October 9, 1980
(An observation from March, 1974)
The cartwheel is broken, rotting in the bright sunlight, looking a little like squinting eye ready to close. Brown sided mountains stand behind it at the edge of dead brown field, history claims men died on, but only a vivid imagination can paint their raised hands clutching sunlight and life, not yet aware of when the war exactly ended or if it did, or still goes on – piles of raw wood caskets waiting for their find moment before some general orders them filled, and then buried.
War is hell, some general once said, but for many it is a mud hole where they learn to bleed, dried up river beds with a stream of green running down its middle and stained red by the small rivulets men made when they bleed.
It is all the same sun, now and then, on the same field, preserved by those who survived, to remember those who did not, even if the holes dug to bury the caskets vanished over time. On some mornings, a heavy mist flows over this part of New Jersey, filling in the spaces, covering over the brown stains, making the mountain invisible, out of which deer walk along with the ghosts of those who perished here.
They played guitars, quaint gathering of rooming house regulars, some who slept but did not live there, sharing booze, pot and bed as after dinner mints.
This was hippie stuff three years after hippies supposedly vanished, and the songs came off Joni Mitchell albums, or those by
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
We usually gathered in Meatball’s room on the third floor, leaving little space for the hot air to rise, and the smoke, and the music, all of which curled around the rafters of those attic rooms like spirits.
But this wasn’t high up enough to keep Dave, the landlord from shouting about the volume, even though he lived on the first floor on the far side of the house, in a section of building so excluded we would have forgotten his existence if not for his shouting.
It did not discourage us in the least, since this was a mating ritual and we needed it to pair off, though I rarely was able to pair off with the one I wanted to pair off with the most, since she was the most sought after and the best singer, a look-and-sound alike Joni Mitchell, except with bigger breasts.
She always selected her men with great care, but never the same man twice, and never me.
Perhaps she sensed how scared I was of her, or how much more I wanted than just one night.
She always sang and then went off to one of the other rooms with one of the other men, returning still buttoning her shirt to pack up her guitar and leave, bearing an air of indifference, although each time, just before she vanished down the stairs towards the second floor, she always glanced back at Meatball – who like me was the only other man she never selected, but only because he might not have gone with her if she’d did.
The ritual was always the same, each weekend, me, looking at her, she looking him, and Meatball looking at the end of the smoldering cigar-sized joint he intended to finish without help before he did anything like sang or fucked.
Ed always cursed Meatball for being so reckless with her, saying a man only gets one shot at perfection.
“If you don’t take a gift from God when it’s offered, you may never get another chance,” he told Meatball once, through the haze of his own, if much smaller joint.
Meatball only grunted, and mumbled something like “She’ll be back,” and she always was, banging her way up the stairs with her large guitar case as if she had to announce to everyone her arrival so that everyone would look their best for the selection process, although nobody knew why she picked one man over another, certainly – as Hank proved once – not because of looks.
She always came in high, but not the pot kind, but after a time, I learned that she and Ellen shared their own kind of high with Pete in Helen’s room across the hall before the music started – not digging so deep as to find veins, just a little pop under the skin. Pete later could not resist the plunge, and ended up dead one day in this same room when I took it over from Meatball a year later – but by that time, the routine had changed, and she must have gotten high enough to become brave enough to actually ask Meatball for go with her, and he got high enough to not care and did, and then, she was different, still coming up with the guitar, still singing her songs, but looking at Meatball the whole time not at potential suitors, and when he did not look back, she just glanced and picked anyone, anyone, of course, but me.
But this only lasted a short time, and eventually, Meatball stopped coming, and when she came she spent too long in Helen’s room, and could not play her guitar when she came out, and finally, she stopped coming at all, and Pete only came over to my room to crash, finally crashing for the last time that night in June, 1974, with only me to find his cold shape in the morning. Later, I learned that Pete had loved her, too, and like me, she had never selected him either, unlike me, he had sat through all those nights of her singing and selecting, in utter pain, easing it with a deeper and deeper plunge of the needle and a sleep even Dave’s screaming from the first floor could not wake him out of.