I took my first breath in the year of 1942, during the final song of a performance by the Stables Family Band at the Bijou Theatre in Cumber, Wisconsin. It was August as hell and my mother was playing fiddle.
The birth occurred without the aid of a doctor. Rather, I slid out of my mother’s well-practiced womb and splashed upon the wooden stage between her shoeless feet. In anticipation of this, Mother had worn her wedding dress that night. She’d been wearing it for seven straight days.
The dress had first belonged to my grandmother, who had sewn it for her own wedding. Grandmother had bedecked the dress with hideous, cascading folds and frills and fluffy things in order to hide the shameful bulge of her belly, a bulge that would eventually turn into my mother.
These many years later, the dress’s white cotton had aged into the color of sunstained newsprint, and it was perforated with moth bites. After an unlaundered week as stagewear, the cotton had acquired several additional hues, the perforations had expanded into holes, and it was as pungent as a pond of panther piss.
In spite of this, the dress looked great on Mother. Everything always looked great on Mother. Even in her mid-thirties, she had remained a dish, thanks to her lifelong loves of performance, moonshine, amphetamines, and rigorous fucking.
My first memory, planted that firefly and frogsong evening, is of my babyhead colliding with the Bijou’s age-warped stage. The impact jiggered my soft body all the way to the bottoms of my convex feet.
My phlegmy nostrils, desperate for oxygen, drew in a teaspoon of air dank with the funk of Mother’s unwashed, bare feet. One of these feet rose and then stomped the floor adjacent to my head. Birth liquid splashed upon my brand-new skin.
My universe consisted of a cotton sky, a hardwood floor, and two stocky legs. From the murky and mysterious Other Side of the Dress came the whoops and hollers of an audience. Vibratories of hundreds of boots stomping in merciless unison shook the wavered floorboards below me. My untouched fingers spasmed into involuntary fists.
In the dim light afforded by my birthtent, my untrained eyes followed my mother’s bare foot as it lifted its blood-speckled toes and dropped them floorward, and then did so twice more. My abode fell into complete darkness. The stage curtains had closed.
Of some concern was my inability to inhale. My nostrils had by now become clogged with a quantity of phlegm far beyond the pneumatic power of my tiny lungs. I redirected my respiration to my mouth, a procedure that required me to shift the tip of my tongue to rear of my throat. This endeavor should have liberated my breath, but it did not. My convulsions had by now settled into the lackluster mouth-stretching flops of a fish tossed to the bottom of a rowboat. I found myself becoming disillusioned.
The audience wanted an encore. Their slap-claps and stomp-bomps walloped the pink folds of my wet ears.
Mother’s toes massaged my chest with apologetic squeezes, working my ribs and lungs. Mucus oozed from my nostrils. My teeny diaphragm jerked up and down noncommittally. My fingers groped for my throat. There they encountered a tightly coiled rope of flesh. To be murdered by the very umbilicus that had sustained me heretofore. My first brush with irony.
Unseen by me in the midst of this unseen struggle, the curtains spread open. As was the tradition, the band approached the lip of the stage to perform one final song. This intimate moment was the conclusion of any Stables Family performance, barring those that were cut short by a slow-motion drunken slugfest between members of the band and/or the audience.
With Mother following the rest of the group to the front of the stage, I was dragged along rivuleted planks by my own umbilical cord. The tugging spun my body once, twice, until the cord unwound from my throat like the last inches of thread spinning off the spool.
The band had by now assembled in a line, their eyebrows dripping sweat and their limbs poised begin the encoric tune.
My first contribution to the Stables Family band was a single squawk in the midst of that brief moment of silence.
Squawk, I did, and there proceeded a longer-than-brief moment while band and audience alike attempted to reconcile what they’d just heard with the fact that there were no geese in the auditorium.
Mother, being as she was both a natural ham and unnaturally stoic, flapped her bow-arm up and down and replicated upon her fiddle, as best she could, the squawk of my first exhalation.
The noise thus explained, the recently-pregnant silence was replaced with hooting and hollering and general glee.
On that August evening of 1942, as I took my first unencumbered gulps of air, as I lay dripping upon a wooden floor under my grandmother’s hoop dress, the Stables Family Band performed what is considered one of their finer versions of one of their lesser songs, A Light in Yonder Glade.
As captured by an art-deco microphone operated by a Purple Hearted, certified Radio Technician Third Class, the show was being broadcast across thirty-eight states from the mighty needle of WOZI’s 50,000 watt AM transmitter just up the hill. It is said that the slender, two-hundred-foot iron tower lured fireflies with its weird, crackling noises. The fireflies would spiral around this electromagnetic god until they became so saturated with ionic madness and that they would splatter in small static explosions. It is further said that the accumulation of guts had rendered the tower practically luminescent.
Anybody who listened to the broadcast that night–huddled around their vacuum tube radios or driving in their large iron cars–will claim they heard something special.
I’m not so sure about that. If something special did happen that night, it had nothing to do with me.