Mom had tawny hair and blue eyes
and for the whole of her bar career
guys fell in love with her.
I think she modeled her life in some way after Tombstone.
She used to cry when she saw it, and John Wayne asked
Maude or whatever her name was to marry him.
Do you really mean it? she asked
She made fun of herself and how she cried. She had orange juice like me; only hers had vodka; she was allright until she got on the pills.
My father traded for them and brought them over from the methadone crowd. The first hour was fine, but when she mixed them with speed, something else happened. The thing about talking to my mom about anything was that she would rhetorically broadcast to the bar at large: whatever we happened to be talking about. It was the innate sense of creating drama, of involving the bar patrons and ultimately selling more liquor.
That fateful day, it went something like this:
Ma I want to go somewhere tonight.
Is that so?
And then on broadcast to the bar, over the jukebox: You hear that fellas?
He wants to go somewhere!
And turning back to me, You want to leave your mother?
I want to go see a band. I want to try to write about them.
Her voice softened and for a moment I could see why they all fell in love with her in such a place, the way her eyes crinkled up and got all shiny like the sun when you’re walking home and it’s not so bright, but it’s still shiny and the shadows of the night are settling down all around.
Dillard and Clark’s single, Why Not Your Baby Anymore? was playing and I said, I want to see this guy.
She listened dreamily and she kept it between us this time, so I fell for it & I unburdened myself to my mother.
He’s trying to be an artist. He used to be in one of the biggest bands in the world, but he quit.
Is that right? she arched her eyebrows. Some of the softness went away and her eyes flashed, but she drew me further.
You believe that don’t you honey? How old are you now?
Me and Diz’ll be 16 tomorrow.
And you want to go to a rock and roll show! You want to meet a pretty girl. Well, it’s only right.
This was the moment when it turned. The light went out and her voice turned dark. She finished her drink and turned back to the barflys.
My little boy is growing up fellows, she said.
The thing was that when she made it about you, you could see that she wanted to believe in your dreams with all of her heart. But then something would creep in, something that reminded her of the harsh world she had lived in.
She was on the stroll when she met my father. And he took her on dates anyway, another of his stories, until in her words he fed her a load of crap, sang her a song and she had his children, both of us. And it all looked good in her telling.
She got off the street, came into the bar and he even played some gigs. He still did. At Kenny’s Castaways and the Bitter End. This is how I pieced together my own life story, from my mother in the bar before she got too fucked up and from my father after he got fucked up.
I was in between.
Mom said, He don’t want to spend his birthday with his momma cos she works in a bar, she broadcast. Or with his father who works on a cop line and tells everyone he’s a legendary guitarist and still has credibility because he’s sold everything else but he’s never sold that damn guitar. She raised her voice and looked at me.
My eyes welled up.
And he played at Woodstock, she said.
Old Mr. Tambourine Man.
I grabbed my notebook, slammed it shut and ran for the door before anyone saw me cry.
It was important never to let anyone see you cry or it seemed that way to all of us who were trying to be men. Like that was the big test or something. That you could hold it, whatever it was, your liquor, your junk, or not break up over a girl and certainly not your mother.
She yelled at me though and I turned and there was something in her voice and with the door open and the freezing wind blowing in my face, I turned back. The wind was what made it intense.
Wait, she said. She did not shout but my mother had a way about her. She just did. Something commanding that she must have gotten from her father who had been in the army for his whole life busted down to buck private more than anyone else in history, she used to brag about this.
The whole bar turned. She was good at making her life drama. It was her talent. She always had the Channel 7 ABC 4:30 movie on in the bar, when everything still had a way of looking promising, and the late show when it came on in the dregs.
She floated to the cash register, a graceful woman in a pinafore skirt.
She wore those like some kind of tavern house Lois Lane.
Waiting for Superman! She told people and there would be a laugh and another round.
Ma was a good barkeep. She knew how to turn the bar into laughter and keep the crowd drinking and everyone in there with their own dream; she was like a movie projector in those moments and out of her eyes projected on the dark wall were all of your hopes.
She popped open the drawer and it caught with a bang. She peeled off two bills and ten reached with them over the bar. Reaching back, I did not let the door close because I might not never make it out I was barely able to take the money from her. Two bar wet fifty dollar bills. I had never seen so much money in my whole life. Maybe I had seen it in the cop line but never held it in my own hands.
Ma gave me her blessing and I saw something she had never let me see before. A present for my leaving on my sixteenth birthday. A tear that ran down her cheek. It was the left one, opposite the handing of the money.
I could not speak. Something must have tumbled out of my trembling lips because she said
Just to me, no broadcast.
She gave her eyes to me and y’know I caught it. That thing she gave me. Not just the money but the projection of my dreams on her face, glowing there in the darkened afternoon bar.
Tambourine Man: Gene Clark is co-published with the East of Bowery blog.