Chad VanGaalen

spooky lakeMolten Light

By Lara Shelton

Cory was the pretty one. It would have been easy to hate her, but she was also so very very nice. A little Christian girl, raised in a perfect nuclear family, with a gaze as open as uncomprehending as a three-week-old puppy’s. She was always the first girl awake in the morning and the first girl asleep at night. Never mind that her brother liked to cut the tails off of mice and set ants on fire. Cory herself was faultless.

The counselor who stayed in the room with us had passed out. The two of us who still keep in touch agreed at one point that she had been drinking. At one point, that is. Because the story only came out between us once, about ten years later, when we both had been drinking as well. When I tried to bring it up another time, without alcohol, I could feel things getting strained, and could tell that Ellen was going to shut down—that the conversation was going to go someplace our friendship wasn’t strong enough to go. And maybe I was a little scared of how it would make me look, the press on. Because Ellen clearly believed it was some sort of mass hallucination.

spooky lake 2

It started innocently, as these things do. Cory had the make-up bag, even though make-up was contraband at camp. Of course we all tried to get around it. What about moisturizer? What about moisturizer with a little color in it? What about Chap-stick with a little color in it? What about lip gloss? But Cory had sneaked her make-up bag in, and it was an innocent thing to do.

The campfire story that night, told to us by the counselor who had probably been drinking, had only been remarkable for how inappropriate it was. I distinctly remember the word screwing, and I remember the word whore. As in, “She was caught screwing her boyfriend in his mother’s bed,” and “the word whore found written on the corpse’s forehead, in his mother’s shade of lipstick.”

But other than that, it was pretty standard slasher movie fare. Girl has sex, girl gets murdered, girl haunts woods. We weren’t scared. At least I don’t think so. We were just amped up. And when the counselor passed out Mina remembered Cory’s make-up.

spooky lake 3

“Come on, Cory,” we all begged. “We know you have it.”

It took a little coaxing, but eventually she brought out the bag. She had hidden it at the foot of her sleeping bag. I remember the bag was as tidy and Christian as Cory herself, a white quilted affair with a gold Clinique label. The inside smelled of a life spent in spotless suburban bedrooms, department stores, and freshly-vacuumed SUVs.

In the absence of a mirror we ended up putting teal eyeshadow on each other, doing each other’s lip stick. The tickle of the mascara brush so close to the eye was the only hint of danger.

After a while we settled down. Cory fell asleep first, as she always did.

I think I had drifted off when I awoke to Lisa leaning over my bed. All of the girls were standing with her, their flashlight beams playing across their faces. “We’re going to make Cory up like a whore,” she said.

I had only the vaguest idea of what a whore looked like, but there was a rabid intensity to their expressions which made me think it would be a good idea to do whatever they said. We slathered on eyeshadow and lipstick. We went thick with the mascara. Cory was a heavy sleeper, and we all knew it, which was why we knew we could get away with it. At the time I remember feeling awful about it, but there was nothing I could do. Cory had somehow become the target of all my adolescent girl anger and frustration.

spooky cabin 2“When the mother came in and found them screwing,” Lisa said, “she called her a whore.” I found myself nodding. “Because she was.”

“She was a whore,” Mina said.

“And she slashed her throat.” Mina took the lipstick and drew a line across Cory’s neck. At that point the spell was broken. I knew we had crossed a line. Even Mina and Lisa knew it. Lisa tried to wipe the lipstick mark away with the sleeve of her night gown, but Cory stirred when she did this, and we knew we couldn’t finish.

After we turned the lights out again, I knew the murdered girl from the story was in the room with us. She was hiding behind the bunk beds. She was underneath the covers. She was in Cory’s body, and in my own body, as much as out in the woods. I kept going in and out of dreams—one where the door to the cabin opened, one where the mother stood over Cory, about to slash her neck, one where I was lost in the forest and couldn’t find my way back, but a figure in white kept leading me forward. When I got close, she turned and I saw her face in the glare of the flashlight: ghastly and clown-like under all of the eyeshadow and lipstick.

In the morning when I awoke Cory was still in bed, but her face was clean. It wasn’t a mystery how it happened. She always awoke before anyone else. She probably saw her face in the tiny compact, probably saw the slit across her neck, probably went to the water pump with her pristine white washcloth which was always perfectly folded on her little shelf, probably scrubbed all of the make-up off.

spooky cabinThe saddest part of this version of events is that she then got back into bed, and pretended to be asleep, with all of her betrayers surrounding her.

The other possibility is that none of this ever happened. Which is more or less what Ellen said when we talked about it ten years later: that we all did things to each other during those two weeks at camp, and that some of them were not nice, but that no single thing was less nice than any other single thing.

When I heard this song about five years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in an urban environment, surrounded by warm lights and warmer drinks. But I felt a sudden chill pass through me when I thought about Cory, slipping back into her bunk and knowing that we had all betrayed her. And I thought about that long night in and out of dreams, when I was both the innocent and the whore, both the victim and the murderer.

During the month of October MIDKIN will devote entries to music and themes in keeping with the season. Submissions along these lines are welcome. Click the submissions tab.

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Chad VanGaalen

Joni Mitchell

Blue

By Lara Shelton

joni mitchell blueWhen I was thirteen my family took a trip to Germany to attend the funeral of a distant relative that I’d never met. We stayed in a little town called Westhausen, and there was only one other family in the hotel at the time. They were American as well. Where, even a year before, their American-ness might have passed by me unnoticed, as a thirteen-year-old everything they did or said mortified me. Baseball caps? Check. Chewing gum? Check. Complaining about the accommodations? Check. I remember thinking: Is this what my family looks like? Is this what I look like? Is it really that obvious? Does everyone see it but me?

In my mid-20s I had a serious relationship with a man who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. In many ways he was my polar opposite. He had done a stint in the Peace Corps. He came from a large, poor-but-happy family, who felt and expressed nothing but love for me and talked about their feelings without the slightest hint of embarrassment. He took things one day at a time, as they came, and he never worried about the future. He was, in short, everything I wanted to be. But things went sour, and we broke up. We split up the furniture, and we fought over who would stay in the apartment. I won. But when I came home from work the day he moved out, I found this CD: Blue, by Joni Mitchell. Sitting right in the middle of the the kitchen table.

As we had no kids, no pets, and the break up had been painful for us both, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him what he meant by leaving this particular CD on the dining room table we had purchased together in that first excited rush to be a couple. Was it a parting gift? A whimsical reminder of the color of his post-break-up emotional state? A mistake?

Blue Square 2One thing I was sure of, it was his CD and not mine. I still hadn’t moved out of my industrial phase, and 60’s-era folkies were certainly not on heavy rotation in my CD player. Yes, I had heard the song “River” before and thought it was fine, in a singer-songwriter sort of way, but singer-songwriter has never been my thing, and I chalked it up to an honest mistake.

Then the night began to go by. All of my other close friends were in relationships at the time, and I was finding myself in the apartment alone for the first time in years. And I mean really alone. None of the old medicines were helping. Around midnight, with the toilet running and a raccoon rooting around outside in the trash cans, and sleep far away, all of my old CDs reminded me of good times that had passed.

I decided to put Blue on.

And Joni annoyed the hell out of me.

Don’t get me wrong. Joni is top notch, even if she does like to rhyme phrases like “figure skater” with phrases like “coffee percolator.” But that night she reminded me more of me than my own CDs did. It was as if I were suddenly seeing all of the things my ex hated about me, written by laser on the mirror-like surface of the CD. Joni’s got a way of standing at a distance, and judging. She does it even with herself. With Joni, there is no joy in being clever, only bitterness. And there’s no real joy in love, only insecurity that it might someday be lost. Sometimes it sounds as if her piano is her only friend. I don’t even play the piano.

Blue Square 1So once the last lyrics on the album ran through the room: I’m gonna blow this damn candle out/I don’t want nobody coming over to my table, I got nothing to talk to anybody about, I found myself less able to sleep than before. Was this a gift, or a little drop of poison? Was this a mirror? Is this what I look like? Does everyone see it but me? I suddenly remembered the phrase “you’re not my shrink, you’re my girlfriend,” which I had heard more than once, usually in the midst of a screaming match. Joni, you bitch, why do you know me better than I know myself?

I took the CD out of the player and snapped it in half. I also cut my finger on the jagged edge.

Let’s just say it was a very dark night, and I began to wonder if everything had been my fault. He wasn’t to blame, as he had no depth—he was always exactly what was advertised on the package. I was the one who was evasive, and cynical, and judgmental.

But let’s say—let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that Joni and I were a couple. We would be like those two cats, in the old nursery rhyme:

There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails)
Instead of two cats there weren’t any.

I lived with this image for a long time. And I began to obsess over this album, Blue, being a secret letter to my innermost self, the self that couldn’t live with itself. From “All I Want”:

All I really want to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you.

From “My Old Man”:

He’s a singer in the park.
He’s a walker in the rain, he’s a dancer in the dark…

And then I’d gone and spoiled it all. As Joni croons in “River,” I’d made my baby say goodbye.

Blue TextTurns out, thought, that it was all an innocent mistake. He had, in his own, good-hearted, honest, depthless way, thought that the CD belonged to me. Which just goes to prove that he never really knew me in the first place. I found this out late one night, in a tearful, soul-bearing, excruciatingly embarrassing phone call which was met with mostly silence on his end.

Here is your song from me….

Joni Mitchell

Skinny Puppy

Tear or Beat

A Remembrance in Six Scenes

by Lara Shelton

INT.          INDUSTRIAL CLUB        NIGHT

Lots of PVC and latex, shaved heads and mohawks. LARA is not exactly out of place in her strategically ripped KMFDM t-shirt and black eyeliner, but there is something studied about her abandon. MIREILLE is more at home with her studded dog collar and mesh shirt and writhes to every angular synthesized beat as if Skinny Puppy had orchestrated an epileptic seizure just for her. The song is so loud that it nearly overwhelms all other sensation, but camera cuts to a CLOSE UP as LARA pauses for a moment to watch MIREILLE with an expression which is half-envious, half-admiring.

INT.      LARA’S BEDROOM       MORNING

The room is an eleven-year-old’s dream. Unfortunately, LARA is seventeen. The late summer sun penetrates lace curtains, rippling shadows across pastel walls. LARA lies in bed, fully awake, staring at the ceiling. She is still wearing the KMFDM t-shirt and her black eyeliner has smeared into raccoon-like shadows.

LARA’S MOTHER, unseen, knocks on the door. We hear only her voice.

LARA’S MOTHER (insitent): I came back for lunch. I left it in the fridge.

LARA doesn’t answer. We can hear LARA’S MOTHER walking down the hall to the kitchen, opening the refrigerator, walking back to LARA’S door, tapping again.

LARA’S MOTHER: Do you have work today?

LARA doesn’t look away from the ceiling.

LARA: I set my alarm for two o’clock.

LARA’S MOTHER: I put your uniform in the dryer. I needed to wash some towels.

There is a silence during which LARA covers her head with the pillow. For a moment we think her mother has left, until she knocks again.

LARA’S MOTHER: I left my tuna salad in the fridge. I’ll be back around five-thirty. (She pauses, considering her words.) But you won’t be here. (She taps on the door again.) There’s a message on the phone. From Mireille?

LARA: What did she say?

LARA’S MOTHER (tentatively): Is she okay?

LARA: How would I know?

LARA’S MOTHER: She said her dog died.

LARA: She doesn’t have a dog.

LARA’S MOTHER pauses, taps on the door again.

LARA’S MOTHER: Call me if you’re going out.

When LARA’S MOTHER leaves, LARA gets out of bed, wrapping the comforter around her shoulders. She goes into the kitchen. Everything is at least ten years out of date: Harvest Gold refrigerator, Formica counter top, dust-covered copper gelatin molds hanging on the walls. She presses the “PLAY” button on the answering machine. While she listens, we can see the kitchen in a series of CLOSE UPS.

MIRELLE (Voice-Over): Hey. My dog died.

MIREILLE laughs, or cries. It’s hard to tell.

MIREILLE (Voice-Over): Come over tonight. I need to dance. Or something. I need to shake of my skin. This dog’s skin. (Laughter again, or crying.) I’m such a bitch.

INT.      LARA’S APARTMENT    NIGHT

It’s eight years later. LARA is now twenty-five. Her boyfriend, RICK, is puttering around in the kitchen. Rick is a typical nice-guy whose niceness turns out to be a mask for an unsavory soup of neuroses, insecurities, and offhand cruelties. But LARA doesn’t know this yet. At the moment, they are a Rom-Com version of a happy couple and their apartment could have come out of a Pottery Barn catalog.

RICK puts his arm around Lara’s waist and nuzzles her hair.

RICK: What time is she getting here?

LARA: Eight-thirty, she said. She’s always been late.

RICK: I want to meet her. She sounds wild.

LARA: She is. She was. I haven’t seen her for years.

LARA is clearly nervous. She extracts herself from Rick’s embrace.

LARA: There’s some hummus. I think she’s Vegan.

RICK takes her meaning and goes to the refrigerator. He grabs a container of hummus and puts it on the kitchen table.

LARA (calling): Also the vegetables. I cut them up.

RICK (from the kitchen): Relax. Either she comes or she doesn’t.

LARA: I think you should be upstairs.

RICK (appearing with the vegetables): Can’t I meet her?

LARA: Okay. But you have work to do upstairs.

There’s a knock on the door. RICK rushes to the door to answer it and LARA watches him, as if for the first time she has noticed something in him to disapprove of. MIREILLE still has a shaved head, but it’s now covered with a scarf, and her eyes have a hunted look which was always present, but disguised by youth. Despite the multiple piercings she resembles a chemo patient more than a punk. RICK welcomes her, his nice-guy enthusiasm falling flat when he leans in for a hug. LARA watches with satisfaction as his body visibly deflates.

RICK glances at LARA, helpless, and LARA rushes to the door to rescue him, but her own hug gets no better reaction. MIRIELLE accepts it as if it were a heavy yoke and she were a beleaguered ox.

MIREILLE: I’m not a hugger.

LARA: It’s okay.

MIREILLE: I’m more of a cocksucker.

RICK erupts in shocked laughter, but LARA shoots him a look. It’s clear that MIREILLE was being derogatory, rather than funny.

LARA: What are you doing in California?

MIREILLE blinks her large, liquid eyes.

MIREILLE: Sucking cock, I told you.

LARA pauses, uncertain if it’s a joke.

LARA: You mean…?

MIREILLE: My brother died.

LARA: How?

MIREILLE: On a diving board.

LARA pauses, glancing at RICK. RICK looks her way, a wry smile on his face.

RICK: Nice to meet you, Mireille. I have work to do upstairs.

LARA watches him go. MIREILLE is meanwhile taking in the apartment, and LARA can feel her judgment descending on her Pottery Barn lifestyle. She moves into the dining area.

LARA: Sit down.

MIREILLE follows, but stands at the table, her hands resting on the back of the chair. She is like a hunted animal, unable to calm down.

MIREILLE: In the hills. It was a porn shoot. He fell back. It snapped his neck in half.

LARA: My God.

LARA pauses, takes a carrot from the tray and dips it in the hummus. The CRUNCH of the carrot seems deafening.

LARA: So you’re here for the funeral?

MIREILLE blinks her large, liquid eyes, as if she were a camera taking photographic evidence of a crime scene. LARA pauses, the baby carrot still raised halfway to her mouth, caught in the act of seeming content.

MIREILLE: It was good to see you.

MIREILLE wraps the scarf around her head, and before LARA can stop her, she has left.

RICK comes out from the stairwell, where he has been listening.

RICK: Jesus.

EXT.    SUBURBAN BACKYARD    NIGHT

A large house in what was once the nicest part of Duluth. Numerous people in their 30s are gathered around an illuminated swimming pool, lifting red plastic cups to their mouths. It’s a party, but a somber one. A lone plastic ring drifts forlornly across the surface of the water. LARA opens the sliding glass door, dressed in her KMFDM t-shirt but carrying a knock-off Gucci bag. DANE, a young man with an unmistakable resemblance to MIREILLE, hops up to hug her, give her a beer.

DANE: Look at you! How is California. She said you had a Silicon Valley boyfriend.

LARA shrugs. That relationship has ended badly.

LARA: She told me you were dead. That you broke your neck on a diving board.

DANE: She always says that.

DANE takes her by the hand and they sit on the edge of the pool, dangling their feet in the water.

DANE: Did she tell you she was a hooker too?

PARTY GUEST #1 raises her beer.

PARTY GUEST #1: She told me that.

PARTY GUEST #2: She told me she was a dominatrix.

PARTY GUEST # 2 pours a little of her drink into the pool.

PARTY GUEST #3: She told me she was a Satanist.

PARTY GUEST #3 pours his drink into the pool. The rest of the party joins in. LARA looks from DANE to her bottle. She has been compulsively peeling the label.

PARTY GUEST #2: You never told us exactly how…

DANE laughs, but it is an uncomfortable laugh, as if he is on the verge of hysteria.

DANE: It was the only way. We always knew it.

PARTY GUEST #1: But I mean it was heroin, right?

DANE shakes his head. He chucks his empty beer bottle at the poured concrete fence, where it shatters, then gets up and leaves, slamming the sliding glass door shut so hard that LARA winces.

PARTY GUEST #3: You always were an idiot, Steve.

INT.     KITCHEN      NIGHT

LARA’s childhood home. She puts her Gucci knock-off purse down on the counter.

MIREILLE (Voice-Over): Hey. My dog died.

MIREILLE laughs, or cries. It’s hard to tell. The camera cuts to CLOSE UPS of the Harvest Gold refrigerator, the Formica counters.

MIREILLE (Voice-Over): Come over tonight. I need to dance. Or something. I need to shake of my skin. This dog’s skin. (Laughter again, or crying.) I’m such a bitch.

LARA takes her phone from her purse, carefully unlooping the earbuds as she walks down the hall.

INT.     LARA’S BEDROOM     NIGHT

The same bedroom from when she was nineteen, which is the same bedroom from when she was fifteen, and the same bedroom from when she was twelve. LARA puts her earbuds on with the same solemn sense of ritual that an executioner uses when preparing the needles for a lethal injection. She presses play. The sound of Skinny Puppy fills the soundtrack, and LARA begins to dance.

 

Skinny Puppy

Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings

Snowbows

By Lara Shelton

When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? I also believed that I could be a circus veterinarian who doubled as an acrobat when the regular acrobats occasionally broke their legs. Oh, and a singer/songwriter, selling out packed houses and doing the Mike Douglas show in my spare time. I sang about my cat, my dog, my bedspread, how much I loved pancakes. Somehow my songs, though carefully recorded on a Fisher Price cassette tape recorder, never made it onto the radio.

song-poem-1If you haven’t ever heard of MSR there’s a good reason. The acronym comes from one of the biggest labels dealing in “song-poems”, a loose, semi-professional recording scheme popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, whereby patent amateurs would submit their song lyrics to a company, along with a fee, and a few weeks later be presented with a recording made by “professional” “studio” “musicians.” I hope the liberal use of quotation marks will not be overlooked.

Some of the musicians working in the shadow industry of song-poems had skill, even talent. Rodd Keith is revered in certain circles. Teri Summers stands out as a vocalist who could imbue even the most hackneyed sliver of a lyric with an air of gravitas. But where the real frisson occurs in these songs, what gives them their unique savor, is usually the collision between the relative amateurishness of the lyrics and the relative slickness of the musical productions. Listen to Snowbows, below. (It’s mistakenly titled Snowballs, I know. But such a mistake is entirely in keeping with the spirit of MSR.

The rhythm track is scattershot, at best, the electric piano solo meandering. But Stan Beard could have given Pat Boone a run for his money, and the melody is as lovely as anything the Carpenters ever put out.

song-poem-3When I was a child I believed in Santa Claus. Didn’t you? it’s a ridiculous concept by any stretch of the imagination. Or is it? Now that I’m an adult I still believe in concepts like Democracy. I believe in World Peace. I still believe in True Love, despite the evidence to the contrary.

What I mean to say is nothing that hasn’t been said before: we are dead without a dream. And what better dream than the one that a couple of lines, scratched out on the back of a cocktail napkin and recorded by “professional” “studio” “musicians,” can rocket you to immortality?

By nearly all metrics, Snowbows is a terrible, terrible song. And yet when I listen to it, I begin to dream. I dream of the lyricist, who may very well still be alive, keeping the 45 rpm vinyl in a special place in a heavy oaken sideboard of early ’70s manufacture, and getting it out once a year to listen to it in solitude. And listening to it unironically, as I do. And the snow begins to fall, and there is the sound of hooves on the rooftop, and for a moment everything works the way we always wanted it to. Then the record ends, and we put it away for another year.

Everything you ever wanted to know about song-poems on Wikipedia.

song-poem-2

Stan Beard & the Swinging Strings