CAMEL JEREMY EROS AND THE GHOST OF THE PIGGLY WIGGLY
BY COREY MESLER
Once upon a time there was a mystical era called the Sixties. Now, the Sixties, specifically, for those bent upon hard facts, were the nineteen sixties, anno domini, but The Sixties, in caps, jauntily, existed in time and out of time, and perhaps it is because of this it was a period of hauntings and gramarye and that old green magick. And there lived during these fulminating times a poet by the name of Camel Jeremy Eros in a small city called Memphis, Tennessee, on a large river called the Mississippi, and many stories are told both by and about the brave poet, but the one which concerns us now is how Camel Jeremy Eros became acquainted with the ghost of Piggly Wiggly.
Now Piggly Wiggly I'm sure you know is a grocery store chain, started right here in Camel's home town of Memphis, Tennessee, by a man named Clarence Saunders, who took the money he made from driving little mom-and-pop stores out of business and bought himself a large mansion made of pink stone, where he never lived. Those were earlier times, course, and not germane.
Our story really begins because Camel Jeremy, like many a sweet hitchhiker in those halcyon days, was fond of altering his consciousness, by nostrums exotic and mundane, and one way he discovered to do this -- it was either in Steal This Book or Ringolevio or one of the other sacred texts -- was to smoke the dried up peel of a Chiquita banana. Probably other brands worked as well or didn't but Camel he was dead set on Chiquita and made sure all his bananas carried that tell-tale seal before he put down his hard-begged brass.
On any given night one could find, slung over the radiator in Camel's midtown apartment like especially corrupt wet socks, the drying skins of bananas, Chiquita bananas. Oddly enough, Camel did not like the taste of the bananas, and the meat, so to speak, which he took out of the magic skins, he fed to the neighbor's cat, Semolina Pilchard. Semolina Pilchard belonged to Three Hushpuppy Brown, one of Camel's near-friends, Three Hushpuppy so named because he always carried an extra shoe. Don't ask why. There were giants in those days.
And ghosts, apparently, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
We say near-friends about any of Camel's acquaintances because Camel didn't seem to have anyone especially close to him, except his paramour, Allen. Now, Camel hung out with some folk, John McIntire, the artist a bit, Richard Brautigan, the West Coast solitudinarian and lyrist, Johnny Niagara, freedom fighter extraordinaire, Sid Selvidge, songman, but none of them were particularly dear to Camel, by his own choosing it might be said. It's hard, now, to remember exactly why. Camel was just a man made of smoke, a man who wrote unusual poesy, a man who seemed to always be on the scene, either at Beatnik Manor or The Bitter Lemon, or at Croswaith's Empyrean Puppet Happenings, but who, for the most part, was background color.
Yet he was loved. Some of you understand.
And, in particular, he was loved fiercely by one woman, one witchy, willowy woman named Allen, an art student tall and boy-chested, winsomely-hipped with a cheerful face which reminded some of The Cat in the Hat. And, there was something feline about her, the way she moved, her legs insinuating a slithery theology. Allen fell for Camel Jeremy like a lemming going over a cliff and Jeremy reciprocated, we believe. This is what we believe to be true.
Allen and Jeremy lived together in an apartment so crammed full of albums and books and papers and bongs and pipes and various and varied paralipomena one wonders where they found room to sleep or eat or smoke their cured banana peels. It must have all been done on top of The Piles. Occasionally, visitors left in shame because they had sat upon and cracked Camel's copy of Surrealistic Pillow or Fever Tree or stepped on the splayed spine of Mexico City Blues, but there was no place else to move. The apartment was awash in clutter, soulful clutter. No nosologist could catalog such a conglom.
One night, in October we think, Allen was sprawled on top of a mound of Grove and City Lights paperbacks, listening to the dulcet sounds of Revolver turned down so low one wondered if she were merely absorbing the music, while Camel perched at his Olivetti agonizing over the difference between precipitation and rainfall, as words, mind you. He just couldn't damn well decide which to employ. His hands gripped the wooly hair at each temple and pulled, as if this would free-up the resolution.
He looked at Allen. She was beautiful.
"Problem?" she purred.
"Goddamn poems," Camel said. He said this often. It didn't disturb Allen overly much.
"Forget it for now," Allen said.
"I know what it's like to be dead," the turntable whispered.
"I'm going to forget it," Camel said, pushing the typewriter away, the half-written poem still trapped in its platen, half-born, a creature both dead and alive.
"Smoke some boo?" Allen said, smiling her Cheshire smile.
"Not in a pot mood," Camel said, definitively.
"What then?" Allen said. "Sex?"
"Definitely sex," Camel said, coming back slightly to the world. "But first, Chickita, a little Chiquita. First, lovely, mind-blowing banana gorgonization."
"We're out, sweet love," Allen said, softly. Her voice, it has been said elsewhere, was like wind through bamboo.
"Damn," Camel said.
"I'll run down to Pig," Allen said, making the slightest of body movements, signaling her willingness to go, but her desire not to.
"Nah, I'll go. Damn," Camel Jeremy Eros said again. "We'll have to do the quick dry."
The quick dry involved the toaster oven and an iron book press. Finding these items was going to be troublesome but crucial.
"It'll be alright."
"Yes, it will be," Allen said. "Hurry home."
It was late but Piggly Wiggly was still open. The parking lot lights cast an eerie glow over the whole midtown area, causing normally solid materials to appear to wobble and breathe. Camel's VW bug parked itself near the door. The entire lot was empty except for his potpie-colored car.
He entered the incandescent grocery store, and it was like stepping onto a stage, a stage off-Hades. The fluorescent lighting made everything super-real, like those paintings by that painter. Camel flounced into the store with a bounce to his hightops but was pulled up short by an immediate observation. There were no other human beings in sight. No cashiers in red aprons. No managers looking officious, wearing officious white shirts with officious pens in pocket. There was no muzak. There was no muzak. Camel took a few more tentative steps into the store. The produce aisle was within view. He could see bananas. But the stillness made something in Camel vibrate like a plucked harp string, like the final harp string, plucked by the hand of a godling.
Camel moved slowly toward the fruit, expecting at any moment to meet a stock boy or other customer, but even after several minutes, he appeared to be entirely alone. He walked gingerly toward the bananas, as if the fruit and vegetable aisle might be booby-trapped. He stopped in front of the banana bin and stood still, looking slowly 180 degrees to right and left. There was nothingness around him like fog.
He reached a tentative hand toward the phallic yellowness in front of him, but now something even worse occurred to Camel. None of the displayed fruit bore the tellurian, all-important Chiquita sticker. Dismay, then panic, began to well up inside him.
He looked around wildly. To his right was a door with a semi-opaque plastic window, a door that presumably led to the stockroom, the produce stockroom. There, he reasoned, he would find his beloved Chiquitas, and there, most probably, he would find attendant human life. It didn't seem like much of a gamble.
He strode confidently forward and pushed the door gently inward. It swung like a noose in the wind, and there before our poet-hero stretched a long, dark corridor, on either side of which were stacked boxes, overly large boxes the color of lunch sacks. Camel stepped inside and the door swung back, tapping him on the shoulder.
"Helloo," Camel sung.
The sound died away as if swallowed by cotton wool.
Then Camel saw movement. It was quick -- he could be mistaken about what he saw. But something short, impish and dark like a Stygian night, a shadow's shadow, ran quickly in front of him, across the corridor about a hundred yards away. The lighting was bad. He must have been mistaken.
"Hey," he called out.
Possibly a dwarf, he thought. One of the stockboys.
He quickened his step and rounded the corner around which he saw the shape disappear. Another long grey corridor, bordered by towering boxes. Camel wondered if perhaps the boxes contained fruit and he could just tear a little away from a few until he found a couple of Chiquita bananas and then be on his way. He hesitated, then resolutely split the corner of a box and tried to peer inside. Inside, it was as dark as misery's woeful night.
Camel stopped and thought. What could happen? He put his hand slowly into the opening he had made in the box. A few inches in his fingers met something sticky and warm, an unearthly substance. Rotten fruit? the rational Camel asked himself. He pulled his hand back out and it was coated in some sort of plastid goo, which seemed to palpate on his hand. He was reminded of the poor dumb farmer at the beginning of The Blob.
He wiped most of the goo onto the box's exterior but his hand began to tingle; it began to susurrate.
"Damnation," Camel said. He looked at his hand. There, on his palm, seemingly a part of it, seemingly growing out of it, was a small, twisted face, a pained, foetal face, squinching its demon's eyes, grimacing as if it were in pain. Camel screamed.
He turned to run and there it was. Back the way he came his path was blocked by a presence, a figure, a chthonic phantasm. It stood there like the gatekeeper to Gehenna.
"My hand!" Camel screamed at it, nonsensically.
The figure seemed to adjust its stance, to rearrange its very ectoplasm. It was short, impish, but now it was distending itself, becoming taller, a horrible pandiculation like accelerated growth. It was either clothed in a body-length robe or its body consisted of folds of rotten excrescence; it was hard to tell from where Camel stood. But he was sore afraid.
"My hand," he repeated, more quietly.
The creature, now fully as tall as Camel, squirmed some more. It was gearing up for something but Camel did not want to imagine what. Then its head, or the area where a sentient creature would have a head, seemed to open slowly, like the birth canal spreading itself for the miracle of parturition, except the aperture was ustulate, unholy, diseased. It was a hole opening to speak, a ventage venting.
"What do you want?" it said. Its voice sounded like Louis Armstrong played backwards.
"Bananas," Camel spoke softly, like a child.
The spirit adjusted its evil presence. It had a profane flowing motion about it, like inky, gelatinous waves.
"You are not welcome here," the revenant rasped.
"Right you are," Camel said, as eager for egress as all get out.
Camel made slow, slithering movements so as to slide by the ghoul so clearly blocking the path of his retreat. As he got closer he was aware of an odor of formaldehyde or diaper pail, a sickening vapor which seemed to envelop the creature, who appeared semi-transparent now that Camel got a closer look. He edged around the foul appearance. Other than the constant undulations the thing did not seem to alter its attitude as Camel made his way toward from whence he came.
Camel scooted by and quickened his step. As he reached the corner to turn back toward the store proper he could not resist a look back, as foolish as Lot's wife's, as if to verify that he had indeed just escaped something hideous. The ghoul was still there, but now faced (if face you could call it) in Camel's direction.
"One thing," Camel shouted back, emboldened by his proximity to departure. "Just one thing before I go. Or actually two. Do you know if there are any Chiquita bananas back here?"
The fissure in the creature's facial area opened like the maw of hell, dripping with unguentary corruption. It opened, stretching, vacillating, spreading like an oil spill and an unearthly noise emerged from it, the sound of gravestones grinding, the sound of baby's souls wrenched from the ether. It echoed in the rafters, surrounded Camel with an aural screech as sickening as the odor of this deathly being.
"Ok," Camel said and the silence was the stillness at a funeral before anyone speaks. Camel, brave Camel, stood his ground, somewhat stubbornly, peering into the dimness around his spirit acquaintance. "What are you?" he finally pronounced, with that straightforwardness for which Camel was famous in midtown Memphis, in conversation if not in verse.
The fetid hole reopened, if somewhat more calmly now. A small screech began, like that millisecond of distorted sound when you put the needle on an old 45, and then speech. Speech of an outlandish and fractious nature, but speech nevertheless.
"I am that which is and is not," the thing began.
Camel relaxed a bit, his shoulders sagged; he made himself story-ready. He was a good listener, Camel was.
"I am life and not-life. I exist between-time, on the line between that which is holy and that which is impious, between temporary and temporal, between you and the foulness you excrete. I am of no-world. You can not know. You can never know, little thing, nugatory rational mortal. I am near-being. Ask not from where I come for I come from where you will deny and deny again."
Camel stood stock-still. Half of him was hoping to remember the exact wording of the speech to get it on paper once home and the other half was terrified, shit-blind terrified.
"You wear the chain you forged in life?" Camel asked, almost smiling.
As the ghoul prepared to open wide again its hellhole, Camel let his hightops speak for him, squeaking away on the concrete floor, flying through the semi-transparent door back to the real world, not stopping until his liberated ass landed in the comfort of the bucket seat of his dromedary-colored bug.
I want to have Allen say here, "You look as though you've seen a ghost," but historical truth prevents such fancy. She was, though, quite surprised when her lover burst back into their apartment, white as an embodied hush and completely banana-less.
These, instead, were, we believe, her first words.
"Oh, Allen, sweet Allen, sweet blessed Allen," Camel said, collapsing into her embrace as the two of them slid together on a djebel of album covers whose records lay elsewhere.
"They out of Chiquitas?" Allen purred, innocently.
"Oh, Allen," was all Camel Jeremy Eros could imagine for a while.
It was well into the wee hours of the morning before the story fully emerged, in fits and starts, stops and re-beginnings, hesitations and horrors. Allen sat aghast. She believed every word. It was that kind of love.
And as dawn's rosy fingers strummed the lyre of another sear Memphis October day the two finally fell asleep, wrapped around each other, as inextricable as a love knot, as unimpartible as the coniunctio spirituum. Ah, gentle, ignorant sleep.
It was late in the next day when our hero and heroine emerged from their hibernation, emerged from the land of dreams, a safer and more wholesome place they now believed than the workaday world. They awoke only to shiver still in each other's grasp and so they lay for another hour or so until Allen roused herself to put a little Booker T. on the turntable and scrape together a repast of beans and rice, one black, one white, a yin and yang meal, beans, rice, and Green Onions, altogether what was needed and after which they did both feel more human and more able to cope with the day, which was now squinching itself up again into dusk, light leaking from it as if through a small chink.
"What now?" Allen said, courageously, as her lover, the poet/hero sat deep in miasmic thought, a half-burned joint dangling from his slack jaw.
"We go back to Piggly Wiggly," Camel said, as if from far away, but determined, like Odysseus, pre-determined.
"Ok," the lovely and loving Allen answered with bravery of her own.
And they set out in the rattling VW the four and a half blocks to the Piggly Wiggly, a trip which may as well have been into the earth's underworld.
The parking lot was lit again like the moon-landing sight would be in a few years to come (about which they, of course, could know nothing) but this time other vehicles were scattered about in a haphazard pattern, somewhat guided by painted lines, somewhat not. The building's inside burned as bright as a jack-o-lantern.
Holding hands they plunged inside, in search of management. This time they were greeted by flow, people moving about as if by design, up and down aisles of colorful advertising packaging. There were stockboys. And, oddly comforting, there was the tinny, half-life sound of muzak, though Camel's off-center consciousness thought he heard in the stringy arrangement, a bad rendition of The Venture's "Lullaby of the Leaves." After many underlings (one would think this was The Pentagon) they were steered to a small office space in the rear of the store. On the door was a simple stick-on sign: Manager. Their accompanying clerk rapped softly on the insubstantial door and opened it slowly.
"Mr. Gardner," the portly man said, rising from behind his plywood desk. "But, hell, ever'body calls be Buddy."
Camel shook the extended hand.
"Mr. Gardner," Camel began, a small aquatic frog in his throat.
"Buddy," Camel stuttered out. "Is there something, um, are you aware of something, say, evil, living in your backrooms, in your, whatchacallit, stockrooms?"
Buddy Gardner studied the hippie pair in front of him. He seemed to have no use for their kind, but a customer was a customer was the motto his daddy had taught him.
"Don't quite getcha," Buddy Gardner's answer came.
Camel gave a breathless recounting of his adventures the night before. When he was done he collapsed against the concrete block wall behind him, sweating as if he had run a race. Buddy Gardner looked slightly bemused, as if he were the principal and here were a couple of miscreants, ninth grade scamps who had thrown some wet toilet paper or got caught smoking in the rest rooms.
"What time was this?" Buddy grinned like a car salesman.
"Dunno," Camel said, scratching his beard. "Midnight?"
"You're pulling old Buddy's leg now, boy. Hell, Pig closes at nine p.m. every night."
Camel sunk into himself. He looked at the blank visage of his beloved Allen. She looked back, blank.
"Let's go," she said.
They left the office, muddled and muttering.
"He knows something," Allen said.
As they were desultorily moving down the produce aisle toward the exit, Camel chanced a look toward the opaque doorway where his fear resided. In front of it stood a middle-aged man pushing a broom. He was looking right at Camel. He motioned Camel over with a covert nod of his be-toqued head. Camel and Allen moved dreamily toward the man, bewitched.
"You see somethin?" he asked.
Camel's eyes widened, their color the color of an uncleaned fishtank.
"Yes," Camel said.
"It's Buddy, Jr." Jimmy said out of the side of his mouth, as if they had all wandered into a 1940s Warner Brothers picture.
"A ghost?" Camel whispered back, his breath coming out frostily, vapor-clouds of tangled intention.
Just then Buddy Gardner, perhaps senior, stuck his head out of his office doorway.
"Ya'll need anything else?" he hollered, good-naturedly.
The maintenance man swept away swiftly.
"Just going," Allen called back, gripping Camel by the arm and hurrying outward with him.
Safely back in their apartment Allen put some Dylan on the stereo and they both sat down for a long evening's cogitation. At some point they fell back into the arms of Morpheus and did not wake until the calendar had turned to the story's next page.
The following afternoon they went back to The Piggly Wiggly, slightly altering their appearances with hats and cloaks, feeling surreptitious and secretive and silly. After meandering around the entire store for fifteen minutes or so they decided to chance asking another stockboy, a lad of about sixteen whose face bore the cicatrices of acne scarring.
"Excuse me," Camel said, trying out an adult tone.
"Yep," the boy turned toward the hippie couple dressed as spies.
"We're looking for Jimmy," Camel said. It sounded right, straight and honest, but something about the boy's expression made Camel think he had perhaps asked in Portuguese. Being high had that effect sometimes: the simplest action seemed exaggerated, out of place, malignant.
The boy's face hung slack-jawed for a moment, or maybe it was longer.
"Big Jimmy or Little Jimmy?" the boy finally said.
"Jesus, I don't know," Camel said.
"Skinny guy, about 6 feet tall, shaggy under a red toque," Allen said, hopefully.
"Thas Little Jimmy," the boy said, as if that was the summing up.
"You know where he is?" Camel coaxed, offering a beatific grin.
"Fard," the boy said.
Camel and Allen needed several moments of contemplation together before realizing that the boy had told them Little Jimmy had been let go. He was with Piggly Wiggly no more. After a few more half-hearted questions of the lad, they could glean no more helpful information from him. No, he didn't know Little Jimmy's last name, but Big Jimmy would know and no, he didn't know where Big Jimmy was, he thought maybe Big Jimmy managed the new Piggly Wiggly in Raleigh, now, and on and on. If this was a quest it was petering out, running on fumes.
Camel Jeremy Eros began to no longer give a good damn if he figured out what had happened to him that fateful night in the murky back rooms of the Midtown Pig. Mysteries were beautiful as mysteries, he decided. Where did he get off with this empirical bull-hockey? We are born in confusion, live in its comfortable or not so comfortable lap, and sometime later, die there, mired still in confusion, children of it. It is so, just so.
It was a few nights later, we think, when Allen and Camel were watching Ed Sullivan on their tiny black and white, when Semolina Pilchard set up an unearthly howl outside. Our heroes sat straight up. It sounded worse than a baby crying in the wilderness.
"Mating season?" Allen asked.
"Hardly," Camel said and slowly rose from his algae-colored chair, as if he had premature arthritis. He felt as old as the Prophet Ezekial, as old as heartache. He peered outside through the locked screen door. At first only obscurity met his gaze. Then he saw it.
There was a medium-sized black dog, about the weight of a good loveseat, hunkered in the corner of their small enclosed porch, or what passed for a porch at these midtown bungalows. It sat there in the corner, almost invisible in the caliginous air, staring at the door. Its eyes were noctilucent; they rose to meet Camel's.
Camel, loopy with mesmer, reluctantly opened the door and as soon as he did the dog made a beeline for the inside. Once there it took up residence in the chair Camel had just vacated and looked for all the world like a pharaoh on his throne.
"What in the world?" Allen asked.
"Not this world," the dog said with a voice like Brenda Vacarro. Was it smugly beaming?
"Jesus!" Camel yelped and Allen jumped to an upright position, taking her man into her arms and vice versa.
"You shall seek me no further," the dog said, calmly, but with the kind of firmness usually employed by cutthroat businessmen.
"Have we met?" Camel asked, disingenuously.
The dog looked at him and its eyes burned red like twin automobile cigarette lighters. Its body undulated slightly as if it were about to become wraithlike again, non-dog, but it held its canine shape.
Instead the towser opened its mouth wide and then wider still. There it was again, the Infernal night inside a cavern of hellish consideration. And the sound that emerged was a quieter version of the otherworldly howl from a few nights before.
"Ok," Camel said.
The three sat for a few moments in tense silence.
"Ok?" Camel said, again, sheepishly.
The dog hopped down off its chair, its coat gleaming so black it was almost blue. It trotted toward the door, which Camel was only too happy to open for it. There the beast-pooch turned and fixed each of them for a moment with its diabolical eyes.
"Hear the cruel no-answer until blood drips down. Beat your head against the wall of it," it pronounced.
They stood in stunned silence.
"Ikkyu," the dog said, grinning with a slavering indelicacy. "Fifteenth century zen master."
And then it was gone, leaving behind only the sickly smell of something unclean, something not quite extinct.
Oh, and one other thing. Allen's glass of water, which had been sitting on an upturned crate which served as an endtable, had changed to blood, a rather neat, if depraved, parlor trick.
Time passed. Camel and Allen settled back into their love-nest, into their lives, and not much else passed between them about the mystery of the supermarket duende. For the most part it seemed as if Camel Jeremy Eros had taken a firm grip on the reins of his muse and rode away from the nightmare which could have felled a lesser man. Although, he would at times grow irritable if something from the turntable spoke to him, personally, say, the Lizard King advising him to "break on through to the other side," and there was the day he angrily snapped off the knob of the television, trying to rid his sight of that afternoon's offering, "The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow." These were aberrations.
Bravely, he wrote on and in his writing found peace and solace. It was after this he wrote the beautiful "Allen, Slender of Waist" and the equally lovely "Besame Too." And, the well-received clerihew, "The Day After the Night Jimi Hendrix Opened for the Monkees," came from this period. Of course, he also wrote, in late 1970, his atypical epic, "Cacodemon, Kiss my Ass," which appeared in Big Table magazine and brought comparisons to the best of Ginsberg and about which fellow Memphis poet, Kenneth Beaudoin, said, "It's the finest long poem I've read since Robert Bly's "Teeth Mother Naked at Last."
And the duo's ardor lasted, precipitated, flowered, grew strong as the metal sculptures the willowy Allen forged from her fiery passion. Love happens.
Now, people, this tale has entered folklore, shape-shifting, changing through the years, taking its place along such mythological romances as the blowing up of the Doughboy Statue in Overton Park by Johnny Niagara and Three Hushpuppy Brown or the night the crazed owner of The Bitter Lemon let loose the rattlesnakes inside his own joint just for a jape. It's become legend, and that's fine. Maybe that's where we want it.
Many interpretations have been disclosed since then, many fabrications woven tighter or looser. These are the best explanations we know of. Maybe you know better. Maybe you've heard alternatives.
One: it's told that the ghost was indeed the son of the enigmatic manager of The Pig back then, the aforementioned Buddy Gardner and that Buddy, Jr. died in the stockroom after falling beneath a forklift load of cassava. Buddy, Sr.'s grief was a powerful force, this rendering goes, strong enough to draw his son into half-life. This story carries with it the shadow of the two Jimmy's and it must be said here that this is the version Camel prefers. So, ok, that's one interpretation.
Some say Camel met the spirit of a small grocery store owner who committed suicide in The Piggly Wiggly parking lot, after his business was forced under by the more efficient self-service operation perfected and polished by the entrepreneurial Mr. Clarence Saunders. Has a bit of a moral to it; some like that.
Others say it was something else. A bit of evil from another part of town, down around voodoo village, or the river maybe, or even further away from down Nawlins-way, an out-of-town incubus, a guest, but still, a bit of the night itself which crept into midtown, attracted by the neon and the music and the availability of hippie females in midriff blouses. This is the version preferred by Johnny Niagara. I don't know.
Of course there are those, the ones without imagination, who insist that Camel's vision was nothing more than an unlucky admixture of pharmaceuticals. Could be, could be.
So, here we have offered some explication, reiterated through the years, strained through the cheesecloth of time, reorganized, redacted, recanted, reincorporated, repeated and refined. We only know the bare bones we offer here. The truth may or may not lie within the calcified egg of the tale we have called "Camel Jeremy Eros and the Ghost of The Piggly Wiggly." You decide, or, as Camel used to say, you blow your own mind, man. That's Sixties learning, sweet as light. Peace.