Phil Ochs Plays Chess (conclusion)

by Martha Moffett

Someone asked him a question or two, about his albums, about a tour. He sat expressionless and numb, staring at the chessboard, as if he had lost the feeling of being. "Sit up, pay attention!" I almost said to him. I might have said that in a different life. "Posture!" I might have said.

"Anybody got anything?" he asked. He may have meant beer, a drink, but someone dug out a bag of grass and a packet of rolling papers. These were passed to him, but he sat holding them in front of his chest, squirrel-like, befuddled. He shook his head. "Anybody good at this?" he asked.

As it happened, I was good at it, as good as I had been at my jettisoned domestic chores, cleaning, mending, fluting a pie crust. Folding the first roll as sharp as an envelope, I crushed the leaves between my fingers the way an Indian pours a sand painting, distributing the grass into a cylinder as neat as a machine-rolled cigarette but a little tapered on the ends, a little fat in the middle, I could turn out the same shape, over and over. And passed it to him.

At an earlier time in my life I would have ground the joint under my heel, I would have told him to get himself out of there, go home, go on a juice fast, walk five miles a day, listen to music, his own especially, teach himself disgust for alcohol, get lots of sleep. Or, more recently, I would have taken him home with me, fed him soup, tucked him in. I had done that before, taken people home. My children bringing steaming coffee to the morning stranger's head on the pillow. I had been that kind of person recently, why not again? But I was not that kind of person for Phil Ochs that night.

A few weeks later, in April, I woke up to the clock-radio playing "The Power and the Glory," going right into "There But for Fortune," and by the time they were playing "Santo Domingo" I was awake and I knew. That was the way we got the news in those days, the clock-radio playing someone's songs over and over. He had hanged himself and he was dead.

In October of that year I accepted an out-of-state job as a newspaper librarian and left the city. On one level, it broke my heart. On another, it gave my children some security, some assurance of going to college. I went back to being that bossy I-know-what's-best person again, under pressure of having a living to make and children to raise. I gave advice, I made decisions, I sent my kids to college. I started a retirement fund.

But I missed that decade of letting things go. I thought maybe it would come around again -- even the fifties were in vogue again, the fifties! I despised that decade, but the sixties never came again. I'm listening to Phil Ochs on my car tape player, and I don't think they ever will.

Now I prompt, remind, and advise until my friends and family erupt in rebellion. Recently, in her own house, I said to my youngest granddaughter, "Get down from there. You must not go downstairs on the outside of the railing!"

She arrived safely at the bottom, looked up at me and said, "Piss off, Grandma." She didn't know what she was saying, of course, she's only four, but she knew what I was saying: Stop that. Behave yourself. That's what I was saying.

But how do I know? Could I catch her if she fell? What if she slipped between the bars, what if I had to be the knife that cuts the rope, what if I had to create the fall that saves her life? I ask myself this all the time now. How do I know I'm not saving someone's life?

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