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I, Gloria Grahame
Excerpt

I, Gloria Grahame. It is certainly with a sense of some guilt that I write that. Or not guilt. Let’s just say that it seems a kind of false freedom, because I am not. I can only be her for a short while, while pen is put to paper, or perhaps I should say more accurately, finger to keyboard — when I am writing whatever this is. (I don’t call it anything, not even a diary or a journal, that would be too presumptuous.) She is certainly not me, and I have no relationship with her other than the fact that I do imagine I am this particular storied Hollywood film noir star, and I write as if I were her occasionally. But no one sees that writing. If you are reading this it is probably because I have been arrested finally or put to death. Good riddance, as they say. But all I do is fantasize that I’m Gloria Grahame. I am not her. I’m a very different person from her, and it’s being completely honest to tell you that.

How do I begin to describe myself?

I have always been not very manly and somewhat invisible. Now that I am of a certain age, I wear hats and scarves, even in summer, and they serve to cover me somewhat, as I do not wish to be noticed. In fact, I wish to disappear; that is, short of dying. Why? It has basically become a little too much trouble to be alive. I think everyone reaches a point where that becomes the case and then they just die, one way or the other. That’s my terribly depressing theory. It isn’t that we outlive our usefulness or that nobody loves us, it’s just that it finally isn’t worth it anymore, the struggle. Anyway, first of all, or perhaps most of all, there is my voice. Have you ever heard Truman Capote’s voice? You might google it, and if you do, you will discover that even for the most dedicated homophile it is just a little too much. I can’t help it; I was born this way, to quote the great Gaga. When I open my mouth I betray myself. And yes, I always sashay a little bit, and there are mannerisms. But it is not a case of choosing to act this way; let me make that perfectly clear. If I had my way I would be someone else, I would be John Wayne, particularly the way he looked when he was young. (Did you know his real name was Marion?) Yes, I would prefer to be effortlessly masculine, which is the way I describe the type of man I am often attracted to. This makes me hopeless in a Quentin Crisp sort of way. I lust after the type of young man who would not be caught dead in public with me, which makes my case tragic, except of course for what you can get up to in private. But I pretty much don’t bother with that anymore, either. So I have become this haunted thing, or rather this thing that would wish to be haunted or hunted, or something, but what I am really is just the type of person who makes people feel uncomfortable and who they would like more than anything to ignore.

Some women like me. Some. (Others, I threaten.) But it’s more as if they take pity on me, and that is perfectly fine, I, Gloria Grahame too, it’s something, anyway, it’s someone actually having an emotion in regards to me, or perhaps I should say having an emotion in my direction or at least in my general vicinity. Which is certainly better than nothing. Or is it? When I was younger I made an effort to hide it, there were the scarves and hats back then, too — which, when you come down to it, accentuated it more than anything — if one adds sunglasses then one has become Greta Garbo, certainly not a very butch self-presentation. But there was also an attempt to monitor the voice and the hands and the hips, that is to not be in any way myself, which I was sometimes successful at doing. Successful in the sense that people didn’t so much not know that I was effeminate, but they quite generally appreciated the fact that I was doing my best to cover it up. It was gracious of them to notice, and gracious of me to try. I was being considerate of their sensibilities, trying not to offend.

And then in those days I did not have tenure. That’s why I fought so hard for it, and now here I am teaching at a small university just outside of town. But I spend a lot of time in the city where I live. I spend a lot of time walking my dog, Poopsie. Yes, she is called Poopsie. Do what you want with that. The truth of the matter is that I would call her Poopsie, anyway, in private, so why not just make it public? It was bound to slip out, anyway. It’s all part of giving up. My last dog was actually named Rex, which was comical in its own way because he was also a miniature poodle. I could carry him around in a canvas bag, which I would do now and then, and even take him to class. The problem was he had cerebral palsy — yes, he did — and when I let him walk around the desk of the seminar room he would fall and quiver, and the students would think he was drunk. It was an interesting gauge of each student’s moral compass. Some would laugh, the boys usually — the effortlessly masculine ones — whereas the girls would punch the boys’ arms and be gushingly sympathetic to my little dog with CP. Anyway, calling this new little miniature poodle Poopsie is all part of giving up, the process of giving up who I am — while paradoxically being more publicly what I am. This is the beginning of a struggle not to exist anymore. Because though people might be able to tolerate a little poodle called Rex (there is, after all, humour in that) they are not about to care very much about one called Poopsie, and the male owner will be forever exiled from their consciousnesses. Out of sight, out of mind.

I hope you will applaud me in this end-of-life project; to fade from view long before I die. After all, it is quite evident that no one wants to see or hear from me anymore. In disappearing, I’m really just complying with the general zeitgeist. I’d ask for your advice — but you are, in fact, not there. I have just made you up in order to calm myself down. There must be someone reading this, even though it will never be read. And as I have imagined this, I also have imagined you, the same way I have imagined Gloria Grahame. You are somewhat sympathetic, but slightly frightened by me, and perhaps a bit confused? Because it seems to me that when I write as Gloria Grahame I am also able to write myself.

What does it mean to write yourself? It means what every writer knows: that they do not exist anywhere else but on paper, in the characters they create. That’s true for me more so than anyone. Even T.S. Eliot — who was apparently nondescript and worked in a bank — was not as nondescript as me. Except for the afflictions that are my face, my body, my age, my fluttering hands. What happens to me is I come home after a hard day at school (it’s two classes a day, twice a week — it must be admitted, I have absolutely nothing to complain about), and I am discouraged by the petty nothingness of my life, at how small even my humiliations are. And then I sit down and write this. I create. And everything that causes me discomfort, everything that causes me pain, is suddenly glorious. Glorious Gloria.

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The Willow Wren
Excerpt

 

This argument comes back to me now. Maybe I have the exact words wrong, but my memory astonishes me these days. I would have only been about four years old, but I do remember this. I was playing in the hallway outside the living room. I can picture the red Persian runner on the dark wooden floor. It had a pattern that served beautifully as roads for my little wooden cars. The door to the living room was closed. These houses had doors to every room so that they could be individually heated. Through the door I could hear my parents talking, but I could neither understand what they were saying, nor did I particularly care to. Then Mama’s voice became louder, and I could not avoid hearing anymore.

“Do you really need to be doing Party work all weekend Wilhelm?”

“You know I do.” Papa used a very sharp tone. I pictured him answering from behind his newspaper.

“Don’t snap at me. It’s a reasonable question. You are hardly ever home on the weekend anymore. You are becoming even more of a stranger to your children.” Mama was trying to sound calm, but her voice crackled with the electricity of barely restrained fury.

“You know very well why I am doing this. Why I must do this.”

I heard a newspaper rustle. I was right!

“Must?” Mama laughed, but it was a sardonic laugh. Even at that age I knew that people could laugh when something was not funny.

“Yes, must!” Papa was shouting now.

“Ok, you feel you ‘must’ be in this Party. You have told me many times. I don’t agree, but I accept. Accepting is what I ‘must’ do. But all weekend, every weekend? Really Wilhelm?”

“Don’t exaggerate. It’s not all weekend, every weekend. But this weekend is especially important. Reich’s Minister Goebbels is coming on Saturday, and it is my privilege to help show him what we are doing here in Leipzig for the people!” He used the expression ‘das Volk’ which means something more than just ‘the people.’

“Ha! That idiot!”

I crept closer to the door. Then there was the sudden slam of what sounded like Papa’s fist hitting the table and I jumped, almost giving myself away with a little yelp.

“Show respect! Goebbels is a great man! And ours is a great cause! You have your job here and I have my job there. I do not question how you run this house and you will not question how I help to run this country! This is the best I can do. You know that with my stiff leg if war comes I will…”

If?” Mama interrupted, shouting now too. “If war comes?! Are you mad Wilhelm? It’s when war comes! When! Those friends of yours — Goebbels and the rest – will not stop pushing until somebody pushes back. And that means war. When, not if.”

“I don’t agree. The Fuehrer is showing the world our commitment and our power. They don’t dare challenge Germany. They become more degenerate by the day, while we become stronger. And if you are somehow right and there is war, it will be quick because we will win. We lost in 1918 because we were stabbed in the back by our own people! Socialists, communists, bums, n’er-do-wells! The Fuehrer is ensuring that that will never happen again.”

“Wilhelm, listen to yourself.” Mama was quieter again, but I could still hear her well enough. “You have read Tacitus and Cicero, Goethe and Schiller, Shakespeare and Milton. These clowns can barely read the side of a soup can. These are not your people. These are not your thoughts.”

“You are wrong Luise. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I think he said something else too, but his voice was quieter and then there was the scrape of a chair and I was just barely able to scramble out of the way in time for the door to open and Papa to walk out. His face was red. I think he might have noticed me, but he did not acknowledge me.

War, I thought. There will be a war. The idea seemed both terrifying and exciting to me. Theodor and I had a few toy soldiers. They were made of tin and had once been brightly painted but were now chipped and worn. I think they might have originally belonged to an older cousin. I always lost to Theodor when we played, but I still sought him out for battles whenever he would stoop to play with his little brother.

 

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Brighten the Corner Where You Are
Excerpt

I've Been Everywhere

 

The first thing you need to remember is that I'm no longer down where you are, haven't been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I'm in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want. The wind's whistling carries me, takes me back, oh yes, to when the radio filled the house with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys singing "My Life's Been A Pleasure." Though I'm not sure I would go that far. Freed of life's woes, these days I see joys that, in life, I just guessed up. If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one's better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn't have gotten up to half of what I did in your world, I'd have spent my days doing what you do. Where'd be the fun in that?

The best thing about up here is the view. Now, I'm not so high up that folks look like dirt specks and cars like hard candies travelling the roads. Nor am I so low down that you can reach up and grab a draught of me in your fist. Up here, no one gets to grab on to anybody, or be the boss. No shortage of bossy boots down your way, folks only too certain they know best. So it was when I lived below, in a piece of paradise some called the arse-end of nowhere. I wouldn't make that kind of judgment myself. Mostly I kept to myself; for a long time doing just that was easy. Out in the sticks there are lots of holes to hide down, until someone gets it in their head to haul you out of yours. Next, the whole world is sniffing at your door, which isn't always a bad thing. Like living in the arse-end of nowhere isn't a bad thing, pardon this habit of speech I learned down your way. Habits die hard, even here. Except, here I get away with whatever I want, which is a comfort and a blessing. Comforts and blessings mightn't be so plentiful where you are. Here, for example, a gal can cuss to her heart's content and who is gonna say boo?

And that view! Now I can see backwards, forwards, straight up and down instead of sideways or tilted, I can look at things face on the way, before, I just guessed things up and painted them in pictures. When it suits me, I hover at gull-level where hungry birds cruise the shore for snacks, or at crow-level, where the peckish seek treats spilled by roadsides. Food aside, it's grand up here. I see the fog tug itself like a dress over Digby Neck and the road travelling south to north, pretty much tracing the route that took me from birth to this spot up here. Apart from the coastline's jigs and jags, as the crow flies north to south is a fairly straight line from the ridge where my bones lie to where I grew up.

Those who don't know better call this otherworld "glory." But, looking down at the green of Digby County stretching into Yarmouth County, a patchwork of woods and fields set against the blue of St. Mary's Bay, I'd call this part of your world "glory." If I were the churchy type, which I am not and never was. Though I did enjoy a good gospel song if it was the Carter Family singing it. Some days a good old country song was my lifeline to the world. Each melody crackling over the airwaves got to be a chapter of my life, its sweet notes looped in with the sour ones.

Churchiness aside, I know attention when I see it. Folks flocking to see my paintings, paying big dollars for them. Imagine if they'd paid me back then what they pay now, travelling from all over to see my home. Though that would be pissing in the wind, wouldn't it? For you can't take nothing with you. You land here as naked as when you land where you are. All the money in the world won't change it. Yet I wouldn't have minded being sent off properly. Wearing my ring, I mean, all polished and shiny and on the right finger, and everything right with the world. A badge of honour, say. Maybe if I'd heeded my aunt's Bible talk—not about turning the other cheek to have someone smite it too, but about being wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove—things would've played out different. My husband had serpent-wisdom galore, I was the dovely one. But if I'd got the serpent part down pat, who's to say I mightn't have turned half cur and bitten the hand that fed me?

But, about that wedding band. Marriage means where the one party flags the other party takes up the slack, making the couple one big happy serpent-dove. According to such logic my man and me ought to have been two sides of the same dime tucked in a jar for safekeeping: equals. I let on that we were. Why I did is for me to know and you to find out. Your world will always have folks who take advantage of those with no choice but to let them. Up here, things even out. No one owns a thing, not the earth, sunshine, rain, or fire, and most certainly not the wind.

And in the end, what sweetness it is to enjoy a blue moon, and just paint it in your mind's eye, no need to fumble with a brush! It's easy to love something named for a colour. Though other things about being up here mightn't be to everyone's taste, people don't exactly line up for tickets to get here, do they. If you're the type that's all go go go, the pace is hurry up and wait. As for reunions with loved ones, well, I am still waiting, but I haven't given up hope, no sirree. And there are other things to like about this so-called glory. The insects don't bite, unlike the no-see-ums that plague you every season but winter. And there are cats aplenty, don't let anyone tell you cats aren't allowed, as if up here is your chesterfield. You just can't see or pat them. Their purr might be what you hear when a motorbike goes by or a boat with a make-and-break puts out to sea.

Even better than the view is the moon's company, as steadfast as memories you cannot shake. The moon doesn't care who tramps over her face or journeys to her dark side. Let her keep her secrets, I say. Though she doesn't mind shining her light on ours, and under her shine things buried and thought missing come to light, even things we reckon are gone for good—with an exception. For I have been searching high and low for that ring, the gold band I once put on with pride. When I could still wear a ring. The ring that belonged to me, even if it wasn't always mine. What a shitload of stories it would tell if it could, if anyone laid their fingers on it. Where it got to is a mystery, the way here is a mystery. Then again, where you are might be a mystery too, memories the only things we have that are certain. Bearing a weight all their own, they wax and wane. Like my pal, they hang around, old and full-blown or new and shy, whether they are pictures we paint of ourselves or pitchers of us that others pour out.

If only I could put my finger on when and where I last saw that ring. Thinking of it takes me back to a bright March moon, a night more than fifty years ago now, a night so long ago those men that first walked on her still had three years to go before stepping foot there. The moon pouring down her light is what springs to mind first. Pretty as that March night was back in 1966, I've spent a long time trying to forget it, and to forget about mud and dirt and footsteps and things on and in the ground. Buried things. For, as you will learn soon enough, things buried and unearthed are the undoing of us all.

All around me that night the county slept sound as a bear in winter, so it was in the wee hours beneath that moon. It was one of those cold, clear nights after a thaw, when frost silvers the meanest buds and you think the pussy willows have got a jump on April—until a snowstorm blows in and covers everything.

One step forward, two steps back. That was spring in our neck of the woods, never mind where you found yourself.

To this day, I have no clue what time it was I awoke. My husband had brought me upstairs hours before. From the nearby woods an owl screeched, but that was the only sound. It was either too late or too early for the crows to be up, not just any crows but the ones setting up house in our yard. The lady crow had recently stolen my fancy.

My man got up. His sharp, sudden moves near pitched me from the bed. Wide awake, I listened to him scuttle across the floor and shimmy down through the hatch. The stairs shuddered under his weight. I heard him scuffling about below, heard the rustle of him grabbing his jacket and his boots left warming by the range. The door creaked open and banged shut behind him. His footsteps stirred the gravel out front, slouched along the side of the house before they grew faint. Off to wake the crows and lure my favourite with a crust of bread, set to win her affection? (I do believe Everett envied my friendship with Matilda, never mind she was just a crow.)

I thought with a start he must be off to the almshouse, was after taking the shortcut out back—see how the mind plays tricks in the dead of night? He had not worked over there in three, going on four years by this time, which was roughly the last time I'd seen my friend Olive, the warden's wife, when she finally realized it was no place to raise her boys. With a shiver of relief, I heard the creak of hinges from the shed nearest the house. It was where Ev liked to partake of his TNT cocktail, homebrew in the years before we had money, and then store bought later on.

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Here Goes Nothing
Excerpt

 

We had a superstition at the time that you couldn’t clean the van until the tour was over, so by the time we’d crossed the border westward and slingshotted around the Golden Horseshoe towards home, we were up to our necks in an ocean of garbage. In our minds it was the same as shaving a playoff beard. Stained blankets, liquor bottles, half-eaten bags of potato chips, rotten food, filthy clothes, rumpled sleeping bags, and who knows what else forming a cemented, solidified wall around our bodies in their seats. Whenever we’d pull up to a venue, an avalanche of empty beer cans and two-sixes would come rushing out of the shotgun side door as it opened. Chaos in our wake as always.

For this and every cardinal sin we’d commit before, during, or after a show, we’d have that sacred half hour onstage every night to seek forgiveness. Despite the harrowing feeling of guilt deep inside me, for every poor, desperate gas station attendant running horizontal through the rain, I knew that I’d be back in Ottawa, and all those cities that we’d passed through to get there, in no time, with numerous opportunities to be redeemed.

 

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