Weighing the Straw – Part IIJan 3rd, 2010 | By William Crawford | Category: Series, Weighing the Straw | 1987 views
Dedicated to the memory of Katarina
When I was 17, it was a very bad year. My mother and father were engaged in a tug-o-war, Michael, my brother, and I served as the rope. Heavy words were lightly thrown (as were heavy objects), words like: adultery, divorce, hate, cocksucker and fuckface, (ashtrays, knick-knacks and scissors). F-bomb shrapnel was nearly impossible to avoid. Michael and I had had our share, the neighbors couldn’t get enough, it somehow validated them. My father would always reference the neighbors during these heated arguments, sometimes he would stick his hand over my mother’s mouth just to silence her voice, which, when she was livid, made a barnyard chicken-on-chopping-block kind of sound, it sounded like this: “Baaaah-Gock!”. It curdled blood and shattered glass, it was crazy and painful, a Buddhist banshee on fire.
One time my mother got so incensed by the eavesdropping neighbors that she went outside with a Polaroid camera and started shooting point blank photos of their startled, nosy faces. “Take a picture, take a picture, it’ll last longer”, she baaaah-gocked at them. Those pictures sure were fun to look at later that day. We laughed our asses off.
My father was drinking excessively, deleteriously. One morning Michael and I found him all shattered on the parlor floor; naked as a jaybird, with a butcher’s knife resting against his throat. There was a hustler magazine beside his body; it had a big furry mons pubis on the cover. My mother came down stairs and saw him too, called the cops on him, she did this just to embarrass the shit out of him – later she dropped the charges, whatever they may have been.
It turned out my father was very upset that my mother and her sister Cookie were taking indoor tennis lessons from a flamboyant, Richard Simmons-esque, imp named Pie. The fact that Pie was about as gay as, say, a tree full of rhinestoned wet leather piñatas, was obvious to all, except my father. One day, after their lesson, my mother and Cookie brought Pie home with them, fixed him lunch. My father was upstairs sleeping off a weekend warrior hangover. My little brother Michael loved to stir up the shitpot, launch it at the fan, so he went and woke my father up, told him my mother and Cookie (who he hated) were kissing on Pie in the kitchen. Patently untrue, but Michael knew my father would forcefully shit a werewolf.
So my hungover father, looking dopier than ever, stumbles down the stairs in only his tidy white underwear, his eyes looking like boiled cocktail onions and his thinning hair is every which way but loose. Pie sees him and calmly states, “Ah, so this is the lovely drunken husband”. Pie sure had a set on him. My father picked Pie up by his emu-like neck with hideous strength; I thought for sure he’d snap it. Cookie and my mother screamed in harmony, screamed louder than James Brown and even Jay Hawkins, combined! He takes Pie, by his neck, to the front door, launches him into a row of trash cans, calls him a fruity piece of peacock shit. Then he slams the door closed. I went out to check on Pie, and felt real bad for him; he looked like a battered woman. He had a bruised elbow and two large hand marks around his tiny neck. His backhand was never quite the same after that.
New Year’s was coming in a few weeks. My father started making big plans. He felt that the family needed a gala celebration, to exorcise some demons, to mend old fractures, to start fresh, and other stock dial-a-cliché type tripe. He made a large purchase of festive decorations and colorful party favors, tall bright bottles of champagne and liquor, cases of canned beer, and a new surround sound stereo system replete with karaoke. He also purchased a lifetime supply of these ultra cheap plastic top hats. The hats were gold and green, some even had feathers, those were fedoras I guess. Each hat ridiculously read “Happy Irish New Year!” Each hat also had a thick rubber band stapled to it. This band fit rather uncomfortably under your chin; ostensibly this would help keep it stable on your head. Ridiculous as they were, I kind of had a soft spot for them. They reminded me of the “Welfare Hat”, which I made in eighth grade. The Welfare Hat was nothing more than a brown mesh and white foam cap with a yellow rope on the bill. I still don’t know what purpose a rope serves on a cap, ballast on windy days? I wrote the words “Welfare Hat” on the white front of the cap in brown shoe polish, then I made skid marks all over it, simulated shit stains, you know. The hat went over very poorly on the school’s hat day. I was suspended and sent home. There were kids in my class on the welfare. They took umbrage; the hat was prejudice, inappropriate and immoral.
My brother got on my father right away about his head being way too big for the tiny hat. He was right, my father did have a brobdingnagian sized head. Surely the Irish New Year hat would only provide yarmulke type coverage. It looked like the guy had encephalitis or whatever disease poor old Rocky Dennis had. In fact, we never even called him father or dad, just “Bighead” or quite simply “The Head”. He gave us a whole violin concerto about how he was born prematurely, and the doctors had to pull him out using forceps. He wasn’t supposed to survive, big tears type stuff. When he was drunk, he’d often bring this up. Once he even called our grandmother and had her tell us all about it on speakerphone, while he went into the other room and cried. Everything made my father cry when he was drunk, even up tempo songs like “Rock the Casbah” and “Love Train”.
So, my father invited everybody over to the Crawford’s New Year’s bash. Even my mother embraced the idea. For me, it provided a golden opportunity to make a move on this girl Katarina. Katarina had always been a mystery to me. She had an awkward, yet elegant beauty. She carried herself with a certain stateliness and nobility. She was a Polish princess with the fairest features and near translucent skin. We had attended the same catholic grade school when we were young. She was a grade above me, so interaction was infrequent. Katarina would disappear from school and the neighborhood for wide gaps of time. No one really could say why. I knew that she was some kind of musical prodigy. She played violin, won all sorts of awards for it, and we even saw her picture in the Northeast Times once. Rumors starting floating around, in high school. I learned that she was a very sick girl. These rumors were substantiated when I saw that her right arm and hand had been replaced by a prosthesis with a hook. I became obsessed with Katarina. We had never spoken a word to each other, but her mystery fecundated my already overactive imagination.
Most evenings, I’d ride my 10-speed Schwinn by her house, hoping to catch a slow glimpse of her, most times I didn’t. Still there was a strange magnetic pull, an irresistible force that led me straight to her doorstep. I sent my mind into the warm orange glow of her bedroom, the hoarfrost on the windows said nothing about the warmth I knew was inside there. Some times I would catch that slow glimpse of Katarina at her window, and that was enough. I’d go home and spend the better part of the night writing things to her, about her. One night I worked up enough nerve to go over and knock, ask for Katarina. It was a mild night, just the right amount of moon and stars in the sky, the wind was agreeable; my heart was rabbit kicking the whole way over. This sudden shyness was strange to me, yet it felt right with Katarina. She was different, way different, than the other girls I had known.
I turned down her street, hardly able to contain myself, talking to myself, saying “Just invite her over, that’s all. Tell her she looks pretty. Katarina, you sure look pretty, would you like to come to my party?” Damned if my own voice didn’t sound lame inside my own ears. To my surprise, she was right there on the stoop when I pulled up. Busy reading a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, smiling and biting her bottom lip, stretched out on the stoop like a cat caught in a sun spot. I looked at her for a moment, an eternity, before she looked up at me, her antique feline framed glasses catching and reflecting her own light. Beneath those glasses, two brilliant bursts of morning glory blue, the saddest yet most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. The weight of those blues collecting in tiny bags beneath them.
“Hey, I know you, you are Billy Crawford, right?” she said as she dog-eared a page in her book and set it down. She smiled sweetly, “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you, mostly your writing, from teachers at our old school,” she said, her eyes piercing my own.
“Bunch of liars, the entire lot of them,” I said, fully knowing I was already blushing.
“Are you permanently attached to that bike or what?” she said laughing. “Sit please,” she said, patting the space beside her with her left hand, “my ass isn’t that fat.”
We both laughed when she said that. “I’ve been told you are quite the musician, Katarina.”
Her eyes trembled, shifted a little when I said that. “Well, I used to play some violin. I can’t anymore though.” She raised up her right hand hook; it seemed to wobble some in the moonlight. “Spare me your pirate jokes, mister,” she winked as she said this.
“What happened to your arm,” I asked, feeling like I may have stupidly overstepped my bounds. “Are you up for a long story?” she said with a nervous smile.
“Always,”, I responded.
We talked for hours on her stoop that night. That stoop became a fugue state, a second universe, inhabited only by us. She told me she was diagnosed with acute Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, 5 or so years ago. The doctor discovered this while examining a large, cyst-like lump inside the soft spot of her right arm, that tender skin just above the elbow. It turned out to be a malignant tumor. Katarina said it looked like a sunburst on the x-ray. For some reason that broke me all up inside. Despite a battery of chemotherapy treatments, the cancer remained aggressive, and continued to metastasize. Limb salvage surgery was now out of the question for her right leg, which was scheduled to be amputated later in the New Year. She and her parents were crushed by these cold discoveries; she was well on her way to becoming a concert violinist. I just sat there and listened, I could tell she needed that, someone to just listen.
I held her softly, the way you are taught to hold something valuable, something frangible and priceless. She wept some. Then we kissed a little. My hands remained respectful. They cradled her face, gently framing a perfect picture. Her mother came to the door and told her it was getting late, getting cold. I invited her to our New Year’s shindig, then kissed her once more. She glided up the steps to her door, looked back and smiled, waved goodbye.
Katarina and I became inseparable those two and a half weeks leading up to the party. We bonded so fast, shared so much; it felt like we had been soulmates over several lifetimes. Katarina was bald from the extensive chemo regimen she had been receiving. She compensated for this with a wonderful array of wigs. My favorite was the short, straight, platinum blonde one; she said that one was the closest match to her original hair. It really highlighted the dazzling symmetry of her face. I was also quite fond of her long strawberry blonde one, which, in tandem with her cool feline framed glasses, gave her that sort of hot licentious librarian look. Katarina’s parents were cautious, taciturn around me. They were much older than my own parents and clearly had a lot more money too. My father said he knew her father Roman from the VFW club, said he was fond of his vodka and young girls. Katarina’s mother was the diametrical opposite of my own. She was very homely, almost shapeless. My mother loved Katarina from the first introduction; she was smart and witty, quite dissimilar to the kind of girls I had been dating recently. My father constantly made fun of Katarina behind her back, called her the “Kooky Professor”, threatened to “diggity dig her wig”. This revealed a hell of a lot more about his character, or lack thereof, than Katarina’s. When I finally told him about the seriousness of her condition, he toned down his puerile antics. I could tell he felt compunction. He could be salvaged after all.
Katarina and I would spend salient hours in my bedroom, making love, not fucking. It was spiritual and soulful, delicate and delicious, it all unfolded like a dream. It was important to me to give her pleasure, show her love. It seemed to me that her body had been a stranger to kindness, to pleasure for too long. Her body was hostile to her; her free spirit had been imprisoned in it. I did my best to extricate that spirit, tried to keep pity and knowledge of her sickness out of my mind. Focused on her ballerina’s body, its sensuous sense of rhythm, a flash fire beneath me. Sometimes I could taste her sickness though, when we kissed deeply with our tongues, or when I went down on her. Afterwards we’d collapse into each other, talk passionately about books and music. We never discussed our future, we just enjoyed the present, each other’s presence. Sometimes Katarina would tell me secrets about her father, things he had done, and I wanted to kill him.
It was New Year’s Eve, night of the party. Katarina almost didn’t make it, she was feeling weak and spent, she said she’d be more fun at a funeral. I read her a funny little poem I had written about her over the phone. It really cheered her up. She changed her mind, and said she’d come. My father’s idea seemed to work. Everyone was having a good time, drinking, dancing, wearing those silly little Happy Irish New Year yarmulkes. Katarina was late, arriving alone. She looked like an angel as she entered the room; she stole my breath away. She was wearing the sexy strawberry blonde wig and those sexpot teacher glasses. She had on a slim pink dress, soft as her own skin, skin which because of her sickness had turned a slight sallow; still she shone like sunlight on snow. We hugged and kissed and I told her how happy I was that she could make it. She took a glass of champagne and a seat beside my mother, I joined my father and his brothers, sang some karaoke, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, I sang it like Van Morrison did, not Bob Dylan, dedicated it to Katarina, couldn’t tell if she was impressed or embarrassed. Everybody was soused when the ball dropped. I kissed Katarina, my father kissed my mother; it seemed like an auspicious start to the New Year, if not just a normal one.
Katarina and I went upstairs to my bedroom. My brother was passed out, jackknifed on the sofa, permitted to drink at the age of 12. My mother was cleaning up the glittering mess, drinking coffee. My father was still drinking at a blitzkrieg pace, blasting the stereo, crying during the romps and laughing during the ballads. Inside my room, Katarina handed me a cassette tape she had inside her purse; it wasn’t labeled. She asked me to put it on the tape deck and play it. Then she left, went to the bathroom to freshen up. The tape started, a solo violin, played beautifully, exquisitely – it spoke directly to my soul, ignited my bone marrow and skinned my heart. The music was so lachrymose, yet so ineffably beautiful. The music reminded me of Katarina’s eyes. I realized it was her playing that violin. I loved her for that.
Katarina knocked lightly on the door, then entered the room. She stood before me without the wig; her glabrous pate seemed to highlight the awkward beauty of her face. Her glasses were gone too. Her eyes were wide, seemed too big for her delicate face, heavy lids threatening to pulverize the fragile sapphire and alabaster coruscating beneath them. She stood there shining, shimmering and in a single fluid movement let her dress down. Even the scars on her body seemed luminous. She told me she loved me, she always would love me, never wanted to lose me. I kissed her everywhere. We started getting lost in each other; we were full on in flagrante, when my father busted into the room.
He was a crapulous mess, drunk as a Franciscan monk. He was wearing Katarina’s strawberry blonde wig, which he placed the idiotic Irish New Year’s hat over. He was wearing her eyeglasses too. She was there watching him, naked and defenseless, eyes signaling shock, horror, pain. My father kept saying “Kooky Professor get back to your lab”. I covered Katarina, and tried to shield her. I got up to confront him. He was up in my face with his infernal breath, spitting, yelling about me fucking the “Kooky Professor”, about how I was her sexperiment. Next thing I knew, my mother was inside the room too. She screamed at my father, baaaagocked at him. Then she let her #1 mom coffee mug fly straight into my father’s drunken kisser. It split his lip, chipped his front teeth and bloodied his moustache. He fell on his knees, let out a hideous shriek, the stupid party hat still on his head, and he started sobbing, saying he was sorry.
In all of the commotion, Katarina was gone. She had evidently left the house, abandoning her wig and glasses, the insanity of my family.
Katarina refused to take my calls or answer her door after that odious debacle. I returned the wig and glasses, but her mother wouldn’t permit me to see her. I never did get the chance to see her again. She died during the summer of that year. My parents separated that same summer. I moved out with my mother. My brother stayed with my father. Katarina’s tiny, tired body was laid to rest inside an old cemetery back in Poland. Her parents made the decision to do that, and they stayed in Poland after that.
All I had left to remember Katarina by was that cassette tape, which I played constantly. Her young lithe fingers deftly playing that sad old violin, expressing the inexpressible, her spirit everywhere, touching me, touching everything, all at once; aching, breaking to be beautiful. Again, I listen, just listen, to what she has to say, as her grace still disrupts the disorder of my days. Then night comes with the promise, the privilege of her presence in dreams, a place where communion is weightless and complete.Help Support T21 with your Dollar Donation Today
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