My Porcelain Girl
James L. Blackburn
The voice of Janis Joplin awoke me. She was wailing that she needed a man to love her. But “it just can’t be”, she lamented over and over. I was still high. I left my eyes closed as I listened to her cry out. Her voice entered my body and lifted it up, aloft, out into space. I floated in the black, the stars orbiting, swirling, swimming like a school of fish. That voice; it reached into my head and tugged at the nerves, drawing them out, turning my head inside out. That raw, raspy, from-the-gut, oh-so-sexy, teasing, taunting, heart breaking voice. She brought me back to earth and lay me in my bed, and I ached to hold her, to press her to me, to be her man, to please her. But Janis was as far from me as those stars, so as the opening guitar notes of “Summertime” played, I just opened my eyes.
I was lying on a mattress on the floor of a large room. In the glow of a lava lamp and candles I could see the ceiling was high. There was a large ceiling medallion with a broken chain. Crown molding the size of barn boards ran the perimeter. The walls were plaster, cracked, chipped, in places the lathe exposed. To my left was a fireplace, empty but for cigarette butts, cold, sooted and without andirons. It shamed the carved wood and stone mantel above. Across the room was another mattress. On it, a couple were sharing a joint, kissing, passing smoke through their kisses, giggling, petting, murmuring. Through the doorway, whose big wooden door was pushed aside, one hinge broken, drifted waves of smoke and the scents of tobacco, marijuana and incense. I scanned the room, watched the unselfconscious couple and listened to Janis, her plaintive final “cry” echoing down a tunnel. Then Big Brother pounded out the first chords to “Piece of My Heart”, and Janis implored me, “Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on!” I rose to find her.
Through the doorway, I entered the end of a long hallway. It was wide and the ceiling was high like the room I left. Posters were taped to the plaster walls: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Sergeant Pepper, Jagger. Old gaslight sconces, now holding squat, dripping homemade candles, painted the space a soft yellow-white. Smoke trails hung like diaphanous curtains, parting as I moved through them. I came to an open doorway and looked in. A couple guys and their chicks were sitting and lying on fat pillows around a hookah. It had a blue glass water vase and a tall wooden column crowned with a brass bowl full of pot. From the vase extended a long cloth hose they were passing between them. The room was a fog of smoke penetrated by the light of a few scattered candles only because the walls and ceiling had been papered in aluminum foil. The reflection of the wavering, flickering flames made the room dance. It seemed to do this in time to the music. Beside the hookah was a bag of cookies, ripped open, nearly empty now. There was no conversation. They were testing themselves, trying to hold their breath until the hose came round again. When one failed, exhausted the smoke and gasped for air, the others giggled, then failed themselves, and the circle burst into laughter. Then they would start over.
I could feel their joy. I could feel their fraternity, their insouciance, their abandon to sensation. They were entirely there, in that room, that moment. All outside the room, all in the past and the future was irrelevant. Janis moved on to “Turtle Blues”, and I moved on with her.
Across the hall and further along was another open door. I stopped, but the half dozen guys and girls took no notice of me. They were sitting and sprawling on tattered, dirty stuffed chairs and a sofa, scattered about, more or less facing a small round coffee table in the center. The table held a lava lamp, its light – blue, then green, then red, then yellow – illuminated an ashtray, cigarette packs and glasses of what appeared to be water. There was a book too. They were still, quiet, and when they did speak it was slowly and in soft tones. They seemed to be speaking to themselves as much as to one another. One girl was putting her palm to her face and pulling it away, trailing her fingers like a swimming octopus.
“I can’t believe these trails,” she said. “This stuff’s great.”
“Blotter acid’s always the best … if you can find it,” said one guy. “They say this shit’s from Owsley.”
“And it’s so smooth. No edge, no paranoia,” said another guy.
A girl slowly swirled a stalk of incense before her face, watching the smoke trail spiral upward, at times using her breath to make the ember glow.
“I don’t get Hesse,” a third guy said, “Well, not this, anyway,” indicating the book. ‘Siddhartha’ I got … at least, I think so. But ‘Steppenwolf’ … I don’t know, man.” He reached across the table and picked up the book. “What’s he doing here?” he asked, looking at it, then at his friends.
The girl making finger trails stopped. “Alienation? Isolation?”
“The Self is all that matters?” asked the third girl.
“Isn’t that Rand? Like in ‘Anthem’; isn’t that what she’s about?” said another guy.
“I don’t understand the existentialists, man. I wish I did, but it’s heavy shit,” said the guy holding the book.
“Yeah, those guys are far out. But they’re so damn interesting.”
“Have you read Huxley? The guy’s a trip. That guy died tripping, man; on purpose! He knew he was going, so he dropped a hit. Can you dig it?”
“Far out,” the others said at once.
I left them and walked down the hall to the next room, the last before a landing with descending stairs. The door to this room was half closed. A dim light spilled under and around it into the hall. I stopped and cautiously pushed on the door, afraid of interrupting a couple. The heavy wooden door moved slowly and silently aside. A bare light bulb hung from the high ceiling medallion, its light harsh, unforgiving. Two guys were standing with their backs to me. Between them I could see a girl in a wooden chair, facing me at the doorway. Beside her was another girl, bent over her. I stepped into the room, but all were so intently watching the girl in the chair I was unnoticed. Her left sleeve was rolled up and a belt wrapped around her arm above the elbow. The other girl held the buckle against the muscle while drawing the belt tight. The girl in the chair was making fists over and over, flexing her muscle, straining against the belt.
“Tighter,” she insisted.
There was a line of scabs running along the vein inside the elbow, blocking access to the easiest part. Her right hand held her works: a plastic syringe with an eye dropper bulb tied at the top. The needle hovered back and forth over the line of scabs, looking for a point of entry.
I wanted to help her. I knew how to help her. I was very good at it now. I would even do it for her. I tried to speak but the words would not come out. All at once they looked at me with surprise and annoyance, and I knew I was intruding. I felt embarrassed. My help would not be welcome. I withdrew into the hall as “Ball and Chain” began.
The unmistakable San Francisco sound of the Stratocaster vibrato rumbled up the staircase and reverberated through the hallway like the tremors of an earthquake. The staircase became a crevasse, and I was drawn to the edge, to peer into it. There was a flight, another landing, and another, longer flight ending out of sight. Janis began low, slow and easy, sitting by her window, looking out at the rain. She hypnotized me as might a beguiling serpent. Her voice coiled around my mind and clasped a ball and chain to it, dragging me down to the epicenter of the ‘Frisco quake.
I stopped on a landing that looked out over a large foyer. Its parquet floors, once beautiful, were now scarred and dirty. Dark oak crown molding framed a ceiling at least fourteen feet high. Below me an enormous grandfather clock stood beside the bottom newel, guarding the staircase entrance and helplessly witnessing the irreverent scene. Odd bits of dumpster furniture were scattered pell-mell. A few framed paintings from when the house was a home, a real home, were shamed by posters and macramé mandalas. Light bulbs of different colors sprouted from the former gaslight sconces. Only one globe remained intact. People stood in twos and threes or crossed the foyer on their way to other rooms. I watched them awhile from above, then descended and made my way through them toward an arched doorway of pocket doors, one of which was off track and hung askew, not quite tucked away.
I passed under the arch into an enormous room. The smoke seemed to hang low overheard, like a canopy. I looked up to see that someone had attached a parachute to the ceiling medallion and pinned it along the corners so that it draped down the walls. Candles and incense were everywhere. Hash pipes and small water pipes
were passed within small groups. Joints were handed off as people milled about, entered, left or passed by. Empty pizza boxes, soda and beer cans, cookie and candy wrappers, cigarette packs, matchbooks and ashtrays littered the tables and floor. A fire burned in the fireplace, to my surprise. On the hearth were a busted wooden chair, a wooden stool missing a leg and a mallet. As Janis closed her song with her last, drawn out, mournful “chain”, I stopped in the middle of the room, closed my eyes and waited for the final avalanche of guitar chords. They shook the floor, bounced off the ceiling and stopped all conversation for several seconds. Then I heard a sweet familiar voice call out to me, and I opened my eyes.
“Where were you?” she asked, walking up to me. “I’ve looked everywhere but the attic.” She laughed and kissed me, then smiled and squeezed my hand. I could not speak for looking at her. She had long straight blond hair parted in the middle like Peggy Lipton. Her eyes were light blue, her complexion fair and smooth as porcelain. She had a few freckles on her cheeks and nose. Her smile radiated warmth. It was sincere, as was everything about her face. I searched it over and over as we do works of art and things of beauty. I was oblivious to everyone else in the room until a girl passing handed her a joint. She toked and handed it to me. I took a long hit, held it, and it became a contest between us. She finally exhaled, laughed, and I did the same. Someone put on “Surrealistic Pillow” and we alternated hits for a while as Jefferson Airplane played. We did not speak, did not need to.
As the Airplane and the grass took us higher, we gazed around the room at the disheveled madness. She passed off the joint to another girl and put her arms around my neck. She was wearing a tube top and miniskirt. Her midriff was bare, flat, firm; the skin even more porcelain than her face, if that were possible. She was elfin but sensual, familiar yet mysterious. She pressed her tender body to me, the heat from her small breasts and tummy distinct against me. I put my left hand on the small of her back and my right on her hip. I could feel myself swelling, my jeans restraining me. I ran my fingertips along the valley of her spine and the dimples over her hip-hugging skirt. She raised her left knee, rubbing it slowly up and down my thigh. I let my hand slide off her hip, around her bottom and onto the back of her thigh, holding it up and pulling her even closer to me, pressing my pelvis against her. I opened my mouth to speak and she stood on tiptoe and used her lips to silence mine.
I was hard now and ached for her. She whispered in my ear, “There’s a time to speak and a time to act.”
She slowly released me, sliding her thigh down my leg. One hand cupped my cheek the other moved down my chest, across my stomach and brushed the bulge in my jeans. It came to rest on my hand, bringing it up to her bosom and pressing it against the soft warmth.
“Come on,” she said in a low breathy voice. “Let me give you some acting lessons.”
The opening guitar notes and snare drum for “White Rabbit” reverberated through the great room. Conversation quieted. Someone turned it up. Grace Slick began low and slow, drawing us into a psychedelic paisley vortex. My porcelain beauty led me by the hand across the room toward the foyer. The floor fell away beneath my feet, and I drifted like a balloon she were pulling by the string. We weaved our way past the clusters of giggly potheads, slack-jawed downers and jittery speed freaks. We passed the glassy-eyed acidheads, the paranoid coke snorters and smack shooters. The staid grandfather clock with his impotent pendulum silently disapproved as she took me up the stairs. I watched her legs move and looked up her skirt as I followed her. I grew more excited with each step until my turgidity was painful.
I awoke to silence and opened my eyes to darkness. There was no music, no voices. I realized it was a painful erection that awakened me; my bladder was bursting. I reached out for her, but I was alone on the mattress. I rolled off and fell to the floor. My head was thick, dizzy. I had no idea how long I’d slept, but I thought I must still be high. From my knees I reached out in the darkness and felt a real bed, not a mattress on the floor as before. She had taken me to a different room; no lava lamp, no smoke-kissing couple. I stood, my head swimming from the grass and the fall, and tried to make out the room. A thin shaft of light came in between the curtains, probably from a streetlamp, and drew a line on the carpet. I could barely distinguish features. The ceiling was low, the room very small.
I could see a dim light out the doorway and walked to it unsteadily. My body ached, my joints and muscles stiff. My back hurt. I needed to find a bathroom. Standing in the doorway I could see just a few yards away another sliver of light between parted curtains. All I could tell was that I was in a very small place with a low ceiling and a very narrow passage. She may have taken me to the attic, made into a bedroom or tiny flat. The faint light in the passage came from a doorway. I went to it.
There was a nightlight above the floor. A tiny bulb gave off barely enough light to reveal the commode. I had to wait for my erection to recede before I could relieve myself. I felt a towel rack and held it to steady myself as I waited. I could make out little more than a shower curtain and a small sink across from the towel rack. The bathroom was no bigger than a closet. The walls were bare but for one framed picture.
At last I could go, and when I finished I stood and pulled up my pajama bottoms. Only then did it strike me, the oddity of sitting to pee. And how, I asked myself, did I find pajamas in that hippie flophouse when I was so high? She may have gotten me into them after we finished, but I just could not remember. My head was foggy. I was a little dizzy. I steadied myself with one hand on the sink and the other on the towel rack.
I tried to clear my head, remember what had happened. I peered around the dimly lit bathroom for a clue. There was little to see apart from the framed picture, a portrait of a man, not a painting, it seemed, but an amateur photo, a snapshot. He was old, bald, gray hair, not even smiling. Probably a grandfather to one of the hippies.
I turned to go back to bed. My head was swimming. I thought I might faint. I reached for the door casing to steady myself. In doing so my palm slid over the light switch. The light burned through my eyes, and I quickly squeezed them shut. While waiting for the pain to subside, I thought rather than turn the light off, I might explore this place I was in, perhaps find my girl. I opened my eyes slowly, just squinting at first, as they became accustomed to the brightness. I looked around me.
I knew now where I was. I knew where the hippies had gone. I knew why the music had stopped. I understood why there were no lingering smells of tobacco and marijuana and incense. All was clear now. I could remember again. It all came back to me. It came in a wave, a great dark wave that threatened to crush me. It rolled over me, swallowed me, threw me down. It chilled me to the bone and wanted me dead, and I would welcome death. The black wave could take me, because there was no one left here for me. Janis had left me. Grace and the Airplane and the hippies had left me. Even my beautiful porcelain girl, that love child in a mini-skirt had gone. I was left alone here in this tiny bathroom, in this little apartment. My only companion was the framed old man over the sink. And it was not even a photo but a mirror.
James L. Blackburn is a columnist and feature writer for the Sun Coast Media Group of newspapers and magazines of Southwest Florida. Although he has been publishing articles for years, he only recently put together his first book of short fiction.