Ricin

Found an essay from a couple months back I never posted. It was back during that spell of ricin tainted letters in the mail, you remember those, and then they popped the dude mailing them. He was from Mississippi, which right there automatically confuses a Yankee like me. It’s a whole other civilization down there, exotic, inexplicable and sometimes downright weird. For starters, the ricin mailer was an Elvis impersonator. Weird. Funny, yes, but weird. Though to be honest Elvis impersonating I can understand. I’m from Hollywood. I can understand Michael Jackson impersonating too, if not Michael Jackson his late self, nor why all the people that hated him up until the night he died decided he was the greatest human being in history when he was dead. Nor can I understand why there is a building named for him at an elementary school in Hollywood. But I digress. This particular Elvis impersonator, the ricin mailing one, was a martial arts instructor on the side. I can understand that too because there’s an Armenian martial arts instructing place in Glendale near the Armenian bowling alley and I can understand Armenians, having lived in East Hollywood way back when. Back then I secretly wanted to make mad love to this way hot checker girl at Ron’s Market on Sunset which then was the nerve center of all things Armenian in Southern California. Jonathan Gold could wax fondly of days looking at cans of things he couldn’t identify wrapped in labels he could not read, a store long since a 99 cent store. The way hot checker had just a wisp of a mustache, like all the girls at Ron’s, which in those nubile years were barely visible but by now could earn her a place in a barber shop quartet should she let it.  

I’m not sure why I remembered that. Maybe because I fell on my face in Fresno at a very tender age, and there’s a jagged scar where the middle of a mustache ought to be. Any chance at an early seventies mustache were ruined. I know, I tried. A big kid with a wisp of a mustache. Sad. I was doubly afflicted, actually, as my widow’s peak–a once gloriously pointed thing long since been lost–kept me from parting my long hair down the middle to look like the guy on the cover of Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4.  A record I never owned, actually, but it was for sale at the local Ralph’s and every time I was sent to the store to buy milk or Hamburger Helper or RC Cola there was Ozzy Osbourne flashing his inane peace signs from the LP display rack, his hair parted with ying and yang perfection. I knew that I, what with my gap where a mustache middle should be and the part coming to grief on that widow’s peak, I knew that I never a hippie would be.* Sigh….  In any case punk rock happened and hair became way short and mustaches unheard of and all that psychic follicle sturm und drang became moot and forgotten. Now like the Maine tide it rushes back in when I remembered that untouchable doll of a grocery store checker, and suddenly I feel remorse about that ghastly barbershop quartet joke.

Barber shop quartets. No one thinks of them anymore. But if you go the thrift stores in Palm Springs and look through the record bins you will find barber shop quartet LP’s by the dozen. Four guys in candy striped shirts with vast mustaches waxed like my neighbor’s Camaro. They stand mouths agape, and there’s a barber pole and a guy in a barber chair swathed in shaving cream, looking disturbed. You will find all kinds of these albums in thrift stores in Palm Springs, every one of which opens with “Bill Bailey”, and makes you really wonder just how bad the music was the old people were listening to a few decades ago. Egad. But they also had vast collections of albums full of forgettable music and unforgettable models on the covers in various states of undress and come hither. Zowie. How many of my generation lost their imagination’s virginity looking at dad’s records? We didn’t have internet porn then, and Playboys were locked away, so all we had was the thrill of those women and wondering if they really do drape themselves across pianos like that.

They don’t.

The bins are also full of the greatest generation’s Dixieland records. They made the world safe for democracy, that generation did, and then they listened to Dixieland. Those records are fun, actually. It was a southern music, too, or was supposed to be, redolent of good times and happy funerals and riverboats slapping the Mississippi into white foam. An innocent jazz. Dixieland bands never played in whorehouses or got in knife fights or suffered acute alcoholic psychosis that landed them in the loony bin for the rest of their lives. No, this was all straw hats and banjos and good times. And then there were sound effects records that were ideal for early marijuana experimentation, replete with prepared piano dissonance and percussion that would boing from speaker to speaker. Remember those? No? If not then you’ve probably never experienced Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald, either. Their records stuff the Palm Springs thrift store bins where they sit forever, unwanted. If Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald are new to you then consider yourself blessed. Let’s just say that Gilbert and Sullivan did not age well for the rock’n’roll generation. I hear Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald and I thank god for Bing Crosby and Helen Forrest and the others who saved my people from operetta..

But I’ve digressed all to hell. Made a complete mess of things.

Ricin. Deadly ricin. So how does Elvis impersonating, martial arts instruction, organ harvesting (organ harvesting?), a paranoid novel about vast conspiracies apparently involving the CIA, the president and a secret airbase in Arkansas, and sending the deadly poison in letters to a left wing president and a right wing senator under a right wing nut of an Elvis impersonator’s name makes any sense at all completely escapes me. But I know an actual Mississippian, blonde and proud and drawling and belle-like, and I asked her how it all made sense. With antebellum grace she apologized and said she doesn’t watch the news. Oh. I apologized for the Vicksburg campaign. The matter was dropped.

Good thing, too, as the whole story, it turns out, was screwed up. The Elvis impersonator was off the hook, it was just some wacko behind it all. Some small town hatred.  I can’t remember the Faulknerian details. Fortunately soon afterward more ricin laced letters emerged, again from Mississippi. The president got one again, and Mayor Bloomberg. No one got hurt, and they found the ricin in a guy’s refrigerator. His pregnant wife fingered him. She, perfectly, was a beauty queen, and more perfectly, a former reality TV star, a pregnant former reality star. Pregnant again, that is. Her earlier progeny by a flurry of fathers scampered about the house, the little darlings, cute as bugs. Most perfect of all, delicious even, was the fact that she had lied and it was not her husband but she herself who mailed the letters. Revenge, she said. Depression, they said. Some sort of deep south zaniness with ricin in the icebox. She’d ground the castor beans herself. It got all sad and tawdry and Tennessee Williams and doubtless screenplays are being passed around as we speak. Or type. Whatever.

She’s in jail now. I lost track of her. Where once they brought her a crown and red roses by the dozen, now they bring her meals on a tray. That’s not funny or ironic, it’s just sad. Mississippi madness. There’s not a chance that a Yankee would understand it, not at all. Elvis and beauty queens and ricin don’t really mix up north or out here on the Coast.

I remember re-reading this thing a few times, and not liking it. Oh, I liked parts, but it was such a mess. I pulled things out and it didn’t get any better, so I put them back in. Then during our recent heat spell, when the air hung limp with humidity late into the night and there was an eerie southernness to everything, I wrote a beautiful and evocative final paragraph that talked of fireflies. I miss fireflies. Then the weather broke and I reread that paragraph and deleted it. Zapped it into the cornfield. I just tried rewriting it now but it was no good. So I deleted that one too. And now either I junk this thing or post it. I still haven’t decided.

If I could I’d vacation every year in the south, just to see the fireflies. I have fond memories of chasing fireflies. I wouldn’t chase them now, I’d watch them. I’d swat mosquitos and drink spiked lemonade and watch the fireflies. Then I’d fly back to Los Angeles and bask in  the cool night air.

.

*  I recently saw Black Sabbath’s Vol IV in a record bin, incidentally, and Ozzy’s hair was not parted down the middle. My entire life, from teenhood** to the waning daze of middle age, has been spent under the impression that Ozzy’s hair was parted down the middle on the cover of that album. I can see him now, looking at me in line at Ralphs from the front of that album, waving his peace signs and looking so cool that all the absolutely hottest chicks in school–the ones with their skin tight ass-patched jeans who smelled like pot and patchouli and wore no underwear even on the coldest days–would have been his sex slaves and never even knew I existed. How wrong I was all those years (about the hair, I mean.) How wrong we can be our whole lives. Memory is a cruel thing, it plays tricks, it lies. But it’s too late to change now, my life has been lived and this essay written, and unless some of you pull out that album and look for yourself, you’ll never know otherwise. Except you’re reading this. So nevermind. Also, while I’m confessing here, it wasn’t till my senior year in high school that I realized that “Sweet Leaf ” wasn’t about a tree. I have never admitted that until now.

** The WordPress spellchecker wanted to correct teenhood to thegnhood. I had no idea what a thegnhood is. So I googled it. Thegnhood, according to Wiktionary, is an “obsolete form of thanehood.” I have no idea what a thanehood is either.  Something medieval, I suppose. But it’s nice to know that WordPress is hiring Dungeons and Dragons freaks as spell checkers. I used to feel so sorry for them.

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