Cold Dead Hands Around My Throat by David Evanier
“Yesterday, when I got up,” Daniel said a few months ago, “there was a touch of sun coming in the window. And I suddenly flashed on the early morning sunlight on the curb when I was a kid. There was mica in the cement they used for the sidewalks and it glinted like little jewels. The feeling you got was of the promise of morning and the possible adventures of being a kid outside in a neighborhood that I loved. And then, as I sort of floated there for a bit in that revelry of the past, a wave of sadness washed over me, for the loss of those simple beauties, and the innocence and hope of childhood. I felt the grief of knowing I’d never have those moments again, those moments I had as a kid. They only took place outside on the street, because in my house it was so awful. And what I felt was grief, the sort of grief that clutches you and doesn’t let go.
“I wanted to kill my mother. She killed herself and left a note blaming me. I had magic powers. Yesterday I started to write a good story. I did a paragraph, and afterwards my mother came at me like a dog and tried to strangle me by the throat.”
# # # #
My friend Eddie Colletti came out of the sky after forty years and called me from Oregon. When he were kids, he would hypnotize pigeons by placing his finger under their throats. They felt they couldn’t move. They would stay in that frozen position until a loud noise could break their trance. We talked of the old neighborhood, and how he had always wanted to be a detective, and how his father had been killed. We talked of Mr. Fink, our shop teacher in junior high school 16, and about Betsy Sue Zimmer, who was sloppy, and Sue Greene with the big bazooms, and Ed deRegian who became a diplomat in the state department. There was a disconnect of, oh, just 40 years, when we knew nothing about each other. For Eddie, I was the kid at 15 with my Jolson records and for me he was the nut guarding my apartment house for Jane Benson, whom he had a crush on, to get home safely, holding his detective badge. Eddie and I were opposites. He was a kind of a geek, interested in the military, science and protocol.
“What was I like?” I asked him.
“Well, I remember you and your mother,” he said. “You had a real calm about her, like you had control over her. She would be screaming or ranting, I guess, and you’d wave your arms like you weren’t bothered at all and say “Oh, don’t worry about that. I can deal with her. That’s just my mother.”
Well, not exactly, Eddie. That scene I acted out for you was a front, hiding my shame, hiding my terror and demonstrating my mastery of what in fact I had no control over whatsoever.
# # # #
Louis Armstrong’s house in Corona was a few blocks from where I had lived all those years as a kid and I visited the house, a museum now, a couple of years ago. There’s a picture of Louis on his desk with the two Johnson boys, kids my age then. Louie taught the kids in the neighborhood how to play the trumpet. I wonder what it would have been like if I’d known him.
Elmhurst had secret places for a kid, fields to sled down, a house with a well in the garden, lots of trees that shook in the spring and winter rains and their brown leaves filled the sidewalks and streets and gutters in late fall. And there was a gypsy girl who waited for me on corners and I did not understand what she wanted of me.
The streets, the leaves, the wind, the steepled chimneys on the rooftops of the apartment house, whispered to me as I walked home with my schoolbooks and yes, Daniel, I hated to go inside my house too, my mother crying on the bed, or raving at me and my wanting to push her out the window, and yes, I remember the mica in the sidewalks, now that you mention it, and that it glinted like little jewels. You said it, Daniel, not me.
# # # #
When my hair began to fall out, I was 16, and I connected that to my mother’s hatred of me. The dandruff fell all over the bed, and I pulled out the strands of hair. Soon there was almost nothing left, and I stopped at every store window to comb the few hairs forward that were left to hide my barren head. You could see me at street corners with a comb, combing away in the reflection of the store’s window. But the slightest breeze blew them and they flew up like angry birds. I smacked my head in a fury. There was nothing I could do; I had the hair of an old beggar or a maniac. No one, no young boy looked that ridiculous and vulnerable. I never saw another boy who had my hair.
And by my twenties my walks across the city were frightening, when the darkness encroached more and more, in the brutal summer heat rising from the pavement and down from the sun and within me the that fury that was engulfing me, and I lived at the Judson Memorial Church. I walked down Thompson Street, afraid to encounter anyone at the welcoming door of Judson, afraid of my terror, afraid they would see it and turn away from me, that I would frighten them, and as I approached Judson where Larry Kornfeld, latter-day saint, the rabbinic director of Judson’s poet theater and Gertrude Stein, over-eating Larry, waited to greet me and embrace me in his tiny room filled with Mann and Dylan Thomas and the Singer brothers, I plunged myself toward that door, opened it, threw myself through it as if my life depended on it.
# # # #
Some of those who were curiosities to me while they lived turn real to me when they died. My mother’s only friend, almost the only person who took pity on her, was Leo Mindlin, who, when he was in his 90s, lived in a ravaged house in Flatbush, hopped around on one shaky leg and actually resembled a radish. Leo, who’d broken his back while flying in the Air Force in World War Two. Surrounded by hundreds of ticking and broken clocks in the old house, his language a fractured English. Leo, who’d handled my mother’s funeral (there was no one else) on a cold bleak winter day. I couldn’t even figure out how to shovel the dirt onto my mother’s grave: “My fucking mother couldn’t even teach me that!” I blurted out to Leo and three hungry cousins waiting for the will--and suddenly Leo falling to the earth and breaking his hand--he felt light as a sparrow when I picked him up--the hand would never function again. “Ah, what the hell,” said Leo. “I took a fall for her.” But Leo had had one great love affair--this one he actually fucked--with a stripper named Liz Renay, famous for running naked through Union Square in San Francisco with an appreciative crowd of thousands pursuing her.
Comrade Sophie in the Communist Jefferson Book Shop on East 16th Street off Union Square toasting Castro with me by taking out liquor miniatures and adding ice water from the water machine and taking me down to the basement to hunt for secret books to give me by Stalin and William Z. Foster that boasted of the Soviet America to come. A week ago--after 30 years-- I learned what happened to her by looking up the memoirs of a Daily Worker reporter named Virginia Gardner on the internet. Gardner wrote that Sophie was “the most wonderful Communist party member I have ever known” and that after many years of working in the Bookshop for $35 a week (she refused to take more money), she’d voted the wrong way on a Party resolution. One of the party honchos, Louis Weinstock, proud of his brutal Leninist machismo, strode in, walked up to Sophie and said “You’re through. Get out.” I cannot imagine her face at that moment. I remember Sophie ---I was her young Lenin--giving me socks and underwear and that at night, she told me, when her black husband Joe (who had played with the Harlem Globetrotters and sang and played the guitar for her) slept, in their tenement flat, in order not to wake him up, she sat on the toilet in their tiny bathroom to read her beloved Daily Worker, every turgid line of it.
# # # #
I understood Daniel better this morning. I was walking down the steps of my apartment house and I heard a thump, a clip clop behind me. I turned to see who was behind me, and no one was there. When I got downstairs, I walked back and forth in the hallway. The thumps followed me. I wondered if I was going mad, if this was what it felt like. But I knew that was impossible. I put down the bag I was carrying and walked back and forth. The thumps stopped. Two books in the bag had been bumping against my shoulder.
That was Daniel’s life every day. The thumps of his past followed him everywhere. He knew they weren’t there, but he heard them, and he knew that no one else did. He knew he heard them and he knew they weren’t there. He was caught in the middle. He didn’t believe in the thumps, but he couldn’t help but hear them. He was not psychotic. He understood; he knew what was happening. And it was driving him crazy even though he was sane.
# # # #
“Last week was the anniversary of my mother’s suicide,” Daniel said to me once. “My mother killed herself after a long life of misery, fear and anger. Her life was a terrible life. But she had her joys. She was smart and funny. She could make jokes. Later on those jokes turned into vicious barbs. She was like the person who’s drowning and just grasps everyone around them and tries to drown them too in their panic and fear. I often can’t breathe because I feel I have her cold dead hands around my throat. She never wanted me to breathe while she was alive.
“ I grew up being almost always with her. She was in and out of mental hospitals, when she wasn’t in the house going crazy and doing things that were seductive, that were bloody-- life was like in a hell, a chaos, a Bosch painting come alive. I remember her sitting on the couch when I was a kid and her holding her hand out to me like a claw, the other hand on her throat. “Don’t you leave me or I’ll die.” And she did kill herself and left a note blaming me for it. Which she did her whole life. Every time she went crazy or tried to kill herself, she made it very clear it was my fault, my being evil, obstreperous, out to get her.”
# # # #
What I had in common with Daniel: the inability to deal with adversity. The feeling that the world owed me a living--me, so tender, so sensitive so noble, so dainty,
stroking my chin, martyred to the everlasting glory of literature.
What I have in common now: little pieces of the above, but mainly traces of the past. As I said to Daniel when he was trying to write a new story: “Nobody gives a shit if you fail. No one gives a shit. It is up to you. It will be terrible if you fail. You have to do this.”
One morning I woke up--perhaps it was the 50th anniversary of being in therapy-- and the past was over for me. I return to it in fits and starts, but it’s not the controlling force in my life, as it is for Daniel. I accept that I am broken in places and cannot be fixed, as Hemingway wrote, didn’t he? Daniel had it far worse than me, yet almost everyone I meet feels their story is the worst, the most tragic. And their stories often are terrible beyond belief.
This is not a happy ending.
# # # #
I said that Daniel has two stories left to tell. The second is left over from his WFCR days. It is about Armand Whitcomb and his wife Linda, a perfect WFCR couple, who lay side by side all day in bed , reclining on rumpled sheets and piles of pillows, stacks of books beside them on the floor, reading, watching TV, drinking wine, eating and smoking pot. Daniel would sit at the foot of the bed. One day Linda showed Daniel Hitler’s dog license, the real thing, owned by one of the elderly dying German men Linda fucked and cultivated. She wanted to sell it for big bucks.
Daniel refuses to tell the story because he is afraid he will hurt Armand and Linda’s feelings. I think that is bullshit.
I am going to stop there. One day Daniel will tell the story. I cannot rob him of it. Everything in this story was not written by Daniel, although many things in this story were said by Daniel.
But Daniel has written the story of the dog license.
I guess that means I really want Daniel to get better.
And that I believe in him, even if he doesn’t.
I think that makes me his friend.
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