Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Tip of Secrets

 Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

  “Talmadge could be a contrary bastard,” Uncle Dulith says that day at the reunion, chasing peas around his plate with his fork, his smile the tip of secrets. “Lord knows we had our scrapes.”
   Surely, battles when they are younger, always an undercurrent of animosity now, an unspoken carefulness when around each other at dove or squirrel hunts on the land in Mississippi where the Cothern boys roam while growing up. My father the oldest, Dulith the third son, it is the resentment of sibling rivalry carried into adulthood. The times they seem comfortable and laugh easily about the time Papa Cothern kills 27 roosting doves with one shot or the time they find his stash of homebrew and lift a few bottles, those brief moments when unguarded are always a surprise.
   My father, married with two sons at the time, never serves in the armed forces like his younger brothers. Perhaps part of the undercurrent is Dulith returning from the Navy to hugs and kisses, war stories to tell his big brother, his scars to prove he has done his part, and his oldest brother’s, too, who knows?
   Pulled from sleep and dressing quickly, shoes on without socks, too young to be left alone in the house, I know about a fist-fight between Uncle Dulith and my father during a fishing trip because I ride with my mother late one night to pick up my father. He is standing outside of a bar and steps from the shadows and passes through neon colors when we pull into the gravel parking lot.
   My father gets into the passenger side of the Kaiser, leaning toward my mother and showing her a wound behind his ear.
   Can you tell if it’s still bleeding?
   Sitting in the back seat—afraid to move and afraid because my father’s voice is so worried, I imagine my father has been in a fight in the bar, has lost, checking his wounds in the shadows, ear bleeding, waiting until we arrive.
   Is whoever beat him up still around?

   The next day my mother calls Dulith and I hang around the kitchen listening to the seriousness in her voice.
   What happened, Dulith?
   Hmm-hunh . . .
   Hmm-hunh . . .
   Not too bad.
   I wanted to know.
   After hanging up and sitting there a moment, my mother presses her lips together. I ask what happened.
   You know your father and his drinking. Him and his nya-nyaing. Uncle Dulith knocked him out of the boat.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Violent Chess

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

   Down there, below the hospital window, two streets over from Bernardo, Bill Leet lives on Wabash, near Coco Lumber Company, where among the lumber bins thousands of secret passages exist for nighttime forays: seeing how close we can sneak up to the nightwatchman, Charlie, before he discovers us; retrieving the softest wood from the scrap pile and whittling rifles and Tommy Guns for games of War, swords for stabbing the yielding trunks of banana trees, crumpling the large leaves with a single stroke; if they are out of favor with us, spying from woodpiles on Jimmy Thompson and his brother Dan (who failed an early grade and is only a year ahead of us). It is behind Bill’s house, on Park Hills, where the field lined with four oaks serves as our most serious playground. Nighttime Molatoff Cocktails (blame Jimmy for those) exploding among abandoned Christmas trees, all in the name of Battleground and Battle Cry and Battle of the Coral Sea, tend to bring adults and cops so we mostly keep to football, bloodying each other if we hit hard enough, always the dirt on jeans and shirts Glory Mud. Skills honed there serve us well when we play football for Bernard Terrace Elementary in the 5th and 6th grades.

   Dan Thompson talks the coach into letting me on the team after I am sick and miss tryouts. No more practice uniforms are available so I borrow pants, jersey, and helmet from friends. No shoes, most playing barefooted. I am fast if nothing else and shortly become the starting Wingback in the Single Wing formation that the Bernard Terrace Panthers utilize. We win more games than we lose, beating neighborhood friends who play for the Dufrocq Ducks. I am hell on the reverse. Ball centered to Dan at fullback instead of the quarterback, a few steps forward like he is plowing into the line, turning and handing off to me, flying around the left end, the joy of yardage gained like an elixir. It is my first taste of attention from schoolmates I don’t know. (Later it is the laughs I get at rehearsal as a smartass Wise Man in the Christmas Pageant who slyly puts his crooked staff between his legs and aims it at Mary Toups, the perfect Virgin Mary every boy in school is in love with.)
   The following year, using the T-formation, joined by classmates on the first string, the Panthers go undefeated. Bill Leet is the starting fullback and punter, coming up to me during one pregame warmup for a strategy session, asking if he should practice his punts, giving away his punting distance to the other team. I play right end and the end reverse still works. In a Jamboree game at Memorial Stadium we run the reverse five times and then Bill fakes the handoff and half of the other unblocked team comes charging through the line to smear me for a loss; just before they do I show empty hands and we all turn and watch as Bill weaves his way downfield. I run for a long touchdown but it is called back and the shortened game ends scoreless. The rest of the games we win, many of the players going on to play junior high and high school ball. Although we go out for practice in the 7th grade a few times, Bill and I discover DRAMA, realizing football practice takes place at the same time as rehearsal, girls without pom-poms more plentiful around the stage, recognition coming without battering heads and bruising bodies.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blood Kin: The Wilsons

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.
   My great grandmother, Jemima Byrd, marries two men named Wilson.
   She has five children—four of them daughters—with Lorenzo Wilson, who fights with Company C, 8th Mississippi, and later dies on New Year’s Eve in 1864 as a prisoner of war at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

   One of the Crane boys was in the war with Lorenzo and all Jemima ever knew was the message he brought back. Crane told her, said along around Vicksburg somewhere, Lorenzo sat down and Crane told him come on let’s go. Lorenzo said I’m sick, can’t go no further. Crane said the Yankees gonna git you. And Lorenzo said I can’t help it if they do. I can’t make it no further. That was the last she ever heard about her husband. She never did again ever know anything about what happened to him. In the later years after all the grandchildren were grown and gone, Jessie Wilson, the youngest one of Uncle Frank’s boys, got interested in knowing something about his granddaddy and he wrote to the war department and it wasn’t long until he found out where he was at. I guess he was captured and carried to Illinois and buried there. ---Jimmy Wilson, age 82.

   My mother’s brother, Uncle Jimmy, in relating the story of Lorenzo on a hot summer afternoon in 1980 on the back patio in Walker, Louisiana, has it wrong about where the capture of Lorenzo takes place. Civil War records say he is taken prisoner on Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, on November 25th, 1863, a sunny afternoon when the Army of the Cumberland is ordered to take the rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. After capturing the rifle pits as ordered, the advance turns into a rampage without orders that does not stop until the rugged terrain ends at the top of the ridge. It is reported that Grant, watching the charge, says something to the effect, Who the fuck ordered those troops up the ridge? The Confederate troops retreat in panic amid confusing orders; of the 2,000 or so troops that are captured that day, Lorenzo must be one of them, sitting down at one point and telling his buddy, Crane, that he just can’t go on.
   From Missionary Ridge, Lorenzo is transported to Louisville, Kentucky, then in early December to Rock Island, Illinois, where he dies a year later.

   Meanwhile, James A. Wilson, my great grandfather, is married to a woman named Sarah J. Hubbard and they have six children. Not having been captured or killed during the Civil War, little is known about his soldiering days except that he isn’t paid very often. In the only letter to survive the years, dated December 18th, 1864, about the time Lorenzo is on his deathbed in Illinois, my great grandfather tells his son Thomas to be kind to his siblings and obey his mother and never vote for a man who was in favor of the war.
   Later, after Lorenzo dies in prison and Sarah dies however, the hills of Mississippi alive with all those Wilson children, Jemima Byrd Wilson marries James A. Wilson and they have two children: Syrentha, a daughter, born in 1870, and Wiley Jackson, my grandfather, born three years later in 1873.
   Jemima is 19 years younger than James when she marries him after the war. How they meet, if they knew each other before, what kind of hard-scrabble life they have together, most is unknown. Perhaps the difference in ages is an attraction. Or Jemima being drawn to a man named Wilson who survives the war. A marriage of convenience (maybe) because a hard life is better shared. It’s whatever we want it to be, as if looking at shadows imagined into patterns might explain who we are and why we feel the way we do.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Five of Us

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

   My mother once tells my brother Wayne that I caught a lot more hell from my father than either he or Willie did. Oldest brother Willie is out of the house and in the Air Force in Korea at age 17, marrying Marie Reeve from Omaha while he is stationed in Nebraska. Wayne marries Peggy Cole in the late 1950’s, during LSU’s championship football season. There’s no memory of the three Cothern brothers sharing the same room, much less the same bed. Age six or seven when Willie joins up, still there should be one old faded image of how the Cothern boys share space on Bernardo Street. Wayne I remember, pulling the covers off of me while sleeping on his back, clenching sheet and blanket between his arms, wadded material in his hands, under his chin, dreaming of beaches and hula girls, the blanket tenting above him. And those thousands of school mornings we wake to the same whistled reveille. High note, low note, notes in a circle, high note, low note. Again and again until we rouse. Finally, one morning, Wayne sitting up quickly, saying, For Chrissake, Mama, can’t you just wake us up without all that whistling?
   Back then my father doesn’t drink everyday but when he does fears and frustrations and the ashes of anxiety and perhaps lost dreams fill those days with invisible clouds, tension everywhere, falling around us, and like the milk supply and the Strontium-90 scare in the 1950’s, always there, nourishing and insidiously eating away at dem bones, hoo-yeah.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Inheritance of Images

Keeping a journal during all those dark days gave me an outlet, a foundation, something to grab and weather the everyday changes that shaped everything. It was a time of life folding back in on itself, the view from the hospital window of the old neighborhood, the history there, where even Jennifer lived as a child, and the history of the hospital itself, where I was born, where family members had died. Life repeating familiar patterns and doing the best to make memory make some sense of it all—and both memory and events co-existing in the now, both alive and in a dance as one.

   Growing up in Mississippi, my father farms with his father and fights with his brothers, spends money his mother complains about building an automobile from the parts of many, maybe even spending money on film packs for a No. 2 Film Pack Hawk-Eye Camera. Bought for $25, it includes a shoulder strap and leather case and comes loaded with enough film for 100 exposures. When all the exposures are taken, someone, Grandparents or my father or his brothers, Duvaw, Dulith, Kellon, mails the entire camera to Rochester, New York, along with $10 to cover the cost of the new roll of film. Those huge negatives are still stored in the suitcase—some showing Great Grandfather Elijah Cothern, posing with his fiddle, another of the Brister boys, my Grandmother’s brothers, seated outside in a row of chairs, looking uncannily like the Dalton Gang, another one of Great Grandmother Sarah, one arm missing, sitting under a huge pecan tree—a stringy-haired dog blurring as he trots by behind her chair.
   An inheritance of images still piled haphazardly in the suitcase with worn corners. Surely one day the roaches will chew their way into the hoard of negatives and photographs and nest next to those images of grays and stark whites and blacks like smudges of charcoal. All those photographs whose tones have faded like a pile of slippery fish losing their color in an ice chest, still stored in that suitcase like random statements, no doubt curling from the heat, needing to be flattened and then straightened in order of exposure like facts in a story.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pensacola Beach

   Each morning I put up a blue umbrella in the cool white sand before allowing myself a tomato beer. The dampness of my shirt and swimming suit dries as I watch the slow arrival of the people and the red and yellow and pink and green of t-shirts and bathing suits and towels dotting sand and the blue of the Gulf.
   I take photographs as I drink a second tomato beer and continue watching the growing activity on the beach. The old couple from Omaha. The family of rednecks—men who take off shoes and shirts to reveal muscular beer bellies like barrels—their women in one-piece suits with ruffled material from waist to thighs, like fat legs behind a table cloth. They have umbrellas but no chairs, preferring to sit close mornings and evenings on one quilt like massive seals on a rock. Occasionally one or two of the men walk to the edge of the surf like sentries guarding the women. A couple from Louisiana with their young daughter plant their patio umbrella, the white fringe waving in the constant breeze like plastic flags at a car dealership. I drink beer and watch them, the pink of their umbrella joining my own blue one and the gold of the ones from the Hotel Point Breeze. Brightly colored sea mushrooms against blue sky and deeper blue and green of the Gulf.

   The girls on the beach are incredible.
   Long, tall, tanned, hair sun-bleached, most unaware of being photographed.  While thinking about the girls/women I have known, the distinct pictures of each one, moments stilled like photographs caught forever in my mind, the 300mm lens is capturing only framed portions: beads of sweat on upper lips and white grains of sand sticking to long painted fingernails or the brim of a hat shielding a face or the slope of a dark shoulder.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Journal / December 18

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Saturday December 18, 1993

   Back on duty after being sick.
   Jen’s mucus and discharge from her lungs is liquid and abundant when she coughs it up, requiring almost constant suction to get it out of her trach tube. Dee suctions the tube for two days, on her feet, by herself most of those long hours when I am home sick.
   Jen has a small seizure in the middle of the night. The nurses on duty, Maddie and Geoff, chart it and Dee and I become even more watchful.
   Early in the morning, Bill Scott is doing respiration therapy. Still a tremendous amount of mucus. Even after suctioning, Jen is clogged, unable to take much air in, but keeps trying. Jen stiffens, shakes, goes into a grand mal seizure. Full-blown. Her oxygen saturation drops, the machine alarming, pulse rate slowing, her entire body convulsing for four long minutes. Bill uses the hand oxygen pump to keep air going regularly into her lungs. One of the scariest moments of my life. Watching Jen’s face lose color is like my life draining away. Again, like the 6th, when the trach dislodged, Dee and I leave the room for a moment. It’s either that or start screaming to the heavens. The first seizure subsides and then another starts, just as long and violent and scary. Dee’s got her hand. I hold Jen’s leg and keep telling her it is going to be all right, between please God prayers telling her that I know it is scary but just hold on.
   Finally, finally, she quiets.
   Calls to Dr. Baker take hours to be returned. Medication takes hours to get charted, ordered, and finally administered. Like swimming underwater.

   Very emotional, teary day. The doctors have no answers. One suggests maybe Jen has a connective tissue disease, the blood vessels in the brain contracting. What happened to the diagnosis of encephalitis? Do they know? Why a week on BHU before the first spinal tap?
   Anne, a good nurse from Canada, comes in and changes Jen’s position in the bed. Always hard, watching Jen being moved, like a rag doll with no ability to control how her body is shaped.

  A nurse comes in and says Dr. Baker called. The CAT scan is “unremarkable" for brain damage.
  Something good to end this long day. But sitting in the room with the view of the old neighborhood, staring at the photographs Dawn brought days earlier, studying those still vibrant images of Jen smiling, healthy, unselfconsciously laughing, looking for any clue to the ailment, I wonder if these images on the hospital wall will ever join those in the old suitcase, mixing with those captured moments of relatives and friends.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Journal / December 12 / 13

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Sunday December 12, 1993

   Long day's journey.
   Mornings always the toughest; emotions just below the surface. Jen doesn't feel well; fever and lots of deep sleep. Respiration comes every four hours and makes her breath MucaMist, a fog-like mist that helps break up the heavy yellow mucus in her lungs. They also apply percussion--literally pounding with open palm on her right side where the congestion is heaviest.
   Getting ready to leave for a while, Jen opens her eyes wide--like a light switch turned on--but just as quickly the light fades.

Monday December 13, 1993

   Respiration people come and go, some pounding on Jen, some not. Bill Scott does not. Nice guy, grew up around here, same neighborhood, same age. Don't know each other though. Bill is black, probably lived on the other side of North Street, a different world.
   Some of the Respiration Therapists stop the feeding tube in Jen's nose before pounding on her ribs. Some don't. Laurie from Respiration tells me it is contra-indicated to keep feeding while pounding but Dr. Campanella, covering for Stewart, seeing Jen once for two minutes, gives orders to continue the feeding during the percussion. Doctors write orders on top of other orders, giving mixed signals to the nurses who really know the patients and run the place.

   Seeing Jen so thin  is upsetting. So frail. Tall girl, but her arms and legs look even more elongated. She opens her eyes but doesn't make contact. And always the facial contortions, the roving eye movement, me watching that, trying not to think about the virus, the havoc.
   Dr. Rogers breezes in, checks her over, pinches her right hand, and Jen reacts. He takes a pen and runs it on the bottom of both feet. Toes down, good reaction. Toes up, he says, indicates brain lesions. Scheduled MRI tomorrow will hopefully rule some things out.

   Jen's breathing pattern changes in the early evening. Shallow breaths followed by a deep one. She doesn't look distressed though. Oxygen saturation still high. Ask Suzie anyway. She says she will call Laurie in Respiration and have her suction and check things. Jen breaks into a sweat. God, I hope the fever is breaking.

   Earlier, when Laurie from Respiration mentions Campanella's order about not turning off the feeding tube during the percussion, she says she is going to take a specimen of Jen's sputum from her lungs. I tell her Bill Scott took one. "He didn't chart it," she says. I ask if the specimen is in the lab. No answer.
   Typical in health care I'm finding out. Everything happens in slow motion. The right hand not knowing what order the left is writing, charting.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Journal / December 10th / 11th

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Friday December 10, 1993

   Long night.
   Back on the Critical Care floor.
   Dee sleeps a couple of hours. I watch the oxygen and heart monitors. Heart rate 130+ at the highest. Oxygen saturation good throughout. Jen is having facial seizures and they give her 2mg of Valium in case it is the brain seizuring. Dr. Rogers is called to let him know what is going on. EEG scheduled. 12:30 PM and Debbie who is doing the EEG chases me out of the room for an hour. Eat gumbo and a small salad in the hospital cafeteria. Sitting down the hall from Jen's room, reading Social Security, a play we are considering doing at the theatre, I see Debbie leaving the room and follow her as she wheels the machine along the corridor.
   What did the EEG show, Debbie?
   Can't say until it's evaluated by the doctor.
   I'm her father, give me a hint.
   I'm really not allowed to do that.
   Make an exception.
   I'm sorry. Not allowed.
   Bill from Respiration is suctioning Jen when I get back to the room. Jen's face is still contorting. I ask Suzie to have a look and ask her if Debbie said anything about the EEG. She looks at me, says Debbie told her the test showed no seizure. Have to cry, the feelings of helplessness so overwhelming.

   Visitors today: Mom arrives with food; an old theatre friend, Daryl Wedwick, comes by; my brother, Bill, and sister-in-law, Marie; nephew Dennis and his wife, Christy, other sister-in-law, Peggy; Jen's friend, Dawn; friend Nathan and his daughter, Melissa.
   Dr. Rogers comes by during rounds, says there were no seizures and that Jen seems lighter in affect. We take any small gain.

Saturday December 11, 1993

   At the elevator, bump into Campo, the Internal Medicine doctor on BHU. Says he is disappointed Jen is not responsive. Like everyone, shakes his head, says there is no way to tell what will happen.
   Too many visitors yesterday. Even in a coma too much talk becomes chaos and upsets Jen.
   Dr. Campanella does rounds instead of Stewart. Says the same as all the others: no one knows . . . wait, time will tell. All recommend trying to loosen the junk in Jen's lungs, especially on the right side where there is pneumonia.
   Dee dry-shampoos Jen's hair. Jen keeps making faces.
   Dee and I have yet to talk about what the future may be for Jen, for all of us.
   Rita, a nurse from some agency, has to get the Charge Nurse to show her how to use the feeding tube. Doesn't inspire much confidence. The care is alternately very good--Maddie, Suzette, Karen, Suzie--and then spotty on weekends when nurses come in from agencies and other hospitals.
   Dr. Haas, doing rounds for Stewart, comes in and says, "I hear she had a seizure."

  8 PM. Jen has fever. Her face continues to contort, grimacing strangely. Stroke her forehead and talk softly to her. Dawn Knight, one of Jen's best friends who grew up three houses down the street, comes back and brings photographs for the wall, of her and Jen, Jen and Ashleigh and Molly. Great shots of Jen, so pretty and vibrant, and I can't look at them for long.
  May be coming down with something: sinus, upper respiratory infection, something. If so, I won't be able to stay with Jen.
   Please God. Just one minor Christmas miracle.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wonderful Town / Part Three

  There is a last drive back to New York, maybe just two of us this time, Lynn and myself, another half-hearted attempt by me at staying forever, catching a ride with David Cohen, getting stopped again in some small town because David has a CB radio with a whip antenna that is on the same frequency as the local police. Again being let go after questioning David about why he answered some official police communication. That’s the trip after Bill and I have the small apartment, him off to summer stock, me to home and college again, then me back again and him home from a season of stock, the three of us crashing with Martha Devine and Ellen Britt, staying with them for weeks, months, in their two-bedroom apartment on East 77th. Both Martha and Ellen have jobs and knowing we are imposing after a week we clean the apartment completely—sweeping floors and mopping, lining up magazines on the coffee table precisely, flushing toilet and bathtub stains into the East River. When they come in from work and come down the hall, stopping in the living room doorway, after an intake of breath and a quick survey, we are told we can stay as long as we want.
  And I will never forget the green-flecked apothecary bowl filled with Dexedrine and Dexamyl, the nightly parties, staying up for days at a time, people coming and going during the day, night, an endless stream of friends and tenants in the same building, me hooking up with some girl from Brooklyn and being on the roof with her, clothes scattered and the wind moving them over the gravel and tar like whitecaps on a dark sea, her holding a sheet over us, it whipping in the wind also, laughing hysterically while trying to consummate the fun. Speeding days on end and the body giving out, screaming for sleep, lying awake and alert and hurting for hours
  No idea how long it is before the welcome wears thin, before Martha posts a duty roster, rules and regulations about who does what when, the long list igniting deep anger and speeding like wildfire along drug-singed nerves. The image of holding the roster in my hands is there, of sitting down and posting some wild burning-the-bridge takeoff on it, probably saying something to the effect that being called down the hall to service Martha in her room should be rotated like all the other duties. Posting it, packing my bag, having called my mother for bus fare home and being told by her I better use it for that, then a cab ride to the Greyhound Bus Terminal and the long ride home, days later talking to Lynn, who is laughing so hard about Martha’s reaction that I can barely understand him. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wonderful Town / Part Two

  After a semester or two of theatre in college, also armed with theatre experience from Teen Town and BRLT, some work as extras in Alvarez Kelly, a film starring William Holden and Richard Whitmark (with a Saturday serial hero of mine named Don “Red” Berry), thinking there wasn’t much to this minute-at-a-time acting on horses, Bill Leet and I take a long train ride to New York City, sitting up so long in bottom-sprung seats that even the allure of moving north loses some of its glamour.

 We stay on Staten Island in a rambling four-story house with an old friend from Teen Town, Dee Wood, whose father was transferred by Standard Oil to New Jersey. More than accommodating, treating us like family, Dee’s parents, Ruth and Jim Wood, good people, allow Bill and I to come and go at all hours. A half-hour on the small commuter train from Fish Kill to the Staten Island Ferry, a half-hour trip over water, then usually another half-hour on the subway, it takes a while to get use to planning ahead by two hours for job searches and apartment hunting.
 I get an interview for a clerical position at Simon & Schuster, at the division of Pocket Books, and somehow the promising interview is cut short when in answer to a question about my long-term work plans I tell them I want to be a writer. Blank looks—like they’ve never heard of the profession. At the New York State Department of Labor, standing in a long, long line of recent high school graduates, some employment guy comes down the line asking if anyone knows how to type and I am the only one to raise a hand and follow to a room for a typing test.

 If you would please ship 47 loads of A-1 cotton material @ $62.37 per load which would equal a total of $2931.39 (which will count against the balance you owe us of $10,287.39) . . .

  And on and on, calling for all those little-used top row keys which makes my typing test sound like someone has scattered corn over the keyboard for a hungry hunting-and-pecking goose.

 The apartment we finally rent is on West 87th, between Amsterdam and Columbus, a one-room walkup on the 4th floor with a bath and a kitchen we never once cook in. Only a matter of weeks and Bill’s contacts for summer stock come through and Lonnie Chapman is standing in the apartment, saying he is double-parked, so there are quick goodbyes and good luck wishes and suddenly the apartment is quiet, mine, suddenly empty, the unexpected aloneness not bargained for so soon.

 For weeks I stay in the apartment, lacking the drive and even the knowledge on how to become an actor, shielding myself from busy streets, from jostling strangers without apology for sharp elbows and packages swinging like pendulums, from the uncertainty of destination, no direction known other than home. When I do make contact with a few friends from Louisiana, we spend an inordinate amount of time in the Village, hanging around Washington Square and listening to musicians with guitars and open cases collecting a few tossed coins. Once we go to some friend of a friend’s apartment rented by two girls and one keeps disappearing and reappearing in different clothes and doing her best to pretend like she is not modeling them, each outfit more revealing than the last, three of us guys sitting silently on the couch like underage teens at a strip club. Finally, a surprise when I open my mouth.
 You enjoy doing this?
 Modeling for us, showing off.
 What are you talking about?
 You’ve changed clothes six times and then it’s like you’re on a runway.
 It’s my fucking apartment. I can do any damn thing I want.
 People on the sidewalk are still jostling each other, still walking with purpose stamped on their faces.
 Fuck. You had to say something, hunh?
 Let’s go to my place. I’ve got beer.

 My landlady is a woman named Mrs. Mulhman who monitors all the comings and goings of her tenants on the four floors above her. More warden than anything else, she carries keys to all the apartments and uses them for unannounced entry when she hears more than the usual number of shoes echoing in the stairwell. The first raid happens right after the fashion show in the apartment in the Village. Sitting with the two friends from Louisiana, talking about the two girls, if the blonde is prettier, the motive of the brunette dressing and undressing, and Mulhman barges in, the maintenance man trailing behind her like a bodyguard. Surveying the room, she doesn’t see any heroin use going on, but spotting a bent screwdriver on the mantle and going to it, she picks it up, showing it to the maintenance man and asking for verification if it is his missing screwdriver. He nods.
 We found it blocks away on a street.
 I don’t like a lot of strange people in my apartments.
 I thought it was my apartment since I’m paying rent.
 No, it is always my apartment.
 Back and forth for a while then Mrs. Mulhman and the maintenance man leave, taking the bent screwdriver with them.
 I guess she’s going to fingerprint it, one of my friends says.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wonderful Town / Part One

  After graduating from high school, Bill Leet, Lynn Kipp, and I drive straight from Baton Rouge to New York City, some 30 or more hours, stopping only for gas and quickly grabbing snacks and taking bathroom breaks. And that one time, late at night, being stopped for speeding and being asked for the registration papers we don’t have for the borrowed ’57 yellow Plymouth with the transmission push-buttons on the dashboard. A late night call to Joe, Lynn’s friend who owns the car, and the cop sends us on our way with a warning. Arriving so early in the morning, trying to sleep in the car in the parking lot of some business on Staten Island, we still call too early and wake up Dee Wood’s family. Crashing a few days with Dee before renting a two-bedroom flop-suite at the Rex Hotel right off Times Square, it is easy remembering that first night in Manhattan, giddy from lack of sleep, seeing our first Broadway show, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, being amazed at the laughter during this deadly serious play. Two shows a day for two weeks. There’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Zero Mostel who is a big man and floats around the stage; Tovarich without Vivien Leigh, ill or drunk that night, and her understudy getting a standing ovation from a group of her friends close to the stage; Best Foot Forward without Liza Minnelli who at a young age is following in the tradition of Vivien; Enter Laughing, on its last legs with a young and funny Alan Arkin, Bill securing us tickets in the balcony for 95 cents each; Oliver! with sets that moved and catwalks that meet just in time as the characters run from pursuers high above; How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, an impish Robert Morse who gets into his VW in front of the theatre after the show, him thinking we are muggers when we are approaching and knocking on his window and telling him how good he was; Anthony Newley doing his Chaplin routine in Stop the World—I Want to Get Off and me liking it a lot; Bill and Lynn seeing Paul Ford in Never Too Late, me maybe hanging around the city with Dee Wood, no doubt talking about the on-again/off-again romance with the other Dee. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Journal / December 7th, 8th, 9th

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Tuesday December 7, 1993

  Feel like it was Pearl Harbor yesterday. Awake feeling drugged and tired beyond belief. 8:15 AM. I call Dee, asking if she is going to see Jen at the 9 AM visiting time. She is disoriented and makes no sense. Showering and dressing quickly, I get there just in time. There is a note from one of the nurses on the Critical Care floor, Maddie.

  I checked on Jennifer during the night. I hope you both got some rest! I don't know when I'll be back again but I will come to check on Jennifer. I'm praying for all of you.

  Bless that woman. Good-hearted, really cares for her patients, takes losing one personally.

  Anxiety gnaws at me. Visitors are herded into the corridor leading to MICU. Wanting to sprint down the hallway to quickly end the wait, to find out any news, good, bad, Jen's nurse greets me with a slight smile and nod, telling me Jen's temperature is normal.

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Wednesday December 8, 1993

  Dr, Stewart breezes into MICU and leaves without any real acknowledgment. Laurie visits her sister and as soon as she touches Jen's hand and starts talking, Jen's heart rate drops into the 90's. Blood pressure still high. No fever. Hopefully her brain is regulating itself, sending out the best system signals it can at this point. Jen looks better. Color good. But the Respiration Therapist treating her gets concrete-like junk our of her right lung.
  Dr. Moreland checks on Jen during his rounds and I thank him for the other night. He replies that he doesn't deserve an award for his work, what with the trouble with the trach tube. He tells me he lost a daughter about Jen's age, shaking his head, remembering that long ago loss.

Baton Rouge General Hospital
Thursday December 9, 1993

  Jen continues to improve in color. More stable vital signs. See Dr. Moreland, miss Dr. Meador. Dee and I sit in the waiting room down the hall from MICU, waiting, waiting, waiting for Jen to be transferred to room 325. Sitting there, sharing stories with others, concerned parents and friends of other patients, this woman from Hammond starts telling us all about her husband's heart blockages. She's one of those people, poking her listeners with her finger for emphasis, keeping them awake maybe. She has the diagram the doctor gave her showing what her husband's problems are, a marked X where a 99% blockage is in one of his arteries. We tell her why we're waiting, what's wrong with Jen. She says, "My nephew got bit by a mosquito and just died . . . just kept having seizures that kept destroying his brain until he died." She rattles on about her nephew's death and funeral until Dee and I glance at each other, communicating the same thought, that we should tell the woman, With that much blockage where that little X is on the diagram means your husband will croak . . . no chance . . . But nice meeting you and hearing about your nephew's death and funeral.
  On the way home after the visit, the rusty old Lincoln breaks down for the second time in a week. Typical. When you least need something like that.
  Home to rest and change clothes before going back for the next allowed visit, I get a bill in the mail for Jen's one week stay in BHU. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I See By Your Outfit / Part One

Bookseller, actor, theatre owner and producer, author.
Casting director for film, theatre director.
New York actor, writer, teacher in Japan for 28 years.
Software developer
College theatre professors in California and Nebraska.
Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of Creative Writing in Stockholm.
Freelance journalists.
Author and editor of The Advocate in Los Angeles.
Madame Librarian.
Editor and author.
Art historian.

What we become, the artistic, fortunate youths, with an outlet for theatrical adventures in Baton Rouge, all attracted like moths to mates, to peak experiences, a cross section of youth everywhere, the adopted, the verbally and sexually abused, ones unsure of sexual leanings and some who consider themselves aberrations because of it, the over-sheltered girls whose parents consider theatre a playground of the Devil and his Corrupters of morals, the merely directionless with closed avenues everywhere they look, the sad, the shy, the well-adjusted, all banded together as conspirators in the creation of Art, fulfilled and thrilled by their accomplishments, by their sense of belonging.

A hot gym, echoey, an entire wall of windows facing 10th Street, bottom windows opening outward and doing nothing more than serving as an airfoil for the hot breeze flowing along the building, basketball goals on each end, a proscenium stage on one end with barely enough wing space for set pieces and actors waiting for cues. But it is the hardwood firmament from which dreams are launched.

Teen Town Theatre.

A musical every summer. Those without automobiles catch rides on humid summer mornings for a day of building sets and gathering props and sewing costumes and memorizing lines before rehearsal in the afternoon. It is an everyday thing, something to look forward to while other friends the same age hang around swimming pools or cruise neighborhood streets without destination. Two or three plays during the year, catching rides after the last school bell and heading downtown for the same routine and rehearsal in the evening.

In time, shows adding up, crushes unspoken, painful first real romances, facing audiences with learned lines and surviving, thriving, knowing so much is out there to blunt the fear and slowness of growing up, word gets around and some are lying, sneaking to work on shows at TTT, parents somehow finding out about nightly trips to Sammy’s Lounge to hear Nelrose English pounding the keys while older singers around the piano bar are howling out dirty lyrics, congenial booze hounds with upturned faces, teenagers edging closer to the bar, prized bar stools coming open, raising drinks and voices, wise to the world of show tunes and bawdy ballads.

Some nights after rehearsal, long before the interstate, long trips down Highway 90, through small towns with speed zones and neon-lighted bars in gravel parking lots, heading toward New Orleans and the dark mystery of jazz, Alan Jokinen carrying his guitar, looking every bit like Conrad he plays in Bye Bye Birdie, leading us to smoky French Quarter apartments where there are other musicians and girls dressed in black like characters out of experimental plays, apartment doors thrown open to enclosed patios crowded with plants, girls named Sissy and Decky with dark eye shadow and pretty faces who take notice, unexpected twists, night-long romances.

Friday, February 3, 2012


  Below the hospital window, a short block away on the west side of Bernardo Street, on the corner of Park Hills Drive and Florida Boulevard sits the old Kadair's Camera & Records building where many of the photographs in the suitcase were developed. Forty years ago, it is the place to flip through albums of Broadway shows, Slaughter on 10th Avenue with a man posed, knees bent, one arm above his head, the other out to a dark-haired woman doing a dance split on the floor, her short black skirt bunched up around her legs. Stand and peer into glass cases at 35mm cameras with lenses pointing back at you, 8mm movie cameras with windup cranks on the side, the mysterious early Polaroid Land Camera ready to pop up and spit out instant images.
  Kadair's is part of a string of businesses along Florida Boulevard, a few blocks from the sign at South Acadian and Florida that reads:

You Are Now
Florida Boulevard's
Vibrant & Dynamic
Business District!

  Big deal. Ten blocks of squatty buildings stretching to North Foster. Beyond that there are few businesses until later, in the late 1950's, early 60's. Sears Roebuck moves from downtown to further out Florida, then the Bon Marche Shopping Center is built, considered classy but is nothing more than a large strip shopping center. Much later, further out Florida, another shopping center is constructed, this time an honest-to-goodness mall. Kadair's opens a branch store there, at Cortana Mall, and it is there in the 1970's, when the girls are young, the marriage between Dee and myself still fresh, that I go to work selling cameras for the Kadair family, for Howard Kadair, the kid working behind the counter at the original store while I pursue albums and drool over the glass camera cases.
  Looking back, our work ethic reflects the times, when so much of the 1960's still bleeds over into a laissez-faire attitude of the early 70's, a let's-party-because-the-bomb's-still-out-there syndrome. All of us at Kadair's in Cortana are young, some married, most finishing up at LSU, and we don't take shit off of anybody--especially customers who want a 35mm camera but don't know from Instamatic crap. If they are rude, we are also. If nice, hey, we wait on them. When the weather is bad--tornados buzzing about, hurricanes on the coast--the mall is home to real trailer types (as Sarah Reed calls them), folks who know the value of getting out of their tin foil homes, strolling around with fried chicken legs while the storm rages overhead. We have a Cretin-of-the-Week contest and judge the results from Polaroid pictures. Anytime one of us gets a candidate--say, a fat lady with underarm stains and torn stockings or someone with shit on his boots, feathers in his cowboy hat, and rotten teeth, or a kid with a rolled-up t-shirt and lurid tattoos or even a Japanese buying a camera from us--one of the other salesmen without a customer gets out a Polaroid and saunters over on the pretense of testing the camera. Snap. Zip. Watch it develop.
  There are boxes of Polaroids taken of each other posing and goofing off in the storeroom or drinking wine or beer we keep stashed in the refrigerator next to the VPS film. We drive customers crazy by turning the sound up and down on the bank of remote control televisions while they are watching them. The frustrated customers turn and look around, see us engaged in quiet banter, totally unaware of them. The customers turn back to the televisions, the sound magically restored just as their fingers almost touch the volume control. And of course we look at every roll of processed film that comes back from the lab.
  We have regular customers who call themselves professional photographers who shoot housewives in messy bedrooms, posing on the bed in lingerie, their fleshy legs dimpled with fat; giggling teenagers who give themselves away when they drop the film off and whose pictures show Bobby or Jimmy or Eddie driving a convertable with his dick sticking up like a floor-shift; and even one nun who takes pictures of herself in the mirror with her black dress hiked up to reveal a shaved vagina being saved for Jesus. Kadair's lab doesn't discriminate, as Sarah is fond of saying. A shaved vagina is the same as a shot of Ralph and Lulu on vacation at the Grand Canyon.
  When I quit Kadair's, I take some of the best Polaroid shots of the crew there, some of Sarah--standing at the register, ringing out the receipts at closing, one barefoot resting on top of the other, working, smiling, laughter forever caught in her eyes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Marriage / The Early Years

  Dee is always letting herself get talked into crazy-ass things that somehow involve me.
  I still shiver.
  What are their names?
  Juan and Libby. No. Mario and Libby.
  Damn Dee.
  I walk in the house on Parker Street one Friday afternoon, six-pack of beer in one hand, newspaper in the other, see this cake on the dining table.
  "Happy anniversary," I tell her.
  "You're two weeks early. This is for Libby."
  "Libby who?'
  "Libby . . . unh . . . you know, that strange girl I use to work with. I told you all about it."
  "About what?--Libby?"
  "Libby's getting married here."
  "Here? When?"
  "Who the hell is Libby? And why is she getting married here tonight?"
  "You've forgotten. I told you last week."
  "Oh, come on, Dee. I never heard of Libby."
  "I use to work with her. She was here last week, remember? She and Mario needed a place to get married. Her mother drove over from Atlanta."
  "Why us?--here, I mean?"
  "All their friends think they're married."
  "Let me get this straight. There's a wedding . . . here . . . tonight . . . a secret wedding . . . between Mario and Libby, for the benefit of some mother driving over from Atlanta. Why not me as best man?"
  "I knew you'd remember."
  "Wait. Wait a minute. You mean to tell me you've booked a wedding into here with me as best man?"
  "I told you last week. And I mentioned it last night."
  "You did not! If you did, I thought you were going to some wedding. I didn't realize we were taking such an active part in some stranger's happy day."
  "You don't listen to me. That's your problem, Raymond. You don't listen to me. Anyway. Libby came over one afternoon. Told me about her and . . . unh . . . Juan having to get married and all."
  "I thought his name was Mario. I'm listening, I'm listening, you don't have to test me."
  "Mario . . . yeah. Libby said wouldn't it be nice to have it here. What could I say?"
  "Oh, Lord."
  "That's what I said."
  I have added a tie to shirt, jeans, and ragged tennis shoes. Dee, Mario, and Libby are facing me.
  "Mario, this is Raymond, my husband,"
  "Hello," Mario says with a heavy Spanish accent.
  I shake his hand and smile. "A great honor. I was so excited when Dee told me I was going to be best man to a stranger. You want a beer?"
  Mario, the Minister, and me. Dee and Libby are talking in the background.
  "From Mississippi, hunh?" I say to the Minister. "And your first in-home ceremony."
  "Yep, yep. Miss'sip'pi. First time in a house."
  I smile. "Let's all have another beer, hunh?"
  Libby's mother from Atlanta and me.
  "How long have you known . . . unh . . . my future son-in-law?"
  "Unh . . . Mario."
  "Oh. Twenty minutes. You want a beer?"
  The ceremony.
  "Mare-ree-ooh, please say after me-eee . . . Do yuh, Mare-ree-ooh, take this woman to be . . . unh . . . Oh . . . I made a mistake, don't say after me-eee . . ."
  Mario's eyelids drop suspiciously.
  The Minister praying. All heads lowered.
  ". . . and watch over this here fine young couple as they start on their journey through life and all its . . ."
  The telephone rings. Dee hurries to answer it, smiling at me with a shrug as she passes.
  Me. Close Up. Eyes like Bela Lugosi, staring at her throat, loving her madly, wanting to strangle her.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Journal Excerpt / December 6th (last)

 Baton Rouge General Hospital
Monday December 6, 1993

Part Four 

  Dee continues crying, repeating her litany. I can't take this anymore I can't take this anymore I can't take this anymore.
  Suzie emerges from the room to get something from the Nurse's Station, glances at us, at Dee on the floor still sobbing.
  She's okay.
  Suzie helps get Dee to the Nurse's Lounge. Moreland comes in and tells us Jen's trach tube was too long for her, that it was resting against the side of her trachea which caused it to dislodge, and that it was lucky that Suzie was so close, that she did a fine job. He says he will recommend Intensive Care if I insist.
  Things bump along slowly, entirely too long before something is done, Waiting, waiting, for someone from Intensive Care to come get Jen.
  Why the delay?
  Jen's heart rate is 160 and climbing.
  Bitch, curse, scream.
  Two of the nurses decide to take her downstairs.
  The lightbulb goes off again: take total charge, demand things be done more quickly.
  And it works
  We are not allowed into MICU (Monitored Intensive Care Unit). Hard to leave, but a relief knowing it is one nurse, one patient. And, really, it is the best thing for us, too. Limitations reached long ago. Being sent home is a godsend. Becky Horne, a friend, is with us now.
  When did she come?
  The three of us walk down the hall away from MICU, toward the back elevators. Approaching an open doorway, a stack of metal trays falls into the hallway like a felled tree, telescoping into another room. Dr. Rogers, one of the neurologists treating Jennifer, walks up and waits with us at the elevator doors.
  "You have children?' I ask him.
  "Are you going to have children?' Dee finally asks him.
  Rogers smiles, shrugs, shakes his head.
  "Were you ever a child yourself?" Becky asks.
  Smiles, all, battle-weary.
  The door to the elevator opens. Two tall black men in trenchcoats are standing on each side of a gurney with a covered body on it. There is no movement from anyone. The elevator doors slowly close on the tableau.

  Guilty about being home, showered, crawling into bed, sinking into sleep rapidly. It is 12:40 AM. One last call for a report. Linda, Jen's MICU nurse for the night, say Jen's fever has spiked to 103, that she has called Moreland and Meadors, has a cooling blanket coming.
  I slide into sleep helplessly.