Posts Tagged ‘wussy’

Jenny Mae Leffel 1968-2017

September 4, 2017

Jenny Mae (Leffel) 1968-2017.

“Why are you so angry?” She asked me that, repeatedly over and over through the years. Perhaps it was some of the unease that grew up around me when I was near her, as the jungle of her life, crowded everything out, grew wild around her and eventually choking the life out of her, but I would challenge her on this statement, in the end though—there was no agreement. Perhaps the anger came from frustration, of witnessing a slow motion house fire, a home being torched one item at a time. The flurry of flames to one book, one shoe, one chair at time, small embers that glowed red, then ashen white-perhaps that was what upset me so, the bit-by-bit destruction of a life by slow degree. The elephant in the room was not so much an elephant but it was the room itself, a sense of sadness as well as a flickering modicum of hope that offset the creepy feeling that something was not going to end well. Death is that ending, and for most this great unknown is the not-ending-well that pervades everything a person does, watching a child from a distance, death is unspoken the silent care a parent puts in others-the trust that is given to others who are caring for their child.

She didn’t want to talk about it, the drinking, the poverty, the violence she endured—by the ones who were in her life to protect her, men, neighbors and others who in the end betrayed the trust by fists, insults and of forcing themselves upon her. These were the upspoken experiences that drove her, the memories that tended to visit her when she was alone, at times with some of the voices in her head—there was no wonder that she gravitated towards anyone, no matter how unsafe to make her feel not-so-alone. Sometimes the demons in front of us are safer than the ones in our minds.

She cackled when she laughed, a laugh that could lift a room up and transport it elsewhere, to a place of bliss with just one line, one comment that dove out of her mouth as if it were propelled by jet fuel. Soft eruptions that would murmur from her lips, asides that would leave tears of laughter cascading down anyone within earshot. For myself and a few others, we played off one another, a small circle of suffering outsiders who kept our sanity by laughter, the pushing of the envelope and also, of course music which poured out of her like million different cloudbursts dotting a never ending sky.

 

hot-rod-92062306bela1.jpg

A sensitivity that was attuned to the pain around her, she comforted me, she held my head when I wept as a child of 19, when the world broke apart within me, she would wipe my tears and sing to me, just her voice and her hands upon my cheek. “Edelwiess”, “Greensleeves” and “Grow Old Along with Me”, she could trill her voice like a 1930’s Hollywood singer or turn it into a broken Billie Holiday, depending on what she felt was needed. Later, when she started writing her own music, she would pull lines from my notebooks of poetry to fit her melodies, she would sing songs to others from lines that were written for her. Turning our world inside out, and later, some of these maybe have been written for my current lover—she would say, “I just think you are brilliant” to me as I quickly changed the subject because in the end-I knew the answer, that I was as broken as she was.

Over the years the relationship changed, where once she comforted me, I became the caretaker, trying to save a sinking boat in the middle of the Pacific, all the kings men, horses, gold or prayers would not be enough to bale the water out of the crumbling floorboards of her boat. Creaky calls in the middle of the night, loaning her money that she would try in vain to pay back but at times, of course she never could. It’s hard pressed to survive on $700 a month regardless of how well a person budgets. At one point, she plead to me to help change a system that is so selfish and cruel it smashes the poor underneath it with the glee and quiet approval of an upper crust that is exactly that, crust. She is the main reason I work with the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill and how a sense of purpose to challenge the levers of power to quit stomping on the dis-enfranchised.

Sometimes it’s the mudane that sticks in the mind, a memory of the ordinary, maybe sharing a cup of coffee or a song that came on the radio while the windows were down; laughing and passing a bottle between seats as the Cars sang about a cheating with their best friend’s girl. They are cobbled together, on after another, to be mixed and mashed up as one moment flows into the next, soon a massive bleeding blur of colors in the mind’s eye—none exact, just an impression. One day we were walking across a barren field just across the street from her house, we had to cross the Old National Road, a staggeringly long strip of the pre-interstate highway system which was intended to connect Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco but ended up petering out in the middle of Utah soon to be replaced by the faster US interstate system and Interstate 70 which could also be seen from Jenny’s front porch. Along the way, the rise and fall of American exceptionalism is pockmarked along this strip of history, old motels that are now hollowed out, small burgs that once catered to traveling salesmen, truckers and families moving west are now past dead, rotting in the shadows of Wal-Marts, box-stores and a drug epidemic that may just kill off the last vestiges of the great American Dream. It was not quite spring, those few weeks when winter still lay hard in the soil but with some afternoon days moistening the ground to stick at the bottom of one’s shoes. Senior year was hurtling towards and end, I had already had enough credits to graduate and only wanted to spend time with Jenny, read and listen to records. Dj’ing at the local college radio station was akin to opening up a box of 64 Crayola crayons after only having a number 2 lead pencil to color with, the world appeared as long and fantastical as route 40. Standing in her front yard it was hard to believe that if one went east, the vast Atlantic Ocean would be able to swallow this provincial and suffocating life while going west would lead to more adventures. The trees were still bare, skinny black and brown arms reaching skyward waiting for the sun to provide their green clothing, they swayed at the top, the wind making the tops dance in a slow motion action. I grabbed her hand, we had not an idea of where we would walk to, soon the field would end and after a small thatch of woods the starkness of I-70 would be an unpassable barricade. It didn’t matter, she laughed and held my tight, pulling herself against my shoulder, and looked up at me. I was turning into a man, by slow motion, one step, and one day at time. She was going to Ohio State, she swore to her grandfather that she would be in the Ohio State Marching Band, she would major in Spanish so she could travel and challenge the world, and of course she would leave her hometown which she knew in her mind could never contain her. Pockets of doubt rose up in me, wanting to attend Ohio University because Athens was the only place that felt like home, with the idea that I would become a journalist or writer, I realized that in the end I wanted to be where she was no matter the town. The dry cornstalks cracked against our feet, making a yellow rickety carpet all the way to the trees. When we arrived at the end of the field, the trees seemed to huddle together, if they could join branches, they would clasp themselves together and dance, bending themselves up and howling in whatever manner a tree can. Winding between the small forest was a creek that we had never known existed, hidden to the rest of world, she climbed down the muddy banks, “come on Bela” she coaxed me, in a matter of moments the sound of skipping stones splashed against the water until our fingers grew cold. “Let’s go back, I’m cold” she said and we trudged our way back across the field towards that small ranch house on the side of route 40.

https://pitchfork.com/news/singer-songwriter-jenny-mae-dead-at-49/

At one time, I thought I could not believe I could breathe without her, later I helped her breath and now there is no breath at all. I will miss you in everything I do Jenny. Jesus Christ were you brilliant.

 

 

Advertisements

Death and Almost Death

August 3, 2017

unedited because it just seems like a lot of work at this moment.

Death and Almost Death.

 

 

Ohio State University Hospital East, is an odd building for a hospital, it is 12 stories tall, with a round tower as the centerpiece, it has several buildings that have been attached to it over the years. Inside it is difficult to traverse, with connecting hallways between buildings, various mis-named floors and at the building furthest from the tower is Talbot Hall which is one of the busier detox units in Central Ohio. At one point, some years ago I would do a volunteer group amongst all the struggling addicts and alcoholics, and after that I did an internship there. OSU East is smack in the middle of the Near East Side, a high crime, extreme poverty and highly forgotten about area of Columbus. It’s an area, until recently, largely forgotten about by city planners, business outside the realm of convenient and check cashing stores. During the eighties and nineties, crack cocaine moved in like a cancer, decimating block after block, transferring many of the young African-American males from one corner or project into the various prisons that rose like wildflowers throughout rural Ohio. OSU East and Grant hospital just blocks away in the middle of downtown, are flashpoints for trauma and death in the city.

I walked the circular hallway, winding around, counting the numbers until I found hers, “Penn” was written in black sharpie on the small sign outside her door. Jenny’s mother came up and hugged me, I looked down at Jenny who was folded up in her bed, her unused legs jutting out from the bottom of crisp white sheets. She looked small, as if the past years of her life had not only sucked the life out of her but in doing so, made her limbs and torso shrivel. One arm was crossed over her chest and the other lay limp next to the remote control. It appeared as if she had tumbled down a canyon, as her head lay at the bottom of the raised part of the bed, her neck twisted downwards. The pillow lay mostly halfway up the slope and the rest under her face which was scrunched up as well. She was yellow, with a faint hint of green in her cheeks and neck, in her nose was a feeding tube, her eyes were closed. “Jenny, Jenny…..” I waited, “Jenny, it’s Bela.” Her eyes flickered, her mother spoke softly to her, “Jennifer…Nordy (her pet name from her mother), Bela’s here.” Leaning in, to her ear, “Jenny, hey, its me.” Her eyes opened and she peered sideways, too weak to lift her head towards me, she cast her look and made some grumbling noises. “mrrghmmbbghh”, her cracked lips creaked open like a rusted cellar door,  bits of dried blood were caked around the corner of her lips. “Do you hear me ok?” A soft nod and another stab at words, “urghhhe…berla..” She could hear us ok, but was unable to effectively communicate.

I walked over to the other side of the bed, “has she been like this all week?” Her mother stood next to me, “well, yeah mostly although the other day she was lucid and talking away, chattering about how she wants to move and how alone she is…but later she just sort of drifted into this.” Angling in again towards her ear, “Jenny I was just talking about some of the crazy stuff that we used to do, Bruno’s is really interested in all those stories.” A hint of a smile cracked her yellowed face, just a smidgen, her memory was still intact.

Years before, nearly ten miles down the street from this very hospital, my grandmother lay on her deathbed. One could say she took years to die, her body giving up in chunks over the years, a fall resulting in a broken hip, then breast cancer, then another fall resulting in another artificial hip, with the other one needing replaced as it had developed a crack. Another fall in the shower where she lay for fourteen hours on her 79th birthday. She always fought back, her appetite towards life was massive, it was a big as the sky swallowing up the clouds. Finally, after living in a nursing home for nearly a year, with a deep crack developing once again in one of the artificial hips, this time an operation was impossible, she was too old, too large and her heart too weak to sustain another operation. She lay in her bed for months as her body gasped away its core, small breaths counting down to the inevitable final exhale.

Her room was decorated in all the things she loved, pictures of her life, from her teenage years as a highly desired young woman, whom men nearly twice her age made their way to her father’s steps. Her wedding picture, surrounded by countless men and women, with a flowing white gown wrapped around her, a pool of silk. Next to her, my grandfather, with a handsome grin and a seriousness that his side of the family was known for. She could have been a princess in these photos, as the pageantry was that grand. Other photos of her and her three sons, black and white photos of the four of them on the streets of Caracas, others in Spain and Trinidad where she sent them to learn English which would be their path out of Venezuela. One could trace the progress of photography with these photos, later, faded color photos from the nine-teen sixties, with grandchildren wearing polyester striped pants, large collared shirts and bowl haircuts stood around her amidst a swamp of Christmas presents. And finally, newer photos of great-grandchildren taken with digital cameras and printed out at the local drug store.

On the dresser was a large television, sandwiched between stuffed animals and the ever-present vases of flowers, hundreds of dead flowers had passed through this room.

The final decline happened in spurts, and in the end, it was only her lungs that remained alive, it was as if they had not realized her mind had given up and took flight. Heavy breaths that gasped for air, her eye lids suddenly half opened. Her blue eyes, translucent and watery, the were like small blue pearls under the clearest water that has never existed, drifted towards her son and then to me, they closed softly as lungs strained against the force of nature. Finally, after nearly three minutes without a breath, we realized she was gone, she had wanted to see her parents and earlier that day she spoke quietly with a smile on her face. “I will see my daddy and my mommy soon,” proving that as we toddle towards quietus, we revert to childhood, she was almost ninety years old and pining to see her parents on the other side of whatever it is that is the other side.

Signs spring up everywhere, omens of the final doom everybody succumbs to, especially when people live skimming off the top of life as if it were the deepest most turbulent ocean that has ever existed. Some people can dance atop of life, barely touching it too deeply, not letting themselves sink but not yet being able to glide above the salty spray of existence. Others are pulled down by the ankles, they wade through life with their very essence held back by invisible cinder blocks holding them fast.

We were sleeping in a house I had never been in, a split level with green carpet and very little furniture, boxes placed against the walls, in the middle of the room and a small bed made of pillows and sleeping bags were made for my brother and myself. The house was somewhere in the middle of Newport News, a section I was unfamiliar that was not the house where I had lived in as recently as the beginning of the summer. It was Labor Day weekend, we were visiting our mother—spending the previous three months in Athens, Ohio with our father. Spending golden summer days, traipsing through barren fields, abandon houses and playing pickup football and baseball. It was a revelation after moving nearly every June since the age of five, Athens had provided an anchor that I had never experienced since living at the far end of Long Island where we lasted a year and half. Our father had driven us to Charleston, West Virginia where we boarded a smallish Piedmont Airlines prop plane. I always sat by the wing, marveling at the huge propellers that appeared to go backwards and forwards at the same time, a massive buzzing that shook the seat under me. We usually stopped in Roanoke, Virginia and then onto Richmond. Our mother picked us up, and instead of driving to the house I had called home the previous year we went to this other, strange Brady Bunch looking house. This was the home of her new boyfriend, a fellow named Bob Brushwood who looked uncannily like Andy Griffith.

Paneled wood walls, made to look like a forest cut in half, tree by tree with the innards sticking out, naked but, they were made of pressed wood, not one tree with its heartwood exposed but many crushed and pressed to make one facsimile of a real tree. Cheap, and an affront to all proud trees everywhere. In the 1970’s this was called fashionable. There was a dark green carpet in the living room and in what was the den, a few steps down from the living room and rough and thick multicolored shag carpet smelled of cat piss. My mother and Bob slept in the other room, nestled next to my brother, trying to understand the reasons why we were staying in this house that was a mystery to me, it was a foreign land on one I did not understand the language.

Shortly thereafter, as the shadows dipped and settled along the room, the trees outside providing a ballet against the walls, the sounds from the bedroom arose. Deep sounds, breathy sounds and unbeknownst to a child of nine they were the sounds of lovemaking. Leaning into my brother, whispering and asking questions, “shhh, just go to sleep” he advised but the sounds were relentless and frightening. My hair stood on end. Crying out, after a few minutes of unheeded bleating, my mother came into the room. She was followed by Bob, with broad shoulders, long sinewy arms, hairy chest and a cigarette dangling from his lips, he could have been summoned from a Marlboro ad. Patting my head she tried to explain what was happening but I was lost, submerged in my own mind, sinking like net into the sea, although this net was intended to release all my thoughts instead of gathering them like so many minnows.

A few years later, after they married, we were transplanted to Catawba, whose small-town secrets burbled like a percolator while everyone mowed lawns, hung American flags outside of their white washed houses, and proudly sang the “Star Spangled Banner” before every Friday night football game. The rumors were startling, and rubbed like sandpaper to the ears of whomever they tumbled into, alcoholic father, homosexuality, incest, adultery and rape. These were passed around like verbal talismans, bringing suspicion into the houses that on one level appeared so picture perfect. Bob was the minister of two small Methodist churches, one right in the middle of town and the other a few miles away, set down between two cornfields and winding country roads. He worked hard, trying to infuse the word of God to people who yearned for it but were adherently suspicious of outsiders. That he was a divorced to a woman who had teenage children didn’t seem to help, and perhaps when two of the boy stated they were proudly Catholic it just made his job worse.

It could not have been easy helping to raise two opinionated teenage boys who had been moved around the east coast as if they were swallows, migrating from season to season, year to year. We were baggage, plunked down in different schools every year, unpacking ourselves only to have to toss everything back into our emotional suitcases after the school year and finally, for me, I said “fuck-it” and decided that to be accepted would be on my terms. Using wit and humor with a very liberal background I challenged the norms of my small-town school, speaking out when the football coach used the term nigger in my sophomore biology class-resulting in a trip to the office where the principal asked me point blank, “why do you have a problem with the word nigger?” At home, my mother encouraged us to speak out, at one point she made her way to the very same principal’s office to challenge him on referring to the wrestling team as a bunch of “pussies.” After my freshman year, I quit going to church, another stain I had inadvertently flung on Bob’s aspiring career. Openly defiant at times, both my brother and I were headstrong, well-read but not frightened to speak our minds, in one sense I was a punk but I had a cause which was to speak out to injustice when I saw it. The oppression was thick, lathered on my life like a paint it dripped from me and in turn I resented my parents for plopping me down in the middle of what seemed like the corner of nowhere. I would have yearned for nowhere, from where I felt I was which as a vacuum. Zoltan, had it easier, much more affable than myself, he was bigger and handsome with a talent to blend in with the jocks and rednecks, we had a few nerds maybe five of which I was probably one. He played football, wrestled and was homecoming king while I planted verbal spitballs on my perceived enemies and pined to escape.

 

Bob would drink Natural Light, not much in hindsight but maybe a few every night but he was prone to darkness and the darkness lay upon him like a coat some weeks. After a year, our mother left, moving to Columbus where she got a job at a treatment center, and for a brief period she headed a treatment center in London, Ohio just down the road from us but the marriage was doomed even before they took their vows. They were different people, pulled together by who knows what but we bared the brunt of their mistake and while Bob tried to step into the role of a father it was an arduous task. Compassionate he, laced his sermons with stories of compassion and acceptance, he tried to balance the need for the community to be accepting with their ingrained suspicion of anything that was different from themselves. In the end it was for naught, as his depression gripped him like vines and pulled him into his darkness. Art helped, he went back to his first love, ceramics and drawing, making countless small bowls and religious drawings that soon covered our tables, mantle and desks.

At seventeen, I was living alone, my mother had left him and Bob struggled with a house that contained a disinterested teenager who had found his own escape in punk rock and underground music, and books with the rest of the house filled with unrealized memories that had never had the chance to hatch, smothered by a marriage that had no air to breath. Bob went to the state hospital in the fall of 1985, he stayed there on and off through the spring. I quit the wrestling team where I was named captain after the first practice, in favor of after school blow jobs and Pabst Blue Ribbon every weekend. It appeared, at the time a better trade off, in hindsight it still might have been. Bob was attending AA meetings where he met another woman, he would bring her home or stay at her house, a small bird-like lady who did not have the education neither he nor my mother had, but she was nice and tried to make small talk with me and Jenny. It is obvious now that he was planning his own escape from the ministry, some of the congregation were complaining to the Methodist church and he had several meetings about his future in the church. He was disillusioned by their lack of support, while I thought to myself this was the true nature of many of these people, the hypocrisy was obvious to my seventeen-year-old eyes.

In those between years, Bob was there, making dinner for my brother and I, driving us to wrestling practice, sitting through long tournaments and overlooking the drinking that went on over the weekend. He was encouraging to us, and with our passion for literature and finally over the summer of 1986, right after my high school graduation Bob left the church moving in with my maternal grandmother as he returned to school to get his Ohio teaching certificate. Separation made things easier although a resentment had made a stone in the middle of me, attending Otterbein College which at the time, mid-Ronald Reagan’s tenure was a fiercely conservative liberal art’s school. Not a good fit. I left after one quarter with my first real bout of depression, where I left school mid quarter and slept in Jenny Mae’s dorm room for two solid weeks, peeling a layer of parking tickets off the roof of my car and returning to school. My professors had thought I had left, my English professor pulled me aside telling me I had a future as a writer and suggesting counseling, she saw the signs. I dropped out in December and wanted to move in with my grandmother but Bob was living there, faced with the choice of living with my mother, going to a shelter or moving in with Jenny in her dorm room, I took everything I owned, records, tapes and clothing and moved into her dorm room for two months before I could get my own apartment.

Bob went and worked from Columbus public schools until he reached retirement, we stayed in periodic contact. The weight of adolescence was a lodestone on my relationship with him, I distanced myself from much of my family for several years and finally after many years he reached out to me via email. He had moved to North Carolina where he built a house with his own hands in the woods and made art, we spoke over the phone once, discussing his depression and he offered apologies for those years we were together. It was all ok, I was happy with who I was, and then there was nothing. At one point, I reached out to one of his sons, who wrote a curt email back and I never responded. Bob had suffered many losses in his life, two of his children passed, one from a drug overdose and another from cancer, while his own childhood was difficult as he had years of abuse by his grandparents, brutal abuse he told me about over coffee one day.

Recently while visiting my brother, he informed me that Bob passed away last year. His daughter had called my brother, he was 80. The last couple of years I had assumed he had died, but there was no way of finding out if he had. A google search revealed nothing. What does a person do when a past they have little connection to dies? In the end there is a space, like the space between two words on paper, that space is waiting for a meaning, an explanation that never comes. Wedged between black ink, it waits patiently forever.