Joplin and Dickens
Janis Joplin at her desk regards Charlie Dickens at his, and wonders. That boy could be the answer, or one of the answers, to the long question that will trouble her. Will I be the loneliest girl on Earth? The dog of loneliness is already at age nine nuzzling her. Because it is, after all, a dog, and nuzzling, and she nine, the dog of loneliness nuzzling little Janis Joplin at this point is merely cute. It will not be so cute later when she has bad skin and has wrecked her voice and swings that bottle of Southern Comfort at it as it tries to lick her face all sweaty on stages…oh my, this is poetic. Let’s abjure poetry because the conceit of this—Janis Joplin and Mr. Dickens a century out of his time—is already inane. We will stick to the facts and try not to be pretty.
She has heard Charlie Dickens use pretty big words early in the third grade. Unlike other children she has not been inclined to roll her eyes at him when he deploys a doozie. Even the teacher has rolled her eyes, or done that thing where she takes a deep breath and lets it out and says, “Okay, Charlie, can you state that in other words?” To this Charlie has said, “In other words?” seeming to be honestly perplexed. It is clear to Janis at least that he is not dissembling, to use a big word that cannot properly be in her brain either. What she means to think is that Charlie is not pretending not to understand the teacher when she wants other words instead of the perfect ones he has apparently just used. Janis assumes them perfect anyway, because she doesn’t herself know their meaning and she will give the benefit of the doubt to a boy in pleated short pants with his hair wet-combed and speaking clearly without giggling or mumbling. She’d like to mount Charlie Dickens, in the cloak closet if she has to, but in the bushes right outside the windows on the side of the school facing the orphanage where he lives would be better. It is not usual for a nine-year-old girl to have visions of mounting people but Janis is not a usual girl.
Charlie for his part is unusual too. He has about given up talking in class, participating in the teacher’s notions of good-pupil citizenry, because it is clear she does not really like good-pupil citizenry or she would not be inhaling and sighing like that and asking for other words. Last week he said, “Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it—as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of the ditch behind the orphanage in which I am not alone confined.”
He thought he had got it about right until the teacher then said, “Can you, Charlie”—sigh—“say that in other words?” “I’ll try,” he said, “but later,” and sat down, because he was winded and he did not think he knew other words and he saw Janis looking at him in that way he had no words for yet.
He tried later that night to formulate words not other than those he had used to describe his mean privation but to describe the kind of looking at him Janis Joplin did. It was shy, spittlely, askance when not directly at him; diffident, not shy, he thought; perhaps sidelong rather than the awkward askance when not directly; spittlely was terse but not elegant, better to string it out with a little gobbet of spit in the corner of her mouth as if she were hungry. Janis did look hungry, but not in the way his peers at the orphanage looked hungry. They looked like they wanted to eat Twinkies and Janis did not look like she wanted Twinkies. Janis had this odd way of looking like an old woman sometimes, an old woman in a bed like Miss Haversham, a woman he could see in his mind, the vision of whom mystified him: he did not know who it was or why he had a name for her and could recall no one remotely like her in his life at the orphanage outside Austin, Texas.
On television Janis has seen an interview with Ray Charles that has made her interested in Ray Charles and indeed in music itself in a way that she was not interested in either Ray Charles or music before she saw the interview. Mr. Charles had on magnificent, gleaming sunglasses and rocked his head around in the air like a bird dog looking for a scent, which she knew he did because he was blind, or was supposed to be blind. Too many singers claimed to be blind for them all to be blind, she thought, but she thought Ray Charles was probably not lying, about that. If anything made her suspicious of his blindness it was simply how good his sunglasses looked. They had gone to some trouble getting those magnificent glasses, movie-star glasses that could have been on an Italian actress if they were not there waving around like solar antennae on Mr. Charles’s face. Anyway, right out of those glasses came this white sizzly blinding light into her own eyes as Mr. Charles said, “You can only make love to one woman at a time.” That remark transfixed Janis. She did not know why he said it or what he had been saying or what the question was. In fact she did not know, really, what make love to a woman meant, let alone one at a time, but it was an idea that held a great appeal to her, clearly up there on the tree of adult knowledge. And when he said it she knew he was not lying about being blind, or about being a good singer, or about being a good singer being a good thing to be, though she did think he might be lying when he said you could only make love to one woman at a time. It sounded like he was denying something rather than just stating a fact, whatever the fact was, or whatever the denial. She could eat two apples at one time. It was dumb because they both turned a little brown as you did it but you could do it. She wondered what in fact there was you could do one of that you could not do two of at one time. She could sing two songs at one time, or five, and she did this in the bathtub and she mostly did it when she forgot lines to one song but remembered those to another but sometimes she did it for fun. Ray Charles was not on the level about that woman thing, but he was guarding his being on the level about the music thing. She thought: What if I be Ray Charles on the music thing and myself on the woman thing? I’ll say you can make love to more than one woman at a time. She already sang very well, in the bathtub, and no one ever told her to pipe down, one reason she thought she was pretty good. Jose Feliciano, Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Milsap, and Ray Charles? It was too much. At Blind Lemon Jefferson she gave up.
Charlie Dickens raised his hand when the teacher asked someone to describe the weather. Most of the children had merely looked out the window and begun forming the notion that it was so obvious what the weather was that the teacher was either trying to trick them or was retarded. But Charlie was the kind of kid that would step into a trick with a smile and save them all from it. Despite his weirdness, they liked him. Many smart alecks you despised but Charlie was so far out there you could not despise him for being smart. He was some kind of twilight-zone smart and he would use it, as in the present weather trick, to protect them all. “The weather?” Charlie was saying. “Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but recently retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers—”
“No, ma’am, I can’t put it in other words.”
“Very well. Good job. You may be seated.”
The children had been on the verge of erupting in a kind of excitement she had not seen of them before. Perhaps it was the Megalosaurus. They had helped her resist the force of Charlie Dickens before this adventure, but now it seemed they might be swinging to him, and if they wholeheartedly began to support Charlie’s flights her classroom could go completely out of control. The only child who seemed self-possessed anymore, actually, was little Janis Joplin, who had calmly studied Charlie during his weather broadcast without squirming or giggling or otherwise beginning to vibrate to his lunacy.
Ms. Turner, as she was known to the children, was a private woman with an interest in biology that had gotten derailed. She had not gone to graduate school as she had hoped and now found herself inexplicably wrangling this small herd of mostly privileged children. She was fending off the unwanted advances of a coach from the middle school next door, a man who came round in polyester stretch pants and expensive-looking noisy athletic shoes trying to talk her into going out. This was an ordinary nuisance except that he, the coach, somehow reminded her of ordinary little Janis Joplin as she, Janis, sat there regarding the extraordinary Charlie Dickens. Ms. Turner had noticed this special regard Janis had for Charlie, and she knew what it was about, as phantasmagorical as that seemed for a child of Janis’s age: she was a sexual predator as surely as Coach Leech was. Richard Leech labored under the appellation Dick Leech, which did not make his life any happier. In a kind of blinding fatalism, Ms. Turner saw that her life was already fixed in this nothingness she was in and that she was not to escape it. This vision made things paradoxically a little easier to take: she might as well relax, and settle down. Thus she had come to let Charlie Dickens, for example, go on a bit more than she once had, short of his precipitating a riot among his peers with his performances, which struck them as tours de force of authority thwarting or nose thumbing. They could not, she didn’t think, distinguish between smart aleck and smart. As we have seen, she was wrong in this surmise. She could not know that the children sensed their own mundane trappedness there, as she sensed hers, and that they divined in Charlie Dickens’s excesses a chance that he would by them escape and go into an orbit they themselves would be denied. He was among them a kind of early astronaut, and they liked astronauts, of any kind. She was wrong too in her apprehensions of Dick Leech’s interests, because Dick Leech was as homosexual as balls were round, but Dick Leech is not within the scope of our concerns; forget him. Let’s forget Ms. Turner too. Things are happening.
A girl quieter than even Janis Joplin, if that is possible, named Gail Crutchfield, who lives also at the orphanage with Charlie Dickens, and who wears the most out-of-date clothes the orphanage has to hand down, today a long red plaid dress belted at the waist with a belt of the same material and making her look like a Rockwell mother in 1940, this Gail Crutchfield, who has not opened her mouth heretofore in any enterprise in or out of class, is standing up in her desk chair and smoothing down her dress and wringing her hands nervously. She is breathing as if to prepare for something she has to say. She begins then not to talk but to sing. And to sing well. Powerfully well. At first Ms. Turner does not know the song, then she is amazed that she has heard it all her life and never heard it like this. Coming from the mouth of eleven-year-old Gail Crutchfield (Gail has been held back, and is older than the other children), it is spectral, not at all the bumpkin tune Ms. Turner had assumed it before.
Your cheating heart will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry and try to sleep
But sleep won’t come the whole night through
Your cheating heart will tell on you
When tears come down, like falling rain
You’ll toss around and call my name
You’ll walk the floor the way I do
Your cheating heart will tell on you
Your cheating heart will pine someday
And crave the love you threw away
The time will come when you’ll be blue
Your cheating heart will tell on you
Gail Crutchfield loses her nervousness entirely once she begins to sing. She concentrates on every note, and hits every one with authority, and uses a yodeling tremolo or vibrato where the song wants it, Ms. Turner does not know the musical term.
When she is done, the children, who have been fidgeting and making small efforts to distract her (a couple of paper balls have flown by her head), start howling derisively and clapping and booing at once, and Gail sits down, primly folding her hands and erectly staring forward, with one red-faced glance at Ms. Turner as if to apologize for interrupting the class. Gail Crutchfield seems embarrassed to have interrupted the class but not to have sung the song. She says, to whom Ms. Turner cannot tell, “Well, you asked me to.” This is the first and only hint as to how this performance has come about in her classroom. Gail Crutchfield has not received any notice from Ms. Turner before this moment beyond that she lives with Charlie Dickens and a boy named Martin at the orphanage across the street. Ms. Turner is beginning to suspect that weird things are afoot in the room. She occasionally has this sensation: that she is on a bus and doesn’t know where it is going, and hasn’t even known theretofore that she is on a bus, that’s how out of it she is. The phenomenon of Gail Crutchfield this morning has put her strongly in the bozo-on-the-bus frame of mind.
As he walks by the outside of the classroom after school, Charlie Dickens is whispered to loudly from the bushes under the windows the children stare out of all day. In the hedge is Janis Joplin, squatting down and hooking her finger at him. He goes in.
“Hey,” Janis says, and he says, “Hi.”
She kisses him wetly about his face. He is overwhelmed by her into a sitting position, legs straight out, Janis on all fours, going messily at him.
“My girl,” he finally manages to say. “You have laved me as a dog so starved for affection might confuse flesh for its proper food.” He is smiling because the odd displeasure of his cold wet face in the bushes outside the classroom, which should put him, he thinks, in an ill humor, is not putting him in an ill humor. Janis for her part is certain he has called her a dog, a thing she could have predicted, but notices that Charlie Dickens is smiling.
This she points out. “You are smiling, Charlie.”
“Indubitably and inexplicably. The confluence of our salivas I’d not have predicted could be less than odious, but it is. This world is strange, Miss Joplin.”
“You’re from the Baptist Home and you are the smartest boy in school, Charlie. That is strange to me.”
“Martin is smart in his way, and we must consider the early talent of Miss Crutchfield. What did you think of her today?”
Janis Joplin wonders how a boy who insists on wearing a trench coat and who clowns around all day, and who once ran and slid baseball style under a table when Ms. Turner was out of the room, and because under the table his feet touched a dead bird none of them had seen before that must have come in the window and died in the night stood up quickly announcing, “I killed a bird!”—Janis wonders how such a boy can be smart in his way, in any way; she wonders if Charlie Dickens is not being kind as adults seem to be and want children to be instead of picking on each other as they deserve, and all of this wondering she would prefer to do, there still on her hands and knees over Charlie Dickens just like the dog he has called her, rather than think about what Gail Crutchfield did today in class, a thing that excited her and made her mad also because she has been working on something like that in the bathtub, not that song, which she knows is a Hank Williams song and not as she thinks Gail Crutchfield probably thinks a Patsy Cline song, this she can tell from the way Gail sang it, all kind of bossy instead of scared and shaky as Mr. Williams sang it. How to tell Charlie Dickens all this on her hands and knees in front of his face, the smartest boy in the world? “I have been singing in the bathtub a lot,” she says finally.
Charlie Dickens regards her for a long time, just exactly as if he is thinking some large-word things up that cannot be put in other words. “You sing in the bathtub, Janis, if I may be familiar,” he says at last, “and I am afraid that I wallow in a slough of despond. I am not apparently coeval with my time.”
“No, you are not,” Janis says, meaning by it nothing that Charlie can be certain of. He does not expect that she can understand him. He suspects she means that she does not deem him evil, and this is good enough and does not merit an explication of his inveterate, inscrutable, ineluctable way of speaking, since that impossible speech is primarily what he is talking about.
“I don’t fit in today,” he says, “but you do, as shy as you seem, and as troubled. Your desperation is within reach of its targets, I mean, Miss Joplin. Mine is not. Mine is well lost. I feel, in other words”—they both giggle—“very old somehow, and you are very young. My desperations are behind me, as odd as that may sound, and yours are ahead of you, yet to be discovered.”
This relaxes Janis. She can see herself kissing him again, and singing in the tub, and singing standing on her own desk chair, showing them the weak and shaky and real way to sing songs. “I want to have big boobs and blonde hair,” she says.
Charlie Dickens shakes his head ever so slightly, like a wise man. Like some grandfather in the cutest short pants who lives in the Baptist Home! Janis thinks.
“You might want large breasts, Janis, but you do not want blonde tresses that are fine and flaxen because, well, it is a hard matter to put delicately, but men do not want, in spite of all their proclamations to the contrary, to see Johnny Winter down there—excuse me, I mean Edgar. They do not wish to see Edgar Winter in the perturbations of their rut when they are weak with need and not ready to see Edgar Winter. Down there.”
“In a word, in your pants.”
“Charlie, you are too weird. Who is Edgar Winter?”
“You will learn who he is. You will make a mark.”
“You are so smart, you will be famous, Charlie.”
“No, quick child. I think not. It is improper, or at least it would play verily at the edges of the field of impropriety, for me to burden you with my troubles. They are vast. As I have intimated, I am an old man, somehow, ill-befitting this age, and my age. This will precipitate in me a long degrade of faculties, what is called, I believe, a nervous breakdown. You will have one of these too, but your taper burns at the other end, as it were, the correct end. Mine burns from the butt.”
Janis giggled at this speech, and with it Charlie began to struggle to his feet and Janis let him get up. In two months’ time third grade would be over, she would have kissed Charlie Dickens two more times, and he would disappear over the summer and not be in school in Austin, Texas, for the fourth grade. She would discover the books written by Charles Dickens, hear Grace Slick tell Johnny Carson (who asked her, “If you could do it all over again, what would you do different?”), “I would have blonde hair and big boobs,” see both Johnny and Edgar Winter play their guitars in Port Arthur, sing herself well beyond the bathtub, and never properly be as much in love as she was the day Charlie Dickens told her all that he told her in the bushes outside the classroom, with his cute boy knees and his difficult man mouth.