My Sister, Part Three
Before we get into the Poultry Phase, I want to bring up The Exorcist.
My sister wasn’t always to blame for my endless domestic misery. Most of the time, certainly, but I had my moments.
Dad was out of town again. The movie The Exorcist, from a book by William Peter Blatty (great name), directed by William Friedkin, starring Ellen Burstyn and teenaged Linda Blair, had just made headlines: NURSES DEPLOYED TO DEVIL MOVIE! PATRONS SICKENED IN LOBBY! The last time this kind of thing happened was because of the movie Love Story (Ali McGraw, Ryan O’Neal). Moviegoers were dangerously dehydrated from uncontrollable weeping due to the emotional pluckings of said cinematic sapfest. White-hatted nurses set up IV stations in theater lobbies all over the country. A free box of Kleenex with every admission; swoon if you want to. The Exorcist made people puke and have horrible dreams. Some viewers were changed for life — Mexicans, mostly. Remember the scene with the crucifix? Holy cow! I’d seen The Exorcist three times — was even interviewed by the local news on premiere day: “Scared the hell out of me,” I told the TV reporter. I had plans to see it again.
“Don’t take your sister to see THE EXORCIST,” my father instructed me, probably implored, before he went away.
“She’s too young. It could scar her.”
“I promise, Dad.”
We shot the works: I spent twenty bucks on my sister that night — in 1973! Dinner at Sambo’s (Salisbury steak and trim), tickets, popcorn, soda, candy — she was delighted with her adult-like night on the town. As we walked to the theater from the parking lot, my sister looked at me with happy eyes.
The show was packed, oversold; palpable anticipation; spontaneous shrieks from giddy girls during the credits. Six nurses had been deployed to the lobby, four of them Psychiatric Nurses. People might be possessed, then and there. You know the rest: the head-spinning, the cursing; the cold, the psycho-terrorism; Tubular Bells; Father Karras; pea soup. Halfway through the movie, my sister disappeared. I failed to notice her departure (Reagan’s bed was levitating). I found her in the lobby, after the show, surrounded by nurses. Hyperventilation; involuntary urination; hysteria.
“She does this every night at home”, I told a nurse.
The nurses wanted to scurry my sister away to some HEALING place, with therapists and electricity and outrageous prices.
“I’ll take her now,” I told those nurses.
DIVERGENCE: I love my sister. She is the best I know (of humans). Through an often astounding yet undeniable connection, her life is always mine. I’ve known her longer than nearly everyone else. And she, me. But this part of the story is about childish vengeance. Let’s get back to it.
Back then, 45-minute Maxell cassettes were the best you could buy. But after three re-recordings, a Maxell utterly decomposed. I had a cheap cassette deck, one of those foot-long machines that executives used to use: Take a letter, secretary.
I found an old, decrepit tape; I’d recorded six separate Deep Purple mixes on it. It sounded like roaring shit. I put that tape in, hit RECORD, and turned off the volume. I let the tape pick up silence for thirty minutes. Then I took the deck and went walking around the house.
My sister was having a calming bath. She was afraid to be alone in the bathroom and kept calling out for me, making sure I was nearby.
“I’m here. Don’t worry.”
“Where are you?”
“In the kitchen.”
“What are you doing?”
“Dishes. How are you feeling?”
“O.K.” Her speech was slurred; I’d given her a double dose of Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup. To my mind, V-44 caused a warm feeling of detachment.
I wasn’t doing dishes. I had the tape deck volume on high, recording the sound of water pouring from the kitchen faucet. Then I had the dogs lick the microphone and growl. I did some vocal work of my own. I squeezed the cat.
“Where are you?”
“In the living room” (rubbing the wire bristles of a fireplace tool over the mike). I recorded a total of four minutes of effects. The rest I left to Deep Purple. Then I rewound the tape to its beginning.
I knocked on the bathroom door.
“How are you doing?”
“You’d better come out and get to bed now.”
I heard the water stir. I stepped into the hallway, in front of her open bedroom door. I knew my sister’s rituals: it took her a while to get dry. She liked to pensively examine various parts of herself:
“Oh my God! What’s that?”
It usually took her ten minutes to dry off. Another five minutes to apply solvents and preservatives. I was coiled like a spring, waiting, listening. The doorknob began to turn.
I hit PLAY. The shuffleboard skills I had gained as a youth in the Caribbean translated to championship in the intramural sport of curling in Switzerland. Helvetically, I slid that tape deck perfectly into position, just under the middle of my sister’s bed. My sister oozed out of the bathroom, wearing a crazy towel turban and her “comfy robe,” a ratty old teddy bear she wore only when feeling vulnerable. Like a baby seal, she looked at me:
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell Dad. I nagged you take me.”
Yes, I felt a pang. But my brilliance had taken stronger hold than any mere heartstring:
“Get right to bed. Turn off the light and go right to sleep. Call if you need me.”
I waited at her door while she climbed into her big brass bed. I watched as she arranged herself, as she puffed the lace pillows and arranged the dolls. I smiled at her when she said “Good night,” and turned out her light.
“Leave the door open,” she begged.
Even better. I went to my room and waited.
Two hours later, at 3 A.M., when the last of the concerned and pajama-ed neighbors had returned to their exploded beds, after the police had gone, I tucked my sister into the top bunk in my bedroom. Neanderthals had cheerier pads than mine — I was heavy into Alice Cooper at that time: “Love It To Death,” “Paranoid” and, I confess, some Uriah Heep. My room reflected my taste of the time. But sheer exhaustion had possessed my sister, and, blissfully unaware of her surroundings, she fell to sleep. Popcorn has always caused my sister to fill with rambunctious gasses: I recorded those spectacular farts for a future purpose. I knew she was anxious about impressing her date for the Junior Prom. We’ll get to poultry soon enough.
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