Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"The First Goddess"


It takes a while to find the place I’m looking for, because without quite realizing it I’m chasing around College Park trying to catch a ghost. 

I know that back in 1972 I lived in this part of College Park, which basically just follows one main street with a heavily fenced in MARTA city rail system and station here, whereas back in the day it had only been open tracks you could walk across or follow along at will.  I have walked along these tracks with the particular ghost I’m chasing.

My very first job, at 17 turning 18, was as a busboy at a Shoney’s Big Boy restaurant somewhere in the neighborhood of these tracks.  I’m not finding it.  Shoney’s were once pretty much everywhere in the south, ubiquitous as grits, but now they seem to have vanished along with the classic southern drawl. 

I see a cop parked in the lot of Simon’s Steak and Seafood close to where I’m sure I’m supposed to be looking.  I pull up in the van with my family and lean out the window.

“I’m looking for something used to be around here, a Shoney’s Big Boy.  It's this hamburger joint.”

“Yonder,” he says pointing past me with his Styrofoam coffee cup.  “It’s there.”

I look where the white coffee cup is pointing.  That rooty-tooty steak house?

The architecture begins to bloom for me.  It’s the right shape.  It’s the right size.  And yes – I remember now – the parking lot in back comes up against a fenced cliff of tangled vines, now replaced with nice houses.  No trace of the rows of drive up menu signs and telecoms where people could order in from their cars.  That culture is gone too.

“There?”

“Yes, sir,” he says, with that politeness southern men pick up after a stint in the military. 

Looking at the building as familiarity grows, the parking lot, still keeping its shape as the ruins of an ancient civilization might keep their skeletal form over the millennia. 

“Shit,” I say out loud.

“Yes, sir,” he says.

“Is it open?”

“Hell, I don’t know,” he says.  “I guess.  But that’s where Shoney’s used to been.  I don’t eat there now.”

Back in the day, lots of cops ate at Shoney’s.  The manager gave them discounts.  Cops were good for business, gave the place a reputation as a local cop shop.  Kept criminals and riff raff at a distance and made customers feel safe. 

“Thanks.”  I find a spot, there’s a couple of cars around the other side, so I guess it’s open.  I unpack my family and as I walk up to the glass double doors, a sense of the past is sweeping in like a cold front.  This must be how it feels to be a ghost in a haunted house when new people move in.  You want to keep it the way you remember it, but time is passing you by and nothing stays the same for long.  Just you being stuck in a vanished time.
We're met by a hostess who brings us to a booth and gives us each a menu.  The prices are crushing.  We order ice tea and soup.

I'm looking at the area where the pie case used to be.  We all used to stand around there, talking.  The salad bar was where the nice aquarium is now.

God.

In 1972 my mom moved here with my brother and me.  I was unaware of her mental illness at the time; it would be years before I became aware of it.  She was moving, moving, on the move, but at the same time, a ghost herself, she was moving to the places she had known from before, when her life had held more people in it and had been happier.  Maybe by living down the road from the last place on earth where we were together as a family, she thought some of that faded happiness might rub off on her.  And now here I am.  Behaving like a ghost myself.

I got my first job here as a bus boy at Shoney’s, cleaning tables.  It was as though my life began here in this room, like an egg waiting to crack.  The waitresses liked me right off, because I was endearingly ignorant about women and I didn’t steal their tips.

I had been a disaster as a student in high school.  My family was falling apart and I was a bundle of defiance and rage.  But I was capable of study and intellectual pursuit when motivated.  I discovered hand writing analysis and made it my hobby.  I studied several books at once, syncretistically, juggling notebooks, cramming information into my subconscious.  I developed over time an intuitive mastery of technique, which, after some false starts became very accurate. 

Shyly, but with calculation, I introduced my hobby to the other waitresses, the way a tarot card reader might.  They tested me.  They were impressed and I quickly learned the power of discretion.  Soon they were giving me, not their own handwritings, but the handwritings of their husbands and boyfriends.  Women wanted insight into the men they loved and gambled their happiness with. 

A new waitress arrived.  Her name was DeEtta.  She was stupid.

She had a silly face.  A stupid laugh.  A careless way of carrying herself.  She had large intense eyes, which seemed either surprised or delighted.  She spoke to the others, but myself I avoided her.  I somehow dreaded her.  When not dreading her I was simply bored by her.

And of course, the handwriting.  She wrote out a sample on a used ticket pad and asked if I could study it.  She punctuated her request with a giggle.  I gave it back, and dryly informed her it was not the right way to prepare a sample.  She would have to take unlined paper, a pencil preferably although a pen was all right and write a full page and sign her name at the bottom – so.  

She brought the correct sample back, I folded it in my pocket and returned to my table wiping. The paper rattled around in various pants and jacket pockets without my reading what she had written there, for a couple of days.  She reminded me of the sample, anything?  Had I made progress?  I’d get to it I said. 

A week later at lunch time with my burger and coffee – employees got 10% off – I sat in the break room, which was also the banquet room, as if ever anyone had a banquet at a Shoney’s Big Boy.  The paper crackled in my pocket, reminding me.  I took it out, resigned myself and unfolded it, with a sigh, to read.

How do you describe something meaningless to others, but filled with portent for you alone, who alone can understand what you’re seeing?

It was not the words.  The words were idle scribbles about traveling to Europe and how dull College Park was to live in.  And a signature.  But this handwriting.  How did Salieri feel the first time he looked at Mozart’s hand written sheet music?  The pressure of the pencil was of such an intensity it could be felt on the other side like a kind of angry braille.  The letters, though not large, were sweeping loops and peaks, intuitive leaps between letters, lower loops that were almost obscene in the aggressive erotic energy they suggested.  This was a lively, eclectic mind such as I had never seen, of inexplicable passion and intensity.  And a vast intelligence.

I told DeEtta I was ready.  We clocked out at the end of the shift and went to the break room in the back and sat with coffee.

The paper was folded and wrinkled as before.  Without looking at it I pushed it across the table to her, unread.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What’s wrong with it?” she said.

“No, I mean, I’m sorry to you.  I was wrong.  I . . I had this idea.”

She looked at me with those intense eyes.  I prayed that she would not burst into a giggle.  “I thought . . . you were kind of stupid.  Or something.  But you’re really not.”

Without moving her gaze, she just nodded.

“What I mean is, I thought you were kind of dumb.  Yeah.  But you’re really smart.  Really, really smart.”

There was this mask, this dumb animal mask; it just came down.  The person sitting across from me, I did not know.  She was a stranger.  A stranger coolly assessing me and my questionable intelligence.

“That’s all right,” she said softly, without smiling.  “A lot of people think that.  When they don’t know me.”

What do we know of our lives? 

That serendipitous spin of the clacking carnival wheel that stops up against one peg rather than another?  

What does a perceptive person see in us, that we fail to see in ourselves? 

Her name was DeEtta.

In the next two years, she didn’t just open the doors of my imagination.

She kicked them down.

She spoke Italian fluently, she even spoke some Latin.  She had been educated in Italy at a special college run by nuns.  When she had applied at the office they had turned her down.  That night she had vaulted the wall, pounded on the door, and demanded to be admitted as a student.  She was.  She had hitchhiked across the Southwest alone with a crate of the complete Encyclopedia Britannica her father had given her. 

We became constant and hilarious companions.  We took classes; we studied yoga and meditation together.  She introduced me to existentialism and the existentialist writers.  She introduced me to the concepts of Mysticism and Panpsychism which became the foundational belief system of my life still to this day.  She taught me how to read.  Not just words, but beyond the words, how to really read.  She taught me how to read literature.  She taught me how to read poetry.  She taught me how to read people.  She taught me how to teach myself, a very difficult thing to teach and a very difficult thing to learn. 

And she taught me how to shut the fuck up and LISTEN – when a smart woman is talking to me.

It only takes one great teacher to turn a young man around.  She was the great teacher of my life and she was enough to last a lifetime.

And then we fell apart.

We lasted two years.  It was my fault, I was stupid and callous.  I hurt her.  I threw away a priceless friendship that should have lasted a lifetime to go chasing after false gods.

Her name is DeEtta Demaratus these days, and I know because I’ve read her books which you can find in most libraries, most recently “The Force of a Feather”, a biography of Biddy Mason.  I bought a copy and sent it to the publisher and she autographed it for me, sent it back with a polite note, she remembered me and wished me well and goodbye.  And that was that.  She has never read my stuff.  Probably doesn't know I've written a word.  Not that it would matter.

If you take off the top of my head and look you’ll find her thumbprint right there.

Goddesses.  Rare and precious. 

Why do the best things always disappear?



14 comments:

  1. I think some very intelligent women put on that air of shallowness to avoid going deep with people who she is smart enough to know won't be able to keep up with her. I knew one woman, a real jabbermouth who seemingly didn't have anything more to say than what cleaning she did around the house, what time she picked up the kids and what they had for supper. One night, we'd been invited for dinner, and I found her bookcases to be full of widely varied and excellent works, both fiction and non. Turns out she'e extremely well-read on a myriad of topics and we now talk on other levels. She just claims it to be too much work to be philosophical all the time. She' wise enough to know it's a hard job to think beyond the obvious all the time.

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  2. I wonder if that may be what's wrong with me in a way. Real wortd, I'm not much good at small talk. I hate sports. Not much to talk about unless I start talking about the "deep stuff" but I think I exhaust people so that they want to run when they see me coming because they're not in the mood for that. Sometimes conversation can be too much work.

    Garce

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    1. Hear ya! I also don't do much truck watching a bunch of guys chase their balls around a field.

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  3. Have you ever been tested for Mensa membership? I know it's a joke to some, but I resisted it for years, saying I didn't need to pay dues to know I'm smart. But I love the national magazine and I get a daily "culture question" on-line. When it's a sports question, I'm clueless, but that's rare. More often it's general knowledge, or literature, then I'm game!

    I used to hide my intelligence, but now I just don't care anymore what people think of me. The kids I sub for ask how come I know so much about so many subjects, when I'm "only" an English teacher...and an unemployed one who is subbing, at that. I tell them that I'm old, and I discovered a long time ago that now that no one is telling me what I HAVE to read or learn, I can follow my own interests. It's so much more fun that way! I'm a huge fan of cultural anthropologist Desmond Morris, and I love non-fiction books a lot, especially those dealing with human nature and how we think/learn.

    As for your goddess, Garce, realistically, few friendships last a lifetime. You didn't mention anything sexual between you, but that would have always been a part of the equation when you were young, even if neither of you expressed any desire for that. I've met a few young men who become fascinated by my ability to talk about anything and everything, and never to get embarrassed or upset by what they want to discuss. I usually drift away slowly, so as not to make them think they did anything wrong, but because as I've already told them, they need to stop viewing women their own age ONLY as sexual possibilities, and to listen to the actual words coming out of their mouths. They tell me women their age aren't as smart as me. I remind them I was young once too, and pretty damn smart even back then.

    So it's possible that the drifting apart that occurred wasn't only due to your own actions. Possibly she was letting you go. That's why the neutral tone in the note that accompanied the autographed book. Don't beat yourself up over something done so long ago. Just be grateful to have had that time and that connection. Treasure the memory. Things that happen when we are so young always seem so monumental in importance. Sometimes people only cross paths for a short time. That's life.

    And Daddy X--I'm the opposite of your friend. I always go off on tangents or extrapolate conversations, taking everyone else along with me. I can talk "surface level" with the best of them, but I get bored too easily. Even with my BFFs, I want to discuss books, ideas, and life philosophy...along with my latest romance novels, and what their daughter is doing in college these days. Sometimes their eyes glaze over as if they're exhausted...but most of the time they seem to enjoy the stimulation also.

    The catch is when I do this with complete strangers met at random in some public place. THOSE are the ones who really have their eyes glazed over by the time we part company. I giggle to myself, wondering what they will say if a loved one asks them how their day was. "Yeah, I met this crazy woman who wouldn't shut up, but damn if she didn't teach me a few things that I never even knew I wanted to learn."

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    1. Hi Fiona!

      I think as we get older we get a little more freedom and maybe a broader range of things to gab about. I did read Desmond Morris' book "The Naked Ape". I remember in High school passing it around for that especially hot passage describing the sexual process of arousal and excitement in the female and male of the species homo sapiens. It was the first time any of us had ever heard it described in such detail.

      Yes, people leave their mark on us and move on. But often its too soon.

      Garce

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    2. Better too soon than over-staying your welcome.

      Intimate Behaviour by Desmond Morris has even more about the sexual proclivities of human beings. He's my favorite anthropologist, since he writes so well.

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  4. Garce dear,

    I suspected you might talk about DeEtta.

    I wish she could read this gorgeous, insightful, spine-tingling piece. In fact, if I knew how to contact her, I'd send her the link. Because I think it would convince her she was very wrong to let you go.

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    1. You never know (I'm told I say that a lot) maybe she'll see this. It was me who let her go and maybe as Fiona said, she was letting me go to move on. Its tough. The Buddhists are right though, everything is transient. Its hard to love someone and yet not cling to them.

      Garce

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    2. But Garce, just like with your own kids, you can't just sit and stare at them, trying to memorize every detail about any moment. That will creep them out. Memories of those we loved are bittersweet because at the time we didn't realize how much we'd miss them when they were gone. Yet once they're gone, we'd give anything to be able to have just one more moment with them.

      That's the theme behind Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio" play. The young woman who dies during childbirth gets to "visit" her loved ones, and she cries at how wonderful it is that they can see and touch each other, because she can't be a part of that anymore. And they don't seem to appreciate it for the miracle that it is. But that's human nature.

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    3. I'm ashamed to admit that I never read any of Sherwood Anderson's work. This sounds very much like Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town", written 19 years later than "Winesburg, Ohio," so I wonder whether Wilder got the idea from Anderson.

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    4. OOPS! My bad. I "mis-remembered" who had written the play I was thinking of with that scene. I stand corrected. Sacchi, you are right, it was Wilder's "Our Town". 20 lashes with a wet bookmark for me, for having made such an unpardonable error...and me, an English teacher and all! I'm covered with shame

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  5. It's a rare privilege to have been close to such a person, and a privilege for her, too, to have had such an influence, whether she knows it or not.

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    1. Hi Sacchi!

      It was rare and good thing to have such a special teacher so early in life. In many ways I have been very lucky.

      Garce

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  6. Garce, this is a gorgeous piece that gives me chills. And that formative sort of friendship, the thumbprint on the brain that you talk about—I know exactly what that feels like. Speaking of feeling like a ghost, there are times I move or speak and feel an old friend momentarily possessing my body. I'm saying the words just so, just the way they would have done. It's an eerie feeling, but it also makes me aware that these people are not lost to me because they're part of me now.

    What you've written about DeEtta is full of so much gorgeous phrasing, too, but I particularly loved this line: "This must be how it feels to be a ghost in a haunted house when new people move in."

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