Monday, July 7, 2008

A Ballad For Callie

Her name was Callie. She was a folk singer in one of those numberless and faceless coffee houses that doted the early 1960’s.

I was drawn to the place by a friend of mine – a television engineer who was a closet poet. Actually he wasn’t a bad poet at all, his view of life being expressed in the melancholy blank verse of a slightly demented Pixie. Looking back, I can’t remember a word he wrote so many years ago. Too bad. I recall enjoying it at the time.

Most of the Acts weren’t that good. In fact, many were breathtakingly bad. Not that it mattered much. Given enough weed and little blue pills, even the phone book sounds like Gnostic gospel.

In between the bad poetry, the owner of the coffee house would play bongo drum solos – no kidding. Eventually it was diplomatically suggested to him that, although rhythm was certainly important, an instrument suggesting some kind of melody line wouldn’t be a bad addition at all. Nobody was THAT wasted.

And so, as it turned out, I just happened to be there for her first performance.

“Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
he sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry.”

At first I didn’t pay much attention to the soft alto voice that caressed Hank Williams’ lyrics. She was petite, almost boyish. She wore faded jeans and a man’s white dress shirt. She appeared shy, almost timid, out of place as a solo performer. The only thing about her that drew the eye was the wild shock of strawberry blonde hair that cascaded around her oval face. It was that, and the sad quality in her voice. I knew I was listening to her story, played out through the words of classic folk and country music.

We became friends. We became close. Within a comparatively short period of time we became intimate

For years I’ve wanted to put these thoughts on paper. I always reach this point and stop writing. How can I describe a relationship that – to this day – I don’t fully understand? How can I describe complete trust? How can I tell you how easily we came to both need and support each other?

Ours was not a physical relationship. Not that there wasn’t passionate kissing – that was nice – and occasional groping mixed with heavy breathing. But that’s as far as it went. Callie’s mother had never married, and from bits of information over a period of years, Callie concluded that her father had skipped town several months before she was born. She knew nothing about him, had never even so much as seen his picture.

Early on, Callie had promised her mother that she would be a virgin when she married. When she told me, I had no idea that this promise would contribute to what now seemed inevitable.

It was August, and one of the hottest month’s on record. Callie’s mother was out of town on business, and it was Callie’s job to occupy her mother’s apartment for the night – you know, turn lights on and off, play music, talk to the invisible cat – things like that. Her mother lived in an older neighborhood, and always had a fear of break-ins. This action on Callie’s part gave the older woman a sense of security.

About midnight Callie called me. Her voice was so low I could barely understand her. In mid sentence I could hear the telephone slip from her fingers and thud against the linoleum floor. After that there was nothing.

Normally the drive between my apartment and where Callie had grown up would take about fifteen minutes. That night I made it in seven. I spent almost that much time banging on the door before I heard it unlock from the inside. The situation was surreal. My mind was now functioning without any conscious direction on my part, moving me forward by reflex action alone, refusing to acknowledge any of the vivid possibilities my imagination wantonly offered.

When the door opened, I was suddenly aware of two things. First, Callie was standing there, her sheer nightgown literally plastered to her thin body by sweat. Even her hair, vibrant in color, seemed dulled as it clung to the sides of her face.

The other thing I noticed was the heat. When the door opened, it almost visibly rolled out into the hallway. There was no air conditioning in the apartment, and even with the windows wide open, the atmosphere was so stifling hot that plastic spoons, scattered across the kitchen tale, were melting! I knew why Callie had fainted while talking to me on the phone. A closed coffin could not have been more suffocating.

Unresisting, I somehow half guided/ half carried her down to my car. It’s funny what memories stay with you. Since I had a convertible, I didn’t bother opening the door. Like a sack of potatoes I easily lifted her up and dumped her into the front seat.

I wanted to take her to the hospital. She refused to go. And she was still drifting in and out of consciousness when we reached my apartment. I filled the bathtub with water, stripped her out of the nightgown (“You can be modest tomorrow.”) and somehow got her into the tub. (And almost dropped myself into the tub as well.) Later I tucked her into my bed, and spent the night sitting in the dark listening to her breathe.

In the morning I was aware that something had changed between us. We had previously been so close that we communicated in nuances. That was now missing. We were going through motions. Later she called her mother. She talked in hushed tones.

I drove her back to her mother’s apartment. I didn’t see her for the rest of the day.

The next morning I was invited back over to her mother’s apartment. Callie was alone for the moment, her mother having discretely gone to the store.

There was no preamble to her remarks. “I can’t see you anymore unless we get married,” she said.

I didn’t know if this thought had been hers or her mother’s. Maybe it was both. It didn’t matter. It had been said – an ultimatum. For whatever reasons, I had crossed a line.

I reacted badly. To be honest, the thought of marriage had never entered my mind. I was getting ready to move to California. Hadn’t I been making plans, saving money, just to do that? I had. I had no place for – NO! I wouldn’t say that! I had no plans now. It wouldn’t be fair now to take her into a situation where I had no idea how it would work out. That wouldn’t be fair – to her. Later, we could … Later.

(Liar! Are you that selfish, that afraid you will lose your dream? In the process of running, did you ever stop to think she might BE your dream?)

Only later did I realize the dream in her eyes had died that morning.

We corresponded for about six months. The letters became less frequent, less personal. And then, nothing.

I did see her again – from a distance. About two years later I was back in town, visiting, when I saw her come out of a department store. It was almost impossible to miss that hair. She didn’t see me, and I followed her down the block until she disappeared around the corner.

(Callie, Callie, why didn’t you tell me? Did you know I’d spend decades playing the game of “what if?” Do you …? Sorry. I have no right to ask.)

All these years later she still gently and quietly steals into my reverie – that crooked half sad smile, that nod of head. The image I still see so clear is the night we first met. She is sitting on a stool in a weak spotlight. The guitar is in her hands, and she’s singing just to me.

“The silence of a falling star
lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry.”



Julie Morrison said...

yeah....the one that got away. ANyone else have a story?

Q said...

I AM the one that got away...

Great story Jack. But as Edith Piaf sang, "Non, je ne regrette rien"...


Jack Bunny said...

Q, I’m warmed by the consistency in you. Since you enjoy Dorothy Parker, I’m not at all surprised that you are also drawn to Edith Piaf.

“No, I regret nothing.”