Abstract for “Backbeat the Waves”
UT MFA Thesis, Tony D'Souza, Advisor
Set during a time caught between glam rock and filthy punk, “Backbeat the Waves” washes over the summer that changed Mercury Widdershins’s life. His divorced mother struggles to keep the family bar from sinking. His gay uncle gets promoted to tollmaster of the city’s new bridge that completes the beltway circuit. His strung-out sister bursts about like a seagull popping Alka-Seltzer. His extended family of barflies includes a wooden-legged old salt, a former stripper with dementia, a reporter with literary aspirations, an AWOL sailor of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, arabbers, beat cops, and ballplayers. Merck’s life completely spazzes when his one-armed teenaged cousin arrives from Appalachia—as alien as a Wookie—bringing with her weird words, a radical attitude, and ultimate questions. Together, they discover their own liberating music, their unique sexual identities, and their separate solutions to what the future holds.
Told from the perspective of popular late-night disc jockey Mercy Withers, over the course of her last shift before a station format change, “Backbeat the Waves” explores moments when people exist between things: city and country, adolescence and adulthood, male and female, perseverance and mortality.
For a summer that witnessed the death of a "king" and the interstellar launch of human culture, the most dramatic events happened at home.
It came in a briefcase covered in plastic skin that smelled like gasoline. The sky melted from red to orange to yellow like the Houston Astros’ jerseys. Boulders and tumble weeds dotted the landscape, and in the corner a scorpion curled out of the eye socket of a cow’s bleached skull. I flipped the case over and the scene repeated, only bold on the front the masked man waved from a rearing white stallion. In green lettering that looked like prickly cactuses were the words “Diablo Gulch.” In the foreground, Tonto looked me straight in the eye, winked, and said—in a speech bubble over his head—“Take justice in own hands, kemosabe!”
“What you got there, Charlie?” Dad asked. He was dressed in his “Saturday clothes” holding a cup of coffee close to his mouth. I was still in my Bionic Man pajamas.
“A Western town with the lawman and his trusty friend,” I said.
“Away!” Dad shouted.
“You could’ve gotten the Batcave,” Mom said. She flopped on the couch with her own coffee and a smoldering cigarette by the table lamp. Her nightgown was tucked into jeans.
“Time to introduce a little reality into the boy’s life,” Dad said. “And a bit more grit will do him good.”
“And you think a cowboy wearing a periwinkle suit with a scarlet kerchief will do that?” Mom said. “My God, even his bullets are silver.”
When I opened the briefcase, a whole town came into bloom. When completely flat against its hinges, a bank, a hotel, a jail, and a stable rose on one side, and a rocky ridge with caves sprung up on the other. Down the middle ran a dry riverbed scattered with bones and horseshoes. Plastic pouches contained all the figures and accessories to outfit Diablo Gulch. I tore into the packs and out spilled outlaws and peacekeepers, horses and rustlers, holsters and whips, barrels and fences, a tavern keeper and barmaid, spurs made of real metal, little guns that looked like they worked.
Twice as many strings of lights wrapped around the tree as if Dad tried to make up for the previous year, when the energy crisis forced us to decorate an old fashioned Christmas tree with threads of cranberries and popcorn, with extra thick sugar cookies that we decorated then shellacked for ornaments. This year it seemed that a light—some white some colored, some twinkling some not—glowed from each individual pine needle. Back up went the whirling snow globes, the trains with moving wheels, the choirboys illuminated from within, the rotating star on top of it all. Cord after cord piggy-backed one another in clusters at four outlets. Everything hummed with energy.
Grandpop and my step-grandmother arrived early, as usual, since they ventured to west Baltimore to spend most of the day with family I’ve barely met. The connections were hazy, being my step-grandmother’s people, but we did not exchange gifts and that, as far as I cared, meant we were not related. The same thing happened every year: Grandpop hauled in all his camera equipment, Grandma Ernie grumbled about the hustle of the day, I had to stop playing with new toys and give weak hugs, then we sat for the family portrait. Grandpop was an amateur photographer, a postman who took people’s passport pictures at the main office, and so imagined himself an artist.
“Hi Pop,” Dad said. “Ernestine, Merry Christmas.”
“Supposed to be white, Christmas is,” Ernestine said. “Don’t mind snow, but this damp drizzle and cold, it’s a grave on earth.” Grandpop and Grandma Ernie were old and squat, and they stripped layer after layer of outer garments down to sweaters with tissues hidden in the cuffs.
Then my uncle came through the door lugging his father’s gear.
“Gelly,” Dad said. “What a nice surprise.” Dad and a younger version of himself shook hands.
“Penance,” Uncle Gelly said. “I’m obliged to tag along with them today.” He leaned a tall tripod against the hissing radiator, bending to place a boxy camera on top of it.
“Not there you heathen,” Grandpop said. “What do you want to do, melt it?”
Uncle Gelly stooped to place the camera on the floor. “Here, just give it here,” Grandpop said. “Got to set it up now anyway. Can’t stay long, Peter.”
“Sure, sure Pop,” Dad said.
The last piece of equipment Uncle Gelly brought in from the porch was a set of three flashbulbs mounted to a wooden plank, which was in turn attached to a repurposed broom handle. It was Grandpop’s own contraption, made of Sylvania bulbs the size of baseballs each in what looked like a silver cereal bowl. Grandpop also hurriedly took this piece of equipment from my uncle, mumbling something about breaking it and the money would come out of his bank account.
“Coffee Gelly?” Dad offered.
“My first day off from meeting and you offer the beverage of choice.”
“Just saying we have some if you want.”
Gelly heaved. “Sorry, hard doing the holidays without ‘cheer.’” He made rabbit ears in the air. “Sure, coffee would be swell.”
Dad returned with a mug made out of a rosy-cheeked Santa’s head and a candy-cane handle. Steam curled from it like pipe smoke.
“Jolly,” Uncle Gelly said, grabbing the mug by the candy-cane. “Let me wash my hands first.”
Too many feet in the living room threatened to trample Diablo Gulch, so I pushed the playset further under the tree. I went into the kitchen for a glass of milk, saw Uncle Gelly at the faucet with his back to me, coffee steam rising from within the sink. His shoulders jostled as if he was vigorously sudsing his hands, and then he poured himself over the sink, his chest absorbing the steam. When I yanked on the fridge handle, Uncle Gelly twisted around, keeping his hips pressed against the sink and his hands under the faucet.
“Oh, it’s just you,” he said. “I’ll be right out.”
“I want some milk.”
“No no, put it back. I’ll bring you a glass.”
“I can do it.”
“Sure, sure, but don’t spend time away from your Christmas toys. That Lone Ranger thing looked…” and he paused… “fun.”
“Okay,” I said.
A few minutes later Uncle Gelly brought me the glass of milk in one hand and his coffee mug in the other, steam no longer swirling around Santa’s head.
“Here,” he said, extending the glass to me, then reeling it back just out of my reach. “Our secret,” then he let me have it, winked, and raised his mug to me.
Grandpop and Grandma Ernie fidgeted on the couch as my mother fit herself between them. Grandma Ernie sniffed at her nightgown. “Going to give up the cigarettes for New Year’s?” she asked my mother. “Soon as the holiday stress is through.” Grandma Ernie turned to pick through green, silver, and red Hershey’s Kisses as if one was different from another.
“So...Gelly...any,” Mom started with what sounded like hiccups between each word. “Any...plans for New Year’s?”
Four sets of squinting eyes stared her down like hired guns at a showdown.
“Nah, that’s okay,” Uncle Gelly said, taking a long swig from the coffee mug. “Nope, the plan’s to take it easy what with the new resolution and all.”
“What did you do to the tree, Peter?” Grandpop asked. “Horrible job tucking the wires back. It looks like it should be in the trunk of some Wop gangster.”
“I wasn’t a fan of the old fashioned tree last year.”
“At least that was classy,” Grandma Ernie said. “When I was a little girl, that’s how trees were decorated.”
“When you were a little girl,” Uncle Gelly added, “people were still giving frankincense as gifts.” More fidgeting took place on the couch.
“Hey, Gelly,” Dad said, “freshen up that coffee?”
“I got it.” Uncle Gelly disappeared into the kitchen. I heard the water run again. Folks on the couch stared at their feet while Dad admired his work on the tree. Nelson Eddy sang “The First Noel” from speakers on either side of a tuner with a warm glowing dial. I scooted across the floor to set up more parts of Diablo Gulch and clip figures into discs that made them stand.
“Diablo Gulch?” Grandma Ernie said. “What kind of gift is that on Jesus’ birthday?”
“Toys R Us was plum out of Magi action figures,” Mom said. Grandma Ernie dabbed at her nose with a tissue and stuck it back into her sleeve.
“Don’t get all tied up with that now, Charlie,” Grandpop said. “Picture time.”
Mom tapped my shoulder. “Won’t take long, sweetie.”
Grandpop ordered us around while attaching his camera to the top of the tripod. Mom and Grandma Ernie shifted on the couch to make room for Dad while trying not to touch their thighs together. I sat waiting instructions. That’s when Uncle Gelly returned, squatted near me like Andy Etchebarren, and whispered, “Still playing with dolls, Charlie? I can call you Charlene if you’d prefer.”
His breath smelled like the plastic cover to Diablo Gulch.
I wanted to die. Not really, but I wanted to be presumed dead, nurtured back to health by a caring stranger, learn the ways of gun-slinger-ism, return to familiar territory unrecognizable to others because I had muscled, whiskered, and wore a mask. I’d seek justice, and leave behind a trademark token signaling that my job there was done.
“Where can I run this cord, Peter?” Grandpop asked. Dad plugged Grandpop’s three-bulbed contraption into the remaining open socket near the tree. People stood, moved, and sat back on the couch as if they were playing Musical Chairs. “Oh just pick a spot and settle,” Grandpop said. “Not there Gelly that spot’s mine. Sit on the floor like Charlie.”
“I’ll sit this one out, Pop.”
“On the floor, now, so I can get everyone in focus. Okay hold still.”
“I got to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Shhhh!” Grandma Ernie hissed. Grandpop extended a cord with a plunger from the camera’s timer to his spot on the couch.
“Hold it in urchin,” said Grandma Ernie.
“Hey, now, Ernestine,” Mom said.
“Everyone stop squirming and for the love of God pipe down,” Grandpop said.
Dad said, “We can skip the photograph this year, Pop.”
“Skip tradition? Why don’t you throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater then. I’m counting down. Three…”
Dad said, “Not sure it’s worth all the commotion.”
“Pee!” I said, but Grandpop heard “three” and restarted the countdown at “two” again.
“Cheers!” Uncle Gelly said.
Grandpop pushed the plunger. For an instant, nothing happened, and we froze with forced grins, then POP POP POP the flashbulbs burst in a row. When our eyes recovered from the blue lightning we were sounded by darkness and silence.
“You blinded us you damn fool,” Grandma Ernie said.
The tree was doused, the table lamp dead, even the glow from the radio dial went blank.
“Circuit breaker,” Dad said. “I’ll check in the basement.”
“Too many lights on that wretched tree,” Grandpop said. “Better not have fried my equipment.”
“Is something burning?” Mom asked.
“Miserable start to the day,” said Grandma Ernie.
“Happy holidays,” Uncle Gelly sang from somewhere.
“You, you should talk,” said Grandma Ernie. “You’re part of all this mess.”
“Give him a break, Ernestine,” Mom said.
“Don’t take up for me,” Uncle Gelly said.
The lights came back on.
“Jesus wept,” Grandpop said. “All three bulbs burnt out.” Then shouting for Dad to hear, “Don’t you know what circuits your own outlets are on?”
“Good King Wenceslas looked out!” sang Uncle Gelly, slouched in the armchair with his coffee mug dangling from a finger.
“Hold it right there!” I shouted.
I had tied a holly-leaf napkin across my nose and mouth. My fists were together and arms extended, and pinched between the diamond formed by my forefingers and thumbs, I held a tiny six-shooter.
“Whoa, that thing loaded?” Uncle Gelly said.
“See, I told you that present was no good,” Grandma Ernie said.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. “When I get back, I expect this town to be cleared out.”
Dad came up behind me without creaking the floor boards. He gently cupped his palm over my hands. “Put the gun down, Charlie.”
“Degenerate,” said Grandma Ernie.
“Okay,” Mom said, lighting another cigarette. “I expect you all should be getting over to the westside. I’ll get your coats.”
Uncle Gelly handed his empty coffee mug to my father. “Keep your eye on that one, Pete. Never trust a man who hides behind a mask.” Grandpop ordered him to gather up the camera equipment.
“Back at it tomorrow, Gelly,” Dad said.
Uncle Gelly made a pistol out of his thumb and forefinger, fired it at my father with a wink. Then he turned to me, dropped his imaginary gun, and raised both hands in surrender.
Before they were out of the door, Dad said, “Your job here is done, kemosabe.” He pressed a silver Hershey’s Kiss into my hand. “Go pee.”