I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
For a while I lived in a world of Michelle. My dad’s a Michelle and my brother’s a Michelle, and my nephew is a Michelle. It didn’t seem that strange until I started dating a Michelle in Santa Barbara. She took a Tale of Genii reading course I taught as a grad student and when the class ended, we began dating. We had come down to L.A. for a concert and dinner and we decided to stop to see my mom. I didn’t think all the Michelles would be there, but my dad was sitting on the porch deep into his auto repair texts and then my brother Michelle appeared with his three-year-old son, Michelle the third. I got to introduce them to each other, and it was weirdly exciting.
“Michelle, please meet Michelle. Michelle, please meet Michelle,” and so on. It was amusing but unsustainable; we ran out of new Michelles and then we didn’t have anything left to say. Then we went inside, and I introduced her to my mom, who was unfortunately a Lolita and not another Michelle. I imagined if we married and had more Michelles, we might be vulnerable to identity theft. Eventually we said awkward goodbyes to my family and went on to a concert and returned to Santa Barbara.
I was in love with a woman who had my father’s name, and I was cool with that even if it was kind of weird. She was pretty and blonde, and her family had one of those old money homes in Santa Barbara where, when invited for dinner, the chicken was undercooked and more than a little bloody on the inside. I imagined it was how rich white people preferred it and I should get used to eating undercooked chicken if we were to stay together.
She told me her dad was nuts and followed her around at night chanting that she was a demon, so she ran away with her girlfriend to New York to go to Grace Jones concerts and have traumatic experiences with creepy young dudes and fat rich old ones. Again, I assumed that her life was a window into the lives of white people who had money. If I was moving up the societal ladder, it was a strange climb.
One morning she suggested that we go see a world-renowned blind psychic speaking at the Miramar hotel near the beach in Santa Barbara. I didn’t believe in the supernatural, but I believed for a fact that I wanted to spend another night with her. So, we went, and my good friends Bob and Kia joined us. We all took narrative prose with Marvin Mudrick and competed to get his high praise for that week. We were all excited to see the blind psychic do his amazing feat of communicating with the dead. The auditorium was filled with excited old white people and some younger types like us. The psychic stood at a lectern dressed how I imagined proper Englishman dressed, though I had never met a proper Englishman. He wore a bow that resembled a huge carnivorous butterfly. I imagined the English liked that sort of thing but then I remembered that he was blind. Maybe his wife dressed him like that.
Soon as we were seated in the large glass-walled conference room with a view of the ocean, he began shouting and pointing at the audience. Then his finger stopped at fat, red-faced older woman.
“Your uncle Billy says to not strike more deals until the new year!”
Then his finger pointed to an excited grey-haired man. He shouted, “Your instincts are right, and you need to act on them!”
To another woman he shouted, “The silverware you’ve been searching for is under the couch in the parlor!”
He continued shouting advice in a scattershot manner. The crowd of older folks was going mad with excitement to get his attention. It was very weird. I had no interest in asking anything. If I was going to die on the way home, why would I want to know? And then it got weirder when he pointed to me.
“You!” he shouted, pointing in my general direction. “The lady with the mauve blouse on!”
I had a fairly thick beard, and I was wearing a purple t-shirt underneath a shark-skinned suit I had just got at the thrift store, but I wasn’t a lady — at least not a proper one. I didn’t even know I was wearing mauve, but he kept pointing at me and became agitated when I didn’t respond.
“Does the lady in mauve want to know what her relatives are telling her from the other side?”
Then Michelle started to laugh uncontrollably, and I laughed out of awkwardness, but the old psychic dude was getting very red-faced. It seemed possible he was going to step from behind the lectern and brain me with his walking stick. That’s when we decided to leave for our personal safety.
That night at Michelle’s we woke to a man screaming her name as though he was angry enough to kill somebody. In my panicked, half-awake state, I thought it had to be the blind English mystic dude coming after me for my disrespect. Maybe I did possess a female aura and I was truly the lady in mauve and for being an ass he was going to give me my comeuppance. The old blind dude was outside the door shouting, “Michelle, move your goddamn car! You blocked me in again!” It took a minute or two before Michelle put on a robe and slippers and ran out to move her car in front of a glowering fat guy. After that we said our goodbyes and I never saw Michelle again and I was never called the Lady in Mauve by a blind psychic again either.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.