Short Story: “Jackie Wilson Said”

It started before all the social media went to 12-hour ‘fresh feeds’, but I know it’s important somehow, that change.  Every post, every chat, then every text on our phones gone overnight.  It was liberating, at first, not to be burdened by all the stupid things you said the day before.  Our lives felt streamlined, purified.  But I want you to try to remember when it really started to change, when you could no longer be sure of what was said, or what was even true anymore? You can’t, can you, sis? If you could recall, could you trace it to any one day, one event, the act of one individual? I don’t think so. Remember that day I texted you about the farmer’s market and my clumsy attempt at ‘asparagus’ autocorrected to ‘spearheads’? This goes deep.

I’m afraid to ask you questions, Nina, even in a letter. You’ve noticed the lack of a return address. I’m not looking for a reply. Not until I find out how to reverse what’s been happening, if there is a way. I don’t trust anything you say anymore, and that’s what hurts worst of all. You were always faster than Google, and usually more accurate; I fear both of you now. I even fear the librarians, what few remain. When I went looking for newspapers, magazines, they showed me digital archives; I knew better than to express surprise or dismay.  I’m posting this from a little town on the border, where they don’t care if you go as long as you don’t come back. I can live with that; there’s no way I can find answers here.

I’m also posting it on a day that used to mean more to you than anyone else – more than it ever did to me, definitely.  How many times did you send me calendar invites to remind me it was Election Day? And I’d text back every time: Who do I vote for? I worked three jobs; when did I have the time (or the attention span) to read up on candidates?  In the beginning, when you were still a kind, caring person, you’d take pity on me and send me the names – but you’d call me later and tell me why you chose them.  Over time, though, you lost patience and would just send me the list.  Either way I felt confident, blackening the little boxes on the ballot, matching them up to your wisdom. One time, though – do you remember this? – they surprised me with a referendum question. I just marked ‘Yes’. I’m a positive person.  

It was sometime after that – I can’t say when exactly – that I noticed the signs for the first time. I could’ve Googled them, but of course I chatted you instead. I sent you a picture of the one on the door to the cafe in my apartment building: Notice: No Firearms Allowed on Premises.

ME: Hey what’s going on with these? They’re everywhere – like what did I do wake up in the wild west or something lol

YOU: Pretty much – that’s the fucking prop they passed in the spring primary

ME: Uh oh Does prop mean referendum?

YOU: Do not tell me you voted Yes on Conceal & Carry… Rita Louise how many times did you hear me tell you, every cop in this city was dead against this

ME: You didn’t tell me it was something I had to vote on!  And they word those things tricky don’t they?

YOU: To catch idiots like you yes they do – ok next time I’ll send you the whole damn sample ballot – I love you baby girl but holy shit

That was the last time you said ‘I love you’ and the first time you called me an idiot, and though I felt like I deserved it, it rattled me. I would get used to it.  Just like I’d get used to giving you back your own bitchiness. I remember the chat we had after I’d seen my first gun in public:

ME: Hey Officer Knowitall, I was just in Starbucks & saw a guy showing off a pistol that looks like a cell phone & all the signs are gone everywhere – wtf did i miss something? An election?

YOU (after a long pause): Good morning Rip Van Winkle no that was a Supreme Court vote last month, and I’m amazed that’s all you’ve seen in Starbuck’s. Nothing you can do, and you know what, fuck it; they’re winning.

I wish that I had a record of that one, more than all the others, because it was my proof that you did care once, but you were giving up.  Somehow, though, I couldn’t.  There were more elections after that – little ones, big ones – before the vote that basically ended all votes. I can’t prove that, of course, any more than I can prove that there were people who tried to fight against the establishment of the constitutional monarchy.  I remember texting you a picture of the massive protest outside the building I was cleaning that morning, and though I didn’t say I wished I could join them, your response said you’d heard me anyway: “Keep your head down, stupid, I don’t want to have to be on the other side of the barrel.”  

You could still show something like love, sometimes, but I still came away feeling lonesome – and more and more afraid.  The day you texted me when you were out shopping with Mom…

YOU: Hey I’m at the ammo outlet with Ma – got her a sweet little Glock for 40% off – at that price we’re getting one for you.  (Next came a picture of Mom grinning with her new pistol.  There was a lens on the chat that turned her into one of Santa’s elves.)  Merry Christmas in July!

I stared at the screen, dizzy, until I finally picked up the phone and dialed. Your voice was instantly recognizable, though I swear every time I called it was brassier, more impatient.  I tried to get you to explain out loud what you were just texting me, but I couldn’t get it to make sense.

“I’ve told you before,” you said, slowly, as if I were a toddler, “I don’t like you two running around unarmed out there!  I’ll have to give Mom some lessons; maybe if you ever dragged your ass up to visit sometime I could teach you too.  But you’ll find classes around somewhere even in Liberal La-La-Land; that’s law.” When I was quiet, I was reminded of another reason I almost never called you, and was so often glad that we lived on opposite ends of the state; you always knew my silences too well.

“Hey is something going on with you?” you asked, a little less sharply than I’d become accustomed to. “You didn’t go off your meds again, did you?”

“No, I’m just a little… uncertain lately.”

“Well you definitely sound stressed. When’s the last time you got some retail therapy of your own? Go shopping for shoes or something – or raid the dress rack down at Hippie Heaven; that’ll perk you up.”

Even when you were nice, that was your name for my favorite shop; sometimes I couldn’t believe it was still there, much less still called ‘Summer of Love’.  I hadn’t been there in ages, mostly because I couldn’t afford it, but I decided you were right; I always found something there that lifted my spirits, even if it was just a pack of incense.  I still don’t know if following your advice was the worst mistake or the best decision I ever made.  Everything became very clear after that.

They were playing the Grateful Dead as usual when I walked in, but when I was in the fitting room, a Van Morrison song came on. I took it as a kind of sign that I was fated to buy the dress I was trying on because it was the song Dad always liked: “Jackie Wilson Said”. I recognized those words – the first line – because Dad told me that when he called me ‘Reet Petite’, it came from that song.  For the rest of it, though, I’m not sure I ever really knew what that man was singing. Except that it couldn’t possibly be what I heard just then:

I’ll kill everyone, I’ll kill everyone, I’ll kill everyone when you smile…”

I actually laughed at first, even though a chill went straight through me, all the way down to my toes. Oh my god, I’ve got to get my hearing checked. But then when the refrain came back around, I heard exactly the same thing.

I’ll kill everyone, I’ll kill everyone…”

I struggled back into my own clothes, leaving the dress on the back of the fitting room door.  When I emerged, clearly flustered, the girl behind the counter looked more annoyed than concerned.  ‘You alright?’ she barked, and I nodded, forcing myself to breathe slowly.  I let the scent of sandalwood calm my pounding heart. I snatched up a box of the incense, not wanting to leave the shop empty handed, and while I waited to swipe my card, noticed for the first time the switchblades in the display case under me, for sale in a psychedelic array where the bongs and glass pipes used to be.

If I hadn’t given up weed as soon as it became a capital offense, I’d have gone for that in a heartbeat when I got home.  Instead I drank myself stupid, because that at least was still legal, and after my attempt to Google Van Morrison turned into a total failure, I had to steady my nerves somehow.  The only lyrics pages I could find were for country music or death metal bands, and all Wikipedia told me was that Van Morrison was a ‘singer of degenerate music popular in the anarchist subculture of the late 20th century’.  I’m sure you remember the drunken texts you got from me that night, even if I don’t.  I only remember them because of the call you gave me bright and early the next morning.

“Hungover? Poor baby.  I wish I could show you the texts you sent me last night; you’re probably lucky they’re gone.  Bunch of crazy shit about Van Morrison–”

“It was crazy!” I felt a perverse flutter of hope.  “Oh man I’m so glad you called; I was starting to think what I heard was really…  Well, I don’t know what’s worse: if I’m having auditory hallucinations or… Sorry, I’ll start from the beginning.”

I hadn’t drunk nearly enough to forget; I went back over the whole incident, and warbled (off key as usual) the chorus I’d imagined.  I waited, listening to your breathing, and finally asked: “What?”

“What do you mean ‘what’?  Those are the lyrics, so what?”

“Oh for the love of – no, they are not the lyrics; if there was a video of it anywhere online, I could have you listen to it, but there isn’t; I tried.”

“Girl, I don’t need to listen to it; I’ve listened to the stupid thing enough in my life, and it was the only good song Dad ever played. Everything else was all that ‘everybody get together and love each other’ crap, but that one stood out.  Being passionate enough about someone to slaughter everybody for her smile?  That’s hardcore!  Too bad the music was so dumb; someone should set that to metal.”  

“Nina, are you honestly telling me that I was named for a song about killing people?  Dad wouldn’t kill a spider.”

“I know,” you said then, cold steel in your voice. “If you recall, that was what got him killed.  All because he refused to keep a gun anywhere in that fucking shop!”

“You used to say you were proud of him for that!  You joined the police force expressly because ‘a man running a peaceful little music store shouldn’t need to worry about protecting himself’ and I quote!”

“The hell you do; I never said that!  What would ever possess me to say such a boneheaded thing – and use a chickenshit word like peaceful?”  (I will never forget the disgusted way you spat that out; it burned like poison in my ear.)  “Reet, I swear you’re worrying me; you need to get your dose checked.  Make an appointment right now.”

I had the sense to stay quiet for a moment, and think, and not unleash on you every violent word I knew.  I was perfectly calm when I promised I would do just that.  I said goodbye just like I’d learned to, without saying ‘I love you.’  I spent the rest of my single day off thinking.  Looking at what I was allowed to see on the internet.  Looking at my bank account.  Planning.  It was a couple weeks before I’d sold enough of my things to pack up the rest.  I got a good price for the Glock; it was still in its plastic.

If you believe what you read in The Daily American, you probably think I’m dead already, swallowed up by the lawless, godless, crime-ridden wasteland that is the rest of the world.  I think I’m going to find something very different.  And when the time comes, I think you’ll want to see for yourself.  I’m not sure how it’ll happen, the reversal – if it happens.  How much will you remember after we’ve all gone back through the Looking Glass?  If it’s everything, will you be brave enough to answer to all of the hateful things that you’ve said and done and believed?  I’m resolved to forgive, if not ever again to forget.  I said it before, I’m a positive person.  But I won’t get fooled again.  That’s another song Dad played, isn’t it?  We’ll talk about it on the flip side.

(It says the real words right there in the title, but… for how long? Oh, and here’s “Reet Petite” just to get Van Morrison out of your head. It’s the least I can do for messing with you. ^_^)

From a Full-grown Sphinx

Come along in then, little girl!
Or else stay out!
But in the open door she stands,
And bites her lip and twists her hands,
And stares upon me, trouble-eyed:
“Mother,” she says, “I can’t decide!
I can’t decide!”

First canto of “From a Very Little Sphinx”, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Oh, hello there.  It appears I’ve decided to come in.  Just, before you ask “Does this mean you’ve finished your book?” I’d like you to imagine a woman seven or eight months pregnant, and think really, really hard about the likely outcome of asking: “When are you due?”  Only, the length of time I’ve carried this particular book seems so absurd I’ve started to feel like Gandhari in The Mahabharata…  If I give my head a good hard whack, will the damn thing finally come out, a monstrosity that turns into 101 books? Gods no, no, no…  I’m already looking forward to retiring from novel-writing and doing nothing but playing music for the rest of my life.

Don’t take this to mean that I’m in any way sick of my novel(s).  I love this world and these characters with a passion that burns in perfectly inverse proportion to the hatred I bear for a little thing called cognitive dysfunction — and its even more pernicious partner-in-crime, depression.  It’s been a while since I’ve written an “FU, MS” post; this is partly one of those, but I have a lot of friends here in the depression community — and artists galore — so hey, I have something for everyone!

Last year, one of the keynote speakers at the writers’ conference I attended made a bold, if unoriginal statement: “There’s no such thing as writer’s block.”  (I’m pretty sure Terry Pratchett said it first.)  I’ll admit my first thought was: ‘I’d like to lend you a few brain lesions, sister, and dare you to say that again.’  But then I looked around at the attentive (even hungry) expressions of the others in the room, and was struck not only by the number of people who believed they suffered from the same supposedly nonexistent affliction, but my own feeling of solidarity with them in their suffering.  Because it’s not just about the brain not being able to make connections — about working on a single chapter for months because the words will not obey their proper logical order — or the sickening screen twisting your vision in knots.  Those are all physical manifestations of disease.  What everyone could relate to in that room was something psychological, and it does exist; we’re just calling it the wrong thing.

I personally haven’t used the term writer’s block, ever, because it sounds vaguely disgusting, like something you might fix with a suppository.  I don’t know that I call it anything at all; I just say ‘I’m unable to write’.  But it’s human nature to describe and classify everything, so we need a better term…  And if I didn’t have MS, I could come up with it!  Just kidding; my brain fog isn’t that bad today.  Wait a minute…  How about ‘soul fog’.  Honestly, it’s shorter and snappier than ‘a crisis of literary self-confidence’?  It’s more specific than depression, which I suspect is ultimately at the root of the problem.  And it doesn’t limit it to just writers, because I’m pretty sure artists and composers experience the terror of the blank page, or canvas, or soundscape.  We need something that applies to self-expression of all kinds.

For me, it’s the thing that makes me physically ill every time I open up a blank blog post.  Or a blank message on email or Twitter.  Or try to type a comment on the blog of someone whose work has moved me.  I am unable to get past my own voice, my own identity, all the things I know about myself that I despise, that no one must know, the deeper illness that will make anything I have to say insignificant, unclever (or too clever), and superfluous, no matter how many people ‘like’ it.  My most terrifying blank page is the mirror.

I do not believe I’m alone in this.  But no matter your medium — writing, music, sculpture — how you break through the fog is the same.  You make a mark, anything. You set down one word, one line, one note, and the others follow until you say the work is done.

There, that wasn’t so bad.  I would have liked to return bearing verses, but I’ve not been sufficiently motivated to write poetry for some little while.  At the same time, other people’s poems slip into my head constantly, including many of yours.  Thank you for that.  In fact, I’m happy to close this post as a Valentine to all the writers and artists here on WordPress who help me get out of bed and elect to forgive myself and live another day.  It’s wonderful that there are far too many of you to list; I hope you know who you are!  And to the readers who have yet to share with the world that first word or line or note…  Well, at this point I usually just play a song.

 

 

 

“Unless There’s Magic, the End will be Tragic…”

…and echo the tale that’s been told so often…

If I was Scratch, the phonograph in Catherynne M. Valente‘s The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, these are the lines I’d be playing for you right now (most likely, Annette Hanshaw’s version).  I’ve been thinking of that and many of Valente’s books quite a bit ever since the outrageous outcome of US presidential election, mostly because when I was compulsively scrolling through Twitter in a futile attempt to make it all seem real, I found myself taking solace in her reactions.  She was expressing so much of my own angst that I hardly needed to say a word of my own.  But there was one particular statement that she made that I’ve decided to borrow for my own personal manifesto for these coming years:

“I find myself thinking: how can I write about magic now? But I think maybe I have to write about magic more fiercely than I’ve ever done.”

In my last post, W.H. Auden was kind enough to contribute his thoughts where mine were scattered.  Today, I offer one more:

“In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.”

I like this Auden fellow more and more. (The Fairy glints in the last scarlet leaves of autumn.  I knew I’d get a rise out of her.)

One might think that this view jars with my new manifesto.  If you write fantasy, and your readers are not enchanted and intoxicated, you’re not doing your job very well.  But it’s in the moments of disenchantment — the realities nestled within the unreal like matryoshka dolls — that you will find the most powerful, subversive truth-telling to be told.

So for the next several months, while I’ll be visiting my fellow WordPressers whenever I can, the Fairy and I will be on sabbatical — working exclusively on ‘The Beast‘, and magicking the hell out of these times of ours.  Wish me luck, keep up the struggle, and “always keep a sapphire in your mind.”

Thank You, Fog

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Some timely lines from one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden, to accompany a serene, misty autumn morning:

No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily Papers,
vomiting in slip-shod prose
the facts of filth and violence
that we’re too dumb to present:
our earth’s a sorry spot, but
for this special interim,
so restful yet so festive,
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog

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(You can read the full poem here.)

Hang in there, American voters; for better or worse, at least one little corner of global gloom will be dismantled soon.

Them There Eyes

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They sent you to live with a strange family for half a year,
rich enough to care for a cross-eyed girl, but not as fun

as your real parents or the brother you loved and terrorized;
the story is cinematic but the part I can never quite shake is

the horror of knowing
that you were wide awake
during the four-hour procedure
that I can’t even mention,

that gave you double-vision for a year and never liberated
you from a lifetime of cats-eyes and Coke-bottles; I cringe

at your inner canthus stretched by an epoch of spectacles,
even as the mischief that glints through the glass makes me

remember when we read
Colette and Maupassant,
and drew up ambitious blueprints
for houses beyond our means.

Those eyes recognize me sometimes, but I confess
I prefer the times when I’m a total stranger, and worthy

of your unconditional smile, the one that seems to say:
“Get me outta here, kid, and we’ll go find some trouble!”

I can’t help but suspect
this was the very same look
you gave that boy from the wire mill,
that lasted seventy-five years.

I think of the forty-two addresses, across eight states,
you’ve occupied; your visions of buildings rising and falling

must put mine to shame.  I wonder if you’ve finally settled
into the one you loved best, or if it’s one that we designed.

I’m never there to see it
but I know you take them off,
and smile like I do, solaced
by the blur of the world.

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One for my 96-year-old grandma, Madeline, for no special occasion or cause beyond her own sweet little old self.

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Note for the Jansens and the curious: Madeline had three sisters in addition to her brother, but those girls were a terror together. Again, whole ‘nother poem there. ^_^