A short story by Jodi Armstrong
When I get a good enough one I read aloud to Syd: It’s that time again, when murder becomes not just merely a possibility, but a blood thirsty demon residing inside me, threatening to make good its desire. I am not a werewolf; I have PMS.”
“You can’t start like that,” Syd mumbles as if on automatic reject, “it won’t have universal appeal. Just tell the story and skip the dramatics.”
I want to read it again, but as I begin, Syd, who’d been clipping the dog’s toenails, picks up the newspaper and makes a great show of being immediately absorbed, as if this were a 1950’s television show and we were having a marital spat. After a moment of silence Syd laughs out loud. “’I am not a werewolf; I have PMS.’ Ha! Maybe that is it!”
It always starts like this. Our best evenings are spent drinking beer, eating cheese flavored popcorn and trying to begin our novel. We’ve been planning to write a novel for a number of years, but we can’t seem to agree on any of it: first sentence, title, who plays who in the movie version. We’ve come up with so many titles that I’m thinking about publishing a book of them for people who can’t think of one by themselves. Like, “Apocryphal Now”, or Gullible’s Travels….you know, like those baby name books. Actually I just came up with this idea, but it’s something worth thinking about. Title problems we don’t have. You can pull a title out of just about anywhere. Unfortunately it’s a matter of narrowing down the possibilities and making the right decision. Of course other people might have that problem too, in which case a book of titles won’t do them any good. I’m not very good at being decisive. Decisiveness demands clarity which demands a certain amount of focus. Syd says I make everything way too complicated. Maybe I do; maybe I don’t. It’s hard to say.
I had this boyfriend once, named Ethan, who said he had to break up with me because, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this Hailey, but your stream of consciousness talk, although deeply prophylactic (I think he meant prophetic) has repeatedly upset my linear thought patterns and I just can’t concentrate on my work anymore.” The fact that we were in High School and the work he was referring to was pumping gas, didn’t deter me from having a meltdown. When I came up for air, I decided to interpret it as a compliment. I try to be a positive person, so I spun it this way: “Ethan dumped me because I’m too deep.” That same talent, self-inflicted brainwashing, helped to soften the blow when shortly thereafter I saw Ethan and Charlotte Friedland groping each other in the baseball dugout over by home plate. She didn’t have anything between her ears, Charlotte Friedland, but she had tits that wouldn’t quit and the whitest most perfect teeth I’d ever seen. Later I learned her teeth were false, and it was her dammed dentist-given ability to whip them out discreetly at crucial moments – and I don’t think you need a blow by blow description – that was, along with her cup size, the basis of her impressive popularity with those inferior members of our class: the opposite sex.
It’s not the Charlotte Friedlands that I feel compelled to write about, it’s the story of Syd and me, and how and why we hooked up again after not seeing each other for quite a few years. I want to write a book that sells a million copies and becomes a hit movie or television series. Then we could stop struggling and the kids could have everything they ought to have, and the only thing Syd has ever really dreamed of: a swimming pool. Isn’t that beautiful? When everyone else is dreaming of mansions, Lear jets, trips around the world, fast cars and fancy clothes Syd just smiles and says, “A swimming pool in the back yard.” Talk about keeping things simple. Syd is steady like the sun, and I’m fortunate enough to be one of the planets orbiting around the sun. I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.
One of the things I can’t figure out is whose point of view I should write from. Of course I’ve read books that cover all points of view, but that seems rather ambitious. Maybe it should be half mine and half Syd’s. We could alternate chapters, except I’ll just end up writing for both of us anyway, which is not a problem because I read Syd’s mind a lot anyway. We’re real, real close. Some folks think we look like siblings, Syd and I. We both have blonde hair at the moment, although Syd’s is shorter and darker and mine isn’t half as curly or thick. Our eyes are all blue except one quarter of one eye, which is brown and we call it the pie eye. It’s really fascinating to look at. I wish it were my eye or that I could borrow it the way I borrow Syd’s jeans, which always look better on me than my own for some reason. I guess the grass is always greener and all that. Point is, we’re real, real close.
We’re not lovers but we might as well be since so many people assume we are. We tried it once, years ago, but even though our minds were very into it and our hearts were pretty much there (our bodies were kind of there too, now that I think of it) when it came down to it something was missing and that’s what ruined it. But I love Syd. What can I say? “Syd? You’re the best!”
We live here in this little town: Proctorsville, Vermont. We have two little kids, Buster and Abby. Syd runs a catering company, and I paint and wallpaper and do almost any kind of odd job I can get. We get by. We help each other out, too, when we can, but sometimes that just turns into a big bowl of wrong, as Syd’s all thumbs outside the kitchen and I can ruin a piece of toast. It’s not all work. This summer I finally fixed up the garage apartment (actually the top of the barn) to be my writer’s den. Syd has a wheel out back for pottery.
We met in Dallas in 1968. I was seventeen; Syd was nineteen. We were wild, unbridled, and determined to live in the sixties – forever. We hadn’t missed them altogether; we had managed to grab on like a couple of tenacious ticks to the end of an era. I like to think we were two of the people most responsible for dragging the whole thing out another twenty-five years.
Anyway, we got right into each other the night we met. Doc introduced us over a joint in the parking lot outside Mother Blues, a jazz club on Lemmon Avenue. We just clicked. We both had tremendous energy in those days. Back in ’68 we were young and driven by dreams, drugs and delusions. You know the type – inspired by our own imagined immortality. We taunted death daily, and still, what really framed the basis of this bond between Syd and me was the unspoken sorrow. We were runaways and no one was looking for us. We’d each come as far as Dallas and now we were running in place. We teamed up together with twin-like temerity because two heads were better than one. We lived life as if it were just an adventure in the dog-eared pages of a book. Maybe I’m waxing a tad too nostalgic. We shared a lot of good times, have our share of war stories. Stayed stoned, anyway. Like I said, we got right into each other the night we met.
Let me back up here about a hundred yards or so. My name is Hailey Hart. I know it sounds superficial, believe me, but I’ve grown used to it. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence trying to change it. The first time was when I was enrolled in the third grade at Country Day Elementary in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The big kids started calling me Comet. “Hey Comet!” I thought they were renaming me after a household cleanser, so I came home crying. My mom helped me look up comet in Webster’s which didn’t mention anything about cleaning supplies. Instead, it talked about a moving celestial body. Naturally this appealed to my eight year old sense of propriety. Over the next few years I tried to talk the kids into calling me Celestial, and I became bitterly disappointed when they wouldn’t comply. Apparently nicknames are not self-appointed, nor are they necessarily born of good wishes. I suppose you could orchestrate the change yourself if you said, “Hey, listen, from now on would you mind calling me Douche Bag?” Thus began a nearly twenty year odyssey of reinventing myself whenever I was introduced to someone. Eventually I tired of trying to escape being me, whoever the hell that was. I was back to being Hailey Hart, which felt like coming home to a place I’d never really explored before. Besides, my mom told me that it hurt my father’s feelings when I changed my last name to just a symbol of a heart. He told me he didn’t give a rat’s ass. He said that. He’s dead now, but that’s the kind of stuff my dad said; direct, economic statements. He was the Ralph Nader of words – never spent too many. Maybe it did hurt his feelings, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know him well.
I’m forty –two years old now, which means Syd is forty-four. Syd’s last name is Walker. The Walkers are from Oklahoma, and the Harts, well, we’re pretty spread out geographically, but I suppose we claim Massachusetts as the starting point. My mother would say “New England” but that’s only because she’s pretentious and likes the way it sounds. I had a fairly average up-bringing: alcoholic-scientist-pianist dad, negative-neurotic nurse mom, one brother who became a doctor, one brother who just disappeared, and one sister who is a story unto herself. Jillian was a contestant on a game show and ran away with the chaperone who accompanied all the teenage contestants to California for the week of the high school finals. In a nutshell, she married the jerk. They have three kids with another on the way as we speak, and I guess they’re happily fornicating and populating the world with potential little game show contestants in Yuma, Arizona, an armpit of a town if I’ve ever seen one. We don’t get along – any of us. I’m the baby.
Syd was the product of a strict Southern Baptist home. Charlie Walker, or CW, was the Oklahoma City Chief of Police longer than most folks care to remember, but he’s long since retired. Nellie, his beloved deceased wife was a bible toting devotee of the church – garden variety. Nellie was fond of saying, without the least provocation that Syd was conceived in love after no less than 6 miscarriages – a true gift from the lord. Syd never had a chance. The expectations the Walkers bestowed on poor scrawny little Sydney Walker were more than any flesh and blood child could possibly live up to. So Syd did what was least expected: dropped out of school and got married shot-gun style. By seventeen Syd had two babies and a miscarriage of a marriage. By nineteen all that was history. Syd Walker walked out two days after turning eighteen, hitched a ride on Rural Route 9, and never looked back. For a while. And the gates those people built to keep Syd out were harder to pry open than the Pearly Gates of heaven.
Sounds cold that Syd left the way she did, I know, but if you got to know Syd – Sweet Sweet Syd as our friends all say – you’d realize that you’d met the kindest, gentlest person who ever lived. There’s not a mean or selfish bone in Syd’s amazing body.
I walked out of my “almost Ivy League” college on the outskirts of Boston three weeks into the first semester. It was a rainy day in the fall of 1968.
I took the train back to my parents’ house and made immediate plans to evacuate the eastern seaboard. My beagle Sam had mysteriously died in the three lousy weeks I’d been gone, and in the typical Hart family fashion, my mother had replaced her with a giant black poodle named Sam. So there I was, a three-week college dropout, temporarily stranded with brainsick parents and a goofy looking dog I refused to acknowledge, who was for some unknown reason a vegetarian.
I chose Dallas because it was the only place I had ever been before. The summer before I turned thirteen I was sent to visit cousins somewhere in the vicinity of Dallas. I remembered it was clean. It seemed like the kind of place I could step right into without too much trouble. It seemed possible. Everything seemed possible at seventeen…except living with my parents and their new vegetarian dog, or going to school for four more years. I knew I was invincible. There was no plan.
“But what will you do there?” My mother was crying into her glass of wine.
“Do? Do? What does anyone do? I countered insolently, “I will live my life!”
“She’s a minor, you should make her stay,” marginally bellowed my ineffective father.
“She’ll leave in eight months when she’s eighteen,” the mother sighed, “I can’t make her stay.”
In reality they had offered me refuge only if I paid them $400 a month.
I continued to drink my wine and smoke my cigarettes, knowing, as I did, that this was just a show, but the last one of its kind that I’d see for a while. I was appreciative of the effort, the melodrama, none-the-less.
“Don’t,” said the mother, “have too many affairs.”
“And how many would that be?” I casually offered, hoping to mask my curiosity.
And as she grappled with what to say, I slowly, theatrically looked across the room directly into her tearful eyes and began to slowly count on my right hand. She knew who she was talking to and sharply said, “Seven!” We both fell into an uncustomary fit of laughter. The father, uncomfortable, but wanting to participate, offered his sage advice: “If you can’t pay the school loan back, don’t worry about it, you can always declare bankruptcy. They won’t be able to come after me because I’ll be dead soon.”
One or the other of them was always “going to be dead soon”.
With that I was waved off. Didn’t even know how to write a check. Nobody asked, but I had only a few hundred dollars to start my new life. It seemed like a fortune. I was omnipotent. Ready or not, the world was waiting. That pretty much brings back being seventeen in ’68 to me. In truth I was contentious, idealistic, witty, naïve and inexperienced, although ironically I had already had far far too many experiences. I took a flight the next morning.
Nervous to fly, I ordered a drink as soon as the drink cart appeared. I flagged down the stewardess because I didn’t know she’d ask anyway. When I nonchalantly ordered a sloe gin fizz, I guess she got hip to the fact that I was a first time flyer and obviously under age. Hell, I didn’t know they didn’t have stuff like that. I gave her a look like I was going to stab her when she asked for my ID. I was so embarrassed but I got over it when I found the damned thing and handed it to her. It was legal enough. I had gone to great pains to get that ID. Anna Giattoni had stolen her older sister’s birth certificate, and I had memorized all the vital information about the Giattoni family – things like: My name is Carmella Carolina Giattoni, my father is Otto Giattoni, my mother’s name is Maria. I have eight brothers and sisters, etc….just in case the woman whose job it was to process the applications for the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverage Card happened to know the Giattoni family. So it was with a certain smugness that I handed over this valuable piece of plastic to this chick. There was my picture – fair, blond, blue-eyed with these statistics: Carmella Carolina Giatonni, 28 years old. I got my second choice of drink – scotch and soda served with a smirk from the stew, and accompanied by a conspiratorial wink from the guy across the aisle.
When I arrived at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport I was surprised that no one was there to meet me. It was scary, but I was cool. I knew what not to do. “Don’t trust anyone you meet at the airport,” was my mother’s parting advice. So I didn’t trust the porters or the dispatchers at the taxi stand, and for some reason the busses looked threatening too. Instead, when I saw a crumpled flyer in the bathroom advertising a taxi service called TAXI-POWER, I called.
Doc played drums for a Dallas band with a big following. Before he got the gig he ran a taxi service, and still drove around in the beat-up run down clunk of a yellow van with TAXI-POWER painted on the doors in day-glow orange. When I called him from the airport to pick me up, he rambled on and on about how it was an old ad I was lookin’ at and how he’d just recently joined a band and didn’t really need to be cartin’ folks around anymore, and didn’t think he felt much like swingin’ by the airport, anyway, which was way over by Fort Worth and pretty darned far did I know that? We got into a conversation about music and other stuff, and he decided we might as well smoke a joint and talk some more.
I was sitting outside the American Airlines terminal on my brother Kenny’s discarded duffle bag when this magnificent vehicle appeared out of nowhere like some kind of Texas magic. Just kidding. I must have heard that thing coming from Dallas. I got a little bit nervous, but just for a second, when he yelled, “Howdy!” and jumped out the passenger side door. There were definitely door problems. After I shyly gave him the basic Hart, “How do you do?” he had to remove one of the sliding doors in order to throw my bags in the back. I cringed at the sound of my mother’s going away present shattering, but what the hell did I need with a set of crystal aperitif glasses anyway? I was still standing on the sidewalk feeling awkward, when, after the doors were back in place and he resumed his place behind the wheel, he tipped back his 10-gallon hat, looked directly at me with his sky-blue popsicle colored eyes and said with masculine assurance, “Everything will be alright.” It seemed like an unusual thing for a stranger to say, but it was just the kind of thing I’d been waiting seventeen years to hear. So I gave him a grin and slid in.
From that moment on I thought he could look right into my soul. I was pretty sure he could read my mind, too, so I asked a lot of questions because I didn’t know how to control my mind. He wasn’t hard to look at, so I studied him while he drove. His features were a perfect ensemble of “slightly irregulars”. To accessorize he wore a tiny gold earring and a bronze tan. Other than the earring it seemed safe to assume that what I found out about his right side would be duplicated or at the very least complimented by his left. He had the kind of long-silky-baby fine-light brown-dark blonde hair that a girl would bleach and only a guy could look good in. His eyes, as I’ve mentioned were blue, sky-blue, framed by long dark lashes. His arms were well defined; his shoulders were as fine a set as I’d ever seen. I loved the way his tie-dyed t-shirt met his belt and his jeans met his cowboy boots. When we stopped for gas I was treated to a rear view which definitely confirmed his place in the “far better than average” bracket. This was the type I favored; good looking, but not too pretty.
We rode along in a stoned euphoria touching upon things we did and didn’t have in common. For one thing Doc was 28 years old and although I tried to make myself seem older than seventeen we were kind of like a really good looking cool guy…and a kid. At that time I had a curly blond perm (a white chick’s stab at an afro), favored bell bottom jeans, peasant tops and platform shoes. On my wrist was this year’s rope bracelet – wore one every year from the beginning of the summer until the day in each fall that my parents insisted I cut the dirty thing off. This one I swore I would wear forever.
I was impressed by the way everything looked new compared to the East Coast and the weather that October was as warm as June in Massachusetts. I got so comfortable I swung my feet onto the dash as we sang along to Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Eagles and the Beatles. “So where to?” Doc said as we got further and further from the airport and closer and closer to the downtown exit. I had no idea and suddenly that seemed ridiculous. I scrunched up my face to keep from letting the smoke out too soon, and also because I had a weird feeling that I might start crying. Eventually I had to exhale but I took my sweet time. Finally I leaned back on the seat feeling defeated and was just about to confess when I noticed an exit ramp for a La Quinta Motor Inn…. When we’d safely passed I said, “I have a reservation at the La Quinta Motor Inn…I believe it’s on Industrial Blvd….do you know where that is?”
“Now I know you can read,” said the sooth, “that’s good, it’ll help, but I wonder….what am I going to do with you?”
I knew this would be the right time to try the sophisticated laugh I had practiced back home in the bathroom. Instead, I burst into tears. “Pot always makes me cry,” I offered, as if that could possibly be true. “Isn’t that wicked weird?”
If anyone else had asked me, at any other time, what they were going to do with me, I would have been instantly defensive, but hey, I’d just quit school, left my maladjusted family and flown more than half-way across the country without any idea of what I’d do when I arrived. So, for some karmic reason, I reasoned in a marijuana haze, my fate was to be decided by the man in the yellow painted van with TAXI-POWER reverberating in day-glow orange on the doors that were surely issuing a death rattle.
A few minutes later he took an exit, some exit and soon we were cruising down a nice tree-lined street. We pulled into a tiny parking lot facing the side of a three story white brick apartment building. It looked pretty sleazy. I was enchanted. He turned off the engine and looked at me with amusement or amazement or just disgust – I couldn’t tell. “You don’t have a place to crash?” I nonchalantly shook my head and ruined it by snorting out some smoke. “I guess you could crash on my couch for a night,” he volunteered, “and tomorrow I could introduce you to some people – somebody might need a roommate. Syd’ll know.” I should have been eternally grateful but at that age I just thought everything was supposed to work out without any effort on my part. “Cool,” I said and I meant that.
We crossed the hot pavement and entered the gloomy looking building. I followed him up the stairs, down the hall up the stairs and down the hall to Apt. 2A, like a lost but found puppy, my tail tucked in one minute, wagging the next. Once the door was open I could see nothing but a big bed in a small room. I was surprised that that was the long and short of it. I’d never been in an apartment before. I’d seen them in the movies, of course, but they were usually spacious Fifth Avenue types. I felt pretty bad for him right off the bat. I assumed he was very poor. Standing in the doorway I hesitated and Doc smiled and said, “Just a sec.” The room barely had room for more than the bed. The next thing he did astounded me. He lifted that bed right up with one arm and slammed it into the wall! Then he closed some doors around it. “That”, he explained, “is a Murphy Bed.” All I could think was, poor poor Doc; so poor his bed comes out of the wall.
Doc told me to grab a seat on the couch which sat opposite the one sad window whose job it was to offer a view of 7-Eleven next door and some large trash bins. Everywhere I looked there was that Indian batik fabric that everyone loved in the sixties. It served as a couch cover, makeshift curtains, shower curtain and covered a couple of crates used as tables. I looked behind me where Doc stood in the alcove that housed a tiny kitchen or what posed as one. There was an ancient anemic looking half-sized refrigerator, an itsy bitsy sink and a rusty red metal stand holding a two burner hot-plate.
“Want a beer?”
“Sure!” He came over to the couch and handed me a glass and a Coors. “Thanks!”
He turned back to the kitchen and I was once again overcome with sadness that he was so poor. The “glass” he placed before me was a big thick Styrofoam thing with a plastic red lip at the top. I poured my beer into it carefully and tried to open my mouth wide enough to take a swig. I never drank my beer but straight from the source, but why embarrass him when he was being so hospitable? Let me tell you, it was damned difficult to negotiate that plastic rim which kept falling off that Styrofoam job which had to be an inch thick! I sensed his presence behind me. I spun around. Doc was staring at me dumbstruck, and in quick succession I at him. His entire beer can was inside the thing! Oh dear! It was a goddamned mini beer cooler? I just wanted the earth to swallow me up. Doc, bless his heart, tried to hold back his laughter, but his face was amuck with contortions. I began to make those God awful noises I make when I’m way past laughing, way past embarrassed and crying would be graceful compared to what was to come – a hysterical weeping convulsive fit complete with bubbles coming out my nose.
I lost all hope of becoming his girlfriend that night. Hopes and dreams crumbled like sand castles tumble. Suddenly I knew him well enough to lie down on the couch with my head in his lap. I had to close my eyes to speak to him, though, as I was still awfully embarrassed. I told him all about the Harts and some of my adventures. That evening when Doc went to band rehearsal I fell into a semi-coma on the couch. When he came back late that night he gently moved the couch against the wall and let his bed out for the night. In the morning we drove to the House of Pancakes.
One night at Doc’s turned into two, and two turned into three, and three might never have turned into four if it hadn’t been for Syd.
By the end of the fourth night, I pretty much knew everyone who was at all connected to the Electric Cowboys (Doc’s band) at Lovely Rita’s. That included bartenders, groupies, cocktail waitresses regulars and friends of friends of friends. And everyone knew me. I was Doc’s friend who was looking for Syd. I think they assumed that I had come to Dallas just to see Syd; it was starting to have a strange effect on me. People would come up to me and say, “So….did you find Syd yet?” “No,” I’d solemnly nod. Then they’d shake their heads as if to say, “Well you know Syd.” I almost felt as if I did, and I’ll admit I was beginning to get a little curious. On the other hand my hopes and dreams about being Doc’s girl had resurfaced and I kind of hoped she never showed. The peculiar thing was, nobody acted concerned. Looking for Syd must have been as customary a practice as an air-raid drill during World War II. I was in no hurry.
That was one thing about the South that I could really get behind – nobody seemed to be in a hurry – ever. About anything: getting anywhere on time, telling a story with the intention of ever getting to the point…just getting things done. Period. Instead, we were all involved in a dream-like production, a slow moving picture called, “Looking for Syd”. My part seemed underdeveloped but I did the best I could.
Although her phone had been disconnected, nobody freaked out. And she had moved her stuff out of her last place, too. “Syd’ll turn up sooner or later…you know Syd”, I heard somebody say in a liquor waxed way, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out to be me.
Of course, to keep things straight, I ought to remind you that I didn’t know Syd yet, so I hope you’re not developing a bad opinion. All this makes Syd sound a bit flakey, when actually she was reasonably responsible, and her feet were pretty firmly planted, it was just that she had no permanent attachments. She’d never enjoyed much of a childhood, and when I met her she was sowing a few wild oats. Going wide. She’d sort of meet people and go live with them for a while, and then something else would come up, and she’d be off again on another adventure, with some new people, and that is why everyone knew Syd – they’d lived with her. I don’t mean to make her sound like a free-loader, either, because she wasn’t. She was very good at making herself useful. She was a great cook, even then, and everybody’s got to eat, right? So people loved to have her stay awhile.
On the third night when we got to the gig, this giant gentle bald guy called The Teacher came up to me and said, “Hey Kid, Syd’s lookin’ for you. You’d better get your ass over to Mother Blues tonight if you don’t want to miss her.” Great. I don’t even know her and now she’s giving me orders, I said under my breath.
“Syd,” said The Teacher, who must have had bionic hearing, “Is your teacher.” This was a man who took his nick-name a bit too seriously, I thought, and made a mental note to never do the same should I ever get lucky enough to have a good one that stuck. Once or twice Doc had called me Sunshine. I didn’t know if I could live with that.
Apparently Mother Blues was a jazz club that got hot after the other clubs closed. I wasn’t even going to mention what The Teacher said to Doc, because I was in no hurry, but there they were on the band break huddled up together, so I knew my hide was fried if I didn’t come clean.
Before you could say “Eat me” we turned into the dirt and crater parking lot of MOTHER BLUES. Doc slid the van in between a black Jaguar and a “could have been anything but mostly rust” Volkswagon. Across the lot were some people hanging in and around a red Mustang convertible, just rapping and smoking, drinking and joking. Suddenly Doc chirped, “There’s Syd!” I guess he could see by the look in my eyes or the way I held onto the dash that I was more than mildly apprehensive. “Listen, Hailey, I just think ya’ll are going to be good friends, and you could use another friend, right?” I nodded. “Well I’m just going to introduce you, and maybe Syd will know about some roommate situation. You can’t stay with me forever, right?”
Why not, I thought, because I was practically in love with the guy, but instead I said, “Of course not! I just….I just don’t get along very well with other women, ya know?” “Well Syd isn’t other women, she’s just Syd. You’ll see, come on.” He was walking away and I had to almost run to catch up.
I just knew which one she was before anybody told me. She was so cool. She was the kind of woman I wanted to be. Even at nineteen she had a certain air about her, a certain kind of centeredness that radiated, and when I heard her speak for the first time, I was mesmerized; not only by her gravelly voice, but by the way her eyes flickered and the way her laughter sung out like a child. It was cool and sexy the way she held her cigarette holder like someone from the 40’s. My eyes were stuck like glue. I saw that pie eye right away. I wanted it. I wanted the mole on her left cheek and her brown wavy hair. I wanted her smile. I wanted her breasts which were larger than mine and her feet. She was barefoot and her beat up cowboy boots were in her lap and her free hand caressed one foot which was elegant and graceful…her fucking feet? I wanted her legs which were maybe an inch or two longer than mine and her jeans that were somehow righter than mine. I wanted to be her – just crawl inside her body and go on from there. I couldn’t even speak. I only saw a marvelous exquisite creature that I could never be. She was confident. Oh, I could tell a lot of jokes and chatter until the cows came home, but I needed to feel accepted first. I needed to feel comfortable which usually took a drink or two. I was always posing as a brave person, but hers was not a false bravado.
“So, Doc, she drawled, drawing us both in with her quick smile, “who do we have here?”
“How do you do?” I mustered, and managed to stick out my hand at the same time. (We were pretty big on that kind of thing in New England.)
“I do fine, do you?” she countered. Everybody laughed, and for a moment I was hurt, but then I could see that she wasn’t being sarcastic, but trying to speak a more formal language. My language. I was glad it was dark because my face could get awfully red when it wanted to.
“Let’s go in!” she said as she jumped off the car and took my arm. I looked over my shoulder at Doc and he winked, so I let her lead me into MOTHER BLUES. I was becoming accustomed to Texas ways. Texans touch you without any warning. New Englanders, on the other hand, are known for being reserved, and so for that matter are Virgos. Both my parents were Virgos, born and bred in the elbow of Massachusetts; they didn’t touch much.
This club was a big old house – the kind with extra porches and eaves, porticos and gables and such. I don’t know what exactly these things are but you can be sure it had them. When you walked in, there was an entranceway with a long staircase leading up to the top floor. They had one of those red velvet ropes that a couple of good looking guys stepped over on their way down. It was plain to see that you had to know someone in charge to go up there. Somebody yelled down from the top of the stairs,
“Hey Syd! Git on up here!” “Later,” she called back, as we walked through the hall and into the main part of the club. It was dark and there was a mahogany bar in the center of the room that wrapped around in a square way. To the left was a stage with about twenty tables and assorted chairs and the odd couch here and there. More than half the tables were abandoned. Ashtrays overflowed and empty beer bottles lined up waiting for execution, or if they were lucky, someone still might deposit a smoldering butt down their necks to fizzle at the bottom in a pool of beer and spit.
In the air I sensed a waiting space. It was the hour after the wreckage of a busy night before the real night began. Little by little the musicians arrived in twos or threes or more. This was the time they came together to hangout and talk about their respective gigs. Then the real music started—when the best of them jammed to please themselves instead of the crowd. It was a mixture of young and old, black and white, country, rock and jazz. It was also the time for snorting coke, dropping acid, smoking pot and drinking tequila – for throwing up, passing out, making plans that would never materialize, dredging up maudlin thoughts and marshalling grandiose ones. I loved it there.
We grabbed a couple of long-neck beers, a couple of shots of Gold at the bar, and a couple of chairs at a table up front. From across the room I saw this blond haired guy with a dark brown mustache and gorgeous eyes. I pretended to be scanning the room. I was adept at watching him watching me without him knowing – so I thought. I could almost feel him looking right through my clothes, and I didn’t mind at all….at least he wasn’t treating me like a kid.
“Do you see that guy up at the bar?” Syd asked.
“Forget about it. That’s Ronnie Carpenter and he’s a real womanizer: love `em and leave `em Ronnie.”
While she was saying this he grinned at me. “You’re too late,” I joked.
“Yea,” Syd said wistfully, I’d give my right tit for him.” “So what’s with you and Doc?”
“Me and Doc? We’re friends,” I added cautiously. Determined not to give an inch until I knew the score. “How about you? What’s your trip with Doc?”
“Me and Doc? We hang together once in a while, that’s about it. He’s the Doctor. Everybody needs their medicine.”
I couldn’t figure out how to read between those lines, so I changed the subject. “I have to find a job and a car and a place to live…got any ideas?”
“I’m in-between all those things myself,” she said “so we can figure this out together. Okay? Tomorrow.”
And we did. We moved into a great old house where several guys we knew lived. Turns out they were all into heroin. I tried it twice. First time I got sick, so I did it again because I didn’t think I’d gotten the full experience. After the house was raided one night when we were both working at the Abbey Inn, we figured we’d better leave town for a while. We took off without valid drivers’ licenses in a 1965 Chevy we bought for $100. We did think to put two pounds of pot in the trunk for financial security. We drove all the way out to LA and slept in rest stops. It was January by then and we’d stop and put on all of our clothes and try not to leave the engine running so long we’d get asphyxiated yet long enough to stay somewhat warm. A few weeks later when we showed up back in Dallas everything had blown over and nobody was looking for us.
After that we lived in a series of places – sometimes apart and sometimes together. Eventually we went our separate ways. I went home to the East Coast and wrote a play about my fucked up family that had a little recognition in New York City on theater row. Mostly I bartended and dated losers. I was attracted to them like a fly to a fly strip. I was in my late thirties before I realized that my life was no longer cute. That’s when I ran into Doc.
Syd went back to Oklahoma City and worked on getting back into the good graces of her kids and her family. Lennon and MacCartney, or Len and Mac as they preferred to go by were loving and forgiving kids – the inlaws and Syd’s parents not so much. Little by little she began to build a live for herself and by her late thirties she finally had the respect of her family. Her father helped her land a job with the city and eventually she became the Oklahoma City Commissioner of Films. Eventually she ran into Doc.
Doc was originally born and raised in Waco, Texas, the oldest son of a wealthy cattle rancher. His real name was Matthew Dalton, initials MD hence Doc. If you’re from that area, you’ve heard of the Dalton Mountains. Doc never wanted to be a cattle rancher, but as the oldest son, he returned to Waco to tend to his mother and the ranch after his father died. Eventually he left his younger brother in charge and moved to LA and became an actor. One thing about Doc was that he knew exactly what he didn’t want – to be a cattle rancher and waste away in Waco. He was often on location and in one year he ran into both Syd and me.
Now 25 years later. Syd and I sit on the porch in Proctorsville, Vermont eating cheese flavored popcorn and talking about our novel: the story of how we all got together again. Did I mention Doc lives here sometimes too when he’s not traveling? Life is full.
Jodi Armstrong is an actress and a playwrite who lives on a NY rooftop with a man, a dog and a cat.