From the Cellar to the Altar
FROM THE CELLAR TO THE ALTAR ( 1 )
Sunday morning inspiration is taking a lot more effort today than I’d like it to.
If any parishioner passing by looks into the cellar window of St. Dominic’s Church
the only visible guiding light from above is phosphorescent.
“Noel, you have to practice the hymns on your own, as well, not just an hour
with me before the folk mass. Your timing is way off, and it’s messing me up.”
“I was too busy this week to practice, Ann.”
“We’re supposed to feed off each other’s rhythm, not have me carry you through
the whole song. And another thing. Sometimes you’re just mouthing the lyrics,
and I’m the only one singing. What? You didn’t thing I’d notice? Well, the congregation picks up on it right away. I did not ask you to join me so we could be
a bad parody of a folk duo.” Noel lowers his chin and cradles his six-string acoustic guitar, a bad boy reprimanded.
Noel and I begin to sing Amazing Grace and an old Dalmatian sitting on a shoal outside the window howls. I glance out to look at him and notice the clouds losing form,
like white Spanish moss blown apart in the wind.
As the church bells begin to toll, the college crowd, dressed in their newest attire,
start their procession up the walkway, and the old wooden church awaits their entry.
it stands like an antique, a simple white rectilinear structure with a shallow vestibule,
sanctuary windows and a classic tower. Like clockwork, Pastor Gomez is probably coming out of the rectory, ready to greet the folk mass crowd, as always ready to receive
them respectfully, those older children who greet her like they would a department store Santa.
Noel and I climb the cellar stairs to the church interior. The chattering parishioners
outside remind me of the muffled caws of a flock of crows. As I turn to look behind me,
I see Noel taking a swig from a bottle of rum. “Noel! Put that away and then get rid of
it after the mass. You promised me you’d never drink before we perform here. I know it’s just a folk mass, I know it’s not an actual gig, but we still owe them a good performance.” Noel takes another hurried swig, then puts the bottle in his back pocket.
“Listen, I’m your girlfriend, remember not your mother, and I don’t appreciate being made to act as if I were. You better get yourself together. I don’t want to break up with you, but believe me, I will if I have to. Honey, you’re just going down the same path that your father went down, that drunken dead end. You told me yourself it took him 20 years to get out of it, and even then he was lucky he came out at all.
“Don’t throw my father’s past in my face. I never should have told you about that.
So I like to drink. All the greats hit the bottle, every damn one of the worth remembering
stashed a bottle in their guitar cases for a shot of inspirational fire. But don’t compare me with the old man. I never hit you or borrowed money from you…
“What about the $120. I gave you last month to have your car towed?”
“I’ll pay you back, just like I told you.”
“Oh,” I interject. “By the way, you never hit me, and you damn well better not.”
“Believe me, I’m not like my old man in that way. Man, he beat my mother,
he went bankrupt from a failed business venture, got arrested on a regular basis for being
drunk and disorderly.”
“Yeah, well you keep this up, you’re not going to be any different. Everybody thinks it can’t happen to them because they can’t see it coming.” I feel less anger, more concern, but I didn’t know if Noel picks this up. I’m not in the mood to get into it.
FROM THE CELLAR TO THE ALTAR ( 2 )
“Baby, you mean a lot to me. If you want me to cut down on my drinking, I will.
How about I drink only at parties?”
“Noel, I said, “you can’t do it for me. You have to do it for yourself. Everything else will follow. Just think about it.”
Noel hugs me, and although I am still angry, I force a smile, toss back my mane of blond hair like grits spilling out of a saddlebag, clear my throat and say as gently as I can
muster. “Let’s go to the altar and give them a fine folk mass.”
I first met Noel at the Saxon Barn on 6th and Neches, where the flocks of grackles perch in the treetops at twilight and an odd, ominous racket that I often thought would make an interesting background effect on a recording. Maybe someday I’ll write a song
suitable for something like that. Anyway, the night I met Noel, I had a gig at the Barn.
As I was tightening my treble strings in preparation, I noticed a really cute guy, about
20, with thick, black, center-parted hair and dreamy hazel eyes approaching me.
He introduced himself as Noel and started asking me questions about guitar techniques. He confessed he had seen me play several times and was a great admirer.
He said my voice was gutsy and pretty at the same time, which was a unique comment.
I felt really flattered by the attention he had obviously paid to my performances.
I loved it.
It helped that I knew he was telling the truth. I was my own harshest critic, but I knew that I was not just another sensitive person strumming a few basic chords and singing about love lost. Next to the other folk singers on the circuit I was by far more astute as a guitarist. As it should be. I have been taking lessons for over five years with
Hank Fry, who has several solo recordings in major stores and has toured with some of the biggest names in the business, including regular performances with Maria Johnson
and The High Jinx Ramblers. Every year the sell out The Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Special
Events Center, and Hank has told me that I’m far more than a pipe dream away from
becoming as popular as Maria. My mailing list has grown steadily after the headliners
I’d have in just about every coffee house within a 30 mile radius of Austin.
I’m six years older than Noel, and unfortunately look it, mainly due to my bad skin.
I try to eat right, but I just inherited the dry skin gene, and my skin tends to get somewhat
flaky at times. But I guess I’m still fairly attractive, since some of my secret admirers
have referred to me as Austin’s Sunflower. Actually, I like being the older woman in this relationship. Most of the guys my age are either married or just looking to use me as
their weekend bunny.
In the beginning of our relationship, I was Noel’s mentor. He was so sweet and never showed any signs of a drinking problem. I used to think, “Well, Ann, good for you. You got yourself a really handsome younger boyfriend… And he’s got great buns
to boot! You sure can’t beat that with a stick.”
Right from the start I let Noel know that my burgeoning career and my job at the hospital came before anything, and that if he could deal with that I’d be happy to start dating him regularly. I have to say, at the time in my life, everything looked so positive.
I was happier than I’d ever been.
( 3 )
Although my family and friends think of my folk singing as a quaint hobby, to me it’s my way of embracing life. When I was 11, I had a pretty bad experience, which my therapist says is less an obstacle because I have an outlet of my singing. I had gone away to a camp the summer before I started seventh grade. All the 11 year olds got single cabins. I think it was really a way to make us feel more responsible, and it was great fun, because we would all go hang out in one or another cabin on different nights, but then we got to have our privacy, too. I had a great time at camp and got along well with all the other kids and the counselors. Sometimes I even helped out if one the younger kids had trouble with an activity. The whole experience made me feel grown up for the first time.
The last night I was there, one of the male counselors came into my cabin long after lights out. I was surprised, but since we all got along so well, I wasn’t afraid at all.
He told me how great I’d been to help out with the kids and that he was really sorry summer was ending and we wouldn’t be working together anymore. He even suggested I should think about applying to be a junior counselor the following summer, which really made me feel happy.
Then he said he had something special for me in his cabin. I was both flattered and intrigued and went along with him without giving it a thought. It was dark when we got there since all the lights were in the center of the rooms, with a chain pull hanging down from the ceiling fans. I stood inside the doorway waiting for him to turn on the light.
I’ll never forget the snap of the screen door as the springs slammed it shut, sharp and sinister. At that instant he reached out and grabbed me, slapped went his hand over my mouth and pulled me onto the bed. I guess I went into shock, because after that moment
I just went numb. When he finally let me go, I was aching and confused, and I walked back to my cabin alone sobbing. I was in a kind of hysterical daze, and I knew I couldn’t tell anyone. Who would ever believe this? I just lay on my bunk that whole night, staring
up into the pitch black of the summer night until finally light came in through the screens and it was time to get on the bus back home.
The first few nights after I returned I couldn’t sleep at all. I just lay in my bed crying every night. During the day I wandered around, exhausted, my mind blank, seldom speaking, and then only to mumble a response if someone directed a question to me.
of course my parents noticed this. I overheard my mother one night tell my father, “She’s all right. She just re-adjusting to being back home again. She had so much fun at camp and misses all her new friends. She’ll be fine once she gets back to school. She’s such a sensitive girl. I guess right now it all seems like too much for her.”
As it happened that school year I had mostly older male teachers, all of whom I viewed with trepidation. Long after summer was over, I had dreams about them coming up to my desk during a study period or in the library and whispering to me that they wanted to show me something, then the dream would flash to them touching me just like my camp counselor had. In the mornings, I would prolong eating my cereal, stalling till the last minute when my mother would finally take the bowl away and tell me I absolutely had to leave. I dragged out the door almost lifeless, walking heavily, as if I had a boulder bearing down on me. I had trouble concentrating in class and my grades reflected it. Whenever one of my instructors tapped me on the shoulder or accidentally brushed against my desk, I jumped, began trembling and inevitably started to cry.
In the end, I was sent to the school psychologist, who thankfully was a woman.
I knew she had figured out what had happened to me, although I told her nothing.
( 4 )
As the year went on, my depression got worse until my parents and the psychologist
agreed that the best thing was to put me in the state children’s psychiatric facility for treatment of major depression.
It was in the institution that a therapist introduced me to the guitar and taught me some basic chords and singing techniques. The more involved I got in the music, the less
depressed I felt, and my parents, seeing the change in me, bought me a used acoustic guitar. Day by day, the music gave me a reason to live and directed me to the beauty in life. Where earlier I had thought only of suicide, I now looked forward to waking up and working on songs.
I still see a psychiatrist twice a week. She encourages me in my folk singing, but warns me that although it is a good form of therapy, I need to be realistic about it and not become delusional, thinking that it is something I should pursue as a career. Sometimes when I bomb on stage, I think maybe I am crazy and can’t perform at all, that I ought to give it up, but then a few days later I always seem to get a call from one of the coffee houses about doing a gig. They’re always charming and usually mention that they got one of the cassettes I mailed them, that my music has an interesting edge to it. One guy even told me my guitar solos are very bit as good as things Chet Atkins does.
A month has passed since Noel and I had that argument about his drinking problem before the folk mass. We’ve been getting along fine since then. I know he often has a few drinks before he sees me, but I choose to look the other way. After all, he’s really such great company and we have so much fun together.
“Another detour on Congress Ave!” Noel shouts, thoroughly frustrated.
It’s raining, and Noel has come to meet me. He’s behind the wheel of my Pathfinder, popping breath mints into his mouth between expressions of aggravation.
“Excuse me, Noel, but you’ve been drinking again, haven’t you?” I accuse.
“Nope,” he lies, nonchalantly. “Just had some really spicy curry for lunch, and it’s repeating.”
I let it go and snuggle up close to him. “Noel! I think I know what rum and mint smells like! What are you doing driving if you’ve been drinking? I can’t believe this!
This is my car, and I want you to pull over right now!”
Angry, Noel turns the wheel sharply, and in an instant I feel the car as if elevated from the pavement careening straight into a street sign. A thud, and a crunch, and a big red “Stop” sign appears before us, mangled and bent toward the windshield.
“Oh, shit,” sighs Noel.
“That,” I manage, in a mild state of shock, “would be correct.”
“I think you might have a bit of an axle problem.” Noel gets out of the car and surveys the pole, then stoops down to look under the front. As he stands up, I can tell by his expression it’s bad news. “Yeah. It’s the axle. The damn pole is actually wedged right in there. Good thing we’re still in town and not on the highway. I’m going to call a tow truck. They might be able to take care of it here. Depends on how much damage we’ve got going on under there.”
( 5 )
Twenty minutes pass and the lights from Phil’s Towing approach us. It turns out the axle is pretty much okay. Fifty bucks in services and the charge for the call and we’re thanking the driver for coming so quickly. I step in on the driver’s side and Noel
quietly takes his place in the passenger’s seat. I drive into a nearby parking lot under Congress Ave. bridge, near the bat kiosk. As we open the car doors, we hear the ooh’s
and ah’s of tourists watching what look like thousands of bats flitting in and out of the crevices in the dark recess under the bridge, tiny brown-black ghouls no bigger than my palm zipping by, cluttering the skyline like a dark halo emanating from the edges of the silhouetted bridge.
It is an astonishing sight, but Noel and I have seen this freak show countless times and barely pay it mind. We lock the car and head up the street towards the Elephant Lounge, our destination. The manager there has promised me a feature next month.
Although he told me it’s normally a strictly salsa place, he wants to attract a wider clientele. Noel and I customarily check out places where I’m going to be playing just to get a feel for the ambiance, but also to see what the sound situation will be. Tonight there is a group of soul singers, The Alabama Blind Boys. They’re fantastic!
It’s Valentine’s Day, and I actually not only have a boyfriend, but a great one!
A few months earlier, Noel was informed that the lumber mill was relocating to Michigan, so he has taken a job as a houseman at the Driskhill Hotel. Since he has to work the overnight shift, we decided to do our Valentine’s Day early.
I hope Noel likes his gift. As I turn up the circular drive to his parent’s house,
I see him waiting outside with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Of course my first thought is, “Is that for me?” I smile and he smiles back. When I pull up, he jumps in the Pathfinder, we immediately kiss, and I continue driving back out to the Barton Springs Road. It’s vacant at this time of the morning, and we drive about a mile just talking and laughing. I pull over to park under a tree by the lake. Noel opens the duffle
bag. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“Poinsettias,” I sigh. The scarlet bracts suddenly make me amorous, the dark green ones make me long for the comfort of warm wool blankets. We get lost in making out,
steaming up the windows, blocking the outside world. “Your gift is waiting for you at my place,” I whisper. Glancing down, I notice an impressive bulge developing.
I start up the car again, and we head for Casa del Toro, our favorite Mexican restaurant on San Jacinto Blvd. I love the spectacular murals of bullfighters and the colorful depictions of village life. We both eat lightly. The portions are too big and the food, though delicious, is a bit spicier than usual. Besides, what fun is it to be sluggish on Valentine’s Day? After lunch we walk a few blocks to Wylie’s Café to listen to some world beat music. We’re like one, grooving to the eclectic jazz band. I can see Noel
entranced by the horn player, who uses an array of conch shells to produce eerie, hauntingly beautiful sounds. He grabs my hand, and in an instant we’re swirling together on the dance floor, enveloped in the magic of these exotic, wild notes.
( 6 )
Later that afternoon, we’re lying on the bed at my apartment. “You know, Ann,
I can still hear those conch shells. Man, that was such an incredible experience.”
“Well, then I think you’re going to really like this,” I say.
I open the top drawer of my dresser and hand Noel a gift-wrapped box.
I watch carefully as he unwraps it. I can see his gaze go from pleasant to anticipation
To disappointment, but he quickly recovers and puts on a polite smile. He is holding a black and blue cotton pouch, a saffron mosaic print in its center. After a somewhat uncomfortable silence, he says, “This is really a pretty pouch. Thank you.”
then he pauses.
I know what he’s really thinking, but look at him wide-eyed.
“Oh, do you really like it? I ‘m so glad. It’s really special, and I spent a long time thinking about it and about you.”
“Well, I do. I mean, you gave it to me, so of course I love it. But…..”
I can feel his discomfort as he searches for words,
“Um, I don’t know how to say it, but we’re always honest, right?”
“Right. That’s our deal,” I nod innocently.
“Sweetheart, please don’t take this wrong, but this is really something a guy would get a girl, don’t you think?”
“Noel, you know looks can be deceiving. The mystery of a person or a thing is never obvious. Why don’t you smell it and then shake it?”
He puts the pouch close to his nose and inhales my perfume, which elicits a real smile.
then he gently begins shaking it and sweet chimes jingle mellifluently through my bedroom. Noel is enchanted. “Let this remind you of me when we’re apart,” I say ethereally.
I really want Noel to stay the night and I can tell the feeling is mutual. But I’m glad he has a job. “Okay, to be continued,” I say, and we both laugh. I drive him to work and kiss him good-night. “I had a great day.”
“Me, too,” he says, his breath warm on my neck. “Happy Valentine’s Day.
As the week progresses, I find myself thing how I love the month of February.
Noel has phoned me at least three days in a row, and even though there’s not much to say, I adore hearing his voice. He really does it for me, and I feel like a child again,
in love with being in love for the first time, not afraid anymore. It’s as if waves of ecstasy are washing over me constantly, a joy like I’ve never known before.
I’ve been seeing Noel for four months now, and I feel ready to give myself to him.
He’s coming over tonight. Maybe, I think with excitement, this is it.
While I’m preparing dinner, I send Noel out to get candles. I find myself sautéing onions and wondering whether he has reliable condoms with him. What kind of thoughts are these? Never once during Julia Child’s cooking show did I imagine she was thinking about condom brands! I feel crazy and giddy and delighted all at once.
After dinner, Noel gets completely undressed and slides under the covers, but not before I catch a glimpse of his cut little butt. Fully dressed, I shut off the lights and light the candles. I notice the gauzy curtains swaying naughtily as the night matures. Through the open window, an indigo skyline appears and disappears.
( 7 )
Shyly, I get under the covers and then begin to remove my clothing. I leave on my
panties, baby blue with yellow stripes. Noel inches towards me until I feel the warmth of his skin on mine. I slide my arm around his bare back and he rolls on top of me.
I moan as I feel him growing between my legs. I lovingly rub his back and I feel his tongue slowly probing my lips. Noel gyrates his crouch against mine. I grab his smooth buttocks. The erotic feeling intensifies as our tongues and bodies entwine in a lazy dance
to the soothing jazz on the radio. The candles are melting away, and I am too. Then I feel Noel tenderly touch my breasts, lightly massaging them.
I freeze. A tightening shatters the mood in an instant. Noel stops kissing me, withdraws, arching back far enough to look me over. He reaches to run his hands through my hair and leans forward to kiss me again, but I clench and put my hands over my face. I am a little girl on the last night of camp, my counselor casting his shadow over me. I begin to weep and cannot stop.
“Ann, what’s the matter? What did I do wrong?” I hear him say.
Then there is an echoed chorus reverberating off the walls, the ceiling, the floor,
“Ann, what’s the matter? What did I do wrong?” incant all the boyfriends I have lost through these same tears.
From here it is a script I know well as I explain once again what happened so long ago. And just like all the others, he becomes cold, distant. He is speechless for a while.
Then comes the standard reply I know so well. “I’m sorry this happened to such a sweet person.”
Cringing, I say, “Noel, there’s more. I was married once and got divorced because I wasn’t able to consummate the marriage.”
At this, he laughs softly. “You couldn’t make the soup, huh?’
I correct, not quite sure if he is joking. I am smiling in spite of myself.
But now I realize the brilliance of this magical evening has developed a shade of despair.
“I guess it’s best you leave now,” I say half-heartedly.
I watch him from bedroom window, wondering if I will ever see him again. As he walks away from the building, I see him stick his hand in the bushes and extract a bottle.
I surmise that he bought it when I sent him out for the candles. The night air is filled with the fierce scream of an express train speeding by like a huge fiery demon heading blindly on a bloodthirsty mission. Noel’s figure has faded from sight.
I phone Noel repeatedly over the course of the ensuing year, but he does not return my calls. I think of passing by his parent’s house, but don’t have the courage.
He shows up occasionally at my gigs, drunk. He invariably creates a disturbance and is escorted out, but his very presence wreaks havoc on my performances. My hands start trembling, my voice cracks, I stutter introducing songs. Eventually word gets around
the coffee houses that I’m poison. I get fewer and fewer bookings, and finally drop out of the circuit altogether.
( 8 )
Taking a seat beside my brother, Robert, in a pew at St. Dominic’s, I am struck once again with a stunned disbelief. What a bratty thing for Noel to do, jumping in front of an express train! Oh, my God! I see Noel’s mother and father approaching.
I stand to greet them, but cannot speak. In unison, they sigh, “Ann.”
we shake hands, and I introduce them to my brother. We all smile faintly, and they go off to join the rest of their family, seated on the far side of the church.
Pastor Gomez appears on the altar, and the funeral service begins. Several times before she speaks, she pauses, her facial expressions giving away the fact that she doesn’t believe a word of the eulogy. In my mind, I scream, “What bullshit!
Near the end, he was a monster to everybody who cared about him.”
I’m blinded by the tears streaming down my face. I can’t focus on the service, but am caught up remembering my own suicidal ideations. It occurs to me that other people must think I’m weeping for Noel. How shocked they’d be if they knew I was wallowing in self-pity. I picture myself jumping in front of an oncoming train and at the instant of impact, regretting it.
As the service ends, Noel’s brother Pete and four friends go to the altar.
“We’d like to close this service with one of Noel’s compositions,” Pete says.
“Actually,” he adds, “it was a work in progress when my brother died. I found it in his room, and we sort of patched it together. We thought it would be appropriate to play for you today.” His voice cracks slightly. “So, the debut performance of Noel’s Theme.”
It is an instrumental piece for guitar and violin, well-structured, with a cathartic melody. As I listen, I understand that the music Noel created is nothing like Noel himself. Soothed and dry-eyed, I stand to leave.
Written between December 1996 and January 1997