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The Warsaw Concerto

Rockville Centre was an upper middle class bedroom community of New York City. Although its demographics were fairly diverse the village itself was divided into enclaves along religious and racial lines. St. Agnes Cathedral was the focal point of Catholic life and drew a good number of students away from the public schools. By the time I arrived in South Side High School in 1960 the school was overwhelmingly Jewish, and wealthy Jewish to boot. When one compared the cars parked in the student parking lot to the cars parked in the teaches parking lot one got a strong sense of the disparity of income levels between the two groups.

None but a select few feel comfortable with themselves in high school and I was no different, only more so. Not only wasn’t I comfortable with my classmates, I wasn’t comfortable with the whole educational system. I detested being instructed. I didn’t rebel, I simply didn’t do the work, and any chance I got I cut school. This was not unique to my high school career, it was a characteristic all through grade school. It would not be uncommon for me to miss two months of school over the course of any one year.

I also functioned on the most basic of emotional levels. Whatever I didn’t understand, whatever I felt threatened by, whatever I disagreed with, I responded with anger. Sometimes manageable, sometimes out of control. A fairly accurate summation of my educational history would be one characterized by a sense of loneliness and a sense of anger. Anger dropped me into the grasp of the academic administrative process on many occasions. Between visits to the principal, the assistant principal, the guidance counselor and the school psychologist I more or less had a pretty full administrative dance card.

One of my classmates was a boy named Teddy Lahn. Teddy was, in the parlance of the time, “retarded.” Not mildly challenged, but severely handicapped. He would walk around school, books pressed under his arm, mumbling words and phrases that only he understood. He was prone to drooling, burping, farting and uncontrollable outburst of laughter. The princes and princesses who made up the bulk of the student body recognized Teddy as a ready source for humor. You couldn’t say that the taunts were cruel because Teddy didn’t understand them. The jokes, the teasing, went right past him. His parents refused to withdraw him and place him in a “special” school. Teddy was going to have to make it through South Side on his own. On more than one occasion I wound up in fistfights over episodes with Teddy. It didn’t take much to trigger a sense of rage towards my classmates and watching Teddy being bullied by one of the assholes was usually enough to get me to drop my books and start throwing punches. This usually resulted in a trip to the aforementioned principal/vice-principal/guidance counselor/psychologist. They made their speech, I made no reply and I was dismissed. It was a game.

One day a flyer was passed out to all the students announcing the yearly talent contest. As I gazed over the listing I noticed Teddy’s name and “piano recital” written next to it. ”Christ,” I thought, “this is going to be a fucking disaster. How can his parents permit it?” Teddy was taunted unmercifully by a number of students. “What are you going to play, Retard, chopsticks?” “Is it one of those player pianos?” “Don’t drool all over the keys.” After listening to a full week of this I finally snapped one day and just punched the shit out of Robert Lewine, right in the middle of geometry class. That earned me a three day suspension which, to a guy who missed almost two months of school, was of no great consequence. My first day back at school Teddy walked up to me while I was placing books in my locker and said, “I head that you hit Robert Lewine…why did you do that?” I had no answer for him. “I don’t know, Teddy, sometimes I just do stupid things.” “That’s alright,” he said to me, patting me on the arm, “sometimes I do stupid things too.” There we were, me and Teddy, two guys who were going through life doing stupid things. “Thanks, Teddy, I said, “I appreciate that.”

The day of the assembly for the talent contest arrived and I filed into the auditorium with a sense of dread. I could almost hear the laughter that would surely drive Teddy off the stage. I slumped down in my seat and waited for the inevitable cascade of hooting and hysteria that would certainly follow Teddy’s feeble attempts to play a tune. I sat through girls twirling batons, a brother and sister ballet performance, Janet Slessinger, who wanted to follow a career in opera, and an ersatz Kingston trio. Teddy was scheduled next. Bill Portman, a fat, gelatinous blob of a person was sitting on my left. He had whispered through most of the assembly to anyone who would listen to him about the stream of insults he had prepared for Teddy’s performance. He had a slight speech impediment that caused saliva to gurgle at the sides of his mouth when he spoke. Whispering for him was the equal of normal toned speech for most others. Everyone around him was tittering and giggling in expectation of Portman’s attack. The Kingston Trio left the stage to polite applauds and a voice over the PA system stated, “Our next performer is Theodore Lahn.”

“Chopsticks!” yelled Portman. People around him started cracking up.

Teddy walked out in the stiff legged, head down profile that was his trademark. His stride had not set pattern and watching him move  to the big, black grand piano that was in the center of the stage was painful. He turned to the audience and proclaimed, “I’m going to play the overture to the Warsaw Concerto,” turned and sat down at the piano.

“It’s gonna sound like Chopsticks,” laughed Portman.

There was a few moments of silence as Teddy stared at the piano’s music stand. There was no sheet music in front of him. “Christ,” I thought, “this isn’t bad enough, he’s forgotten his music.” With that Teddy launches into the piece. In a matter of a few moments the entire auditorium was filled with sound…beautiful sound, breathtaking sound. Waves of music flowed from Teddy’s fingertips, to the keys of the piano, out into the marbled room and into our dumbfounded brains. Teddy wasn’t simply playing notes, he was living the music. For minutes he played with feeling and texture and subtlety and he was no longer “Teddy the retard,” he was “Teddy the pianist.” He was effortless, he floated through the piece. Time and space were held in abeyance. Teddy was master of all he surveyed. You heard nothing, you saw nothing but Teddy. His presence filled the auditorium and wrapped itself around every adolescent mind that was gifted with this gossamer moment. We had no idea how much time passed. When he finished he simply stood up and walked off the stage. There was no applauds, the audience was in shock. Finally one of the teachers started to clap her hands, and she was soon joined by others, until the entire hall was filled by thunderous applause and shouts of “Teddy! Teddy!” Teddy didn’t come out for a bow. He never played another note in school. When the applause died down I turned to Portman and hit him as hard as I could, right in his fat face. I spent a week in the school psychologist’s office. If you ever get a chance to listen to the overture to the Warsaw Concerto you should, and you should think of Teddy.

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HeaderMom,” Eva said when Peggy sat down at the table where her daughter was doing her homework. She’d had to coax her children to keep up their grades in school, resorting to payment for As and Bs as incentive, and this new focus of Eva’s was refreshing. Though it had come at the expense of social activities, which had been the center of Eva’s life. Peggy worried about her lack of interest in those things that had made her such a bright and shining part of her high school community. Now Eva spent long hours with her nose in her books, studying for tests, writing papers, and helping Ethan with his work, too.

Eva pushed aside her social studies and fiddled with her pen. “You seem really nice.”

Peggy suppressed a smile, understanding that her daughter was getting to know each of her family members as if for the first time. Early on she had laughed when Eva said things like this, not realizing how it injured her and pushed her deeper into introspection. Eva sometimes seemed like a hologram—there, but mysterious and untouchable. There were times when Peggy wondered if this was how it would be now. A stranger in possession of her daughter’s body. An unknowable creature walking through her home, humming tunes she’d never heard before in her daughter’s familiar voice.

What if one of us…me or Eleanor or Ethan. What if we did something really terrible? Would you still love us?”

You’re my children. How could I not love you?” Peggy pushed her graying hair behind her ears. When she’d gotten her Eva back she’d been so focused on living every moment she’d been given with her eldest daughter that she’d neglected her appearance, letting the roots get long. She felt now that this steel gray core showing through to the world was earned—a badge. Should anyone fault her for it, she would remind them that they had never turned a child’s body over for organ harvesting.

What if it was really really bad? Like maybe one of us killed the others?”

Peggy bit down on her lip. What was this child saying? Was this a normal question? Or was she having some dark thoughts that they should seek help for?

Eva looked up at her, waiting. Her gaze was calm and unwavering as she waited.

Sweetheart, there’s nothing any of you can do that would make me stop loving you. I would be heartbroken, of course. But my love will never go away.”

Eva nodded, staring down at the mahogany table. She absently swiped her fingers back and forth over its glossy surface.

Is everything okay?” Peggy asked. “You can tell me anything. I’m here for you.”

It’s fine. I just wondered. It seems so unreal that one person would love another like that. It seems like there would have to be something that could break it.”

Nothing will break my love for you, or any of my children. I’m a mother.”

Eva twitched, a nearly imperceptible but real wince of pain or understanding or something…

What are you thinking?” Peggy asked.

Nothing.”

Do you want to go see Dr. Phelps? It’s been a little while. You can talk about things with him that you don’t feel comfortable talking about with me.”

Eva shook her head and gathered her books and papers. “I’m going to bed.”

In her room, Eva flexed her hands and stared at her arms. She kneaded her fingers into her thighs and cupped her small breasts. She felt along her ribcage, touching each rung. She watched her lavender painted toes move forward and back. It seemed so amazing to her that she was here, alive, in this body. Had she always felt that way? Or was it because she had no memory. Did it make her more acutely aware of the physical world? Like a blind person who can hear better, or a deaf person who can smell things others can’t?

She got down on the floor and did seventy-five sit-ups, fifty leg lifts on each side, then rolled over and did twenty difficult pushups. A throbbing at the side of her head cut short her program, and she rolled over and lay on the cool Berber carpet, her skin slick with a fine sheen of sweat.

The room was spacious and could have held two additional beds, even queen sized beds like hers. The walls had been painted a pale green the color of lichen. Her windows faced east and north, looking out onto the barn and horses, and were heavily draped in cream-colored chiffon. Eva tried to remember anything about it—anything from before. But each bottle of perfume and barrette on the dresser, each teddy bear and stuffed bunny perched against the bank of frilly pillows on the bed, were like hotel props. At any moment she might expect to pack her suitcase, turn in her key, and go home. Wherever that was.

***

No one should ever talk about my wife. They don’t know anything about her. Our life together, her death, my death, are not open for discussion.

And mine are?” I ask. It’s morning and none of us have ventured out yet. In our boredom we sometimes lie about like a bunch of lazy cats.

You put yours on parade. So, yes,” Marcus says. “I would say they are.”

Whether you intend to or not, you put yours on parade, as well.”

She infuriates me.

Why don’t you just tell us what happened?”

Marcus moves to the surface to assess the day. I follow him out and hover over the new grave.

Are you in there, Thomas Overton?”

There is no answer. We have no idea whether he is simply hiding, or if he has crossed over.

Today is sharp and yellow as it nears the peak of summer. The cleanly cut lawn is vibrant, even to my dulled sight.

It reminds me of my house in Laurelhurst and the smell of newly mowed grass. Marcus always returns to this house. It makes me crave lemonade. I want to hear the sound of the sprinkler clicking its stream in a broad arc across the garden, then racing back to the start again.

There was an oak tree in the northeast corner that spanned the width of our yard and the neighbor’s. Squirrels raced up and down its boughs, chattering and playing. I called the patriarch Travis. It started out as a joke because my wife called them ridiculous names like Gray Boy and Fluffy Girl. So I named the big one Travis. Sometimes I see him in the cemetery.

He calls them all Travis now.

Why do you fixate on that house?” I ask.

I’m not fixated. I just miss it. It was a source of pride and enjoyment.”

It’s all you ever think about. Mowing the lawn. Weeding the garden. Planting bushes. Boring.”

Those things relaxed me.”

What about the people who lived inside that house?”

That’s it. I think Reese is lying about her life and her death because she said who instead of that.

That’s my crime? I can construct a grammatically correct sentence?”

I think it is. She claims to have still been a child when she was murdered. But her diction is too vast and refined for a teenager, and certainly one in her socio-economic demographic.

Let’s set up a confessional,” I suggest.

No.”

C’mon. We’re stuck here, together, listening to each other’s thoughts. What if we created a Chehalem View Confessional? Maybe over there by the mausoleum. We could gather every day on the stone benches and take turns confessing our life crimes to each other.”

That’s the stupidest idea you’ve come up with yet.”

What do the rest of you think?” I shout to the others.

I don’t know, babe.”

Thank God. The two of them can be difficult to dissuade when they team up.

It might not be a bad idea,” Teresa says.

Wow. I never thought I’d have an idea you liked.”

Those two are more like mother and daughter than either wants to admit, Marcus thinks.

For fuck sake! We are not!”

I take back the part about refined diction.”

Go to Hell.”

Francisco laughs.

Here we go again, through all the stupid jokes about heaven and hell. Marcus is trapped in his thoughts today.

I already confessed my sins,” Francisco adds. “I’m still here. It didn’t work.”

All your sins? Unlikely.

You really are a jerk, Marcus,” Francisco says. “Maybe that’s why you’re here.”

I’ve been saying that forever,” I say.

Walter, what do you think?” Teresa asks.

He laughs in his nervous way. “I don’t know. I don’t think I like the idea.”

What could you possibly have done that’s so bad?” Kim teases. “Forgot to take out the garbage? Backed into a fence? Fished in the off season?”

I have to admit that I want to hear what Walter would confess. I want to know what Teresa would confess, too.

Anything Reese comes up with would be fantastic and fictional. And I can pretty much guess what Kim and Francisco would say,” Marcus says.

Really? You think you know me so well you can guess what my crimes were?” Kim says.

I don’t mean anything by it, Kim.”

Well please tell us. What would I confess?”

Don’t let him get to you,” I tell Kim. “It was a bad idea. Forget I said anything.”

No. I want to know what Almighty-Marcus thinks I did when I was alive.”

Me, too.” The evaporation of Francisco’s weeping has left us with a different man—as if only tears could soften him and now he is a hardened crust with spots of unexpected anger. This new persona is in such conflict with the baby-man who first arrived here.

Tell me what my crimes were!” Francisco demands.

We are interrupted by the man in the orange pickup, and just when things were getting interesting. He parks at the uppermost part of the lot, a place that is sheltered by fir trees and impossible to see from the road. He looks around the empty lot, craning to see into the caretaker’s tool shed, then he stares out at the graves. He takes his time, observing the cemetery before he gets out. Today he doesn’t wander around, but walks straight down the hill to where the graves were unearthed. He stands on the bald patch nearest the road, trampling the reseeded the grass.

Are you still here, little one?” he calls.

Jilly shrieks.

The atmosphere is scorched sharp and white. The shock of her cry raises a tingling in the soles of my feet, a sensation I’ve never experienced in this place. The man remains still, his head cocked to one side, his eyes distant. He is listening.

Does he hear her?” Walter whispers.

Jilly is raging. An angry amber glow pulses over our world. Teresa calls to her, but the child does not hear. It occurs to me that I am afraid of her, and I know I’m not alone.

He must be her family,” Marcus says, but his tone lacks its usual confidence.

If he were family, she wouldn’t be afraid,” Teresa says.

Not true.” I study the man. He is tall and lanky. Poorly dressed and age-ragged. His hair is long and unkempt. A widower?

Maybe she is a Liaison,” Francisco says, sending us roaring into chaos.

There’s no such thing!” Marcus and I shout it in unison—an unexpected alliance.

If Kim and Walter could beat Francisco to death they would do it right now on this spot. Teresa moans and begins the Requiem again.

Child?” the man repeats in an eerily pleading tone. “Child?”

Though she wails, he cannot hear her, and eventually he abandons his cause. We follow him to his pickup, climbing onto the hood, into the cab, the bed. His vehicle is laden with angry spirits.

I’m going with him,” Kim announces.

No!” Teresa cries. “No!”

I’m coming, too,” I decide, and the two of us move inside, onto the bench seat next to the man.

No. Please!” Teresa’s fear almost eclipses Jilly’s. She is hysterical. The others shout, curse, and cry.

I fucking hate this place,” Kim says.

We can go,” I assure him.

What about Jilly?” Kim asks as the driver pauses at the road, waiting for a line of traffic to pass.

She has everything we could give her.” I am ready to leave and let the consequences play out as they will.

Hold my hand,” he says. I would’ve laughed but for the fear in his voice.

The driver guns the engine and the truck pulls onto the highway. We remain. I knew Kim wouldn’t go. I knew it.

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WorkingHe’s a dying breed they say. The big corporate guys are swallowing him up. He can’t compete with modern technology and his old ways are passing. But the family farmer is a tough bird to pluck. He hangs on in the pockets and gullies of America’s plains like ragweed and thistle.

I like to think of myself as the “family songwriter”, self-determining and slightly crazy like the family farmer. I take pride in being my own man. I’m not one of those elite musicians who travel in a limo to the Grammys and then sue their record label. My car has 250,000 miles on it and I’ve never been to the holy awards show. I distribute my own CDs so whom would I sue?

You can’t be a family farmer or a family songwriter in a half-baked way. I’m not talking about a small garden of tunes it gives me some pleasure to tend. I’ve written at least 800 songs, released 8 CDs, and had over 100 cuts by other artists. I depend on acres of music not square feet.

This is more than a business to me. I’d have quit long ago if it was just about the money. I love this way of life. But I’m in this up to my neck. I’ve assumed a lot of risk by investing a small fortune in my property and equipment, its repair and upkeep. Not tractors, silos and land, but expensive instruments, recording gear, copyrights, demos and masters. I’ve spent sunup to sundown learning and practicing the art. Not of animal husbandry and crop rotation, but of proliferating tunes that people want to hear again and again.

Compared to the big operations, I’m just a small time picker and herder. Not a picker of apples and oranges but of steel strings that do not pick themselves. Not a herder of sheep and llamas but of rhymes and metaphors that are never restricted by fences. I pick until my hands ache and my calloused fingers split, just so that nothing rots on the branches of my music tree. I herd until my brain is numb from trying to round up every stray word-beast grazing on the hills of my imagination. This is what I do day-in and day-out.

What I produce is nearly as perishable as vegetables. Most records have a shelf life. Even the rare hits grow stale, and I’ve had a few of those (written on a handful of days out of thousands that I labored). My evening’s concert performance vanishes like corn at a picnic when it’s over. Music is only temporarily filling. I must continually plant fresh seeds, grow a new crop and wrestle against “the elements” to survive. Those elements include the erosion of my once-dependable revenue due to the prevailing winds of piracy and profiteering that blow steadily taking part of my livelihood elsewhere. As I watch that “dust” swirling away, it takes part of my spirit with it. But I’m always hopeful next year will be better, or the year after that.

My bottom line in all of this is higher than most people think. What did those hundreds of unprofitable songs cost me to make? Something, at any rate, because I cherished them and grew them over countless hours and days and seasons. I believe I had to make the failed songs in order to make the best songs.

The market for my goods is fickle. It’s a supply and demand thing. All I know for sure is that there’s a lot of competition and I can’t count on much. I often travel great distances to bring my music to where it’s needed- the “market”- whether that’s a concert venue 500 miles away or a website only a few keystrokes away, it was a long haul to get there. Forty years lie between the harvest of my first song and my latest. Many sets of worn tires have driven me to recording studios, gigs, pitch meetings, radio interviews, bank loan departments, music trade conventions, two coasts and a thousand towns in between. I’ve paid literal and virtual tolls on this lifetime journey, and they all factor into the value of my art.

Some would argue that Intellectual Property is the bounty of nature. It should rightfully belong to all and be free for the taking. Music- all art- is a wild, indigenous shrub rather than a cultivated hybrid that needs protection, they say. Yet the best fruit comes mainly from grafting and pruning and fertilizing and knowing when the frost is due, which is all the effort and experience of one individual. You can’t do away with the orchard’s caretaker and still expect the sweetest cherries to grow. A bushel of songs is certainly no less valuable than a basket of peaches if labor counts for anything.

If you think making music isn’t real work, maybe you should come and get your knees dirty with me a while, ride the endless miles and pay the price. You’ll find me good company. I know these furrows and where all the stones are buried. You’ll see the kind of dedication and energy it takes to run this musical agronomy and run it right.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays. Some say the locusts are moving in to destroy everything I’ve fostered. Others debate about whether I’ll be disappearing soon like my brother in the fields. I suspect I’ll keep on going for a ways. My back is bent, not broken. I’m the family songwriter. I have roots in this land.

 

Copyright 2014 by Craig Bickhardt

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And One Makes Three… Continued

P1000127“So you’re here because you find me attractive.”

“No,” she corrected, “I said I’m here because I was attracted to you. Completely different.”

“So you don’t find me attractive…it’s a shame, because I find you extremely attractive and I’m attracted to you.”

“Well, I’m attracted to certain people for a number of different reasons.”

“Why were you attracted to me?”

“I’m not quite sure yet, it’s instinctive right now. Maybe I’ll find out later…maybe not.”

“What does your husband do?”

“He’s not working right now. He used to work for an engineering firm.”

“Used to?”

“He quit?”

“Why?”

“It’s a long story.”

“So what does he do with his day?”

“I don’t know, I’m not with him during the day.”

“Are you with him at night?”

She put her coffee down, the half smile disappearing.

“Why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Well, if you’re not with him during the day, and you’re not with him at night the thought crossed my mind that you and me might be able to get together some night. We can keep on drinking coffee, that’s fine with me, but seeing as we’ll both be jacked on caffeine we’d probably both be up late, unable to sleep and all, so why not spend that time together? Maybe you’ll even figure out why you were attracted to me.”

She rested her chin on her hands and stared deeply into my eyes. We sat silently for a while as she seemed to be pondering what I had said.

“I’ll meet you at night,” she finally said, “but only if my husband is there.”

I put my coffee down. “Your husband?” I said.

“Yes, my husband.”

Now I was baffled. “Why would I want your husband there?”

“Maybe you wouldn’t, but I would?”

I picked up my coffee, took a long, slow sip. “Am I getting in over my head here?”

“I don’t know…are you?”

“Is your husband going to chaperon?

“Will I need a chaperon?”

“I would hope so.”

The half smile returned. She sipped some more coffee and looked around the restaurant. People were starting to drift in after work and the noise level was increasing. She turned back to me and began to say something, paused for a moment, and leaned across the table as if she was going to whisper. I immediately leaned in towards her, our faces now only inches apart. For the first time I could catch her scent.

“Why would I need a chaperon?” She said, almost in a sigh.

“For all the right reasons,” I replied.

She leaned in even closer, her lips only inches from my ear. “That’s why I’m bringing my husband,” she said, “’I’m counting on needing him.”

I pulled back, looked into her eyes. She flipped her hair back, returned my gaze, smiled broadly, picked up her cup, kissed the rim and once again languidly sipped some of the dark liquid.
…To be continued.

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sam and three graces

My first significant moment after driving eleven hours to Denver, was the parade of young topless women marching down the 16th Avenue mall.

Already befuddled by travel, I did a classic double take and failed to spot the curb, all but falling flat on my face, much to the amusement of the twenty or so young women, who applauded me.   I had no choice but to applaud them back.

“You got me!” I said.

I got high fives. These women, many of them my daughter’s age, were of great good humor, feeling bare and strong, daring and free.

I see no reason why this topless marching movement should not spread like wildfire.   Breasts are great. It’s pretty unfair that men get so obsessed with them that women feel compelled to cover them up.

There is no shame in a body.   Pride is a fitting attitude, particularly for a parade.

There was nothing remotely lascivious about this group. Young women, jacked up on estrogen, were making a point of pride.   They quite literally knocked me off my feet.   What made it all the more charming was the warmth with which they responded to me.

I wish I could tell you what their signs said.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have topless feminist parades in Vinton. Pardon my momentary culture shock.

The evening was beautiful and clear. The mall was full of folks of all descriptions taking in the cooling air, the softening light.   The beautiful young strong parade of natural womanly virtue rounded the corner of Looka-that and Hell-why-not.

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