I called the doctor
Up in the mornin’.
I had a fever.
It was a warnin’.
She said, “There’s nothin’ I can prescribe
to keep your raunchy bag of bones alive . . .”
“Slow Death” (1971)
A dusty pickup truck with a lot of rugged miles on it is moving at a solid clip along a road in the Snake River floodplain of Idaho, a gray-haired woman with a lot of rugged miles on her at the wheel. She steers with one elbow while she rolls a cigarette, then lights it with her Zippo and picks up her conversation with the smoke where it never left off.
Amortize the grief again as the freeze frames thaw?
My brother Stefan could hear past the piano to the volcano inside, an old Starck upright, or anyhow thought that was the glow.
Knockdown silence rained within its boxy perimeter, but he calculated an old warhorse was what it never trudged beyond in its working life, a valiant beast of repetitious labor.
Sullen pupils like invasive damp it must of endured, perpetual beginnings.
Stefan knew zilch about music but his fingers soon coaxed zany hybrids out anyway, out there on the nether edge of the orchard from our house, in that barn a muddier red than the apples.
He had haphazard friends enough—all barely fourteen, all just as skinny and shaggy and spracky as he was—to muscle the piano from a flat-bed truck to its destined niche, an extra-roomy stall off the narthex of the barn.
Digs for a prize bull, must of been, or one of them snobbish stallions you hear so much about.
The boys’ haulage was abetted with abundant profanity, of course, and groans of indebtedness to Archimedes.
Sweaty work indeed, and the boys pell-melled straight to the swimming hole before the piano’s abrupt new future’s dust and dust mites had even finished drifting back down.
Well, that hick cousin of a Steinway didn’t dunch there idle for long, tell you that, not with a Rachmaninoff knockoff like Stefan squirmin’ in the salvage-bird seat.
His ivory tentative tickling bruited up a tantalizing trail, and, reckless of consequence, these he veered—beagle mode was his default gear even in his papoose days—and the fronds were eggers-on and soon joined in.
They’d flummox out tramps to exhaustion, cheerful vagabonds in even the wretchedest weather, squalls and frenzies with only themselves to blame.
Clonic threads of harmony and malady were macramés they mauled like trolls, judging their bungles with divine ears.
They hobbled along as parody dubious sidemen, them boys, since not all of ’em were Stefan’s soccer pals, with feet nimble as a juggler’s hands.
But you takes what the world divvies out and works with that, right?: can’t everyone streak and zig and score like Pelé.
Not to mention fists, too, could burst out atavistic gorillas, and blunt blurts of elbows, when their times came.
Pummels to the keys in bunches, clutches, harsh and rude.
Like to when puffball spats erupted in their goonish, buffoonish scrums—shoves, punches, insults so lame they’d make a greenhorn snuff-addict yawn in mid-sneeze: stork your this and suck my that and pumpkin jiggle your igloo!
Then they’d Davey all Goliath when they patched things up, the gawky cubs, pronto as spattered blobs of mercury.
Guys are too friggin’ comical to be believed, growed men no lass than lads.
They basically treat each other like cars—or bikes’d be more like it, at that age—is what it boils down to, and how can you beer a grudge against your wheels?: ixnay on the stasis basis alone, obviously.
Please, jeez—no opera!
And thumbs and only thumbs they’d plonk down, ardor the blue and two by two, a magpie lineup of anti-hitchhikers jabbing, jabbing, jabbing—but, gettin’ zero vim in their hubcaps that way, they’d kick-startle their mojocycles soon enough to a jauntier empyrean, extolling languor to another day.
Even their foreheads weren’t above ball-peening a spastic jalopy’s judders out of the strings.
And friction tape and copper wire got wrapped around choice hammers, and pebbles, pennies, and BBs got glued: anything to warp a corvid ruckus to the thunder, Omahkai’stoo—that’s Raven, to you conquistador types—their genius loco.
Did we have parents and what did they think?
Yes, we had parents, but they’d’ve scuttled their whole armada of child-rearing theories sooner than submit Stefan to lessons he hadn’t requested.
Stiffen his feline spine with a dowdy armature never!
Quests first, that’s the caravel, then requisition expertise.
They didn’t care what we did as long as it wasn’t annihilation in disguise.
Leave that to czars and prairie fires, hey?
Nomadic souls if ever there were, our dam and our sire, our source and his sorceress.
Our pops, Isak Löfgren, born Innokenty (but ain’t we all), was a Russian orphan who’d flown the Soviet coop during the Sputnik tizzy, when he was a mere stripling, barley a tanager.
He was wrinkling his brow in a chess tournament in Kajaani, Finland, and contrived to sneak away from his minders and scarf a skiff and row across Oulujärvi and down the Oulujoki all the way to the wharfs of Oulu itself, that jewel of the Bothnian Gulf, where a crinkle-eyed pastor and his equally kindly wife fed and sheltered him till the blisters on his palms healed, after which recupertative hiatus he hitchhiked north along the coast road to a little café in Kemi, where he cadged a ride on a milk truck meandering back over to Sweden, simple as that.
The borders thereabouts warrant exactly bristling with bayonets.
He was way too moony a calf for his defection to put a twist in the Politburo’s panties—them bibulous boobniks had far bigger fissions to fry.
He homogenized himself into Swedish life as a sort of cowherd cum visiting cousin at a dairy farm in a quaint village near Boden, with a farmer who had Kropotkin and Bakunin enshrined on his shelves and thought nothing of firing off letters to the king and invited Pops to adopt his family name and sent him to school with his own kids and he’d like to see anyone try and stop him.
Three years later—tearful hugs all round, “Lycka till på din odysse!”—a ruddier Isak took passage on a freighter from the backwater port of Obbola to Aberdeen (where his foster father had a kamrat from the war), aboded there a few spurns of the wheel, then furthered his picaresque to Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, and on to the good ol’ U.S.A.
Vän to vän, in the vast värld’s vale, the chain of vänskap glowed, a global cabal of amity, and Pops wended up upended in Montana but soon set right, and grindstoned his kanozzle all the way to botany and genetics in college and, yea, even unto a Ph.D.
Missoula’s where he met our mum, Eliza Lone Plume, a Blackfoot girl from Browning, who was roving in the brambles of linguistics, hunting for patterns in the idioms of the surviving dialects of her natal tongue—and in Arapaho, to guarantee the scientific zing.
She knew better than her profs that she wasn’t gonna find any.
Our dad’s myopic topic was the ecology of the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, the sole surviving species in its clade—least I think that’s how Pops put it—and that...that dendritic affinity, as you might say, explains how we ended up denizens of scenic, sprawling, tectonically iconic Northern Cal, tucked in a rustic nook called Yontocket.
Ghosts fog the slough there even on cloudless days.
Thumbnail epic in a nutshell, hey?
But cark a lark and oakum me corncrib, as the tornado said to the vole, phylogeny be hanged for a quibbler’s noose: the lung and the shirt of it was, the droving farce of Stefan’s music corm’d from deep within himself and nowheres else, that’s how noisy fate, meddle and then some as ever, clattered—slag and nugget, nugget and slag—down the sluice.
Now you’re cookin’ with microwaves, girl, positively coruscatin’ with originality.
Better watch out or you’ll originate yourself right into a ditch.
Music was the first whim that siphoned any of his loyalty off soccer, the only pursuit he cared about when he discovered how fast he could run—and how fun it was to run fast, “like drinking a thought as thick as a thick milkshake,” as he put it, “and savoring the cold chocolate like a heart that’ll beat in your chest forever”—but the knowledge, acquired without the usual tax, sapped no supple fervor from his toes.
We’d long since stopped fearing for his sanity when he crinkled out flannel shirts like that, whose wavery weirdnesses, like fishy weeds and weedy fish in a creek, blended over time into a patois that seemed normal.
We shudder’ve feared longer, maybe, shored his shadows more.
Banquets of blame to go around, parflèches of bitter pemmican.
He wasn’t trying to be a jerk or anything, some dorky pseudo-poet with nothing less squirrely to say.
He cruised along fine on teams but lolled his lakes of solitude, too.
His nickname on the rez was Vanish.
Stefan had the cavalier attitude of a flying snake about his touchés, to meek a shortcake hot of it, like the brutalist grimer-upper of the pristine he’d’ve probably bragged he was, if he’d been born any kind of braggart, to vaunt like a frog over squalling ferns, strawed up to stave off frost.
“Why is swordfighting called fencing?” he once asked, watching a pony gallop a neighbor’s corral.
He never expected answers, still less altercated over the ones he got.
One day he said in a quiet voice that he wanted to hear savage music “like conking a TV down the stairs on a satin wedding gown,” so he and his henchmen invaded a few attics till they found those sad things—it wasn’t difficult, actually—but the moronic descent was strictly in his head, so the finds languished in the hayloft, under tarps, for several months.
Then the boys concluded, to gaffe a dignified term to a forensic fangle, a movie’d be jazzed the thing, and roped me in—half a decade older, I was irredeemably a filmmaker even then—and didn’t we clunk that archaic Zenith to an ignominious nadir, though, guy-wires gripping its battens, a silo fan whuffling the gown, and, voilà, the larval discord was at last a mottled moth, drying off its dazed new wings.
Like true prima donnas, they left the whole technical rigmarole to me, and to be on the safe side I got Electron Ron, the token nerd of their posse, to perform a prophylactic picture-tube-ectomy, to preëmpt a shard petard imploding the whole scene.
Ronnie knew on his own to degauss the coils first.
Credit where credit’s due, but don’t overpay, as the nickel said to the dime—as every gynosaur on my side of the aisle knows, feminine intuition wilts like leafy greens when you plump it in a hothouse of pure testosterone.
But someone had to fleech the flax to the spindle, so guess whom?
I was Stefan’s only sister, after all, and we were pretty sure we didn’t have another brother, at least not on this planet, so we murdered dew with each other.
Clover and daisies, cornstalks and rye.
And don’t forget the forget-me-nots.
Of course there was a long, involved stammer to the narcotics, and I’ll get to that.
I’ll get to that, but not today.
Anybody’d of figured Stefan and his mates had made medical history as the first-ever case of epidemic teenage shingles, they was so allergic to keepin’ their shirts on out there in that orchestral inferno they juked up like torrential calliopes—they hadn’t all even had the chicken pox yet—but they couldn’t care less if I seen ’em naked to the waist and beyond, since they’d been fixtures so long they were practically family, skinny-dipping in Rowdy Creek and roughhousing with Stefan since back when girls meant less than nothing to them, when they were tadpoles afloat in turbid innocence, cavorting like an Eakins painting come to life, hair plastered down their heads and shoulders like manic otters in a mudslick nirvana.
They knew what they weren’t before they knew what they were.
But it didn’t take no shaman’s peepers to glimpse in the mongrel blur of their physiques how Nature aimed to flesh ’em out frame by frame, curve by hollow, and swifter than they knew.
Erotic frizzles blipped their ids once in a raunchy while, sure, when I was the lone bitch out yonder in their kennel, my camera’s eye the sole cyclops they was seducin’ and they could nuzzle the portcullis of taboo, so to speak, without fear of scalding pitch bein’ hove down off the parapets, but back then I moistly maiden a swell of been a littermate of our trusty Akbash, Tramper, for all their barracks etiquette meeked ’em blush.
He’d’ve stopped the dire wolf stalking Stefan, good old Tramper—if only he’d got a whiff, if he’d only known to sniff that stalker out, roots and all.
Snuff him, garotte him, rip his dead guts ragged off the stage.
But there ain’t no secant ax in Native American lives.
Half the blood in my veins knows it’s true, mama: one cut’s all we get.
Known enough dudes in other so-called bands over the years—I had my rammucky phase, too, same as most free spirits—snagging their vocal cords on snaffles of mournful thorns, hound-dogging their hearts out about love and chicks and doing it all night long, but I’m a polecat’s favorite cologne if it wasn’t mainly and precisely the lack that gave them the priapic gumbo to yowl and head-bang and pour out buckets of sweat about, and that dearth, bittersweet dearth and righteous paucity, was exactly what they wanted, at that leery limbo of their lives.
They’d never admit it, but it was obvious they’d rather hang out and get wrecked with each other—or goof around sans any drugs at all—than have actual flesh-and-blood girlfriends, and that was fine with me.
Trapped in their bodies and perfectly content to stay trapped in there.
Scary gadding out in the big, scary world, and scary to let someone in—let a girl, never mind a woman, in.
Letting each other in is no less scary, of course, ’cept there’s lots more excape valves.
Regular submarine control room to choose from, hey?—once you conquer the claustrophobia.
Ah, water I narrow from the obvious: I’m the world’s misleading expert on nothin’ whetstones quaver.
Wool, zolly, Miss Dolly, jest splice in a few more trombone zooms, then.
Vertigo the voyeurs to the edge of their eyeballs and they won’t care where your ignorance ends or beguilin’ beguine begins.
And hocus my focus if them juvenile extras each starrin’ in his own feature-length cameo wasn’t all the time, all the time famished for pancakes, spaghetti, peanut-butter sandwiches, and anything else a locust might buzz its hind legs to gather was richly gooey grain enough to smucker its gourmet mandibles.
When they didn’t just swig maple syrup straight from the jug in the fever of a musical swell.
Their whole ramshackle pterodactyl tabernacle had the grubby gym odor of vintage sneakers after a while, like a place snakes go and therefore rabbits don’t.
Of course they numbed their bandolier the Jockstrap Ronins, and lost no time gettin’ their hands on guitars and drums and tarnished brasses, so their racket wasn’t such a gravelly cascade.
“Promise me that’s not a clue to the costumes you’re planning to wear onstage,” I said.
Wasn’t long before they turned our whole house and that barn into a bivouac for zoo animals in reverse exile to a savanna they’d already migrated in fantasies more vivid than any concrete puddle of time desiccated sepia in a halftone.
Actually, I’d give a lot for a souvenir like that, since these atomic facts I’m recollecting collided a long, long time ago, and I reserve the right, hereby and forthwith and habeas carcass notwithstanding, to fade, too, into a nostalgic rusticity.
Fat chance karma complies without barrels more bleach, though.
Some of the weird sounds they came up with did have an unearthly, hypnotic throb to them, catchy not to say infectious when they hit the groove, like a didgeridoo echoing in a steam room with white tiles everywhere except the glass door, or a mike on the throat of a nightingale jicked to high reverb and drawn out till the last liquid arpeggio fades to naught.
Veerin’ perilously close to poetry here, don’t think I don’t know it.
Good thing no one’s here to overhear.
No worries, though, as the kids say nowadays, as if Alfred E. Neuman hadn’t more or less beat ’em to it.
But we never was easy gals to eavesdrop, was we, Mathilda?—with all the miles we’ve rode, and you so laconic.
Our secrets are as safe as Stefan’s, that’s no lie.
He’d be a balding frump goin’ placidly to seed anyway, by now—as much as any of us lucky losers is.
So why does it feel like the scars’ fine structure got twilled together no more than a week ago from how sad I can still be when certain weedscapes whip past the side window of my truck?
Was that stark Apache plume just now still a part of Idaho, or am I just a beeline to jimsonweed again?
A portion of a fugitive storm, or a cougar against boulders the exact color as itself flashing past?
I’m thinking these thoughts in a free-speed zone, you understand, with no other vehicle in sight.
Not a buzzard in the haze, not a diamondback lazing on the asphalt.
Just me, myself, and I, alone with any lane we lurk to travail.
That was the biggest joke, how it wasn’t Oregon and it wasn’t even Wyoming, since it might of changed everything if it had been either, if the sequoias had still lofted a more majestic range.
Maybe not different drugs, but less of ’em.
California’s always the end of the line.
Often as not the whole crew’d sleep over out in the barn, if it wasn’t winter and there were too many to cram in Stefan’s room, which usually there were.
Unholy maelstroms till hell’s own bedtime, then they’d chonk together pallets out of haybales, and there were a couple of camp cots out there, too, and a grotty old couch, and the spavined back seat of an old Buick.
Quilts and thrift-store throws and scratchy horse blankets.
There wasn’t a proper bathroom but the old outhouse was intact—mind you sweeps the oculus for widders!—and they’d just piss out behind the barn any old where, and brush their teeth and wash at the pump, which still drew water even though there hadn’t been critters around for going on fifteen years.
Well, wince a farm, always a farm.
Miss that damn urchin era, damn you, Stefan, why’d you haft to jerboa arterial straight to the tap, dragooning me the catalytic atlatl?
Circus my crocus nods, so brief, so fitful brief.
Ah, but what a sparky fardel of galoots while they shone.
Electron Ron, that veritable transistor radio with gonads, Phi Beta Zappa hair like a scribbled schematic of a perpetual-orgasm machine, who—when his inventive paws wasn’t otherwise busy—hillbilly’d a way to clinch pickups on the strings and the soundboard and the hammer shanks and could pluck that chthonic lyre like a paragon manqué of an angel’s harp or invade the innards with pencil stubs or a stiff wire brush or what have you.
And Adrian van Hoot-’n-holler they all called Digger, with them talismanic chokers forever around his neck like some Dayak witch doctor’s son and rival bent on voodoo overkill, mystic finds from all his excavations, rattlebox root and buckeye seeds and lancetooth shells, bears’ fangs, fool’s gold, tick tweezers, two knives, and a roach clip made from scavenged trout-reel widgets.
Survival of the fitted-outest.
And let’s not forget Deek the freak and blasé acrobat, a Whilkut cater-cuz with hair as jet as Mumsy’s, flippin’ handsprings like a circus marmoset, with castanets and elf bells shackled to his heels—and Bald Hills terror and pity and vengeance, futile vengeance, silted in his eyes.
What a crew; what a zoo; what a cash-in on all the trouble and care folks took that loved them, even some they never met.
Now you done it again, Aurora, and got your waterworks good and primed.
Why not go all the way, whimper up another wimple, another cowl to cower under, a nun buoy for all them boys-that-was who ain’t no more, bobbin’ in that implacable tramp steamer Chronos’s wake?
Yick—cue the Pachelbel, maestro!
Jig us a cannon and yodel up a smarm.
Or better yet, fire us up another kinnikinnick stick, hey?
Ain’t nothin’ a mellow cloud of pi’ksiistsimaan smoke can’t cure.
Hell, I’ll be rollin’ these babies with my toes before they’ve curled up for good.
Plenty of bearberry swaled all along in through that lazy bend down over there, if I’m not mistaken—that’d be a first!—down where the bank’s eroded all wrinkly and mazy, like the place we camped that time with Gramps Lone Plume, on the Gallatin, and learned to make fish traps the old way.
And Stefan made like an apex páxikúyi, and gobbled his sushi raw.
What do you think, there, Puff, what do you say—too late to resurrect the autumn mist for one last frolic?
Rechristen the old homestead and call it Honahlee?
They conjured some hectic cacophonies, all right, and learned to layer in droning, shimmering, trippy, trancy purple and deep-blue passages I always thought went on too long but they thought were tropic lagoons they’d happily drown in.
Froze to catatonic catafalques of themselves the first time I filmed ’em, naïve gooneys, but they got used to the camera pretty fast, and after that it was almost always a stimulant to cranking out their best stuff, rooster struts doodled midair to the blinkety shutter.
All the films I made are long gone, of course—I lapsed into a cyclonic downspin of my own after Stefan’s funeral (her lost years! how classic! how apt!), quizzing every trap door I could find that I thought he might’ve fallen through—except for one reel, when they were sixteen, that did, miraculously, survive.
Shot it on a no-frills Keystone Capri 8-mm. job also long gone, a real museum piece.
I wouldn’t even trust that stupid ribbon of celluloid to the Louvre unless I thought they had a deep enough vault, guarded by a turtle rock as sacred as me.
Can’t bear to watch the damn thing, and can’t not.
There they are, Stefan, Deek, Ripple, Sammy, Digger, and Ron, the mainstay ronins in the truss fund, hair draping their shoulders, barefoot and clad in grungy jeans, tanned as old baseball mitts and sweating like marathoners in the Zeno zone of the home stretch, riding a high like kestrels cavorting in the updrafts of a canyon gone all crimson and gold from the dusty slant of the setting sun’s rays, taut as scrimshaw dolphins in the surf, swapping instruments mid-song like freebooters in the freemasonry of their plunder—piratic pilgrims! gleeful thieves!—ready to fling half the loot overboard to glory in the splashes where the grinning sharks patrol, riding their war ponies higher and higher up sheer cliffs of ecstasy, photons by the oceanful ravishing over them like honey through the barn door’s gape, acoustic shivers reverbing off the panels of chimney flashing wedged in the rafters, sax wails dulled to doom in a cistern spilling out like rivers of animate silk, a long, plangent, sacerdotal lintel to the words,
I saw her talkin’ lonely to the only sky one night,
out by the ocean where the payphone’s so uptight—
said she was done with dreaming,
with deception and with seeming,
with all ferocious losses
and the shattered shadows’ screaming,
with words from impish josses
and their enigmatic meaning,
with force and loss and haste and hate
in every country teeming,
and only wants a star whose light’s gone pure,
so pure, and only wants a star whose light’s gone pure,
even if that starlight’s star’s pure gone.
Chicks like that haunt every beach, I told them.
Go find yours, I left out.
• • •
Well, that was today’s jaunt to the grocery store, and damned if I can remember what I came for.
Might as well jest buy one of everything, then, that’s what Stefan would have said.
Next trip a less mawkish elegy, I promise.