Its Saturday night again, and the lights are low. Smoke curls lazily up over the young people talking softly at the tables, waiting for Bill to start. His guitar hums softly in the background, melancholy reminiscences of the sixties. (This is my fantasy, so smoke is okay, just harmless and fun.)
"Hi, guys", the microphone says, just barely louder than his own voice.
"Hi, Bill. Welcome back" answer soft voices from the tables.
"How are you all? Ready for another story?" He perches on a stool under a single spot, a father-figure of Willie Nelsons vintage. The violet shirt and silver chain go well with his grey beard and grey hair curling down to his neck. "This is weird. Feels like Im sitting up here looking all cool and wise, everything hanging together, but you just cant tell where Ive been. Cant tell about anybody, I guess. What you see is hardly ever what you get." A few bars of Bridge Over Troubled Waters bridge a gap, and people shift in their seats. This is old stuff, mostly before their time, but it comes home to them, too. They need it now, just like we needed it then. They listen quietly.
"Looking at me, you wouldnt believe how low Ive been. Its like it was somebody else, somebody elses life Im telling about. Its still going on, though. Whats holding me together now is Prozac, and the love of a good woman."
"The Prozac bit is weird. You read about it so much these days, but it always seems to be about somebody else, people you dont know. Never thought Id be doing it myself, but here I am. Me and a whole lot of folks. Ill bet they all think its their own private secret nobody else knows about. Ive got this fantasy, though, about being in front of any old group of people, like a party or a convention or a business meeting or just on the train and asking How many of you guys are taking Prozac now, and a couple of people edge their hands up sheepishly, then a few more, and pretty soon a hell of a lot of people have their hands up, their jaws hanging down in surprise, and then giggling a lot. Who knows, I might even ask you guys tonight." Heads turn as people check each other out. There are a few nervous giggles, but no hands go up yet. A few chords rise and fall over the hum, and drinks wash down easily.
"So, which story tonight? Lets go back to ancient history, where it all began, in Budapest in late 1935." Strains of the Blue Danube picked out softly in the background, shifting eerily into a harsh discordant parody. "The land of gypsies and strudel shudders under the scourge of fascism and anti-semitism, and the looming spectre of Adolph Hitler. A young couple, Aranka and Jozsef Kohn, expecting their first child, plot their escape. They book passage to the promised land of New York City and free air. At the last moment, their anticipation is shattered by a cruel bureaucracy: Aranka will not be allowed to suffer the long sea voyage while she is pregnant. Aranka tearfully agrees that it would be best for Jozsef to go ahead anyhow, and prepare the way for them with his brother Frank, who has a little grocery store in New York. Poor Aranka, always troubled and insecure, watches her husband leave her to go further away than she could ever imagine, halfway around the world to a life and culture she knows nothing about."
Somber notes, a dirge. "Here she is, pregnant, abandoned by her beloved husband. Though her family surrounds her, she has no real friend to see her through the stunning agony of her first childbirth. Weak and confused, she has no husband to comfort and reassure her, and only the prospect of a forbidding journey to an alien shore before her."
The dirge continues. "The baby is born on February 19, 1936. About two months later she boards the steamship clutching the baby bundle. Shes probably always been somewhat insecure, even paranoid. Now she faces the prospect of several weeks in close quarters with thousands of strangers, with not one single friendly face among all of them. Theres no privacy in steerage, shes probably seasick, terrified of the totally unknown new life ahead of her, wondering how in the world she can possibly find her husband again in all this chaos, and overwhelmed by the unfamiliar burden of responsibility for this newborn infant."
"The woman must be totally out of her mind, catatonic with terror. She will later speak of this bundle in her arms, as though unaware that it is a child, her child. There is no bonding here. This infant, this unformed emerging person, lives for weeks in an aura of pure terror, mechanically fed and diapered but not nurtured at all."
Another bridge. "They never recovered from that experience. Aranka was eventually diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic. She created embarrassing scenes for the family, screaming at neighbors for stealing her underwear and spying on us, and she had to be institutionalized a couple of times. She taught her children to be afraid of people, and to avoid being noticed in order to stay out of trouble. She even found family snapshots, taken years apart and miles apart, where she saw the same people in the background, following us around."
"And here I am, half a century later, an apparently mature adult with a lifetime of growth and experience behind me, and I still havent gotten over that trauma. Thats a big piece of the story behind the Prozac. Were still trying to figure out how to deal with it."
An Adagio fills the long silence. Drinks and a few tears flow. A tall blond woman climbs on stage to hug Bill, and two or three others follow. He hugs each of them back, knowing that each of them also has a story. Then he turns back to share a long kiss with the first one, his wife Barbara.
The adagio picks up, shifting to a somber Sevillanas, then rising to a dashing Flamenco. Hope and courage rise with the smoke in the night air.
"Night, everybody. See you next week."
* * *
Soft rains fall, and the quiet crowd files in early from the glistening sidewalk. Bill looks the same up on the stage, except his shirt is forest green tonight. Hes playing some old Judy Collins songs.
[to be continued]