This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Third Entry
It’s been three days since I wrote the previous stuff. My computer time had expired when I had wrote “Sometimes you do know,” and I had fully expected to pick up the narrative the next day.
Unfortunately I had what the staff called a “little setback,” that evening. Lydia came to see me in the guise of one of the head doctors. The instant I realized who it was, I blacked out of the current reality and awoke in the past.
According to Father Hardin, the shell I had vacated launched herself across the table at the doctor, screaming gibberish and had fiery murder in her eyes. Fortunately, I guess, the doctor had entered my room accompanied by an aide who looked like a cross between Divine and an NFL linebacker. The burly aide caught me and planted my crazy-ass face first on the table. This prevented an assault charge; but my fuckery had been so intense that the staff had no choice to sedate me. I wouldn’t stop trying to kill people, which, I don’t mind telling you, doesn’t look so good on your chart. When I returned to my body I discovered that I had earned a 72-hour “time out,” upheld by the team of Thorazine and Versed.
I will tell you once (if there is a you reading this) what I had essentially told Father Hardin twice. The first tale I told him (after I had said “Sometimes you do know”) was highly distorted by the clouds that lie between the present and distant memory, and had been the subject of unconscious editing and bald-faced lying. The second version (told three days later after the veil drawn by the drugs had lifted) I had told him about the day Lydia came to the Home Block was a report of the unadulterated truth. By whatever power, and for whatever reason, Lydia had sent me back to 1971.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Fourth Entry
Tess and I grew up under the exasperated guidance of our mother on Corson Street at Charleston, Washington, in a specific area we kids called the Home Block, and what the good people in Charleston considered skid row. It was the sort of area you either escaped from or died at. Our father had been the victim of a fatal workplace accident when I was two and Tess an infant, so it was always “just the three of us” — which wasn’t always (or even half the time) a good thing. Tess was what you might call “dreamy” and laid back, she got along with everybody, and was able to coast long on charm alone. Mom and I had similar prickly, quick-tempered personalities; and for whatever reason, Mom and I saw only the bad things in ourselves in each other. I cared about Mom, but I didn’t like her very much. I have no doubt that she felt the same way about me.
The Home Block is really a misnomer because nearly everything we did took place in the alley that bisected the block that lay between Corson Street and Wycoff Avenue. Corson was neither residential nor respectable, it remains neither of those things to this day. Although they still exist in the physical sense, my conception of Corson Street and the Home Block Alley have never achieved the escape velocity necessary to break the gravitational bond of memory; I always view the area through the eyes of the child I had been, and never as I am now. Even though we officially resided on Wycoff, the avenue itself never meant anything to anybody, even the mail came through the alley.
We lived in the basement floor of a sagging old former hotel that had been built around the same time Northwestern had gone up. Corson lay at the foot of Torqwamni Hill, which leapt into the sky almost immediately. This caused the Wycoff side of the alley to be ten feet higher than the Corson half. There, a raised row of mostly blackberry- and Scotch broom-choked lots stood behind a procession of interesting businesses, such as Elmo’s Adult Books and The White Pig Tavern (both of which are still going to this very day). Our place was directly behind Elmo’s, and at early ages both Tess and I could tell the real scum from the young guys who had never seen a naked girl before.
“Don’t pick that up, dingbat,” I told Tess one summer day when we’d found a jack-rag tastefully titled Horny Orgies lying on the ground behind Elmo’s. Surprise! Horny Orgies wasn’t one of those upscale jack-rags. It didn’t feature artistic photos of cornfed college pretties playfully showing some of this but not much of that. Oh, no, it was all about the that, and all the nasty things that the sight of the female orifice summon from the deepest hell in the male mind.
“We can use it as trade,” Tess, who was all of nine, said as she picked Horny Orgies up by the corner as though it were a dead rat and placed it in her burlap “treasure” sack, which had mostly been used for the collection of returnable beer and soda bottles (two cents for the small, a nickel for the quart–if you could find any that weren’t cracked).
Tess was right. Call me a man hater, but even at twelve I knew that the boys at Charleston Elementary were little more than perverts in waiting, thus eager pornography customers.
Horny Orgies hadn’t been the first atrocity we had found lying behind Elmo’s. And it always seemed that I’d tell Tess not to pick whatever we found lying there up (mainly because I’d thought it was the sort of thing a big sister should say), to which she’d appeal to my business sense, and I’d relent. Dirty pictures often brought actual folding money at school. Moreover, and trust me, I’m not bragging, I was a very tough kid, and not “for a girl,” either. I only make mention of this because at the end of every dirty picture transaction I always said the same thing to the “client”: “If you get caught and tell on us, I’ll kill you.”
After we had decided on a good hiding hole to keep Horny Orgies on ice until the fall term began, Tess gave me the elbow and said, “There’s that weird kid from school.”
Before “Which one?” popped out of my mouth, I saw her too. It was Lydia. she was dressed as though school was still in session. And those stupid kitty cat glasses gleamed in the sun. She was a little way up the alley from us, and I saw that she was carrying a stack of pamphlets. Like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses usually go from door to door in pairs; but even in her religion, Lydia walked alone. If Lydia had seen us she gave no indication as she went up one of the few stone staircases that didn’t lead to vacant lot. We watched her knock on the door of the small house up there and wait for a reply.
“Ain’t nobody there no more,” Tess called out.
“‘Ain’t no one there anymore,’ Tess,” I said, all scholarly-like.
“She’s right,” I said to Lydia, “the cops tossed them last week.”
I have always found it weird when I meet someone whom I have seen plenty, yet at just one place, like school or work, out in the wild. Ever since I was six, Lydia had only existed from September till June at school. Yet there she was in the middle of July, as big as life there on the Home Block, as out of place as a turtle out of its shell.
I had never seen her smile before, either. Yet a crooked, superior grin creased her lips as she descended the stairs and walked slowly toward us. She was a tall, razor-thin, hatchet-faced girl. Even though she was just twelve like me (an age she’d forever be), her “Lydia uniform” and silent demeanour gave her the frumpiness of a spinster. But there wasn’t anything frumpy about that smile. I swear there was evil in it, as well as payback gleaming behind her glasses.
The three of us stood there for a moment. Then Tess laughed and said, “Dumbo’s watchin’ us.”
“Dumbo” was Mr. Soames. He lived two floors above us. We’d often see his fat ass standing at his window. He was in the habit of asking small children “You wanna see the elephant?” then expose his genitals. No one who could have done something about him ever did so.
Silently, Lydia consulted her stack of pamphlets and gave one to Tess, and from a dress pocket she pulled a single, folded slip of blue paper and handed it to me. Then in her seldom heard whispery voice she said, “No charge. For keeps.”
Tess did that thing with her bottom lip that she always did until her death at fifty-six from a substance that at the time still lay some years ahead in her future. She looked at the tract, it said: WISDOM FROM THE WATCHTOWER. She nodded at her treasure sack and said, “We got somethin’ to look at in here, too, but it’ll cost ya.”
“Tess,” I said without the usual force because the paper Lydia had given me had absorbed my attention. Only one thing printed on it, an unattributed quotation: “All I love dies alone.”
Next “Surprise!”: I didn’t like that paper much. It has never taken me long to heat up, and when I was a girl I was almost always angry to begin with. Although I got mad at her plenty, Tess was only person in the world who had any influence over me when I exploded. I already knew that it was going to take all of Tess’s diplomatic skills to prevent Lydia from getting her ass kicked that day. That smile, that goddam better than you smile. Who did she think she was coming down to the Home Block and tell me how to live in front of my sister and that sick fucker in the upstairs window?
I always chewed bubble gum back then. I recall blowing a huge bubble and popping it with a loud smack as I suddenly reached forward and held the slip of paper about an inch from Lydia’s kitty cat glasses. “What’s this shit mean?”
Lydia did not help herself by holding that smug smile while slowly and sarcastically pronouncing the words on the paper.
Tess never made the right choices for herself in life, even though she always knew what the correct answers were. It was as though she would deliberately torpedo her opportunities at the very last possible moment prior to guaranteed success. She was both the brightest and most self-destructive person I have ever known. And I suppose being that it’s this late in the game, I ought to confess that she is the only person I have ever loved. Yet despite our lifetime of closeness there were areas in her personality that remained as obscure to me as the mind of God — even after her disease had become a tyrannical black hole from which nothing good ever escaped. As children, the two and a half year age difference had put me in charge; yet whenever my prideful, hideous temper caught fire and seemed destined to land me in the “Juvie,” Tess had the presence of mind to take over and was somehow able to predict my actions even though I didn’t know what I was going to do myself. I guess she knew the cock of my head and the snarl of my lip to catch the drift of things to come well enough, but I never knew how she managed to know the precise second in which to take action. Midway through the instant I had decided that it was time to kill Lydia, Tess stepped on the top of my right foot just as I made my lunge, guided me as I fell forward onto the ground, and placed me in a “chin lock” she had learned from “Irish” Paddy Ryan while watching Superstar Wrasslin’. Although I had at least twenty pounds and six inches on Tess, and must have been as hard to hold down as the thrashing halibut that my ex had stupidly brought onboard our small boat once without first killing it, her action had prevented Lydia from soon getting burned to death with a broken nose.
“Run kid!” Tess yelled. “Can’t hold her long!”
I was willing myself up onto my hands and knees and I think I heard that asswipe Dumbo knocking on his window.
“Off me, Tess! Goddammit, lemme go.”
Lydia did run, eventually. But not before the unspoken anger concealed in her smile met her words. Looking back, if it had been any other of her classmates she had seen in the alley her attitude would have been the same. Ostracized for six years by both the children and the school, I imagine she had a great deal of hatred built up, all due to her family’s choice of religion. I guess it just happened to be my lucky day.
“This is the thanks I get for spreading the word to white trash,” Lydia said as I struggled to my feet. Goddam Tess remained on me piggy-back style, her hands still locked on my chin. “All you at school treat me like dirt, but not a one of you lives any better than a nigger.”
Dumbo began knocking on his window again. This infuriated me even more, for I could imagine the bastard up there with his gross dong hanging out and laughing at me. I screamed and peeled Tess off of my back, she dropped to the ground and tried to wrap her arms around my ankles, but, for once, I knew that one was coming. I broke her attempted tackle and lit out after Lydia.
Lydia had a good head start and she flung the pamphlets back at me and began to laugh as though she were having the time of her life. “Be sure to read them, if you know how. We print them for the less fortunate, like you. I feel oh so sorry for you-hoo.” Nothing anyone had ever said to me before or since has wounded my pride as had that.
On top of everything, Jesus Christ, that girl could run. Her long legs effortlessly carried her out of the alley and to what apparently was her family car, which had been parked where the alley and Corson met Farragut Avenue, without me gaining an inch on her. The sight of her parents in the front (along with various male and female versions of Lydia in the back seat) seat told me that this day was hers. I had rightfully expected her dad to come out of the car and inquire into the fuss, but he simply drove away.
There had always been odd pockets of cold clarity within my childhood rages. Although I blew up mindlessly and often, I would just as suddenly sail into a calm place and examine what had just transpired and would make plans to fix anything that had gone wrong, later. And as I watched Lydia’s car disappear from view, I marked her for a measure of extreme payback, come September. What I would do to even up that “I feel oh so sorry for you-hoo,” would most likely get me suspended or even expelled, but it would be worth the price. Of course, that never happened. That September and almost fifty more have passed since Lydia was on this side of the grave.
Tess finally caught up with me. I whipped around to face her. I guess any other big sister would have gone to town on her as to blow off the pent up violence, and for her role in Lydia’s escape. But I never did that sort of thing to Tess, even though she would sometimes press my buttons for no discernible reason other than the pure hell of it.
I squinted at her, cocked my head, faked a punch. She smiled and offered me a few pieces of Bazooka Joe she had in her treasure sack because I had lost my chaw somewhere along the alley.
“You think Dumbo will tell Mom?” she asked.
“Who cares? Maybe he’ll show her the elephant.”
When Tess again did that thing with her bottom lip, I felt myself plunge through the years and awaken in the now experiencing a sadness so profound and hopeless that it was unto itself beautiful.
As I lay in a restrained stupor, those words, “All I love dies alone,” echoed throughout my mind. For three days I dreamt uneasy dreams: I dreamt of the Forty Year War Tess (and in an even much more profound sense, that I ) had fought with heroin, methadone, morphine, and the Legion of guises under which that devil goes by. It had been a Forty Year War that had an inevitable outcome.
I dreamt of the useless stints in rehab, the 2 am phone calls, and the lies. And I dreamt of her uncanny knack of ruining my mood when all was well, by coming to me and affecting an abused, hard version of that thing she used to do with the bottom of her lip. And I dreamt of the money I threw at her bullshit, even though I knew that it wouldn’t be going toward the power bill. Upon handing it over I would console myself that it was better that Tess would get the cash from me instead of turning a trick behind the White Pig, in the alley in which she used to prowl for items to fill her treasure sack. But in reality I had done it for myself. I needed her to go away. The Forty Year War had contained hundreds of similar crimes.
And I dreamt of the thousands of “Yeah, yeah, honey, just let me get well and I’ll go back to Echo Glen with you tomorrow morning. It’s just that it hurts so bad today.” Then she’d either sneak out of my house before I got up or no show the next day, and I’d have to take off work and go look for her. And well into those times a horrible, self-incriminating thought would come to my mind: “Maybe she’s dead this time.” And I’d either find her or she’d turn up on her own just when the battle smoke had cleared enough and allowed me a glimpse of a satisfactory future without Tess being in it. Then she’d start to cry and wrap herself around me and still trade on the early won, thus eternal love I had for her. And I dreamt of the guilt I felt for wishing her dead.
It’s an old story, known to millions of similar codependent refugees. On the day the Forty Year War ended, Tess had been assigned to the county rehab facility for yet another shoplifting conviction. She had earned a half-day furlough and I was going to take her to lunch that day. I remember feeling nothing at all when the call came. Somehow she had gotten hold of a dose of smack too strong for her decimated system. She had passed out and never woke up. The Forty Year War had died in its sleep.
Squirrel Pen Diary: Final Entry
Sometimes somethings can never be made all right again. You have to let them go, for they belong only to the past, and they gasp and wither and die and their remains become toxic in the alien atmosphere of the now. Just like the acceptance of the fact life isn’t fair is a necessary component in growing up, knowing when to let go of what you love most does not mean that you love it less, but perhaps, it may allow you to love it more wisely.
The birthing of demons is a nothing trick to the infinite mind — that unfettered god-maker capable of lighting, smoking, and crushing out the universe as though it were a cigarette. Yet it was the demon Lydia, the same one who had caused me to climb to a church attic and enter the dismal shadowland lying at the end of the universe, and the same one who had placed me in the Arcon Patch (nearly for keeps), who had shone the light of purifying truth on the blackest of all my self told lies.
As I prepared for my release from the underfed bosom of the Washington State Mental Health Authority, this morning, I had cleverly thought it would be unworthy of me and disrespectful to Tess and, yes, even Lydia (whom nobody has probably thought of in years), to blithely speak of the simplicity of the cure that had found me. Yet, as Father Hardin had finally stopped saying, I somehow whipped together my remorse of not being able to save Tess with an essentially unrelated ugly memory, an out of context quotation of some sort, and invented a third thing.
All I love dies alone.
Still, there remains one final question Father Hardin cannot provide a simple answer for:
Do Angels and Demons have lives, thoughts and Free Wills of their own, even though they may only make contact under conditions that make their existences unprovable?
He said he will only work on the answer to that if sees me at church, but not up on the balcony.
I may just do that. But right now as I write this in the computer room, awaiting my discharge/exit interview, and wondering if that is such a good idea. You see, in my room a piece of blue paper, quite yellowed with great age appeared on the nightstand as I slept. I haven’t dared touch it; for it reminds me too clearly of the slip that Lydia had given me in the alley. Although it may seem ridiculous, I know that it’s lying face down. Right now I’m going to send for Father Hardin. And I’m afraid. So very afraid.