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Prelude to Hemlock

by

Steven D. Vivian


 

Table of Contents

 

One: The Nothing

Two: “Your daughter’s a loser.”

Three: Choking Her

Four: “Hi Jeffrey and hey yourself.”

Five: Lyrics

Six: Snapshot

Seven: Dropout Party

Eight: “She’ll stab her own windpipe.”

Nine: Sundays

Ten: Missing the Gig

Eleven: What the Righteous Really Dread

Twelve: Suburban Damaged

Thirteen: A Vision

Fourteen: To My Soul

Fifteen: Prelate, not Pervert

Sixteen: The Routine

Seventeen: “He follows you.”

Eighteen: Then Came the Shriek

Nineteen: Quite Mad

Twenty: New Year’s Day

Twenty-One: “Like you’re dying and too fucking dumb to stop dying.”

Twenty-Two: Signed

Twenty-Three: Invitations

Twenty-Four: “Look.”

Twenty-Five: “…no God after all.”

Twenty-Six: Bliss cubed

Twenty-Seven: “The sine qua non of my day-to-day dada.

Twenty-Eight: Where the Intellectuals Gather

Twenty-Nine: In Sixty Seconds

Thirty: A Call

Thirty-One: “Because you hate her.”

Thirty-Two: A Visit

Thirty-Three: Only Four Weeks

Thirty-Four: Showtime

Thirty-Five: Were There a God

Thirty-Six: “So just drop out.”

Thirty-Seven: Pay for my Hell

Thirty-Eight: Goodbye, Ivory Towers

Thirty-Nine: Hello, Hollywood

Forty: Speak For the Devil

Forty-One: Even as one Dies

 


One: The Nothing

 

All I did was that crummy little stuff like support you and give you talent and hope! But I was right always right after all, always right. You are perverted skanky money grubers, even Robbie knows that and he’s a MORRON and IDIOT and that makes me a morron?  No a sucker!!  And to think that I gave you every idea you’ve had, both of you!

 

Ive had it and that means you’ve had it and theres no more band because theres no more brains, I am the brains and you stole ideas and ten thousand dollars and I cannot live anymore. the slime and stink of you two. Patty’s right, you are filth you are filth.

 

Eyes half-closed, Dr. Rebecca listened with professional concentration. She was small in the over-stuffed black chair, and her floor lamp threw a warm oval of light upon her charmingly unkempt auburn hair. She’d wanted to untie my tortuous familial knots, and I agreed. But first, I recited what I’d brought with me.

After several paragraphs, I paused for a cigarette. Hearing the flinty scratching of my plastic lighter’s tiny wheel, Dr. Rebecca pointed at the “Please No Smoking” placard upon her bowlegged oak desk.

“Join me?”

“I’d love to,” she said wistfully. “But it’s really bad for you.”

“You doctors, you’re so cowed by good health.”

With a halting hand, she accepted my offer. We smoked in silence, exchanging polite nods when our eyes met, and we used my empty cola can as an ashtray. Finally, cigarettes consumed, I turned again to the yellow legal pad upon my lap.

Take whats left of the money I hope it’s gone in fact I know it is you bloodsucking shits, I spent the last of it on beer and chocolates and Dairy Freeze!! I would now like to publicley announce that I alone am RESPONSABLE for anything GOOD in both of you!! But now you curs your out luck because I’m giving you what’s left. Nothing.

Sniff it and lick it:

Nothing.

Nothing

The Nothing

 

“Jeffrey…why do you enjoy reading that?”

“I like to picture the author, reciting it in her grand manner. Wish I could’ve read it to her just as…Well. Anyway. It’s the best kind of suicide note. It’s got vanity and despair and split infinitives.”

“Did you dissociate that night?”

“You’ve got it backward, doc.”

“How?”

“What you call dissociation is really making the moment last, seeing it from more than one perspective. To, you know, see and experience it more fully. Not push it away.”

Doubts darkened her face. Presently, she tried to sit straight in her chair and, sinking comically into the long-collapsed seat cushion, redoubled her efforts. “You should take a few days off from the hospital visits. They’ve become obsessive.”

My smile compelled her to abandon that particular tack. “Then at the very least, Jeffrey, I must really insist that you stop reading those notes. It’s true that, uh, ritual is an important part of grieving, but ritual can take on a life of its own.”

“I’m grieving,” I snorted, “but not for her.”

“It’s just that, you know, there’s a lot of hatred there.” Chair finally conquered, she continued. “But anyway. Do you still get tired a lot?”

“…I’m about to turn the corner.”

Her gaze loitered upon my eyes’ dark circles. “I think so too.” She smiled with professional optimism. “Your therapy, it’ll go well because you’re smart.”

“Smart enough to stay out of jail.”

“And smart enough to write lyrics for an acclaimed rock band. Not bad.”

“And dumb enough to be friendless and broke and on parole.”

Undeterred, Dr. Rebecca opened her purse and, after a moment’s fishing, retrieved a copy of Femme en Blanc. “See?

      “Thank you.”

“I listened to it on my way into work today. Your sister’s singing, it’s really wonderful.”

Was really wonderful.”

Dr. Rebecca announced that our time was nearly up. Next time, she noted, we might discuss the Westermarck theory. “And Jeffrey, consider moving out of that house. It’s just not healthy to be there by yourself right now.”

I waved away her concerns.

“Or consider a roommate.”

“Lots of possibilities there.” I pretended to hold a newspaper before me. “Wanted: One roommate for court-ordered recipient of psychiatric counseling. Must deeply love classical music (especially Rachmaninoff), must hate most rock music, and must enjoy rumors of devil worship and debauchery.” I tossed aside the imaginary ad. “Females strongly preferred.”

“Remember to keep up with your journal!” she cheerfully reminded as I silently shut her office door. “Write in it every day!”

 

Blitzing my discount cigarettes, I weaved south through the traffic jam then past the newest outcropping of strip malls, car dealerships, fast food emporiums. Bustle yielded to bucolic. I turned down the sloping county highway, and at that moment Kim’s voice jumped from the radio. “Pay for My Hell” was ubiquitous, even on corporate rock radio, the aesthetic of which Kim loathed and the money of which I envied.

Finally, money for sister Kim: money she’d never enjoy.

The familiar drive soothed me…one landmark was a distant hillside upon which Holsteins grazed. Another was a failed roadside diner, its lonely parking lot now rubble beneath tall yellowing grasses. After the final hundred yards down the gravel road, I saw our rental: a Cape Cod, incongruous among the cornfields.

Stepping onto the creaking porch, I heard the music: or rather, I felt the walloping drums of Pad…and as I stepped inside, Kim’s guitar greeted me: the chords fleet and sharp, the lead lines trebly and bright. Her sound was a crashing wave on a white beach, with sparkling foam and blinding sun. Then came her voice: a nearly peerless instrument, its precision heated with sass and verve.

I played her music all the time, even when I was out: it made the house more than a dank reliquary. I recalled Kim sitting upon a squeaking kitchen chair, electric guitar cradled on her lap, bottle of warm soda upon the kitchen table. She’d gesture that I join her and, grocery sacks or clothes basket in my arms, I’d step over the CD’s, guitar picks, and sheet music scattered across the scuffed wood floor.

“Do you happen to have any—”

I’d toss her a nearly empty pack.

Then, cigarette in hand, she’d rise from her chair and pace in excited ellipses around the cramped kitchen. Pinkish crenulations, imprints from the chair, crisscrossed the back of her pale legs.

“See I’ve got this diminished minor seventh thing,” she’d chatter, cigarette smoke trailing her, “this bed of chords with a kind of, uh, a spike of majors right at the end, right to punch it up.”

Upon a neurologist’s screen, Kim’s brainwaves would appear as musical notes. She was the miraculous product—or “spawn”, as our mother often shrieked—of our parents’ musical genes. From our father she inherited inspired melodicism and imposing technical chops; from our mother she inherited, and greatly improved upon, an alto with power in endless reserve.

Me? From our father I inherited only apathy toward normative behavior, though—as you will see, even grudgingly—I’m capable of compassionate love, a virtue neither parent could grasp. From our mother I inherited the capacity to return to her the revulsion she felt for me. And: the gift of finding bliss in an enemy’s ruin.

I picked up my mother’s yellow legal pad. I imagined her, now a sepulchral heap, and recited the palsied script:

 

All I did was that little crummy stuff…

 


 

Two: “Your daughter’s a loser.”

 

As a world-weary sixth-grader, I’d already seen through the charade of public education and fulfilled my academic instincts by reading and re-reading comic books. Through my bedroom’s wall burst Kim’s vocals: she’d hit fifth grade and was already a fully committed singer. Her sheer volume, beyond most adults’, often irritated me. I’d toss the comic book aside, grab one of my otherwise untouched school books as the prop of an aggrieved scholar, and storm from my room.

“C’mon Kim knock it off!”

More singing.

“C’mon knock it off I’m trying to study turn down that music Kim I mean it!”

A giggle, a pause, a new song: an hour became three.

Dad was a professional musician—low brass his expertise—and he enjoyed tenure at the university in the next town. My earliest recollections of him are composed in bright primary colors: he was cheerful, outgoing, talented, and jovially indifferent to family obligations.

I recall him playing his euphonium. He’d sit in the living room upon the scarred piano bench and practice. His musicianship was beyond dispute: I admired the thrilling notes as his fingers danced upon the silver valves with breezy precision. Then he’d pause, grin at me, and wink…the notes leapt from that Wilson’s bell and danced over our heads. A few yards away, Kim lazed upon the gray carpet, humming along as the music—Sparke’s shattering “Fantasy” being my favorite—buoyed our spirits. Dad sometimes indulged us with requests for another composition or just a short tune, such as “Peace, Please.” And he’d rise from his chair, oblige with a comic bow, and show off with flute-like highs and stout, bassy lows. But on balance, Dad was devoted not to familial relations but to giddy feasting upon his university’s co-ed population. One co-ed’s father objected to Professor Edwards’s affair with his daughter. The ensuing academic soap opera left Dad with a lousy teaching schedule and a growing contempt for Mom. Increasingly, he saw Mom—dare I say “correctly”? I shall: correctly—as a woman of diluted affections and concentrated hatreds.

So Dad had still another motive to enjoy much younger female company…a complementary motive being that the younger female company was just that: younger, and animated by all of youth’s charms, its cheerful ignorance and loud enthusiasms.

See? My home movies are lively and alarming. Let’s press the fast forward button. Popcorn? (Kim powdered her popcorn with salt and grated parmesan and, after laying siege to the bowl, threatened to wipe across my face the salt and cheese that stuck to her fingertips).

The images roll by.

Christmas Eve: Kim and I fidget before the sparsely tinseled artificial tree. We’re smiling as best we can as Mom struggles to compose a simple snapshot…Dad’s left her again. She yells at us every half hour then demands we recite five Our Fathers. Kim tensely complies as I slyly revise: “Our Father who farts in Heaven…” Mom musters some impressive method-acting indignation, loudly hoping that I’ll burn in Hell for profaning God on his Son’s birthday, so I tell her to not wreck Christmas by talking about Christ. I spent that Christmas condemned to my room, with Kim on occasion sitting outside my door to complain that she was stuck alone with Mom.

More highlights: a vacation at a shabby imitation Disneyworld. Oh, and there we are trudging with a neighborhood boy between rows of apple trees at an orchard. The boy was embarrassed on the ride back home when Mom erupted at Dad about making her pick all the apples while, at a shady picnic table, he swigged beer. We never saw the boy again. And here’s a vital vignette: Kim and I are late for school (again, yet again), but we won’t walk downstairs and out the door because the parents are fighting (again, yet again). Kim sits on the edge of her bed, waiting for a truce. Then, spirits flagging, she tears a red ribbon from her suddenly disheveled hair, flings it across the room, and cries.

If Mom heard Kim, she’d sprint up the steps, drunk on rum and rage, meaty palm raised. Alarmed, I retrieve the ribbon, place it on the bed, and clumsily brush her hair back into place. Though merely eleven, I know that this halting gesture gives Kim hope that tomorrow will be better, that tomorrow we’d make it out the front door without tip-toeing past warring parents.

Kim calmed herself and, to obscure the bellows below, she quietly sang a currently popular tune.

“That’s pretty good.” For the first time, I’d noticed that she really could sing: the pitch never wavered, her tone was full and, despite her freakish pipes, she already avoided the cardinal sin of diva-style, over-the-top shrieking that should be restricted to cruise ships.

She searched my face for sarcasm and, finding none, said, “Usually you tell me to shut up.”

A bright glittering crash: Mom heaving a carafe through a kitchen window.

Emboldened by my praise—after all, I really did usually tell her to shut up—Kim later that week gathered her nerve to sing for others: Dad & Mom, of course, and then yawning Aunt Jo and Uncle Art…even cretinous cousin Robbie. And even the elderly couple next door, whom Kim once astonished with a patriotic tune as they sat on their front stoop, waiting for Independence Day fireworks.

Eventually, Kim sang in local and regional competitions, usually winning big with an alto rich and knowing far beyond her years. Irate parents at one competition demanded that Kim be barred, as her vast superiority “sent the wrong message”.

“My daughter’s a winner too!” a distraught mother yelled into my mother’s face.

Eyebrow coldly arched, Mom corrected: “Your daughter’s a loser.”

Those competitions held together our family a little longer: Kim’s rehearsing in the living room, our long rides to the competitions at various high school auditoriums and fraternal organizations, our post-competition fast-food dinners…these trifles postponed my family’s final fracture. Now allow me to press the fast-forward button until we reach the final episodes of The Edwards Family.

One late Friday afternoon, a few weeks after my twelfth birthday, another of Dad’s giggling galpal disciples called for “Professor Dave.” Mom dropped the handset, letting it spin wildly at the end its uncoiling cord. Then, the next morning, Mom tossed Dad’s tuba and euphonium onto the front yard. His sheet music, shredded with a straight razor, followed the brass. When I looked out the window that bright Saturday, I fleetingly thought that a parade had crossed our yard: the low brass gleamed gold and silver upon the grass, and confetti was strewn about.

Roars from the kitchen snapped me from my reverie. By the time I tip-toed downstairs, Dad was gone: I caught only a glimpse of his shoulder as the heavy oak door crashed shut.

“What’s, where’s—” I stammered.

Mom’s face contorted in crude pantomime and I thought she was trying to make me laugh.

But making people laugh just wasn’t her: she was mocking my shocked expression. That afternoon, she celebrated Dad’s departure with a pitcher of martinis, a bag of string cheese, and a half carton of cigarettes.

“This time,” she croaked, “he’s really gone. Forever.”

So our family shrunk from quartet to trio. Kim responded by studying music even more seriously. She seemed determined to fill the musical void created by Professor Dave’s absence, even doubling the length of her weekend low brass lessons. Soon she was blistering every chromatic scale exercise that Dad photocopied. And she’d learned to hold back on a tune’s head, raising tension between lead line and rhythm…then she’d snap the line like a sling shot.

Eventually, her weekend visits with Dad became week-long visits, and then she was rarely with Mom and me. When Kim was home, she practiced her new love: the electric guitar. With monkish devotion, she labored over a single song for three to four hours, sitting cross-legged upon the floor, perfecting the guitar lines, then the bass lines, then the vocal lines. Finally rising, she walked comically bow-legged until regaining her sea legs.

Over time, she took to standing as she played, her bony hip pushing out the guitar’s body. She ransacked decades of rock music, seizing upon its melody and texture and passion. The bands? Too many to recount, though I do recall her worship of the Pixies, with their loopy shrieking atop hooky tunes…she loved the L.A. punk band X as well, studying the guitarist’s rambunctious, virtuosic riffing.

“Isn’t that just fantastic guitar?” she demanded after making me sit through several X tunes.

I nodded.

“Just imagine if they could sing.” And so for two hours she sang over the CD, pausing only to soothe her throat with strawberry yogurt. “If only X’d had the marketing machine of—” She wiped a trace of yogurt from her mouth. “—of those frauds The Strokes or, oh I don’t know, any of those 90’s faggot boy bands or all that pathetic rap and hip-hop shit.” And then she was off, belittling hip hop as “made by morons who couldn’t figure out Barney the Purple dinosaur music.”

By the time Kim hit fifteen, her offhand esprit demanded one’s attention: she’d stand in the middle of her CD-littered bedroom, white tee shirt loosely tucked into her jeans, black hair obscuring her face, fingers searing the fret board.

 

As for The Edwards Family’s replacement, Mama Righteous:

“Make me a fresh drink,” she’d sneer, rising from the kitchen table to make the drink herself. Having to make her own drinks offended her, and life without offense bored her. Like an Old West gunfighter, she wielded a bottle in each hand and never missed her mark: a nearly invisible flick of the left wrist produced six splashes of vermouth in the water-marked glass, and a prolonged tremor of the right wrist topped off the concoction with soda water.

One typical Sunday night, I’d made dinner yet again, as Mom hadn’t mastered kitchen arts beyond micro-waved popcorn and burnt burritos. Dad had, in fact, been the family cook by default, and in his absence, I inherited the manly duty of cooking. The night’s dinner was chicken parmesan, spiced with oregano and basil. Mom agreed—barely—that the dish was pretty good.

Pretty good?”

“Don’t look at me that way.” Her vermouth and soda slopped about and spotted her shirt sleeve. “Reminds me of someone.”

“I remind you of him. So you hate me.”

“I wasn’t going to say that…” She glanced downward at her drink, needlessly stirring it with her lacquered little finger.

“Not yet. After another drink, maybe.”

“Okay, so I was going to say that.”

“Then I stand uncorrected.” I turned to my comic book, flattened before me on the kitchen table.

“Aren’t you clever.” She sauntered to the living room to smoke and channel surf. “But not clever enough for your father.” Mom loved making the point that she, not professor Dave, was raising me.

Later that evening, she’d sobered up enough to sample red wine. Which was fine, as red wine pushed her across the continuum of moods. The continuum ranged from choleric to maudlin to something approaching kindness.

“Finish your homework Jeffrey?”

“Yup.”

She stretched upon the couch; her skinny frame barely compressed the old cushions. “I never did my homework until the last minute, and your father always teased me about that. He always got A’s, even when he played all the time in the jazz band.”

And so our Sundays ghost-walked into the workweek, where like so many families—rushed and splintered—we faced the mornings still fatigued by the evenings. Mom chain-smoked between micro-waved instant coffees; I subsisted on apples and chocolate bars. When Kim happened to be home, she sat before the TV with milk-logged cereal. And then with cursory wishes for a good day, we went our own ways…Kim and I to school, Mom to whatever job she held at the moment: private voice tutor or temp word processor or substitute teacher. I recall her harried preparations to sub for the diabetic French teacher…standing behind her and looking over her shoulder, I murmured the phrases, mocking her efforts to memorize the day’s mots justes.

Each morning, it hung in the air…the heavy knowledge that The Edwards Family was long over. Just as well, I figured. It wasn’t very good anyway: loud and lurching, just a failed vaudeville revue fueled by booze and doom.


END OF SAMPLE



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