A KNIFE TO A MOTHER
by Jessie Glenn
Shhhk. The knife blade flicked up. Shhhk. The knife blade flicked down. I can’t remember who gave me the knife but I’m pretty sure it was my brother. He certainly had a knack for knowing what I liked, having later picked my favorite husband of three. I kept both sides of the blade razor sharp. For a time, I loved it, unduly.
In those days, I carried the knife everywhere but mostly to work at Satyricon, legendarily the oldest punk bar on the West Coast, where I sat in the raised booth to the right of the door, collecting IDs and money, flicking the knife up and down, rolling and chain-smoking cigs. On an average night at Satyricon, Everclear, The Wipers, Floater or some other 90’s PDX band blared into me for hours, music becoming a wall of sound and me a vibrating sheetrock screw. But shhhk. I could still hear my knife.
In the 80s, when George Touhouliotis bought Satyricon, and into the 90s, when I worked there, Old Town Portland was a dangerous area. Dealers walked by with excellent side eye whispering their code words, “Chiva. Soda.” Luckily, I never got busted for my chiva street buys. Back on the East Coast friends had told me, “No white drugs, the rest is ok.” So when I moved to the West Coast and heroin was black, I figured, no big deal.
A couple of decades later, Old Town has been rebuilt shiny and clean and people have to find their drugs elsewhere. Satyricon is gone and chiva probably just means goat instead of sticky little black balls of heroin looking like goat shit, wrapped in colorful balloon skins.
Before I got my gig as a doorgirl, but after I realized shooting up heroin was not so great, my friend Laura and I would go to Satyricon to watch shows and buy coke from the former weekend doorgirl, Kiki. I saw Floater way too many times and Dead Moon not enough. At the time, I was crushing hard on the weeknight doorgirl, Cynthia, so we’d go on those days too. I thought we were lucky, getting into the bar with no ID, but later I heard George say, with his magnificent bellow, “IF SHE GOTS A PUSSY SHE GETS IN.” Then Cynthia got another job, and improbably, the week I turned 21, George hired me as Satyricon’s new doorgirl. George looked at the manager, Dan, with his thumb stuck back at me. “She gotta ID yet?” Apparently, it took more than a pussy to work there. But the knife was fine.
Any character flaws I had at twenty-one were roundly celebrated at Satyricon—my shady, unformed ethics were saluted; my dips into mental illness and drug-enhanced mania were collectively regarded as adorable. Not being a chicken shit was more important than staying alive, and everyone cool had the same code in this dark, comforting world.
Out of the blur, a few moments stand out. Shhhk. I would flip up my knife while asking people for their IDs. If they flinched, I would call them pussies. If people were super drunk, I’d ask if I could draw something on them. If they said yes, I’d write, “FUCK ME IN THE ASS IM WASTED” on their forehead. In Sharpie. Shhhk.
Once, I flicked up the blade and the short white dude in front of me looked approving and poured a bunch of (seriously good) coke behind the edge of my doorgirl booth. Later that night, his taller friend asked if I could help them with an errand. The junky girl bartender fluttered her eyelashes and asked to join. I was a little nervous but thought, who wouldn’t want to be helpful?
I followed the little guy in my car to a big house in SW Portland, not far from downtown. When we got there, the tall guy offered me and the bartender some heroin.
“No thanks,” said I. Even then, it was not lost on me that addiction had nothing to do with intelligence or willpower. It’s just a cruel and simple lottery that I had managed not to win.
“For smoking then,” he said.
“Eh, no,” I said. The bartender looked relieved and tucked in for two.
The two men loaded some bags into a crappy little car in front of the house and asked if I would drive. I got in the driver’s seat, fastened my seatbelt, turned on the ignition and the two men sat in the back, giving directions like people do in mob movies before the driver is garroted.
“Right! Right, here! Get in the other lane.” I flipped on my turn signal.
“Wow, that so good. She use her turn signal,” the big guy said to the little guy. Pretty sure that’s the only compliment I’ve ever had on my driving to this day.
We pulled up to an apartment building and the tall guy ran in while we waited in the car. A short muscly guy came out of the building, saying nothing but taking all the bags. All four of us drove back to the house and the bartender asked if there was any more heroin.
“You know how to get that, puta,” the tall man said, laughing.
“I gotta go,” I said.
“OK! Excellent job tonight! Thanks for driving! Sorry you don’t like heroin! Want some pills?” the short man was enthusiastic.
“Sure,” I said, tucking them in my pocket. Got back in my car and drove home to Ben, my husband. It didn’t in any way occur to me that I just participated in a major drug deal. It was just another night after work.
The next week at work, shhhk. Napalm Beach, wall of sound. I flicked the knife open while asking a scary-looking dude for his ID. “You like knives?” he said. “How about this?” He pulled a handgun out of his pocket and held it to my head. I laughed. “Nice,” I said. “It’s 10 bucks to get in tonight.” When I was twenty-one, I was never gonna get two for flinching.
Sometimes I spoke in a French accent all night. Everyone counted their change twice. When I spoke in a southern accent everyone spoke slowly and used simple words. “I’mmmm Savaaaanna,” I told them. “Hi Savanna!” Shhhk.
The best nights were when Jake came in. Being married at twenty was weird. Being married was the sum total of life when I was home, and I forgot about it when I wasn’t. Ben and I were friends, and I loved him, it just never occurred to me not to be looking for someone I loved better, and I’d been situationally in love with Jake since we were both 18, when I met him at my friend Adeline’s house. He was one of those super cute boys who didn’t talk, which made him seem extra interesting. I fell in love easily and unregretfully for the first 30 years of my life.
Jake worked around town at various restaurants and, at some point, started working at Genoa. Arguably, Genoa played a significant role in me getting pregnant. Genoa is still legend in the Portland restaurant scene. Genoa started the Portland restaurant scene. Their food was like eating heaven if heaven was made of meat. And sauce. And lovely bits of stardust I couldn’t identify. Every time someone walked in the door to Satyricon, my pulse would speed up for a second: was it Jake? Was there food?
I don’t remember the first part of that Friday in early November, 1996 at Satyricon. Probably The Mentors or Poison Idea playing. I remember wanting to love the music, but it always hurt my ears too much. Likely I was stealing a fair amount of money out of the till, out of which I paid off the side door guy, the sound guy and the bouncer. I had nailed Peter Pan, why not be Robin Hood, too?
Forty-five minutes before last call, Jake walked in with something wrapped in foil. I salivated before even knowing what it was, because I knew it was from Genoa. Lamb chops. I can still reconstruct the mouthfeel of the crisp fat on the sides of my tongue, the juices salty, the meat yielding to my teeth.
Dan opened the till to pay me. “You want cash tonight or…?”
“Not cash,” I said. “$15 of not cash.” Which meant, pay me partly in coke. “The rest in cash.”
Jake rolled his eyes in the most subtle of ways. I could only tell how he was feeling by paying complete attention to him all of the time. He was subtly miserable a lot and I tried to distract him by convincing him to be entirely, obsessively in love with me. This was not particularly successful, but he continued to come to see me at Satyricon while continuing to be miserable, so it wasn’t a zero-sum game.
“Want a shot of whiskey?”
“Sure,” he said. I finished the lamb chop.
Last call came and I took my cash and did a couple lines. I asked Jake if he had a ride. “Want me to drive you home?” I staggered when I stood up.
“Sure,” he said.
At Satyricon, as in many bars, we got a free post-shift drink after the lights came on when everyone looked weird and blotchy and we’d kicked out anyone who wasn’t working or playing. I also got a pre-shift drink, and most times (usually) a few during-shift drinks. I was very proud of my hard-won tolerance for whiskey, my toughness, my knife. Start heroin, quit heroin, get married, fall in love, never get two for flinching again. I had been the sensitive kid my whole life. Who says you can’t just decide to be different? It’s easy if you find the right world to live in.
We drunk-walked to my 70s Thunderbird, both still holding our beer cans. It started to pour. I crossed the river from Old Town to Southeast and stopped at the Plaid Pantry for cigarettes. Pulling out, I went the wrong way in traffic. I went through a signal and the cop behind me turned on her lights. As I turned onto the shoulder, we pushed the beers as far under the seat as possible.
“Do you know you went the wrong way on a main road and ran two lights?” the cop asked. I half closed my eyes tragically.
“It’s raining so hard, I got turned around and flustered, ma’am.”
“Yeah, it sure is raining hard. I can see how that would happen. I do need to give you a ticket, though.”
“I understand, ma’am. I will be very careful on my way home.” I worked hard at not slurring. Or using a French accent. Or kicking over my beer.
“You do that,” she said, ripping the traffic ticket off the pad and handing it to me.
She walked back to her car and Jake whispered, “Don’t drive till she’s passed! How can she not tell you’re wasted?”
I fiddled with my keys, waited till she passed to turn the ignition, and looked at him. “What the fuck was that?”
“No idea,” he said. “You’re lucky.”
We started kissing like kids do, then, like you want to consume something, like desperation. Like it’s the last chance ever again to eat a lamb chop from Genoa. At every stop light on the way back to his house we smashed our faces and chests together but it wasn’t nearly close enough and when we finally parked outside of his parents’ house, it took about 10 seconds to wriggle out of our clothes, fulfill our bright consuming of each other and be done, pulling clothes back up and around ourselves, lighting a cigarette, chucking the two cans of beer out the window. He got out and walked into his parents’ house and I drove back home and got into bed with my husband. I told him about the cop and Jake and the beer in the car. I didn’t tell him that I screwed Jake. But he knew. It was the 90s.
A couple weeks after that, I drove Ben’s truck to work. Not sure why I didn’t drive my Thunderbird, maybe Ben was using it. Maybe it broke. We went through a lot of old cars. The huge ‘65 Ford was hard to drive without power steering and the brakes weren’t that reliable. My brother borrowed it once and the brakes went out on a hill and he crashed it. “You’re supposed to pump them when you go down a hill,” said Ben.
I didn’t drink much that night. I felt like any store of luck I might have had was annihilated when the cop let me go while I was driving wasted the wrong way up a street. And running lights. And screwing cute boys. And chucking beer cans.
And playing with knives.
At the end of the night, I took only cash from Dan. Shhhk, I flipped the knife back into its sheath and shoved it in my back pocket for the last time. I walked out into the three a.m. autumn air, my shoulders pushed as far back as my childish bravado would let them.
The ride home could be broken up into several stages: first out of Old Town to the Burnside bridge, than over the Willamette River to the south side, then as far south as Portland goes until you get to the somewhat rural suburb of Milwaukie, then up River Road past the first old folks home and just past the second one. I drove pretty slowly as I got close to my street. Both of the windows were rolled down because I was smoking while I was driving. I put the blinker on, and it did its slow old man tick, tick, tick and… SMACK. Something hit me in the head.
I yelped as I turned left onto my street and pulled into my driveway. I turned off the car and rubbed my head. I had what felt like a little scratch on my cheek. I patted the wide aqua bench seat next to me to see what it was. Feathers. A body. A warm body. A bird. An owl. It had flown through the passenger side window and hit me in the head. I picked it up carefully and brought it inside in case it was just stunned rather than dead.
I woke up Ben and he agreed. The owl’s neck was broken. “What the actual fuck,” he said, and went back to bed.
I sat with the little owl for a moment longer, not sure what to do. What did an owl mean? Death. Wisdom. A message. What did it mean for wisdom and death and a message to break their neck against my face? I pulled my knife and my wallet out of my back pockets with my keys and set them on the kitchen counter next to the little owl.
In the morning, I went to the pharmacy and bought a pregnancy test. My pee made a plus sign. There was to be an addition.
A premonition folded in over me. This is the end and this the beginning. The dark, comfortable world I had found was no longer mine and it was time to invent a new one. I tucked my knife onto the top shelf of the kitchen closet and closed the door.
I told Ben. I told Jake.
I put the owl in the freezer.
Jessie Glenn’s essay exposé about ‘MasterChef’ was ‘Best of 2018’ in Salon Magazine. They’ve also had essays in NYT Modern Love, Washington Post, Toronto Star, and elsewhere. They are currently writing a memoir. Glenn teaches book publicity at Portland State University in the Masters of Publishing Program. Jessie and spouse have a blended family with five children.