Marcia Aldrich and Jill Talbot
From the beginning, I wanted to live as completely as possible which meant I noticed everything, let nothing get by me, even the painful parts, the woeful parts.
Everywhere I looked, people so clearly longed to be somewhere else. Sometimes I look back and wonder if it wasn't the expansiveness of West Texas, but I don't think so. The big, bearded man who wore a black leather jacket and lived a few doors down. He parked his motorcycle in the drive, a silver mystery. I liked the days when I'd pedal by his house and find the driveway empty. I remember nights in my grandmother's house, her closed bedroom door, the glowing sliver of light beneath it, the clinks of a crystal decanter against a glass, their repeated chimes as loud as the grandfather clocks in the living room. I understood, even then, it was the only way she knew how to fight the walls. I remember my father's headphones hooked to the cherry wood console in the living room. He'd lie on the floor, prop his head against the speakers, and stretch out his legs. His fingers laced over stomach, his eyes closed. Sometimes, he'd hold the earphones up to my head, let me listen to a few bars of some troubled man sitting on a barstool or waking up in the morning, one on a stage in Folsom prison. Years later, I'd ask my father why he used those earphones, why he didn't just play the records as loud as he wanted. He told me he was probably trying to get away for a while. From what, I asked. Life. I don't begrudge him that. Or those long baths my mother took behind a locked door. Even I'd duck away to the tree across the street with my dog and rest my head on her back. I can still see myself there at six or seven, my eyes fixed on leaves that whispered their own lonesomeness. How I wished for Far Away. For all of us.
1. It happened in the early fall of first grade at the Swain Country Day School, my first school since I skipped kindergarten. So, it was a first of sorts.
2. We played out back for recess and in my memory at that time of year it was dusty. Not the soggy mud of spring but the dry dust of end of summer.
3. My mother insisted dressing me on the day in question in a white dress with a lacey bib and a black patent leather belt, matching black patent leather shoes, and white socks with a frill at the tops. I've wondered if we were going to have our photograph taken, but I don't think so. It was just what she wanted to see me in. An outfit completely inappropriate for the school day, an outfit I would have the utmost difficulty keeping clean, an outfit I hated. I didn't like dresses, never wanted to wear them, was stuffed in them against my will for special occasions. I wore pants and shorts and t-shirts, the more nondescript the better because then I wouldn't have to worry about keeping them pristine. I have asked why my mother dressed me this way many times—was it a test to see if I would come home with the dress in the same shape as when I left? And if I did, would she be pleased? Or did my mother want to thwart my nature and she thought the dress was the best way to do that? In her mind wearing a white dress would curtail my rough and tumble tomboy activities on the playground.
4. It did not. I headed to the monkey bars at recess just as I always did, scrambled up them, and proceeded to hang upside down which was my wont. This time, however, my dress flew over my head, and you could see my underpants. Naturally some boys came over to taunt me with the refrain I'll never be able to forget: We can see your underpants; we can see your underpants!
5. That's when I jumped down and punched Bruce Wray, the ringleader, in the stomach. I couldn't punch my mother, but I could punch Bruce Wray, and I did.
6. The monkey bars were at the back of the play area near the fence and so it took a while for the teacher who was supposed to be monitoring us to get over to see what all the ruckus was about. By that time a crowd of children had gathered. Funny I don't remember anything about that part of the scene. I don't remember if I kept punching Bruce Wray or what I might have said or what the other children might have said. I know Bruce Wray did not punch me back. I know I stood my ground unafraid and defiant. I believe I only punched once.
7. The teacher grabbed my arm and led me to the principal's office where my mother was called. In my mind my mother was responsible—she was the one who got me in this pickle by making me wear a dress I didn't want to wear.
8. The teacher took me to a small room where we were to wait for my mother. I must have been mouthing off and struggling because she put tape over my mouth and tied me to the chair.
9. When my mother did arrive to take me home, she was not put out with the school's handling of my misbehavior. Just the opposite. She thought they were right to punish me as they had. She seemed to experience satisfaction at the image of my mouth taped.
10. The white dress upon which so much turned was ruined. It was beyond washing for I had ripped it in the scuffle. I felt no remorse.
11. And that's the end of my memory. I don't know what was said on the car ride home or what further punishments were dealt to me. I don't know if my mother rethought her choice of putting me in dresses for school or whether it solidified her desire to make me suffer in the confinement of a dress. It's as if the scene is a torn passage rescued from a longer letter, its edges blackened by fire.
12. The scene established my reputation, my status really, as someone you didn't mess with, someone who hung upside down, someone who didn't like the conventional trappings of girldom, someone who was often misunderstood and punished, someone her mother and teachers wanted to silence, someone who was going to need all the ingenuity she could muster to survive, much less thrive.
It's dusk, my bike a shadow on the street. I'm pedaling so fast the front wheel wobbles and I jerk the handlebars to turn and lean into the imbalance. Suddenly, a sharp whistle (my father's from a distance). A white van weaves. A horn wails. When I get back to the driveway, my father's voice shakes. Never play chicken with cars. I don't know what chicken means, but suddenly I know something about myself out there in the dark. I am not afraid of the danger, the dare of the turn.
Not long ago I found a bright yellow book in the closet of my childhood bedroom. My Book About Me. By Me, Myself. A book with fill-in-the-blanks. Thumbing through its pages, I noted the careful, almost ruler-like accuracy of my handwriting at nine. Seeing all those erased letters, those faint, gray ghosts, I remembered my desire to break free. I imagine, no, I assume my mother stood behind me at the kitchen table, interested in my handwriting more than my answers. Maybe I wasn't interested, either. When I look at my letters, I sense a struggle. I would rather have been outside, or in my room with the door closed.
When asked what I wanted to be, I wrote hairdresser. I don't remember ever wanting that.
Another page asks me to describe how I eat (like a horse? a pig? a bird?). I penciled in—all straight lines and rounded curves—a person. It seems terribly sad to me, as if I had no room for imagination, but in my yellow bedroom, I had things to do, like run an animal hospital with every bed full, soft blankets and pillows arranged on the floor (the four yellow ones that spelled J-I-L-L) and across the shimmery comforter of my bed. Anxious rings blared on the black rotary phone my father gave me, an extra from his office (Hello, you've reached the Talbot Animal Hospital). I wrapped Grover's right arm in a white-lace sock, a cast. I tried to get Cookie Monster to eat something, the sweet sauce of my SpaghettiOs in his black throat, a crust my mother tried, more than once, to scrape away (he was a good listener). I took Raggedy Ann's temperature with a real thermometer (snuck from my grandmother's hospital room), poking it into the red oval of her smile. It left a hole my mother fussed over. Other afternoons, I sang into my Donny and Marie microphone, belting lines from popular songs, my favorite Dolly Parton. I played her, or a version of her, in a third-grade show called Dogpatch USA, the lead, Dolly Dog, along with my co-star, Porter Wagon (a brown-eyed boy named David). I never knew how to play anything but extremes—the locked away, quiet version of myself or the stand-in-the-center-of-a-spotlight me.
I never liked to play house—confused by whom I was supposed to be. Preferred the alley, the garage, the barn, the field, where I didn't have to know who I had to be. I have always thought of myself as a red fox. See me running along the edge of the river with my pointed ears poised to catch the slightest danger.
No one asked me what I wanted to be or do (there is a difference perhaps) when I was growing up. The silence was worse than being bussed over into the usual female categories of caregiver. No one imagined a future for me except me. The future I imagined was flamboyant, and expressive, coming from deep inside me and welling up: I wanted to be a singer on a big stage. Hailing from a family where the men were insurance salesmen, dentists, and pump inventors and the women housewives, they would have said what presumption if I had revealed my secret hopes. My father had been recruited to sing at Saint Thomas Church in New York City (one of the best all male choirs in North America) which would have required he board at St. Thomas Choir School, but his mother couldn't part with him. He never stopped regretting he didn't get to do that, to be that. Singing was in his blood and he passed that love onto me. That's where I got it. But like him I never realized my first dreams. They didn't disappear though—they burrowed underground, out of sight, nourished in darkness, and resurfaced in this thing I call my voice.
There were exactly two women in the sea of women before Beth who showed me a glimpse into other ways of being female. First there was my riding instructor, Miss Reba, who ran her own stable and built her life around horses. Then there was Lydia, much less successful than Miss Reba, who couldn't afford her own horse and made a measly living by helping others like me train their horses. It felt as if she was living out of her car but she was living the life she wanted, a life with horses. Miss Reba appeared to be balancing the expected roles of being a woman—she was married, had a young son, and was close to her parents who were funding her horse enterprise. She even managed to live in a house built up the hill from the barn, never far from breathing in the rank scent of horses. But when she got out of her riding gear, she cleaned up well, was a dazzler. Lydia never got out of her riding duds, never cleaned up, and was completely and happily out of the game of dating. I sensed Miss Reba didn't have any women friends and I suspect she didn't want them, and they didn't want her. There was nothing soft or compliant about Miss Reba: she liked to ride long and hard and dangerously. Lydia was meek in comparison and had close ties to other women. She became friends with one of the young married women who boarded her horse at the stable where I boarded Alert Indian. When the married woman became pregnant I remember it didn't seem the happy occasion one would expect. There was a sense of sadness between them, a sense of an ending. At the time I didn't understand all that was ending. The pregnant woman sold her horse and disappeared, giving up her life at the stable with her horse and Lydia for motherhood. Miss Reba eventually divorced her husband. Neither Miss Reba nor Lydia's life were shaped by men or defined by the usual female trajectory I saw everywhere else. They lived about as far outside this narrative as I was likely to encounter in my young life and, of course, I gravitated towards them like a bee tasting honey.
In my junior year of high school, when my parents determined my horse was unsound, they decided he would go to a farm to pasture. They did not consult me; they made the decision. One day he was at the stable and the next day he was gone. His stall empty except for his brass name plate still on the door. My grief was so overwhelming that it took me a long time to realize that not only I had I lost my horse, but I had lost Miss Reba and Lydia, my teachers.
After I lost my horse, I couldn't imagine riding any other horse, and I stopped. Just stopped. I didn't know if I'd find my way back. Unharnessed to a horse, I became a bad seed, or so my parents would say, and by the middle of my senior year they had sent me to board at the school I attended. There was only one room available, on what was called the Lost Corridor, where the problem girls lived, the hall at the back of Main, with four rooms, and a staircase leading to a back entrance. You had to take a few steps from the main part of the building to get to that corridor, wood floors, windowless, with four doors in a row. This is where I became close to Beth who lived in the room next to mine. Beth had been sent away from home the year before. She, too, had arrived in the middle of the year and the rumor was she had been expelled from her hometown school.
Beth did not try to blend in with the other girls. In fact, she reveled in her difference, padding around the school halls as if she was a deity. Her long wild hair cascaded down her back or fell into her face making me think there was something urgent about her, caged temporarily but untamed. Until I moved next door, I watched Beth from afar, intimidated. Now we shared something—I, too, had become a solitary, wandering the campus, letting my hair turn into a wild mane. I was just beginning to know myself and she was part of that knowing. We'd brew tea and sit on her floor cross-legged, burning incense and reading poetry. She'd talk about herself, her past, and I never knew whether to believe her outlandish tales because they fell so far outside of my experience. At the end of an evening when I returned to my room I'd be full of doubts about Beth and yet I wanted to believe such a life was possible. With Beth I became a different kind of rider: it was Beth who told me I hadn't lost my horse, he lived inside me, and I should follow his lead, follow wherever he took me, and I have, I've raced over fields, jumped fences, and lowered my head into the tall grass. Maybe it was fitting we lived on the Lost Corridor together because at the end of my senior year I lost Beth. She went her way and I went my way and I never heard of her again. Still she rides inside me, her voice, the voice I would listen to through the walls, comforting me and urging me on.
Johnny Cash recorded two albums in prisons, one at Folsom in 1968 and one at San Quentin the following year. He told his executives at Columbia that "a prison would be the place to record an album live." The cover of At Folsom Prison features a close-up of the black-clad singer, his eyes turned to the photographer, sweat falling down the side of his rugged face. On the back, a handwritten letter from Cash: "Listen closely to this album and you hear in the background the clanging of the doors, the shrill of the whistle, the shout of the men. Even laughter from men who had forgotten how to laugh. But mostly you'll feel the electricity and hear the single pulsation of two thousand heartbeats in men who have had their hearts torn out."
My father owned the album. It was one I heard often during the years we lived in West Texas. Before Cash strums the opening chords of "I Still Miss Someone," he speaks to the prisoners in that gravel-road tremor of his, I just want to tell ya that this show is being recorded for an album released on Columbia records and you can't say hell or shit or anything like that. When Cash cussed into the crowd and our living room, I always asked my father to play it again, to pick up the needle and move it back. I was drawn to defiance and understood, even then, how Johnny Cash set those locked-up men free. He didn't judge them. He had been one of them.
In my twenties, a woman whispered near a table where I sat in a large group, Watch Jill. She'll surround herself with men. It wasn't because I needed to surround myself with men, I needed to be surrounded by them (there is a difference). I grew up in a house with a careful, distant mother and a carefree, daring father. I chose the dare.
Cash had another song, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," that hit number one in 1970, the year I was born. Written by Kris Kristofferson, it tells the story of a man stumbling down a sidewalk after a night of hard drinking. Many performers recorded it, but Cash's version was the most successful. I think it's because he's not a man singing the words written by another, he's singing his own Sunday mornings: "There's something about a Sunday that makes a body feel alone." I remember one morning several years ago when my father drove us around my hometown in Texas, playing that song on a CD in his truck. When Cash got to the line about watching a young boy kick a can, my father turned up the volume, "it took me back to somethin' that I'd lost somewhere, somehow along the way." Listen to that, Jill, my father whispered, pointing to the dash, that man's hurting. Maybe my father had forgotten how well I knew the song, how he raised me to listen to men who woke with aching minds and left-behind hearts, men who missed someone, men who wore stripes and rode whiskey rivers and made homes out of smoky bars with only a swinging door and a jukebox. I understood early that some people always listen for the train whistle and wander the edges of roads, thumbing a ride, or that some people need to cross borders, one after another, and some people understand the pain in others as their own, always take a good hard look at a stranger's hard time and nod.
We only lived in West Texas for three years, but I went back there, right after high school and again in graduate school and once more after that. Maybe I was trying to get back something I remembered, "somethin' I'd lost somehow along the way." Maybe all I've ever wanted is to be west of everything.