05 October 2014

"the possum" fiction 2014 c Peri Lyons

"The Possum" 
                                                                     (For Jim, who didn't ask.)

I got my secondary education in country music when I was 25 and in rehab for coke and booze. Although I was a spoiled NYC brat, suddenly I was living in a halfway house, in a Bloomington, Minnesota converted convent, filled with other women who had just stalled out at the crossroads of "What The..?" and "Fuck St.". The place was haunted, too...there was a perverted ghost named "Henry", who used to spy on us in the showers. Only me and my Lakota Sioux roommate, Wanda Blue Day, could see him, but everyone could feel his weirdo pervert energy.  The halfway house was not a place you wanted to come back to, and with the exception of one time with a British duke at a Bastille Day party at the Dragignon palace of a Greek shipping magnate years later? I never, ever did coke again. 

At the halfway house, there was a sort of den mother, named -if memory serves, which it probably doesn't- Lorna, and she took a shine to me...no, not that way.-Well, not that she acted on, anyways.
Lorna had run I country music bar in the heart of Nashville, and when alcohol killed her husband, dried up her resources, and damn near removed her liver, she found a slightly cynical, chain-smoking God, and sobriety, and came to Minnesota to make her appliqu├ęd gingham toilet roll covers, in a country new. So to speak. 

I had come to Minnesota by way of Chicago, where i had heard country music, consciously, for the first time. Sure, it was on the radio, growing up-the first song I can ever remember loving when it came on the radio was "King of the Road"- (and the first song I can remember hating was Neil Diamond's "Crackling Rosie"- I asked my Dad is that was music, and he said "yes, why do you ask", and I said "but I like music, and I hate this')-but as the youngest kid in our family, I had passive taste in music. I listened to Dad's beloved Gilbert and Sullivan, "; my older brothers' "whatever we think might impress girls", which ranged from "Black Sabbath" to, very weirdly, "Jesus Christ Superstar"; and Pete Seeger, a mean old sonuvabitch who was a patient of my Dad's and had given us all of his records.  Boy, were we not a musical family.
 But then, in Chicago.I  waitressed at diner owned by a homesick Tennessee boy, and God help me, the jukebox in "Bill's Restaurant: Eat Here", changed my life. I had never heard Patsy Cline. I'd never heard George Jones. And sure, I'd heard Loretta...but I'd never LISTENED. 

I got fired from that diner for being so hungover from coke that my hands shook too much to pour coffee. But tellingly, the homesick Tennessean did NOT fire me when I stopped in the middle of my shift and made everyone shut up- customers, waitstaff, the 6'6" cook named Jemima- while I stood with my mouth open, listening. Afterwards, the homesick Tennessean said, "Darlin, you really NEVER heard "He Stopped Lovin her Today", before?"

No. I had not.

One night Lorna got a phone call. Her sister, whom Lorna referred to as "white trash"- was in trouble. Lorna, although herself a habitual Velveeta user, was plain ol regular blue collar, but her sister, now her sister had "married beneath her". and I got the distinct impression that  at this point, for  sister Ruthie, "white trash" was kind of ASPIRATIONAL. She had gone hillbilly with a vengeance, according to Lorna:  These were the kind of people whose daughter, born in October, was named September because dad gum it, she was due in September and they were too stubborn to change their minds about the name. Even at 15, September had an "oh God please don't ask me my name" expression on her  face all the time. I remember she had very small brown eyes, like raisins baked into dough.

Lorna hung up the phone- this was in the 80's- and got her stern "Going to whip you in the name of Jesus" look. This was a look she got when on a "mission to help fools", which last time Lorna checked, included pretty much everyone except Lorna. It narrowed her Dorothea Lange-subject-thin lips and Cherokee cheekbones, and gave her curly raven black mullet hairdo a sort of Avenging Angel look. She looked like a tattoo of something, but I wasn't sure what. Something angry, with justice.  Black and white. With maybe a Reb Flag banner.

"You wanna go for a ride, honey?" she asked me.

As there was a curfew and I hadn't been out after dark for two months, and it was 9 PM, I said "HELL yeah," and raced after her, as she grabbed the car keys and strode out to the powder blue Impala. I figured we were going to drive to some Minnesota small town- they were all East Bumfuck, to a NY girl- and it sounded intriguing. Maybe Shane, her blonde sleepy eyed tomcat of a son, had diddled his Daddy's new girlfriend. Again. All I knew was, this was NOT Valley Cottage NY, I had never met people like this, and I wanted to watch. 

We drove in silence for a while. The streets got flatter and longer, and darker,and the sky spread out like it does when you  start to hit prairie, real prairie. We weren't going to Duluth, or Edina, or even the dreamily named "Saint Cloud".

"Lorna?" I finally asked. "Where we going?" 

"North Dakota", she said grimly. "Hang on."

What I remember about that night was not the crazed evangelical brother in law with the shot gun, who had decided that Revelations Chapter Six , was about to come to pass.As it turned out, he was disappointingly tame, longwinded and unloaded, shell wise. Lorna strode in and just took the gun away from him, as his family cowered in the corner. "Come on, Billy, don't be such a fucking pain in the  ass," was all she said.You could see he wanted to rebuke her for her profanity, I watched the thought occur to him and then die unsaid on his face. 
 She broke the shotgun open across her knee, peered into it, then blew down the barrel with scorn and contempt. I thought she was going to spit in it, but she just said "Didn't think so. Jesus." and walked out and tossed it into the trunk of the Impala. She came back in, and September got us some Country Time lemonade. And that was pretty much that.

What I remember about that night - the important thing, the big good thing, that stayed, after stupid family drama puffed itself into sheepish mumbling and half hearted apologies and recriminations, was this: and this
may not be accurate, because it was a landscape of dreams, and dreams, as we all know, slow time. and speed your soul up. What I remember is a knife hard sky, with stars streaming down like frozen gunshot, and Lorna's fierce  half Cherokee profile, as she put cassette after cassette into the car's tape deck. 
"What's this?" I ould ask, and she'd frown slightly.

"Listen," she said. "Just listen."

And apocrypha and starlight, Impala and apolocolypse, the chuggida-chuggida- noise that becomes hypnotic as the highway seams test the suspension, the twin lines of the highway, became one high appalachian chorus of the Carter Family, the only thing real that I kept from that night.

The only real thing.