Visions of a cash & carry haunted house operation dance through my uncle’s dilated pupils as he drives up the rutted road toward a burned out, two-story mansion of gothic ruin.
Stir crazy kids pour out the back of the van, into a wild and strewn disaster, as if the rain storm that had just passed had personally ransacked the place, looking for something inside.
On the second floor, halfway down the hall from the blackened stairwell, my honey haired cousin Ann, a precocious eleven years old and two years older than me to the day, pulls me into one of the cindered rooms and teaches me how to French kiss slowly. The bible tells us this is wrong, but she wants us to pull our pants down and feel our buzzing, sensitive parts nuzzle against each other while our tongues wrestle madly. Then her brother Allen catches us, puts his hands over his mouth and runs out; Allen who is essentially my best friend, whom I read and swap comic books with. We pull up our pants and walk out wondering how much trouble we are in.
I watch a movie about someone burning up in their house because they fall asleep while smoking cigarettes in bed. Mom is a two pack a day user and at least one of those packs gets consumed entirely in her bedroom. I start to lose sleep staying up all night watching as much TV as I can because I know my mom smokes cigarettes in bed at night.
I make sure to keep going in and checking on her to make sure she is not on fire. I always bring a small plastic bucket of water just in case.
When she is able to get out of bed, she goes for long drives at night, taking me to Denny’s while she has conversations that last hours and hours into the early morning hours with long haired Jesus Freaks, sporting beards. They tell her Jesus isn’t uptight about weed or bras or all this fake artificial society. She quotes them John Lennon:
“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now.”
The freaks really dig this. They also seem to really dig her. They tell her Jesus is okay with John Lennon and Sweet Baby James, even with a few joints and cigarettes here and there. Johnnie is my mother’s favorite Beatle of course. She was a sucker for impassioned idealists. Something John Lennon shared with my dad, Jesus and eventually her son. They give her a copy of Good News for Modern Man and invite her to come hang out at their collective house.
Thankfully she never does this, but I am always sleepy and late to school and my teachers hate me and I hate them.
SEPTEMBER 1976 – Part 2
The rain returns. Everyone starts back to my uncle’s van but mom is missing and I begin to feel a cold hollow burn between my heart and bosom. I call out her name on the first floor, to no avail. On the second floor I scream “MOM!” After anxiously checking each ominous room, I ascend to the third floor trembling with the foreshadowing that she has somehow left me forever.
I yell again on the third floor and still get no answer. I check each room, where the center portion of the roof is gone, its ashen beams and shingles resembling the mouth of a dragon whose teeth have been smashed by its own tail, the rainfall intensifying and soaking me through the gaping maw.
In the very last room on the floor, on the very last floor, I finally find her staring at the graffiti on the wall.
“Mom.” She doesn’t respond.
I go up to her.
She finally speaks: “Devil worshippers lived here.”
I look but I see no obvious signs of evil. I don’t understand the images and words spray painted on the ruined, ashen walls. I look back at her, rainwater dripping down her cheeks.
“Young women died here,” she says.
I tug at her arm. “Mom, we have to go. We’re leaving now. We need to leave now mom, okay? Please?” She turns and starts to come with my pull. When we get to the stairs Allen is there.
Puberty starts to kick in. Images of Farah Fawcett and other celebrity sex symbols get me to touching myself. Mom catches me and snaps.
SMACK! She delivers a full open palm smack to the face. Stinging and stunned I’m confused, unsure what is happening.
“Why were you just sending messages to the devil?”
“Don’t lie to me Michael, I heard you talking to Joni Mitchell and John Lennon asking the devil to contact you.”
I don’t even know who Joni Mitchell is. I barely know John Lennon is a Beatle. I am unfamiliar with the terms schizophrenia or Clinical Depression.
When I come out of my room the next day I beg her forgiveness and swear I didn’t know I was talking to Satan, that I didn’t mean to and I promise I’ll never do it again.
“You have to accept Jesus Michael.”
Rinse and repeat this ritual on a weekly basis, as often as she can get herself out of bed.
Mom pretty much stays in bed all day every day now, except getting up at night sometimes to go to McDonald’s, Denny’s or Taco Bell. Otherwise she is in bed. I stop going to 4th grade because I hate it and everyone there. Within three days CPS comes and places me in a foster home where I live for three months.
SEPTEMBER 1976 – Part 3
When we get to the stairs there is Allen waiting. I wonder if he is going to say anything.
Suddenly the stair beneath his right foot gives way and he screams as he starts to plunge down but he is able to grab onto a barely stable handrail and with the arm not holding my mother, I’m able to help pull him out of the hole. He then helps me step over this hazard, and then in turn helps me help my mom across it. We continue gingerly in the manner, holding hands but no more than one person per step at the same time.
We make it back to the van, the rest of my cousins imploring us “come on! Hurry up!” and my uncle is cracking open a fresh can of Coors before getting ready to hit the road, an enormous, self satisfied grin on his features.
Allen gives me a look. I know he won’t say a word. For this I will love him forever, even after he becomes a woman named Karen twenty years later, driving a cab in Bremerton and strung out on meth. I don’t notice at the time, but we never swap comic books again.
DECEMBER 8th 1980
Howard Cosell announces on Monday Night Football that his friend John Lennon has been murdered.
DECEMBER 22nd 1980
Visiting my mom for the last time as she lay tethered to IV’s and a feeding tube, twin cancers in her lungs and thyroid having their last feast on her cell tissue.
I don’t know now if I should tell her about John. But I do. Her eyes grew wide. Her poor, crucified head lifted suddenly, fitfully off the hospital pillow looking straight at me with shock and expression with what was left of her awareness. Through her feeding tube, I quite clearly heard a muffled “really?” It’s the last conversation I have with her.
DECEMBER 25th 1980
She passes in the early morning hours.
BOXING DAY 2015
I dream she meets Johnnie in the bardo, the “waiting room” for the next phase of existence. I dream they’re still together now, where she could be his Yoko Ono of the threshold realm, or in the next life, in that place in all our minds where everything really does exist.
Paul Corman-Roberts edits fiction and prose for Full of Crow Online, and is a core-founder of the Beast Crawl Lit Festival in Oakland. His most recent collection is We Shoot Typewriters from Nomadic Press.