Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hymns of the Midnight Refugees (Beginning of Second Draft)

The time was 1980, and the world seemed microscopic through my troubled seven year old eyes. The South side of St. Louis was a vast land of violence and chaos, and Texas Avenue happened to be ground zero in my small perspective. My mother and I lived in a run down brick quad-plex which doubled as a dysfunction factory. Neurosis nested comfortably in our little roach infested partition. My thoughts often escape back to the lessons I learned in between the cracks of madness I experienced at that impressionable period in my life. This is one of those lessons....

We were Hoosiers, white trash, technically. South side Hoosiers. My mother suffered from agoraphobia which she combated with daily regiments of whatever drugs her biker friends, and nostalgic hippie remnants, brought over.

My first participatory act with drugs was to separate pot seeds from buds before a good contact high subdued me for the night and ruined me for school the following day.

I sat quietly and observed many loosely orchestrated seances, heard many a cliche' philosophical discussion, and imbibed the pain like any other child in an abusive environment, with acceptance, acceptance of the fact that sickness, in many different flavors, would always be with me; in the eyes of others or burrowing in the collecting moments of rust in my mind.

Every once in a while my mother would devote a minute or two to me just to let me know how much I meant to her; this usually precipitated a lengthy debate between her and her guests about her wanting to commit suicide. She was only twenty-three years old. A petite pretty young woman with just enough intelligence to know the strength of DNA. The intuition to feel the hypothermia nagging in her frigid gene pool.

The only pathetic bright spot for comparison was the family across the hall; a family of "refugees"; my mother and her friends came up with the label because Tom Petty had a hit that year, "Refugee" (we'll revisit this little bit of trivia in a little while). They were from the Middle East; a place which I knew nothing about because my educational conditioning was still focused squarely on communism and the Red Scare. I didn't know anything tangible about the world beyond my concrete and brick baby sitter known as the ghetto. The only thing I knew to be absolute in the small world of Jeremy Matheson was the family next to us smelled, spoke, and acted stranger than anything I had ever seen on Sesame Street.

My mother had a different reason for thinking them strange. The family was devout Christian converts. The presumed reason for their refugee status. They were the only other Fundamental Christians I had ever experienced aside from my violent and, slightly shy of diagnosed, schizoid grandmother. They didn't own a television and I thought that enigma alone constituted madness. There were four children who all had biblical names; which wasn't odd, but the choice of names exposed the naivety of the freshly culture shocked converts. Three boys: Joshua, nine, Abraham, seven, Moses, three (Moses actually looked like the popular depiction of the biblical Moses. Olive skin and a wiry, silver, wanton Afro), and finally, the approaching one year old baby girl, Jesus.

Now, Moses was the only one who lived up to his namesake. He performed a miracle at least twice a day. Every single agonizing day Moses would fall down an entire flight of stairs. Everyone would be immersed in some kind of nonproductive activity when a familiar series of thuds would cut into our distractions. I don't know why, but I would always hold my breath until the arrival of a forsaken baby pharaoh wail let everyone know there wasn't a mountain high enough to cage his rage and entitlement. A Farsi/English gibberish could be heard within seconds trying to console the commandment wielding klutz. There were always a couple clear English words for the neighbors in earshot who might think she was neglecting her children while she prepared manna . Each time like the first. Each reaction a rehearsal for the next.

It was late October. The oppressive city summer heat was waning, and our little apartment filled up nightly with a motley cast of transient ex-boyfriends, strangers, hard looking women with even harder stories they performed around the kitchen table, small time dealers, and sometimes an uncle or two, if they happened to be released from prison.

The partying would sometimes go into the early morning depending on the chemical regiment prescribed to the shag carpet astronauts. Most of the time downers melted the night early enough for me to get a good night's sleep to boldly combat the school day shame of perpetual failure, and asphalt playground showdowns with milk money hustlers.

Occasionally, acid would make an appearance. One of the worst nights I remember from Texas avenue started out with giggles and iguana abuse. We had a pet iguana which mysteriously appeared in a dilapidated aquarium a few months prior. The newness had worn off for my mother and I, but the nightly visitors would torment the poor thing with pokes and Jim Morrison inspired, "Lizard King" chants. Its name was Charlie, and one night a bad trip happened upon Charlie, and he didn't make it.

Smoke.... in midnight.

Asleep dreaming of an iguana god biting my mother's foot on the living room floor. Her screams carried me back to a bed of darkness.

Another scream, and I stumbled blindly towards the door and entered the dim, smoke filled hallway. As I stepped out of the bedroom, my soft foot discovered shards of glass blanketing the floor.

"Jeremy? Jeremy, I'm dying, honey. I can't take it anymore, baby. I love you," her voice doesn't sound like her, but its her standing in the entryway to the kitchen.

Lit candles framed a well worn Ouija board on the kitchen table casting a glow to hide the evidence; the evidence of consequence when connecting wantonly to realms we have no name for. Her silhouette rivaled the darkness of infinity, which quickly grew as a stout figure took shape behind her to grab hold just before her total collapse. The figure was my uncle Ted, he must have gotten the goodies for the episode.

"Jeremy.... Go back to bed, your mom's not feeling very well." My uncle expertly improvised.

"Why's there glass all over the place?"

"Just a little accident. Go back to bed, you have school in the morning," it was Saturday.

"Please!Please! I don't want to live! Don't let Sonny get Jeremy.... Don't ever let 'em take 'em, Teddy!" she said hysterically as her legs gave out completely. Sonny was my father who lived in Indiana. My mother kidnapped me after my father won a custody battle in Indiana. Missouri didn't uphold the ruling because of a lean towards mother's rights were official residents of the state. It was actually kind of a big deal for a sunny minute; we even got interviewed on the local news. If the bastards would have only looked a little closer in our eyes....

I couldn't go to my mother and uncle to investigate without cutting my feet to shreds, but a second in a flip of a flame shed light on a puddle of crimson growing in accordance with steady drips of blood let loose from the cage which housed my mother's soul.

After a small wave of heated bickering as to what course of action to take, a herd of dosed Homo sapiens left with ricocheting phrases of: "bad trip", "Crazy suicidal Crystal", "Hospital.... bill", "Never again", "Poor kid".

Soon thereafter, static ridden pipe organ music cut through the walls accompanied by off key mumbles under an exaggerated falsetto singing nightly hymns to their omnipotent law giver. "May he deliver us from the crazy Americans across the hall. Amen."

No one told me the "Lizard King" had died.

Something unnamed demanded death.

I can still sense its disappointment with the compromised libation, iguana blood mixed with LSD.

It's strange how episodes of near tragedy usually get swept under a rug, that's tip toed on, only to feed the dust mites of neurosis who give birth to pyromaniac dragons that burn the poorly constructed kingdoms of the psyche down; only to leave enough life to perpetuate more episodes for predisposed progeny until the end of a particular bloodline. But all is not lost, just suspended in the false hope of unearned liberation. Look closely at the moments, even if your memory lies; it doesn't work for you; it works for the city planners who are in cahoots with the dragons. The game is rigged only if you choose not to participate for fear of being burned before your time. Pyromania in its early stages is a symptom of neglect which takes the form of a violent external deconstruction to master a piece of existence that is far less complicated than winning the affection and acknowledgment of an emotionally vacant deity.. Did I say deity? I guess I did. Make of it what you will, Dr. Freud; I have to get back on the somnambulist's couch and tip my hat to my main man, Dr. Jung, on my way to the fire station on 1980 Avenue.

But all roads lead to....

Moses falling; falling down the stairs, again:

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.... thump, thump.... thump!
Screaming from the depths of limbo.

"What in the world....?" My aunt Kathy watched me for the two weeks while my mother stayed in the hospital under "observation". She wasn't quite desensitized to the neighbors' idiosyncrasies in the two days she had been with me.

"I told you, didn't I? Baby Moses falls down the stairs every day."

"But there has to be a law," she stated with a hint of despair. She was only twenty-one, and the world still threw surprises at her most people with her life experience would shrug off. Kathy held on to innocence to fortify herself against the reality of the pain of her childhood. Her mantra is the cliché, "Whatever doesn't kill us, makes us stronger." she uses said aphorism to this very day. I cringe every time I hear anyone say that particular platitude.

"I don't know, but he never even has a bruise, or nothin'" The most amazing thing to me was the fact that Moses never looked hurt in any way after a tumble down the stairs. I could slip my foot ever so slightly off the pedal of my big wheel and acquire a bruise the size of a fist, but Moses never had a mar; the child stayed flawless.

"Jeremy. We have to do something about these roaches," my aunt Kathy couldn't stand the site of roaches, and our apartment was overwhelmed with them. They were to the point that they came out in broad daylight to grab crumbs accumulated in the carpet fibers. "Tonight after I pick up Jay, we'll do a slaughter." A slaughter was a midnight ambush on the roaches. They were at their height in numbers after dark when the glow of the television was the only light.

Jason was the youngest of my mother's siblings. He absolutely despised me because my grandmother treated me golden and beat him to a pulp every other day. Any opportunity Jason could get alone with me was a torture session. He was only fourteen years old, but he had established a deep seeded hate for me that in some way still resonates through time and space.

Kathy, Jason, and I were halfway through an old late night werewolf flick when Kathy sounded the battle whisper, "Lets get 'em".
We each grabbed our weapon of choice. I had a half empty can of spray;Kathy had a full can and a dust pan; and Jay had a broom ready to sweep and squash.

Roaches had a significant roll in my life on Texas avenue. They were a mocking omnipresent force of degradation. Every thing in our apartment had been touched by those grotesque creatures. One morning I drank milk sleepily from a mug my mother had given me. I got about halfway to the bottom when a tickling sensation woke the tip of my nose. There was a full grown monster of a roach swimming frantically on the surface of my milk. The image stabbed its way into the deepest recesses of my mind, instantly. My mother shrugged it off and gave me another cup, but I wouldn't drink from it. For years after, I checked my glasses and cups thoroughly. Every time I drink a glass of milk the image of that incident brushes ever so slightly in my consciousness to tickle a wave of bad memories. I seldom drink milk.

Armed and ready, aunt Kathy reached for the light switch.

"Get "em!" the scene of all those cockroaches scurrying for their lives was intimidating. I sprayed in every direction while holding my nose only to gasp sporadically and inhaled my fair share of the bug killer. The taste would linger for a day or two as my lungs fought to rid me of the noxious chemicals. Roaches by the dozens gave their death spasms like a dance to a foreign rhythm. Jason began to sweep just to weed out the half dead to finish off the rest. Legs and wings were smashed into the carpet and linoleum. A greasy film of roach spray blanketed every surface.

The strangest thing about our roach slaughter wasn't the massive amount of roach death, but in the laughter coming from us while we murdered them. The laughter bordered on hysteria. The depth of disgust was unacceptable to us, so we combated our shame with laughter. Belly laughs while chemicals saturated our brains which were designed to attack the neurological systems of insects, but I wonder if the attack stopped with the roaches. 'Can we get a Material Safety Data Sheet on this memory, please?'

Sleep came easily that night even as images of piled dead roaches flashed and an unnatural residue coated my lungs. I wondered if our neighbors ever had roach slaughters. Maybe the hymns were a way to coax the bugs over to our apartment. "Go to the sinners, eat their crumbs and drink their milk until ye be sated!"

"Let me out! I'll tell grandma." One of Jason's favorite things to do to me when we were alone in the apartment was to roll me up in the fold out couch. I could tell my aunt about his abuse, but she would find it funny. I could easily save the tale until the next time I visited my grandmother and she would treat it like it just happened. Jason actually lived with my grandmother and her boyfriend, but my aunt Kathy took every opportunity to get Jason away from their abusive mother.

"I guess I should let you smother in there, then. See any bugs in there? I bet there's all kinds of mad roaches waiting to get revenge for what we did to their friends last night," he really knew how to torment for a fourteen year old.

Panic started edging its way as tears welled in my eyes. The best way to combat Jason was to belt out a genuine scream. It had to be genuine, though; anything less got laughs and a couple bounces on the couch cushions.

I issued a sincere scream loud enough for the refugees to hear even from the depths of the bowls of a fold out couch.

"Alright, I'll let you out; you little baby. But you better not tell."

"I won't," I whimpered.



There's nothing like being freed from a fold out couch. Houdini was a masochist.

I rarely tattled on Jason. I knew the consequences, and in some way felt sorry for him and how severe the beatings could get . Once, I pissed all over a toilet seat and let Jason take the blame. My grandmother beat him close fisted through their entire house. Her favorite target was his nose. She hit my uncle Jason so many times in the nose that he had chronic nosebleeds into his early twenties.

She never beat me. I was glad for it, but watching her beat my uncle invoked a level of guilt I hadn't the emotional tools to deal with. The core reason for the guilt was that I secretly liked it. I would anticipate the impact of her fist upon my uncle's nose, and my heart would skip when her knuckles found home.

I never feared my grandmother. Even with all the violence she displayed through her words and her actions. I believe she made it a point to leave me unscathed by her temper. She put me on a pedestal of redemption. I was her ticket out of hell, in some twisted violent fanatical way. She couldn't see that her tainted vile genes had prevailed onto my mother and every fist that found home, and every profanity which escaped her wretched rictus, awoke those same traits in me. I've spent most of my life combating what I recognize to be traits from my mother and grandmother. The battles within me are ruthless and every bit as violent as a fist which repeatedly crushed innocence in a Midwestern living room, circa 1980.

Kick Ball was an integral part of good weather Sundays. We had very few weekends left which the weather would allow us heated matches and that Sunday held tightly to the summer sun.

Joshua and Abraham weren't the greatest athletes, but they did just fine at making me shine to the rest of the neighborhood rug rats. I never missed an opportunity to let the refugee brothers know just how pathetic they were. I didn't mind if they were on my team or not. If we lost, it was because they sucked. If we won, it was because I was awesome.

We were midway through a neck and neck game which had all the feel and intensity of an unofficial championship. Joshua was on my team and Abraham played for the other. The mild mannered brothers played as lackadaisical as they always had; totally unaware of the concept of competition and neighborhood pride.

The score was fifteen to fifteen and the universe sweated anticipation of victory along my brow. Abraham came up to kick for the enemy. I pitched for our team. I took a long look at Abraham searching for just the right thing to say to throw him off kilter. No one had ever took the time to teach us sportsmanship. Grace only interrupted the path to glory before the dinner calls would pick us off one by one. I searched his eyes and knew what to say for certain victory, "Jesus hates you because you're a freak and you stink," tears welled the instant before my timely release, but Abraham's foot connected to the ball with biblical impact and sent it straight between my eyes. I lost the ground for a split second before my ass found it again with a ring enveloping my shock and emerging embarrassment.

I leapt to my feet ignoring the wails of laughter echoing from all directions. Rage filled my mind wanting release, needing escape. Abraham hadn't moved, but stood there with quivering lips preparing an apology to deter the heathen child across the lawn from beating the holy ghost out of him. I bum rushed him to the ground with all my might and quickly grabbed a handful of dirt which I stuffed into his mouth and smeared the saliva mud mix into his eyes. No one attempted to stop me, so I thoroughly humiliated the timid child. I rose to find Joshua meeting me eye to eye. I expected a confrontation, but was shocked to see a hint of pleasure leaking out, exposing a sadistic quality I never would have expected from anyone who occupied the apartment across the hall. I realized, much later, Joshua was trapped in his own type of hell, and my humiliating his brother was a vicarious experience for him. I wonder if a seed took hold for him that day.

We called the game a draw. The season had it's climax, and the evening tugged at our appetites. The last hint of summer residue giving way to clouded breaths foreshadowing winter's arrival. My mother came home the following day.

The simplest acts take root and grow strong whether acknowledged by conflict or acquiescence. They are the ingredients our subconscious needs to create individuality systemically. I wish this weren't the case. The burden of being a catalyst which has potential to change another's course through life makes some people tip toe through the mine field of our collective unconscious. If I had clear cut definitions of right and wrong, a moral foundation I couldn't intellectualize away, I would stride more boldly through life. But every time I find some seemingly altruistic path, another comes along to soften its truth and leads me to a maze of doubt where my neurosis whispers dead ends of regression, and I find solace in solitude and depravity. Any hint of blind faith taking hold brings forth memories of a self righteous fist contradicting declarations of holiness with predatorily oppressive blows to an undeserving child's fearful face.

"You don't.... have.... to live like a refugee. Don't have to live like a refujaay..."

We sang along with the familiar fervor and maliciousness we had before she went away. My mother returned in a renewed state of mania and a replenished stock of pharmaceuticals to put a spin on reality. Dancing around the apartment with our modest stereo blaring Tom Petty pushing the limits of the speakers so our neighbors could discern our disdain for their existence. It was like nothing had taken place; as far as she was concerned, the night of the iguana madness never happened.

We danced and screamed "Refugee" several times the day my mother came home. The deejay had no idea he was party to a hate crime, and neither did Mr Petty, for that matter. I got caught up in the mania she emanated like a gaseous cloud. We sweated out all empathy, and were left dehydrated and shameless.

That evening she fixed burnt hamburgers for dinner. I was disgusted by any meat product which wasn't in hot dog or bologna form. There were many nights I fell asleep at the kitchen table because I refused to eat. Many occasions I awoke the next day with a dried up pork chop presented to me for breakfast. The root cause of the meat aversion was an experience I had at some bikers' house where I was abandoned a few days. I was only five, and the biker family thought I could chew up a huge meaty steak. I couldn't even swallow one hunk. I chewed on one piece of steak for three hours; choking tasteless fragments down while being mocked and tormented by strangers. They wouldn't let me out of their site believing I would spit the meat out and their newfound hilarity would be lost. I was well into my teens before I ever appreciated a good steak.

The mania of the day instigated a bold maneuver as I sat routinely alone at the dinner table. I scooped up the cold burger off my plate and hid it under the top layer of garbage in the trashcan. Shortly after my heart rate went down to normal, my mother came into the kitchen to check my progress. She glanced at the burger less plate and casually said, "Hmmm... you really gobbled it up, didn't you."

"Yup, it was good," I replied with the same casual tone.

She headed straight for the trashcan and lifted the layer of garbage hiding my crime.

"You little lyin' cock sucker!" She reached out and grabbed me by the hair of my head and dragged me to her bedroom. On her dresser sat her favorite hairbrush which she also used to beat me on top of my head. I could hear and feel my hair ripping out of my head as she whipped me around frantically. The blows landed violently, but one or two landed on her hand which only served to fuel her barrage. The knots burned as they rose on several spots. She must have noticed the knots, or felt her blows hitting softer areas as fluid softened my scull.

As she released me, she screamed, "Get the fuck on the couch, and don't move!"

I sat on the couch trying to catch my breath through sobs. My neck grew hot as my head throbbed in pulses of pain. She stayed in her bedroom but I could faintly hear her crying and moaning quietly. After a few moments, she walked through the living room and went into the kitchen. When she returned to the living room, she held a honey bun out to me silently. I stayed still in a state of petrification. She softly said, "Take it."

I took the honey bun with caution. She sat on the couch next to me. I opened the honey bun wrapper and began eating it between gasps with tears salting the sweet pastry. About halfway through she turned to me and said, "I'm sorry."

"Jeremy, what are you doing, baby?" she came out of the bathroom in a terrycloth robe with her long dark hair expertly wrapped in a towel.

"I'm looking at the colors of the cars, mommy. I know colors."

"You do? Well, that's really good for a three year old! Can I see?"

She sat next to me on the couch and looked out the window with her chin perched on folded hands. She smelled of perfumed bathwater. She was beautiful. She was only eighteen, but she was everything to me, and she loved me.

"I got a splinter in my finger, mommy."

"You do? Let me see. You do have a little one. I'll get the tweezers, and we'll get it 'K?"

"Will it hurt?"

"Only for a little bit. I'll try not to hurt you....

I've been hearing a lot about frequencies these days. About how two frequencies dominate our emotions even though we perceive many more. The two emotional frequencies are Love And Fear. If this is the case; if our actions and perceptions are ruled by these two emotions, what happens to those who fear the ones our blood longs to love the most? Is there a glitch in the program? Are we that simple? The more we simplify our existence, the more we lose the intricate make up of our being. We give everything over to two all encompassing "frequencies".(Frequencies being a tangible scientific measurement!). What channel picks up bull shit? I know, I know Love. Because I'd love for life to be that simple. I know there are a lot of bastard children of Fear and Love running around in my own head; And I have a serious aversion for both the parents. Eve didn't stand in the garden ready to eat the fruit due to love or fear, but mainly just good old curiosity.

I guess we do have to get ourselves back to the garden after all.

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