Serendipity - My Maw and Harmonics by Mariev Finnegan
My Maw and Harmonics
by Mariev Finnegan
Phone rings at midnight.
I'm stoned. Inside my Gothic gray house on Erie Street next to the canal, which is named after my tribe, the Eries, I am curled up on the couch eating a chocolate donut and listening to MTV. I'm a mystic intuitive, on call for $9.99 a minute, dial 1-900-ISEE. "Hello, this is Mariev, Matriarch of the Erie."
"I was in the Community room," says the voice on the other end without any hesitation. It is my old Maw, who used to be Matriarch of the Erie, a tribe notorious for psychic abilities and a problem with authority.
Maw lives on the top of a high ridge, the Claradone fault, in an Assisted Care apartment, one of fifteen identical units lining a long, long hall. Dad is buried in a cemetery on the same ridge at the end of a lengthy row of veterans, each with a flag.
"I was playing my harmonica," Maw tells me, "And this one old nasty woman, dizzed me."
"She disrespected you?" Maw is four feet tall. She has a
hunchback and gray hair that reaches to tangle around her tiny waist.
"She disrespected my music. Twice. This is the second time that bitch stood right in front of me refusing to hear my mouth organ, and—what's that word for harmony? —my harmonics!"
I swallow my comfort food. I don't want to ask, but I do, "What did you do to her, Maw?"
"I musically assaulted her." Maw puts her harmonica next to the telephone speaker and gives both lungs to a high-pitched note that resonates off my eardrums. My mind is swept of all logical thought, leaving only a psychic impression. "Jesus!"
"Hallelujah! That woman is harmonically impaired!"
"Maw, can I tell you one thing?"
"If it's true."
I search my mind for one thing I can say about my mother for sure. "Once, for a contest, you wrote 3000 knock-knock jokes."
"Shhhh," cautions my Maw. "You'll wake him. You don't want to wake Harry. He's nuts. In the middle of the night, he goes running up and down the long hall—sideways—he's an elf and they move sideways—knocking on all the doors."
Management has complained about Maw doing the same thing.
"Oh, it's so much fun!" she assures me. "All the old fogies and the freaks come running out in their underwear. They're all excited! You have to be real fast! Get back to your own door and act real indignant, just like the rest of them. You have to run real fast, or else they'll catch you!"
Far off in the distance, I hear a screaming on her end of the line. "What is that? Who's there?" I am really frightened, because I know it is her.
Another voice speaks in a man's tone, in an unknown language—gibberish. Then: "Knock knock."
"Will you tell me the future?" I feel pathetic. That's what I get paid for.
"Life is just a dream!" That male voice babbles on, becoming unintelligible. Maw lives alone in a secure apartment at the end of a long long hall, I remind myself.
"Knock, knock," she, or one of her other 3000 personalities, says.
Maw gives a wicked giggle. "Goodwho, or Godwho, depending on where you place the accent."
I sneeze, "Goodshoo!"
Over the phone, I hear Maw playing Row, Row, Row Your Boat, and another harmonica joins in with the harmony. With a chill, I remember my dad on the front porch at home, tapping a foot, and doing rippling cords in accompaniment with Maw.
"Maw! Who's there?"
The music fades, and at last a soft voice, "You."
"You who?" Echo.
Someone on the other end of the line, but not Maw says, "Good bull."
Good bull is an old Erie Indian saying that serves as God bless, and goodbye, and lots of other stuff.
"Maw, good bull." We hang up.
There is a bulletin on TV. A newscaster says over a video of Niagara Falls, "Protesting American Indians from the Mohawk tribe have taken over the Niagara Mohawk Power Station. Apparently, they have shot out all the—"
The power goes out. Darkness. A profound silence.
I finish my donut, and settle down to sleep. The electricity comes back on. Elton John is singing, Goodbye, English Rose.
My kid, Jesse, Maw and I, go to a light show at the Great Falls. The full moon is covered in black clouds, but I feel its influence. The wind is a cold punishment and the freezing snow pelts our exposed skin as big flakes turn the air into a negative of swirling black and white.
A thick layer of ice coats the steel bridge under our feet. Jesse and I maneuver Maw through the crowd to the railing—She never moves her little feet—We slide her.
The clouds part and the moonlight casts the world in eerie shadows and sharp relief. We huddle together watching lasers shooting colors across the river canyon. The many coves and crevasses in the gorge are fringed with ice stalactites and the falls is frozen in grasping fingers. Where mist meets fog, suspended in air, is a colored cloud rushing up at us, pierced by crisscrossed laser beams.
Goodbye English Rose plays in air and a lovely voice announces, "I'll call your attention to the rare nighttime rainbow that you can observe if you unfocus your eyes in the mists of the falls. It's a ghostly echo of sunlight, a lunar moonbow."
The moonbow is an arched nothingness suspended within prisms of light.
"We've done this before," Maw babbles. "This is a dream."
She points at a man at the rail as he lifts a small child to his shoulders. Was it before, after, or simultaneous with Maw saying, "He's going to lift that little boy. He's done that before—And that woman is going to walk by us—and that girl is going to skip. Look at her, dear soul!"
Maw shivers, and so do I.
Jesse, several inches taller than his Grandmaw, wraps his arms around her to keep her warm. The music fills the air and the laser lights discharge like insanity let loose.
The boom of a rocket in air as the fireworks begin and the bridge is seized in a brilliant light. I turn, and the Arctic wind plays up my spine like an electrical current.
I see Dusty.
He is moving away through the crowd in his usual slow gait.
I run. For one panicked moment, I lose sight of him. Then I scurry around a group of people centered on a wooden bench and I see him again, near the middle of the bridge, making his way past lines of people. I pause one second—I'm positive—it is Dusty!
Raw emotion explodes inside me with the same force as the rocket blast resounding over the canyon. His long blond hair hangs in waves around his shoulders. When he looks to the side, and I see the snub nose, the tilt of his head, I know for sure it is my dead son.
I remind myself, Dad died of brain cancer—his mind exploded and drained out his brain stem—And Maw has dementia. I'm nuts...But I'm not delusional. That's my son.
And Dusty is dead.
Another explosion of sound and light all around, and FLASHBACK. To the day in early September when Princess Di's funeral was broadcast live on TV, and they played Goodbye English Rose, over and over.
Maw, Jesse and I had held Dusty's funeral service in the living room of the Gothic house on the Erie. MTV was playing a Queen rock-opera, while Maw played her harmonica. William and Harry followed their mother's casket and spent hours in ceremony. Us Erie looked at pictures of Dusty from birth to age 23, when he had joined a cult and stopped loving us. The whole damn tribe. The only snapshot of him taken over the last three years was of his body minus a soul. The cult—I call it a race—relieved Dusty of his conscience. All he had to do was surrender his identity.
Jesse said the eulogy. "He was funny."
I said a lot of Good Bull about Dusty, who is Erie. Was Erie. Now to us, he's dead.
"Last night I had a dream," Jesse, who is half-Mohawk, told me. "I was in a dark room, but somehow, I knew, Dusty was there too. Then I realized, and it was horrible... Dusty was rolled up inside a big, hand-rolled, cigarette. I tried to free him, the same way you try to start a roll of toilet paper—but I couldn't find the beginning, before I woke-up."
Jesse's lower lip trembled. "He might come back," he whispered.
On her harmonica, Maw was playing Goodbye Norma Jean—not English Rose—from the original Elton John album Funeral For A Friend. Or maybe she was playing Red River Valley.
I gazed at a picture of Dusty as a tot, a little boy who loved his Maw. Loved Grandmaw. Loved his family, the whole tribe. "We have to wish him Good Bull," I told Jesse. "For our own mental health, we have to let him go. He can't hear us; he won't see us. We must declare him dead."
"Dusty!" I can't take my eyes off him. There he is—my child—alive! Jesse, with his pure trust and unconditional love, is right—In response to my letters and finally, desperate on-my-knees prayers, Dusty has come home.
Over the sound of explosions, I scream his name as I run. Dusty!
The light turns from an eerie green to a brilliant white. I think myself through space, and land, like Maw's hunch, on his back; I wrap myself around him, clinging, newborn. Dusty!
He halts, half-crouches. I jump off him and stand, expectantly, as he turns around.
It isn't Dusty.
I am tragically alone here on the Falls Bridge; all around me is organ music and lights and madness.
I find Jesse still holding Maw in his arms and marveling at the light show.
Maw freaks. She pulls away from Jesse to gesture, babbling. "We've done this before! That boy there—he's walked past many times, and now that woman is going to come over..." She grabs the woman passing in the crowd, holds her by both arms, and demands to know, "Am I dreaming?"
Explosions of color and sound shake the bridge as Jesse and I hurry Maw down the stone staircase, past the waterworks, and into the catacombs beneath the falls. The fireworks do a final and the lasers dance with the explosions. The moonbow holds steady in air.
The ice is melting here at the opening of the dark grotto. Huffing for breath, Maw pauses under a slow drip from a stalactite that soaks her crooked back. "Are you a ghost?" she asks me. Her long hair is crazy with the howling wind whipping through the cavern. Her face flickers in colored lights zooming in and imploding. She takes her harmonica from her coat pocket, and blows one long wailing sound.
"Is this a dream?" she asks again.
Jesse gives her a look of stark terror. "Grandmaw, we're on our way back to the car in the parking lot."
I brush her question aside and lead her to the elevators.
Back at her secure building filled with others like her, Maw and I stand a minute looking down the hall, an elongated, monotonous view that ends in Maw's apartment on the left.
"This is the last mile" she sighs. "Down that long corridor is my final resting place. I'll never leave here alive."
"Come on, Maw. Let's skip." I take her one hand, and she plays jolting notes on her harmonica as we dance along to her door, number 100, where I help her use the key pinned to her coat to open the door. She pierces me with a look. The hair on my scalp stands straight as she asks for a third time, "Is this a dream?"
I don't answer. I can't.
I am in a deep sleep, dreaming that I am hunting Easter eggs with a mess of little kids. The children are adorable. The eggs are artistic, unique and well hidden. The phone wakes me.
"I'm going to kill her," Maw says and hangs up.
I turn right at the graveyard. At the end of the curved drive I park in a handicapped space. Red, white and blue lights spin crazily from two cop cars and an ambulance. I follow an Emergency Personnel through the buzz-in doors, and down the long hall.
This is the way God works. I know—I'm psychic.
Outside Maw's door, two paramedics are securing an apparently unconscious woman with a bandage on her forehead and her left arm in a splint, onto a stretcher. The Sheriff is struggling to handcuff Maw.
I am amazed! She is so tiny, but she still has the wildness in her, belligerently waving her harmonica in one flailing hand. Barefoot, dressed in a long white nightgown, when she sees me, she snarls, "Knock, knock."
In frustration, I answer, "Who's there?"
"I bloodied the bitch!" Maw's long white hair is streaked with her victim's blood.
"Maw, why?" I stand with fists curled, afraid for her. Afraid of her.
A crowd of the elderly and handicapped has gathered in the hall, and now a paramedic joins the Sheriff, and both men fight to roll up the lace sleeve of her nightgown and inject her with a sedative.
"She is harmonically malfunctioning," Maw wails. She lungs forward, managing to break free of both men. Jamming her harmonica between her lips, she lands on the injured woman, straddling her on the stretcher. She lets out a high, deafening note.
I see the scene in slow motion. Probably lack of sleep and shock are causing my brain cells to misfire—I could never have dreamed this. It is horrible, like a nightmare. I realize that Maw's victim makes no response to the sound—Maw's music—because the poor woman is not only in shock and unconscious, but she is wearing headphones. The woman stares fixedly at the ceiling. She has been listening to a Walkman radio all along. She never heard—couldn't hear—Maw's harmonics.
The Sheriff disarms Maw of her harmonica with the same motion he'd no doubt use for a weapon. It falls to the floor where an old guy dressed in boxer shorts kicks it into a corner. The Sheriff snaps the cuffs on Maw's bony wrists behind her hunchback as the Medic shoots her full of tranquilizers.
"I'm not leaving here alive!" Maw, her stark white hair flying loosely around her bent shoulders, turns to me, her eyes wild as they lead her away, "Are you a ghost?"
"Maw, she was wearing headphones..." I call after her.
"Am I dreaming?" Maw's voice is an echo, defined over and over by the long long hall.
And then, nothing... even though I stand here for a long, long time... listening.