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, a hand 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 7.
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 hobnobbing 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 begetting 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 heard on 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 43 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 some forty years later. I bought 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 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 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. Contrary 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 his 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. 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 hobknobbing. 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 the generation 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.
|His ring, my way|
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.
Note to all readers: this is my last post before the holidays. But I leave you with a little music of Grandpa’s. This is a recording of a song he wrote in 1922, which I only recently discovered. It’s a children’s song. Of course.
Wanderchild by Marshall Kernochan
The lyrics are anonymous, from an old children's book.
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 Wanderchild 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.
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.)
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:
Sleeparound Town by profrabbit
...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 by John Kernochan
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.”
And up there in the hay
The sailor had his way,
A real 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.
You hump with ease
With Patty Pease
She aims to please,
Does Patty Pease
“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 root of the tree 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' hiding places. I found books about male sexual development given to the boys by Mom and Dad. 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 guest 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.
Postscript: 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 description I preferred "Lady Chatterley'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 awake 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 Heart' three 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)
Candice and Louis
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.
Me, Carrie, and Joe
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…
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 sloping 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. A bridal veil. 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 lips 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.
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.
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.
|Myself in Marrakesh|
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 a.m. 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.
That evil made its second appearance in Fez.
Hamadsha trance musicians
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.
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.”
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 in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
(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
With persistent flaws intact, Sleeparound Town ran for a month to subscriber audiences. (the theater had no elevator: it broke my mother’s heart that she couldn’t see the show, unable to get up and down four steep flights with her crutches). Still, the response was good enough that Andre decided the show merited a full production if a new director could be found, since Tom was off to shoot Amadeus. And he had just the guy, a Playwrights Horizons favorite son, who had just co-written and directed a hit musical for them. This paragon had seen my show and was interested. He loved working with kids. As a writer, he could help me shape a book for the piece. Cute, too. Probably gay. Oh, he wasn’t gay? Even more fun.
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
“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 Good dog
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.
BEAUTIFUL SPIRIT: Rose Chatfield-Taylor
|HER INTERVIEWER: Anna De Koven|
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:
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!
|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.”
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?”
Grandpa in the kiddie kavalry, 1889
The clairvoyant medium seemed a little disconcerted by my blunt question.
In truth, I was a little ashamed to ask. It was merely reductive stereotyping that made me wonder if Grandpa had been gay. I added up what I knew: he’d lived contentedly with his mother until he was 38, and only married when she pressured him to. He loved opera, concerts, theater, photography. He loved clothes. He wrote songs. And then there were all those private men’s clubs….
It had taken Grandpa a scant nine months to woo and wed Carrie. Most of those months they were only in contact through letters. (Both had gone to France to serve in the war effort, but were separated by their jobs or by her persistent ill health.) In total, they saw each other face-to-face for a few weeks before Carrie accepted him. How well did she really know this wealthy bachelor?
Once the newlyweds returned to the U.S., leaving the heady excitement of their wartime adventures behind, my grandfather led his bride over the threshold of his manse in Tuxedo Park. In fact he delivered her into boredom. She soon found herself alone, except for an army of servants. Every day he would leave for some men-only powwow – golf, tennis, poker; booze and badinage – at one of the several clubs to which he belonged; or at highly secretive meetings with the Freemasons, where he was already a lodge master.
Carrie was expected to fill her time socializing with the other wives, but she didn’t care so much for female company. (In her youth she’d enrolled in Bryn Mawr College and left after one day, complaining, “There were too many women.”) After giving excruciating birth to my father, Carrie demanded that their future winters be spent in New York City, where she could consort with “lively minds” to make up for her husband’s constant clubbing.
The son grew up wondering about his father’s thing for male cliques. Dad wrote in his memoir, “It seemed as though he urgently needed constant reassurance of his own masculinity provided by the company of men and their ongoing acceptance of him as one of them.”
Why did he doubt his masculinity? Unless he knew that, secretly, he came up short. I arrived once again at my suspicion, which had seemed unanswerable – until here, now, when I had his spirit in the room and a medium paid to translate.
So I asked him: “Were you gay?” And held my breath.
“Yes,” came the answer.
The medium paused, apparently listening to him. “But he didn’t act on it. There were flirtations, but he kept it way underground. There was no possibility of going further, except maybe when he went abroad. France, Italy, Germany…” Yes, those were all the countries where I knew he traveled. Paris, Rome, Berlin, libertine-friendly places where he would have felt freer to leave the closet.
The medium added, “His wife came to know about it. She decided to keep quiet.”
So Carrie knew.
Another puzzle piece plopped into place. This one would have answered one of my father’s most pressing questions.
All his life Dad pondered why, growing up in his parents’ house, there was such an obsessive concern to “make a man of me, as they put it. This theme, harped on for years, often dictated their attitude toward me in childhood.” Carrie seemed especially paranoid that their son would become a mama’s boy. After all, her husband had grown up inseparable from his own mother, and look at the result. His feminine side became overnourished, producing the girlie man she’d gone and married.
And so Carrie guarded my father from a like fate. “To be sure I would not be ‘coddled’ or tied to my mother’s apron strings or dominated by her, my mother purposely absented herself when I came home from school. She was always on guard to avoid being demonstrative. Hugging, kissing, or other expressions of warmth were rare.” Even his father joined the project to butch up the son. “In those days I was called ‘Jackie,’ but if I wept or whined my father would call me ‘Jacqueline.’”
To drive the point further, his parents enrolled Jackie-Jacqueline in the Knickerbocker Greys, a paramilitary cadre of boy soldiers that drilled and paraded up and down Park Avenue to their parents’ satisfaction. (Grandpa himself had belonged to the Greys when he was a lad. Always fond of dress-up, he must have loved the uniform, though Dad always thought he looked more like a bellhop with a musket.)
Next came the boys’ boarding school (St. Mark’s), where Jackie’s lessons in manhood entered realms of boy-on-boy cruelty whose memory embittered and disgusted him for the rest of his days.
Still, in the end, Carrie got what she wanted: a man’s man for a son, and her husband’s wretched gay gene stomped into dust.
Meanwhile Grandpa kept to his ways, pursuing fraternal camaraderie anywhere he could find it. In the masonic lodges were men he could call Brother. (A fervent follower, he eventually became Most Wise Master, Grand Marshall, Sovereign of the Red Cross of Constantine Chapter and New York Court of Jesters.) (Really.)
Grandpa in full Masonic gear
The last males-only club he was headed to, when he died, was the dockside Edgartown Reading Room in Martha’s Vineyard. A club he helped found and bankroll, this was no literary gathering. The only book in the building was the telephone directory. But the bartender could reach down any bottle you wanted from the shelf. It wasn’t easy to become a member. You had to be wealthy, and you had to get with the program: booze and badinage and secrets. Their climactic annual rite was a nude clambake.
The Edgartown Reading Room annual moonfest
Even now, on the summer nights when I walk by the Reading Room, I will hear the good old rich guys within, eruptions of laughter booming over the water: masculinity certified and embalmed.
He had long ago given up composing songs. This was the music he’d wanted to hear, the night he died.
“Do you have any regrets?” I asked Grandpa’s ghost.
The medium reported, “He says he didn’t put into his marriage what he could have. He was ambivalent about it. He harmed her emotionally by his lack of attention.”
Suddenly I wanted to hear Carrie’s side. But our session was up, and I had a train to catch.
My grandmother’s mysteries would come clear another time – and through another medium.
Carrie in her teens, not yet heartbroken
It nagged at me, that missing piece. My grandmother Carrie had a secret: one that prevented her from marrying my grandfather Marshall, or anyone for that matter. On the face of it, Carrie had steadfastly avoided marriage out of principle, reluctant to give up her independence to any man. That was her public position, at any rate. This would have been an unusual stance in those pre-feminist days, and if an unmarried woman of 32 trumpeted about her freedom, people could assume she was just masking her humiliation at being a spinster.
Grandpa wasn’t deterred, promising, “I won’t pluck one feather out of that cherished independence of yours.” Still she eluded him. She returned to New York, writing him that she needed to go home to find out “how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind.” What things?
And then, suddenly and unaccountably, she accepted his proposal. What made her change her tune? According to the medium I’d first visited, she knew or suspected that Marshall covertly preferred men. There was no one left alive to ask. The memoir about his parents that Dad left when he died furnished no clue. Like me, my father remained perplexed about the nature of their marriage because, even though they seemed quite fond of each other, they spent so much time apart. Dad never figured it out, and he wasn’t the type to consult a clairvoyant medium. The idea of contacting his mother’s spirit, so that she could fill in the blanks, was laughable – and frightening as well, since it implied an afterlife that he was dead certain didn’t exist.
He must have done a double take after he died. I imagine it’s particularly hard for atheists to adapt to eternity when they wake up in its echoing expanse. Imagine, too, their fearful confusion: what am I here for? A picnic, or perdition? On the other hand, they must feel pretty happy that they’d been dead wrong about that death-is-the-end thing. I know Dad was grateful for his new and refreshed life as a spirit; he enjoyed getting on with the business of evolving. He told me so, through another medium.
After that first encounter with a clairvoyant, I’d sampled three others, curious to see if there was any discrepancy in the spirit messages they transmitted. The results were astounding in two out of three séances, which took place over the telephone. To contact my grandmother Carrie, I decided to go back to the very first medium I’d seen in Massachusetts, but this time we’d be conducting our session by phone.
My belief that Carrie carried a secret wasn’t based on much, mainly a few passing lines I’d come across in a letter she wrote to her sister from war-torn France in 1917: “No more married lovers for me. At least that’s what I say now. You never know.” Grandpa was a confirmed bachelor, who had avoided marriage for even longer than she. And while he declared his love ardently, nowhere in her wartime letters did she tell him, or anyone else she wrote to, that she loved Marshall in return. So who were the “married lovers”?
My phone session with Medium #1 went well at first. Carrie showed up front and center. The medium correctly described her and identified the cause of her death (Carrie underwent a double mastectomy but in the end succumbed to lung cancer). More details followed that I knew to be true. The time came to pose my question: “Why did you avoid marriage for so long?”
The medium transmitted the question, listened to the response, and relayed my grandmother’s answer. Carrie had had her heart broken in her twenties, and consequently lost her appetite for love. The man had been married – or perhaps he had to leave Carrie to marry someone else? There was a child. Perhaps he’d gotten the other woman pregnant. Or perhaps Carrie had been pregnant, and had to give the child up because her lover was married. Perhaps…perhaps?
I realized, with discomfort, that the medium had strayed into conjecture, was vamping instead of reporting what my grandmother’s spirit said. I had every reason to expect unequivocal answers from the dead: of course Carrie knew what she did and why – it was her life, after all. Disappointed, I concluded the séance early.
I put the mystery aside for a year; my film work had increased, and I had a new album to release. Then, last month, I happened to hear of a French-Canadian medium, Guy Isabel, who conveyed messages from the departed through automatic writing. I was already familiar with this form of channeling, since my maternal grandfather had practiced it for a time (I’ve written about his experiences in Part 4 and Part 47 of this memoir). I thought “ghost-writing” would be an interesting approach, another way to have that conversation with my elusive grandmother. Monsieur Isabel and I exchanged emails and arranged a date for a Skype session. A day before our appointment, he sent me the following note:
“While I was doing an automatic writing session yesterday, a spirit name Marshall came to me and gave that message:
“Marshall says, ‘I learn to evolve doing lots of activities based on love and the impact of developing love in the relationship between minds. This prepares us to choose our next incarnations. From these teachings, the mind learns the importance of raising his consciousness through the practice of love with his neighbor. The human experience is an experience that marks the soul deeply and allows it to grow significantly in higher levels of vibration. Tell her she is a beautiful soul and we love her work.’”
I always welcome compliments on my work. I totally preen – on the inside of course. And I don’t much care where they come from. (Except once, when I cared very much. A magazine asked former presidential candidate and Southern Baptist anti-Semite Reverend Pat Robertson what his favorite movies were. My film Impromptu was on his list. This was ironic, considering my documentary Marjoe was an exposé of evangelical preachers.) Nevertheless, the email made me suspicious of Isabel. The text was boilerplate New Age cant, even if I agreed with every word. And the name Marshall is easily obtained by reading this very blog.
My suspicions eased as our session commenced. Monsieur Isabel seemed a very sweet, openhearted man, and my charlatan alarm (cf. Marjoe, above) didn’t go off. Each time I posed a question to a spirit, I was able to watch Isabel onscreen as he paused to write the answer in lovely looping script, his hand never leaving the page but rather connecting words as if they came in a continuous undifferentiated stream. I asked him to send me the actual pages. The script was difficult to read:
(Hint: the first word is Marshall and the rest is in French)
Answers were relayed through Isabel’s various spirit guides, whose names sounded like medications. What they said was sometimes awkwardly phrased, as if translated from another language by a less than proficient translator. At one point I asked Isabel if the messages came to his hand in French or English, in case he was the one translating what he’d written. Both, he said; he had no control over the choice. Since my French is fairly good, I asked him to read me answers in whatever language appeared on the page. Even after he complied, the spirits’ diction remained that of a foreigner (they do, in a sense, come from afar).
As our session began, right away Grandpa barrelled in, always first to arrive at a party. I decided to direct my question to him instead of Carrie. I asked, “Did you know her secret?”
Yes, he knew her secrets. They concerned a person whom Carrie had met, an affair that continued over the course of their marriage. Marshall was speaking in French now (he was fluent in his lifetime). “Cette liaison s'est déroulée avec un médecin.”
Suddenly I knew exactly who that was.
I remember nothing of my grandmother, who died when I was five. But I have a distinct memory of visiting her Martha’s Vineyard cottage. Not the big summer house in Edgartown, which she shared with husband, son, guests and servants. Marshall bought a little cottage for her as a refuge where she could be alone to paint and muse. It was perched on a bluff in Katama, overlooking the Atlantic, and everything about it was fascinatingly tiny. Grandma Carrie was a wee woman. The rooms were close and cozy, and, because I was a child, I loved the diminutive slipcovered furniture: Goldilocks-size, the chairs were just right for a child’s bottom.
But now I thought, she wasn’t always alone. And I wondered how the estimable Dr. Taylor squeezed his ass into one of those armchairs.
Dad with his parents: hoisting Carrie as Marshall looks on. Note the cigarette in her hand: small wonder she had a "graveyard cough."
My long-departed grandfather wasn’t done spilling the beans through this Montreal medium. Across the dimensional divide, Monsieur Guy Isabel’s spirit guide continued to compel his hand as he covered another page with automatic writing, in a script that appeared both elegant and awkward.
I waited, still recovering from the news that my grandmother Carrie, through all thirty-five years of her marriage, conducted an affair with her doctor, and with Grandpa’s full knowledge.
I knew all about Dr. Taylor from my father’s memoir, and from the letters Carrie wrote to her family from France during World War I.
At the height of the war, Dr. Kenneth Taylor, a New York pathologist, volunteered his services to an American military hospital in Paris. While there, he developed a successful treatment for gas gangrene, for which he later received the Légion d’Honneur. In 1915 he returned to New York. The following year he was summoned back to Paris to take over as hospital chief. He boarded an ocean liner with his wife Ann and a volunteer nurse named Caroline Hatch.
The three had become friendly in New York. I surmise that Ken Taylor encouraged Carrie Hatch to come along and serve in the war effort. Maybe their attraction had already begun. He put her to work in the wards, where she found her calling as angel to the wounded. He found her placements at other hospitals; he made house visits when she was ill, which was often. (It wouldn’t have aroused any suspicion when she had a man in her room at her pension, if that man was her doctor.)
“What I should do without him I cannot imagine,” she wrote her sister.
She didn’t have to do without Dr. Taylor, as it turned out. Along came Lieutenant Marshall Kernochan with a marriage proposal, along with his assurance that, if she said yes, he wouldn’t “pluck one feather out of that cherished independence” of hers. She would be free to do whatever she wanted.
Carrie put off accepting Grandpa’s proposal. She sailed back to New York without giving him an answer; she needed more time, “to try to put certain things out of my mind.” Likely she believed her affair with Ken Taylor was hopeless. Continuing as the backdoor woman of a married man was an unthinkable demotion; she was too proud for that. But what if she too was married? Marshall’s wealth and social position guaranteed her respectability and, if he kept his promise, the freedom to pursue her heart.
So she said yes to all that. Her return passage and visa were arranged by Ken Taylor. The Taylors were witnesses at Carrie and Marshall’s wedding. At the end of the war, the four reassembled their weird ménage in New York. Marshall and Carrie Kernochan had a son named Jack (my dad). Ken and Ann Taylor had a daughter. Carrie instated Ken as the family physician; if little Jackie Kernochan had a sniffle, Dr. Taylor would instantly appear. Marshall bought a studio for Carrie where she could enjoy some privacy; the apartment was practically next door to the Taylors. The four got together sometimes for evening musicales or theater outings, but more often Marshall was off at the Freemasons or his mens’ clubs, and Carrie and Ken were off doing…something or other together.
When he got older Dad became aware that something in this picture wasn’t right. He started teasing his mother about it. Whenever she announced she was going to sunny Florida (for her lungs), with the good doctor in attendance (for her lungs), Dad would start rotating his pelvis and singing a current pop song, “Hear that savage serenade/ Down there in the Everglade/ Goes boom-a-diddy booma-diddy booma-diddy-boom.” Later he took to referring to Dr. Taylor simply as “Booma-Diddy.”
“She would be embarrassed,” he wrote, “blushing and giggling uncomfortably, but in no way daunted.” Finally Dad asked his father “point-blank, how he felt about my mother’s absences and her obvious inclinations toward the doctor. His response was: ‘When I look around and see some of the women my friends have married, I consider myself a lucky man.’”
Grandpa was probably referring to Mrs. Booma-Diddy.
When Marshall first met the Taylors in Paris, he wrote Carrie that “Mrs. T seemed a bit difficult. Dr. T scarcely opened his head.” Their act never changed. My dad observed that whenever the T’s came a-calling on the K’s, Ann Taylor invariably showered contempt on her husband, and she didn’t seem to care who was witnessing. While she loudly berated him, the doctor shrank a few sizes and said nothing. She was also rumored to be having an affair with a Columbia professor. Carrie’s studio increasingly became Dr. Taylor’s home away from home as he escaped his ballbusting wife’s company.
And what better companion for Carrie than a doctor? “She was both morbidly obsessed with illness and prone to it,” my father wrote. From his earliest years Dad found that a surefire way to get his mother to pay any attention to him at all was to fake alarming symptoms, for she loved nothing better than to play nurse. The woman herself was a dartboard for afflictions. A partial list of her chronic ailments would include: hay fever, bronchitis, pneumonia, brucellosis, back pain and agonizing periods. Even the World War I courtship letters between Carrie and Marshall often jokingly referred to her “g.y.c.,” which stood for “graveyard cough.”
With the dear doctor, she had someone who took her every ache seriously, and was only too willing to talk symptoms and treatments. (Though she might have lived longer if he had made her stop smoking.) He was hopeless company when it came to her other interests, like music and painting; Dr. Taylor was “unmusical to his fingertips, and as a painter he would have flunked a Rorschach test.” They did have bird watching in common; they embarked on their hikes alone and often in Martha’s Vineyard, where the Taylors were frequent guests. When not hunting herons, Carrie and her medicine man could always repair to her little house on the bluff, far from the madding wife and the unfazed husband.
Dad wondered, “Was there a sexual relation between my mother and the doctor? I will never know. Perhaps at this point in life she was entitled to yield to inclinations that made her one and only life happy and bearable.”
If I believed the ghostwritten messages conveyed by this clairvoyant medium by Skype, my Dad’s question was now answered. And there was more to come. I watched Monsieur Isabel onscreen as he put down his pencil. He then read aloud what the spirits had just written through his hand: “Marshall says he tolerated her affair because he wasn’t always there, and he felt guilty about the life he led and he wanted Carrie to be happy…”
“He says ‘I myself saw other people. I too had sexual affairs, though not with women.’”
Guy Isabel was the third medium to mention my grandfather was gay, which I had suspected for some time. As my Skype session wore on, I learned that Marshall had loved a fellow Freemason, someone from Europe whom he must have met in his travels. The Masonic temple, a brotherhood shrouded in secrecy, provided the perfect camouflage for their affair. Sixty years after his death, Marshall wrote his confession on the medium’s page: “I discovered my soul could join with another soul in love, even if that soul was in the body of a man.”
This, then, was the essence of my grandparents’ marriage. Carrie put up with his homosexuality, and he looked away from her adultery.
When I consider of this bizarre minuet between the T’s and K’s, I think of a photo I found among Marshall’s effects. The occasion shown is the annual Tuxedo Park costume ball. We inherited a trunk full of disguises from this fabled affair, which Grandpa adored dressing for, ordering custom-made outfits for himself and Carrie every year. We kids used to try on the stuff, swimming in silks and velvet brocade: there was a Revolutionary War soldier getup, a toreador, a sheik, a harem girl, Queen of the Night. There was also an oversize white satin smock with huge buttons of real mink. No one knew what that was about until I found this photo. The men are clad as lovelorn Pierrots in fools’ hats and satin nightshirts. On bended knee, they court their wives dressed as alluring Columbines.
Tuxedo Park costume ball, or, go figure the rich
Once we get done laughing our asses off at this spectacle, we can open our ears and hear the chamber orchestra playing; we can see the dancers change partners. We can ponder, how many aristos in that ballroom were conducting secret affairs, like Marshall and Carrie? Meanwhile they keep step with high society’s twirl; keep up appearances in custom disguises.
I had no more questions for Monsieur Isabel or any medium after that. The last pieces of the puzzle, thought to be lost, had been retrieved and pressed into place.
You may well wonder how any sane person could accept as truth the ad-libs of clairvoyants and mediums (I consulted five in all). But I am not sane. I’m something worse: a fiction writer. I’d inherited an unfinished history, with massive plot holes and cloudy characters. I needed to understand my grandfather, who I believe has been with me in spirit form since his death. Frustrated, I wanted to fix the story and restore its flow, and I really didn’t care where the missing answers came from, so long as loose ends got tied and one could put the book down with a sigh of satisfaction.
And so my tale is done.
My attachment to spirits, and Grandpa’s ghost in particular, was not continuous throughout my life. When I got married in 1985, I gave up ghosts. It was time to dial it down the wack and get back to my day job: to be a presentable wife and mother, a person of sound reasoning – though if someone prodded me I might tell a ghost story or two. For ten years I concentrated on putting hot meals on the table and achieving success as a screenwriter.
One day I got a call from Nina Jacobson, who had just gone to work at a brand new studio called DreamWorks. I’d done a script for her before, when she was a development executive at Universal; the script had been about a satanic college fraternity, so she knew I was fluent in paranormal. Would I, she asked, be interested in writing a script for Steven Spielberg, one of DreamWorks’ three partners? The project was then being referred to as “Untitled Ghost Story.”
Spielberg had a one-line idea for a movie: a mother, who’s struggling with loneliness after her kids’ departure for college, suspects there is a ghost in her house. To flesh out his story, Steven brainstormed with production heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald for several days. Nina faxed me a transcript of the meetings, so I could get a sense of what they wanted.
It was a fun read. There was clearly a lot of excitement in the room as these three movie machers spitballed ideas. (I’d love to quote some of the dialogue, but this was 1995, when fax machines used that quaint roller paper where the printed text vanishes like disappearing ink after a few years.) Notably, they wanted to defy horror movie convention by designing a ghost that was not threatening or murderous or tragic. Instead, this ghost used to be an ordinary housewife in life, who continued to go about her chores after her death. Her manifestations would take the form of, for example, the house filling up with the smell of cinnamon cookies baking, even though there was nothing in the oven. Bathwater taps turning on by themselves. Rugs rolling up. (Trash taken out?)
Further, no one believes the mother character when she insists there’s a ghost haunting the place; even her husband thinks she’s merely suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Nevertheless her relationship with the ghost deepens, as the dead housewife reveals herself to the living mother more and more openly. The two women touch across the dimensional divide, and help each other to let go and move on.
Steven was intent on making the ghost glimpses as realistic as possible. This would not be Poltergeist but rather Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to convey the awe and wonder of contact with the other side. He believed in ghosts himself but had never had any personal experiences with them, though he’d always wanted to. It was time to bring in a writer to convey that right balance of sweet and spooky onto the page.
I told Nina it wasn’t a stretch for me, because I’d had plenty of experience with ghosts. “Fantastic,” she said. “I’m going to run down the hall right now and tell Steven! He’ll be so jealous.” I was hired immediately and flew out to LA to meet everybody. In the single confab I had with Steven and the DreamWorks, they kept saying what they loved most about the story was it was so unexpectedly small and intimate.
This was October. Steven wondered if I could turn out a script in two months, because if it was good he’d like to shoot the film in February. I’d been warned by an A-list screenwriter friend that Spielberg always had a gazillion projects in development and ended by filming only one or two (and he typically didn’t release the other scripts to any buyers because if he wasn’t going to direct those films he didn’t want anyone else to, either). Still, even though eight weeks was going to be a marathon, I wanted to come through for him.
Only one thing mitigated my enthusiasm. I worried that if I began writing about ghosts I would attract them back into my life, which I’d established as a no-fly zone since my marriage. Then I’d be back in the supernatural soup, which was a lot to manage when you have responsibilities like a husband and a child and a deadline. So I sent a silent request via the ether: any spirits intending to trespass were not welcome, unless they had ideas to contribute for plot and dialogue.
For two months I was a nervous wreck, holed up in my office, deaf to my family; my daughter left claw marks on the locked door. I chain-devoured family-size bags of Werthers butterscotch, courting both cavities and gas. And though I stuck to the story concept as explained by Steven, Laurie and Walter, a thought kept nagging at me: This doesn’t feel like a Steven Spielberg movie. This was no theme park ride. It was gently spooky, a lovely lyrical entente unfolding between a needy human and a housebound ghost. Would he really abandon his usual MO to make a very small film, a miniature instead of a mega-epic?
I turned the script in on time. Initially it was greeted with congratulations and a complimentary fax from Steven (which I would also love to quote, but that paper too turned blank in a year). Then we all got on the phone together for his notes. His big problem was that the film felt kind of…small. He missed the climbing graph of fear and tension. The ghost should be more frightening. (Like, a scary housewife.)
I got to work on revisions, throwing in some gaspy moments, like an unseen hand suddenly roiling the bathwater as the mother lies soaking in the tub, a fire spontaneously erupting, a door opening onto thin air, and the reveal of a horrific trauma in the ghost’s past. But it still didn’t feel like a Spielberg movie.
In the end, it wasn’t. I waited for notes so I could complete the polish on the script. The word came back that they didn’t know what they wanted. I had done exactly what they thought they wanted. It turned out they wanted the wrong thing. Laurie and Walter wondered if the basic story could be sexier. But sexy wasn’t Steven’s thing, and he moved on to Jurassic Park. I had to move on as well. I was juggling two other script jobs, and a film I’d written and would direct (The Hairy Bird aka All I Wanna Do) had gotten its financing. I asked DreamWorks for, and received, an honorable discharge.
(Years later, I ran into Steven at the sixth grade graduation of our kids from the Ethical Culture School. “By the way,” he grinned, “we’re making your movie.” I phoned my agent: was this true? – “Oh, he’s just saying that. I haven’t heard anything.” Three years after that, What Lies Beneath was released, with Robert Zemeckis directing; it had been rewritten as a sexy ghost story with a scary husband.)
Back to 1996: my breakneck writing marathon was over. As I re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in my life, my nerves were a tangled mess. For one thing, I badly needed to withdraw from Werthers. And I had no idea how to create calm for myself, in the moments when I wasn’t working or mothering. Unless…
Suddenly I remembered that I had a mantra. My family and I had lived in Paris back in 1990 while making the film Impromptu, when I decided to take up meditation. I received private lessons at the local Transcendental Meditation center. I loathed my teacher, who delivered his instruction robotically (in French of course) with a sneer and eyes half-closed; they flew open whenever I interrupted with a question, as if he had received an unpleasant jolt. I felt he was much better suited to be a waiter than a spiritual teacher. But I was committed to six lessons before he would give me my mantra.
Finally the day came, and I arrived at his office for the induction ceremony, bearing the symbolic offerings of some oranges and a white silk cloth. We were seated on the rug together half-lotus style (an excruciating position for my knees), when he leaned over and whispered two syllables in my ear. I am pledged never to tell anyone my mantra, but I will say that it has a guttural French r in it.
He announced we would end the ceremony by meditating together. I closed my eyes, feeling impatient to leave and be rid of him, and started silently chanting my new and personalized mantra. And then, suddenly, my thoughts fell away and I found myself seated on the wide wooden floor of an open-air temple. Hanging from the columns, gossamer yellow drapes wavered in the breeze. A cobra came toward me, sliding over the floorboards in silken undulations and pausing in front of me. Though I was terrified of snakes, this one’s presence seemed perfectly natural and in the order of things. As the cobra lifted its head, a man’s face appeared inches away from mine, blotting out the snake: a long-haired, bearded Indian man; he smiled, opened his mouth, and blew lightly between my eyes.
And with that, the temple disappeared. I was back on the rug with my waiter-teacher, who was looking at me inquiringly. “Alors,” he said, “was that agreeable for you?” I told him what had happened, describing the Indian man and how he huffed on my “third eye.” My teacher’s expression changed to something human like surprise. He got up, fetched a framed photo from a desk drawer, and wordlessly showed it to me. “That’s the man,” I said in amazement. The longhaired gentle-faced Indian man in the photo was my teacher’s guru.
At home, twenty minutes twice a day, I began my meditation practice with great optimism. I felt singled out for specialness by a guru I’d never met, and consequently I expected mucho magical mystery tours whenever I went into trance. Nothing much happened, however. My two daily sessions dwindled to one after a while, and then I stopped altogether, for the same reason so many do: after a while, calm is boring.
But then came Spielberg and the “Untitled Ghost Story” saga: now, in my crazed state, I needed nothingness like nothing else. I dusted off my French mantra, cranked my knees into half a lotus, closed my eyes…. And so began the greatest spiritual adventure of my life.
Unless you count my first acid trip.
I felt his fingers on my shoulder, tapping. “Sarah.”
I stubbornly kept my eyes shut. He was interrupting my fun. I was busy behind my eyelids. Honestly, having jet fuel pour out of every cell in your body as you shoot into the stratosphere, where you make crazy loop-de-loops with supersonic ease, almost but not quite exploding from the immensity of this freedom, this weightless flight, with your cape flapping behind you, is not the moment when you want to be nudged.
“Sarah!” He tapped me again.
I opened my eyes. His head lay on the pillow beside me. He was looking at me and I didn’t know who the hell he was, and besides, his eyes were swimming all over his face like trapped tadpoles. I glanced down at our two bodies on the bed, and they were running away too.
We were in his dorm room on a yellow spring afternoon at Sarah Lawrence, where I double-majored in music and promiscuity. My bedmate had transferred from Princeton, one of a handful of male students being inducted experimentally to this single-slut institution of higher learning. The fox entered the henhouse; the hens made mincemeat of the fox. Some of my schoolmates openly resented my bogarting the best guy, forcing them to queue up for the inferior ones.
He and I had whiled away many such afternoons, prone on sex-scented sheets and taking mescaline. But on this day, when I opened my eyes, I had no knowledge of him, or, for that matter, my own identity. I had no knowledge, period. I was reduced to a state of pure instinct. And my instinct told me that things were going hideously wrong.
He moved his lips with difficulty, as if speaking underwater: “This isn’t mescaline we took. It’s acid.”
I stared at him uncomprehendingly. A second ago, I was flying around the heavens. Now I was dying.
“That fucking shithead sold me acid instead of mescaline,” he continued. “This is going to take a while longer than we planned. You’ll have to cut your harmony class.”
Not one word he spoke had any meaning. What was acid? His tone was serious. So “acid” had to be something…fearful. Terrifying. It explained why the walls slithered, the ceiling bulged, and everything, everything was rushing away so fast, beyond the reach of understanding: my flesh and bones, my name and address, my mind and its contents. Anything of significance no longer signified anything. Which left nothing.
I felt whirled away in a mad current. Panic took hold and I began to gulp for air. With nothing left to define me, I hurtled headlong toward the falls, to extinction.
I could hear his low voice speaking, its mild cadence, and while the words had no meaning they seemed meant to calm me. The tide carrying me away slowed. Fear gave way just enough so I could breathe.
Then breath itself fascinated me. This simple in and out, rise and fall, accept and deliver, buoyed me out of my body, and I emerged in a place of simplicity. For what could be simpler? than to be.
I have sometimes, in my life, been so happy I couldn’t stand it. This, though, was happiness I could stand because there was no I anymore to contain it.
The ineffable, being without words to describe, can only be met with laughter. I laughed a long time, until my ribs began to ache. I’d forgotten about ribs: those hard hoops for restraining breath and laughter and heart from leaping completely free. I felt them now, and little by little I shrank back into my body. Back too came the walls, the ceiling, the bed and the sophomore beside me, whatshisname.
Later we remembered to put on clothes before leaving the room. The rest of the eight-hour trip we spent in a hammock, exclaiming with that coming-down-from-acid smug certainty that, wow, I’m one with the universe, I can see through my hand. We admired fluorescent flashes in the shrubbery, and then I yammered on about Ken Kesey until my companion told me to shut up.
I only took LSD a few more times, but in minor dosage. Short commutes. The last time was a bare four years later, on the opening weekend of my documentary Marjoe in New York. I stood with a hippie friend across the street from the theater, watching the line form for the 7:00 show, and when the “Sold Out” sign went up we both cheered and split a tab of acid. Eventually I wound up alone in my hotel room, flat on my back, watching the ceiling bulge with colors, and I thought, this has gotten old. Bored, I took a Quaalude and slept through the rest of the trip.
I never sought to repeat the bliss of my first. That afternoon was too precious to me, the time my soul blotted out everything including my self. It became my touchstone: whenever I got too knotted up in my earthly so-called sufferings, I would remember the simplicity place. I’d recall that the answer in the back of the book is a blank page.
I figured I’d get back there permanently when, at the end, death would revive the moment, like a long-lost reel discovered in attic dust. As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait that long. It came again, without drugs, in middle age, on another bed. I’d encountered ghosts and poltergeists; now the time had come for Spirit.
Me in 1994
The year: 1994. Location: bed. Propped up on pillows, eyes closed, I was in a trance, and I was bored. Meditation seemed like flying coach from New York to Guam with an hour’s layover in Tahiti: that is, a few minutes of halcyon mindlessness hardly seemed worth all the effort of getting there.
Letting go of mind shouldn’t have been so hard for me. I blamed my mantra. I’ll tell it to you right now. I figure this is no longer verboten, since I’m not using it anymore. It was “hirim.” It was pronounced “ee-reem,” with the ‘h’ silent and a wet guttural ‘r’, on account of being purchased in France.
Now, a mantra is supposed to be a shred of nonsense that has no associations whatever, to lure the mind away from its usual perch which is lording it over consciousness. However, every time I’d begin inwardly reciting my mantra, the frog accent sucked my mind into a whirl of associations: remembering that one winter in Paris, 1990; the room where for six sessions I met with my French TM instructor, who was uninspiring, mechanical, and smug. The bastard made me give up smoking grass before he would sell me my mantra; what's more, the mantra was wildly overpriced, given the exchange rate…
…And so on. So much for quieting the mind. To get through the snarled traffic caused by my French mantra, I wound up having to break up the mayhem by head-butting my mind out of the way.
One cool thing happened while meditating in my instructor’s presence. In trance, I was transported to a beautiful pavilion, where his guru appeared and huffed on my third eye. Afterwards, I assumed that my 20-minute twice-a-day meditation practice would feature more thrills of this kind.
Sadly, no. Twice a day I flew to Guam with no movies on board.
Still, I needed those layovers, however brief, in Tahiti. With my thoughts finally quelled, I would suddenly be lifted up, as if by elevator, to a plane where my head filled up with sunlight. But the moment was too brief. Too soon, thoughts returned and blocked the light; I would feel the elevator descending. My Self clamped back on and started whining that mindfulness is actually kind of boring.
One day, just as I began my descent, I asked no one in particular: is that all? Where’s the cool stuff? Where’s the guru?
To my surprise, I got an answer. Not a voice, but rather a thought, instantly imbedded in my mind, and translated into words for my benefit. Weirdly, it was in French.
Vous avez oublié de composer le ‘un’.
You forgot to dial the 1.
I burst out laughing, breaking trance. Eyes open, I knew what the guru meant. I’d been reminded to connect with the One. Not God. The ‘1’ was Unity, the Flux to which all souls and spirits belong, the Everything, the Great What-Have-You. That’s where the cool stuff is.
It’s not somewhere else. No elevator necessary. We’re already there. It’s like waking up in your bedroom, which your sleep momentarily erased. You’ve traveled in your dreams, and forgotten where you came from, but upon waking you realize that all along you’ve been lying in your bed.
Henceforth I would begin my sessions by dialing the One, to wake up in the Flux. The idea was to breathe, since breath itself is fluctuation. Different from reflexive breathing, I breathed with purpose, putting my full consciousness into it, as if to say Here I Am. Awareness dawned, and I’d wake in the true Here. Our real home, empty of furniture, blazing with blank light.
It also became my habit, on my way back from that place, to pause for a lesson from my guru, to ask questions and receive answers. Clearly the teacher was not some Indian guy. It was I, with my little third eye. I had held these answers all along, was born with them, and was now learning how to access them, as if a locked drawer had suddenly become unsprung. I suppose this source is what’s called our Higher Self by some. In any case, it was inseparable from my being.
For example, in one session I asked how to handle my persistent digestive problems. In answer, I was shown a bar of soap on a shelf. I was told to wash every part of my body with it – inside as well as outside. I reached it down from the shelf. The wrapper said Appomattox Soap. This I took to mean: in order to end the Civil War in my body, I would have to surrender to the Union (the ‘1’ again), and maintain peace by faithful physical and spiritual cleansing.
But the lesson wasn’t over. I felt suddenly invaded by a heavy paralysis. I couldn’t move a limb. And then some presence took hold and lifted me free, to observe my body from above. The splendor was dazzling. It shimmered like a palace, richly appointed, to be lovingly maintained. I had never truly felt the beauty of our mortal housing, and when I was gently placed back inside my body, I was able to revel in it for the first time. I emerged from this meditation with tears flowing down my face.
Another time, the message I got was: “Food dies.” I wrote the interpretation in my journal: “To fill up the stomach is to feed life that dies. To fill up with Spirit is to feed the life that lives.”
The most memorable of all my lessons came when I was shown a park scene. A light wash of green and blue suggested trees and sky. Vague calliope music played in the distance; amusement rides, horses and ponies, chattering people were sketched in pencil, like a rough draft for an animation sequence. That’s what this life is, I was told, a beguiling sketch that will lead, in the end, to a majestic finished creation – or Creation itself.
After I emerged from this meditation, I went for a walk in Central Park. The carousel music was playing, passersby chattered, love was everywhere, and my nostrils filled with the aroma of flowers that weren’t there.
The last experience I’ll relate here was also on the subject of creation. In one of my trances, it was depicted as a luminous shower, as if a ladle of pure radiance had overturned. I was shown that to be a creator oneself, a single step sufficed: simply step under the shower and be a part of it. Stand still and receive. True creation is co-creation.
While I noted this lesson in my journal. I understood it, but not how to apply it. That would come later, with the death of Harry Nilsson.
1974 RCA publicity photo with clean hair
1974 was the year RCA released House of Pain, my first album as a singer-songwriter. It was the year I loved and lost a man, so my songs poured out the sweet and the bitter in equal measure. Once I was done recording, I rolled up my sleeves to begin my new project: self-pitying wine-soaked self-destruction. I had gotten off to an impressive start when I met Harry Nilsson.
The album’s title song came from the Charles Laughton horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Laughton played a mad scientist grafting men to animals in his lab, which his unfortunate victims – now “manimals” – called “the House of Pain.” I spent my record advance making a weird short film to accompany the title track, including animation and clips from the horror film. This was before music videos. I urged RCA to use their newly developed video players to show the film in record stores, to see if it had any effect on my sales. They failed to see the point. However, the video did result in my meeting a long-adored idol.
I was fresh to the art of songwriting, and my early efforts didn’t fit any genre or show any other artist’s influence. They were what they were: my insides turned out. (I had not yet begun my later collaboration with a dead composer – my grandfather – whereupon my songs took a turn towards the musical theater genre.) However, if there was any singer-songwriter I worshipped, it was Harry Nilsson. He suited me right down to the ground: his antic humor, his insouciance, his entwining of musical styles both quaint and contemporary, his impeccable taste in arrangements, brilliantly layered background vocals and, above all, his gliding golden voice.
RCA was Nilsson’s longtime label. One late winter afternoon, on a visit from LA, Harry popped into the office of his product manager, who showed him my strange video. I happened to be next door with my product manager when I was told Harry wanted to meet me.
The following dawn, I remembered nothing. I had probably been out of body. Clearly my body had gone ahead and celebrated without me. My idol was standing by the hotel room window, smoking, and gazing at me sort of wistfully. He said he’d recently become enchanted with a young waitress from Ireland, who had gone back home but would rejoin him in LA in the spring. Now that he’d met me, he was feeling confused. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home, too. (My clothes smelled like the floor of a bar.)
I didn’t expect to see Harry again, assuming that I had behaved badly as I often did during blackouts, which were common enough for me in those days of wine and bloody noses. But it was a shame to have no memories to savor of my one night with Nilsson. I hadn’t even grabbed a hotel matchbook to prove to myself I’d been there. The RCA product managers knew more about what happened than I did. They were the ones to tell Harry, a few months later, that I was in LA. They gave him my number.
At 5 a.m., I was sleeping soundly on a bare mattress, the one piece of furniture in my West Hollywood sublet except for a phone, which rang. In the blue light of this second dawn, I arrived at Harry’s La Cienega apartment, where I found him on the phone in hoarse conversation with his attorney. Flopped in an armchair was John Lennon. Harry was discussing the text of an apology to be delivered to someone, while John peered at him myopically because his glasses had been lost in a fistfight. Harry instructed his lawyer to send flowers with the apology, and hung up. It seems I had come on the scene right after Harry and John were thrown out of the Troubadour for brawling with the Smothers Brothers.
John repaired to the guest bedroom. Harry downed a quart of milk and a couple of repulsive hoagies from the 7/11, and then fell asleep with his foot hanging off the bed and jiggling, still animated by all the cocaine and brandy he had ingested earlier. (“Ole Coke-foot,” I used to call him.) He favored Brandy Alexanders because the cream lined his stomach; thus the alcohol wasn’t absorbed, allowing him to drink more double Brandy Alexanders until the dawn like this one.
Harry had introduced John to this noxious drink, which was also Ringo’s favorite. Now, Harry could hold his mud. No matter how much he drank, he seemed fine, mind sharp and words unslurred, ever primed with witty banter. Essentially he had a sweet nature, with a side of sadness; but, as I was soon to learn, he was a raging alcoholic. And he was spurring John to commit brandy-kiri alongside him. John, for his part, was terrible at booze. Two drinks, and the darkness fell; you never knew what demon was going to ride out of the murk.
By now their escapades had hit the press. RCA was understandably anxious. John was supposed to produce Harry’s new album Pussy Cats, with recording sessions to begin in two weeks. The word came down from the higher-ups: get out of LA, spend a weekend at a spa in Palm Springs, and dry out.
Women were allowed on board. RCA must have thought we would act as nannies. This was not my strong suit. May Pang, on the other hand, didn’t mind being a minder. She was John’s new love, in the wake of his split with Yoko. She and I packed our weekend bags, jumped into our hot pants, and rode down to Palm Springs with our patients.
I will not go into detail about that long and disorderly weekend. Suffice it to say, the boys took “dry out” to mean: no alcohol. Nothing wet. That left drugs. And Palm Springs was dead boring. The sun was too bright. The shades got pulled down; calls to locate a dealer went out. Some white powder was scored. Perhaps it was coke. If so, it had been stepped on so many times, trampled you might say, that it was mostly suitable for babies with diaper rash. Whatever it was, Harry became more than usually loquacious. Hoarse to begin with, he talked, and talked, and talked until he was down to a rasp. A trip to the hospital ensued. He was handed some antibiotics, and told very sternly not to smoke and to go on a complete voice rest for the remainder of the weekend.
Photo copyright May Pang. Horseplay the hospital lawn in Palm Springs. Harry (f.g.) had just returned from the doctor. I took this pic with May's camera. The lens cap is in John's mouth. When we got too rowdy the hospital turned the sprinklers on, soaking us.
Harry tried the pantomime thing for about four hours before he caved. Alcohol was restored to the menu. Swallowing the pills with cognac, he lit up a cigarette, and proceeded to talk. With a vengeance. He wouldn’t shut up. The rasp now sounded like he was gargling blood. Yet he talked on.
And so I was present to witness the tragedy of Harry Nilsson willfully murdering that beautiful voice I loved so much. It never really came back.
I was back in New York when he and John arrived to finish Pussy Cats. I was horrified to hear Harry’s vocals. There was no trace of the swooping heaven-kissed tenor he was born with. He sounded like he was being flayed alive. The album was one big drugged-out gangfuck of the ears.
Meanwhile I was pulling away, for my own preservation. I lost my nerve, recognizing I had neither the stamina nor the capacity to keep up with his tireless, unending binge. Harry scared me. His self-destruction made my own attempts look feeble.
Besides, I had my second album to record, and Harry’s waitress was flying in shortly. What should he do? Harry asked. He was in love with two women. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home.
I knew if I stayed with him, I was going to die. Instead, he died – twenty years later, in 1994. By then I was happily married (as was he, to his waitress) with one child (to his six). He hadn’t been sober for most of those years, so the news of his death from heart failure, while sad, came as no surprise to me.
I hadn’t loved him, though I’d tried because he was a genius and I am partial to them. Nonetheless I was still and forever in love with his music. I mourned Nilsson’s death by playing his poignant “Turn On Your Radio”:
I don’t know where I’m goin’
Now that I am gone
I hope the wind that’s blowin’
Helps me carry on
Turn on your radio, baby
Baby listen to my song
Turn on your night light baby
Baby I’m gone
I’d said goodbye to him many years before, and fate had not arranged for us to run into each other since. This time I knew for certain I’d never see him again.
But I did.
A touch of Schmilsson in the night
He sat looking at me with a neutral expression. He was in a white room with blurred corners, and I couldn’t discern what he was sitting on: possibly just atmosphere. When I woke up I told my husband, “Harry Nilsson just visited me.”
My husband assumed I meant that I’d had a dream about Harry, who had died a few months before, in January of 1994. But I’ve come to know the difference between a dream and a visitation. A dream has a plot, and dead people whom we knew when they were alive sometimes make surprise appearances in these phantasmagoric dramas; their presence can be so vivid that the dream haunts us for days.
A visit is another matter. It seems that the departed, once they’ve adjusted to the eternal, may take the trouble to salute the people they’ve loved or who were important to them, before moving on to their next job. The visitation can take place soon after they pass, or a much longer time if they weren’t expecting immortality, as in my dad’s case.
My father was an atheist until his death, so it must have been fairly confusing when he met his end and the lights didn’t go out. Almost a year passed before I got a visit from him, and I had been waiting with some impatience. After all, he had promised me that after he woke up in the ether and realized he was wrong (as I was positive he was) he would let me know I was right (as he was positive I wasn't.)
Instead, he was a no-show. It was like sending your kid off to college and he doesn’t call or write and then acts irritated when you finally get him on the phone because don’t you realize how busy he is? Between orientation, classes, new friends – he’s getting a life, for God’s sake.
At last, just when I’d given up, Dad visited me one morning in the few seconds before I woke up. He didn’t look anything like he did when I knew him. He appeared to be about eighteen, wearing knickerbockers and saddle shoes and a college sweater, young, vital and handsome with a full head of hair. He seemed impatient, too. He gave me a hurried nod; unspeaking, he delivered his message directly into my mind, to the effect of, “Okay, you’ve seen me, now can I get back to class?”
When spirits of recently dead friends or family come to me in those moments before waking, there is no story going on: my dreams are done for the night. The person is simply and suddenly there, in an idealized form. He appears as he did when he looked the best in his life, at the peak of vitality. And there is something else: he is lambent, suffused with an uncanny glow that enriches his colors, like the beautiful intense light that grass and trees take on just before a thunderstorm. Communication is clear but subtle. The spirit doesn’t move his lips to speak. You don’t hear his words; you know them.
But Harry Nilsson had nothing to say; he merely gazed at me. He was a few years younger than I’d seen him back in 1974. When we began dating, he was already puffy-faced due to drug and alcohol abuse, and expanding in the waist due to heavy cream overdose in the Brandy Alexanders he gulped in quantity. Now, post mortem, sitting on air, he was slim and radiant, lit from within, each blond hair on his head and in his beard limned with gold.
I was surprised and somewhat flattered by his visit. Our pairing had only lasted about seven months, hardly a wink in his fifty-two years of life, and we’d had no contact since. Still, there had been mutual admiration, even love on his part, so perhaps he was acknowledging that. Then again, he’d been a social creature; maybe he was running through his Rolodex to visit as many people as possible, even minor players, on his way out.
Except he came back the following night. I’d finished dreaming, rose toward consciousness, and then there he was again, seated and staring, downright lovely in the afterlife glow.
The third and last night he appeared, I was finally able to intuit his message. I woke up and told my husband, “He wants me to write about him.”
I pondered what that might be. Really, the only incident that made a story worth writing was that berserk and depraved weekend I’d spent with Harry, John Lennon, and May Pang in Palm Springs. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to write about that. I’d told only a few people about the details of those two days, mainly because I was ashamed of my own behavior, or what I could remember of it. Even May had blocked out the worst memories, like an attempted strangulation in a jacuzzi. These guys were two dead icons, best left preserved in public reverence. I certainly lost my awe of them in the course of those seven months. Why on earth would Harry want me to write about him, when I would inevitably be casting him and John in a bad light?
Still, if I fictionalized the account…but no, I didn’t want to write it. Not at all. Harry’s ghost was asking too much. Those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will recall my musical collaborations with a dead composer, whose advice and imperatives I felt free to reject if I didn't like them. So I ignored Harry’s posthumous request.
I was extremely busy, anyway. My screenwriting career was at its height. I had my pick of job offers, working for famous folks and ripe money. This streak culminated in my directing my own screenplay, a teen comedy titled The Hairy Bird. The film was an homage to my prep school days at an all-female academy, Rosemary Hall. With a cast of mostly adolescent girls, it was a weak prospect according to industry wisdom; the project took seven years to get its financing, $5 million, from the Canadian company Alliance Films. The summer of ’97 saw me shooting in Toronto, with Kirsten Dunst, Gaby Hoffman, and Lynn Redgrave in the leads: some of the most joyous months of my life.
On the set of The Hairy Bird aka Strike! aka All I Wanna Do with Lynn Redgrave and Gaby Hoffman, 1997
And then Harvey Weinstein happened. He purchased the U.S. distribution rights for his company Miramax for $3.5 million. I thought this was fantastic news. With foreign sales from other territories already in the bank, my picture was in the black before I’d even finished editing. However, my producers Ira Deutchman and Peter Newman had a different reaction: dread. They knew what I did not yet: that Harvey was likely to crunch the film between his molars and subject everyone involved to humiliation and torment.
Not many know that there is a tenth circle of hell, deeper than the deepest dungeon; go any deeper in the earth and you’re at magma. And Harvey Weinstein owns it.
I had final cut, but Harvey threatened not to release the picture unless I re-edited it. He changed the title twice (which causes confusion to this day), had the film cut and re-cut and tested – all at the producers’ expense. At last he announced that there was no way to market movies to teenage girls. He put his own editors on the job of re-cutting the movie for young males. The test numbers didn’t budge. He demanded more cuts, when the producers finally pushed back, telling him the orgy was over.
I delivered the finished film. Harvey threw it into a Seattle theater for a week to fulfill his contractual obligations to Alliance, and then tossed it on the shelf. I waited, as the picture opened in foreign territories to good notices and decent profits, for him to get over his snit so my film could at last play to its natural audience, American girls. Eventually, three years after I shot the film, Harvey gave permission for a New York release – if I paid for it. Emptying my savings, I was able to afford to open my movie, now titled All I Wanna Do, for one week in one theater. Nonetheless, I got some good reviews and blurbs for the VHS box, as the film went immediately to video. During the time I was waiting for Harvey to take the film off the shelf, I looked for a writing job. This should not have been difficult. Although I’d been off the radar for more than a year, my cred had not diminished. Even so, nothing materialized. I tried harder, accepting assignments I had no interest in, only to have them fall through. I seemed to be under a curse, plus I was wallowing in ennui. I needed to write something, anything, yet my Miramax experience had cost me my confidence, and I was bereft of ideas. I thought of tackling that story of running amok in Palm Springs with wild and desperate popstars, in script form. Once again, I recoiled.
To hold the panic of unemployment at bay, I meditated daily. In my altered state, I said to the Great What-Have-You: I give up, you take over. Your will, not my will. Use me. On a flight back to New York, after another dispiriting business trip to LA, I took a break from writing notes on a script, closing my eyes to meditate. That was when a phrase suddenly popped into my head. My eyelids flew open; I grabbed the pen and began scribbling on the script cover, my hand seeming to race ahead of the words swarming in my mind. Lyrics. When I had not written a song in twenty years. It appeared Harry would have his way.
Yep, hot pants.
(Bad scan of photo by Norman Seeff for my album cover)
I love writing on planes. I find my voice easily at great altitude, along with focus, inspiration, and the odd sensation of being assisted. One could say that, if help comes from heaven, then we are closer to heaven inside that speeding silver bullet, aloft in the outer atmosphere. (Except I don’t believe the afterlife is high in the sky, or even in a separate place. I prefer to think of fellow spirits as living in the next room, and we share a wall that doesn’t actually exist.)
On this particular flight from LA to New York, the last thing I expected to be writing was song lyrics. I was no stranger to channeling music, though it hadn’t happened in a very long time – more than a couple of decades before boarding this plane. In my twenties, when I was a recording artist, I used to receive snatches of songs from my late grandfather in the lull between dreaming and waking. I would be fed an idea, an image, a phrase, a melody. In the morning, I would finish the song, in the manner of a collaborator. These episodes were uninvited and ultimately frightening. Thankfully, they ended once I had completed the assignment: a one-act musical that was produced in 1981, after which I stopped writing songs entirely.
Channeling is not for me. I’ve never liked working with another writer. As a collaborator, I do not play well with others – I can blow on my own soup. Neither am I a candidate for “automatic writing,” which my mother’s father did after his mother’s death, allowing her spirit to guide his pencil on paper as his hand traced her words of advice and comfort.
But when I suddenly started jotting the words for a song on that plane, there was no ghostly pressure pushing my pen. And yet, the voice wasn’t mine. For one thing, I was alive, whereas the person writing the song was deceased and thought being dead was funny.
Over and out
What was that
Over and done
Miss the fun
Hanging in the air like a fading star
I’m just a breath away, yet so far
That was all. The moment passed, the voice withdrew, and I looked at what I’d just written. The wordplay, the humor, the touch of wistful nostalgia…
I smiled. Hi, Harry.
Also: I’ll take it from here, thanks.
I completed the song and recorded it on MIDI equipment I set up, to my husband’s displeasure, in our dining room. Though I wrote the rest of the verses as well as the music, I considered the whole of “I’m Over” so suffused with Harry Nilsson’s sensibility that it felt weird to claim sole credit. I couldn’t discuss the song’s provenance with anyone, since my reputation as a rational person was already frayed.
With the song finished, I felt I had done what Harry had asked when he visited me after his death. I was grateful for the nudge that got me composing again, which enlivened the tedious months of waiting for my next script job.
Time passed; no ship came in. My mind wandered back to the idea of writing a script about my dissolute “lost weekend” with Harry, John Lennon and May Pang in Palm Springs. The logline would be easy: “A world-famous pair of pop stars attempt to dry out and compose songs for an upcoming recording session on which their careers depend. Bringing a couple of female companions for sustenance, the musicians book into a stolid Palm Springs hotel. From that moment, our heroes proceed to do everything possible not to succeed.”
That sounded like a movie I, for one, would want to see. I’d have to change the names, set it in the present, and delete myself from the story, since my own behavior made me sick to remember. Owing to the buckets of alcohol consumed, there was plenty I didn’t remember, too: holes in the narrative. I assumed my behavior was sickening there, too. By fictionalizing, though, I could paper over the holes. And some scenes would be wicked fun to write. For example, the tram incident! I recalled that escapade in detail because I was not drunk when it took place. It began like this:
Harry and John woke up in the late afternoon as usual. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was undisturbed. Palm Springs was quiet on any day, but Sundays, at least in 1975, didn’t even have a heartbeat. Yet the clock insisted this was the happy hour. The lads were out of drugs, which was providential because they were supposed to detox and had been putting it off. On the other hand, songwriting was out of the question until one’s consciousness was altered or askew. Liquor seemed both attractive and appropriate.
None of us liked the idea of hanging around the hotel bar, where all these terminally sedate guests were giving us the hairy eyeball. May’s denims and mine were cut off an inch below the pubes, for easy access, and between us we didn’t own a single bra. Harry and John looked seedy and uncouth in their patchwork denims, porkpie caps, and famous-person shades. I doubt if any of those clueless fossils recognized there was a Beatle on the premises, except maybe the concierge, who was all for getting us off the premises.
Harry asked the concierge if there was a bar that was out of the way and relatively uninhabited. (The boys were supposed to stay out of the public eye, since their misadventures in L.A. had been all over the press recently.) The concierge recommended a mountaintop cocktail lounge in the area. During the day, people took a scenic tram up to the summit, to eat lunch in the restaurant and admire the spectacular view, but at this late afternoon hour almost everyone would’ve gone back down the mountain.
Our driver (of the same limo that delivered us to Palm Springs) was Mal Evans, the road manager who had been with the Beatles since the early days of mania, a burly, sweet-tempered man who had seen too much of everything. Mal dropped us off at the tram and parked the limo nearby to wait for our return.
We had the tram to ourselves, a welcome sign that the day traffic was done and the lounge would be quiet. As we began our ascent, rocking on the cable, I glanced out the wraparound windows and fell into a panic. No one had informed us that we would climb to 8000-plus feet above sea level over a two-and-a half-mile vertical drop. Because of my vertigo, I’d never so much as been to the top of the Empire State building. I spent the endless 15-minute trip with my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in Harry’s shoulder, praying not to blow my lunch, which, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t eaten. My knees wobbled so badly he had to help me off the tram when we arrived. Feeling the solid floor under my wedge platforms, I made straight for the bar. For once, I needed a drink more than the boys did. And I wondered how the hell I was going to get back down the mountain again without full-on primal screaming.
Only about twenty visitors remained in the lounge, an older crowd, couples at intimate tables, a few dancing to music from a jukebox, no loners or barflys. The ambience was quietly convivial. We parked at the bar with our backs to the people to make sure no one recognized Lennon. I sank my muzzle in a beer, and Harry ordered four double Brandy Alexanders for himself and John. I don’t remember what May drank, or if she had anything; of the four of us, she was the designated grown-up.
The sun dipped behind the mountain, the sky faded to black, and the small crowd got a little rowdier as closing time neared. We realized we had wandered into a nest of single (or cheatin’) geezers, all looking to hook up in a discreet romantic setting. The bartender announced last call. We bought ourselves a round for the road.
And then the jukebox played the opening bars of Yesterday. That’s how John knew he’d been made. “Someone sees me and thinks it’s cute to play ‘Yesterday’ and I hate it. Or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Hey Jude.’ They’re Paul’s songs.”
A few emboldened people approached the bar to talk to him. Time to get away: we abandoned our drinks, moving out to the tram platform – but not before John went over to the jukebox, located some of his songs, then plugged in enough quarters so that ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number’ would play repeatedly. Let the fuckers try to dance to that.
We were first onto the tram when it arrived, but it didn’t take off immediately as we hoped. People streamed out of the lounge: it turned out to be the last tram of the day; everyone was headed home. Surrounding us, the geezers packed in tight, until there was barely room to breathe. Harry, John, May and I were mashed into the middle, turning protectively inward to face each other. The door slid shut; the tram swung away from the platform and proceeded downward.
I didn’t have to wrestle with vertigo this time because it was dark out; the night obscured the steep drop; only the lights of Palm Springs sparkled through the ink, growing closer as we descended. There was silence in the car, but for communal breathing.
Then some wag started to hum “Yesterday.” We heard suppressed laughter. I felt a hand on my butt. I looked at Harry but his arms were pinned to his side. It wasn’t his hand. May gave a little yelp and turned to John: “Is that you?” – “Me what?” Then I felt another set of fingers sliding up my leg. May’s eyes bugged; she whispered, “They’re feeling me up!” -– “Me too,” I said. “Me, too,” said Harry, said John.
We were trapped, unable to move as people groped and prodded our bodies. The crowd’s hilarity overflowed. They were in command, and they were horny. “John!” One grandma fought her way through the crush, jamming her boobs against his back. “John! Bite my tit!”
Clearly Beatle frenzy wasn’t just for teenyboppers. It can happen that in advanced age, we grow unruly and shameless all over again. I am a fogey now, so I know.
The tram touched ground. The people who had been pressed to the door spilled out when it slid open, the crowd parting just enough for us to make a break for freedom. We all four sprinted toward the parking lot, with a pack of rabid, frothing seniors in pursuit. Mal Evans, trained by Beatles’ tours, instantly appeared with the limo, jumped out and opened the door. We piled inside as he thrust the crowd back.
The limo peeled out. After we recovered our breath, with the too-quiet streets of Palm Springs sliding past our windows, Harry suggested we look for another place to get a drink. And that led to the next adventure….
That scene would be fun to write, too. If I wrote the script that I’d refused to write for so long. Oh just do it, I told myself. You’re bored. Write the first page and see what happens.
I opened a blank script file.
What happened next was of far greater moment than my little tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; of channeling and Schmilsson’s ghost. By the end of three weeks I had lifted a little closer to heaven.
For those requesting, here are the complete lyrics for "I'm Over":
Over and out
What was that all about?
Over and done
Sorry to miss the fun
Hanging in the air
Like a fading star
I'm just a breath away
Yet so far
I'm over, over, ah…
Over the falls
No one writes, no one calls
Over the hill
Hardly time to drink my fill
Stranded in the space
Between here and now
Seems I lost my place
Don't know how
I'm over, over, ah…
I been underprivileged undermined Undersold undersigned
Over easy over toast
Overhunted overrated overcomplicated
Over knocked over raked over fucked over
Run over hung over warmed over leftover
Overruled overused overheated overshoes
Overwhelmed overfed overbred overspent over
Bent over keeled over reeled over
Head over heels over dead oh
Over the moon
Out of sight, out of tune
Over and above
Is it too late to show you my love?
My love, my love…
Harry's ghost requested it. I refused. I fought it. In the end I wrote it: the story of two musicians trying to write one song, groping desperately through a fog of drugs and alcohol. By contrast, creating the script about them took no effort, took no time at all, and I had a bewildering amount of fun. This was so unusual, in my long experience as a screenwriter, that I had to wonder, was it really I who had written it?
What does it really mean when we writers say that something "wrote itself"? It has happened to most of us at least once, unpredictably, and it's a wicked ride. All of a sudden the work gushes out; riding the giant surge of inspiration, we're barely able to type fast enough, forgetting to eat, sleep or pee. The exhausted writer will say afterward, in a happy daze, "I don't know what that came from."
Writers crave this mysterious and violent visitation, which feels like being mauled by your muse. But you can't order up a delivery if you don't know where it comes from.
Thus we are drawn to the treacherous lure of ju-ju, the magic substances and talismans that bargain with the brain to synthetically recreate that ride. It's like hiring a hooker or buying an inflatable doll when your true object of desire is out of town. We pretend she's our muse, an artificial version of what we're seeking but that has been known to get the job done. You tell yourself the trick will work - until one day, it doesn't.
The menu of paid companions is long and diverse, because selecting a writer's helper from the catalog is a very personal choice. There are the hallucinogens, the opiates, the stimulants, everything from absinthe to Adderall. Complication may include dizziness, shortness of breath, sudden rage, loss of equilibrium, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, death - but hey. It's for the work.
In the previous chapter I described Harry Nilsson and John Lennon trawling Palm Springs for mind-altering materials, so that they could get to work on some music. The search absorbed so much time and energy that the writing never even began. I was no different; I too believed that my best work only manifested if I was artificially plugged into an exalted state. Like Harry and John, I needed to override the pain.
I refer to the painful difficulty of writing itself.
Yet when I was a child discovering how much I loved to write, it was easy, all play and no work. After all, why would any kid choose to do something painful? Or ask where the ideas came from? They simply tumbled into your imagination, and the fun began. You felt good about yourself when you made something from nothing; and if you were a child who generally didn’t feel good about herself, you became willingly addicted to the pleasures of creating.
So when did it become painful?
I decided to be a writer when I was 14. My boyfriend, who was five years older, dropped out of Princeton to write a novel. He wrote every day, or tried. It had never occurred to me that I could write as a profession, until I observed the simplicity of his choice: first decide you’ll do it, and then just do it. Even on days you don’t want to. This is your work.
I started practicing right away. That was when anxiety first crept into what was once playtime, now called work. As the professional I imagined myself to be, I was no longer courting only the praise of parents and teachers, whose support I could always count on, but also exposing myself to the judgment of strangers. I felt the pain of expectations – my own, and those of nameless numberless readers to come.
I needed help to quiet the jitters. I noticed my boyfriend drank beer and bourbon, and smoked cigarettes. It lodged in my mind that this, too, was professional. I didn’t much like smoking but I manned up and inhaled. It more often made me want to take a shit than write. Alcohol was better. Although my parents didn’t drink, there were a few liqueurs like Dubonnet in the sideboard for guests. The trouble with alcohol was, after the first giddy page zipped off the typewriter carriage, the mind started to leak fuel. Incoherence was only a half a page away. Still, that first page was a winner, and I could start all over the next day, with Marlboros and some horrible aperitif helping me to nail page two.
Once I’d polished off all the guest liquor, and was busted for it, I turned to caffeine. By this time I was writing my first novelette, and wildly menstruating. Midol became my boughten friend. Since I was pretty sensitive to drugs, a single Midol tablet was the equivalent of a cup of strong coffee. My mother dutifully purchased Midol for me at the pharmacy, while my manuscript pages piled up: sixty pages, and no cramps.
To double my supply, I exaggerated the quantity of my periods. As far as Mom knew, my menses were titanic. In my high school senior year, she took me to a gynecologist, who prescribed Daprisal. Oh, the rapture of Daprisal: dexedrine and aspirin, for gals on the rag, Baby’s first speedball. In college, taking Daprisal and staying up all night to write a paper in a single session was like a sacred ritual. I presented my mind on drugs as a kind of burnt offering to the muse. In return I could reasonably expect to finish the paper by dawn, at twice the page length required and in passionate prose that had deteriorated to blabber by the time I came to write my conclusion.
Halfway through my junior year at Sarah Lawrence, I followed my boyfriend’s example of dropping out of college to write fiction. While holding down a job at the Village Voice, I wrote in my spare time. By then, pot, mescaline and acid were also available for muse-chasing, but proved too unpredictable. I might just as easily wind up on the roof, cackling at the stars, as hunched over the typewriter. Marijuana tore me from my desk and sent me out for ice cream. Daprisal, alas, was discontinued (as was my boyfriend).
As I became a true professional hired to write screenplays, I sought anything with an upward tilt. Uppers brought not only energy but grandeur: words came intercut with imagined applause, awards accepted, revenges accomplished, certain select people eating crow, and approval from both parents plus God. When I took uppers, I didn’t merely feel good about myself; I thought I was a flaming genius. Still, I was too tense with ambition to tolerate straight amphetamines; they made me hypomanic. I needed that yin/yang upper/downer speedball combination, like cocaine with wine, a treasured formula when I could afford it. This mixture saw me through a novel and its script adaptation. Whenever inspiration flagged, I’d stumble up the Pacific Coast Highway to the bar at Moonshadows, still dressed in my nightgown, which I wore with boots, hoping people would think it was a granny dress but really not caring if they didn’t. There I would chug a legal speedball: Irish coffee, the Tao of caffeine and bad whiskey with Reddi-Wip and a cherry.
I always wrote at night, but had to change my habits when I got married and had a baby. Then my work window shrank to four hours in the daytime. Drugs and wine were inappropriate for breakfast, especially while I was breastfeeding, since I’d be transferring my jones to my daughter via the nipple. I settled for a weak juju of Darjeeling with milk, and redoubled my entreaties to whatever was passing by – deity, angel, ghost, muse – to help me meet studio deadlines. I asked for easy inspiration to do work in which I took small pleasure, except when I got the checks.
By the time Harry Nilsson’s ghost appeared in 1994 I was down to green tea, Chupa Chup lollipops, and anti-depressants: not much in the way of mind-altering drugs, but I still believed you had to pay some kind of fee, anything, to receive brilliant ideas from wherever they came from. Hell, once I’d even slaughtered a sheep to that end (see Chapter 26 and 27) Writing is hard, I would tell anyone aspiring to push words. And, I should have added, expensive. Because ever since adolescence I’d been treating my muse as coin-operated.
That changed on the day I sat down at my desk, early one morning before I’d even made tea or unwrapped a lollipop, and began writing a script I had no intention of writing. I was idly noodling around, dreading another day of unemployment. It was so baffling not to have a job, when for years I’d had my pick of offers. Why now, at my peak? Just write anything, I told myself. See what happens. I opened a blank script document and typed “EXT. – DESERT – DAY”. And so began the saga of Harry and John Lennon and May Pang and me on our lost weekend in Palm Springs.
Five hours later found me still writing. I could have gone on, except it was time to make dinner for my family. As I fried fish, I pondered what had just happened. The tidal swell of inspiration, the hot rush and rapids of ideas, the obsessive focus to the exclusion of all else, the feeling of being wrung dry afterwards – in short, the headlong ride that writers crave – none of that had occurred.
I had been calm, patient, entirely free of anxiety. The flow of words, scenes, imagery was gentle and constant. The characters had been simply there. It was as natural as stepping into a shower already running.
And every day afterward was the same: the water waiting for me, generous, regenerating, until the script was done.
I thought back to the vision I’d been shown in my meditation trance a few months before: an image of creation as a ladle pouring forth sheer radiance, a shower I had merely to step into whenever I felt ready to join the flux. It had no location. It was just there.
Muses and ghosts, grandfathers and jinns might act as sherpas to the source, but I was astonished to realize I didn’t need them anymore to find the shimmering falls. I had only to drop my towel and get naked before wading in, and that small action was called…trust.
Trust was the one and true juju, my offering to that effulgence of spirit: if I trusted that inspiration was eternally there, a gracious unending flow, then creation would grant me my portion.
It didn’t matter that the script, called Karma Kamikazes, was never produced (although it remains one of my favorites). It appeared heaven intended that no paid employment would come my way until I completed this one project, a divinely scheduled lesson wherein I would learn, finally, how to write.
From that time on, I have written in this way. I know where the words come from, and I trust that the water is always on. I’m back in playtime, in the fun.
Further, it was a kind of goodbye to all the spooky that had gone before. At long last, I had outgrown my need for the dead and disembodied, a need that had occupied my life since my first contact with my deceased grandfather.
The day after the script was finished, I got a call offering a job. The producer claimed to have been unable to reach me for weeks, unaware she was using a wrong number. Never mind, I said. Even if you’d had the right one, I was unreachable.
The universe had hardly ceased doling out lessons, though. The hardest one seized me high in the Andes, on the second day of a 2005 hike up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. What lay before me was Dead Woman’s Pass, and another goodbye.
|The trail to 13,000 ft. |
(All photos by Barb Doran, my tent-mate.)
I'm too old for this, I complained to no one. My hiking group had long since passed me and disappeared into plumes of fog as I fell farther and farther behind. By the afternoon of the second day's climb, my thighs were nearly useless; my problem knee sent up flares. By now I was hauling my dead weight on a pair of hiking poles. Behind me were all the steps I'd climbed since morning, and before me lay more and more, leading endlessly upwards, hemming the ridges of the Peruvian Andes. The stone stairs, 27 miles in all, were constructed some 500 years ago by Incans who probably never lived to the age of complaining they were too old for this. The careless ones had slipped and plunged off the edge; their howls were in my ears as the path narrowed to a few feet across, forcing me to press my body to the side of the mountain, turning my back on the sheer drop, to inch around blind corners on legs that shuddered violently.
I'd accepted the invitation with great excitement and, in my folly, no questions. Arthur Sulzberger was soliciting friends to take the four-day hike up the ancient trail to Machu Picchu, the remote sacred compound of Incan rulers. Surely the place would be crawling with pagan spirits, and ghosts of a bygone race, with a shaman on every corner - and legal coca! My kind of scene.
I didn't learn, until the date was near and the money was due, that this was an Outward Bound expedition. I knew all about that torment, because my brother had done one in his twenties; he said it changed his life. My personal impression was, they teach you self-reliance, fill you with pride of accomplishment, introduce you to your true essence, but only after breaking you down by privation, physical exhaustion, despair, and a cruel lack of amenities.
I called Arthur to bow out, saying I was physically unqualified and far too whiny for the Outward Bound experience. He batted away my protests. Almost everyone on this hike would be in their fifties, people like me who had lost any interest in suffering. We could expect many comforts. We wouldn't have to hunt for water or follow the stars. There would be regular meals and tents with high thread count. Arthur himself expected to enjoy a martini and a cigar at the end of each day.
"But I have a bad back."
"I'll carry your pack," he said.
"I don't think my knee is up to a lot of climbing. I have this old tear in the meniscus that acts up - "
"It's not like we're climbing rock face," he said. "The trail is very gradual."
"I have a drastic fear of heights."
He paused. "Well...this is how you get over it."
I put in some half-hearted time on the Stairmaster. I bought all the hiking gear with the tags still attached so I could return it. My husband was annoyingly supportive: "You'll get through it with flying colors and then be so glad you did it," etc.; and when I left my passport home (also known as a cry for help), he grabbed a taxi to JFK, delivering it just minutes before check-in closed, alas. As I boarded the flight to Peru, Arthur shot me a triumphant look, then disappeared through the curtain into first class. I was left alone in coach with my certain knowledge of failure.
I knew the limit of my capabilities. I was right to predict they would give out, and they did.
Now Arthur and his nimble friends had disappeared through the curtain of mist, leaving me alone on the trail, except for an Outward Bound guide named Robert to spot me in case I fell or needed to be carried the rest of the way.
Robert followed me closely, a few steps behind, the way my father had learned to walk behind my mother in case she fell, which started to happen more frequently in her mid-seventies.
It was a point of pride with Mom that she rarely needed her wheelchair, ever since the unwieldy metal leg braces for polio victims had been improved with plastic and cushioning. Then she moved faster on her crutches, though still carefully, always testing her rubber crutch tips on a surface - whether the ground was firm, uneven, or slippery (small area rugs were her bane) - before she took the next step.
Nevertheless, Mom wasn't able to maintain her stride indefinitely. Old age brings fresh woes to polio survivors. Even with the help of new braces, her legs had become so bowed from supporting her weight they almost looked like a dog's hind legs. She never knew when they might falter and wobble, and when she lost her balance, there was nothing to do except fall.
Once, during her travels, she hoisted herself onto the bottom step of a bus, was unable to right herself, and toppled backward onto the road like a felled tree. Horrified, Dad rushed to where she lay; she had survived a few falls before, but he didn't see how she would get up from this one, and they were far from medical help. Yet when they stood her up, she boarded the bus. She told me later that the secret was, if you knew you were going to crash, to make yourself utterly limp. Flailing to break your fall would increase your chance of breaking bones. With her way, the worst you could get would be a concussion and huge bruises that were no big deal to this tough-skinned marvel of a woman.
Mom hated for anyone to walk close behind her. It implied that she needed support, was weak or helpless, dependent on others, all of which enraged and humiliated her. Hovering people, no matter their good intentions, ruined her concentration, for she had a task: of ascertaining where to place her rubber crutch tips, then testing the surface, then locking her arms on the grips while she swung herself forward, then scouting the next safe spot to plant the crutches. When left alone to focus, she could travel at remarkable speed. Thus she resented my Dad when, after the bus accident, he insisted on following a few steps behind her - as Robert was doing for me now on the Inca trail.
I felt the same humiliation, as I shifted more and more of my weight from my spent legs to my poles. I could not afford to look anywhere but the stones at my feet. Each step presented a unique problem. Some were slippery, some uneven, some loose, some just broken rubble. I had to locate a safe spot to plant the pole tips, test the stability of the surface, then hoist myself up and assess the next stair; a progress on repeat, over and over...until I realized I was inside my mother.
Immediately I started to cry. I tried to hide my tears from Robert, but he could hear me snorkeling mucous. "It's not that much farther," he said. "Everyone's up there." I looked up from the stones. He was pointing up at a mountain peak ahead that was so shrouded in fog it might have been a hundred yards away or ten miles for all I could tell.
He added, "They're waiting in Warmiwañusqa - Dead Woman's Pass."
Those words stopped me cold. Inhabiting my mother, leaning on her crutches, I was seized by the truth I'd resisted: that she was dying. Years before, she had begin the long, slow decline into dementia, and it would claim her soon. Every day, she was passing farther from reach. I could not stop her fade nor break her fall.
I collapsed on a boulder and sobbed. Robert shifted nervously nearby. He thought I was throwing in the towel, and then what would he do with me?
I gestured with my hand that I only needed a minute to recover, but really I needed years, starting with the past.
My mother was hard to love. She wouldn't admit to needing it, but she did. "I love you" wasn't in her lexicon - she had to be prompted; someone had to say it first, forcing her to stammer the words in response. Just to give her a hug was awkward; she always tensed up a bit, with a nervous laugh, as if she hadn't been taught what to do. And maybe she hadn't. Like my father, she had been raised by governesses, with a vague set of parents on the periphery. Or maybe she hesitated to put her arms around anyone because it meant lifting her crutches from the floor and trusting her weight to another.
Her intensity was an impediment, too. The same ferocious will that made her so unstoppable was what kept her and me apart. She had given birth to my two older brothers before coming down with the polio virus. I was the first child born - and the first girl - after she'd been crippled. She turned her intensity onto me, in the form of fierce hope. Though Mom would not have put it this way, in fact would have denied it, I understood my job to be that I would somehow avenge her impairment, by climbing out of "a woman's place" on two good legs and taking power; by refusing to be suppressed, whether by a crippling virus or low expectations; by creating things of wonderment; and I should accomplish all this for both of us.
I rebelled against this last assignment. I knew the limit of my capabilities: I couldn't carry both her weight and mine. I found her suffocating; inwardly, I kept my distance. If she was hard to love, I made it harder.
Finally, at 85, she was condemned to the hated wheelchair and needed other people's assistance with everything, which was her nightmare. Far away, I wept on the Inca Trail. I'd finally realized she would be dead in a few years. Now I myself was paralyzed, by the wild intensity of the love I'd held back. It hammered for release. I wanted to lift off the trail and fly home and open my full heart to her.
I picked up my crutches, dried my eyes, and climbed the rest of the stairs to Dead Woman's Pass.
At the top I found two llamas hunkered on the plateau, indifferent to the clicking cameras of the hikers. My comrades cheered my arrival and lavished hugs on me that, like my mother, I received awkwardly. I was a tear-stained emotional mess, and I didn't want them to know the extent of my exhaustion. Having wasted precious time on waiting for me, the others were anxious to move on and reach camp before darkness fell. Arthur longed for his martini. I would be holding the whole group back.
Go without me, don't worry, I'll get there at my own speed, I insisted with a confidence that was bogus. Relieved, they hurried over the lip of the pass and out of sight, beginning the trek down the mountain. Robert and a native guide stayed. The two men were going to walk ahead of me this time, in case I keeled over forwards. Robert pointed out the camp in the distance. One couldn't really see it because it lay behind two more mountains we would have to traverse by nightfall. I mustered my morale and followed them to the edge.
There my spirits died. I was staring down the steps of an interminable stone staircase, steeped in fog. There was no bottom. Climbing up I could ignore the fearful drop, but not going down. My vertigo attacked, murdering the pitiful last of my energy. Before you fall, I reminded myself, make yourself utterly limp.
Unaware of my panic, the two men climbed down twenty yards and paused expectantly. I was still at the top, unmoving. Robert saw, to his frustration, that I had begun to cry again. I was silently begging the wind, the mountain, the Dead Woman, for help. Surely this place was crawling with spirits.
And then a little yellow dog appeared.
|Putucuci Mountain and the secret door. All photos by Barbara Doran.|
There was no reason for him to be here. The little yellow mutt sat beside my left hiking boot, gazing up at me. He must have crept up from behind, while I was standing at summit’s edge and panicking at the sight of the vertiginous plunge and the infinite stone stairs I’d have to stagger down if I was to reach camp before night fell.
But how did the dog get here? To arrive at my feet on Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail, he would have had to climb for a day and a half, just as I had done. Did he belong to a hiker from another group headed for Macchu Pichu, and had somehow gotten lost? Yet dogs were strictly prohibited on the ancient trail.
Nor was he feral. He was not bony, dirty, hungry, tired, or fierce. Instead he was plump and clean, and as friendly as if he had met me on a previous occasion and, after sniffing me thoroughly, judged me to be okay. His brown eyes were sweet. I could have bent down to pet him, except my knees were shot and my legs gone rigid in the cold.
Or was he a spirit? Had the little dog materialized out of the very thin air of the Peruvian Andes, right when I was begging the universe out loud for help to get down the mountain? After all, we were 12,000 feet above reason.
And I did need help. I was the only one left of my group. By now the others were probably halfway to the next mountain, where the porters were setting up tents and cooking dinner. My Outward Bound guide Robert and one of the Peruvian guides remained behind to make sure I survived the long descent. The two men were waiting for me, some thirty steps below; an opaque mist was rising fast to envelop them. Still I couldn’t move. Even with the aid of my hiking poles I had no strength left. I was Dead Woman Not Walking.
My insurance would cover a medivac rescue, if there was room on the pass for a copter to land, or if it could even fly this high. No matter, my friend Arthur had the satellite phone, and he was far away with the rest of the merry band. That left – what? Crawling down on my butt?
The dog seemed to have other ideas. He jumped down to the next stair, turned, and regarded me with encouragement. “You can,” said the brown eyes. So I planted my poles on the step below, and painfully lowered myself to his level. But the animal had already moved on, this time two steps down, where he paused again, offering his faith, and a promise of safety.
I simply couldn’t disappoint him. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to be real.
And that was how we did it: together. Step by step, my knight in yellow fur escorted me down, coaxing me past my pain, giving me the heart to go on. We breached the fog to find Robert and the other guide, who were relieved to see me walking again but mystified by the dog’s presence. I introduced him: “This is Li’l Yeller.” Adding, “If you have any questions, I don’t know.”
We hastened on. Li’l Yeller ran back and forth, romping around the men’s feet, then bounding back to me as I struggled to follow. He always tested the next step before I moved to it, finding the best spot to support my poles, then sending me a look of recommendation. Inky darkness overtook us; we turned on our headlamps.
Then the camp lights came into view. Perhaps smelling the food from the cook tent, the dog raced ahead; this time he didn’t return. I was too exhausted to wonder where he’d gone. Thrusting the flap aside, I fell into my tent and burrowed inside the sleeping bag. My tentmate Barb brought me some food from dinner, but I fell asleep between the first two bites.
Our tent was pitched on an incline. During the night, my sleeping bag gradually slipped downwards until, at dawn, I woke up at the bottom, curled in a fetal position and pressed against the flap. I could hear the breakfast pots clanging and the footsteps of my comrades heading for the makeshift johnny. As I sat up, to my surprise, my muscles obeyed without protest. It seemed that they had finally become habituated to abuse, and that the days of agonizing aches, the seizures and refusals, were behind me.
Something appeared outside the tent opening, a blurred silhouette. I unzipped the flap and stuck my head through. There was my magical mystery mutt, seated on his haunches like a sentry. He turned his head and gave me the brown-eyed once-over. His glance said, “Ah! You’re all right now – good to go. My job’s done.” And he scampered off.
I didn’t see Li’l Yeller again for the remaining two days of the hike. He went ahead with the porters, who had become enchanted with him, feeding him scraps and naming him Picchu (meaning “mountain,” from whence he’d come.) One porter decided to bring him home on the train back to Cusco, as a pet for his kids.
On the fourth day, my group reached our destination, entered the Sun Gate, and beheld the marvels of Machu Picchu. We showered off four days of body mung in a hotel that seemed like a mirage.
The following dawn, we convened to explore the sacred city before the trains of tourists arrived. Arthur decided, instead, to keep climbing. He was determined to scale Waynu Picchu, an even higher mountain nearby that overlooked the ruins.
|Waynu Picchu looms over the sacred city|
The top native guide recommended against the plan, warning that the path was too primitive and dangerous; only the year before, two people had fallen to their deaths; Arthur could proceed, but on his own and at his own risk. Incredibly, four others from our group leapt to join him. They all geared up and set off for the mountain.
Meanwhile, the porters were ready to go home – but Picchu had disappeared. They searched everywhere for the little dog, but in the end they had to leave without him.
After absorbing all I could of the stupendous Incan ruins, I paused to sit alone and meditate on a grass terrace facing Waynu Picchu. Faraway, one could see Arthur and his gang creeping like ants up the steep green flank of the mountain. I hoped they had some kind of divine protection. And I thought back to my little yellow companion who had appeared and vanished so eerily.
If you are open to the idea of spirit animals, those creatures who act as guides throughout our lives, whether in real form or symbolically, then it becomes fun to identify them. Once, before going to sleep, I experimentally asked my unconscious to reveal my personal spirit animal in a dream. My unconscious obliged. I was shown a wooden rabbit perched like a signpost at the head of my driveway. I was unsurprised; I’ve always adored rabbits and owned many. They represent my soft and vulnerable side, needy of protection and love, that I prefer to hide from most people. Yes, it is true: I’m basically fluffy.
People generally have more than one animal guide, so I asked to glimpse a second one in the next night’s dream. Accordingly, I was shown a painted snake with its jaw encased in a tin muzzle. This one came as a shock: I never imagined a spirit animal could be a creature that has always terrified me. Yet in my dream I was not afraid of the snake; being muzzled, it would not bite me. I grudgingly recognized that, like rabbits, snakes have been a constant throughout my life as well. They tend to show up when I need the message: to take my head out of its cloud hat and look where I’m going. I fear but also admire their stealth, their shape-shifting, their dynamism. If I can accept that the snake is actually on my side and not against me, then it’s a powerful defender for the bunny-self to have.
Was there a third? This time I posed the question while meditating. Suddenly I found myself gazing down into the shallows of a limpid pool. I saw weeds wafting over colored pebbles, small fish flicking by. I stood utterly still on long legs, watching, analyzing...At length I raised up, spread my wings, and flew up into the sky. I was a crane. This was a perfectly apt metaphor for an artist. We stare intently into the secret world of the unconscious, pluck an idea or an image from the depths, and fly away to present our findings to the world.
As I mused on animal guides, in the meantime Arthur and company had arrived successfully at Waynu Picchu’s peak. On top they found someone already there: a hiker, apparently Jewish because he wore a tallis shawl, who was seated on the ground in meditative prayer, eyes open and focused on an invisible point beyond. As Arthur looked on, a huge condor swooped down and alighted in front of the praying man. The bird folded its wings and stared straight into the man’s eyes. Neither moved. Minutes passed. At last the bird turned away and sailed back into the air. The man blinked, then rose and quietly gathered his things, not acknowledging the new arrivals as he passed them to begin the hike down.
It was then that Arthur and his friends saw another animal was present. It was Picchu. How he got to the top of the peak, no one could imagine. This time, the dog was completely exhausted, with nothing left in him to go down. This time, he was the one rescued. One of the group carried Picchu all the way to the bottom in his arms, and, in the process, fell so deeply in love with the little mutt that he resolved to take him back to U.S., no matter what it took to get him out.
|The divine Picchu, saved|
After moving heaven and hell, hacking at red tape and offering bribes, Picchu’s savior had to admit failure. The dog remained in Peru, and the expedition cook took charge of him, intending to keep him as a family pet. I’ve often wondered if, as the cook approached his house with Picchu at his heels, the man turned around to find the pup gone.
Picchu was a gift of the mountain, after all, to which he returned.
I had one more encounter with the cosmic before leaving the sacred city. On my way out I took a last glance at Putucuci, a third mountain thrusting up between Waynu and Machu Picchu, like a green-mittened hand with the thumb folded in. As I stared, I felt an immense pressure pulling me toward the mountain – so potent that I had to grip the railing to keep from being swept off the edge. The fold in the mountainside opened, showing a triangular entrance. The urge to fly overwhelmed me. If I succumbed, if I let go of the rail, if I trusted the power that both compelled and paralyzed me, if I took a few deliberate steps forward, I would leave the parapet and soar over the depthless chasm, through the mountain door and into the mother ship.
Eyes locked on this portal, I could not turn my head. “You’re going to die! Look away! Look away!” I hollered at myself inside. Tourists streamed by, unaware of my battle with reason. Someone jostled me, and broke the trance. I ripped my gaze away from Putucuci, hurrying from the site.
Later I pulled one of the native guides aside to tell him about the experience, asking if this had occurred to anyone else. He allowed that one year, someone stole onto the site during the night and stepped off the edge to his death. “There’s nothing strange that can’t happen up in these mountains,” he added, with an odd faraway look that implied both fear and respect. “Things you can’t even name.”
I had felt that same unseen pressure a few years before, pulling me to a fateful encounter with an unusual man.
To Picchu with thanks:
|On set of Marjoe. Photo by Jeanne Field.|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
I began this memoir by recounting my first contact with the spirit of my grandfather in 1974. Yet he was not my first ghost. Three years before, I had an unexpected run-in with the front office: the supreme all-infusing Holy Ghost.
It was July 1971, a hot and humid night in Texas. Parishioners attending the evening service sat on folding seats and fanned their faces with paper paddles. A country-western band played their original composition “God I Love You”; the pedal steel swooned around the singer. What was I doing in a Pentecostal revival tent in Fort Worth?
I had only attended Christian church services a few of times in my life, on the insistence of my mother. My dad, adamantly agnostic, used to claim with a straight face that he was a Druid, or “Druish.” Meanwhile Mom had four children to raise, with little energy remaining to drag us all to the local Episcopal church, which had no ramp for her wheelchair anyway. She let the matter slide.
By the time I turned ten, I was in love with Greek mythology and showed every sign of becoming a pagan. Mom got the idea to turn me over to her mother, who was passing through New York, asking her to introduce me to the church experience. My grandmother’s religious affiliation was indeterminate, as she was always shopping for sects. I took the train in from Connecticut; Grandma scooped me up and plunked me down in the vast, packed Madison Square Garden to hear Billy Graham, her new crush.
The ensuing yell-fest traumatized me. When my mother met my train afterwards, she picked up a quiet, cowed, unnervingly polite child. I was so afflicted with sin, and remorse for sin, that I went on a goodness binge for a week. Yet I knew so little about what defined a sin that it seemed I could make no move without committing one. Practice-kissing the mirror was vain and carnal. Stealing my brother’s dirty books and not returning them: lust and theft. And candy? It was discouraged in my home, on account of the dentist bills for my mouthful of silver fillings. I ate it in secret, which made it a lie. Gluttony, falsehood, and cavities. The noose of sin drew tighter.
Eventually I began to suspect God wasn’t watching. The thought brought me great spiritual comfort. I stole my parents’ marriage manual; my tongue turned green from lime lollipops; my dark side, sensing the coast was clear, crept back from exile.
Still, my mother felt guilty that she had not given her children a religious education. My two older brothers were teenagers and no longer meek enough. There was still hope, however, for my younger brother and me. Mom dressed us up and dropped us off at the nearest spire, St. Paul’s Church, along with a small sealed envelope containing a quarter for the collection plate. We knew no one in the congregation, and were too shy to ask for help deciphering the service, which was utterly bewildering. How did people know when to stand up, sit down, or kneel? We didn’t realize that the numbers posted on the bulletin board were hymn numbers and not page numbers; opening the hymnal at the wrong place, we could never find the songs everyone sang. Plus, even at one hour, the service was excruciatingly long. My brother and I were hungry.
One morning at Holy Communion, whatever that was, I dared to go to the altar and kneel at the rail with some other people to get a snack. The body of Christ turned out to be a thin scrap of something that tasted like office paste (which, in larger quantity, was delicious, but in wafer form was just a cruel tease). The priest deliberately didn’t tip the chalice far enough for me to get even a drop of the blood of Christ. I think he knew pretty well I was not confirmed and shouldn’t be hanging there with my tongue out in the first place.
So it came to pass that my little brother and I associated church with two things: hunger, and feeling like idiots. One Sunday, when we were deposited at St. Paul’s, instead of entering I tore open the offering envelope and extracted the quarter. About a half mile away, a brisk fifteen-minute walk, was a tiny convenience store the kids called The Louse House because it was run by a woman named Louise. Louise sold penny candy. A quarter bought twenty-five pieces, from a huge variety in her display case. Twelve pieces for me, twelve for little bro, and we could split the twenty-fifth, snapping the last raspberry licorice shoelace in half. Fifteen minutes to walk to the store, ten to buy the candy, and fifteen minutes to eat all of it on the way back to church, joining the congregation streaming out of the service just when my mother arrived to pick us up: it was a perfect plan.
The Louse House orgy came to an end when Mom stopped Sunday deliveries without explanation. I think that chauffeuring kids to cello, piano, violin, oboe, and trumpet lessons, soccer practice, the allergist and, all too often, the dentist, Monday to Saturday, was punishment enough for her sins. She really did need a day of rest.
My next exposure to Christian ritual came in prep school. Weekday mornings at Rosemary Hall began with chapel service. It was pleasant enough, and brief: ten minutes of mad singing and very little worshipping. I loved the music, so I joined the chapel choir to do some more of it. Thus I innocently committed to show up for Sunday services. The tedium of a full-length service was a revelation. I quit the choir. There was one particular image I took away, when at the climax of the service the minister approached the altar and raised the gold collection plate of cash to show Jesus the fruits of his sacrifice. It offended me that faith should be mixed up with money.
In college, Religion 101 was a required freshman course. Here I honed my objections to Christianity. Like my father, I ticked off the items that strained credulity. For example, why did God the Father need to have a gender, which can only be determined by examining someone’s sex organs? Surely God was bigger than anatomy. Most important, why was it a Christian deal-breaker that we accept Jesus as divine? Why couldn’t he just be the son of Joseph and descendant of King David, as the apostle Luke claimed; why couldn’t we just recognize him as a great and wonderful teacher for the ages? Or was the Son of God a better plot device to lure people into the theater? And get their money. The whole enterprise felt fraudulent.
I seemed to have a much higher opinion of God than the one that scripture described, and a lower concept of Jesus. Still, I was moved by flashes of beauty and wisdom in the text. And I would miss the music.
Meeting Marjoe Gortner, when I was 23, brought the issue of fraud into full spotlight. At the time, I was a budding screenwriter; my Jewish boyfriend Howard Smith was a newspaper and radio journalist. One day Howard was approached for an on-air interview by a lanky, handsome, charismatic man with a scrapbook under his arm. The contents were staggering. Photos and news clippings from the 40’s and 50’s revealed this man’s early career as a child preacher. His parents, both Pentacostal preachers themselves, ordained him when he was three; promoting their son as the world’s youngest minister, they coached the bright little boy to perform a wedding ceremony at the age of four. Filmed by Paramount News, the stunt was shown in newsreels all over the country, and little Marjoe Gortner the holy-rolling phenomenon was launched. He told the press he received his sermons directly from God; he filled churches and revival tents throughout the Bible Belt, healed some of the sick, made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and earned his family a lot of cash in offerings over the years.
|The Great Gantry|
In Marjoe’s entire life, he had never believed in God. On the other hand, the power he held over parishioners, the excitement and the adulation, bound him to the church as firmly as faith. He was, in his own words, “a religion addict.”
When he met us, he had just arrived in New York to take a whack at an acting career. If he could achieve stardom, it would replace the high he got from preaching. But he had no patience to start at the bottom. A radio interview with my partner Howard was just the exposure Marjoe needed to lift him above the crowded pool of anonymous actors struggling for recognition.
I don’t know why I thought it was such a good idea to make a film about this two-faced preacher. Documentaries were not commercially viable then. There was really only one distributor who exhibited them. But Howard knew the guy. And I don’t know why this distributor and his millionaire partner thought it was such a good idea to finance the project, but they gave us the money immediately. From there everything went very fast. Looking back, it was as if a wind blew eerily at our backs, a wind that would blow us straight to the Oscars, where we accepted the feature documentary award for Marjoe two years later.
|Howard and me with two bad boys|
One of Marjoe’s gimmicks was the sale of “prayer cloths,” actually cheap red bandanas; if the believer really believed, and prayed hard over these schmattes, blessings and salvation might follow. For an additional sum, people could line up and Marjoe would personally “lay hands” on them; God’s grace would flow through his touch. If he laid on hands extra hard, some would be seized with joy and fall to the ground. And when the Holy Ghost was present, everyone would experience the “infilling of the spirit,” to be set free from their troubles for a moment, an hour, a day, maybe ever after.
|Marjoe laying on hands|
I became transfixed, instead, by the manifest beauty of the same sight: of people released, to dance, sing, quake and faint, giving themselves completely to a ghost, a vibe that permeated everyone. I envied their child-like porousness. It didn’t matter how they got to that state, or how much they’d paid: they were euphorically happy in these moments. The only time I’d felt like that was when I took LSD. These enraptured folks took pharmaceutical-grade Belief. I wished I had some. I wanted to be infilled by Spirit.
What turned me off to religion were the pushers, the middle-men toting their harsh, contradictory scripture, offering love and hate in equal portion; so many religions seemed obsessed with excluding someone else. Marjoe said, toward the end of our film, “If I could just do the faith number, and get up and say, ‘Okay, everybody, let’s really get loose this afternoon, get rid of our hang-ups and have nice group therapy,’ that would be great. But you can’t do it that way. I have to throw in the sin and damnation and ‘you’re all going to hell’ – it’s got to all be done under this façade of holiness.”
Yet he was a gifted preacher, good enough to give folks a taste of pure Spirit – almost in spite of himself. A friend once asked him, “What if Jesus was working through you anyway?” What if a conman could still be a conduit?
Marjoe looked wistful. He knew he was the very definition of a sinner. But could you lie, eat candy, fool everyone and hate your parents, and still be good?
That film about a religion addict set me on the highway to find heaven, running over the cones and breaking through checkpoints to seek my own Belief. Ghosts lay ahead, all with something to teach. One day, I would be infilled by Spirit. But I’d be nowhere near a church.
Thirty years after Marjoe, I made another documentary. A wind at my back propelled me toward another flamboyant subject, this time a dancing, singing, junkie for truth.
(You may download, rent or buy Marjoe here.)
|The Artist Known As Thoth. Photo by Jennifer Leigh Sauer.|
These days, whenever a social conversation lags, usually in the lacuna between entrée and dessert, someone asks “What shows are you binging on?” This is the dessert topic, and thank god for it; otherwise people would lapse into embarrassed silence. In a recent era, the question was, “Did you see [insert movie title]?”; and once upon an ancient time they asked “Have you read [insert book title]?” Folks turn gratefully to the topics of art and entertainment, even if they disagree; they compare and argue but remain friends; the same cannot be said for mine-filled subjects like politics or religion; and money is just plain ill-mannered. Art performs the invaluable service of keeping people talking. Artists don’t merely communicate, they fertilize communication.
All the same, I view my profession as wankery. Mind you, I’ve never doubted that I was put on the planet to write. It felt like a perfect fit the moment I settled into that chair, the heart-shaped dent waiting for my ass, as if the cushion had been broken in by centuries of self-absorbed scribes before me. Nevertheless, over the years I felt I was enjoying myself too much, sitting alone and spinning stories and not contributing a jot toward world peace and understanding.
“Use me,” I urged the universe. Show me a good thing to do, that will help. I waited for a sign. Meanwhile I wrote and directed a movie that I hoped would empower young women. It went straight to video. I took a few assignments I thought would make a difference, including a biopic about Alfred Nobel and the genesis of his Peace Prize. The films didn’t get made; the universe, indecipherable as ever, withdrew its backing. So much for lofty intentions. I stopped waiting for a sign.
In 2000 I took on a project that had no redeeming value, yet would give good dessert topic. I pitched, sold, and wrote the script. It was fiction, based on the true experiences of a living individual, a madman who downloaded all his fury and psychosis on me, day after day, as I sat and took notes. At times I thought I was going crazy by osmosis, but I hung in there because it was too great a story. The studio agreed, and officially greenlit the picture. However, when they attempted to renew their rights agreement with the maniac, he refused. He’d read the script, and flew into a rage (his normal state). To placate him, I was fired off my own project. The green light went red, and remained red despite the efforts of many more writers. For the umpteenth time, my father said, “You should get out of that shitty business.” Now, this was odd advice, coming from a guy who taught entertainment law, and whose former students included several studio heads. But he had a point, namely “What’s the point?”
In the end, the only point was the luchre. Stuffing the fat script fee in my bank account, I felt both demoralized and relieved. Now I was free of that madman’s negative force field, and free to figure out how I’d lost my way as a writer. What did the universe want? I renewed the request: “Use me.”
On a Sunday autumn afternoon, when I was hurrying home from a quick walk in Central Park, I heard a distant strain of music on the air that intrigued me: a violin droning on open strings, serene and meditative, joined by a soaring soprano voice. There was no time to track down the source, but I paused anyway, turning my head to listen. Though unamplified, the violin-soprano duet cut through the chattering and noise of the park throngs, as if close to my ear.
It was then I sensed a pressure like a hand between my shoulder blades, urging me to move toward the music, and, as I complied, I felt somewhat weightless, a sensation of being conveyed without effort. The music drew me down a flight of stairs and into a tunnel, the Bethesda Arcade, which passes under the 72nd Street transverse. There I found the soprano: a small tawny man of uncertain ethnicity, with waist-length dreadlocks, gold loincloth, chains across his bare chest, body covered in twinkling gold glitter, eyes lined black like a sphinx, a red plume stuck in the back of his hair. Singing in a high countertenor register, he accompanied himself on the violin, kneeling as if in prayer before a gathering crowd of tourists.
Abruptly the man leapt to his feet and launched into a violent tarantella; his voice now a thundering baritone, he beat out the rhythm on a manhole cover with his sandals, the bells and shells tied to his ankles rattling for emphasis. And then he was dancing, twirling like a dervish – while playing and singing simultaneously. He had been soothing before; now he was fierce; the crowd recoiled a little. The music was both primitive and sophisticated, seeming to come from all cultures and none. The words gave no clue what language he was singing in; I couldn’t place his accent.
The dervish dropped to his knees, returning to the long droned notes of the prayer, his voice low and quiet. As he ended, the audience applauded. A few people dropped crumpled bills and loose change into his violin case, which was propped open for contributions. Some paused to pick up one of the yellow brochures beside the case before moving on. He nodded silently as they passed, but no one dared talk to him, so he busied himself biting off some horse hairs that hung loose from his bow; he’d sawed the strings so hard during the dance that the strands broke. He appeared resigned to having frightened people. They had witnessed a kind of controlled madness. Even if controlled, it was madness all the same.
Yet, madness wedded to extreme talent is spellbinding. And if this phenomenon was a busker, then he was the most extraordinary I’d ever seen. I grabbed a brochure and rushed home. I tried to recreate what I’d seen to my husband but gave up in frustration. It was like trying to describe last night’s dream; the experience was yours alone, in a private reality, and fast fading in the daylight as you turn to your morning chores.
I glanced through the brochure before tossing it on my cluttered desk. The man called himself Thoth; he termed his act “solopera.” He didn’t perform, he “prayformed,” Tuesdays through Sundays in the Arcade. He was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. He had a website. I had to make dinner.
In the weeks that followed, the yellow brochure disappeared under piles of books and papers while I prepared for another studio assignment. When the time came to clear my desk, I discovered the brochure I’d forgotten. On the verge of throwing it out, I remembered the ghostly hand at my back, and the peculiar energy that suffused me when I watched Thoth prayform. I took a moment to check out his website, in case it would answer some of my lingering questions: Where was he from? Foreign, of course, but what nationality? What culture’s indigenous songs was he singing?
The website was elegantly designed. The homepage invited visitors to click on a portal to enter the realm of Thoth. I went straight to his bio, where I found some surprises. He was born in the mid-50’s and raised in Queens, a biracial child back when mixed marriages were a lightning rod for hatred, even illegal in some states. His mother, Barbados-born, was a tympanist and the first black person to become a principal player in a major symphony orchestra. (This accounted for his classical training and foot percussion.) His father was a white Jewish doctor and civil rights activist. Their son eventually became a street musician in San Francisco, then moved to New York after changing his name to Thoth, after the ancient Egyptian messenger-god.
The bio offered no explanation of what had transpired to cause a child of relative privilege, now a man in his forties, to embrace life as a nearly-naked busker – for what gain?
His site did offer CDs for sale, of his self-composed three-act solo opera, “The Herma.” So the music was his own. What about the accent? The language? I read on.
He had based his opera on the legends of a place called Festad. I’d never heard of it. Then it became clear that the land, its map, its tribes, its myths, its melodies, its customs and costumes and mother tongue, were all invented. Thoth had created an entire world from top to bottom, in such confident detail that, at first encounter, one would not suspect that the unknown words, the unplaceable accent, the weird clothes and alluring songs were from no country but his own mind.
In a short statement Thoth claimed that, for him, “prayforming” was an essential spiritual practise that helped him to “be.” By helping himself, he hoped to help the universe.
Then I knew what I was meant to do. I was going to help him. The universe had a job for me at last.
But first, caution dictated that I must find out: was he a madman? I could not afford another one of those.
|Thoth in prayformance (Photo courtesy HBO)|
He wasn’t half-naked this time. Though he still sported the headband, red feather and Egyptian-deity makeup, the chill of late November had forced Thoth out of his customary gold loincloth and into black tech pants and windbreaker. Surprisingly, he could still move his fingers on the violin neck as he played, danced, stomped and sang in his multiple voices – all at the same time.
The sun dipped behind the buildings surrounding Central Park; cold shadows slid across Bethesda Terrace. He’d begun promptly at 3 pm (his time slot by arrangement with some other buskers who shared the tunnel). No passersby gathered to watch. On weekdays at this time of year, the few people still in the park by dusk were hastening to warmer places, too rushed to stop and appreciate the whirling one-man opera in the Arcade. Yet Thoth performed full out, to the point of exhaustion, as if to a crowd instead of an audience of one.
That one, a tall blonde bundled-up woman in a felt hat, leaned against a pillar and watched him for two hours, even after darkness fell and the tunnel’s ceiling lights switched on, along with the park’s sixteen hundred streetlamps. Whenever Thoth took a break to drink water from a camelbak, the woman moved off, walking around the terrace briskly to keep warm, then returning when she heard him tune his instrument for the next aria. She did not applaud, nor drop money into his violin case; whenever he glanced at her, she looked away.
I didn’t want to engage with him in any way until I had observed a complete “prayformance” from beginning to end. When I chanced upon him the month before, I’d only witnessed the opening prayer that convoked his invented gods in his invented language. Now that I was experiencing the whole work, I was even more astonished. People have to see this, I thought. Lots of people everywhere, not just parkgoers and tourists.
His was a unique feat. So many gifts had to exist in one person to accomplish it. The imagination, composing, fantasy writing, an extraordinary voice, impressive musicianship, foot percussion in complicated meters, all had to combine and work simultaneously. (You try singing Wagner while jogging.) There might be only this man in human history who could bring it off; hence it would live and die with him. A phenomenon of such fragility could collapse at any moment, with no record that it had ever occurred, except for the snapshots and videos that tourists brought home, describing how they’d witnessed an only-in-New-York freak show.
Thoth belonged on film. Should I take the next step and make it happen? That hefty fee I’d just received for my ill-fated script would cover the cost. He was a great subject. Even for an outsider artist, he was way, way out on a limb. Yet his commitment was unwavering. One could feel his faith; it altered the air around him. Speaking in tongues, he had his own Holy Ghost infilling him. The sight repelled some, captivated others. Thoth moved me. He reminded me of all the sacrifices artists make, in ways small and huge, and the loneliness of our endeavor as we inch out on the limb. A documentary would show audiences not only what he could do but what it cost him to do it.
But I still didn’t approach him because I hadn’t decided if he was nuts in a bad way.
There is clinical-crazy, and then there is artist-crazy. The latter doesn’t frighten me, because I have my own seat on that spectrum. I love the company of wild and weird creators and visionaries; they’re my family…as long as they have some measure of self-control. It’s the ones who slice off their ears that I step away from.
I checked my watch nervously: five o’clock. The park was now too empty and dark for my comfort; I wanted to leave. Thoth had paused to rest again. If there was more to come, I would have to miss it. And I still didn’t have my answer on the subject of his mental health.
An old man with a cane shuffled into the Arcade. Thoth evidently knew him. The man stopped and they chatted quietly. Suddenly Thoth busted a laugh so big and loud the entire tunnel vibrated: a barnyard donkey laugh. Someone else, like you perhaps, might hear it as the kind of crazy bray common to the funny farm. But I went the other way.
That’s it, I thought. He’s sane.
Arriving home, I sent Thoth a message on his website: I was a filmmaker, wanted to make a short documentary about him, contact me if interested….
As I grew to know him over the seven months I shot the film, Thoth proved to be only slightly more wacky than I, and otherwise was as centered and responsible a person as one could hope, the opposite of a prima donna. He lived with his mother in Queens, though he kept as aloof and ascetic as a monk, striving to improve and purify himself as a receiver and transmitter of messages from unnamed sources. Unsure of his ethnic identity, as a mixed-race son, Thoth believed he was channeling the spirits of his ancestors, who had originated in every part of the world; accordingly his music sounded as if it came from many cultures, though so commingled they were no longer identifiable. He channeled the words as he played, later figuring out their meaning, as we pick up any foreign language in a strange land, and he was compiling a dictionary as he went. It was a neverending project because the spirit communications never stopped flowing. He was a fully open flume.
This was his full-time work. He lived off contributions from audiences in the park. Some days they gave nothing. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up. Rather than become incapacitated by with age, he hoped to die while prayforming.
The subject of my first documentary, Marjoe Gortner was a prevaricator who kept much of himself hidden – even from himself. By contrast, Thoth was always striving to locate the truth that defined his being. This involved constant and rigorous introspection, a dismantling of walls within, so that in my interviews I was able to probe as deep as I liked. He was familiar with his own complexity. However, there was one wall that did not yield to my pressure, a mystery that he’d lost interest in solving, or so he said. Yet it was the very thing that drove him onto the path to mysticism.
It was easier for Thoth’s sisters to identify as African-American because they were quite young when their white father divorced their black mother. The family never saw him again. On the other hand, Thoth (or Stephen Kaufman as he was then known) was older and had been very close to his dad. He took the sudden abandonment very hard, bewildered by it, and also left bewildered about his racial identity. Bewilderment led to depression, and depression to withdrawal. In college he stole sleeping pills and tried to commit suicide. Before he was found and revived from his coma, he experienced a voice telling him to go back: “You have more to do.”
A long period of self-emancipation followed. Ethnically, and sexually as well, he found freedom in being ambiguous. He rediscovered his many creative gifts. Financially, he made do by playing Bach for handouts in San Francisco’s subway stations. And ever since the near-death voice sent him back to life, he sought to find out: what was the “more” he was meant to do? He took the time to be quiet, and listen for answers. The other-world revelations began; the art of prayformance was born.
Thoth was 46 when I started filming him. He had long since put away the matter of his father’s disappearance; he rarely thought of him. I, however, was not satisfied to let it lie. A reunion of father and son would be so dramatic on film – if I could find Dr. Kaufman. I began with a simple internet search. What came up was a death notice.
Thoth’s father had died only six months before. All along he had been practicing medicine in Rockville, Long Island, a mere half-hour’s drive from Queens where Thoth had grown up and was living now. And it was my duty to deliver the news.
As I paused with my hand on the phone, I suddenly felt an inward urgency from an outward source, an insistence so strong that my own self seemed crowded aside. It was a message I didn’t understand, that was meant for Thoth. I recognized it as the same feeling that had overcome me when I delivered a message to my dad from his dead father (see Chapter 15), a message that was not to be denied.
When I reached Thoth, he received the word of his father’s death in neutral silence. Either he felt nothing or didn’t know how to feel. I tried to keep quiet out of respect but the inner crescendo forced me to stand down and let the message come out. “There’s something else,” I said, “and please forgive me for this, I don’t know what it means, but I’m supposed to say your father wants you to forgive him for something.”
Another silence, a long one. Then Thoth spoke up: “I think I know what that is.”
He had never told the story to anyone. In fact, he had utterly forgotten it, buried and blocked it, until this moment when his dad’s message broke through. As if shot from the depths, memory burst its secret, as fresh in detail as when the young boy Stephen had sealed it inside.
For a little while following the divorce, Dr. Kaufman faithfully visited his children, sometimes taking his son out for a spin in his little red sportscar. He always drove too fast, and this particular day, with nine-year-old Thoth buckled into the passenger seat, was no exception. As his dad’s car approached an intersection, the traffic light was changing; he sped up, just as a boy stepped out on the crosswalk. “He hit the boy, and the boy bounced up and against the windshield and fell off to the right. It was horrifying, it was the worst thing…The boy died at the scene.
“When the police questioned my father, he said the light was green. But I knew, and saw, that the light was yellow turning red. And it was a really hard thing because my father, being a doctor and the most moral person that I knew, he was lying, and I couldn’t believe it. I was not able to understand.
“My father stopped contacting me after that and I never saw him again.”
Opening up to grief was a difficult passage for Thoth. The tears simply weren’t there, until he saw the finished film and witnessed the scene where he visits his father’s grave, and speaks to him at last, and cleanses them both of the past. There in the editing room, he finally cried.
Thoth seemed to never shy away from the truth, even if some of it came from invisible ancestral spirits. Whatever he held inside, he was addicted to putting it all out there. And I do believe that truth is rewarded, when we make the effort and sacrifice to find it. There may be no recompense but only reprisal in one’s lifetime here, but the eternal Elsewhere is all rejoicing. For Thoth, his reward was 39:58 minutes of fame, the length of our film Thoth – two seconds under the maximum length required for submission to the short documentary category of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When we got the nomination, Cinemax bought the film. Between cable TV and YouTube, and his presence onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony where the film won, Thoth and his work would eventually be seen by over a million viewers. I’d told myself, People have to see this. I’d fulfilled my promise to the universe. As for my own reward, helping Thoth brought me more satisfaction than anything I’d ever created for my own ego.
I must add, the Oscar did feel really, really good. Thirty years earlier, I’d shared the Feature Documentary award with my older male partner. Overlooked was the fact that I was the first woman director to win an Oscar, and it was further assumed that my partner had done all the work and that I was just the cute young tagalong. Thirty years later, winning a second award as a solo filmmaker told everyone, “Yes, I was always more than the girlfriend.”
It almost didn’t happen, though. Making a good film was not the only hurdle to clear on the way to an Oscar. The other necessary was finding the right gown.
Here's the full film:
|5 out of 10 psychics can't be wrong|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
I suffer from ESP envy. It’s said that everyone is born with this intuitive ability, but most don’t know how to access it. I’ve never had much confidence in my own intuition, since my predictions were often wrong, which can be really embarrassing. Consequently I have sought and paid for the advice of professional clairvoyants whose powers of foresight made me jealous.
Over the years I must have seen a hundred psychics. I used to belly up to the smorgasboard and heap my plate. Whenever someone raved about a new one, I shot to the phone and made an appointment. My curiosity about my future was actually less than my curiosity about their techniques, which varied widely. I’ve already written about the Marrakesh shuwafa whose divinations were based on the shapes that hot lead made when poured into cold water. Another medium relied on the pronouncements of her spirit guide, an ancient Chinese princess who was obnoxious beyond belief. Another psychic simply stared at me for an hour before speaking. I kept notes on every session and, in the years that followed, I would re-read them now and then, to see which prophecies had come true. Did I indeed have an affair with a European man, possibly from Spain, with a drug problem? Not even. Did I get chronic ear infections when Mars in Virgo transited my second house in Taurus? Wow, yes. Bang on.
According to my records, not one of these soothsayers had a higher percentage of correct predictions than about 50%. When told they were wrong half the time, they shrugged. “It’s an imperfect science,” they said defensively, “but look at the half I got right!”
My obsession with fortunetellers came to a head when I was chasing a most elusive man. I was dead certain he was tagged for me forevermore, and with my whole heart wagging I dogged his footsteps all over town. During a two-year pursuit, I polled psychic after psychic: Would he be mine? Or was it in vain?
It wasn’t helpful that half said yes and half said, just as emphatically, forget it. I decided this was a great way to rate them. Eventually my question would get answered: either this guy would spurn or return my love. Then I could stop seeing the psychics who were wrong, and only subsidize those who were right. It would thin out my Rolodex.
After I married the elusive man, I became so content with my lot that I felt no need to spy on the future as I used to. I still saw, once a year, a few psychics whom I thought stupendous, like Maria the Russian painter whose day job was reading coffee grounds for eighty bucks an hour. She would brew a very strong, topsoil-thick expresso, serving it with a cloth napkin folded between saucer and cup. After the client drank the coffee, Maria upended the cup onto the napkin, draining any remaining liquid. She would then examine the dregs left in the cup. In their configurations she picked out images that could be translated into the language of destiny.
“I see a big ‘C’,” she told me once, inspecting my dregs. “You’ll be writing about a classical composer. I hope you do. I want to see this film.” This took me by surprise. For some time I had been tempted to write a spec script on Frederic Chopin’s affair with George Sand, but decided it would be a lot of work to no avail. Though the story gave me writer’s drool, producers were not beating the bushes for a movie about the 19th century French Romantics. And I was too busy with paid assignments anyway. Nevertheless, when Maria told me I was going to write that script, I took courage and wrote the thing – because it was my fate, right? Two years later, I invited Maria to the premiere of Impromptu, with young Hugh Grant in the role of ‘C’-for-Chopin.
I don’t think it’s amazing that Maria saw a ‘C’ in the coffee grounds, which could have left any random shape in her cup. The genius was in her interpretation. Where did she get “classical composer”? The ‘C’ could have stood for colorectal cancer, or Cleveland, or coffee cup. How did she know? Once again I lusted for ESP. If only I could do that, be able to pull names and specifics out of thin air, to tell someone, “I see you’re going to fall in love with a woman who wears a sapphire ring. I get the name Marianne – or Miriam? Maybe Marilyn. My ancient Babylonian guide isn’t clear. It’s an imperfect science.”
The most gifted and accurate clairvoyant medium I ever met was Colette Baron-Reid, a singer-songwriter from Toronto who supplemented her income by reading Tarot cards and relating whatever popped up on her mindscreen. A friend told me that Colette was extraordinary, so of course I made an appointment with her when she was visiting clients in New York, in January of 2002. On the day of our session I was in very high spirits, bursting with some terrific news I’d received earlier in the morning. I told none of this to Colette. Whenever I have a first encounter with a psychic I stay quiet, giving no information about myself other than my name. We were only a few minutes into the reading when she interrupted herself: “I’m seeing you in a dry place, a desert area, with palm trees…I’m going to say southern California. It’s a city with some mountains in the background. Looks like Los Angeles? Anyway, you’re there for some award. Wait – !” Her eyes grew wide. “Could this be an Oscar?”
The Academy Award nominations had just been announced that morning. My film Thoth was chosen for the Short Documentary category. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not going to win.”
Anyone would have agreed. I was up against two other nominees. One rival film was about Eurasian orphans, a feel-sad weeper narrated by Rosie O’Donnell. Academy members couldn’t vote unless they’d attended an official screening of all the nominated shorts; I knew Rosie would pressure her many friends in the Academy to go see her film.The other short was about an adorable children’s chorus, a feel-good weeper. The directors were a mother/daughter team. The mother was head of the Academy’s documentary branch. She knew many, if not most, of the members and could likewise urge them to attend the screening. I had no inside connections to Academy voters, and my film was a non-weeper about a weirdo in a gold loin cloth.
“Well, you’re gonna win, girl,” Colette insisted. “You don’t believe me, but I’m seeing it.”
I thought, of course she has to say that. What psychic is going to hose your hopes by saying you’ll lose? I wrote the prediction in my notebook, as I had jotted so many others from so many fortunetellers. If Colette was right, cool. If she was wrong, then my Rolodex shed another card. I would know the answer very soon, since the awards ceremony was only two and a half weeks away. And, as there was no chance of my winning, my overwhelming anxiety became about the gown.
Thirty years before, I’d accepted an Oscar in a tuxedo. This was less a fashion statement than a practical solution. I couldn’t afford a nice dress. My partner and I had not been paid for producing and directing our nominated feature documentary Marjoe. I was living with my parents to save money. In my closet there were not many clothes not made of denim. I did own a nice black pant suit with satin piping, and black patent leather boots. I borrowed my father’s cummerbund, bow tie and cuff links, and bought a boys’ tuxedo shirt. Thirty dollars total did the trick. By wearing men’s clothes I also accomplished one of my main missions in life: to stick out.
This time I wanted a real gown in which to stick out. I couldn’t see the sense of paying thousands of dollars for a single occasion; the dress would have to be a loaner from some designer. There was no question of my wearing anything but a Romeo Gigli gown. I’d been collecting his unique creations for fifteen years; my closet barfed Romeo. He was my fashion soulmate. I would never cheat on him with another designer.
However, Romeo Gigli was having business problems. American boutiques no longer carried his collections; he was down to one eponymous store in Milan. I called the shop and spoke to the sales assistant, who happened to be American. He informed me the press office people were “idiots”; if I called out of the blue, they would very likely turn me down because they’d never heard of me. He advised me to come in person.
My husband gifted me a round-trip ticket to Milan, and off I flew. My new friend the sales assistant marched me into the publicity office, explaining in Italian what a golden opportunity it was to dress an Oscar nominee. He swore I was a celebrity. After all, I’d won the award previously.
Sure enough, the press folks were slow to comprehend. Sensing their reluctance, I entreated: “Please! If I win, I promise to thank him in my speech.” With that, they relented. Which dress did I want?
I had no idea, since Romeo’s fashions were not on view in the U.S. anymore. The publicists sent me to a workroom that held a few pieces from his spring collection. My spirits sank. There was only one gown on the rack. Entirely made of ribbons, it was voluminous; I would have needed two chairs to sit in it. The rest of the evening wear pieces were out to style editors all over Europe.
The press people decided it was time to be actually helpful. They handed me the “look book” from the runway show. If I would choose a dress from the photos, and if they could locate it in time, they would have it shipped to New York before I flew to L.A. for the ceremony.
I paged through Romeo’s typically brilliant collection. His inspiration for that season was the ocean: fish scale sequins and foamy bubble patterns and lacey sea fans. I spotted an exquisite black evening dress with tendrils of chiffon hand-snipped to look like seaweed floating about the shoulders and skirt.
|The seaweed dress|
I’d look pretty good in that. Marking the page, I continued flipping through the look book until I arrived at the final garment in the show.
Hanging by thin strings from the model’s shoulders, the dress consisted of a double layer of black tulle, with long tatters at the hem and gleaming crystal globules of all different sizes scattered over the airy fabric. It looked exactly as Romeo had intended: water drops on a fisherman’s net.
It was also totally transparent. The model’s nipple dots and perky boobs showed clearly through the tulle. She wore black briefs to cover her pubes. I was fifty-four non-perky years old and I would definitely stick out – everywhere – if I wore this one.
|The fisherman's net dress|
And then came the Flash. Suddenly I saw myself mounting the left side of the Kodak Theater stage to accept a gold statuette from the Academy, and I was wearing this gown. The image did not come from my always-febrile imagination. The scene seemed as fresh and detailed and factual as if it had happened mere seconds before, yet it was not a memory. Where did the image come from? Neither imagined nor remembered, it was an orphan, born in a brain place that was unmarked on my map. My flash presented itself, not as a known fact, but as a thing simply known.
Now I understood what the psychics experienced. After years of ESP-ness envy, I had my first moment of “extraordinary knowing.”
The peeps in the press office, who had been leery of me before, now thought I was mad. The dress I requested was an “editorial” piece, designed only for eye-popping runway effect and for press photos; the fishnet gown was never meant to be worn by anyone real. If I would choose a second gown, they would ship both, in case this one (insert raised eyebrow) didn’t work out (which heaven help us it wouldn’t). I chose the seaweed dress as backup.
Back in the U.S., I worried that the publicists would deliberately fail to locate the water-drop dress. As more days passed I worried that, worse, they wouldn’t send either dress in time. Then I’d have to do the black pant suit all over again.
Three days from our departure for Los Angeles, the seaweed dress arrived, a size 4. My husband thought it beautiful, though I would have to cease eating for a few days to get into it. A day later, just as the palace clock chimed midnight, a second box arrived, with the fishnet dress crumpled inside. There was no fit problem. It floated away from the body like a mist. The glass droplets gleamed on the black tulle. You could see my caesarian scar and count every mole on my torso. My husband made no comment because he knew I would come to my senses eventually.
I had 48 hours to solve the see-through problem. We commandeered a theater designer to run up a black body suit to hide my bits. The morning of our departure, the designer called from the lobby. He was dropping off the slip, but had discovered an unanticipated problem with the dress. And he had been unable to solve it.
Each of the hundred droplet crystals had a flat back, which had been glued on the tulle. The glue leached through the net, making the crystals tacky when touched. If I sat down in the dress – if, for example, I were to sit for hours through the interminable ceremony until my category came up – my body heat, pressed to the fabric, would warm the glue further. When I rose – as, for example, to collect my award – the dress would stick to my ass and the backs of my legs, producing a sort of wadded-up bustle effect. Possibly no one in the audience would think my outfit was any more bizarre than my seat companion Thoth wearing a gold loin cloth and chest chains. On the other hand, my husband and daughter would be mortified.
“You don’t understand,” I raged. “I saw myself in this dress! I won’t win if I’m not wearing it!”
“You’re being ridiculous,” my husband retorted. “The votes are already in. It makes no difference what you wear.”
Once again I faced the inevitable. The gown was not created for any event except a quick walk down the runway. Not to be sat in, nor slept in, nor wept in.
Still undeterred, on the plane to L.A. I racked my brain to find a way of fixing the problem. That evening I had to attend another ceremony for the International Documentary Association, where my film had already won an award. On the way back to the hotel I stopped off in a 24-hour Rite-Aid to buy a roll of Scotch Magic Tape and a pair of sewing scissors.
All night I stayed up meticulously cutting little rounds of tape in the shape of each individual crystal. I stuck the rounds to the underside of the tulle, covering the glue on the back of a hundred glass droplets. I then sat in the dress for thirty minutes, warming up the crystals, at the end of which I rose up. The dress swung free, swishing about my legs as I walked experimentally around the hotel room. At last I had a dress to match my fate.
Here is what happened the next night:
My husband had been right. Fishnet or seaweed, the outcome would have been the same. I couldn’t explain that, far more important to me than winning the award, I desperately wanted my psychic flash to prove true. At stake was my belief in the paranormal experience. I fought hard for that gown because I needed my instant of knowing to be accurate in every detail.
I still can’t figure out, though, why I saw myself so clearly mounting the stage from the left when, on the night of, I actually entered from the right. But it’s an imperfect science.
The next morning, as Romeo Gigli walked to his workroom through the streets of Milan, people kept coming up to him and exclaiming that someone had thanked him onstage at the Oscars. Puzzled, he asked his press staff if they knew anything about it. The fools hadn’t thought to mention my visit to him. They admitted they’d loaned me a gown from his new collection. Which one? he wondered. They answered, the last one in the show.
His mouth fell open. “She wore that?! But – it’s completely transparent!”
Mom always found a way.
Handicapped as she was, my mother faced a life of limitations. She just didn’t recognize them.
Obstacle? What obstacle? Show her a barrier and watch her barrel through; or, recalculating, she’ll take backroads around it. I suspect she was a defiant character even before the polio. After all, she’d been an equestrian rider and had urged many a horse over gates and stone walls.
Watch her get into the ocean. If the sand isn’t too soft, she can get herself to the shore’s edge on her crutches. Another very careful step puts her in ankle-deep water. Now, in one continuous motion, she twists at the waist and flings her crutches behind her onto the beach, then turns back and falls headlong into six inches of water. You must assume her nose isn’t broken because she is already swimming away. The disease left her without the musculature to raise her arms much above her head, so her stroke is weak; she cannot kick her legs, so her progress is slow. But she does move forward without any aid, and she is weightless in the salt water. Both are bliss.
See Mommy drive – only don’t ask me to explain how she does it. She refuses even to try out a handicap-equipped car. Her method involves crossing her legs and wedging an old cookbook ripped in half under the brake. I still don’t understand how this works, but she is a speed demon; a favorite game is testing how fast she can fly through a toll plaza and still hit the toll basket with her quarter.
Observe her driving from Connecticut to the United Nations where she works as a consultant. She wears a nice suit and silk blouse from Paris, and the little car is French – évidemment! – with an open sunroof and no airconditioning. The heat is merciless inside the vehicle. No matter: she has her own method of staying cool. She empties a bottle of water on her head. By the time she pulls her Renault Dauphine into the UN garage her hair and suit will be dry. She has a quick bite in the car before going up to the office. Lunch is in a repurposed yogurt container, one of many littering the car floor. Most are empty, smelling of meals past; the lids are caked in mold. The Dauphine reeks of banana peels and sour ferment. I call it “the scow.”
None of her UNESCO colleagues has any idea that this lovely, gracious, heroic lady travels in a rolling landfill. They don’t see her at home, typing her teaching plans and articles outdoors on the porch – topless. They don’t know that her unusual filing system consists of sticking papers and magazines in old purses and shopping bags piled on the floor around her desk where they are easy to reach. She remembers perfectly what each bag contains. It’s a method doomed to failure; the bags multiply over time, spreading to the walls. As her papers spill into other rooms, she loses track of what she put where.
She dismisses the housekeeper/cook who had labored in vain to dust the piles of papers. To Mom, this means she is finally free of live-in help, after twenty years of dependence on servants and no privacy. She doesn’t need help. Now, to keep the floors clean, she cruises the hall in her wheelchair with two feather dusters tied to the back. Dust collects anyway. My father keeps to his study with an air purifier.
In her sixties she decides to ride a horse again. She has it all figured out. She will ride sidesaddle, which, back when she was young and her legs were strong, she sometimes did for fun. On a sidesaddle the horsewoman hooks one leg over a pommel to stabilize her weight in the center. Mom wants to lash one knee to the pommel for extra security.
Judy Richter, a friend of mine with a horse farm, happens to own a sidesaddle. She can get my mother up in the saddle, but she is worried about the horse part. What will happen to Mom once the horse starts to move? Worse, if it spooks at something, Mom could lose her balance and fall, her leg still attached to the saddle, whereupon the horse gallops off, dragging my helpless mother around the ring like Ben-Hur.
Nonetheless, my compassionate friend is willing to try and fulfill Mom’s dream. To ensure a slow, calm ride Judy chooses her most-trusted, chillest horse and gives it a double dose of tranquilizer before Mom arrives. (Owners often tranquilize their steeds at horse shows so that crowds and sudden noises won’t faze the animals.)
The saddle goes on; the grooms lift my mother onto it. The horse stands passively, lids half-closed, as alert as a junkie. One back hoof is cocked, a sign that the horse is dozing. The men tie Mom’s leg to the pommel. Judy unclips the lead rope from the horse’s bridle and steps away. My mother straightens her back proudly, testing her stability, then takes the reins, clucking to the horse to move forward.
The horse wakes from its reverie. It doesn’t move. Judy gives it a light whack on its backside. The horse sinks to its front knees. We suddenly realize that it is preparing to roll over on its side with my mother tied on top. The thoroughly stoned animal has decided it would be more comfortable nodding out on the ground, unconscious of the rider crushed under its tonnage.
Judy frantically grabs the bridle and jerks the horse’s head up, hollering. Somewhere in its drugged-out brain the horse remembers to obey the smaller animal. It scrambles back on its feet; Mom lurches off balance and is caught by the grooms, who unlash her knee and pull her off.
Mom’s dream will stay dreamt, never to be realized. She of course wants to try again. Nobody offers to help.
She yearns, too, for her own helicopter to park in the backyard; too expensive, alas. Instead she waits for that rotary one-man flying machine – a sort of stool with a pinwheel – that futurists keep saying is just around the corner and soon everyone will have one. Mom will be the first to lift off. Because independence is the great thing. Dependence is the bitter end.
In her seventies she is diagnosed with a brain aneurism. The surgery will be precarious; she may not survive it. In case the worst happens, Mom and Dad say a tearful goodbye in her hospital room the night before the operation. They watch a beautiful sunset bloom outside the window. The color fades slowly; in silence they share this exquisite day’s end, the last of life’s wonders she may ever see.
My father shivers. The window, as usual, is open. Mom must perpetually have air, even the very cold air that flows into the room on this late autumn evening. There’s no use in anyone shutting the window; she will only throw it open again. The air, the sky, the weather – they are breath and freedom.
Dad leaves so I can go in; she wants to see me privately. It’s my turn to stand in the chilly breeze while she exacts a promise from me. She has assigned her medical proxy not to my father but to me. She doesn’t trust anyone else to keep this vow: that, if she survives but is incapacitated in some way, even if she cannot speak but can indicate her desires, I will make sure her will is done and no one else’s. She must have her way in everything that concerns her freedom. If that choice is taken away, then life as she values it is over. I must keep everyone, doctors and family, at bay while she goes her own way.
I promise to protect her independence.
The next morning, after reviewing more tests, the doctors decide the operation is too risky after all. They surmise the aneurysm has been there a long time; perhaps it will never burst. Since she has been living with it unawares until now, she might as well continue, if she can somehow manage to ignore it.
What aneurysm? Mom has no problem forging ahead heedlessly. She drives herself home.
In their seventies, my parents move to a retirement village. Mom installs an endless-current spa pool in their bedroom so she can continue swimming. It’s her lifeline, to keep the circulation flowing in her legs. My parents sleep in a cloud of chlorine, somewhat dissipated by the draft from the window Mom has insistently left open. She now has a snazzy red scooter to replace the wheelchair, and speeds contentedly around the building complex. Once in a while the battery wears out and she must be rescued.
As they enter their eighth decade, Dad starts mentioning that Mom is crazy. He says it good-naturedly, with a helpless shrug, and we the children nod in agreement. We take it to mean she’s eccentric and stubborn; she’s that brand of crazy. This is old news. When we were growing up, Dad would quite often shoot us a secret look behind Mom’s back and point to his head, twirling his finger. He decided long ago in their marriage not to take her seriously, a source of considerable hurt to her because it isolates her. He refuses to engage; instead he tunes her out, stepping aside to let her have her nutty way.
However, it now becomes apparent that the kind of crazy he means is something new. She doesn’t remember what you just told her. In fact, she’s indignant that no one saw fit to inform her of these things. How dare we claim otherwise? She would remember if we’d told her and she knows perfectly well that we didn’t. We tell our father everything, but not her. She feels ignored. Everyone is acting strange.
She’s tired, needs increasingly long naps. But the thrum of the pool’s self-cleaning mechanism in the bedroom keeps her awake. She takes to sleeping on the sofa in the living room. Her scooter rolls over bits of food on the carpet, the sink overflows with dirty dishes; she won’t let the housekeeping staff in anymore. She struggles to write the same article for the UNESCO magazine over and over, in a study piled with papers in plastic bags and purses. She collects her urine in repurposed yogurt containers because it’s too much trouble to transfer herself from scooter to toilet. The containers sometimes spill; often they’re shoved under the furniture and forgotten. The apartment now smells of chlorine and pee.
One winter night, after my father retires to the bed in the pool room, Mom goes to sleep in her usual spot, under a blanket on the sofa. Outside, a huge blizzard rages. Though she has left the windows closed for once, there is plenty of fresh air in the room because she forgot to close the front door and now the frigid wind has blown it wide. Snow hisses in, creating drifts on the carpet. Early the next morning, a maintenance man shoveling the walkway notices the open door. The temperature is freezing inside. He finds my mother fast asleep on the sofa with one leg sticking out from under the blanket. The leg is blue. When he touches it, the flesh is cold as ice.
|Mom: here but not here|
My mother cannot understand why all these hospital doctors are so alarmed. The leg she had exposed to the winter wind and snow while she slept seems fine to her. Since contracting polio when she was twenty-four, she doesn’t have much sensation in her legs anyway. She glances suspiciously at the director of the retirement village – what is that dragon-woman doing here in her hospital room?
The doctors explain that Mom’s leg had been frozen; they were able to thaw the leg, but she just missed requiring amputation. Oh pooh, she says, just release me.
The director tells her that a community van with a wheelchair will come soon to pick her up and take her back to the village. My father hurries to the apartment, taking advantage of Mom’s absence to let the housekeepers in. They clean the place as best they can. But my mother never shows up.
Instead, the van delivers her to the retirement facility’s dementia unit. Deaf to her objections, an aide steers her wheelchair inside; the door clanks shut behind her and locks.
Hysterical, she calls my father from her cell phone, but he is unable to bring her home. The director has blocked him. Though Dad is a law professor, when he originally signed the contract with the retirement village corporation he did not notice the clause that states they have the power to transfer clients into Alzheimer’s care whenever they see fit; the client has no part of that decision, and no recourse. The client has dementia, after all, and so cannot evaluate her state. Thus the managing director makes that call. And clearly my mother has crossed the line. Why, just recently a resident complained that my mother had peed on her scooter right in front of him, while they were talking, and then laughed it off. She’s unruly, contentious, disdains social norms. And now, with Mom’s latest, throwing a door open to a blizzard in her living room, clearly she is a danger to herself. It’s the director’s legal right to lock Mom up where she can’t wander at will.
At will. They have robbed her of it. She calls me in New York, weeping: why is she here? What has she done? She has no memory of her offense, and when I explain their position, she forgets it ten minutes later and I must answer her question all over again. She begs and pleads in a heartbreaking manner: please, get her out, please. They are controlling her.
Be patient, I say, it won’t be long. But you mustn’t make things worse for yourself. Don’t make a fuss, do whatever they say for a couple of days while we work on getting you home.
Nevertheless, even after Dad offers to hire round-the-clock supervisory care to keep Mom in line, the director still refuses to turn his wife over to him. Weeks go by as his attorney wrangles with the director, threatening a lawsuit and adverse publicity. At last an agreement is reached: Mom may go free if my parents pack up and leave the community immediately.
My father moves into a hotel room. My four siblings and I convene there for the crisis. My oldest brother gets busy scoping out other retirement places. Meanwhile, Mom is released. She emerges from the hell of airless incarceration, of having her wishes ignored, of being treated like a recalcitrant child. Where before she was eccentric and forgetful, in just a short time they have made her a lunatic. Her rage is scorching, it spatters on everyone in her vicinity. Out of my way! she snaps. Arms pumping on her chair wheels, racing so fast across the hotel lobby we have to chase after her, she flees us all. She doesn’t know where she’s going except away from everybody. She needs no help! Leave her alone! Where is the god damned pool? She wants to swim!
At last my parents are accepted in a new facility in Boston. The directors there are contrastingly nice. In spite of Mom’s dementia, they will allow her to stay in the assisted-living building with my dad as long as my parents like – to the end of their days, if need be. We hire caregivers for 24-hour shifts. My brother supervises the combining of three units into a spacious apartment, complete with a desk area for my mother to pile up her plastic bags and continue her work.
But she does not calm down. Her fury only increases at finding herself in a totally unfamiliar place. She hates the caregivers – they infuriate her by touching her, cooing, wanting to help her. She does not need help, even though she does. She bites anyone who tries to lift her into the shower. There is a local pool, but she refuses to let people help her in. She loses more muscle mass without that vital exercise. The scooter sits abandoned and she is now confined solely to the wheelchair, except at bedtime when the caregivers endure her yelling and thrashing as they stuff her into a hydraulic sling to lift her into bed.
Nailed on a cross of anger and depression, a thorned crown of confusion encircling her head, Mom fights on for freedom. Her physician prescribes anti-depressants and a strong anti-psychotic. She quiets down, stops resisting. Steeped in a pharmaceutical miasma, her memory shrivels further. When she speaks, she becomes lost in mid-sentence. When we visit, she tries to keep up her end of a chat with a few stock phrases, the most common being: “Not particularly.”
But she always recognizes us, her children, and her face lights up when we drop by. And every time, at the sight of her, I drown in guilt.
I did not keep my promise to her. Her existence has become everything she most dreaded: she is fettered and caged, at the mercy of her jailors, and her will is broken. Ten years before, I had vowed to ensure she could rule her life to the end, that her choices would prevail and her wants be heard and honored. But when the moment came to defend her, I found it impossible. When we made the pact, we had both imagined a stroke or some physical impairment might subject her to the will of others. We had not envisioned a mental catastrophe like dementia: that her mind might betray her, and when she insisted on her own way it would be the wrong way. That she would drive, as she did once, on a one-lane high-speed thruway transition road and suddenly come to a dead stop, pausing to figure out if she’d taken the right turn, ignoring all the cars screeching behind her. That her will, the very core of her personality, would become her enemy.
Dad parks her wheelchair in front of the TV most of the day, tuned to the Animal Planet channel. He has no idea if she’s interested in the doings onscreen because the drugs make her unintelligible. In any case, if she doesn’t like watching puppies and crocodiles and killer sharks, she cannot change the channel, turn away or leave the room of her own accord. Every four hours, the next meal is delivered and she is rolled to the dining table. Her arthritic hands are so gnarled she can’t hold a fork. She is fed by helpers, sometimes by me if I’m visiting.
She is aware, even through her stupor, that she is bored to death.
I am unaware, as I view her with sorrow and self-recrimination, that the day will arrive when I will get another chance to make good on my promise: to free her.
My father rarely leaves my mother’s side, planted in his recliner next to her wheelchair and reading the newspaper while she faces the TV. This would be a remarkable display of devotion except he doesn’t talk to her. He assumes, as others do, that her mind has retreated into gray mists and she is incapable of real conversation.
It’s true she cannot initiate a conversation, and if someone questions her, the response sputters into incoherence after a few words and she gives up, marooned in uncertainty. Thus she has little interchange except for hovering caretakers, strangers who want to know if she is ready for a snack into which her meds have been crushed, and when she replies her two default words “Not particularly,” they do whatever they want with her anyway. Being inert is one thing, but being ignored must carve a deep wound in her spirit, or so I imagine.
I’m told that Alzheimer’s patients sometimes respond to music from their youth. I buy a Best of Fred Astaire CD. She must have been a teenager when his star rose. I play “Cheek To Cheek,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Night and Day”…and suddenly she’s beaming with happiness, swaying her head. What else does she remember from those years? Excited, I drag out the scrapbook my grandmother kept for her, photos and mementos from babyhood to wedding.
|From the scrapbook: Mom and younger sister in Lake Forest with governess|
As I point to pictures of her childhood home in Lake Forest, Illinois, she becomes animated. “Yes…yes…” she flicks her tongue between her teeth, searching for more words. Photos of horses, report cards, debutante balls, trips to Europe. Everywhere she’s on the move: riding, diving, skiing, running with a basketball.
The next time I visit from New York, she has forgotten everything, so I can open the scrapbook and she will have the pleasure of recognition all over again. One day we come upon the letter from her headmistress commending her for her recitation of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus.” I’ve never read the poem; out of curiosity, I find it on the Internet. Reading the lines to her, when I reach “…Til thou at length are free/ Leaving thine outgrown shell…” I fight back tears as I realize the poem is about the soul leaving the shell of the physical world for the heavenly one. And then I look up to see that Mom’s lips are moving. She has been shaping the words as I was reading, and although I have stopped, she silently finishes the line: “…By life’s unresting sea.”
So she remembers this long-ago poem. She is reachable, more than I knew.
The scrapbook becomes a portal, a passage to communication. Once she is on sure territory, that small island in the brain where her youthful past still lives, she regains more words and longer thoughts. Even fragments of French surface, because she learned it in her childhood. We can hold a conversation now, though I must be careful to ask short, simple questions requiring only one- or two-word answers.
My parents have only been in the new retirement home for a couple of years when I get a call from their nurse-practitioner, who reports that for the past three days Mom has refused both food and liquids. She has stubbornly locked her jaw. Short of prying her mouth open by force or inserting a food peg, there is nothing to prevent my mother from starving to death. Since I hold the medical proxy, I must decide whether to take steps to prolong her life or to request hospice care.
Hospice, I reply without hesitation. Back when Mom’s mind was clear, she had been unequivocal: if she is dying, she wants no interference to keep her alive. But now that her mind is confused, does she really understand that her choice not to eat will result in her death? Does she intend it? I will have to find out somehow.
When I arrive in Boston, I find the hospice nurses setting up camp in Mom’s bedroom. My father is freaking out: “She’s committing suicide!” He can’t stop her; she has turned the tables and holds all the power now. Propped up in her hospital bed, Mom ignores him, her mouth clamped shut, treating him to her silence. Since she refused to ingest her meds, it seems her anger has returned. Her mind, too, is sharper.
When she spots me, she smiles. Everyone leaves the room so we can visit. I sit on the bed beside her and begin by chatting about family news, mentioning all five of her children’s names. She still knows us all and takes happiness from hearing about our lives. “Really?” she says, and, “I didn’t know that.” Her tongue taps around her dry mouth searching for moisture; after four days without water, there is not enough saliva anymore. She allows me to moisten the inside of her cheeks with a lemon-flavored swab the nurses provide me. There’s a cup of applesauce at her bedside. They still urge her to eat now and then, in case her resolve has weakened or she has forgotten why she’s resisting in the first place.
“Would you like some applesauce?” I ask. She shakes her head.
“I have to ask now, do you want to live?”
“Not particularly.” This phrase is meaningless; it’s what she always says when she doesn’t know what to say. Her eyes travel over me sadly. Maybe, now that I’m in her presence, she realizes she’ll be leaving her children behind. Maybe she will change course.
“You know, this is what your mother did. She made herself die on purpose.”
“She did?” This event belongs to the part of the past Mom doesn’t remember. Her elderly mother had a series of strokes. After each, she was confined to bed. Every time, by grit and persistence, Grandma recovered enough to go for walks. The last stroke, however, incapacitated her to the extent that she would never regain her feet.
“Yes, when she knew she’d never walk again. So she started to cough – deliberately. She knew if she kept it up she’d make herself sick. Day and night she coughed, until she got pneumonia, went to the hospital and died.”
“Well!” says my mother. “That worked out well.”
I’m staggered by this remark: a cogent sentence, complete with humor, as if the dementia has briefly lifted. My mother is back. I must press on, before the fog returns.
“Would you like some water?”
She shakes her head, pressing her lips together.
“Let me understand. You won’t eat, you won’t drink. You mean to die. You’re not in charge of your life, so you want to be in charge of your death.”
“Right!” She utters this one word with such venom that I know without a doubt she understands her choice and its consequences perfectly; she’s fed up with existing in a world that has piled up impediments until she is choked by life’s limitations. And now she is setting her jaw against further indignity.
Mom always finds a way. This time it is the way out.
“Then I’m going to let you do it.” I stand up to leave. “I’ll call everyone to come say goodbye to you.”
On the morning of the fifth day of her fast, when my siblings are due to arrive, Mom shocks the caregivers by uttering a full sentence requesting a shower. This one time she doesn’t fight them off, and when they dress her up afterwards she submits eagerly. By the time my sister and three brothers walk in, she is sitting up in bed, bright-eyed and overjoyed to see us all arrayed before her. She does not seem at all like a person who is busy dying. She even consents to drink a little juice when my elder brother holds the straw to her mouth.
In fact, my siblings wonder if this has been a false alarm and Mom is making a comeback. They want to encourage her. My sister brilliantly proposes throwing Mom a party. Mom has no awareness of dates so we’ll pretend it’s her 87th birthday, even though it’s still two days off. A cake is hastily procured and, when our mother wakes from her afternoon nap, it is to our happy faces and candles alight in chocolate frosting. “Happy birthday, dear Mom, happy birthday to you!”
She says little, but her delight glows. She sips more liquid, as well as, astoundingly, a small bite of cake. My brothers and sister each spend tender moments with her, and then one by one they disperse. They hope that their goodbyes are premature, that Mom has rallied.
But when the last of her children has left, she closes her eyes, and her mouth clamps shut, never to receive sustenance again.
I stay on, maintaining my vigil. The nurses give us privacy, instructing me how to administer morphine. Another day wears on. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and it is difficult to tell anymore if she is awake or not because she is so quiet. Sometimes she groans, whether from pain or a bad dream; sometimes her eyelids lift. I play the Fred Astaire CD again and again, alternating with The Messiah, which she also loved: sublime songs of birth and death and resurrection.
I believe that awareness is not dependent on the senses, and when people seem comatose they can still absorb thought and emotions from another person. They occupy a plane where communication is intuitive and vibrational. Whether I am wrong or right, whether she can hear me or not, I talk to my mother, or read to her from children’s books whose sentences are short and simple. Dad wanders in now and then, at a loss for words, and kisses her forehead.
On the sixth day, the doctor reports her vital signs are still quite good. She is still lashed to the saddle, holding firmly to life. After a week, I am yearning for my family; I decide to drive home the next morning, grab a quick overnight in New York before returning to her bedside. But, for the present, another day stretches before us. The nurses keep shutting the window against the January air; I keep opening it, on her behalf. As I turn back to the figure stretched out on the bed, I muse what a terrible burden her body has been for most of her existence, and now how heavy it must seem, and hard to slough.
I wish she could feel weightlessly light, as in salt water, and swim to freedom. An idea comes to me. I decide impulsively to try a guided meditation. “Mom, let’s go somewhere away from this bed.” No response, but no matter: I’m going to wing it.
I begin, “You’re on a beach, standing at the edge of the ocean. The water is clear and calm and warmed by the sun. You can feel the sand between your toes; the little waves tickle your ankles. You’re ready to swim. You wade out and let yourself slip into the water. It feels like silk on your skin and it holds you up because it’s salty. You make circling motions with your arms, pulling yourself slowly through the water. You start kicking your legs to go faster, because your body is whole and strong and you can swim as far and as long as you like, farther and farther from land. You’re no longer stuck in this room, you are completely free, you belong to the water and you are safe because the water will always hold you up.”
I pause, hearing her covers rustle. Her shoulders move a little. Then her hands shift on the sheet. The movement is slight but she is plainly tracing circles with her arms. The moment doesn’t last long, but I am certain now that she’s with me, gliding through water.
After she swims for a while, I take her riding. She walks into a wildflower meadow, where a bay horse is waiting. He’s so gentle that she doesn’t need a saddle or bridle. She finds a rock to stand on and pulls herself onto his back, which is broad and comfortable, and his coppery coat shines in the sunlight. She nudges his flank with her bare heels and he breaks into a lope as easy and restful as a porch swing. She can hold onto his black mane and he’ll go wherever she wishes.
My father knocks on the door; lunch is delivered in the next room.
After eating, I return to Mom’s bedside and we go on another trip. In this one she learns to fly. This requires no strength; she only has to will it. If she wants to lift off, she can, into the fresh air, to soar and swoop, and travel wherever she wishes.
Later, following dinner with Dad, there’s time to take one more trip with her.
It’s summer. She’s standing in grass, looking up at wispy clouds in the sky. One of them detaches from the rest and floats down to where she is. She lies down in its cool, dense vapor, and it bears her into the sky. “This time,” I caution her, “it’s important that you let go of your will and let the cloud have its way.”
The cloud carries her over all the splendors of the world below. At last she comes to Lake Forest and the house where she grew up. The cloud floats her to the front door. When she opens the door, stepping into the hall, she moves through the house and all the rooms she remembers. She can see her mother and father sitting in the parlor, the cook in the kitchen, and climbing the stairs she walks down the hall; the wood floor is so long and polished so smooth she used to have rollerskate races with her sister and two brothers up and down its length.
She ends up in the nursery where the governess is bustling around. “In the nursery is a fireplace. You float up the chimney, and you pop out on the roof, and there your cloud is waiting. Lie down and let it lift you back into the sky. The sun is setting, and the cloud reflects pink and gold and then mauve as the light dims and the stars come out in the twilight, and this is where your cloud stops. You lie on your back looking up at the sky turning to night. You are like the cloud, airy and light. You’re not sealed in this body anymore: you are among the stars and you’re perfectly, perfectly free.”
I end here, dazed as if jet-lagged from our travels, and wondering where all that impromptu narrative came from. It’s time to leave, a thirty-minute drive to the friend’s house where I’m staying. I lean down and whisper to my mother, “I have to go back to New York tomorrow but I’ll be back the next day, and the doctor says you’re strong enough to hang on. But if you decide not to, it’s okay. You’ll be gone but not gone. You’ll be here but not here. And we’ll be all right.” I kiss her goodbye.
In my friend’s guest room, I set my cell phone alarm for 6 a.m. so I can get an early start for the drive home. Hours later, I’m still sleeping off my exhaustion when I sink into this dream: I enter my mother’s sickroom at the retirement facility. It’s empty. Everything has been cleared out. I’m bewildered: why? It’s too soon for that. I look through the open door into the adjoining room. My mother’s mattress is on the floor and she’s sitting up in bed. She looks younger, about 40, blonde again, her hair no longer white. She grins, waving at me: I’m fine.
When I wake up, I’m surprised to find my bedroom full of daylight. Grabbing my phone, I see the time is 7:30. I’ve slept through my phone alarm and missed a call from the night nurse. I listen to her voicemail message: my mother has died.
The call came in a few hours before, around the time I was dreaming of finding Mom in the next room, sitting on her padded cloud, her wave and her smile. She has managed to die on the day of her real birthday.
She visits me twice again over the next two nights. In each dream she is younger. The last is brief, only a glimpse. She crosses a large vestibule, swinging her arms as she walks briskly and with purpose. She looks about 16, tanned and golden-haired in a bright lavender dress, incandescent, spirited, fresh. Her athletic stride carries her too fast for me to intercept her, and before I know it she has disappeared behind a screen and out of sight.
|Mom and I: facing the final swim together. Photo © Mariana Cook 2002||P|
This memoir, a very long ghost story that is now ending, began with my first phantom encounter back in 1974. The year before, I’d won an Oscar for best documentary feature, but recognized that female directors seeking a spot in the film business faced high walls and deep moats. Turning about, I parlayed my five minutes of fame into a recording contract as a singer-songwriter with RCA, which issued my first two albums. Working late into the nights, I spun my music on a gleaming mahogany grand piano that had belonged to my paternal grandfather, a composer who died when I was 7. Though exhausted by the time I collapsed into bed, my sleep was troubled. I was woken by odd inexplicable noises, or someone gently stroking my hair, or impatiently yanking my toes.
I had come down with a ghost. This might as well have been an illness, as nonbelievers believed. Nowadays I don’t care what they believe, but in those latter times I hid my problem, being unsure myself if I’d made the leap from mere weirdo to psycho.
It was when the music came that I knew who my ghost was: my grandfather Marshall, the composer who wasn’t done composing. In me he had a pair of hands on his piano. In me he also had a temperamental granddaughter who hated authority and disliked taking orders, especially from ectoplasm. I was easier to coax when in a vulnerable state: asleep. In the blue hour between night and dawn, between dreaming and waking, I would receive brief bits of melody and lyrics, repeating over and over, with the silent directive Remember this. In the morning, before the memory dissolved, I would pick out the tune on the piano and set to work on the new song. Though I had received the music fragments from my unseen houseguest, I went my own way with them, because that was the only arrangement I would accept.
Before long I put a stop to working with a collaborator, which has never suited me; I do not play well with others, alive or dead. Marshall stuck around anyway, showing an unsettling interest in my sex life and substance abuse. I received messages and warnings. His best trick was breaking glass: lightbulbs, ashtrays, picture windows. (That was his roguish side. I did not appreciate having to sweep up.) Although our relationship was sometimes contentious, I grew fond of Marshall, feeling I wasn’t alone, that he was always there to talk to out loud. I had a protector.
More, he opened the world wider than I thought possible. It was made up of more than meat, twigs, fire and stone, more than dirt and rain, the tangibles. The overlaid world of Spirit came into focus, as when we shift our vision to see the limpid shapes like protozoa that constantly drift by in the fluid over our eyeballs. I wanted to know, if a ghost was real, what else was true?
Until this memoir, I’ve told very few people about my adventures in the ethereal, which have continued up to the present. Readers now know of my wrestling horny poltergeists in Morocco, my jiffy exorcism in Haiti; my struggles with the demon Harvey Weinstein. They’ve followed my drug-fueled escapades with Harry Nilsson and John Lennon, and later, my lessons from Harry’s ghost. They’ve read about the making of my two documentaries, one about a faithless preacher on the evangelical circuit, the other about an American dervish channeling the music of a nonexistent land; and the winning of Academy Awards for both. They know about my rescue by a mysterious dog in the Andes. I have been rebirthed on a bed in a West Hollywood hotel; have received an infilling of pure Spirit while in trance; explored the mysterious act of creation and co-creation; stood awestruck in the weather of rampant divinity.
The one constant was Marshall, although he disappeared from my life for a few years while I got married and dove into motherhood. I was happy, no longer needing Grandpa’s protection and guidance. I reckoned his mission was done and he’d gone to glory. He was not a ghost in the sense of being trapped in a state neither here nor there; he was not unaware of being dead, or unable to locate the exit. He could freely come and go, and for a long time he went. I was busy on earth and he was busy in eternity.
Marshall may have been content with not being needed but he didn’t like to be forgotten. Ghosts’ backs are never turned to us. They don’t have backs, for one thing, being disembodied. When they show themselves to mortals, they conceive and project their forms from their habitat in the great consciousness that infuses everything. Since they are blended into this limitless awareness, they can be everywhere at once. Marshall had accompanied me all over the world, until he withdrew.
He chose to stage his comeback on Martha’s Vineyard.
|The Big House|
When our daughter was a toddler, we started spending summers in Marshall’s beloved beach house. The “Big House” as we called it, two stories and six bedrooms plus servants’ quarters, stood on a low bluff above the ocean. In the 80’s, my parents built the one-story “Little House” next door, which was better suited to my handicapped mother’s crutches and scooter.
My husband and I slept in the master bedroom of the Big House. Marshall’s furniture still adorned the room, and when I stood at the bureau I pictured him there, attired for a night on the town, mustache freshly trimmed and cufflinks fastened, lifting a snifter of brandy to his lips and glancing at his image in the bureau mirror in time to catch his look of surprise before he collapsed to the floor and died. I saw the glass fragments scattered in the pool of brandy.
Marshall’s return to form started with doors opening by themselves, lights blinking – innocuous stuff. Then one night I lugged some groceries from my car to the servants’ entrance. The flagstone path was lit by a bare bulb mounted under the eaves. Suddenly the bulb leapt from its fixture and crashed into smithereens at my feet.
“Marshall!” I yelped. Who else? A lightbulb does not unscrew itself and launch five feet. It took me an hour with a dry vac to get all the sharp pieces out of the grass where children ran barefoot.
Many summers passed, my parents’ health deteriorated, and they no longer came to the Little House. Needing money for their care, my siblings put me in charge of renting out the Big House for the whole summer to strangers. Of necessity my husband, daughter and I transferred our effects to the Little House. On two occasions Marshall manifested to the renters so I knew he wasn’t done lurking. Over at the Little House, I rather missed him. So he exploded a lightbulb there, too.
My husband woke abruptly one night to the sound of a mysterious pop! He got up to investigate the other rooms but found no cause of the crash. In the morning I went outside and discovered myriad glass fragments littering the ground under a lantern fixture The light had been off all night so there was no question of overheating or faulty wiring. As I fetched the dustpan, my husband, who had never been fully convinced of this ghost business, shook his head and sighed: “Marshall.”
I don’t mind the shout-outs. I do mind the clean-up.
After my parents’ death, we bought the Little House. The Big House, too expensive to maintain, was sold. Its new owner loved the property, with its widescreen panorama of Nantucket Sound. He did not like the house, with its too-small rooms, filthy attic, and schizoid plumbing. My elder brother and I cleaned out its contents before it was due to be torn down. I wondered why the old place seemed so passive about its fate. Strolling through its empty halls, I asked Marshall why he hadn’t simply scared off the buyer, as I knew he was capable of doing. Didn’t he want his cherished home to endure?
The answer came immediately, and not from Marshall but from the house itself. Here is what it had to say:
The Big House was meant for our family alone, the generations that stemmed from Marshall’s seed. The house had watched over his descendants, and they were now departing. New families with irrelevant bloodlines were at the door. With the Kernochans gone, the Big House preferred to end: its story was told, and whatever it had to teach had been taught.
It was an answer I could accept. It gave me the fortitude I needed to stand over the horrifying oblong cavity in the ground after the demolitionists had left.
|The Big House gone|
The Big House is gone, in the way of earthly things. The ocean remains, a reminder of eternity.
The new owner has built a very large house, the Bigger House; his family only uses it for a few weeks every year, so peace reigns as before. Next door, on the other side of some woods, we have remodeled the Little House so it’s a Little Big. Our daughter has become a writer, like my husband and I; sometimes we three write all day, in different rooms but with the same view of the sea.
When alone, I still talk to Marshall, particularly to thank him for our beautiful spot. I still demand out loud for him to return objects gone mysteriously missing. His portrait hangs over my piano, and his war medals and baby picture hang in the entry. He can’t complain he’s forgotten.
He knows I am ending this story, but it is not done. He made that clear a few nights ago, when he began again at the beginning. Asleep in our bedroom in New York, in the lacuna between dreaming and waking, I received a short 10-note melody. Remember this. I played it back again and again while I struggled to lock the sequence in memory – whole step up, then up a half step, then down a sixth, key of F, never resolves…But my memory is not what it was, and the tune kept slipping away. I forced myself to wake up so I could set it down. Stumbling past the clock reading 5:30, I went to my study and sang the tune into my iPhone, then returned to bed and sank back into sleep.
Upon waking at eight, I couldn’t recall the fragment and at first didn’t even remember that I’d received it. When I checked my phone for emails I saw it was set on audio and had recorded something. I heard my sleep-furred voice faintly dah-dah-dahing a ten-note passage. Turning on my electric keyboard, which I hadn’t touched in years, I picked out the melody. Chords were next, and soon I was working again, as I had in 1974.
I like my grandfather’s tune, and I’m pretty sure where to go with it. I should be doing other more pressing things with my time, but an assignment is an assignment, and he will not let me go.
Back in the day, I stopped Marshall from channeling any more music for the sake of my sanity. Since then, I have shed all doubt for belief. I am grateful for my ghost: he made belief unavoidable, and I’d rather not conjecture what my life would be without it. Once you accept the afterlife, belief expands past the border of death into a welcoming stratosphere that throbs with energy. I’m looking forward to passing away. The adventure will continue, and being incorporeal will be so cool.
Thus I owe my spiritual fortune to my persistent companion, my grandfather, born 1880, a pampered only child, World War I veteran, a composer of songs, a music publisher, a mischievous wit, a remote husband; and a dedicated Freemason. Embracing the mysticism of that occult brotherhood, he came to believe in eternal life, in spiritual bonds lasting beyond death. And then his own death came: Marshall Rutgers Kernochan lay near a pool of brandy and broken glass, his body deceased and his spirit rushing ecstatically toward the eternity he always believed, he knew, awaited.
I know he will be there, offering an aperitif, when I pass over: the moment when I leave to arrive, when goodbye overlaps hello. I will receive the glass, unbroken, from his hand.