Sunday, March 26, 2017

Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams

Michael Keith and his daughters in search of Tennessee Williams.
 Recently my husband and his three grown daughters found themselves in St. Louis for the funeral of Michael's brother, David. The girls' beloved Uncle David was a much-respected theologian and professor, as well as a fine musician.  David played tuba in a symphony, and in the last decade of his life created the Clyde Pickens bluegrass band, named for his father Clyde and the county where he grew up, Pickens, South Carolina. David was 79-years-old when he died and we can all agree that living to the ripe old age of nearly 80 years is yet another accomplishment in a life well-lived.  A funeral is never a pleasant event,  but, as funerals often do, it brought together many far-flung members of a family, and a surprise reunion for Michael and his beloved daughters.
    No one in the group knew much about St. Louis, but Michael recalled that Tennessee Williams was buried there. Somewhere. The beautiful daughters agreed that finding the grave of America's greatest playwright was a perfect way to spend a sunny day in St. Louis. Out came the phones and consultations with Siri, the magical know-it-all who speaks from within the portable phones of the techno-savvy. 
Fifty years ago Michael made his first trip to 
St. Louis for the wedding of his brother David to Sue
David with his axe, the tuba
    This Siri business is quite remarkable to Michael, a guy who refuses to even consider the convenience of carrying a cell phone himself. Instead, he suggests that I recruit Siri on my cell phone and share the convenience with him. This is a real bone of contention in our marriage.  Don't get me started . . .  
Tennessee Williams with author Gore Vidal, among others, in a Manhattan garden in 1948 as his fateful adventure with fame began
 In his book, "Memoirs" Tennessee Williams says he'd specified in his will that he wanted to be cremated and buried at sea in the Gulf of Mexico near the probable location of the bones of Hart Crane. Crane was a favorite poet of Williams who died young (32) by jumping to his death from a boat sailing between Mexico and New York.  Crane took his own life on a day after he'd made sexual advances to a sailor on the boat.  The sailor was offended and beat the poet badly.  This sort of thing happened often enough to Williams, too, and he, no doubt, understood the shame related to being homosexual. But instead of jumping ship, as his favorite poet did, metaphorically that is, Williams saw the voyage through. He persevered, he wrote plays and more plays, and in 1944, "The Glass Menagerie" met with huge acclaim. He was 33-years-old. Overnight the lonely and depressive unknown playwright found fame and fortune. He entered the world of the famous and lived out his life plagued by what he called "the tragedy of success."
Tennessee Williams house. 1431 Duncan Street, Key West
Tennessee, happy, at his home on Duncan Street, circa 1965
   Tennessee Williams had an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Dakin.  Rose was lobotomized in 1937, when lobotomy was used to treat mental illness. She was dependent on full-time care, financed by Tennessee, for the remainder of her life. Dakin, who was 8 years younger, was an attorney who came to his infamous brother's aid in 1969, by having him hospitalized for alcoholism in St. Louis. Dakin also had Tennessee christened in St. Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Key West, as repentance for his sins of blatant homosexuality and generally debauched lifestyle.  Dakin loved the name of the church and Tennessee thought it a great title for a play.
      After Tennessee's death Dakin claimed that the playwright had been murdered. The hows and whys of this intrigue were never quite clear, but Dakin traveled with bodyguards when he attended New Orleans' annual Tennessee Williams Festival, celebrated around the March 26 birthdate of Tennessee Williams. And Dakin always enjoyed being the last link to understanding the playwright's life. He relished the role and claimed himself to be a  "professional brother."  Toward the end of his life Dakin created a bizarre one-man show in which he dressed in drag to portray Blanche Dubois. The show went through various versions, but always ended with the final speech from "Glass Menagerie." 
      In spite of Tennessee's stated wishes, upon his death Dakin had his brother's body transported from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri. There the body laid in state for two days and was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Tennessee's body lies eternally next to his mother, Edwina, and his sister, Rose.  When questioned on the matter, Dakin claimed that his brother's will contained no provision for a burial at sea. He added that he would have ignored it if it had.
Williams family plot in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
     "Tennessee is such a literary personality that his grave should be where people can visit it," Dakin said. "They would have a hard time finding his ashes in the ocean."
     And so, on an unseasonably warm and sunny St. Louis afternoon, the group set out to find the graves of Tennessee Williams and his invalid sister Rose.  Both had once lived on the island of Key West in the not so distant past, a past that seems ever more hazy as this world speeds into a future where the genius of Tennessee Williams sometimes seems all but forgotten.

     And Dakin? He's there too, with Tennessee, Rose, and their mother Edwina.  But there are no words carved into a stone for Dakin, no way of knowing which grave is his. When you enter the Calvary Cemetery and they give you a map with red circles around the more notable denizens, Dakin's grave is not among them.  Why isn't Dakin's gravestone marked? Who can tell us? Maybe someone should ask Siri.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Put Me In Coach

Merle Miller, on left, performing with Bette Midler and the Harlettes
My friend Merle was a back-up singer for Bette Midler.  Bette's trio of singing and dancing dolls was called the Harlettes and as they rehearsed for their first big show, with Bette's piano man and arranger Barry Manilow, Merle, who had never heard Bette, found herself not particularly impressed with the Divine Miss M. She admired the talents and the beauty of her fellow Harlettes, but the singer, this so-called diva destined for stardom, this Bette Midler, was another story. Yes, she was good. Yes, she had good moves.  But, as Merle tells it, "she wasn't all that."  Then came the first concert. It was at Carnegie Hall and the place was packed.  That's when Merle finally understood just what, exactly, she'd become part of.
     "Bette blew the roof off the house," Merle says. "I was so shocked I almost fell over. I realized she didn't use her full voice to rehearse. She only used it to perform. And what a voice it is!" 
    I think Merle was using that story as an analogy -- something about not showing off everything you've got at the first opportunity, or the wisdom of playing your cards close to your vest. Merle was sharing some of her hard-won wisdom with me. But I wasn't hearing that. I was only hearing about Bette Midler and stories of the Harlettes.
    The tales of the great divas resonate for me. I've always wanted to sing, and I have. I played the flute, too. In the 60's, I was the girl who jumped up on stage to sing "Angel Baby" or "Me and Bobby McGee".  In the 70's  I sang Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life" in various saloons around New York.  For a very short time I sang with a band but never got to sing a solo.  Just choruses and a couple of flute riffs. Once I answered an ad for a singer for a band in New York City and came upon a hopeful group of musicians who handed me the sheet music to Van Morris's "Moon Dance" and suggested we start there.  I had never heard the song, certainly had no idea how to sing it -- it was jazz and I was a rocker. The audition was over before I even got my flute out of the case. You try singing "Moon Dance", cold. 
    Then came love. Then came marriage. Then came June with a baby carriage and the happiest, little boy imaginable.
A happy litter drummer boy who grew up to be my darling Miguel.

Miguel, still following the beat
Miguel, a Montessori teacher, rocking with kids and friends
The Band, now disbanded. No back up singers . . . big mistake? Miguel on left looking rock 'n roll-y
Miguel with the beautiful Mia and diva wanna-be mom, June
 He loved music, too!  My son's brain, heart and soul are surely tattooed with the music he fell asleep to, the music he awakened to, and the music we played all day, every day, in the house were he grew up.  We parents were thrilled that we'd received a baby who slept blissfully at any noise level.  When our baby was 4 months old we took him with us to the Opera House in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and snuggled in his little carry-around bed, he slept like a lamb.
    Later, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came on MTV, Miguel would call us to the TV and we dropped whatever we were doing to watch the performance. And later still, when Miguel was too old for the bedtime story, I put a cassette player next to his bed and at bedtime he listened to soft jazz and rock. When the clink of the player sounded, and the music was over, Miguel was asleep. We also frequently listened to "Peter and the Wolf" and Miguel learned to identify the various instruments in the orchestra.
    I once told Miguel that although I didn't like spending my hard-earned money on faddish toys that were quickly tossed aside, I would never deny him a book or a CD. It was a vow my son never forgot. And when he got his first job, he bought me a gift with his first paycheck.  It was the Prince album, "1999".  I remember saying to him "Oh my! This was $20!" and Miguel said to me, "Mom, you're worth it."  A cherished memory.
    It comes as no surprise that Miguel has become a musician/performer.  Music is his passion, his mistress and his reason for getting out of bed every day. At the beginning of his stage career I tried often to show up.  Now, the performances are far too many for me to keep up with. But there's something else, too. When Miguel is singing those old songs, the ones I introduced him to, the Rolling Stones "Miss You", Lou Reed's  "Walk on the Wild Side" or the Temptations  "My Girl, " I want to be up there singing with him, just like in the old, old days of his childhood. Who was there for all those hours of background music and singing along to the radio, or the cassette player, in the car on a thousand miles of car rides?  His mama. That's who.
    One night Miguel and his guitar man Sweet Matthew were performing at Salute on the beach.  It was a breezy night, the air kissed with the familiar mingled scent of the beach and coconut oil. There was a crowd. I sat with friends, sharing antipasto and big chunks of chewy Italian bread when Miguel began to sing Elvis's  "Suspicious Minds," one of our favorites.  Suddenly he said "You know what? I'm gonna get a lady up here who knows all the words to this song."
    A shock of excitement went through my bones like a bolt of lightening. It's happening, I thought. I am going to share the stage with my son, this brilliant boy whose musical talents I have nurtured for over half of my life!  But what of the bread in my mouth and the tables and chairs between me and that coveted place on the stage, next to my own baby? I swallowed the bread and hastily wiped my mouth.  I quickly planned my route to the front of the room.  I sucked in my stomach and pushed out my chest, cleared my throat and prepared to make my move.
    "Jada," Miguel yelled. "Come on up here."
    A tall, lean, tanned blonde beauty hesitantly rose from a chair and tentatively made her way to the stage. Her friends, their friends, cheering her on. Meanwhile, my heart sank. It turned out Jada didn't know the words to the song and didn't even want to be up there. Everyone laughed as Jada mumbled something to Miguel and hurried back to her seat, covering her pretty face with her hands, shaking her head, feigning embarrassment.
    And that was the moment I knew that my role in my son's musical evolution was truly done. And so were my days on the stage and my visions of back-up singing. But I can still dream. And I do.  I so shooby shooby do.
I can do that! (Merle next to Bette, on stage)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Sexual Abuse: Shame and what I wore

Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused? I do. I was in the fifth grade, at a ballroom dance class. I loved that class. The girls dressed in Sunday-best dresses, white anklets and patent leather shoes. The boys wore ties and sports jackets. Mr. Richards taught the basics of ballroom dancing, the box step, the fox trot, and then, my favorite, the cha cha. The class assembled in a circle in the gym, and every few minutes the music would stop and the boys would move on to the next girl in the circle. That way, everyone spent a few minutes ballroom dancing with everyone else.

One day my dance partner was Kenny Brown, a kid who was in the sixth grade but should have been in the seventh. He'd stayed back a grade and was older and bigger than the rest of us. We got into position,  Kenny's right hand on my back, his left hand in mine, and began following Mr. Richard's instructions.  But then Kenny moved his hand from around my back to my front. He rubbed circles on my chest, in the place where my breasts would eventually be, but were not yet.  There was nothing there but bone and ribs. This did not deter Kenny.

Stunned, I pretended not to know what was happening. I looked at Kenny's face for some sign of recognition from him, an explanation of what was going on.  Was I imagining this? Would he burst out laughing? No. I watched Kenny's eyes busily scanning the room, over the top of my head, darting from Mr. Richards to the couples around us, making sure no one saw what was he was doing.  No one did. Then Mr. Richards announced it was time to change partners and Kenny moved on to the next girl in the circle.

I did not tell anyone, but shame dogged me for weeks. I searched my mind a thousand ways, trying to understand my part in the thing, and even wondering whether or not it had truly happened.  I'd looked forward to the afternoons when my mom helped me get ready for dance class, made me as pretty as I could be. But then I felt guilt at making myself so pretty that Kenny had taken it as an invitation to run his hand all over my chest.

What haunted me the most throughout those two weeks until the next dance class was the thought of what I would do or say the next time Kenny was my dance partner. I dreaded that moment every night before I went to sleep. I thought of it when I woke up. I thought about it in school. I considered quitting dance class, but I knew if I did my parents would demand to know why. I had no idea how to tell them.  I feared they wouldn't believe me, or, if they did, I was afraid my father, who was Italian and a bit rougher than most other fathers I knew, would go after Kenny's father and there would be trouble. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to make trouble.

Kenny Brown never came to dance class again. I figured he'd quit. Or maybe he had fondled another girl with far more self-esteem than I, and she'd told her parents.

This all happened more than 50 years ago! Still I recall distinctly the moment when Kenny Brown robbed me of the girlish pleasure of being pretty in a pink party dress, and replaced that sunny innocence with shame. The memory still has the power to make me cry. 

Today, as the dark subject of sexual bullying has become front and center in this shameful and bleak political season that is the presidential race, I am remembering how much that first episode of sexual bullying -- yes, first, there were more to come as my life went on -- hurt me and even changed my feelings about myself, as well as my sense of who I was in relation to boys and men.

Yesterday I took a survey.  I asked every woman I saw: "Do you remember the first time you were sexually abused?" Their responses were nearly the same, every time I asked.  First surprise at the question. Then reflection. Then the answer. 

"Yes, I do."

"Did you tell anyone?" I asked.

"No," was the answer. Every time.

 "Why didn't you tell someone?" I asked.

"Because I thought no one would believe me."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Make Me Move!

Is there any more daunting challenge than placing your home on the market?  Finding a new owner for your house, your home, your shelter, your nurturing boards and batten, is surely at the top of the list of things that make your nerves feel like downed power lines, hissing and snapping wildly on a wet and windy and lonely street.   It feels like being on stage, in a bikini and high heels, in a beauty pageant, flashing a big, phony smile on your face.  It feels like trying to please a lover who is a complete stranger.  Would they like it this way? Or that way? White walls or green?  Blue towels or beige?

We property sellers are advised to wipe our houses clean of our personalities, so that potential buyers may envision themselves living here, with their own chairs and quilts and paintings.  Mementos of living, of children, of friends and many good things that have happened to us, are referred to as "clutter" and "stuff".

First we made many trips to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Then we simply put stuff out on the sidewalk, where it was gratefully carried off by passersby, to furnish their houses and dreams. And so we have stripped our house of anything evocative of our many years in Paradise.  Our house now resembles a hotel room. Practical. Easy in and out. Temporary. Sensible. Just the facts, Ma'am. At its stuffed and cluttered best, our house is warm, cozy and ever so sweet, so full of the riches of love and laughter and life it should sell for a billion dollars. But, though it feels as if we are, we are not selling our love stories.  We are selling a wooden house, a house built way before we were born, a house that will stand long after we are gone.
Pregnant with Miguel and a new house.
411 Truman down to her Dade County Pine bones.

Then. . .

Selling a house is hard on a marriage. Even the best marriages, therapists say, are prone to buckle under the weight of complicated fiduciary affairs.  Every high-impact window, every appliance, every tile in the bathroom has arrived only when we could afford it.  We have worked hard. None of it has come easy.  There is pride invested in this place. We did not swoop into this house and make it a home in a week or a month or even a year. Our home has evolved. And evolution is hard-won and very often painful. A wooden house is demanding.  Alive.  It has needs which must be met. It is old, and a bit crotchety. But with age comes enormous strength and fortitude. This is a sturdy house; safe and sane shelter from the storm.

In strictly practical terms, our greatest attribute, a feature not to be viewed lightly by potential buyers, is our off-street parking.  There is a driveway! Do you have any idea of the value of off-street parking in downtown Key West? It has occurred to us that we might put the driveway on the market and keep the house.

Our house has central air conditioning, making our lives much more than bearable. On the very occasional cold day, there is heat.  No more warming ourselves by sticking our feet into an open oven!  Our sweet haven is cool, calm, remarkably quiet and serene. What makes it all the more remarkable is the wonder of having Key West right outside our door.  Walk a block in any direction and you will find something worth seeing or doing or just being next to. Or sit on the porch and watch the whole world go by, on their way to the Hemingway House or Blue Heaven.  Planes fly overhead and we feel happy for the passengers, some coming home, some coming to visit, all about to bask in the special light that is Key West -- and only Key West.

There are ads for houses that state: "Make me move!"  I want to post an ad that says: "Help me move on!" It has been a long struggle to come to terms with the cold, hard facts about retiring in a town where everyone's biggest problem is finding a cozy place to live, and a place to park a car. 

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom's just another word for not having a  mortgage.  What we need now is freedom. 

Selling our house is like having an appointment with the dentist to have our wisdom teeth pulled. We are ready. We are scared, but we know it must be done. When it's over, we will be happy, and healthy, and comfortable. Let's just do it!

From our back deck I can see the tops of Hemingway's trees, swaying in the breeze, and sometimes, his ghost, snickering just above the tourists lining up, with their cameras and their guidebooks, to visit the house he once called his own.  When all is said and done, a house is just a house. Creating a story, living the dream, that's up to you.

For a virtual tour of the home click here:

Saturday, February 13, 2016

We'll Die For You

Dilys relishing fresh lobster. Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

Darling I Love You So.  That’s how Dilys taught me to remember how to spell her name. Of the hundreds of wonderful, brilliant and creative people we have known and adored during our many years in Key West I would rank Dilys Winn among the all-time greatest.  Dilys was a genius, a rebel, and a writer of mystery novels.  In New York City she founded the nation's first all-mystery bookstore and called it Murder Ink.  In Key West she staged a mystery theatre/bookstore, Miss Marple’s Parlor.  After Key West she moved to North Carolina, where her first address was “Mars Lane.”   In N.C. she was promptly discovered and hired by a country bed and breakfast inn as a hostess. Her job was to pour tea and entertain the guests, which she did with aplomb.  Imagine sitting down to tea with Dorothy Parker!  She even looked a bit like Dorothy Parker – not tall, plumpish, and with brown eyes, generally sparkling with amusement. She cut her own hair into a sort of pageboy and preferred drapey, linen clothes with big pockets and buttons.  I called Dilys my own private Dorothy Parker.  And in honor of that, Dilys presented to me a first edition of Dorothy Parker poems, a prize I will cherish forever. Sometimes I simply called her “Darling I Love You So.”

Dilys and June at the beloved lover's desk. Asheville, N. C.
Dilys lived in interesting places, and in none of them for long. Sometimes she lived in an abandoned building for sale and had to move when the sale happened.  Sometimes she lived in a garret in someone’s creaky attic. Sometimes she lived in the backrooms of her shops. Her final residence was in Asheville and it was lovely.   Dilys had a vast array of fascinating things that she gathered along the long and winding road of her life. Her favorite possession was a lover's desk, ancient, heavy and unique which she had brought home from England.  On the last evening we spent with her, some five years ago, I asked her to pose with me at that desk. And she did.

There is a prize named after Dilys Winn.  At the Mystery Book Writers of America annual Award Night gala the prize is given to the mystery novel that booksellers most enjoy recommending to their customers. It is called “The Dilys.” It honors Dilys Winn's elaborate conversational skills. Start at a mystery book and end up at Freud. Somehow Dilys was able to knit all the pieces together into something whole and brilliant. Her fascination with mysteries was her portal into the vast universe.

Nova Scotia morning. Shirley, Suzanne, Dilys, June and Babe.
In the last five years of our friendship Dilys was housebound, suffering with the kidney disease that finally took her on February 5.  We kept in touch with occasional marathon phone calls. An hour with me, and then, what she liked best, an hour with my husband, one of her favorite men. Had we recorded those wild conversations I’m sure we would have something Dilys would have deemed publishable by now. We didn’t, and so we will warm ourselves with memories of Dilys visiting us in Nova Scotia and chasing lobsters and puffins; Dilys treating us to dinner in a fabulous and remote restaurant in Asheville; and, of course, those many crazy days and nights hanging out at Miss Marple’s Parlor.

The attached column first appeared in the Miami Herald.  Pictures would have been a good idea.  But who thinks of that when you’re laughing so hard you can barely breathe?

We'll Die For You 

    After watching a couple friends perform in a campy, interactive whodunit parlor game at Miss Marple's Parlor and Mystery Book Shop, I suggested to shop owner Dilys Winn that if she ever needed a big blonde, I was available. Her bright eyes, aglow with a glimmer of lunacy, turned neon when I said my husband would act, too.
    Finally, our chance came. Last week Dilys called and asked us to appear in one of her zany dramas. I would play a whorish psychic. Michael would be a nerdy IRS agent. Were two roles ever so clearly ours? All we had to do, Dilys explained, was enter the parlor at 8 p.m., clutch our throats, stagger like poisoned people dying hideous deaths might do, and - die. Easy enough.
    "Sure," I told Dilys. 'We'll die for you."
    Dilys sent me to the Knot So New Consignment Shop where Ilene, the shop owner, who really is psychic, handed me dress after whorish dress to try, while a salesgirl named Lucy and I discussed the meaning of the word "whore." Does a whore get paid a lot for sex, or simply have a lot of sex? I say the second. Please don't ask me why.
    After I'd found my costume, a tight green and gold skirt with a giant flounce in a shimmery fabric, with a matching leopard-skin print jacket, I was to report to Dilys for costume approval.
    "Here are my corpses now," Dilys said to someone on the other end of the phone, when Michael and I walked into her shop.
    Dilys loved my costume, and was so encouraged by our enthusiasm for acting, she made an impulsive decision to expand our roles. After our death scenes, according to the new script, we were to quickly change into angels' wings and choir robes. Oblivious to anyone else but our ghostly selves, Michael and I were to wander around, discussing bright white lights at the end of a tunnel. We were also to drop occasional clues.
    Late Friday afternoon, while I teased my hair and applied a half-pound of makeup, Michael hunted for the gray flannel suit he'd stashed in the back of his closet 10 years ago. While he knotted his tie, I parted his hair down the middle and plastered it with gel. We found his old briefcase.
    At 7:30, we headed on foot for the mystery theater, with absolutely no clue of how our appearance on Duval Street would affect sunset pedestrians. Michael, the nerd in the suit and tie carrying a briefcase, and I, his whorish companion in the leopard skin suit, jangley jewelry and cheap perfume, created a bona fide scene.
    "Is this your first blind date?" I shrilled to Michael as we passed a group of pedestrians. Some polite types tried hard to not stare. Others glared at me disapprovingly. "How do you like Key West so far?" I shouted gaily, as Michael managed to stay in poker-faced character.
    A girl sitting on the sidewalk stared hard, and then when we were past, sighed loudly and gasped "My nerves," as if she'd hallucinated us.
    Soon, it was 8 o'clock. Showtime! As we waited in the wings, with the other, more seasoned cast members, Dilys appeared to give us some last minute directions.
    "When you do your death scenes, really camp them up," she said to us. "You should really overact, and don't worry about looking foolish."
    Then, as a sort of afterthought, Dilys murmured, "I could never do what you're about to do."
    But Michael and I had no qualms about looking foolish, and no fears of losing our dignity. Our impromptu dress rehearsal on Duval Street had cured us of all that.

Here's a video of Dilys' appearance on "To Tell The Truth" in 1972.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Uneasy Rider

A guy up in Maine -- wish I knew his name -- did this and gave it to Rocky. It's very cool, right?
A few weeks ago I went to New York and visited with my brother Rocky. One night we went to the Caramoor Center to see Patti LuPone. We rode to the concert on his Harley.  Most of the time the thought of riding on the back of a motorcycle scares the hell out of me; so many things can go wrong. But on this night, I ignored that nervous Nelly voice in my head and turned myself over to my brother’s care, and to fate, which seemed friendly and encouraging on that lovely summer evening. I had recently read an essay in a Buddhist magazine about becoming one with whatever you were doing. I decided to become one with my brother, just as he becomes one with his mighty Harley when he rides. For good measure I reminded myself that Rocky, my baby brother who is now in his fifties, has been riding a motorcycle since he was five years old.
Rocky with Mom and me in pre-Harley days.
Back then he had a mini-bike. He had a trail through our yard. There were ramps and jumps on a ride that took him past the front porch, around two trees, down the driveway and into the back yard, along the edge of woods, and up a grassy hill into the front yard again. The whine of that little engine was background noise to many seasons. 

Rocky was a neighborhood phenomenon – an adorable little boy in perpetual motion. Who better to trust with my life and my limbs? And although I know fate is an arbitrary thing, on that beautiful sultry night I easily abandoned my absurd notion of having some control over it, and relaxed into the wonder of the scene around me.
Country roads where we grew up. We love them!

Rocky letting his hair down in Key West.  You're so handsome, 'Bro'!
The ride was spectacular. We roared through the country roads like a jet through the clouds, the trees on the side of the road a blur of greens. It was twilight, and it occurred to me that traveling on a motorcycle was so much more honest than riding in a car. Every curve was a revelation. Sensational.  And as I hugged my brother’s back and screamed and laughed with the sloopy joy of freedom, I knew why he loved riding so much, and why he’d ridden thousands and thousands of miles like this, through tree-lined country roads and deserts and mountains, through Indian Reservations and National parks, on steep cliffs far above ocean shores and along the reedy beds of lakes and river.
My best friends. Michael Keith and Rocky Mazza. In Tatamagouche.     
After the concert, which was in no way as exhilarating as the journey to it (LuPone did not thrust her arms toward the firmament and belt out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) we climbed back onto the Harley and headed off into a much colder, darker night. 
Treen Cottage, Malagash. Another Nova Scotia summer with my boys.
I tried in vain to warm myself on Rocky’s back as we rode, huddling ever closer to him, which only made my helmet butt into his helmet until he finally asked me to please stop. I concentrated on tolerating blasts of moonless night chill waiting at the far side of every curve. No more crazy joy; no more happy memories; just a desperate need to make it back to Rocky's house and between the flannel sheets of my bed.

“I see why you love it so much,” I told him later, when my teeth stopped chattering.  “It’s wonderful! It’s thrilling!”

“It’s not as thrilling as it used to be,” he said. 

It was like hearing of a divorce, or coming close to the end of a book you were loving reading. I felt sad to hear that something so fundamental to his character had lost its thrall.

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I  love riding. But nowadays I don’t feel safe. People are in such a hurry. You have to be on the defensive every minute. It's not like it used to be.”
 Michael, Susan Pitts (our daughter) and Uncle Rocky. They look so innocent . . . don't believe it! I can't imagine what they're up to, but clearly, they're up to something.
Last summer Rocky was riding on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, on the final leg of a cross-country trip, almost home, when a truck changed lanes and side-swiped his bike. Amazingly, Rocky stayed upright, but his foot was smashed and so was his Harley. The truck didn’t stop. Maybe, Rocky says, the driver didn’t know that he’d hit someone. An ambulance took Rocky to the hospital where the broken bones in his foot were splinted and wrapped. His Harley was towed away and repaired. It could have been far worse, everybody said. Yes, that is true. But the darker part of that wreck is what it did to his soul.  It robbed him of his innocence, a bright and shining thing, that Rocky had managed to hold onto far, far longer than most of us ever dare to. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Scenes from a Long Good Friday

Don't mess with my cushions!
One Thursday morning our neighbor Thea woke up blind.  She was understandably freaked out, but maintained her calm as Michael drove her to the local eye doctor, where she was examined.  The doctor came into the waiting room, stood before Michael and gravely announced: “She needs to go to the emergency room at the eye clinic in Miami. Right now.” 
   Michael called me at work to say that he was heading to Miami with Thea. What else could he do? Whoa! On a busy holiday weekend? There had to be a better way! I made a dozen phone calls, to the hospital, to the ambulance company, to the helicopter people. Turns out that waking up blind, as terrible as that is, does not classify as a life-threatening condition. Therefore, the only way to get Thea to Miami was to drive, on the eve of Good Friday. I joined them, and around 2 we headed to Miami. We arrived in the city, and into the maze that is Miami’s hospital district, just after rush hour, and found our way to the clinic by nightfall.
    In the waiting room there were others with eye emergencies even worse than Thea’s.  A kid on a stretcher with one eye heavily bandaged. (A victim of the famous BB gun incident our parents warned us about?) A baby, wailing, in the arms of his horrified parents. And other, quieter catastrophies. Like Thea’s -- all of them waiting for their turn with the doctor.
    By midnight Thea had been examined, her blood tested and her body injected with steroids. She was told to return in the morning, bright and early. Which meant checking into a hotel located somewhere in the maze of dirty streets and tall buildings.
    After another day of waiting rooms and treatments, Thea was released from the clinic. The roads were a glut of 3-day-weekend traffic. The source of Thea’s sudden blindness remained a mystery, although a course of treatment had been prescribed. As we made our way out of Miami, the tension, disappointment, and Thea’s fear traveled with us, like an elephant in the back seat. There was little to say, and so we said little. Our relief, at arriving home, was profound.
    Sometimes life in Key West is more like a movie than real life, as in you can’t make this stuff up! It was one of those times. And we had one more scene to go.
      As Michael eased the car into our narrow driveway we noticed an unfamiliar bicycle propped against our house. Unlocked. Who does that? While I walked Thea home, Michael investigated. He quickly returned to the front door and said,  “Call the cops!”  The tone of his voice sent chills up my spine.
    “Why?” I asked, dialing 911.
    “There’s a body on the deck,” he said.
    “A body? You mean a dead body?”
    “It’s all wrapped up,” he said. “I can’t tell.”
    He encouraged me to not look, so I didn’t. A policeman soon arrived. He was all business. With his right hand resting on his gun, he walked through the house with Michael leading the way. He saw the mummy on the deck and agreed that the thing wrapped in a quilt beneath the schefflera tree might be dead. Or alive. 
    “Hey,” he said, poking the body with his foot. “Hey, you!” 
    He did this for a minute or two until finally, the thing moved.  It was alive. It was a man and the man wanted to be left alone.  That’s what he said.
    “Leave me alone, please,” he moaned, and as he exhaled this plea fumes of alcohol filled the air. Michael and I staggered back, but not the cop.
    “You gotta get out of here,” the cop told the man. “This is private property. You’re trespassing.”
Our friends from Up North always get a kick out of our outdoor laundry room. 

    I realized that he was wrapped in the heavy quilt we use to cover our washing machine. Beneath his head, I recognized the porch chair cushions. He’d opened the gate, come into our yard, onto the deck, and bundled himself up nice and cozy. He hadn’t been there for long, I knew. Otherwise, that bike would have been gone, like all unlocked bikes in Key West.
    “Man, I told you to fix that gate lock,” I hissed at Michael, as the man slowly rose from the floor, moaning gruffly, polluting the air with his barroom breath.
    “Can I take this shit with me?” the man asked, clutching the quilt to his chest.
    “Yes,” the cop said. “Take it and go.”
    By now we were totally punch drunk with exhaustion. The situation was suddenly hilarious.
    “Wait a minute,” Michael said. “That’s my shit!”
    What made it all the more hilarious to me is Michael swearing. Michael does not swear.
    “No, you can’t take it. That’s Mr. Keith’s shit!”
     And then the cop. More hilarious still. 
    “How about these pillows?” he asked.
    “No!” I yelled.
    The drunken man surrendered our stuff. The cop walked him around to the front of the house where he slumped on the steps, and wearily held his head in his hands. He was not a bad man, I thought, just a defeated one. The bike, he said, in response to the cop's questioning, was his. He’d been in Key West for four weeks.
    “You want me to run him in?” the policeman asked. “It’s up to you.”
    “No, we just want him out of here,” I said, talking as tough as I could muster.  “But he’d better not come back here because this is Florida and if I see somebody on my property, behind my gate, I have the right to shoot!”
    “Did you hear that?” the cop said to the man. “Mrs. Keith says if you come back here again she’ll blow your head off.”
    With that the man rose from the step, and slowly climbed onto his bike, moving as if the effort pained him greatly. 
    “Hey, he’s riding drunk!” I said, as the man headed toward Duval Street and who knew what next.
    “Yeah,” the cop said. “I’ll probably be seeing him again tonight.”
    “Just like a western," Michael said. "This is where the cowboy rides into the setting sun.”
    Then we three stood silently, watching, and waiting for the credits to roll.

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