needledick the Bugfucker.”
“Khadija!” I shouted.
She came back in the room, having finished the ju-ju job.
“He just said, ‘I am Needledick the Bugfucker.’ Did you teach him that?”
“Yes, I told him it means ‘I am a great lover.’”
Her boyfriend studied our expressions, wondering what we were saying. We kept our faces straight. She fed him a date, telling him in French, “Sarah isn’t interested in you. She’s getting a special boyfriend who isn’t there.” He looked puzzled. She added in English, “Just like you’re gonna be.”
Note: I’m able to report these experiences, including conversations, in such detail because I held onto my diaries from Morocco. It was the one and only time I’ve ever kept a journal, which I thought might be the makings of a book some day. I also knew that if I didn’t write everything down I would never believe any of it happened.
When I woke on the banquette in Khadija’s living room, I saw her daughter was up already. She was cleaning the closet, hoping to earn her mother’s gratitude by re-organizing Khadija’s and the boyfriend’s clothes. Khadija had secretly applied a magic potion to the lining of the boyfriend’s Cardin suits, the collars of his Italian shirts, even inside his soccer shorts. When his skin came in contact with the powerful brew he would be seized with the desire to clear out of her apartment.
She’d been warned that if anyone else touched his clothes, the potion would have the same effect. Now that her daughter's fingers had grazed his jacket lining, I wondered if she too would blow this crib. Khadija wouldn’t mind; the girl was getting in the way of her love life. Already she was planning to buy more spells from the witch of Khouribga, to guarantee she’d have plenty of romance once the boyfriend left. She was so excited by the possibilities of magic, she’d become like a kid in a sorcery supermarket, grabbing spells from every shelf. At last count she was targeting three different men, and had collected DNA samples from all three without their knowing. She’d even bedded her top choice for the express purpose of wiping his sperm off with a cloth to bring to the witch. Fatima could do incredible things with a man’s giz, could make him crazy with desire and – the impossible – render him devoted, courteous and respectful.
Today was the day we were returning to the sehúra’s house, so that I could be joined to my jinn and thus have all my wishes granted. I was finding this whole adventure hilarious. As Khadija drove my rental car to Khouribga, I mused about all the spells she could have asked for, instead of wasting them on men. A better job. Her own car. Equal rights for Moroccan women.
“Or,” I said when she turned the Bob Dylan tape up louder, “if it had to be a man, you could’ve asked for Bob Dylan.”
“That would be more expensive than yours,” she laughed. “Five sheeps, at least.”
When we arrived at Fatima’s house, it was nearing sundown. My sheep was tethered outside; a butcher crouched alongside, waiting for the evening prayer. Khadija went inside to settle up her business with the sehúra.
Fatima’s daughter Naíma came out with glasses of mint tea for the butcher and myself. I smiled at her and received a shy smile in return. Naíma was shy by nature and cloistered by necessity. After her father died, her mother was left with no money except from her sorcery fees and occasional stipends from her brother, barely enough to feed her three children. So she married off Naíma when she turned 14 to a much older man. He divorced her five years later when she failed to produce children, returning her to Fatima’s house. Fatima kept her close, never allowing her out unaccompanied. Young men circled like hounds; in a small town, a deflowered and divorced young woman was considered fair game. Naíma’s life was over, basically, and she was once more a burden on her mother. My heart went out to the girl.
At twilight came the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer. Naíma held the sheep as the butcher prepared his knife. I had tried to bury the thought, but as the man’s blade sliced through the animal’s throat and its blood jetted in a high arc, I had to face the fact that this poor creature was being sacrificed to my whim. In that moment I wished I hadn’t started the whole thing.
It was selfish and absurd, to contract this witch for a genie, a magic feat that would never succeed, except to provide humorous copy. On the other hand, I told myself, a sheep was an incredible luxury for this family; the meat would feed them for weeks. Inflation was so high in Morocco that the poor could no longer afford to buy the traditional sheep for the big feast following Ramadan, a deep humiliation. Fatima’s brother always gave them one for the feast, but for the rest of the year they could only crave red meat.
The butcher let the animal fall to the ground; its legs galloped in the air, as if it was dreaming of its escape; slowing as the last of its blood surged out onto the tiled doorstep. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as I looked away.
My eyes met Naíma’s, who gave me a look of sympathy. Emerging with Khadija, her mother caught the look between us. As she spoke, Khadija translated: I should take Naíma with me to Marrakesh to be my maid; she was an excellent cook and fierce bargainer in the market, knew a lot of spells, plus it would be good for her to get out of the house and away from Khouribga. As two women alone, we could chaperone each other.
Khadija thought it was a great idea, and Naíma’s eyes glowed with a desperate hope, so I agreed.
Fatima bent and touched two fingers to the pool of animal blood. She dabbed it under my heel, and then Naíma’s. “There,” she said. “Now you are blood sisters.”
The butcher dissected my sacrificial sheep. The entrails that would spoil right away were sped to the kitchen where Naíma went to work. Her kid brother manned the grill outside, the sheep’s head hit the fire and the smell of charred meat filled the night. Hungry-eyed neighbors drifted over and crowded into Fatima’s little salon.
For myself, I hadn’t eaten red meat or poultry in nine years, only fish. So I sat out the course when everyone snatched flesh from the sheep’s head, including the eyes, down to bare bone and clenched teeth. Then I was presented with spiced liver wrapped in intestine. I declined, but Fatima insisted: I had to eat at least one bite from the sheep or the spell wouldn’t work and my jinn wouldn’t come.
And when is that scheduled to be? I asked. Khadija explained it would have to wait until everyone was asleep. I chewed bravely on one lump of liver; when I’d failed to reduce or alter its shape in any way, I swallowed it whole.
The dinner dragged on, after which someone with a boom box played Egyptian music and Fatima’s youngest daughter danced while the others clapped. Then they all watched “Star Trek” on the TV. At last the neighbors left and the younger kids went to bed. By now it was midnight. Khadija and I were tired, with a two-hour drive back to Casablanca ahead of us. Nevertheless, the evening had only just begun.
Naíma set a table of food for the spirits – the jinnoon – a bowl of milk, a plate of dates and hard-boiled eggs, and mutton stew. Fatima told her to go to bed. Then the sehúra fetched a puffy caftan for me to put on, with a gaudy pattern of roses drizzled in gold metallic thread; and a wide gold belt.
“What’s this for?” I asked.
Khadija said it was Naíma’s wedding outfit. “She says you are getting married to your jinn.”
I complained crankily, “She never said anything about marriage.”
“You have to, or he won’t be with you. Fatima says she had to marry her jinn, too. That’s how it works.”
I had to submit to makeup, too: kohl around my eyes, lipstick, blush. Then Fatima perched me on the banquette like a doll in tissue paper, lit some candles and turned off the overhead bulb. Seated at the table, she threw some herbs and sticky incense on the coals of a clay brazier. Khadija stretched out on the other banquette and immediately went to sleep.
The cuckoo clock bird banged open its little door and went crazy chirping: midnight. Fatima muttered some incantations and rocked on her seat. She threw pieces of dates at the door. I yawned. Silence.
A half hour later, the bird racketed again.
Then the overhead light suddenly flicked on. Then off. One more time, on and off.
Ooo, spooky. Is that the best she can do? I thought cynically: Naíma stands outside the door working the light switch? I supposed it was too much to expect they’d have a fog machine.
Yet, out of all reason, I started to be afraid.
Outside the window, there were occasional sounds of a town at night: a cart rolling by, a motorbike in the distance, dogs ahowl, a donkey’s bray, an insomniac rooster. But here inside, in the dim candlelight, there was a small fat woman keening and mumbling, another woman asleep on the banquette, and something else…filling the room…
It’s your fear, I told myself.
And then Fatima’s eyes popped open, bulging; she gasped, moaned, her mouth twisted in a grimace of pain. She held her hands up as if to ward off something; then flinched, as if struck.
I shook Khadija’s shoulder. “What’s happening? Wake up!”
But Khadija was already awake, her eyes wide. Her breath rasped as she clutched her neck. She sat bolt upright and looked at Fatima. The sehúra was whimpering and crying. She yelled angrily at Khadija in Arabic; my friend answered in cowed tones. Khadija then turned to me.
“Khadija, what the fuck is going on?!”
The witch excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Khadija’s eyes were round with fright as she explained: “The spirit, the jinn, he came, but he left because someone here was haram.”
“Me?” I asked. Haram means unclean, forbidden, and the list of things that qualify as haram, according to Islamic law, is longer than your arm. A Christian or, in my case, a nonbeliever is definitely unclean.
“No, me,” Khadija said, shamefaced. “After I had sex last night I didn’t wash or go to the baths.” That’s on the list, for men as well as women: clean up after the nasty. “So the jinn was very angry. He wouldn’t come in the room.”
I had wondered how the sehúra was going to wriggle out of the deal we had struck. For $100 she’d agreed to conjure a genie or jinn, for me and me alone. A spirit I could see and talk to, dedicated to me and me alone, a sort of muse who would help me with my book during my yearlong stay in Morocco. I never believed Fatima could actually pull this off, but my enduring fascination with hustlers led me on. (I’d written about a pair of con women in my first book.) I was curious to see how a magic spell scam would play out.
“Kind of far-fetched for an excuse but pretty clever,” I conceded. “So can we leave now?” I wanted nothing more than bed and sleep. It had been a long night of waiting for this persnickety jinn to show up.
“It’s true! He came!”
I looked at her, surprised. “Come on, did you see him?”
“I was sleeping, and then I felt hands around my neck.” She demonstrated, clutching her throat. “I was so scared. I was choking, I couldn’t breathe. That’s why I woke up. Fatima said it was her husband who was angry at me.”
“Her jinn, you know.”
Oh, right. I forgot Fatima had married one. All these jinns were confusing me.
Khadija went on, “And he was mad at her too, because she asked him to find a jinn for you, and then when the jinn came, everything wasn’t correct.”
At that moment Fatima returned, tears running down her cheeks and over her tattooed chin. She pulled down her trousers to show us the red marks on her thighs, rows of stripes, as if someone had whopped her with a long stick. She wailed something in Arabic.
Khadija gasped. “Look! She says her husband beat her very bad. He punished her.”
Now I was the one who was angry. This was really pathetic, that this so-called witch would go into the bathroom and smack herself with a broom handle, just to furnish me with proof of her jinn’s fury. But I supposed that for Fatima, a few bruises were worth it for the money.
I paid Fatima and thanked her, saying I was sorry for what happened and it was okay that the spell didn’t work out; never mind, keep the change. I grabbed Khadija and headed for the car.
But the witch followed us, gabbling energetically. She pressed a packet of herbs into Khadija’s hand.
Khadija thrust it in her purse. “We must burn these in my apartment when we get back. And she says don’t make love with any other man so you are not haram when the jinn comes. He will appear first in dreams and then he will come for you to talk to.”
I’d heard it all before. Seeing my disbelief, Fatima shook her finger at me. Khadija translated: “You will see him. He is tall and very handsome. You will be so happy in love, and he will bring you inspiration, and lots of money. You will come back to Khouribga and tell her about it!”
Uh-huh. You will meet a tall, dark handsome stranger. You’ll be rich. Now pay me, and come back for more of my bullshit. That’s how the gypsy scam goes.
By the time we got back to Casablanca at sunup, I’d developed a cold. I pitched myself onto the banquette, grabbing a pillow. Khadija made a beeline for the kitchen and set to work burning the herbs Fatima had given her. “Don’t bother,” I called. “Go to sleep.”
“But maybe it will work!”
“Just like the spell she did for you?” I pointed out her lover’s clothes on the floor where he dropped them for the maid to pick up. “I don’t see your boyfriend moving out.”
And he didn’t move out the next day, or the next day. In fact, he seemed more comfortable than ever. Meanwhile I prepared for my move to Marrakesh the following week. I was ready for a change of address. Being sick, I also slept a lot; the cold sapped my energy. I ate oranges and got better.
Then one night I dreamed I was standing in an aisle between rows of seats, waiting for some event to begin. I joked with friends, “This is like waiting for my bridegroom.” As soon as I’d uttered the words, I turned and saw a man in a light-colored suit heading away from us, walking to the head of the aisle. He glanced back, his eyes meeting mine.
He was breathtakingly beautiful. His dark hair was swept back from a brow that seemed to glow like a live star over the elegant slopping bones of his face. His pale skin was tinged with a warm lingering gold as if he’d spent half his life in the sun and then been shut away from the light for a long while. His lips were flushed and curled at the edges in an arcane smile. A pair of remarkable eyebrows arched like black wings over eyes that were cold, and refractive as though a layer of blue ice within had shivered.
He paused in front of an altar, where he waited for me. I moved toward him in a strange fog – no, it was a veil over my face. I loved him; we were meant for each other.
I arrived at his side. The altar was now a mirror. He stepped behind me, turning me to face it. Looking at our reflection, I saw he was naked now. His arms wrapped around me, crossing protectively over the bodice of my wedding gown. Though I was tall, he was so much taller; my head didn’t even come up to his shoulder. His solemn face hovered over the top of my veil, the black eyebrows lifted in anticipation.
I let him turn me around; he raised my veil slowly. I faced his polished chest. I felt his hands at my back, lifting me up to his mouth to kiss me. His fingers dug into my ribs sharply. I arched against the pain, gazing up his steep chest, which rose like a column into the clouds where it disappeared …
And then I was awake, my mouth still parted for the kiss. My eyes were closed but the light of dawn shone through my lids. I could hear Khadija’s daughter stirring under her blanket on the opposite banquette. A motorbike went by outside the window.
I felt a tongue slip between my lips and unfurl inside my mouth. A man was on top of me. I didn’t dare move. He was naked, immense and powerfully built, his weight impressed on my body.
I felt him lift his head, withdrawing from the kiss. I opened my eyes. I could see nothing but a man’s chest hovering over my vision. And now his head was at my ear, and a low male voice asked, in a polite formal tone, “Did you do anything else with anyone who was available?”
I knew what the naked entity on top of me was asking. Had I followed the rules? he wanted to know. Was I clean? Did I fuck anyone while he was away? If not, then he could proceed to consummate our marriage, which had just been sealed in the dream.
He waited for my reply. I was in a difficult position, pinned under a spirit and confronted with a choice. Furthermore I had woken up only seconds before; fear hadn’t yet seized me because I was still in the thrall of the dream. He was my beautiful beloved; I had accepted him at the altar, allowed his kiss willingly, in spite of his mauling my ribs. It seemed natural to give him what he wanted. This is what I usually did when in love with a man: I let him in.
In a word, I was enchanted.
And yet, some indestructible part of myself broke through the glamour. You see, I was always a bit of a contrarian. My sheer cussedness, which had always gotten me in trouble with authority figures, may have saved me with this one. So I talked back to my jinn, and gave him that defiant piece of my mind.
“You don’t understand,” I said. Strangely, my lips didn’t move as I spoke. I soon learned that when talking to a spirit, you are communicating essence to essence, with no need for the earthly apparatus of lungs, breath, diaphragm, vocal cords, mouth, lips or ears. The words that form in your mind manifest simultaneously – you might say wirelessly – in the consciousness of the other.
I forged on. “I need comfort and inspiration, not sex. You may hold me in your arms, but not replace men.”
There was a pause. Then I felt him fade slowly, evaporating into a light haze of disappointment…And then he was altogether gone.
I was left stunned, every cell aquiver; the delayed fear now took hold. The impression of his weight remained like a stone on my body. At length it too disappeared. I sat up on the banquette and glanced at the clock.
It was 5:45 a.m., the same transitional hour from darkness to light when my grandfather used to contact me, twining himself into the plot of a dream and then coaxing me into a semi-conscious state where we could work together. But with Grandpa, from the beginning I refused to cede control.
Almost by force of habit, I treated my jinn the same way – standing up to him, firmly setting boundaries.
Everyone was still asleep, so I had nothing to do but lie there thinking. It wasn’t long before remorse set in. The feeling of his arms around me had not been unpleasant. He seemed respectful enough. Obedient, too. He didn’t press his suit when I objected. And – can I say it? – he was hot. But I’d turned him away, maybe for good.
Would it have been so bad to go all the way? It might’ve been fantastic, literally out of this world. I imagined us rolling around in the ether, me laughing, him tickling my ribs. By now, my imagination was running rampant, with my sense of humor close at its heels. An invisible boyfriend! Wouldn’t that be the last laugh! I’d never have to traffic with men if I had a secret, not to mention larger than life, lover.
But before our next encounter I’d have to work on my attitude. No more backtalk. I got up to see if there were any more herbs left in the witch’s pouch. There were. I waited for the maid to arrive and got her to light the coal brazier.
The burning smell got Khadija out of bed. Her jaw fell off its hinge when I told her what had happened. “I know this is crazy, but I want him to come back,” I said calmly, though I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. “At least take it to the next step. I’m ready for whatever happens.”
But would he come back after being rejected?
Khadija called Khouribga, dialing a neighbor’s number to bring the sehúra to the phone. Fatima was triumphant. She guaranteed the jinn would come back; just to be sure, she’d do another spell. And there was an incantation I should do myself, before going to bed. Khadija wrote it down for me so I could recite it phonetically, because it was in Arabic. I wasn’t sure why, when my jinn spoke English, but okay. What else did I have to do? Fatima replied: just go to sleep in a relaxed, normal way. Don’t be impatient because he is coming from a long, long way. Once you two are joined, then he will never be far from you.
Before she left for work, Khadija joked, “Tell him to give me 10,000 durhams so I can buy a BMW. No, I’ll buy a sheep! Then I’ll get a jinn bigger than yours!” She laughed at the idea of our two “husbands” getting into a quarrel, fencing with swords: “All right, children, take it outside.”
I practised reading the words of the incantation. “Ya m’lkee sheert aleek tasheera n’deer fee galbek taheera. Djinni farhan ay walhan. Ts’baya liya mabayghoo al weezara lee sooltan.”
I beckon you, my spirit, so that I may live in your heart. Approach me, genie, full of joy and goodness. Salute me as do the ministers and slaves their sultan.
I had the whole day ahead of me, but all I could think of was getting through it fast. Day was dull. Bring on the night.
Going to sleep in a relaxed manner, as the witch advised, was almost impossible. After Khadija and her boyfriend went to bed, and her daughter and I retired to the banquettes, I lay awake in the dark and waited in vain for fatigue to draw me down into dreams. I didn’t know how or if my boughten spirit would come; with my hand on the knob to let him in, I was so torn between anticipation and dread that I really didn’t know which was my better instinct – to fling the door open or slam it shut – or if I even had a choice in the matter anymore.
Khadija’s daughter was dreaming plenty, tossing in her sleep. But my eyes kept popping open at every sound; my stomach spasmed; my heart lurched along like a wagon with a wheel off. Finally I fell asleep and had a perfectly farcical dream.
I had ordered a gigolo from an agency. They sent over a short gay guy who had no relish for his job and just wanted to get it over with. Furious, I called the agency. They offered to replace him at no extra charge. Would I please check the take-out list and choose someone else? I scanned the flyer in my hand. Bullfighter…Pirate…Hippie… Ah, here was a bargain: a Cowboy with a “chorus” of four more cowboys included. (For background harmony?) Anyway I was partial to shitkickers. But when they arrived, I found out the extra cowboys were rowdies, whose role was to hoot and throw beer cans while the Cowboy and I got it on. So I sent the chorus away. Just as I was about to settle in with my rented lover, Khadija popped up to remind me that I wasn’t supposed to make love to any other man before my jinn. So the Cowboy went, too.
I woke up annoyed, and took a Valium. I managed another couple of hours of sleep, waking when the maid arrived instead of the jinn.
The sehúra had said to be patient; his was a long trip. Maybe the jinn needed an extra day. He’d
stopped off at a jinn motel.
I filled the hours renting a car for the drive to Marrakesh and picking my djellaba up from the tailor; meanwhile my obsession raged like a furnace. He had to come! And soon, before I headed south.
By evening I was exhausted from too little sleep the night before, and looking to go to bed early, but Khadija’s boyfriend arrived with his chorus of soccer rowdies and proceeded to throw a party. (They sent me out to procure whiskey and wine, which could only be sold to non-Muslims and foreigners.) Because of the noise Khadija deposited her daughter at the neighbor’s for the night. On and on into the wee hours the men stomped and sang and hollered. I kept glancing over at Khadija to see if she was going to throw them out yet.
One time I looked over at Khadija, her head was twisted away as she gazed over her shoulder at the wall. When she snapped back, her mouth was open; her shocked eyes met mine.
She fought through the crowd to join me. “I can’t believe it. I saw him!” she shouted above the music. “He was behind me, did you see?”
“Yes, your jinn!”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“I felt a pressure on my back like someone was crowding me behind. I thought it was strange because I was against the wall, and I turned – and he was there. Very tall, like you said, dark hair – w’allah, I
thought I was going to have a heart attack!”
“Khadija, you’re drunk.”
“I swear!” she protested vigorously. “He had a little smile. And these amazing dark eyebrows.” She traced the swoop of the eyebrows on her forehead.
That stopped me. I’d never told her about the eyebrows.
“I’m not drunk, but now I think I will be.” Khadija left me to intercept a bottle of whiskey the men were passing around.
I felt like crying. She really had seen him. What was he doing, showing himself to her and not me? I was the one who’d been waiting, who’d placed the call, who’d ordered him from the agency…
Khadija passed out in her bedroom, while I had to wait for the living room to empty out before I could sleep on the banquette. The party didn’t break up until 4. I slid under my blanket, so pissed off: those assholes had stolen my dream time. By the time I fell asleep it would be time to get up again, when the maid arrived. There would be no time for a rendezvous with my spirit guy. Curling up on my side to face the wall, I started drifting off…
And then I became aware of a presence behind me. It wasn’t touching me but I could feel a vague turbulence of atoms, like fizz in a soda, on the skin along my back. In response, my whole body prickled with excitation.
I heard his voice next to my ear. As before, his tone was gentle and polite. “Do you know I’m here?”
“Yes,” I answered behind closed lips.
“Then you must be Sarah.”
I had a fleeting thought that something was not quite right. His voice was a little different from the first time, pitched a bit higher, as if it belonged to some other man.
“Yes…Can you understand me?” I wondered if I should move my mouth and speak to him aloud. No one would hear; Khadija’s daughter was sleeping next door.
He replied, “You’d do us both a favor if you looked me in the eyes.”
I opened my eyes, glimpsing the wall. He waited behind me. I gathered my body and rolled over, very slowly, afraid that a quick movement might disturb the contact.
I completed the roll to my left side and focused through the dark.
Nothing there; the spirit had gone, dissipated. “The line was dead,” I wrote later in my journal.
It was as if the jinn couldn’t hold a long-distance connection long enough for us to come face to face. The first time when I’d had such a solid sense of his physical body. On this second encounter, he came through weakly, not even touching. Only his voice – tender, respectful, hinting at a romantic nature – had been utterly clear.
It can’t be an easy trick for a disembodied spirit to weave a manifestation that can be perceived by a living person. I told myself that next time I should keep still, in case my movement had disturbed the delicate mesh of ether that was my jinn. I reasoned (though some might say I had long since departed the realm of reason) that with each contact he should get stronger, as my energy gave fuel to his: a sort of interspecies bundling.
Or would he continue to grow weaker, fainter? It might be a good idea to have the witch perform some kind of booster spell.
I still wondered why his voice sounded different from our first contact. Was it the same spirit? Did it matter?
I fell asleep mulling these things. In my dream, I found myself standing alone in the middle of a vast concrete parking lot, a skyline of factories beyond. Shadows collected along the edges: a gang of toughs. I looked around for help. In the distance I saw my jinn walking behind a row of trees. His eyes followed me but he was powerless to come to my aid, the trees forming a boundary he couldn’t cross. At last he vanished into some woods. I was left by myself to deal with the punks, who clearly had nothing good in mind for me.
When I woke I recorded the dream in my journal hurriedly. Khadija and I had to be off to Marrakesh, so I didn’t pay it much attention.
Now, though, when I read what I wrote, I recognize it as an explicit omen.
Heading south, we detoured to Khouribga, where Fatima stood ready to take some more of my money for some more of her magic. She promised to fiddle with the reception so that my jinn could come through more clearly on our next rendezvous. She also planned to bring her daughter Naíma to Marrakesh as soon as I found an apartment. Naíma would be my cook-housekeeper there.
Although I’d made the trip twice before, the approach to Marrakesh as one descended from the Atlas Mountains was always stupendous. The terracotta color of the soil and the buildings that rise from it appear like the passing configuration of a cloud at sunset. Outside the pink walls surrounding the medina was the “nouvelle ville” – the modern section built by and for the French colonialists as well as upwardly mobile Moroccans aspiring to be French. This was the neighborhood where a single white female American novelist would be safest.
We found an apartment right away through a Jewish realtor. (She invited me to her home; I experienced my first Sabbath in the middle of a Muslim city.) The place was unfurnished so I had to buy a couple of mattresses and a desk – the bare minimum since I was only planning on staying for three months. It would be another day before the electricity was turned on; Khadija left me off at the Hotel du Pasha before driving back to Casablanca.
It was a relief to stretch out in a proper bed, all alone with a good book, after a month of camping in Khadija’s living room and reading her Tarot cards every day. I was truly on my own; that is, until Naíma arrived. Tomorrow I would explore my new neighborhood, the grand souk, and the medina. But first, a bit of private bliss: a good sleep.
Dreaming, I found myself once again on that concrete floor, only this time I was flat on my stomach, my body pressed into the grit by someone unseen. There was muffled laughter behind me. A hand yanked my head up, forcing me to look up. Hovering over me an enormous wedge-shaped monolith. It rose steeply to its apex where the crude outlines of an animal’s face at the top stared down at me, a living idol waiting for the next sacrifice.
My head was pulled back farther, my back arching until I thought it would break – and then hands attacked me, pinching my waist painfully and probing between my ribs. Trying to squirm away, I used all my strength to twist around, to see my assailants and fight off their hands.
I managed to flip onto my back. I was now awake and staring at the hotel room ceiling. The attackers had faded with the dream, though I still ached from their fingers. Night was giving way to dawn.
But I was far from safe. The room I woke to was suffused with a presence of evil, flowing into every corner and blocking out consciousness of everything but itself. Part 32
I was shivering violently. The atmosphere in my hotel room was thick with malevolence; it was like inhaling pure venom. The force nailed me to the mattress and blew up my thoughts, replacing them with pure panic. Anyone glancing in the window would have seen nothing. My antagonist was invisible and pervasive. But so is wind. Suddenly evil seemed as natural to the world as weather. And it waited for me to do something.
“Why don’t they just get the fuck out of there?!” There always comes that moment in a haunted house movie when the viewer mutters that question. No doubt the actors wanted to know, too, when they read the script: “What’s my motivation for staying?” To which the director replies, “It’s a movie.”
This was not a movie. Not a dream either. Why didn’t I make an effort, break through the paralysis, rocket out of bed and flee the room? Human beings were out there. I had no room phone, and the front desk was closed, but there had to be a night clerk I could rouse, or someone out on the street. So what if I was naked? And what would I tell these people? What were asylums like in Morocco?
A tiny point of intuition pricked through the storm in my head. It said that if I made any move, the unseen force would invade me; I would irreversibly forfeit my body and self to an outside entity. I think I am talking about demonic possession here. The stuff of cheesy Catholic fright-night flicks; you could sneer in the West, but here in Morocco, who knew what was possible? I had nothing to fall back on but instinct. Its voice was plain: don’t budge or make a sound.
So I held myself rigid with resistance, fighting the evil at my borders; and I marked the slow beat of time until daybreak, when the room would fill with light.
No one in the world who cared about me knew I was here, except Khadija, who was long gone, back in Casablanca by now. I prayed to God to protect me. I prayed to my grandfather, too. But I knew I had removed my protection, all on my own. I had invoked strange spirits in a strange country by black magic, without having any handle on the rules. I didn’t believe in the Devil, except as archetype. But this thing in the room existed, in the now, living and real. From here on I would believe in demons.
At that moment I heard a loud thumping.
It was the muezzin, somewhere in a mosque minaret, tapping his microphone. Testing, testing. And then his amplified voice lifted and soared over the neighborhood, issuing the call to prayer. What a sweet song that was to my ears. The horrifying presence in my room ebbed; filtering back to the underworld, it vanished.
The daylight arrived. I checked out of the hotel and hauled my suitcase to my new apartment. The electricity was on. Telephone service was too expensive; without a phone, I had to walk to the local Hertz office to speak with the manager, one of Khadija’s distant cousins who spoke English.
I asked him to recommend someone to teach me Arabic. My new housekeeper, Naíma, was arriving today by train from Khouribga with her mother, and neither one of them spoke French or English. He said he would ask around. Then I begged him to teach me a few phrases on the spot, because I needed them right away.
Witch and witch’s daughter arrived on schedule. I nearly knocked Fatima over, flinging my arms around her. Of all the people in the world I wanted to see today, she was the one. Naíma’s eyes shone with excitement; it was her first trip to Marrakesh, and the first time in her life she’d be off her mother’s leash. She held out her hand and spoke timidly. I already knew those three words in Arabic pretty well: “Give me money.”
While Naíma went off to the souk to buy food for dinner, Fatima and I sat in my living room, which was bare except for the two mattresses I’d bought to serve as couches. The sehúra whipped out her cards to read for me. I whipped out mine. This was how we communicated.
Fatima dealt a few cards and tapped one depicting a man. “Jinn!” She mimed: “He’s coming! You smile! Very happy!”
I slapped down one of my cards: Le Diable. “Bad,” I said in my few words of recently memorized Arabic, “No more jinn. Please! Jinn goes away.”
She looked taken aback.
I laid some cash on the devil card. That she understood. She stuck the bills in her bodice. “Wakha,”
she said. Okay.
Please, I prayed, make him – make it all – go away.
The witch left her daughter Naíma with a supply of spices to burn and beaucoup incantations for warding off evil spirits. And she had taught me a little prayer in Arabic to repeat, whenever some particularly nasty jinn plagued my sleep: Bismillah rah’man rah’heem, “in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.”
Naíma and I settled in nicely to my new apartment in Marrakesh. She cooked, cleaned, shopped, made friends, while I began work on my new novel. I hoped to put all the drama of the past few months behind me but, in spite of the spice bonfires Naíma set at bedtime, filling up the place with smoke, it didn’t take long before the nocturnal visitors returned.
I recorded each encounter, with times and dates, in my journal.
March 16, 12:15 am. Two shapes slid into my bed, one in front and one in back. An unfamiliar male voice spoke in my ear.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.”
Suddenly I was being forcibly kissed. My eyes snapped open. I saw the room but the man-form helping himself to my mouth was invisible. The second form pressed against my back; squirmy and hyper, he started roughing me up, squeezing my breasts and the flesh on my waist.
I turned my head away and chanted, Bismillah rah’man rah’heem.
March 30, 6:30 am. I woke, sensing movement on the sheet behind me; I felt a man’s shape attach to my back; a huge pair of arms wrapped around me.
Frightened, I whispered, “Who are you?”
“Your jinn.” His answer contained muffled laughter, as if he was having a joke on me. His hand slipped between my knees and moved up my thigh.
Bismillah rah’man rah’heem!
And he was gone.
April 3, 1 am. I lay on my back, just drifting off, when I heard the by-now-familiar faint hiss of something manifesting on the side on the mattress. On my guard, I demanded: “Who is it?”
I heard a man speak, but it was nothing but gibberish, like a tape running backwards.
“Speak English,” I insisted.
He replied in French, which was too fast and garbled for me to understand. Then he tried to nudge me onto my side to make more room for himself on the bed.
This time I didn’t bother with the prayer. “Go away!” I snapped. Then I got up and went to the bathroom. Returning to an empty bed, I read for a few hours until I was tired enough to get back to sleep.
5:30 am. I was dreaming I was back in my childhood bedroom in Connecticut. A fierce wind blew open the windows; I ran into my parents’ room. They weren’t there. I flung myself onto their bed for safety. Unseen hands attacked my ribs, fingers pinched my skin violently. I twisted away, crying out, rising to consciousness…
I woke in my bed in Marrakesh, turning onto my back with a groan. Someone’s shape materialized on top of me; a pair of hands cupped my face, lifting it gently for a kiss.
“What is your name?” I interrupted. I’d read that, according to superstition, if you possessed a jinn’s name he had to cede control to you.
He replied evasively, “We don’t have names where I come from.” He continued preparing my body for ravishment.
I tried a ruse. “I need your name so I can call you when I want you.”
He tried to ignore me but I kept asking for his name. Finally he said, “Neil.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure I heard him right.
I felt him bow his head to my ear. He repeated the name carefully, “Neil, N-E-I-L, Munne, M-U-N-N-E,” pronounced like “money.”
A jinn named Neil Money? How stupid did he think I was?
Bismillah rah’man rah’heem.
He faded away. This prayer was nothing if not efficient. I issued a mental warning to all jinnoon: If I don’t like your act, you get gonged.
I was gradually losing my terror of these sketchy spirits. At the beginning of my adventure, I had gone in search of a magical connection, only to wander into a bad neighborhood. Scenting a victim, the locals stepped from the shadows, and soon I was surrounded by horny lowlifes – the scum of the cosmos – who taunted and toyed with me before attacking.
What a hoot they were having at my expense. I felt humiliated after every encounter. The whole next day I’d be disoriented, dreading the next bedtime; but worse was my anxiety over the question: am I cracking up?
“No, you’re not.”
It was nice to hear someone say it, even though my dear friend Desmond was not what you’d call a down-to-earth guy. Desmond (not his real name) was a well-known and well-paid gay psychic from New York. Arriving in Marrakesh for a few weeks’ vacation, he looked me up; I poured out my tale to him, figuring he wouldn’t reject it out of hand, since he was in regular communion with his own, much nicer, set of spirits.
I finished by asking, “Do you think I – ”
“No, you’re not.” I didn’t even have to say “crazy.” Being friends with a telepathic meant that conversations were often condensed.
“I mean, is this really – “
We were sitting in a café; he had one eye out for the cute Moroccan boys cruising the avenue. Marrakesh was an open-air market for gay tourists. As we waited for our coffee to arrive, Desmond did my Tarot cards. Being friends with a clairvoyant often meant free readings.
“You should be on the lookout,” he warned playfully. “Your jinn is going to take a human form. The man whose body he takes won’t know what’s going on – he just won’t feel like himself. But you’ll know.”
It was pretty amusing to witness a gay clairvoyant appraising the young men who passed by our table. They would linger a beat, catching Desmond’s eye to see if he was interested, before moving on. Desmond would give each one a psychic scan, murmuring, “He has a spinal defect since birth,” or, “I’m getting a lot of negativity around that one. Pretty sure he’s killed someone,” or, “Poor boy. He’s going to have a terrible time of it in jail.”
Desmond had his choice of companions, due to one of the stranger hypocrisies in Moroccan society. Their custom kept young men and women from mingling until marriage; their religion reviled homosexuality and discouraged masturbation; but everyone knew that boys were brimming with libido and, if they couldn’t afford prostitutes, they had nowhere to spill their seed. Thus it was widely accepted that at a certain age a young man would couple with other men until he got married, at which point he could revile homosexuality just like the other adults.
This could turn into a bigger game in the cities that were tourist destinations. Rich tourists offered not only a sexual outlet but also cash and gifts. The jackpot was, if you got a benefactor to fall in love with you, he or she might sponsor your visa out of the country. (With high unemployment, most young men wanted to leave Morocco, but the King clamped down on emigration and made it next to impossible to get a passport.) The boys never saw themselves as prostitutes, but rather as astute entrepreneurs.
Desmond took a casual fancy to a sweet sunny youth who wanted us to call him John Travolta after Desmond bought him a three-piece white suit. Desmond didn’t like his restive, sour friend Ahmed, but they came as a pair. John Travolta had never been south to Agadir, a resort on the Atlantic, so Desmond treated them both to a plane trip, bringing me along as translator.
A trip to the beach was a welcome respite from work on my book, which still wasn’t going too well, and from my hungry-ghost problems. In retrospect, it seemed to me that my spirit contacts had taken a turn for the worse when I relocated to Marrakesh; so maybe I’d tapped into a local blend of exceptionally rude and crude jinnoon. It was a relief to leave them behind to fly to Agadir.
Upon our arrival, we found all the waterfront hotels unexpectedly booked. I called my friend Mohammed who ran the Hertz office in Marrakesh; he in turn called his friend Hamid in the Agadir branch. Hamid pulled some strings and scored us some excellent rooms. By way of thanks, we invited him for drinks in the hotel disco after he got off work.
Hamid turned out to be a nice-looking young man, pleasant and proper; he and Desmond and I shared mint tea while John Travolta and Ahmed slurped whiskey and danced. Hamid allowed he couldn’t stay long because he was meeting his fiancée later; they would marry next month. His English wasn’t very good so he and I chatted in French while Desmond’s attention turned to his butt-shaking duo.
And then I saw Hamid’s face change. His features seemed to shift and resettle. His eyebrows thickened, lifting like black wings. I sucked in my breath. I knew those distinctive eyebrows: they were the jinn’s.
Mesmerized, I wondered: is it the light? Is this the same guy? Or is it him…
The effect only lasted a second, whereupon Hamid’s face returned to normal – except for his eyes, which focused intently on me, suddenly gleaming with desire. His polite conversation turned to blatant come-on.
“What’s going on between you two?” whispered Desmond, who had turned back to us. “I’m getting these waves of heat.”
“I – I think it’s – ”
“Him?” As usual, Desmond guessed my thought. He glanced back at Hamid, vetting him with professional intuition. “Yes, that’s what’s going on, but don’t worry, he’s harmless. Just go with it.”
I don’t know what sort of dressing-down Hamid got from his fiancée when he failed to show up for their date.
The next morning, all hell broke loose. John Travolta did a fade, leaving his friend Ahmed to pounce on Desmond. Feigning outrage, Ahmed threatened to tell the police that Desmond raped him, unless Desmond paid him 2000 durhams and also signed some visa papers Ahmed just happened to have in his pocket.
Desmond was quaking with fear as I translated what Ahmed was saying. Then I pulled him aside to add in English, “Don’t you dare give him anything. He’ll never go to the cops.” I was used to Marrakeshi-style cunning. “It’s a hustle. Call his bluff.”
But Desmond was already forking over all he had, 300 durhams. I glared at Ahmed, warning him in French, “He’s not signing anything. Now get out of here, or we’ll go to the police ourselves and report you robbed him.”
“I knew he was trouble,” moaned my clairvoyant friend after Ahmed fled.
Desmond calmed down after a few drinks on the plane back. “Thanks for rescuing me,” he said. “And how was your night with Hamid?”
“Fun,” I said, fatuously.
“Fun?” Desmond chortled, with that look that said he was watching psychic replay images in his head. “I know what you did.”
“He apologized afterwards. He said he didn’t know what came over him. Desmond…Do you really think it was – ? ”
I shook my head, sighing,“What next?” For any other friend it would've been a rhetorical question. But if your friend was a psychic, you could actually get an answer. "I'm on vacation," he replied.
A high singing note penetrated my ear, bored through my sleep and pulled me into the vague light: the hour before dawn. Here they were again, after my blood. Even when I pulled the sheet completely over my head, they wouldn’t give up, whining around the shroud until I was forced to come out for lack of air.
They were even worse than the jinnoon, those lascivious sex-crazed spirits who had waged a tireless campaign to annoy my sleep ever since I was fool enough to invoke them. But the jinnoon only arrived sporadically, whereas the mosquitoes tormented me every night of summer except when the wind was high.
There was nothing to be done. The villa’s doors and windows had no screens, and to close them meant to suffocate in the heat. At least it was cooler here than down in the kasbah. During the summer months the wealthier Moroccans and white expatriates moved to higher ground, into the villas and compounds that dotted the tall hill they called “The Mountain.” From November to May, the raw winds from the North Atlantic blew in, battering the mountain, and the Mountain folk went downhill, so to speak, to their houses in town or back to Europe. I stayed.
I loved Tangier. I’d rented a gorgeous little walled villa from a friend I’d met at Sarah Lawrence. A luxurious life style in Morocco was still cheap by American standards, and my publisher’s generous advance easily covered the seven months’ rent until December, when I would have to leave.
Naíma continued to cook, shop, and clean for me. She was lonely on The Mountain and missed Marrakesh, finding it hard to adjust to the quiet and solitude I preferred, as well as my ascetic writing routine. In the mornings I would shut myself in the study to work on my novel; afternoons I took the bus into the kasbah to visit friends; nights I’d take a cup of soup into the study and write late into the night. I think she grew to hate the sound of typing.
Once in a while, her mother the witch visited from Khouribga. Naíma would turn over her salary to Fatima, and then I’d throw in some more money for her magic services, even though I didn’t need them. I felt safe here. My book was going well, and the jinnoon were obnoxious but manageable. Sorcery couldn’t help with the mosquitoes, since they probably hailed from hell in the first place. So I smiled indulgently as Fatima puttered about burning herbs in all the rooms; and I sat stifling yawns as she read my cards. She delivered the usual upbeat news: a rich handsome man was coming, I’d have lots of money, uh huh. The witch even cagily added that my book would be a great success.
I knew better than to be complacent about the spirits, however. I was by no means out of danger. Even though the pattern of their visits had become familiar, I still woke with the same terror and dread when they came; when, in the dawning light, I heard the faint hissing, like sliding sands, as the energy gathered into human form behind me, tightening its arms around me and laughing in my ear. A prayer might send them away, but I worried they could be the advance guard for something bigger.
The occasion was a double wedding. Four friends of mine were tying the knot: Karla (from Idaho) and Mie (from Denmark) were marrying Mohammed and Majid, shopowners in Tangier. Moh and Majid were the eldest of fourteen children from a large mercantile family based in Fez.
Hundreds of guests had convened in Fez’s vieille ville for the weeklong celebration. Oddly, the festivities kicked off with a circumcision party. It was a matter of killing two birds with one stone: as long as guests, family and musicians were gathered for a wedding, why not snip off a foreskin for good measure? One of the youngest sons had just turned 7, the age when Moroccan boys turn away from the world of women and are deemed to be men, symbolized by the emergence of the unwrapped penis.
The operation was done in private; afterward the boy, tears running down his cheeks, holding his djellaba so it wouldn’t brush against the wounded member underneath, arrived to the ululations of the crowd. The players whipped out pipe, oboe, and drums, and then launched into a pounding, squalling, tangled mess of music. Everyone, including the Westerners who had smoked kif, got up to dance.
The dissonant sound was maddening. It invited you to lose it, or flee. Losing it, though, was the point.
Before joining in, Majid told me, “When I dance to this music, I lose control, I forget everything, I leave myself. I wake up after, and I feel like I’m new, I’m a baby just born.”
But I wouldn’t budge. I’d read about these musicians in a book I’d found at the villa: they were trance musicians, a pagan Berber version of the Sufis. In their rituals you danced to the point of ecstasy, then surrendered your mind and body to the jinnoon. You moved aside and the spirits took you over – similar to the loa riding Haitian voodoo dancers.
So I prudently held back, and watched everyone else go crazy. The last thing I needed was for the scuzzy spirits who tailgated me all over Morocco to take the wheel of my being. Demonic possession was not my idea of a party.
Later, back at my hotel room, I opened the doors and went out on the balcony to appreciate the full moon, the labyrinthine city below, and the distant yowling of cats, dogs, and musicians. I went to bed congratulating myself for staying out of trouble.
Just before dawn, when the moon lay low, a nearby mosque’s PA switched on. The call to prayer droned over the city: “La ilaha illa Allah, As-salatu – ” etc. The prayer got mixed up in whatever I was dreaming; it sounded like “Anyone seen Ally Harris?”…
And then I was awake. And instantly wished I was not.
A force was urging me to rise from the bed and go out on the balcony. I gripped the sides of the bed so as not to be swept off. My will was draining away, as if my own blood yearned to join the tidal current, to be borne away…off the balcony. The irresistible lure was not to commit suicide, but rather to fly.
No, I had not dropped acid, or smoked the abundant kif passed around to the wedding guests, nor eaten the mahjoon (dried fruit, spices, honey, and hash buds), nor drunk whiskey or wine. My reason reasoned, quite reasonably, against leaping to my death. My body and being were desperate to obey.
My dear friend Karla still remembers being woken by the telephone ringing at five a.m. on her wedding day. “Please,” I begged, “stay on the phone with me. Something’s pushing me to the balcony, and if I go out there I’m afraid I’ll jump off.”
Karla drowsily suggested that I close the doors to the balcony.
I approached the moonlit doorway, my legs rippling like water so that I could hardly stand, fighting lunacy itself. It seemed to take my hands forever to grasp the door handles, and then, in a burst of determination, I swung the doors shut and locked them.
I returned to the phone. Karla was snoring on the other end. I hung up and slid back under the bedcovers.
As I lay there, the room filled up with unseen miasmic threat, an evil pressure I remembered too well from another hotel room, in Marrakesh. I muttered my little Muslim prayer, but it carried no weight against this tyrannical presence. Something crowded close, as if searching for points of entry; I could feel its intent to nudge my soul aside and take charge. I recoiled from it, hiding under my threadbare sanity while I waited, shivering, for the light of day.
I flew back to Tangier six days later, after surviving the mother of all Moroccan weddings. A package from New York was waiting for me. It was from anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano. I didn’t know him at all, but I’d read his book about a Moroccan spirit cult. Crapanzano’s accounts of their ecstatic dancing and possession by the jinnoon struck a chord of familiarity with me. Impulsively I wrote him a letter describing my own experience of “marrying” a spirit; how the jinn faded away, only to be replaced by supernatural horndogs, jinnoon who woke me before dawn, digging their fingers into my ribs and assaulting me from behind.
I didn’t expect to hear back from him. His answer did arrive, in the form of a manuscript. He wrote that he was startled by the synchronicity of my letter, since he had just finished writing a book about an illiterate Moroccan tile worker who claimed to be married to a jinniya (female spirit). Crapanzano had interviewed the man over the course of a year, and had grown very fond of his subject. The anthropologist in him had to maintain a scientific objectivity, and render a scrupulously academic analysis of local mythology. Yet, another part of him wanted to believe the man’s story and descriptions of the world of the jinnoon. My story had matched the tileworker’s in tantalizing ways that suggested our experiences were actual.
I read Vincent’s manuscript eagerly. For a while the tileworker’s story seemed very remote from me, though poignant: he was probably mentally ill (he’d been hospitalized for depression) and thus more likely to find a superstitious explanation for his instability.
Then I came across Crapanzano’s mention that, according to Moroccan belief, a sleeper is considered to be particularly vulnerable to demonic influence just before waking.
Very strange, I thought: that’s just the time when my tormentors made their move. How many times had they waked me – as recorded in my journal – at 5, 5:30, 6 a.m.?
I resumed reading until I came upon another detail that freaked me out a bit. The tileworker declared that a jinniya intent on seducing a mortal first approaches him in the guise of someone beloved. The victim thinks he’s sleeping with his crush. After that, whenever the jinniya reappears, she drops all pretense and the mortal realizes, too late, what he’s in for. He may never be rid of her now.
I must mention here that when I first saw my husband-jinn, in that indelible dream about our wedding, he resembled a man I’d been deeply, horribly in love with, four years before. The resemblance was close enough that I didn’t hesitate to rush down the aisle and say, “I do.” I was still hot for him after all those years. That is, until he lifted my veil and dug his fingers hard into my ribs, and the pain woke me from the dream, and from then on I was toast.
Whenever I doubted myself, thinking I’d made up the whole thing, I would remember that dream and how the jinn looked an awful lot like my heartbreaker ex-boyfriend. Then I’d tell myself that the dream was simply wish-fulfillment, and what happened after – when I woke to find an immense studly body on top of me – was a hypnopomic image (psychologists’ term for a hallucination generated by a sort of cross-current of sleep and consciousness).
Reading further in the manuscript, I saw something that took my breath away. The tileworker said that whenever the jinniya visits her victims, “she will come to them at night and tickle them – pinch their bones.” Crapanzano added, “Pinching bones are a symptom of demonic attack.”
Here is my journal entry from earlier that summer, when I was visited once again by jinnoon: “Dreaming I had an experience of sheer physical torture – in the usual 5 - 6 a.m. hour-of-the-wolf – it was a murderous tickling, and not tickling but a gouging in the ticklish zone, under the arms, and I had to thrash my head from side to side on the pillow, trying to create enough discomfort to wake myself and escape those fingers under my arms.”
Crapanzano was amazed by this coincidence, too. His tileworker had grown up
steeped in the myths and legends of his native country. The man unconsciously reworked these into a personal myth: his marriage to the jinniya. But how could a tourist from New York, with no prior knowledge of the specifics of Moroccan superstition, report the same details? Unless the spirit world was real, and our stories true. Part 37
I used to visit a fortuneteller named Mahjouba in the Marrakesh kasbah, not because I put much stock in her predictions, but because her method fascinated me. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
It was hard to find her house, which had no street number. I had to pass through one of those narrow alleyways that somegtimes turns into a low-ceilinged tunnel, forcing you into a crouch. The first time I quickly got lost. Luckily I knew the Arabic word for fortuneteller; all I had to say was ‘shuwafa’ and the street urchins pointed me to her door.
I would bring French pastries along with her fee, even though she was hugely overweight. Her grateful smile contained about three teeth. She spoke no French, so her daughter interpreted the readings for me.
First, Mahjouba placed lumps of lead in a ladle, then held it over the flame of a Bunsen burner. The lead melted and bubbled. Her daughter placed a big bowl of cold water on the floor and directed me to stand over it with my legs apart. Mahjouba poured the liquid metal into the bowl; when it hit the water with a burst of sizzle, the lead instantly solidified, creating unusual shapes. Plucking each shape from the bowl, she ran her fingers over their gnarls and bumps and finger-like projections, then proceeded to “read” them, babbling away in Arabic.
This was always the disappointing part. All the fortunetellers recited more or less the same thing, from the shuwafa manual I guess. The daughter translated, “Watch out for a dark man.” (Morocco was crawling with dark men to watch out for.) “Much money will come to you. In five years you will marry a good man who loves you, and have many sons.”
This was never going to be my fate. I was not going to marry. I’d settled that in my mind a long time ago. However, “much money” sounded good: my publishing advance was going to run out after the New Year.
Once I’d moved from rowdy Marrakesh to the quiet villa in Tangier, my writing picked up speed. I felt confident that I could finish the novel by January, submit the manuscript and collect the second half of the advance.
With my eye on that deadline, I didn’t welcome interruptions as I typed away. However, in late July my mother arrived from Paris for a few days’ visit.
I have mentioned that Mom flew about the world with tireless gusto, her disability be damned, planting her crutches on five out of seven continents. Perhaps because I was the first child she birthed after polio had wrecked her legs, she taught me from the earliest time that independence was everything. Life was a bid for freedom. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.
So that became my banner, too.
In time, I turned around and gave her the same speech. When most of her five children had left home, and women’s liberation was ascendant, I encouraged her to get involved with the United Nations, an institution she loved and believed in. She volunteered at UNESCO, gradually making herself indispensable until at last they gave her a contract and sent her off on her travels. She toured schools from Senegal to Guatemala to introduce her curriculum for teaching children global awareness.
My father did not react well. He hadn’t “signed up for that kind of marriage,” he said. The more she dove into her job, the more he brooded, withdrew, and turned stubbornly deaf whenever she tried to talk about her experiences. Their relationship was as fraught as I’d ever seen it; they were both miserable. She rolled on anyway, unstoppable. Mother had an almost pathological tenacity. People were always calling her a “force of nature,” and I thought that was accurate if you had in mind a Category 5 hurricane. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.
From the moment she arrived at my villa, it was apparent something was wrong. She was, to put it gently, out of her tree. I learned that on a recent trip to China she’d had a violent allergic reaction to some locally produced antibiotic: hallucinating, raving.
By her account, she also experienced a life-altering epiphany. She saw clearly that she had never been herself. She had played nice for too long, acted the complaisant slave to her husband, lied to everyone about her deepest feelings, had even used her polio to gain sympathy – in short, she announced she was a phony and a fraud.
What she observed in China was a purity of endeavor. It inspired her to find a way to be purely and uncompromisingly true to herself. My dad might not like the new her, but, she declared, she would sacrifice her marriage if need be.
As the first step, she’d decided to redesign their house in suburban Connecticut in the manner of a Chinese pavilion. Sitting on my terrace she muttered manically to herself as she sketched the architectural plans on stray bits of paper, trying to reconfigure our 50’s modern home into a traditional Chinese dwelling without having to raze the place. I could only imagine how the Republican neighbors would feel about tiled pagoda roofs, or how my father would feel about having to pay for it.
Also, she wasn’t interested in sleeping or eating. I worried that she was still tripping on the bad Chinese drugs. Maybe she’d been brainwashed; maybe what I had here was the Manchurian Mom.
The phone rang. This in itself was a shock, because the phone in the villa never rang. Only three people had my number: my parents and my agent.
I lifted the receiver and heard my agent’s voice, faint and crackling through the oceanic transmission. He was calling from New York with catastrophic news. My editor, who had signed me to a major publishing house, had left her post. Her replacement examined all the pending projects, glanced over my opening chapters, and summarily cancelled my contract. Null and void: I owed no book, and was owed no more money. I could keep the advance I’d already received and stop writing.
For me, the news was the coup de grace – although I believe that French expression means finishing off your downed opponent as an act of mercy, whereas this latest turn of events seemed merciless in the extreme. I’d fled the States because my failures were there – the ruptured romance, the stillborn recording career, the cancelled musical, the doors of Hollywood firmly closed on my filmmaking ventures… I was grateful to have one avenue still left, a promising future as a published novelist. And now the message was: stop writing.
After hanging up, I burst into tears. Suddenly I was tired to my core. The cycle of trying and losing, trying and losing, over and over, would never end. My helpless sobbing got my mother’s attention away from her own work of obliterating her house. I sat next to her and wept as she stroked my head.
At length I quieted down enough to tell her what had happened, concluding with, “I just don’t have it in me anymore. I’m going to pack it in.” I added drily, “I obviously can’t support myself, so let someone else do it. I guess I’ll have to get married.”
My mother was always the last to pick up on a joke. “Mom!” I said. “I’m kidding!” But she was already considering my statement seriously. In the pause, I realized that I really was serious. More than anything, I was tired of being alone while failing at everything.
She said, “I think you need support by any name.” She looked down at the crumpled sketches in her lap, and her own mood changed. Her elation was subsiding, epiphany fading; she was coming down from her trip. I could tell, the way she sagged, that she would never build a Chinese pavilion or leave her marriage.
She lifted her eyes to mine again. I knew that look well. It said: please. Stoop down, pick up the banner. Do it for both of us.
I knew I would get up the next morning and write. No matter if no one wanted it: I’d finish the book I started. And then I’d write some more.
“You need support by any name.”
My mother’s words remained with me after she departed Tangier. I was left with the task of finishing a novel my publisher no longer wanted. My agent was frankly dubious that he would find another publishing house to take it, although he said he would try. For one thing, they would have to reimburse the original publisher for my advance, a hefty amount for a dark comedy about sex slavery, a metaphor for American imperialism set in a fictitious Arab country.
But I had gone too far to turn back. I couldn’t maroon my characters mid-ocean. If that sounds brave, I was often faint-hearted. With every page I typed I also heard a still, small voice saying, “What’s the point?” Mom was right. I did need support: an infusion of spirit. I’d asked Fatima the witch to get me just that: a spirit, a genie – a jinn – to provide me with inspiration for my book. Some flashes of genius would be nice, too.
My friend Mohammed, Karla’s husband, told me this joke: a man carries home a watermelon, which slips from his hands and shatters on the cobblestones. A genie leaps out. The man cries, “Genie, make me a house of rose marble with a gold roof and eternal fountains!” The genie replies, “If I had a house like that, do you think I’d be living in a watermelon?”
The spirits I got were the last ones I’d ever ask for inspiration. All they’d brought me were night terrors and rough sex. I was still trying to get them back in the watermelon.
It was at this time I turned back to my grandfather’s ghost. For the past five years he had been my invisible support, providing inspiration, protection, messages from the ether. Yet he had seemed to withdraw when I crossed into Morocco. He wasn’t there when I embarked on my reckless adventures with sorcery. He didn’t stop the supernatural mayhem I started.
Then I realized: it was I who had turned my back on him. You could say I was in the adolescent rebellion phase of my growing up paranormal, and I demonstrated my independence from Daddy by going on a joyride and wrecking the car. He stood by silently, with great forbearance and a pained expression, allowing the kid to make her own mistakes and learn from the consequences. Now I waited for him to post my bail and take me home.
I started to talking to Grandpa again, hoping he’d make some sign he was listening. Even without a response, it was comforting as a ritual, reminding me of the years when I’d never felt alone, even in the densest solitude, because I’d believed he was always nearby, as if he sat quietly reading a book in the next room.
Where was he now? Would he forgive me?
Soon after I sent the flare out, I was woken before dawn by the sound of something lightly brushing across the carpet, too light to be feet. It was 5:30, the usual hour of my demonic visitations, so I waited in agitation for whatever would come next. But nothing happened.
It took a while to calm myself enough to sink back into sleep. Then, in the middle of a dream, I heard my name spoken by someone in the room.
I rolled on my back and opened my eyes blearily to the sight of the ceiling beam. Hearing nothing more, I began my descent back into the dream, when I felt a pair of gentle hands stroking my feet consolingly.
Then I knew: he was back. I remembered the first time he ever contacted me, at my parents’ house in Connecticut; how, as I was falling asleep, I’d felt my head in someone’s lap and a hand stroking my hair. Back then I’d been terrified, without any clue of what was happening. Now I was so happy I began to cry.
I lay there for those few seconds of astral love before his presence faded. I sat up, and promised him aloud, “You might leave me, but I will never leave you again.”
The following night at dawn, as my dreams faded, I was given a snatch of music, just like old times. A women’s chorus was singing; the notes seemed to twinkle, as I wrote in my journal, “like crystal bells dangling from the pines.”
(Twenty years later, my father recorded a CD of Grandpa’s music with amateur singers. I was reminded of that dream when I heard “Fresh Spring,” a quaint soufflé of a song composed in 1911 for women’s chorus.)
From then on my work proceeded with an ease and pleasure I thought I’d lost. As the fall months elapsed, the cold Atlantic winds surged upon the Mountain. I didn’t mind; it was an excuse to stay indoors and write. I even began outlining my next book, all the while keeping at bay the thought that I had to leave Morocco in December. The prospect held no excitement. I’d stopped feeling I was in exile; I finally belonged here.
The sole positive was that I would be leaving the jinnoon behind.
All October and November, no demons plagued me. I assumed my grandfather had shooed them off.
Then, the week before I left, they made a last ditch effort. Part 39
The light of dawn began to fill the bedroom while I slept. Curled on one side, I woke to the sensation of a male body settling onto the bed behind me.
I’d read that if a jinn spirit approached you from the rear it was always malefic. I could have dispatched this one with my little Arabic prayer, but I wanted to let the visit play out a bit. I suppose I was curious. This would be my last encounter of the jinn kind, because I was leaving Morocco.
He sensed my consent, and I heard his deep voice laugh softly in my ear. I didn’t have the feeling, from his tone, that he was going to be trouble.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
His reply came in accentless American, yet it was unintelligible, a rapid spate of words that added up to nonsense.
I ordered him to come around in front of me where I could see him. He obeyed, his mass dissolving as he prepared to relocate. I wondered if this spirit was the first jinn, my very handsome almost-husband, come to say goodbye.
As in the very first visit, ten months ago, my lips didn’t move; our conversation was silent, telepathic. My eyes were closed, yet I could see the room – the bed I lay on, the wall, the chair in the corner, my half-packed luggage on the floor – everything bathed in a faintly pink tone as I gazed through the scrim of my eyelids.
The entity reassembled, facing me with his head on the pillow, inches from mine. But this one didn’t have a face, or had too many. His face kept changing, one rapidly dissolving into another – a pig, a scowling woman with glasses, an ugly middle-aged man – as if mocking me: “I can take any form. Take your pick.”
I’d already had enough teasing, tired of this crap. I recited the prayer, Bismillah rah’man rah’heem, in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate. The jinn faded.
Snapping my eyes open, I saw a shadow disappearing through the door into the study.
A few days later, on the plane back to the States, I pondered what I’d learned from my year of living dangerously. My grandfather, before he became a ghost, had been a human being with a name, identifying traits, and specific personality. When he died, he transferred to a spirit world I thought of as adjacent to ours: the Other Side. In Morocco, I’d encountered the Lower World, home to sketchy spirits and demons that may never have been human yet eagerly attached themselves to living people. They could assume any form or gender, could play with languages, and had no identity as we define it. (I recalled asking one for his name, which made him laugh. “We don’t have names where I come from,” he said.) The last jinn had shown me: bodies and faces were illusions, words were laughable and meaningless, but he would play that game to entice me into playing his.
The jinnoon were also distinctly local. Their supernatural society mirrored Moroccan society. They had originated in Berber animism but, after the Mohammedan invasion converted the Berbers to Islam, pagan spirits also became subject to Muslim customs and laws. Thus they were compelled by my little Islamic prayer, just as Western demons were expected to quail before the cross.
I conjectured that Moroccan spirits were so, well, Moroccan because it was the local culture that gave them life. The people’s belief animated them; they were too weak to manifest without it. The energy of human superstition added fuel to the low fire of vagrant spirits: as a jinn might say to a believing human, “You complete me.”
In the beginning, I hadn’t believed. Nevertheless, in a moment of playfulness, I’d extended an invitation. Like the vampire who is powerless to cross your threshold unless you ask him to come in, my jinn had to wait for the summons before he could roar to life. I was the hand rubbing the lamp, without which the genie could not appear.
After nearly twenty encounters with the jinnoon, I left knowing that there was more to the ethereal realm than ghosts of dead people. In Morocco I’d traveled to the Other Side’s other side of the tracks, the slums, the mean streets, the back alleys of the medina where energy-impoverished demons swarmed the tourist, begging for a human handout. In the oceanic infinity of the Beyond, these were the bottom feeders.
Now my adventure was over. I was on a plane back to America and homegrown safety.
Except I wasn’t headed there. My trip to the States would last no more than a three-hour layover in Miami. From there I was going to Haiti.Part 40 I planned to stay a month in Haiti to finish my book, a black comedy modeled after one of my favorites, Waugh’s Black Mischief. In the denouement, my heroine brings her willful love slave to heel by removing his will. Much like Nurse Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized, my character bribes a Haitian witch doctor, or bokor, to turn her young man into a zombie.
I don’t remember now where I read about the medical doctor in Port-Au-Prince who had actually treated a zombie or two. (It was some five years before Wade Davis published The Serpent and the Rainbow, which revealed the secrets of the bokors in transforming healthy civilians into zombies.) I wanted to interview the doctor to find out if it was indeed possible to turn the living into the undead. No way did I want to hunt up a bokor or attend voodoo ceremonies. I’d acquired a healthy horror of sorcery in Morocco. I considered myself lucky to have left that buzzing hive of demonic spirits behind in Africa. Here in Haiti I could get some sleep, for God’s sake.
I unpacked my typewriter at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a legendary funky retreat for freewheeling artists and celebrities. Fighting off the bronchitis I’d caught in Casablanca, I should have gone straight to bed, but first the bar beckoned. There, at any hour, one could find intriguing people as well as actual intrigue.
It wasn’t long before I met Aubelin Jolicoeur. Natty and suave, this small Haitian man flitted everywhere and knew everyone’s business. Whatever he did with that information somehow ensured his personal safety throughout the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier. Jolicoeur frequented the Oloffson to schmooze, to pry, to overhear, and afterwards, perhaps, to report. (Graham Greene immortalized him in The Comedians as Petit Pierre, the charming snitch.)
Still, for my purposes, Jolicoeur did know everyone. When I asked him about the zombie M.D., he offered to put us in contact.
I came away from my interview with the doctor with a fascinating account of how legend, fact, and popular belief converged to create a classic monster. The Haitians believed in zombies because sometimes it happened that a grave was found open and the corpse disappeared, as if it had woken up and wandered off. It was said that the bokors’ magic summoned these bodies to half-life, taking them to their compounds for use as servants, or as dumb animals to work the fields.
The facts aren’t far off. Consider: someone slips a substance (in theory a neurotoxin, possibly from the puffer fish) into a man’s food, with the result that the victim descends into a coma; his metabolism becomes so slowed that his vital signs seem to cease. Believing him to be dead, his folks rush him to bury him before sundown (in a tropical country, corpses get stinky fast).
Now imagine the unfortunate man’s point of view. He is intermittently conscious but unable to move or speak; the drug has paralyzed him. He witnesses his familiars’ weeping and wailing around him, he feels the touch of fingertips closing his eyelids, he hears the coffin lid nailed shut over his face; he feels the impact of his pine box landing at the bottom of the grave; he hears the thump of dirt on the lid as his burial is completed, and the mourners’ fading voices as they return home to dinner.
Everyone thinks he is dead. And so does he believe he has passed away, waiting in the dark for the angels to come and take him away.
But the angels are no-shows; it’s the bokor’s assistants who retrieve the poor man. Earlier they had arranged for a small hole to be drilled in the coffin and a long reed inserted to bring oxygen from aboveground, so that their victim will not suffocate. In the dead of night they dig up the box, leaving it empty as they transport the hapless half-dead man to the sorcerer’s compound in the mountains.
By now he is probably brain-damaged from lack of oxygen, permanently slow-witted, with a depressed metabolism. Because he shares his fellow Haitians’ belief in zombies, he understands he has become one. That belief itself clinches his fate: rather than trying to escape, he accepts that he is now in the sorcerer’s spell. Further, the bokor keeps his slaves docile by feeding them a hallucinogenic fruit (concombre zombi, or datura), and a diet without salt resulting in hyponatremia: hence the zombie-like lethargy and glazed-over confusion (and hence the Creole saying, “If you feed salt to a zombie, he runs away.”)
The doctor told me that the patient he’d treated had wandered off the deserted compound after the bokor died. The refugee found his way home, but his family refused to accept that he was alive: he was a zombie, and they were afraid of him. The doctor concluded the poor man was mentally retarded, sending him off to an asylum where presumably he got some salt at last.
I remembered this story some 30 years later when, on vacation in Mexico, I got ciguatera poisoning. I’d unknowingly eaten a piece of fish containing a neurotoxin from algae that the fish had ingested off a certain reef. I lost my balance, then became mute and paralyzed while still conscious. My husband couldn’t get me to respond, though my eyes were open and staring. I had no way to signal I was conscious and alive. If I’d been Haitian, and sincerely believed the zombie legend, I’d have been certain I’d entered the ranks of the undead.
Back to the Grand Hotel Oloffson: having gotten the information I’d sought for my book, I took to my bed for several days, succumbing to the lung infection I’d brought with me from Morocco. The fever slowly passed. After eating my first full breakfast poolside under the palms, I returned to my room for a leisurely nap.
My sleep was broken by the sensation of claw-like fingers jabbing my ribs. Curled up on my side, I couldn’t see the inhuman body forming behind my back and pressing close. As it spooned me, I could feel its erection against my spine.
I was appalled. It turned out bronchitis wasn’t the only souvenir I’d brought from North Africa. The jinnoon posse had followed me into the Western hemisphere. I wasn’t rid of them after all.
A man’s voice laughed softly in my ear.
I wanted to be sure that the priapic ghost behind me wasn’t local to Haiti and so, without turning around, I muttered the Muslim prayer I’d learned, “Bismillah rah’man rah’heem.”
The spirit and its hardon dissolved on command. This confirmed that my visitor was Moroccan.
Were they even allowed out of their own country? Wasn’t there some sort of astral law or checkpoint to keep paranormal parasites from crossing borders? I had an immigration problem. But who you gonna call?
As if in answer, the knob of an elegant cane rapped on my bedroom door.
“Jolicoeur, ma chérie.”
Aubelin Jolicoeur, Monsieur Know-It-All, had learned from the hotel manager that I was sick. He’d come to inquire if I needed anything. I did, so I called, “Entrez.”
Keeping a respectful distance from my bed, the foppish little man stood against the wall opposite, leaning on his cane; his beady eyes glittered through the dim shadows. I wondered, not for the last time, whether I was placing my trust in the right person.
I explained that I’d contracted some bad juju in Africa and wanted it removed. Then I got an idea. Since the spirit was Muslim, could I get a Christian injunction barring its presence? I asked Jolicoeur: was there someone here in Haiti who did both juju and Jesus?
Mais oui, he replied. He knew just the person. He would make the appointment.
Several days later, a taxi threaded through the alleys of a shantytown in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-Au-Prince. Arriving at the address Jolicoeur had given me, I found a rickety little house bedecked with flowers and wind chimes. I waited in a tiny anteroom for “Lina,” who was finishing with another client.
I thought, here you are again about to plant your foot in another sorceress’ web. You really should be shot.
The woman who opened the door and beckoned me inside her bedroom had such a kind face that my fears vanished, replaced by relief. This was how far I’d come in a year’s time: gazing around at all the crucifixes and shepherd pinups on the walls, I was actually thrilled to see Jesus.
Lina listened patiently as I described my plight in French. I even told her about my grandfather, whereupon she interrupted to scold me gently: if you’ve had a guardian spirit since birth, it’s not a bright idea to conjure another spirit. Something maliféque had attached itself to the Moroccan witch’s spell and elbowed out anything good that was coming my way. Never mind, Lina could fix it.
Directing me to stand in the center of the room, she set a white candle on the floor. She poured some eau de cologne in a saucer, mixing the perfume with honey syrup while chanting a Christian prayer under her breath. Taking my hands, she bowed her head, still praying, and then crossed herself. Next she lit the perfume mixture to burn off the alcohol, and asked me to rub it on my hands as she recited a prayer from a slip of paper. This prayer (translated from the Greek, she said) specifically dispersed evil spirits.
After she spoke the last words, she paused and cocked her head as if listening to something. “I had a vision of a young man,” she reported casually. “He said, ‘Tell the blonde that she shouldn’t feel bad about the baby she lost. It’s all right because there will be a big change for her in 1982 or ’83, when she will meet a man who will be very good to mate with.’”
Returning to the hotel, I was quite shaken about this last part. Very few people knew I had gotten pregnant by the married man with whom I’d had a love affair. That heartbreak was one of the reasons I’d fled to Morocco a year ago. There I’d managed to distract myself with exotic adventures and work on my novel, but in a few weeks I would have to return at last to America and face my mess.
After Lina’s spell, I could sleep again. No more studly spooks poked me awake. My creativity leaped forward; I finished my book and immediately began another.
An envelope full of mail arrived from home, sent by my parents. Among the bank and credit card statements was a letter from my married lover marked “Please Forward.”
He had never written me a letter before, I suppose because he’d been afraid it would fall into the wrong hands and then his wife would find out. But she’d found out anyway. He had ended things abruptly with me, determined to mend his marriage.
Apparently he didn’t succeed. He wrote that he had left his wife. They were getting a divorce. He hoped I’d feel able to see him when I returned. And when would that be?
After a year spent in the Third World, everything at home seemed strange: food, TV, supermarket, smells, weather, piano, and home itself, the studio on my parents’ property. But nothing was as strange as the man before me.
Upon arriving from Haiti, I fell immediately to retyping my book. I didn’t contact friends. I wasn’t ready for New York yet. Nevertheless New York came to me, as my formerly-married lover stepped off the train and got in my car.
I was reminded of those Haitian zombies wandering the back roads. He had the twitchy off-keel look of the re-animated, like a dead man surprised to find himself in motion.
His marriage had collapsed beyond repair after a year of trying to court back his wife, after she discovered his affair. No amount of apology, self-recrimination and groveling worked; even though he swore to her he’d broken it off for good, she was obsessed with finding out who the other woman was. His friends closed ranks and kept omerta. In the end, she went a little crazy and he couldn’t deal with her anymore. An acrimonious divorce was underway, the wheels of law and property grinding them both up. And then I came back.
I had long prayed for this moment, when we could finally, openly, be together. He was free, he said.
But it was hard to believe. He was free like a fugitive – eyes darting about, ears pricked for the baying of hounds. He certainly was in no shape for love.
Soon it became clear that he wanted to date me.
I pointed out, rather mildly, that it would be kind of bogus for us to go all the way back to flirting. Really, though, I was in my own kind of shock.
For over a year we’d had no contact. Without renewal, love inevitably becomes the memory of love, and thus takes up residence in the imagination. When face to face with my lover again, I groped for the old feeling inside, only to locate it in the home of illusions. I simply couldn’t remember if it was real, because for so long I had been reduced to imagining it.
I still loved him. Iron removed from the flame is still iron. But it is cool to the touch.
I tried to play along and go back to frolicking, but after one such date I wrote him a letter laying out my terms. When he was ready to give the whole heart and nothing but the heart he could tug on the rope and I’d pull him up. Until then I’d go my merry way.
By merry way I meant I’d go back into hiding. I said to my agent, sell the book; I’m off to Thailand to write another.
I got as far as Hawaii, where I lingered for a month of writing. Then I got a pair of calls that changed my plans. My agent reported that he was unable to sell my book. My accountant telephoned to say my money would run out completely before the year was up. “You’ll have to get a job like everyone else,” he told me bluntly.
Thus ended my life as a novelist, another in a growing list of short-lived careers. I flew back to my studio in the Connecticut suburbs and gazed around at my options. How could I make a living through writing that I hadn’t already tried? Books, no. Songs, no. Theater, no. Documentary filmmaking, no. Journalism, feh.
I hadn’t tried screenwriting. I did have an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which I’d won at the tender age of 26. Surely that could still get me into someone’s office. I concocted a dark little story about a young woman, a professional psychic, who falls in love with one of her clients and pursues him obsessively. My agent got me a meeting at MGM. They bought my pitch. I now had a new profession, one that I couldn’t afford to fuck up.
Something else would have to change. The time had come to stop hiding. It was no longer healthy for me to live with my parents. I sublet an apartment in New York, leaving my Grandpa’s grand piano behind in the empty studio in Connecticut, the place where I’d churned out so much music, lyrics and prose. I never moved back.
Where was my grandfather during all this? After all, this is a ghost story.
After I moved away, my mother called to tell me that something peculiar had happened in my old studio. One of the sliding glass doors was found completely shattered, yet completely intact. An intricate web of cracks covered the entire surface. There was no center to the design, no locus of impact. No dead bird or fallen branch outside. If you pushed on the glass, it didn’t collapse but rather remained as sturdy as ever, up to any weather. Fractured and abandoned, but ever protective. Message received.
Anyone else would have replaced the pane. But my mother declared it was beautiful. The door stayed shattered until she became elderly, descended into dementia, and forgot she ever lived in the house.
Part 43 When I was in my twenties and researching a book, I studied the dark art of fleecing men. This technique, and the con women who taught it to me, were the subjects of my novel, Dry Hustle. Promising or implying sexual favors, a dry hustler would take a guy’s money and then vanish without delivering the goods. In other words, I could play the ho without crossing the thin pink line into actual whoredom.
Sometimes the cognac urged me to wallow in nostalgia for the past. I would hoist a glass to my grandfather and ask, “What was it all for?” I was remembering our feverish collaboration on songs, the fragments of music and lyrics Grandpa had fed me through dreams. It had been four years since my musical about puberty, Sleeparound Town, died stillborn at the New York Public Theater. “What we did was good. But nobody ever saw it.” I added petulantly, “You could have helped more, you know.”
I was hanging out with some film folk in Montreal when I got a surprise call from Tom Hulce. I hadn’t been in contact with him since he was eighteen; I’d cast him in an early workshop version of Sleeparound Town. Since then he had leapt to recognition as the lead in Animal House. He was hot, and already restless to expand. Playwrights Horizons theater had offered him a chance to direct, if he could come up with an interesting project.
“So I thought –,” he stuttered in that charming way of his, “I mean, the music – it always stuck in my mind – if you’re not doing anything with it – I’d like to – would you let me – I thought – I want to do that.”
(To be continued.)
By the time I entered my thirties, however, I could forestall the inevitable no longer. I stepped across the line and became a prostitute.
The competition was stiff, the marketplace crowded: I stood elbow to elbow with fellow whores. It was the movie business, and we were screenwriters available for hire.
My new supine position was kind of restful. I didn’t find the writing all that hard. There was no pressure to be original. I wrote whatever someone wanted, and received indecently good pay for my services. The transaction wasn’t public usually (relatively few people will ever read a script). And like most floozies, I became numb to the degradation of it all. My emotions, my inner pain, which had fueled my work before, were wrung out and weary from overuse; they could now go to Club Med. Whatever I wrote belonged to someone else, anyway, so I didn’t have to care about it as much.
Writers often refer to their works as their “children,” which they carry to birth; then nurture, revise, and shape their kids through the development process, fretting over their kids’ path to success or failure.
I felt no more for my scripts than I would depositing my eggs in a bank.
My bank account, in fact, was my child. I enjoyed watching it grow. Once I even did a script rewrite for a couch. My agent had loaned me a sofa for years, then suddenly reclaimed it. I had nothing in my living room to get supine on.
By happenstance, a producer friend had lost a screenwriter right before a big deadline. He called me on a Friday; the finished script was due at the studio on Monday. He had two other drafts by previous writers. The director didn’t like either as a whole but liked bits of both. They paid me some money under the table to cobble the best bits together, writing new material to paper over the seams. For two days straight the guys sat in one hotel room with scissors (this was before word processing) cutting up scripts while, in the adjacent room, I sat with a typewriter, whiteout, and paste.
On Monday I came out from under the table and bought a couch.
(I stayed on the project through numerous more rewrites, paid by the studio. My baby bank account outgrew three pairs of shoes. The script turned into Nine And a Half Weeks.)
A whore to the core, I avoided thinking about the children I’d left at home. Abandoned were the book manuscripts, song sheets, and the 1910 Steinway grand I’d stored in my parents’ house in Connecticut. The one thing I brought along with me was my eternal companion, my invisible mentor, my dearly departed Grandpa Kernochan. Actually I took one more thing: rummaging through the collection of fine wines and spirits left after his death, I came away with a huge bottle of cognac the size of my torso. (It took me two years to empty it.)
Ghost and spirits were both excellent company; ever tactful, they never commented on my fall from art, never joining those other voices in the shadows of my conscience who whispered that my new profession was somewhat less than respectable.
Sometimes the cognac urged me to wallow in nostalgia for the past. I would hoist a glass to my grandfather and ask, “What was it all for?” I was remembering our feverish collaboration on songs, the fragments of music and lyrics Grandpa had fed me through dreams. It had been four years since my musical about puberty, Sleeparound Town, died stillborn at the New York Public Theater. “What we did was good. But nobody ever saw it.” I added petulantly, “You could have helped more, you know.”
I was hanging out with some film folk in Montreal when I got a surprise call from Tom Hulce. I hadn’t been in contact with him since he was eighteen; I’d cast him in an early workshop version of Sleeparound Town. Since then he had leapt to recognition as the lead in Animal House. He was hot, and already restless to expand. Playwrights Horizons theater had offered him a chance to direct, if he could come up with an interesting project.
“So I thought –,” he stuttered in that charming way of his, “I mean, the music – it always stuck in my mind – if you’re not doing anything with it – I’d like to – would you let me – I thought – I want to do that.”
(To be continued.)
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Tom Hulce received the go-ahead to direct a workshop of my musical Sleeparound Town. Artistic director Andre Bishop gave his blessing, in his distinctive echoing-in-the-crypt bass voice. Playwrights Horizon was a hothouse of talents who would go on to rule the New York theater for decades to come. I should have been ecstatic.
Instead, I felt queasy. Following the New York Public Theater debacle, I had amputated my songwriting arm and buried the limb in deep soil, along with the show I’d secretly written with the help of a dead composer. There was the chance, in re-attaching the appendage, it might never work properly, and it would always carry the faint odor of past failure. If the show hadn’t worked back then, why would it work now?
While we auditioned prepubescent kids for the five roles, I had to write new material. I moved a rented spinet into my tiny apartment, poised my hands on the keys, and…
I couldn’t remember how to do it.
I’d always prided myself on venturing outside the pop norm to come up with unexpected harmonic changes. I used to let my fingers do the wandering. Now they didn’t want to go anywhere.
What to do? I thought of John Lennon, whom I’d known when he was at his creative nadir. He admitted that his process had sunk to copying chords from someone else’s song he liked, playing them over and over while groping for a new melody. (He even pilfered lyrics from a song I was working on: pretty low, if you ask me.)
I thought of another time, when I was at singer-songwriter J.D. Souther’s house in LA; I noticed his piano stand was empty save for a hymnal. “Cribbing chord changes?” I teased him – which I could
see, from his expression, was true.
Now I sat at my spinet, swallowed my pride, opened a hymnal, and started stealing. I even stole from myself, putting new lyrics to songs I’d already recorded, back when I was afire with ideas.
Thankfully, nobody noticed I was running on empty. The workshop played well to an invited audience. Andre gave us a small budget to mount a workshop production in their little black-box theater, which was the next step before a full production in the big theater with critics invited. While Tom Hulce struggled with set problems, playwright Peter Parnell was brought in as dramaturge, to help me create a story through-line to connect the songs. We never found one.
|Cast of Sleeparound Town|
However, he had commitments that might take a year or two. Andre was convinced that no one else could make Sleeparound Town shine at last. We would wait.
I rolled my eyes. This was exactly the situation I’d landed in at the New York Public Theater with Joe Papp. Joe wanted one director only, who was enthusiastic but constantly waylaid by other projects. I’d waited three years, but he never got around to my musical.
By my calculation, it has been almost thirty years that I’ve waited for Andre’s golden boy to direct my show. But the guy keeps being too busy.
In the meantime, I married him.
I never worked in the theater again. Indeed I’d never have gone near the theater at all if my grandfather had not disturbed my sleep with urgent music from the afterlife, prompting me to create the series of songs that became Sleeparound Town. Before then, I wasn’t even a theatergoer.
“What was it for?” I asked Grandpa, pestering him with this question whenever I thought back to all the madness and labor that went into the show – a waste of time, since it never got before the public. I didn’t actually expect an answer; everyone’s life has its portion of failures. But the answer did come.
In 2005 I went on a grueling four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Each night my friend Barb and I would confide deepest secrets in our tent (it was pitched on a slope, so we woke up huddled at the bottom every morning from sliding down in our sleep). I told her the story of Grandpa’s insistent presence in my life, guiding me where I didn’t always want to go. “I never could figure out what, in the end, he wanted – why I had to go there,” I said when I finished. Then it came to me.
That trip through the Andes was full of eerie epiphanies and magical manifestations. There, on giddy high ground, I suddenly realized that my grandfather had not just been feeding me music; he also made a big poltergeist to-do whenever I took up with the wrong man. The music was meant for getting me to the theater on time, where the right man trod the boards. The show Grandpa prodded me to compose was the only way I’d ever meet my husband.
“Pretty neat trick,” I whispered to the ether as I continued up the trail. Then I uttered the two little words my grandfather had waited twenty years to hear: “Thank you.”
(To be continued.)
For anyone interested, here are two songs from Sleeparound Town.
This demo of “Bonnie Boudreau” was a home recording circa 1982. The first few bars came from the hymnal. In the show, Jason Underwood performed it along with a piteous clarinet solo.
I don’t know
She’s just Bonnie Boudreau
Pointing her toe
Floating away like a scrap of snow
If she ever thinks about me
Wonders who I really am
Of course she will ask her friend
Who will say, he’s a pain
A stupid jerk
A little rat
And that will be
The end of that
No hope, no hope no hope for
Walking under my window
I watch her below
She says hello
And my eyes overflow
Through my tears she seems to glow
Bonnie BoudreauGood dog
“Wonderful Dog” is from the original five song suite. I recently re-recorded it. My dad always liked the music because it sounded like he wrote it.
“Wonderful Dog” is from the original five song suite. I recently re-recorded it. My dad always liked the music because it sounded like he wrote it.
Always waiting here after school
Never late or breaking the rule
Since you were a twinkle in your mom’s eye
You were my
You can also be lazy and dull
Don’t have to live up to your potential
When I was a little thorn in my mom’s side
She said she cried
I don’t know
Why you love me so
My teachers think I’m stupid
From banging my head against the wall
They’d be overwhelmed if they knew what I know
From what I saw
Grandpa was took away in a zipper bag
Tuesdays they pick up the dirties
Fridays they deliver the cleans
Benedict Arnold was a traitor
He was buried in a garbage can
Don’t cross your eyes or
They will stay that way forever
You see now how I am cunning
I pretend I am a dummy
I think that is smart, don’t you?
Sure you do
You dumb dog
Once you learn to count you learn to beg
Go fetch a stick, go fetch somebody’s leg
I can light your ears and smoke your tail
You dumb dog
Soon you will be old and biting babies
You’ll have bad breath and a limp and rabies
And when you get the electric chair
I will be there
You must say to God that you just did
What you were told
I don’t know
Why you love me so
|Grandpa as un-serious fop|
I married for love at age 37, bailing on my most cherished principles since the time, as a 14-year-old would-be writer, I’d vowed to remain solo, childless, and unlicensed in love. If I wed, I stood to lose my independence, starting with the TV remote. Nevertheless, by my mid-thirties I changed my mind and wanted a child – badly.
The offer was on the table: I could have a baby if I stood under a hoopah, mouthed a few platitudes, and signed some papers, thus conferring legitimacy on the child. Suddenly independence seemed like an easy trade. I’d had my fill of freedom anyway. In the dark, you could sometimes mistake it for loneliness.
My grandfather’s ghost must have nodded in recognition. When he was alive, he got married at exactly the same age, and the need for a baby had everything to do with it.
When he was 6, his father died unexpectedly. An only child, he could look forward, after the death of his mother, to a small fortune amassed from iron importation, investments, and a sugar plantation in New Orleans. In the meantime, he drew close to his mother, who encouraged him in his love of the arts and his wish to become a composer.
Thus when he embarked on a career that was unlikely to pay much, his mother contributed a hefty allowance. It wasn’t quite enough, though, for a young man about town. He had wardrobe expenses. If he didn’t find another source of income, he would have to sell his automobile and resign his memberships at the Brook Club, the Union Club, the Knickerbocker Club, the Racquet Club, the Tuxedo Club, the Lenox Club, the Century Club, the Automobile Club of America, and the Grolier and West Side Tennis Clubs. He also wanted to get married eventually. Or so he told the court.
In 1914 he presented a petition to a New York State Supreme Court justice, asking for an additional stipend from his aunt’s estate. He might have applied to her directly, except that she was insane and confined to a sanitarium. She was worth $3 million, which just sat in an account earning interest. So why shouldn’t he have it? It might further his career as a composer.
This had to be the single most humiliating event in my grandfather’s life. It makes for amusing reading now, as the case hit all the papers, even as far as Texas. In short, the judge ripped him a new one. I quote from the New York Times account:
“Mr. Kernochan said he had written some songs, but that he had only earned $30 a year in this way, and that to advertise the songs cost him six times what they brought in…The Justice said, ‘the application is unusual and extraordinary…It shows a young man, 33 years of age, who has lived and idle and luxurious life, now attempting, on the plea that he desired a further taste for music, to increase his income by obtaining an allowance out of his aunt’s estate at the rate of $12,000 a year…He resides with his mother, contributes nothing to the household expenses, and derives from his own property an income of about $3,750 a year.
“‘He has followed no other occupation other than his diversion for music.’” You can practically hear the judge’s sneering contempt for songwriting. “I do not value the increase of musical renown as being the substantial reason for this application. It is a mere pretext, that this young man may have additional means to maintain or accentuate his luxurious living…It matters not that his aunt is incurable, 65 years of age, without issue, never having been married, and has been insane since 1872, that her surplus income annually amounts to $100,000. The mere fact that an incompetent has an ample fortune, that her income is large, and greatly exceeds her requirements, affords per se, no ground to give away her property.”
Grandpa’s attorneys did an end run around the justice and he got his crazy aunt’s money. But his mother must have been embarrassed by the shaming publicity, which revealed her son as, well, not serious. At the very least he should get married. As his father’s sole progeny, he had an obligation to carry on the family name, by producing a male child.
He had been engaged once, to a violinist. Then he found out that he was supposed to use his money to further her career. Exit violinist. No matter: he preferred to hang with his homeys at clubs, or with fellow artists like Stieglitz and company; he was happy to have his mother be the only woman in his life. Bachelorhood suited him, and anyway, according to my dad’s memoir, Grandpa was noticeably ill at ease with other women.
But the pressure was on. He had to start looking for a spouse. Meanwhile, as if to proclaim the age of seriousness, war broke out in Europe.
|The adventurers in Paris|
He met her at a friend’s get-together in 1913. They fell into conversation next to the icebox in the kitchen. Carrie was as petite as a child; almost cute and almost plain; witty, anxious, and intense. Although they had interests in common – music, art, and literature – there were impediments you might call Hide and Prejudice: for my grandfather hid from binding relationships with women, and Carrie was prejudiced against wealthy men.
There was a certain resentment in her attitude. Carrie’s family occupied the same upper reaches of society, but her father periodically and ignominiously suffered business reverses. With her parents and sisters Carrie danced the riches-to-rags-back-to-riches rag. Because she often had to do without, she decided that those who had more than enough, like Grandpa, were selfish, spoiled and oblivious to the hardship of others. Being down on one’s luck made one more enlightened than, and thus superior to, the pampered rich. At any rate, this was how Carrie preserved her pride.
Preserving her independence was her other obsession. Women didn’t have the vote yet, but Carrie proclaimed her freedom anyway by smoking like a chimney and avoiding the manacles of marriage. At age 29, she was an old maid and fine with it. On the other hand, insecurity plagued her. She felt she never followed through with anything, was of no use in the world.
But opportunity was on its way.
By 1914 Carrie’s family was headed for rags once again. That was the same year my grandfather got in the news for suing his demented aunt’s estate, going after her money when he was already quite rich. Carrie and her kin shared the prevailing opinion that he was a layabout and a parasite.
It was high time for Grandpa to heed his beloved mother’s pleas and to buckle down publicly. He was the sole descendant of his father’s line. He needed a male heir to carry the name forward. A wife was in order.
But women made him nervous; he tended to be overpolite and formal around them. So he looked around for a “gal” with whom he could relax, who shared his interests, and who wouldn’t change his life overmuch. Carrie was single, with a lively mind, into the arts…and she went her own way. That left him free for fraternizing in men’s clubs, where he spent a great deal of his time.
You wouldn’t be surprised that Carrie initially found him a bit of a bore. He sent her flowers, loaned her books. Her thank-you notes were warm but brief, without encouragement.
The New York papers were filled with horror stories and the appalling body count coming from Europe, where war raged. America had not yet entered the conflict. Carrie suddenly announced she was going to France to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, to any hospital that would have her, as near as possible to the Western front.
It was a testament to her determination that her family couldn’t stop her. In February of 1916, she sailed alone for Europe. She had never been to France before, her health was forever fragile, and she had neither certification nor experience at nursing. She declared, “I feel that I have never in my life stuck at anything so I am going to see this through.”
She found work immediately in at a hospital in Paris. The doctors discovered the American volunteer to be intelligent, cheerful, quick to learn, difficult to horrify, and industrious to the point of collapse. They gave her more to do. Soon she had her own ward. The wounded poured in from the front; she threw herself into the care of soldiers and aviators, whom she called her “blessées.” She wrote her sister, “You would die to see me pumping dope into drains in open wounds & tying up heads with the brains sticking out in the back.”
|Carrie with one of her “blessées”|
My grandfather was so impressed by Carrie’s bold and selfless act that he enlisted in the army. As he departed for field artillery training in upstate New York, he wrote to her: “Dear Carrie, the die is cast now. I am well aware what the consequences must be to us all in blood & misery, but one would far rather bring one’s earthly career to a premature close than feel that one comes from a country which failed to make good when faced by the choice between the honorable thing and the yellow thing. I’m quitting my own work now & starting to study for the army, in whatever capacity I can serve. Wish me luck. If you do, I know it’ll bring me some. I need it.” He would show Carrie and the world that he was good for something.
The news took Carrie by surprise. “I had a long letter from Marshall Kernochan,” she reported to her mother, “just as he was leaving for Plattsburg! I wonder what it will do for him? Kill or cure?”
From the time he reported for duty their correspondence began in earnest: letters flew across the ocean between them. Though they were 3000 miles apart, they felt they were comrades in action – two sheltered bluebloods plunging into a great cause and experiencing their own bravery for the first time. Soon Carrie was writing to her folks, “It certainly does show people up, a time like this, & you may call him a freak – but how many of the boys we know are making good that way?”
She had promised her family she’d return after six months. The Paris damp, the grueling stress and the unhealthy conditions at the hospital brought back her chronic bronchitis. She fell into a pattern of working her heart out, getting ill, and becoming a patient herself. Still, fourteen months later she was still there. It was unthinkable to leave: she was needed.
Grandpa shipped out to France in the fall of 1917. A second lieutenant, he was transferred to the intelligence corps. His letters couldn’t reveal his whereabouts or his activities, but they were full of frustration and eagerness to see her. He demanded that she take him on a tour of Paris (though he already knew the city very well) “or I shall order up my platoon & put you under arrest.”
Finally at Christmas he got two days’ leave. And that’s all it took: a day and a night. Whatever happened to put the match to his ardor, he came away crazy to marry her.
Carrie, on the other hand, held back. She called him “short-sighted,” which stung. He wrote: “Dear, you know you must ‘take a shot at it’! I care more than I ever could tell you. That I can take care of you I am sure, and I won’t pluck one feather out of that cherished independence of yours. If I had my pick of every woman who ever lived and you were an invalid in a wheelchair, I’d far rather spend my life with you. We’re not little kids, and if we want to live there’s but one way – jump! You said last night that I’m short sighted. I doubt it. And I know the Big Need is with me, and only you can take it away.”
She didn’t reply. He waited one agonizing week, firing off more letters. The New Year came and went.
Finally a letter from Carrie arrived.
She: “You ask if I think of you. Of course I do – lots – much too much for my peace of mind. But tho’ I cannot yet ‘say the good word’ you want me to, if it’s any help for you to feel there is something more than an ordinary friendship between us – why please do. Whether or not it will grow is something only the future can decide.”
He: “What else can I say, except that I love you? If, as you say, you like to be told that, why, I like to tell it, still more…You say, ‘if you only dared let yourself go’! Well – who’s holding you back?...Don’t think that I’m such a crazy optimist as to say that married life would be all a bed of roses! Of course there are concessions and little sacrifices, but it seems to me that making those is the best part of all. I know I’d like to give up anything to get you.” Meanwhile, he wrote his mother about Carrie, to assure her that his mission was almost accomplished: “She is such a sweet little girl. I think she would suit me splendidly.”
Carrie rejoined: “Yes, I did tell you, in a rash moment, that I like to be made love to – but please next time we meet don’t do anything of the kind, because we’ve got to talk & talk & talk, and nothing kills conversation so.” (“Making love” in those days could mean nothing more than snogging.)
They got together one more time in Paris, a single day of walking around the city and talking and talking and talking, capped off by an air raid that both found quite “thrilling.” But he returned to camp believing she didn’t return his feelings enough to marry him.
Doctors advised Carrie not to spend another winter in Paris. She sailed home for three months. Before leaving, she sent Grandpa an ambiguous note: “I want so much to be fair & square & honest & aboveboard with you! I’ve decided I can’t be that until I’ve been home & found out if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind…”
She must have gotten quite an earful from her parents. Hello? You’re 32 and alone, not rich or beautiful, you’re living off your hard-up parents, and now one of the wealthiest bachelors in New York is begging to marry you, and you’re hesitating? Are you insane?!
Whether she bowed to pressure or something else happened, she changed her mind. Her next letter to Grandpa showed her backtracking almost frantically: “You have no idea how much I miss you. I hate it. How perfectly horrid I was to you most of the time. What must you think of me?...If you don’t really want to marry me, you had better not ask me again!”
Upon her return to Paris they were married. He wrote his mother, “Thank God I have a wife who is not helpless, and who has enough initiative to be able and not to be afraid to do things. I tell you, Ma, this life here changes one’s point of view in everything and shows up people’s character as nothing else could. This war, even if it is horrible and cruel, has certainly separated the wheat from the chaff.” (He added, “Be sure & get all the wine you can, for very soon it will no longer be possible, when we have prohibition. What a nuisance it will be!”)
A year later their only child, my father, was born.
The World War I letters, tied up in bundles with frayed kitchen string, were discovered 75 years later in a trunk in Grandpa’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. As I read them, handling with caution the brittle ink-blotched pages, I was haunted by several questions. What held Carrie back? What did she mean, that she had to find out “if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind”? Were those “certain things” someone else? Someone she loved? Someone married? Why really was she still unwed at 32?
The letters were out of sequence, so the last ones I read were from Carrie to her sister, written soon after Carrie first arrived in Paris. Her voice changed on these pages; became whispered girl-talk. Suddenly two passages leapt out at me.
“No more married lovers for me,” Carrie wrote. “At least that’s what I say now. You never know.” And: “Do let me know if the darling goes to see you – I bet his wife doesn’t miss me so she suffers - !”
I was sure now: there was a secret here. But I had come to the bottom of the family papers, with no more clues or answers. No one – parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles – was alive for me to question.
But the dead were another matter. Only one thing remained for me to do: make an appointment with a medium.
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Anna arrived at Mrs. Vernon’s house in New York prepared to take notes; to transcribe everything that occurred and was said. At first the medium had difficulty bringing the sister’s spirit into the foreground. Words and images came through in confusing fragments, like a cellphone connection “breaking up.” Apparently Rose was “still in perplexity” following her death – as who wouldn’t be? Seen from the other side, to find yourself both dead and taking a call from your sister might be difficult to handle. Rose was pretty green at this.
Oh promise me that you will take my hand,
The most unworthy in this lonely land,
And let me sit beside you, in your eyes
Seeing the vision of our paradise,
Hearing God’s message while the organ rolls,
Its mighty music to our very souls,
No love less perfect than a life with thee;
Oh promise me, oh promise me!
|BEAUTIFUL SPIRIT: Rose Chatfield-Taylor|
|HER INTERVIEWER: Anna De Koven|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Why not a medium? It should have been an obvious step long ago, when I was in my twenties and running around to all those psychics. I suppose I didn’t know many dead people I was interested in. I only wanted to know about boyfriends. And I was already in communication with my ghostly Grandpa Kernochan on my own. But now, preparing this memoir, I found I had some burning questions about his marriage to Carrie.
Another ancestor of mine had consulted a clairvoyant medium, and quite publicly.
Anna De Koven was my great-great aunt on my mother’s side. In 1920, when she was already a well-known journalist and biographer, Anna published A Cloud of Witnesses, the chronicle of her conversations with her dead sister through a psychic medium.
Both Anna and her sister Rose were daughters of US Senator Charles Farwell from Illinois. By 19th century standards the girls were educated beyond expectation, and made for scintillating company at dinners and balls. Rose was also famously beautiful. A Chicago millionaire snapped her up and she became Rose Chatfield-Taylor. (Anna credited Rose’s husband with bringing golf to the Midwest in 1892, when he sank tomato cans in their lawn and turned it into a golf link.) Meanwhile Anna married the composer Reginald De Koven, who penned operettas as well as that warhorse wedding song “O Promise Me.”
From all reports Rose was warm and wise and adored by everyone, most especially by Anna. Thus it came as a terrible shock when Rose died suddenly, at the age of 48, in the course of a minor surgery gone wrong. Anna couldn’t adjust to her loss and so, only a few months after the funeral, she leapt at the chance of making contact with Rose’s spirit.
As a journalist, Anna dealt in facts and fastidious research, which seemed at odds with her adventure into the unknowable ether. But hope overwhelmed her: it might just be possible to conjure Rose from the dead! Still, she could not entirely leave abandon her scientific scruples. She drew encouragement from the fact that it was a noted physicist, who had become interested in psychic phenomena, who referred her to a medium he knew. He had consulted this Mrs. Vernon after his son died in the war in Europe, and felt solaced by the experience of talking to his boy.
|Grieving Anna at the time of the séances|
Anna arrived at Mrs. Vernon’s house in New York prepared to take notes; to transcribe everything that occurred and was said. At first the medium had difficulty bringing the sister’s spirit into the foreground. Words and images came through in confusing fragments, like a cellphone connection “breaking up.” Apparently Rose was “still in perplexity” following her death – as who wouldn’t be? Seen from the other side, to find yourself both dead and taking a call from your sister might be difficult to handle. Rose was pretty green at this.
However, the medium rallied to the task. She appealed to her helpers: four gentlemen who were themselves eager to make this interview succeed.
The men were members of the American Society for Psychical Research. They had made some studies of Mrs. Vernon and her extraordinary abilities, and were in a state of great excitement to present their reports to the London branch of the Society when, in 1915, they boarded a transatlantic ship headed for England. The boat was called the RMS Lusitania.
After they drowned, the scientists got back in touch with Mrs. Vernon. They wanted her to find someone living to present their material to the public. Enter Anna De Koven, a writer.
The gentlemen’s deal was implicit: Write about our work, and we will enable your sister to come forward. We’ll give her a speed course in immortal-to-mortal interface.
The bargain might as well have come from Mrs. Vernon herself, who stood to get a lot of attention from anything Anna De Koven wrote – attention she was thwarted from receiving when those misfortunate scientists hit the ocean floor. That would be the cynical interpretation. But skepticism is the clairvoyant’s daily portion. The medium’s answer to critics comes in the “proving.”
“Proving” is the early part of a session, when spirits are first summoned. Using the medium as translator, they try to convince the client of their identity. They prove who they are to the point that all disbelief vanishes, everyone is on board, and the séance can proceed without misgiving.
Rose, coming through more clearly now, started talking about a table cover she was making when she died. It was still in pieces, but she wanted Anna to have it. Anna was flabbergasted. It was true: Rose had left behind a half-completed tablecloth of lace and linen strips. Then Rose talked about a sly trick she and Anna had pulled once, in order to win a golf match. Then she described the hats she’d had made for the coming fashion season, which were still at the milliner’s. Rose was also worried about Anna’s husband’s health, citing “a limited amount of endurance.”--> (Indeed he was ill, and not long after would die.)
The evidence piled up, of private matters between the two sisters, information Mrs. Vernon could not possibly have acquired. Anna was not only on board, she was hooked. Over six months she returned to Mrs. Vernon again and again. The verbatim transcripts make up most of the book.
A Cloud of Witnesses made quite a sensation, coming as it did from a respected writer and member of high society. I’d never heard of the book until my brother mentioned it last year. I had no trouble finding an old copy online. (It’s also a free download on Google Books.) The opening chapter is tough reading – a scientific thesis on the “survival of the personality after death.” Anna wanted readers to have all the evidence supporting psychic phenomena before reading the session transcripts, or they might dismiss her report as fantasy. Once the Rose conversations start, the book becomes fascinating and at times lovely and lyrical.
In short, Rose took Anna on a tour of the afterlife. She described how, after she died, she revived in the ethereal world where she was met by “a man with a gray beard in a white garment. He chose to assume this venerable appearance because it was more comforting.” Still she resisted him, horrified to find herself in the discarnate state, until her mother and twin brother (who was killed by a falling branch when he was two) arrived to console her. “They had assumed their earthly appearances or I would not have recognized them.” She also noticed they didn’t pronounce words but rather implanted thoughts in her head.
Rose then entered the soul system, where the dead go through “probation to initiation to fulfillment.” Basically Rose was in school, learning to detach from her previous lifetime and reach a higher spirituality. (For a time she studied how to create symbols to appear as messages in human dreams.) She and the other souls in her class hung around “congenial” landscapes they created mutually through telepathic vibration. “We create things here as we want them, and we frequently look back on the things we have once desired [on earth] as children look back upon their dolls.”
Their mother made a few cameo appearances. A puritanical devout in her lifetime, she now said, “I have learned that religion is not of serious necessity. The only real uplift is charity towards mankind. If charity and mentality go not hand and hand, it profits the soul nothing.”
Sometimes the Lusitania survivors chimed in with passages like “The universe holds. But the appurtenances vanish like foam in the wake of the ship.”
Rose contributed her own metaphor, asking Anna to “picture a man walking down a sunlit road. The ethereal world is a shadow of the material. They are inseparable as shadow and figure.” (I would add that humans typically pay no attention to their shadows.)
Trained by the scientists, Rose turned into quite the chatty ghost. Those who have read Chapter 4 of this memoir remember that as a young man my maternal grandfather communicated with his dead mother through automatic writing. His mother (and my great-grandmother) was Rose.
Reading A Cloud of Witnesses encouraged me to seek out my own Mrs. Vernon. I wanted to talk to my longtime ghost Marshall and his wife Carrie, both of whom died in the 1950’s. And while I was at it, I wanted to say hey to Anna De Koven.
(To be continued.)
I leave you with the gooey lyrics to O Promise Me, by Anna’s husband:
The most unworthy in this lonely land,
And let me sit beside you, in your eyes
Seeing the vision of our paradise,
Hearing God’s message while the organ rolls,
Its mighty music to our very souls,
No love less perfect than a life with thee;
Oh promise me, oh promise me!
|Mom before polio|
I opened the door and, as I braved the champaca fumes and tinkling wind chimes, I thought: fire the art director for crimes of cliché. It was way too obvious to have a medium operating out of the back room of a New Age tchotchke shop. Lurking around the crystals, rune stones, wands and massage rollers were the customers, mainly women who wore a lot of velour and displayed snaggly toenails, probably from all the running with wolves. I am not one of them, I told myself. Then again, I had a closetful of velvet back in New York, and I had taken the train all the way to Amherst to consult a medium, carrying a notepad full of questions for dead people. So, like it or not, I was part of this crackpot Aquarian tribe.
The back room was carpeted and mostly bare. I took my seat opposite a 40-ish woman (in velour) who sat six feet away. I’d made the appointment in the spirit of an escapade, something madcap and probably idiotic. I totally didn’t expect this woman to succeed in convoking my grandparents, both of whom died in the 1950’s. She herself assured me that she had no control over which spirits would come forward. Some of them might have no relation to me, she said, but they were hanging about in case some conduit opened up whereby they could get a message through. I shrugged inwardly and opened my notebook: let the shams begin.
Staring slightly to the side of me, she announced that someone from the afterlife was present. “A younger person in his 20’s. Sandy blond hair, tall, close to six feet, tan pants with a nice shirt. I have a sense of someone who took his own life. I can’t breathe, I’m having a hard time swallowing. Like, I choked to death. Does this mean anything to you?”
“I can’t think of anyone.”
“He wants to say that his suicide was impulsive, not thought out. Never mind.” She paused as if to shift gears. “Someone with a motherly energy just walked in. Has your mother passed?”
“She had a degenerative illness. She’s pointing to the brain. Parts of her memory were lost. You were the decision maker at that time.”
I was instantly disconcerted. Yes, my mother had dementia the last years of her life. Yes, I held the medical proxy.
Without waiting for my confirmation, the medium went on, “Now she’s holding onto the doorway, and she says, ‘I needed help to stand up.’”
And with that, suddenly, Mom was there in the room. For as long as I’d known her, she had needed crutches to stand and walk, owing to the polio that crippled her at age 25.
This was the part of the session called “proving,” which I learned from my great-great-aunt’s book on séances (see Part 47). The medium transmits a spirit’s identifying details until the client, who may at first resist believing in the ghost’s presence, is worn down by the preponderance of evidence, the intimate details that even the most cunning medium couldn’t invent. The proofs piled up as I sat there listening in amazement.
“Your mother says, ‘Dorothy.’ Now she’s showing me some Oz books.”
We had inherited a complete set of Oz books, which Mom read them aloud to me. I was obsessed with them.
“She says, ‘Ping-Pong.’ Does this make any sense to you?”
Ping-Pong was the one game that all seven members of my family came together to play, round-robin style. Even Mom played from her wheelchair.
“She’s showing a set of china, white and gold, that she was proud of.” I still possess her lovely wedding service, white and gold.
And on it went. At the point I was completely convinced that my mother was present, her messages began. Among them were her thanks to me for helping her to die.
I burst into tears. Bed-ridden, incapable, and lost in the backroads of dementia, Mom had summoned the will to stubbornly refuse food and liquid. I had administered morphine, read her children’s books, played Fred Astaire and The Messiah that she adored, and sat vigil for the eight days it took her to wane and die. I’d felt her gratitude at the time; but to hear it now, expressed through a stranger, in this nondescript room off a crystal-and-candles shop, filled up my heart to the seams.
The medium asked if it was indeed my mother I’d come here to speak with. Actually, I hadn’t thought of Mom at all beforehand. There was no mystery there I wanted to solve, no unfinished business, no unbearable grief or inability to let go. We had closed the book, she and I.
My sole interest had been in contacting my father’s parents, which I’d assumed to be an improbable venture – like shooting an arrow into the air and expecting it to land in the bull’s eye of a target hidden in deep woods. Yet now, after my mother’s appearance, it seemed possible. “I came for someone else,” I told the medium.
“Give me the first name of the departed, and I’ll see what I can do.”
I said, “Marshall.”
It didn’t take long before Grandpa arrived.
The medium started by laughing. “Oh, he’s so funny. This man – I assume this is a man’s name – has such humor. A twinkle in his eye. He was handsome, mischievous – a teaser – but sweet.”
My grandfather certainly was a known wit, the life of the party. Could this be he? I waited for more “proving.”
“I’m seeing the Masonic symbol.” I was fully alert now. My grandfather was a staunch Freemason.
The medium continued, “He was independently wealthy…but…” She paused to listen. “He’s protesting – he wants you to know, ‘I wasn’t lazy!’”
I laughed: busted. I had written, in Part 5 of this very blog that my grandparents, at least according to my father, were “indolent.” Apparently he was annoyed by that, in an afterlife sort of way.
“He left this world quickly. There were no warning signs. The problem was the heart. He was getting set to go to a party – the way he wanted to go, the perfect death. He liked cocktails and the finer whiskies and other alcohol, so he might have had a snifter in his hand before going.”
And there he was, as incontrovertibly present in the room as my mother. It was all accurate: Grandpa had died of a massive stroke, suddenly, in Martha’s Vineyard as he was getting dressed for an evening with his pals at the Reading Room, a men’s club on the waterfront pier. I could picture the snifter shattering on the floor, the expensive cognac pooling. How many of those bottles had I opened and swilled, from the racks and racks of his liquor, stored in my parents’ garage after his death?
“Yes,” I said. “This is my grandfather.”
|Grandpa (left) with his Reading Room cronies|
She said, “You only had a limited time together when you were both alive, but he noticed you at an early age. He connected with you, saw your potential.”
He died when I was eight. Up until now I’d had next to no memory of him, but all at once I remembered playing him a piece I’d made up on the piano, perched on a stool at his mahogany Steinway grand, in his Sutton Place townhouse. I was about six. My composition was called “The Ocean” and consisted of my rolling my knuckles on all the black keys. In my fragment of memory, he listened quite respectfully from the couch, hands propped on his cane. Maybe he saw my songwriting potential then, if I mastered the white keys.
I snapped back to the present, scribbling notes to catch up with the medium who was saying, “He seems more like a father than a grandfather to you. He protects you. You are his co-worker – he sees you doing what he prepared you for, though what he gave you was changed by what you brought to it. He has great respect for you. A sense of you two being equals. He says to you, ‘I admire and trust you.’…He was a muse to you. Does that make sense?”
I merely nodded, overcome by all this validation. It all came back, the music he fed me from across the cosmic divide when I lay in a kind of waking sleep, and the pressure to finish these pieces on my own. I glanced at the list of questions I’d prepared before arriving. “Please ask him, ‘Why did you stop composing?’”
After a second she chuckled, “Oh, he’s getting haughty now. He says, ‘I didn’t have to!’”
Thinking that this sounded pretty lazy, I pressed him, “Was it because of the war? Or getting married?” (Grandpa’s output of music had dwindled to nothing in the years after he returned from his World War I service in France, where he’d married my grandmother Carrie.)
“It wasn’t the war, but he had a depression – he got blocked artistically. And the marriage was a challenge. She was a decent woman but he didn’t have a true connection there. It wasn’t a marriage of desire but because he was expected to marry.”
We were getting to the heart of it now. Everything so far had been borne out by the letters Grandpa had left behind, and by the recollections of my father in his 1990’s memoir. But there was one big question that had gone unanswered. If I had posed it to my father while he was alive, he wouldn’t have known the answer, and might have been offended as well. So here was my chance, with Grandpa floating in the room…
I asked, “Were you gay?”
(To be continued.)