Too Much, Too Lateby Marc Spitz
Reunited more than a decade after their brief flirtation with fame in the early 1990s, the middle-aged members of the Ohio-based Jane Ashers suddenly find themselves hitting the big time, with a new record deal, a hit single, fame, fans, and a tour, that transforms their dream into a nightmare of colliding egos, family pressures, and too much success too late.
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Eggfest '92 was going to be the best one yet. That's what they claimed, anyway, and that year we were all inclined to believe it. Eggfest was the same local bullshit every June around the first sign of summer. Fundamentally, the gathering was designed as a sort of thank-you to the state's 38 million laying hens, but we all knew it was nothing more than a means to get Dean into the travel guides. Ohio does indeed supply the nation with 9 percent of its eggs, but of the 7.9 billion eggs laid per year, only about 5,000 or so slide out in Dean. Apparently that was enough to rent a pony for kiddie rides, organize a bake sale, devil a few thousand of those suckers, and book some extremely capable and eager musical entertainment.
I'm being cynical now, but back then Eggfest '92 was our largest show yet, and we weren't taking it lightly. No longer would we crash the thing, screaming, "Eggs! Eggs!" in homage to Edie the Egg Lady from the old John Waters movie Pink Flamingos (which we loved), and spooking the pony. With the thirty to forty stragglers who'd wander up each year and justify the following year's Eggfest, we'd be performing for 500 people easy. I was nervous. I was already getting used to folks being nice to me because I played drums in a real band, and I was hungry for more. And for eggs.
The Jane Ashers had formed in my garage two years previously, in the summer of 1990. I was five years into my post-graduation from Benjamim Harrison High but I'd yet to send one college application out there for consideration. None of us had after-school jobs yet either. And I wasn't joining the army. I had the notion in my head that college was bullshit, and there was nobody around to challenge that. Not in my house anyway. My friends, they didn't have the grades or the money. And the notions in their heads were limited to "hungry," "girls," or "pot." I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I decided to give myself a year to figure it out. By the time I turned twenty, I told myself, I'd know my future. And if not, I could always try college. In the meantime, I had plenty of hobbies. I was building my own computer from spare parts. Eating frozen pizzas and drinking my dead dad's Jim Beam bourbon out in the garage. I had my drums out there too. My Frankenstein's monster of a kit. A third-hand Ludwig bass. Dented Pearl tom and snare. Cracked Zildjian cymbals I stole from the band closet at school and dropped during my getaway. My drums were hand-painted a sort of orange, the shade of a burnt cake--I'd never seen another kit quite the same color. I remember taking pains to come up with something odd when I was mixing the pigments and getting high. I didn't care if it was ugly, and it was. I just wanted it to be one of a kind. My things were occasionally unreliable. But they were also unique. Like me. Who needed higher education? I wasn't bored yet. Life was good enough.
I lived alone with my mother, whom I adored, even though she was trouble. Ma had dropped off the grid just over a year after my father passed away in the fall of 1985. She made an attempt at proper widow behavior for a little while, probably for my sake. Minna was good-looking. I got her light hair and blue eyes. I guess everything else came from my dad: obstinacy, alcoholism, and this nose. Anyway, once it was proper, about two months after the funeral, the men came. Nobody local, out of respect for my father, who was well loved in Dean whether he worshiped the Son or not. I wondered where these men with their oily hair and powder blue two-piece suits were materializing from, because nobody in Dean would dare violate Artie's legacy in such a rude and horny fashion. Were they traveling salesmen passing through Dean on their way to Cincinnati or Toledo or Chicago even? More likely they were just blank, common men, half in the bag and vaguely wanting to nail my grieving mother after buying her a few rounds of inexpensive vodka at Tate's Grill out by the interstate turnoff. I even followed her in a friend's car and spied on her as it all went down. Minna drank gimlets and smoked unfiltered cigarettes like someone hastening her own demise. I remember her catching me with a stolen Pall Mall out in the garage and beating me with a Goody hairbrush until it snapped in two. And there she was, getting loose and lighting one cig with the end of the last, swaying and falling into the arms of these highway wolves with their Japanese cars full of regular gas out back. I didn't judge. She was bereft. Only 38, and left alone for all time.
"I don't even like them, Sandy. I don't like them touching me." I'd found her in the bathroom with a bottle of Smirnoff vodka, a notebook, a pencil, and an open bottle of sleeping pills. This after a particularly empty interlude. I screamed like a girl.
"What are you doing, Ma? You'd just leave me like that?"
"I'm having a drink."
She stared up at me. The corners of her lips twitched involuntarily. There was a sparkling ring of snot around her right nostril. She wiped it away.
People told my father that he looked a lot like Glenn Ford, the actor from The Blackboard Jungle. He was solidly built. Strong. Craggy. Maybe I'm thinking of William Holden. I don't know. My point here is that he was a bull. He fixed the car. We didn't pay a mechanic. He had a big gray toolbox. Now it's mine. Dad followed some girl named Jennifer Blake from his native Cleveland to Dean after college, then ditched her and married Ma, who was in high school at the time. All I know about Jennifer Blake is that she was very tall, with straw-colored, almost white hair . . . and after Dad had spent a few days in Dean, she was very gone. The way I heard it, although they didn't repeat it much, was that Artie spotted Minna at the counter in Bix's drugstore, walked to the pay phone by the gas station, put a coin in, and broke it off with Jennifer immediately. Then he went in, sat down, ordered a bottle of cola and introduced himself. He won over Minna's parents with his no-nonsense demeanor and some rudimentary Hebrew he remembered from school. At the time the Roth family were the only Jewish settlers in Dean, although they put up a tree every December and tried almost too hard to assimilate, changing the name on their mailbox to Ross. Unlike Winona, they were not in show business and they may have been slightly ashamed of their tribal roots. Who knows?
Minna's family had a business selling materials for countertops, and Artie went to work there. After starting in the yard, he moved into the office and ended up taking over the business inside of three years. He could sell scratchproof Formica made from the new miracle plastics developed for the last two war efforts like nobody else. By his late 30s, he'd built the company into a chain. I remember marveling at his ability to maneuver long sheets of material even in his silk suit and gold Baume et Mercier watch. He ate his meat rare. No dessert. Just coffee, black, and an unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette. Artie Klein was the toughest Jew who ever lived. Certainly not the kind of guy you'd expect to get killed by a bumblebee. He'd lived 49 years, 5 months, and 121Ú2 days without knowing that he was allergic to bee stings. How would you know if you've never actually been stung by a bee? It was just fate he hadn't, I guess. They thought it was a heart attack at first when he keeled over in the garden, his neck all swollen and red, eyes bulging, tongue purple and bitten nearly in two. When the doctor told us what really happened, that a little fuzzy bee took down my indestructible father, I vomited. Nothing made sense. I understood Minna's need to find something meaningful after having her marriage and basically her whole existence reduced to some kind of black irony. But she wasn't going to find it the way she was looking.
I should confess here that I was the one who got my own mother strung out on pot. Ma wasn't a party girl in the '60s, when everybody else was supposedly feeding their heads. She became one in her late 30s. Until my dad died, Ma was "Mrs. Klein," as straight as any middle American housewife and mother. She kept her hair in a ponytail. Bought the groceries. Fed the goldfish. Washed the dishes. Dried the dishes. Tipped the gardener. Lit the menorah. Never flirted with the postman.
"Come with me, Ma." She followed me into the garage. With the first few steps, I gently grabbed the vodka bottle. With the last few, I angrily confiscated the pills. I sat her on the old man's workbench, grabbed a cassette out of the pile I'd brought out there and never bothered to return to the shelf in my room, and cued up a track. It was "Have a Talk with God," by Stevie Wonder, off the Songs in the Key of Life double album.
I pulled a half-smoked joint of skunker weed from my jacket pocket. Rudy had let me keep it, and I'd planned on lighting up a bit later and watching Re-Animator or something. Instead, I lit up then, took a pull, and handed it to my mother. She took it without asking what it was. She put it to her lips, and I guess it was there that the healing began. Call it medical marijuana. After the joint and three or four tracks, Minna was begining to come around. I nodded as I saw her getting it. Getting happy. "And he's blind," I reminded her. Very soon, rock'n'roll started to make sense to Minna when nothing else did anymore.
It wasn't like she became a stoner overnight. I even think she hit Tate's a couple more times before deciding that the only time she'd felt like herself since her husband died was when she'd gotten stoned with me. I was tinkering with my computer out in the garage about two weeks or so after the bathroom incident. I'd had a blinking cursor on the monitor for more than twelve seconds without the box surging and dying, and I was trying to figure out what I'd done right when I noticed her standing there.
"I want some more."
"More what, Ma?"
"Grass, Sandy. Do you have any?"
"No, Ma. I'm dry."
"How come you're dry?" she scolded.
"Well . . . it's expensive. And sometimes I just run out."
She reached into the pocket of her gray plaid skirt and pulled out two brand-new $50 bills.
"Will this get me some fresh grass?"
I pocketed the bills.
"How do you get it?"
"I have a dealer. I can call him. I'll call him."
She began thumbing through my cassettes. "What's good here?" She held up a copy of The Who Sell Out. "Is this good?"
"Can I borrow this? And these?"
She dispayed a tape of Forever Changes by Love. Then she picked up Darkness on the Edge of Town by Springsteen like it was an orange or a pear at the produce stand. I nodded again. She randomly pulled Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Life's Rich Pageant by REM, and Horses by Patti Smith from the collection.
"Those are all amazing," I told her.
She smiled. It was the same warming, maternal expression I remembered from my early childhood. I wanted to run to her and hug her. But she was jonesing. A little stiff. I was kind of scared of her, I have to admit. But I called my guy and he came over and sorted my mom out for bud.
She didn't leave the house much after that. Not for lunch or shopping or doctor's appointments or anything. She just dropped out. Everything was delivered. Our dealer--let's call him Barry--got a lot of business out of Ma. His biweekly deliveries soon became daily. One day he disappeared, and I had to find Minna another supplier. Later we discovered that Barry'd gone off to Pennsylvania to study dentistry. I always wondered if some of his tuition didn't come directly from my fiending mom's purse.
The downside of saving my mother's life with rock and drugs was that the entire house started to look like the garage. Nobody wants a dirty hippie for a mom, but soon I had one. I didn't bring my friends around, even Rudy. The house was pretty roughed up. Ma'd be all zooted and break a glass and not bother to sweep it up or warn anyone that the kitchen floor was hazardous. I still have some microscopic shards in my toe. Every once in a while I'll jar one loose from a callus, push it into a nerve, and wince.
Before we befriended Harry, Keith Richards of the Stones made us take the possibility of being a real band a bit more seriously. Or rather Keith's spit did.
When the Rolling Stones came through town on their Steel Wheels tour, we all went down to see them at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Rudy, who like many rebellious teenage guitar players was wholly obsessed with Keith, had already started weaving little trinkets into his high-piled rat's nest hairdo: pieces of yarn, tiny bottles lifted from his little sister's dollhouse tea sets, fetishes of all kinds. It was Keith's new look, and so it became Rudy's too. Rudy was chubby or at the very least well fed, but by the time he was 21, he'd lost about a third of his body fat, mostly by spending months consuming nothing but cherry Jell-O and weed. He kept it off by replacing the weed with Ritalin. The Jell-O remained the same. The resulting malnutrition did a number on his teeth, but Rudy liked that. He said it made him look like Keith in '68 around the time of the film The Rolling Stones: Rock and Roll Circus and that great "Jumpin' Jack Flash" video where they're all in makeup and ladies' big sunglasses. When the bicuspids started falling out, Rudy agreed to supplement his diet with some applesauce and a couple of chewable vitamins, smashed to powder and ceremoniously ingested like they were pulled from a sack of opium with a pirate's dagger, rather than a childproof bottle with a Flintstone or a Rubble on it.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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