Johnny America


My Sis­ter, Part Three


Be­fore we get in­to the Poul­try Phase, I want to bring up The Exorcist.

My sis­ter was­n’t al­ways to blame for my end­less do­mes­tic mis­ery. Most of the time, cer­tain­ly, but I had my moments.

The Ex­or­cist

Dad was out of town again. The movie The Ex­or­cist, from a book by William Pe­ter Blat­ty (great name), di­rect­ed by William Fried­kin, star­ring Ellen Burstyn and teenaged Lin­da Blair, had just made head­lines: NURSES DEPLOYED TO DEVIL MOVIE! PATRONS SICKENED IN LOBBY! The last time this kind of thing hap­pened was be­cause of the movie Love Sto­ry (Ali Mc­Graw, Ryan O’Neal). Movie­go­ers were dan­ger­ous­ly de­hy­drat­ed from un­con­trol­lable weep­ing due to the emo­tion­al pluck­ings of said cin­e­mat­ic sapfest. White-hat­ted nurs­es set up IV sta­tions in the­ater lob­bies all over the coun­try. A free box of Kleenex with every ad­mis­sion; swoon if you want to. The Ex­or­cist made peo­ple puke and have hor­ri­ble dreams. Some view­ers were changed for life — Mex­i­cans, most­ly. Re­mem­ber the scene with the cru­ci­fix? Holy cow! I’d seen The Ex­or­cist three times — was even in­ter­viewed by the lo­cal news on pre­mière day: “Scared the hell out of me,” I told the TV re­porter. I had plans to see it again.

“Don’t take your sis­ter to see THE EXORCIST,” my fa­ther in­struct­ed me, prob­a­bly im­plored, be­fore he went away.

“She’s too young. It could scar her.”

“I promise, Dad.”

We shot the works: I spent twen­ty bucks on my sis­ter that night — in 1973! Din­ner at Sam­bo’s (Sal­is­bury steak and trim), tick­ets, pop­corn, so­da, can­dy — she was de­light­ed with her adult-like night on the town. As we walked to the the­ater from the park­ing lot, my sis­ter looked at me with hap­py eyes.

The show was packed, over­sold; pal­pa­ble an­tic­i­pa­tion; spon­ta­neous shrieks from gid­dy girls dur­ing the cred­its. Six nurs­es had been de­ployed to the lob­by, four of them Psy­chi­atric Nurs­es. Peo­ple might be pos­sessed, then and there. You know the rest: the head-spin­ning, the curs­ing; the cold, the psy­cho-ter­ror­ism; Tubu­lar Bells; Fa­ther Kar­ras; pea soup. Halfway through the movie, my sis­ter dis­ap­peared. I failed to no­tice her de­par­ture (Rea­gan’s bed was lev­i­tat­ing). I found her in the lob­by, af­ter the show, sur­round­ed by nurs­es. Hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion; in­vol­un­tary uri­na­tion; hysteria.

“She does this every night at home”, I told a nurse.


The nurs­es want­ed to scur­ry my sis­ter away to some HEALING place, with ther­a­pists and elec­tric­i­ty and out­ra­geous prices.

“I’ll take her now,” I told those nurses.

DIVERGENCE: I love my sis­ter. She is the best I know (of hu­mans). Through an of­ten as­tound­ing yet un­de­ni­able con­nec­tion, her life is al­ways mine. I’ve known her longer than near­ly every­one else. And she, me. But this part of the sto­ry is about child­ish vengeance. Let’s get back to it.

Tape Recorder

Back then, 45-minute Max­ell cas­settes were the best you could buy. But af­ter three re-record­ings, a Maxell

ut­ter­ly de­com­posed. I had a cheap cas­sette deck, one of those foot-long ma­chines that ex­ec­u­tives used to use: Take a let­ter, secretary.

I found an old, de­crepit tape; I’d record­ed six sep­a­rate Deep Pur­ple mix­es on it. It sound­ed like

roar­ing shit. I put that tape in, hit RECORD, and turned off the vol­ume. I let the tape pick up si­lence for thir­ty min­utes. Then I took the deck and went walk­ing around the house.

My sis­ter was hav­ing a calm­ing bath. She was afraid to be alone in the bath­room and kept call­ing out for me, mak­ing sure I was nearby.

“I’m here. Don’t worry.”

“Where are you?”

“In the kitchen.”

“What are you doing?”

“Dish­es. How are you feeling?”

“O.K.” Her speech was slurred; I’d giv­en her a dou­ble dose of Vicks For­mu­la 44 cough syrup. To my mind, V‑44 caused a warm feel­ing of detachment.

I was­n’t do­ing dish­es. I had the tape deck vol­ume on high, record­ing the sound of wa­ter pour­ing from the kitchen faucet. Then I had the dogs lick the mi­cro­phone and growl. I did some vo­cal work of my own. I squeezed the cat.

“Where are you?”

“In the liv­ing room” (rub­bing the wire bris­tles of a fire­place tool over the mike). I record­ed a to­tal of four min­utes of ef­fects. The rest I left to Deep Pur­ple. Then I re­wound the tape to its beginning.

I knocked on the bath­room door.

“How are you doing?”


“You’d bet­ter come out and get to bed now.”


I heard the wa­ter stir. I stepped in­to the hall­way, in front of her open bed­room door. I knew my sis­ter’s rit­u­als: it took her a while to get dry. She liked to pen­sive­ly ex­am­ine var­i­ous parts of herself:

“Oh my God! What’s that?”

It usu­al­ly took her ten min­utes to dry off. An­oth­er five min­utes to ap­ply sol­vents and preser­v­a­tives. I was coiled like a spring, wait­ing, lis­ten­ing. The door­knob be­gan to turn.

I hit PLAY. The shuf­fle­board skills I had gained as a youth in the Caribbean trans­lat­ed to cham­pi­onship in the in­tra­mur­al sport of curl­ing in Switzer­land. Hel­veti­cal­ly, I slid that tape deck per­fect­ly in­to po­si­tion, just un­der the mid­dle of my sis­ter’s bed. My sis­ter oozed out of the bath­room, wear­ing a crazy tow­el tur­ban and her “com­fy robe,” a rat­ty old ted­dy bear she wore on­ly when feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble. Like a ba­by seal, she looked at me:

“Don’t wor­ry. I won’t tell Dad. I nagged you take me.”

Yes, I felt a pang. But my bril­liance had tak­en stronger hold than any mere heartstring:

“Get right to bed. Turn off the light and go right to sleep. Call if you need me.”


I wait­ed at her door while she climbed in­to her big brass bed. I watched as she arranged her­self, as she puffed the lace pil­lows and arranged the dolls. I smiled at her when she said “Good night,” and turned out her light.

“Leave the door open,” she begged.

Even bet­ter. I went to my room and waited.

Two hours lat­er, at 3 A.M., when the last of the con­cerned and pa­ja­ma-ed neigh­bors had re­turned to their ex­plod­ed beds, af­ter the po­lice had gone, I tucked my sis­ter in­to the top bunk in my bed­room. Ne­an­derthals had cheerier pads than mine — I was heavy in­to Al­ice Coop­er at that time: “Love It To Death,”

“Para­noid” and, I con­fess, some Uri­ah Heep. My room re­flect­ed my taste of the time. But sheer ex­haus­tion had pos­sessed my sis­ter, and, bliss­ful­ly un­aware of her sur­round­ings, she fell to sleep. Pop­corn has al­ways caused my sis­ter to fill with ram­bunc­tious gasses: I record­ed those spec­tac­u­lar farts for a fu­ture pur­pose. I knew she was anx­ious about im­press­ing her date for the Ju­nior Prom. We’ll get to poul­try soon enough.

Filed under Writer X's Sister on January 23rd, 2004

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