Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dodo, Chapter Fourteen, The Flowered Stage

Day-Glo’s was a little more upscale than most of the clubs we were used to, but it was otherwise no less parochial in its taste for performers. It was the typical mid-80s rust belt review of parking garage rock, new wave, and college radio favorites. They often seemed to book bands from novel-sounding places like Wales and Australia, prompting the tactless owner on one occasion to decorate the front of the stage with stuffed kangaroos and koala bears, a decision that led to a storm of loose stuffing filling the dance floor, moments after the confused band had begun its kinetic barrage.
     Glo’s, as we eventually came to know it, was thoroughly Pittsburgh, in spite of its awkward attempt at being cosmopolitan. We were drawn there, the Manchester Pals – Iceman, me, Meat, Bettina, Carl, even Willy Blanefield III, before he was ejected and tried unsuccessfully to return in various ridiculous disguises. Their liberally-run open stage night was the main attraction, a mad free-for-all of totally uncensored comedy, theater, and music, held every Tuesday, nine to midnight. It was the golden moment of the week, back there in those shabby, hair-brained days in the only American city I’ve ever grown to think of as home, despite my many more years stuck in Cuyahoga.
     The association began one typical, restless summer evening.
     I was living in a house in the Shadyside district, another of my countless temporary residences, existing day to day on the grace of the household, knowing my presence was tolerated by only half the tenants. This was before I’d met F. I was still working at ridding myself of my Bettina crush, something that had been made all but intolerable upon discovering she and Helmut were sleeping together. I’d followed a tiny blonde girl named Dot, who was hardly more than that. If not for her prominent cheekbones, dark-lined eyes, and spiky bottle-blonde hair, she might as well have been a child, at least fully clothed. Her narrow hips and flat chest enabled her to comfortably dress like everyone else, especially the boys, all of us in our finest rags, the accruements of our certified punk bohemia.
     I remember Dot’s favorite top, a black AC/DC T-shirt that she’d raggedly cut the sleeves from with a pair of paper scissors. She wear it without need for a bra, proud of her androgynous aura, as ready as anyone to smash a vacant window or tip over a USA Today box, those strange street totems that had shown up earlier that year, designed to look like futuristic televisions.
     Dot was from Australia. She was the first to grab one of the kangaroos at Glo’s that night and tear off its head with a gleeful relish, sending a burst of sneeze-inducing stuffing my way.
     She told me how she and her father had sailed to the U.S. in a small wooden boat he’d made himself, the night we’d first kissed, soon after we’d made our way into her bedroom, shedding our clothes and squirming about her bed like two gerbils in a cup, each unsure how to take it any further.
     Not much more than four foot ten, with her compact, tanned body, artificially white hair and big eyes, she was more like a kewpie doll than a human being. She’d quit college in Ohio, having come to Pittsburgh to start her own band. Two months into it, she’d found only a keyboard player to accompany her awkward, tribal drumming. They called themselves Botched Abortion and practiced in the one-car garage behind the split-level house she shared with the keyboardist, Tyla, Robin (Tyla’s younger sister), and Bettina. Dating Bettina’s housemate was all part of my approach to getting over her, what I saw as her betrayal of my feelings, the hurt I was attempting to toss right back in her face by spending so much time with little Dot.
     I was sitting out on the tarpaper roof of the house’s big front porch, my arms folded behind my head, resting against Dot’s open window. She hadn’t returned home from her job at a fast food joint on Liberty Avenue, over in Oakland, not far from the Kings Court theater, where I’d see
Pink Floyd’s The Wall just a few weeks later, already deep in crush with F.
     It was one of those summer evenings when the whole world feels warm – the air, the ground, the entire city – it was all one big, inviting lap. We usually prowled aimlessly on such nights, those of us without jobs that required an early start. We’d race down the streets lined with affluent older homes, their spire-shaped attics and black iron fences, the gothic mini castles inhabited by professors and faculty of the near-by Carnegie Mellon University.
     I was listening to the reliable static throbbing of crickets, the low murmur of traffic along Walnut street, when I heard the sudden voice.
     “Hey! T-Tone! Rise and shine, motherfucker!”
     Startled, I opened my eyes, leaning forward, remembering I was some fifteen feet above the street, my bare feet only inches from the edge of the roof.
     “Come on down, man! We’re gonna
     It was Iceman, all six foot three of him. He was the only person who called me T-Tone, a nickname he coined the day I first showed up wearing the checkerboard sneakers that Bettina had found tied to a fence along a playground on the South Side. It was Two-Tone for a day, until the T fell into place.
     Iceman was as tall as Meat, but seemed much smaller, carrying himself like some heartbroken teddy bear, all slouched over, with a cumbersome gait, always in danger of tripping over his own large feet when he had to do anything other than walk casually. He had a voice as sharp as gunfire. Of Russian descent, his real name was Mikel. His father was a big noise in one of the city’s breweries. His sisters were best friends with Tyla and Robin. They were the ones who had talked Dot and the others into taking me on as a fifth boarder, just for the summer, to help them all balance the rent after a prior housemate had run out on them without paying her final share of the bills.
     “Jam?” I replied, slouched against the window, my arms hanging inside, feeling where the dark wall beneath the sill was still almost cool to the touch. “
new club - over near Reds!”
     Reds was a favorite haunt. An old man’s bar run by an ex-fireman, it was almost entirely red inside, from the ceiling, to the padded booths, to the shattered eyes of its patrons.
     “That place?” I questioned, sounding doubtful. “Isn’t it really fancy?”
     Iceman shook his head, chewing at a piece of gum, a fixture he was rarely without.
“Nah, they’ve got a cool open stage. Lisa and Flakes checked it out last week. It’s punk as shit!”
     “Punk as shit” was something we all strove to be in those halcyon days between childhood and adult resignation. Provincial Pittsburgh was the perfect platform to display our adopted angst, not too high, not too low. We spent many a night roaming en masse, beating on garbage can lids, gas cans, anything we could find. We’d roam the streets, from the cozy grid of Shadyside, to the grassy sprawl of Squirrel Hill, all the way to Oakland, banging out our signature cacophony, one of the few times Willy’s atonal bleating was tolerated. Some nights would end in a fight, some irate driver discharging his drunken passenger to pummel us senseless. Meat would usually cut the campaign short, sticking his chest into the face of the belligerent frat boy.
     “We gotta sign up early – they fill up really quick. C’mon, dickhead –
hurry! See if Tyla wants to come!”
     I pulled myself backwards into Dot’s room, landing with a thump on her small bed. I could smell her on the pillow. I lingered there for a moment, my mind drifting to Bettina, the way it always did. “Damn it!” I cursed, punching the pillow, leaping up, feeling about in the semi-dark for my sneakers. Too impatient to tie them, I wrapped the laces about my ankles and made a quick knot at the front. This was something Helmut and I had learned back in Worms, an old playground trick we’d teach the younger kids, telling them it was the proper way to tie one’s shoes, getting them in trouble when the physical education teacher noticed.
     Rushing down the hallway, grabbing a soda from the kitchen, I pounded on Tyla’s door, seeing the band of light at my feet. “Hey! Tyla! We’re going to hit that new place by Red’s! They’ve got an open stage! Ice says it’s
cool!” I put my ear to the magazine clipping of Henry Rollins she’d taped to the center of the door, flipping his fans the bird. There was a moan and the sound of bedsprings and a thumping across the wooden floor. The door opened slightly.
     “What?” drawled Tyla, her head cocooned in a pair of large silver headphones, the cord dangling at her waist. Her modest afro was crumpled by the audio gear, making it stick out, like a fortune cookie over her forehead. I could just see her pale brown legs, smooth and alluring beneath her long T-shirt.
     “Iceman and me are going to jam at the open stage at Day Glo’s – that new place on Craig – by Red’s. Interested? We could use drums.”
     She rolled her sleepy-looking eyes, pushing the door to within an inch of closing. “I ain’t making a jackass of myself in that place,” she said. “Break a leg!” The door shut with a click. I shrugged, turning on my heel, heading out the apartment, bounding down the stairs to the building lobby, opening my can of grape soda.
     “Where’s Tyla?” asked Iceman, seeing me alone.
     “She’s not into it.”
     “That’s fucked up! She’s
always into jamming!”
     I shrugged, taking a swig of my drink. “Yeah, well, she’s not so into me. You should have asked her yourself. Who else is coming with us?”
     Iceman grimaced, tilting his round head to the moonlit sky. His thick glasses were offset by a dirty smear of a moustache, which only looked silly on his boyish face. “I tried to get Lisa to come, but she’s dancing tonight. Meat’s got work too, so does Carl. You know if Laser’s around”
     “Nope. How about Bettina?” I ventured, knowing all to well she was more than likely with Helmut, at his place on the North Side.
     Iceman shook his head, cracking a quick bubble. “Willy’s meeting us there.”
     “If we don’t make an ass of ourselves –
he will,” I sighed, hustling down the porch steps, feeling the warm night air at my ankles.
     “Yeah, well, at least he’s got some real instruments.”
     “If you consider a one-string guitar and a tiny keyboard instruments.”
     “He said he found us some cool old wigs to wear.”
     I followed him along the sidewalk, sneaking sips of my soda.
Wigs? What for?”
     Iceman laughed, sharp and loud, making a dog bark behind a closed door. “We’re signing up as The Grandmas. Old-school punk – like your Brit buddies!” He always said that. I never knew if it was a digging reference to old history or just his sense of everything outside America being one place. He wasn’t the only American I’d encountered who thought that way.
Grandmas? That’s kind of a stupid name.”
Iceman laughed again, spitting his gum onto a neatly-trimmed lawn. “Punk as shit, T-Tone, punk as

Willy Blanefield III was already there, involved in a heated discussion with a cute girl at the registration desk. They were at the top of a wide carpeted stairway that took us to the club bar and the small stage used for open mike night. Willy was wearing his customary outfit of charity bin lootings; a pair of huge army issue parachute pants, turned inside-out to reveal the white pocket linings, a stained red satin dress shirt with tuxedo ruffles, over which he’d somehow pulled on a dark blue sweater that had been divorced of its sleeves. On his bare feet were dirty white deck shoes, a good two sizes too large. Atop of his oily black mop top sat a bus driver’s cap, one of two he alternated almost every other day, like clockwork.
what? That place sucked anyway! College is for losers,” he was explaining, his wiry frame bent over the little desk. I could see the frustrated look on the girl’s face as I made my way up the stairs, Iceman breathing heavily behind me.
     “You’re making it hard for new students to get their own loans, you know,” the girl replied curtly, a crease across her brow, the only mark on a face as clear as a model’s in some skin cream commercial. Her eyes were silvery blue. I had an immediate crush.
     Willy slapped his hand on the stack of entry forms, almost upsetting the girl’s glass of water. “Tough! It’ll save them from getting suckered like I did. I’m helping them. I’m a deferment hero, you know. Can you guess where my accent’s from? I’m not from Pittsburgh originally, you know.”
     The girl now scowled. “I don’t care.”
     “C’mon! Just try to guess! You’ll
never get it!”
     Willy was born in Toledo. He was the son of a small-time radio disc jockey who went by the name of “The Foghorn”. We all referred to him as Leghorn, in reference to the big rooster in the old Merry Melody cartoons.
     “Are these your friends?” the girl asked, craning her neck to catch my eye as I approached. I immediately wished I didn’t know Willy.
     “Hey! Ice! T!” Willy exclaimed, turning to give the girl a cocky smile. “Get that one? Ice
Tea” he laughed, loud and tuneless.
     “You guys are
The Grandma’s – right?” the girl inquired, ignoring Willy, pushing an entry form my way, as Iceman forced Willy to one side, pulling his cap down about his prominent ears. I blushed slightly, shrugging. “You both need to sign in here and I need to see your IDs.” Everyone between eighteen and twenty-one had a fake one. It was an old tradition in the steel city, almost expected. Iceman and I quickly showed ours and scrawled our unintelligible signatures. “You guys are punk rock?”
     “Punk as
shit!” declared Iceman, giving her a scary wink that looked more like he was having a stroke. I held my breath as he pressed against me, hogging the desk. The two mile trek had given rise to his notorious funk, a body odor unlike any other.
     The girl frowned, looking serious. “Ron doesn’t like punk very much. Better not be too loud. We don’t want anyone getting scared away from the bar.”
them!” hooted Willy, pulling out the old keyboard case he’d hidden underneath the closest table, slamming it down. The girl destroyed him with a look.
     “Sorry,” I managed. “He was born a jerk like that. He can’t help it. Just be glad he hasn’t tried to play you any of his recordings.”
     She rolled her eyes, offering a slight smile. “He
has,” she moaned, nodding towards the grey boom box Willy was stacking atop the keyboard case.
     I winced. “Sorry.”
     “Is he
retarded?” she asked, with a sincerity that almost fooled me.
     I laughed. “Nah, he’s just from Toledo!”
     Iceman snorted.
     “We only hang out with him ‘cause he’s got instruments,” he offered, brushing by me, his perfume trailing him, like the papier-mache tail of some preschool dragon. The girl wrinkled her little nose and made a face. I hung there for a moment longer than necessary, hoping she’d realize the smell was dissipating, that it wasn’t me.
     “You look a bit like this guy a friend of mine used to go out with. Vogel? I think his name was Vogel too,” she remarked, handing me my ID card, which she’d been holding onto as we talked.
     “Lots of Vogels, I guess,” I lied, not wanting to know any more. The long list of girls that Helmut had hooked up with since moving to Pittsburgh was embarrassing. I certainly didn’t want to be known as the brother of such a lothario. The girls I liked were usually smarter than that.
     “You totally look like him. Wish I could remember his name,” she grinned, putting the eraser end of a pencil to her dark lips. “You guys are on third.”
     “Thanks,” I said, making my way to the table that Willy had claimed as The Grandma’s staging area. He and Iceman were already sipping on drinks, Iceman’s hand covering the play switch of the boom box. Willy was bobbing back and forth in his chair. If not retarded, he was certainly borderline hyperactive. I saw his beat-up acoustic guitar sitting under his feet, the worthless antique he called One-String Newman.
     “I’ve got the keyboard,” announced Iceman, belching gin. “You get drums, T-Tone.”
     I squinted, seeing a small, plastic garbage can poised at the edge of the stage.
     “Stole it from work!” Willy declared, sounding very proud of the fact.
     “The ass says he dumped it right outside,” sighed Iceman, yanking the boom box away from Willy’s reaching hand.
     “All that carbon paper and
cigarette ash in the street?” I exclaimed, giving Willy an evil eye. He cackled, like a witch. Iceman rolled his eyes, sucking at his drink through the tiny mixing straw, his red eyes settling on the can. “Nice going, jackass! You’ll get us kicked out of here before we even get to perform.”
     “Take a pill, German!” laughed Willy dismissively. “No one’s going to know.”
     Iceman swatted the cap from his head, making him squeal.
     “We’re on third,” I informed them, grabbing a chair and sitting down.
     “No “Kaiser’s Finest” tonight, Mr. Vogel?” grinned Iceman. He was referring to easily the cheapest beer in town, named Old German, much to my chagrin.
     “I promised Dot I’d stop drinking on weekdays.”
     Iceman narrowed his eyes. “You really
like her?”
     I shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s OK, I guess.”
     “Good in the sacker?” he grinned, working on what was left at the bottom of the ice in his glass. Two people had just entered the bar. We were early.
     “OK, I guess,” I replied, trying to keep the conversation low, not easy to do with the present company.
     “She swallow?” Willy asked, almost yelling, making me flinch, fearful to glance back over at the registration desk, sure the cute girl had heard.
     “Shut up,
dickhead!” I hissed. We were all free to call Willy anything we pleased. He hardly seemed to notice. The only thing he ever really heeded were Meat’s physical threats. Anyone with any intelligence did the same. Not that Willy had much in that department.
     “She swallows yer dickhead?” cackled Willy, pleased with his own joke, reaching again for the dreaded cassette player, causing Iceman to pull it from the table. Following Meat‘s usual protocol, he yanked the tape from inside and hid it in his back pocket, making Willy steam.
Virgin!” Iceman sneered, before giving me one of his disquieting winks.
     “Am not!” barked Willy.
     “Yeah? What’s a pudenda then, Mr. Hefner?”
pussy! Duh!”
     “Yeah, what
part of the pussy, fuckface?”
     Willy looked stumped. “What do you mean – what
part? It’s just a pussy!”
     Iceman laughed happily, kicking me under the table. “Only a wanker would say it’s just a pussy! Right, T-Tone, my lad?” I grinned, avoiding his eyes. I’d only ever once seen him with a girl who looked anywhere near being interested in him. His bravado was brave, but showing. I got up, deciding to get a soda. I hated catching that vulnerable look in his eye. It made me feel sorry for him.

I was staring into space. The faces at the bar were just a blur, like streetlights in a fog, impossible to distinguish from one another. I knew I was on the stage. I could feel the edge of the garbage can against my thighs. It was turned upside down. I had been banging at it with the heel of my palm, which was bright red.
     “You OK?”
     I suddenly noticed that Grandfather Amwolf was standing before the stage, in a flowerbed that appeared to be growing from the carpet. His suspenders hung about his trousers. A red bowtie pressed at his wrinkled neck. Gold cufflinks shone from his sleeves. He was in his Sunday best, drunk as a crow in a field of overripe grapes.
     “Father? Come on now, time to come home. We’re playing cards by the fire.”
     “Who’s that with you? Who’s the tiny man?”
     “That’s just Totty, father.”
     “A gremlin? You bring a
gremlin to grin at an old man in his cups, do you?”
     “No, father, it’s your grandson. Mother sent us to find you. You wandered from the house while you were outside smoking. Remember?”
     I pressed my fist to my forehead. It felt as if it was sinking right through my skull.
     “Hey! Jag-off! You OK?”
     Iceman had me under my arms, holding me like a ragdoll. The front of my shirt was spattered red. I moved my mouth, feeling the pull of the blood that had dried across my lips. A man with a thatch of curly blonde hair behind each ear was leaning at the side of the stage, a towel on his arm, looking concerned.
     “Is he alright? We’ll call an ambulance, no problem.”
     I shifted my eyes. It hurt. The lights at the tables burned. I saw the pretty girl from the registration desk, lingering just behind the man with the towel.
     Grandfather Amwolf laughed, kicking at the begonias, spitting into the dirt.
     “Where’s the television woman then, eh?” he coughed, his voice broken, like a faucet full of trapped air. “
Sing with me! The gremlin too! MAR – LARE – IN – O! MAR – LARE – IN – O!”
     “She’s not home, father, I promise you, she’s not. Come with us. Mother is making a toddy. We’ll play rummy with Alder and Helmut.”
     I clutched at my father’s trousers, grasping them behind his knees, terrified, yet mesmerized at the sight of grandfather, listing in the front flowerbed of our semi-famous neighbor, Eva Dinter, a middle-aged actress who had once appeared in a dingy afternoon soap opera, some years before.
     “Tell her to show herself at the window!
Tell her! Peter Amwolf Vogel serenades a woman, he expects company! Come to us in your nightgown, Lady Dinter! You want that I piss in your garden? You want that I take myself a shit?”
     “Here’s some water.”
     The pretty girl helped Iceman sit me down in a chair. They’d dimmed the lamp. My head was cradled in my hands, which were still shaking. I tried to remember what had happened. I couldn’t.
     “Here, take this thing off him,” said the man with the towel, pulling at the grey lump of acrylic that Willy had pinned to my hair. It was one of the “Grandma” wigs he’d picked up for fifty cents at a thrift store in Wilkinsburg and had stupidly tossed into a dryer after washing them. They’d melted into fez-shaped clumps.
     “How are you feeling now?” asked the girl, giving me a smile from across the table. I could sense others standing near, watching. There was a murmur in the air, like I often heard at night when I tried to sleep, the voices F would later refer to as “T’s little radio show”.
     “Where’s Willy?” I asked. It was the first thing I’d said since everything had gone funny in my head.
him,” replied Iceman. “He got kicked out after the first song.”
     “That kid’s eighty-sixed from here, you know,” explained the man, putting the towel to my face, telling me to tip my head back. The towel was warm and damp. “I think you’re bleeding again. There. Hold that right there.”
     Father struggled with grandfather, trampling flowers, filling the night air with a fragrance that reminded me of the little bottles on mother’s bedroom dresser, the ones with the rubber pumps attached, each full of a pungent perfume, the smells she doused herself with on church days, me sitting at her feet, watching a tiny run in her stockings racing up her calf, as she leaned towards the dresser mirror.
     “Go and get your brother, Totty –
now!” ordered father, caught under grandfather, as if he was trying to hoist him from the ground. “Tell him to fetch a pair of trousers from my room. Hurry, boy – hurry!”
     I hesitated, standing there at the footpath that led from our house on down the short lane that crossed the black river where Helmut and I caught tadpoles and beat them to greasy pancakes on the street.
Go! I’ll thrash you, Totty Vogel! Go now, Goddamn it – now!”
     “What did grandfather do?”
     Grandfather seemed lifeless. He hung over father like he was just clothes, not a man. I smelt a new scent amongst all the night blooms, one I recognized all too well from the box toilet in the yard at home. Father sighed deeply, giving me a funny look, almost as if he were grinning. Perhaps he was.
     “Your grandfather’s a very bad boy, Totty. Go and tell Helmut to come – and bring fresh trousers. Go on.”
     “What’d he
do?” I asked, Iceman leading me to the doors at the bottom of the carpeted stairs, carrying the plastic bucket and the keyboard case.
     “The fucker
pissed himself.”
     “Up on
stage?” I asked, feeling the tepid night air hitting my face, a napkin of dried blood at my nose.
     Iceman hurled the makeshift drum into the street. It bounced over the remains of the ashes and carbon slips that Willy had left there some two hours earlier. “That’s the last time I chug grain with that stupid motherfucker! He pissed on the
carpet! I’m fucking embarrassed! I’m never ever going in that place again! Fuck you, jag-off!” He then lifted the old leather keyboard case over his head and pitched it after the can. It came crashing down upon the yellow line in the road, the rusty latch bursting open, the derelict instrument shooting out, sliding under a parked car, bits of plastic keys scattering in the glow of the streetlights. I felt my head spinning again and fell backwards against the side of the building.
     “We were drinking grain in Day-Glo’s?” I asked, confused, closing my eyes, shutting out the lights.
     Iceman was walking back from the middle of the street. He had a handful of black and white plastic shards. He looked at me, like he didn’t even know me. “No, dumbass – in the alley – behind the dumpster, before we went on. How much did
you drink anyway? You little alcoholic.”
     I began to heave, lurching forward, making my nose burst again, warm blood running into my mouth. Iceman just stood there, watching me. I was now on my hands and knees, my whole body shaking, my legs as cold as ice.
     “They think you had some kind of a seizure or some shit, you know,” he said, shaking his head. “Good job too. Or we’d both be six’d from there too. Not that it matters now.”
     “Seizure?” I replied, my left hand in my pocket, feeling something I didn’t recall putting there, a fold of paper. “I did? When? Just now?”
     Iceman grunted, dropping the broken keys onto the pavement about me. “You’re drunk, totally fucking
drunk. Come on, shithead, let’s head for home – the fun’s over.”
     I stumbled to my feet, pressing the napkin hard at my nose, taking a deep breath through my mouth. One of my laces had come undone from my ankle. Iceman wasn’t waiting for me. “My grandfather once shit himself in the neighbor’s flowerbed!” I called out, starting to laugh.
     “Who? You mean the
Munchhausen guy?” he called back, kicking at a fire hydrant, almost falling over himself.
     “Yeah – that’s him,” I said, unfolding the paper, reading what was written across it, wondering who Isabelle was, and why on earth she’d wanted to give someone like me her number.