At first it was a fireman. A fireman was leaning over me. “Do you know your name?” Yes of course I know my name, what kind of silly question is that? But I couldn’t speak. I was in a vehicle, lying on my back. Oh, it’s an ambulance. But then I’m not there at all; I’m in a hospital. “Didn’t you used to be a writer?” asks the nurse, leaning over me, or is she a party clown? She’s wearing bright lipstick and her face is too close to mine and she smells of cigarillos. “Weren’t you a writer?” and I replied, “I used to be a writer.” She said, “Then what are you now? What do you do now?”
I tried to think if I did anything. “I write stuff,” I said. “Oh!” she said, her heavy breath horrible. “Then you’re still a writer.” I said I guessed I was, but I was no longer talking to the nurse or daycare worker or whoever that foul-breathed horror was, but to a slim young man with an electronic pad clicking away, a reporter for a small local paper, a supermarket advertiser that always included a front page of local interest.
He wanted to know about a book, I think, something I’d written years ago that was recently reprinted in a fancy edition hardly anyone would ever see. Or was it only about me he was asking, and there was no electronic pad but a long curled piece of paper on which he scritched with a feather quill. And he couldn’t be a young journalist for the supermarket rag, he was the recording angel, and he wanted to know what had I done in my life that was important. I didn’t think that any of it was important. When I couldn’t tell him anything, he said, “Well, then, what was most important to you, when it was all so very interesting?”
I tried to remember, and when I did, suddenly I was in the Sanitary Market, which newcomers called the Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Formerly, Pike was the exit, not the entrance, it was never called Pike Place back then, it was always either the Farmer’s Market or the Sanitary Market. That enormous sign used to say Sanitary Market, though to tell the truth it was never particularly sanitary.
I was standing under that sign, leaning on a brass pig. But surely the brass pig wasn’t there when the sign still said Sanitary. It’s all so fuzzy in my memory, but this isn’t my memory; I’ve traveled back, I’m once more in my prime, I’m there.
Across the street on the corner under the eaves is a blind woman sitting on the sidewalk playing her ukulele for hand-outs. She had several friends who kept an eye out for her safety, and from overhearing them I knew her name was Lucy.
Beside her on the sidewalk was a dancing marionette, salvaged from garbage a very few years past and forever afterward the busker’s recurring companion.
I wondered how she made it work, that marionette, because it had no strings, no jumping-jack rod sticking out of its back; it just hopped and skipped in place and its dangling arms were thrown about wildly, as Lucy played the ukulele. After a little instrumental diddy, she began to sing: “Papas goin’ fishin,’ Mama’s goin’ fishin,’ Baby’s goin’ fishin’ too. Bet your life that your sweet wife will catch more fish than you. Gwine down’a my favorite hole, where the ribber run deep’n cold, o’er on the far side odda swamp, ’bout a forty-sibbin minute barefoot stomp.”
The whole time the marionette danced and clicked its little wooden feet on the concrete, clacked its knees and long arms on itself, bobbed its head to one side and the other. It seemed momentarily to look at me with flat unblinking glass eyes. The left eye was cracked, which startled me, as the blind girl’s left eye had a streak through it just like the crack in the marionette’s eye.
I had to escape. I slunk back into the crowd of locals and tourists amidst the vendors and farmers of the Market. I entered a labyrinth of booths and stalls, found a small side-hall which led to bathrooms, but I didn’t go that far down the hall. I fumbled in a pocket for a key, and opened the door into a dark staircase leading upward to small apartments.
I was apartment-sitting for Robert, an elderly artist who was away now, gone to some event in Kansas City where Beat generation artists and authors were invited for some museum event. Robert had taken some of his best art with him. He’d been one of Ginsberg’s sweethearts, had illustrated Ginsberg poems for small journals, so long ago it seemed to him, before my time, and he boasted he and Alan could still do it together, Alan would be at the event, so would be Burroughs who lived there now, and it was all kind of a big deal for Robert to be included, since hardly anyone ever remembers the beat illustrators, and he was so proud. He took his old, framed pencil drawings of Joan and Alan and other figures less well recalled, and asked me to apartment-sit for him because there were lots of break-ins in the Market after closing.
For a guy that liked to draw, Robert didn’t have much lighting in the place. A tiny one-room apartment, dark, messy, crowded with art supplies, many of them dusty from long disuse. The one small window was opened a crack. I had to feed his quaker parakeets. They lived outside. I put birdseed on the outer ridge of the window. The quakers would come eat it when they thought there was no one who’d try to catch them. Robert tried to catch them for about a year, but he gave up; now he just makes sure they get enough to eat. They have a nest in a brick wall immediately across the scooped-out vacant lot where a building got torn down a couple years back.
From the window I can see across the vacant lot, really more of a hole in the ground than a lot, readied for future construction, a hole surrounded by tall wooden fencing. The fence was covered with punk rock and other music and film event posters. Up the far wall, right in the bigger “O” of the faded lettering for “Cupid Orange Soda, Natural Color, Cupid Hits the Spot,” a couple of bricks had chipped out the O, probably slammed into when the building formerly filling the lot was dug out and carted away. The two quakers lived in the hole in the O. They peered out, saw I’d left food for them, but were waiting for me to go away before they came to eat. Too bad they were both boys, they could’ve raised a family in that hole, but it made sense Robert’s birds would be a gay couple.
They chittered either a greeting or for me to go away so they could come get the seeds and nuts. I looked down into the Market street and parking and the blind woman was still singing the same damned song, “Gonna go git me a pole and line. Catcha nine pounder a-for suppertime. Put ’em inna pot, put ’em inna pan, Cook ’em nice’n brown an’ feed’em to my man. Yeh, papa’s goin’ fishin’, mama’s goin’ fishing, baby’s goin’ fishin’ too. Any fish’ll bite if you got good bait, lemon pops an’ sour cream, an old dried date.” Throughout, that appalling marionette kept on dancing.
The sun was low, and marketeers were packing up, gratings were being drawn down to protect storefronts from thieves. The blind singer threw her ukulele over her shoulder by a strap, then opened the ukulele case. She snatched up the marionette and put it in the case, then stood to head home, tapping her cane. She passed under Robert’s window, and I thought I heard a raucous knocking from within the case.
By sudden inspiration, I decided what to do. I left Robert’s grubby apartment, hurried down the staircase, made sure the door into the market was properly closed before I began to follow the brown blind woman. I had to hurry to catch up, then dropped back, careful she didn’t detect me behind her. She crossed under the viaduct and continued along the narrow back street to Scud Tower, an artist’s enclave in a worn-out two-story apartment house. Most people called it the Jell-O Mold Building. It had hundreds of copper-colored gelatin molds attached to the outer wall, framing windows; but the residents called it Scud Towers, I forget why, or I do remember but it’s not interesting enough to say.
The blind woman took a key to the main floor entrance and when the door was closed, I could follow no nearer. But I waited. I stood in the street. Other residents arrived home, a couple left for evening events or errands. I did know a couple renters in the place; I could’ve gotten access if I called through the windows. But I hid. The sun was down now, and all the lights were on, except in one apartment. That had to be hers; she wouldn’t need to turn on lights.
Around back was a narrow alley blocked by an iron gate. The gate had been well decorated with found remnants of rusted iron machines. It was made by one of the resident artists, a welder, and he had by accident made it into a veritable ladder, easy to climb, though I had to evade the teeth of rusty saw blades.
Soon I was over the gate and in the sealed-off alley. I went to the back unlit window and peered in. Sitting with her back to the window was the blind singer. I think she was unwrapping something, food perhaps, I couldn’t see well enough in the gloom. The ukulele lay on a coffee table. The case was beside her chair, open, the marionette no longer within.
I slipped on the old gas can I’d been standing on to see inside. The marionette had startled me. I hadn’t seen it at first, standing in the shadows of the room, but then I detected a glimmer of its flat glass eyes staring at the window—at me. The can knocked against the wall as I caught myself from falling. The woman in the big chair turned her head suddenly, one ear facing me.
I slipped away, back to Robert’s apartment.
There was a bathroom down the hall shared with other residents who also had cramped bachelor apartments. I locked the door, or gross old men would try to get in while I was peeing; they did it on purpose, and always wanted to talk to me. I pulled the string on the incandescent bulb over the sink. It made my pallid face look jaundiced. I could’ve sworn, in this memory, I was still in my twenties, but no, here, looking in the mirror, I was a fat old lady. My white hair was like broomstraw; I looked still blonde, but only because of the yellowish light bulb. I leaned closer to the mirror and saw my eyes were flat. I looked blind, but I could see perfectly well. And one of my eyes had something in it, a hair, a stain, an injury, I did not know what, a crack.
• • • •
“Then you’re still a writer if you’re still writing,” said the caretaker with the awful lipstick and the terrible odor from her mouth. Finally she pulled her face away from mine, so I could stop holding my breath.
“I guess so,” I said.
“What do you do with your writing now?”
“I forget. It all gets published somehow. But no one reads books anymore. So it doesn’t pay as well as it used to. And it never paid well. I get social security now, and not much of that.”
Everything momentarily became fuzzy and white in my vision. I blinked, and I was in the Sanitary Market, remembering I was in love with the blind woman if only from afar. One day I tried to introduce myself. This was just like in my previous memory, at dusk, and she was heading home with her ukulele over her shoulder and her marionette in the ukulele case. But I no longer had to follow her, as I knew where she would be going. I hurried ahead on the street, and waited. As she drew near I said, “Hi! I’m Jessica. I’m staying in the Market in one of the upstairs apartments, and have been watching you for about a month.”
There was a scritching sound in her ukulele case. She waved her white stick rapidly and passed me quickly. I wanted to hurry and walk alongside her, but too late I realized I scared the hell out of her, she must’ve thought I was crazy, but surely I am not. Tears were streaming down my face and a chill wind slashed me as I hurried back to Robert’s apartment. When I stepped inside the door, one of the quaker parakeets flashed away from the window sill into the young night.
“I was in love with someone,” I told the young reporter from the supermarket rag. Why was I telling him this? What had he asked? Oh, he was the recording angel, I had to have something good in my life, and love is good. Isn’t it?
“With whom?” he asked.
“A blind woman. Her name was Lucy. There was a time when I saw her every day. She busked in the street practically under the window of a place where I was staying. But how do you introduce yourself to a blind woman? She was very beautiful in a way. Not her eyes. Her eyes were sunken and strange, like a creature of the deep, deep sea. But she had fine bone structure, she was a very nice looking young woman, and she wore long colorful dresses like a country woman.”
I’d actually been watching her for about five years, and not just after she was on her own. I had worked in the market selling hand-made hippy candles and huaraches. The rule at the time was the craftspeople had to sell mostly handcrafted stuff they made themselves. My huaraches were made in Mexico, but I made the candles myself, so I qualified as a vendor.
Lucy was raising a child on her own. He was perhaps fourteen at this time. He would sit with her, before she had the marionette, sit on the street with her for hours at a time if no one else had signed in for that corner that day. She didn’t use a cane in those days either. The boy led her. That was the boy’s life for years, until he began to resent being her seeing-eye dog. One day, another busker came for her spot. She played a guitar at that time, and she put it in her case, and stood on the edge of the sidewalk calling out, “Jamie! Jamie!”
The boy stood directly across the street, stone still, as crowds of people swarmed by him in two directions. He was staring at his mother. Staring with such hatred in his gaze.
After I no longer sold stuff in the market, I still hung out there a lot. I had friends among the vendors, and would work for them now and then when they needed help or there was a summertime rush. I was writing and sold a couple novels, a lot of stories, almost made enough to make ends meet, but not quite, and a little extra money working vendors’ tables helped a lot.
“Okay, I’m calling it, nine forty-eight,” said a doctor I’d never seen before. I was remembering a Monty Python bit. “I ain’t dead.” I was wheeled away, down elevators, a tunnel, and a cold room. A young man with a surgeon’s mask and the orderly who wheeled me in transferred me to a steel table. When the young man was alone with me, he pulled back my shroud, leaned over me, and said, “Shit, you ain’t worth a hard fuck, ugly old cow.”
• • • •
I was standing on the rusty old gas can behind Scud Towers peering into her apartment. The marionette stood perfectly still in the dark, in the middle of the room. Then its head moved. It looked up, its appalling glass eyes locked with mine. “I’ve died,” I said, whispering to the marionette. “I never liked my life very much. I thought I was ready. But I want to exist. I want to carry on.”
Lucy was in the tiny kitchenette. I felt as though I were alone with her dancing puppet. It clacked and hobbled toward the window where I peered in. It climbed a worn and tattered La-Z-Boy, and from the back of the stuffed chair it raised its arms and did a chin-up. It was gazing straight in my face, its eyes to my eyes, it’s horrible, horrible empty gaze.
“There doesn’t seem to be much here for you,” said the Recording Angel. “You haven’t been an altogether bad soul. But you didn’t think a couple literary awards were your ticket to heaven?”
“I was an activist. I protested . . .” What? What did I protest? Everything? “I protested,” I said, with a bit more finality. The Recording Angel looked at me with such pity.
Oh! There’s Robert! He’s back from Kansas City. I have to give him his spare key. “Robert!” I tried to call out, but I could no longer speak. I tried to run across Pike Place to welcome him home, but all my legs could do was hop and jump and skip in place. The world was so big! A blurry line split my vision. I heard my beloved Lucy beside me, singing, “Put ’em inna pot, put ’em inna pan. Honey cook ’em till they’s nice an’ brown. Whip a batch o’ buttermilk hoe cakes mama, an’ ya chew them thangs an’ ya chomp ’em down.”
“Lucy,” I tried to say. “Lucy. I have to stop. I’m weary. Let me stop.”
When she ended her song, she gathered the dollar bills and coins from out of her ukulele case, feeling every corner of the case, then rubbing the palms of her hands on the sidewalk around the outside of the case for straggler coins. Then she seemed to look at me, as though she could see me with her deep-set unblinking fish-eyes. Distantly, quaker parakeets were chittering. She snatched me from the sidewalk, kissed my wooden head, laid me down as if in a coffin. I heard two small brass clasps snap shut.