Everyone has a motivator who possesses the raw energy of a cattle prod placed in their naughty bits.
Katherine O’Donnell was my cattle prod.
We met in the third grade when I was a stuttering, insecure, buck-toothed bookworm hoping to find anonymity in the school chorus. I figured I’d been found out as a vocal imposter when our music teacher, Mrs. Herbert, stood next to me with her head cocked in my direction.
Mrs. Herbert then announced I was going to be the soloist for our next concert.
On the day of the concert, kids were taking bets on whether I’d soil myself or go A.W.O.L. I was most likely to do both.
When I was announced, I turned on the heels of my Buster Browns, heading toward the door.
A short, freckle-faced red-haired girl blocked my exit.
“Thinking about running away?” she asked.
“I’m not thinking about it, I’m doing it.”
“No, you’re not, Jeff.”
“My name’s Michael.”
“I like Jeff better,” she said forcefully. “Go out there and sing, Jeff. Share your gift.”
She adjusted my tie, then kissed me on the cheek.
“What was that for?” I asked.
Spinning me around, she pushed me out onto the stage.
As “They Call the Wind Maria” began I turned around, looking for the freckle-faced redhead. She smiled reassuringly.
As soon as I got offstage, I threw up so violently I was sure the French fries I’d eaten the summer before were coming back.
The janitor cursed me out, but Mrs. Herbert was so proud she hugged me to her ample bosom.
“One performance down and four to go.”
“We’ve still got to perform for the first, second, fourth, and fifth grades.”
Each time I thought about running, the freckle-faced redhead was there with encouragement and a peck on the cheek. When I came off stage the janitor was ready for me. He put a bucket out for me to chuck chow in.
I was soon drafted to play the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” Fortunately, the redhead played Glinda the Good Witch, and the janitor had a spare bucket. When the show was over, he commented, “You need a new hobby, kid.”
The freckle-faced redhead was there the following year when I reprised “They Call the Wind Maria” and was coaxed into adding “Get Me to the Church on Time.” She kept kissing me on the cheek, telling me how wonderful I was – and I kept believing it.
I still didn’t know her name – and I still needed a bucket.
That was the year the janitor retired.
Mercifully, there were no more pageants when I moved on to middle school. Then one day someone tapped me on the shoulder with enough force to almost break it.
It was the freckle-faced redhead.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“In another school,” she replied.
“You’re not here to ask me to sing, are you?”
“I can’t. I get sick.”
“Still? C’mon, Jeff. My church is holding a benefit for a family whose house burned down. I put a band together and then my singer got the mumps. Right away I thought of you.”
“Stop thinking so much. And who are you, my agent?’
The redhead’s freckled features narrowed as she grabbed me by my collar. “I’m the girl that’s gonna kick your tail if you say no.”
Despite a burning desire to run, I was able to smile and even joke with the crowd. The redhead thought of everything, including setting up a bucket for me off stage. And yes, she continued to kiss me on the cheek for good luck.
I still didn’t know her name.
“You’ve got a gift, Jeff,” she said. “Promise me you won’t waste it.”
It was a promise I knew I’d break. I didn’t sing a note, not even in the shower, for another two years.
When we were sixteen, Eddie Dean, one of my baseball teammates, fell for a girl I called Janet Planet. (I’d given her that name because she was one of the prettiest girls on earth.) She agreed to go out with him under one condition – and I was part of that condition.
“Hey, Mickey, get over here! Janet and me are goin’ on a date. We want you to come to movie night with us.”
“Oh, be honest with him, Eddie,” Janet said. “I’m bringing another girl with me. She needs a date.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “She’s got a great personality.”
The next night, Janet, Eddie, and my mystery date were waiting for me at the park. I started to laugh as I got closer. So did the girl. By the time we stood face to face, we were in hysterics.
“You wanna let us in on the joke?” Eddie asked.
“We already know each other,” I said. “Well, sort of.”
My freckle-faced date chuckled. “Yeah, Jeff and I go way back. I’ve already kissed him.”
“So, you’re okay with this?” Janet asked.
“Better than okay,” the redhead said, throwing her arm around my shoulder.
I finally got to know the redhead. Her name was Katherine O’Donnell.
Our romance lasted longer than Eddie and Janet Planet’s, but Mrs. O’Donnell had an attack of the vapors at the very sight of me, muttering something about being excommunicated from the church. Mr. O’Donnell was equally understanding. To him, I was a colored hooligan out to deflower his daughter. Well, he was right about the latter part.
Katherine (never Kathy) may have been a C student, but she knew how to steer past her parent’s bigotry. She told them I was her new lead singer. Before I could protest, she had me sing a chorus of “Danny Boy.” Pops was impressed, officially dubbing me a “Black Irishman.” But mom was not moved. “I’m keepin’ my eye on ya,” she warned.
I gave Mrs. O’Donnell cause to be concerned when I took Katherine to the beach. As pale as fresh milk, Katherine burned at the mere mention of the sun. It didn’t help that we downed three beers apiece and passed out.
When I came to two hours later, I glanced over at Katherine. When I touched her, my fingers left their impression on her angry red skin.
She sat up, yelping in pain.
“It that from the hangover or the sunburn?”
“You going to be okay?”
“Never felt better, Jeff.”
She proved it by throwing up.
When I told Mrs. O’Donnell her daughter was in a hospital with heat stroke seventy miles from home, her response was, “Sweet Jesus, he’s kidnapped her.”
Katherine persuaded me to make good on her fib that I was her singer. She’d probably planned it that way all along.
We formed THC, a rock band. Katherine became one of the few women to head a band in the seventies. Our first bass player, “Fuzzy,” made the mistake of questioning Katherine’s leadership skills.
“I ought to throw you through a window,” Katherine snarled.
“You haven’t got the stones, little girl.”
Katherine lifted her leg like she was kicking a field goal. Fuzzy dropped to the floor, clutching his groin.
“Now you haven’t got the stones, Fuzzy.”
Katherine may have been 5’ 2”, but her personality embodied the quick-to-judge-quick-to-act stereotype of a redhead. When she was angry, Katherine would throw anything within reach (except an instrument). She was determined, stubborn, intensely loyal, and completely devoted to being a musician.
THC’s reputation grew thanks to my rangy vocals and our ability to jam. My unbridled range was still more due more to my stage fright than any actual talent, but I’d finally adopted a trick that curtailed my fear – I stopped wearing my glasses on stage. What you can’t see won’t make you soil yourself.
It was Katherine who devised an even better solution to the problem.
We played a Labor Day concert at a mansion. It was a high school version of Woodstock minus the mud, with a stage, a dozen kegs, and partying hippies.
I finished the first half of my vocal for our version of the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and turned to signal our guitarist to solo when I noticed a large blur behind me. Curious, I put on my glasses.
I was shocked to see a twenty-foot screen that rivaled the ones at drive-in movies. And on that screen looking back at me was me.
Our host had set up cameras in front of the stage, projecting our image across the field.
Petrified, I fled the stage. Katherine followed me.
Reaching up, she put her hands on my shoulders, shaking me. “Snap out of it, Jeff!”
“I wish I’d known.”
“Then you never would have gotten up on stage. We’re still got another two hours to play.”
“I’m not going back up there!”
Katherine grabbed me by the collar.
“That’s not going to work on me anymore, Katherine.”
She released me. Smiling impishly, she reached in her jeans, producing a flask.
“Maybe this’ll help.”
Despite the skull and crossbones etched in the flask, I took a drink.
The band vamped until I got back on stage. I willingly took the microphone – with my glasses still on. With an inflated sense of self and hundred proof courage, I sang and felt like a rock star.
Katherine and I lost touch when school started again in the fall, and THC collapsed. The next time I saw her was in spring at a house party. Katherine was leading a band of long-haired hippies and was barking out a blues tune.
She tracked me down during their break.
“I need your help, Jeff! The guy I hired to sing polished off a bottle of Jack Daniels and is lying in the bushes somewhere. I’ll give you sixty bucks and we can play connect the freckles.”
It was an oddly effective pick-up line.
Although our ad hoc musical partnerships were successful, our personal relationship wasn’t. She was the first woman I met who thought wrestling was foreplay. Putting me in a Supplex or squeezing me in scissor lock until she was breathless really excited her. But Katherine figured it was her unusual sleeping habits, not her explosive temper, that ruined our relationship.
She slept in a hammock.
The first time we tried playing connect the freckles in her hammock we spun around and ended up getting trapped in it like flies in a rope cocoon.
My other complaint was that snored like ten drunken men. I often left because of her blast furnace snore. I could still hear Katherine snoring when I got to my car – even though the windows in her house were closed.
I only saw Katherine once during my college years. I came home for Thanksgiving, and she was playing with her latest band at one of our old haunts. She was happy to see me until she realized I was out with another girl. Then she made a point to call me on stage and wouldn’t let me off until the girl had hitched a ride home with someone else.
“Sorry to mess things up, Jeff,” she said.
“I never figured you for the jealous type.”
“I can’t let my best singer fall in love with the wrong woman. Next thing you know you’ll be changing diapers and feeling sorry for yourself because you’re not singing.”
The next time I saw Katherine I was a twenty-six-year-old rising executive, far removed from the music scene. It was the only time I ever saw her display any sign of weakness.
There were a lot of pretty boys in music and Katherine had hooked up with a tall, mullet-haired guitarist who could sing rings around me but drank like his liver was borrowed and cheated on Katherine so many times she referred to her rivals by numbers rather than names.
Just before the gig she’d caught mullet-head getting personal with an appreciative fan. Katherine broke her favorite guitar over his head and was arrested for assault and battery.
When I came into the bar, Katherine was mangling a lead vocal. Never one to overindulge before a gig, a distraught Katherine had started the evening off with whiskey and switched to vodka. The world loves a train wreck, but not when they have to pay to see it. Katherine had gotten away with singing a few maudlin ballads, but the crowd was beginning to mutter, and her band mates were looking for the exit.
She was slurring her way through a telling “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” when her watery eyes focused on me.
Dropping her guitar with a loud KA-TWANG! she ran into my arms.
“We’re gonna take a short break and let the drugs take effect,” the bassist announced.
“Looks like they already have!” someone yelled.
This should have been the moment when the damsel in distress, reunited with her hero, kissed him.
She kissed me all right – with the back of her hand.
“How could you leave me with that cheating idiot?”
Katherine alternately cursed and cried for ten minutes. After downing three cups of coffee, Katherine was able to semi-articulate her predicament.
“So, I’m going to be singing to help you raise money for your lawyer fees?”
“Very funny. It hurts, Jeff. It really hurts.”
“I’ll tell you what you once told me. Stick to the music and you won’t get hurt. Now let’s reclaim your reputation.”
We played two of the best sets we’d ever put together. After the applause died down, we went to CVS and bought a dozen cans of shaving cream. We then filled mullet-head’s new sports car with Barbasol.
We sped to Katherine’s apartment, threw each other around until she was heaving like a steam engine, and played connect the freckles.
This time we stayed together until Katherine took a gig out west, playing for some country singer. Her cousin said they planned to marry, which broke my heart but made sense. If Katherine was going to fall for somebody it was likely to be another musician.
A few years later, I went to a bar that featured wave music. I was fascinated with the keyboard player, a woman with raccoon eye makeup, and a revealing bustier. She had her red hair pulled up like an exclamation point and was playing with anger and conviction. Much to my delight, her smoky, spiteful stare caught mine. She played the last three songs before their break staring at me as if she were going to devour me -- and I was going to love every moment of it.
I made my way toward the stage as soon as they hit the last note. The redhead greeted me with an indifferent nod, staring a hole in me even after I told her she was the best keyboard player I’d ever heard.
She then broke into a broad grin. “You’ll say anything to play connect the freckles with me, won’t you, Jeff?”
The new wave era was very therapeutic for Katherine, allowing her to transfer her aggression to the stage. Off stage, she became a well-adjusted ginger who enjoyed alternating between friend and lover.
I ended up joining her band, which was comprised of the sketchiest no talents I’d ever played with, but at least looked the part.
Our guitarist, another woman, had the unsanitary habit of spitting at the audience. Our drummer’s hobby was raiding people’s medicine cabinets. He’d wait until the show to gulp down his booty, never knowing what he was taking. He ended one set by falling over his kit unconscious. Our sax player was worse. The band broke up when he pawned all our gear to feed his habit.
Twenty years passed before I saw Katherine again. I was heading for a job interview in Glastonbury, Connecticut when I walked past a poster in a store window, advertising Katherine and her Kool Kats. There was no mistaking who the head Kat was.
I went to the show that evening. Katherine wore more makeup now, which made her look like Ann Margaret. She still liked to wrestle and laughed lustily whenever I ran my finger around her body, connecting her freckles together.
One afternoon she shared her plan for our next gig.
“I want to play in Atlantic City.”
“It’s a dump.”
“I’ve played Vegas, Miami, all the resort towns. I want to play in Atlantic City with you and my cousin.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” I replied. “The band’s not breaking up any time soon.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
Three days later we were in the lounge of a semi-swanky Boardwalk hotel. Mission accomplished, we returned to the hotel room.
“Promise me something, Jeff. Promise me no matter what happens you’ll always share your gift, even if we’re not playing together.”
For a moment, I thought I saw tears welling up in her eyes.
“I promise I’ll follow my destiny. Now I want you to promise me something.”
“That for one night, you’ll call me Michael.”
And she did. But one thing didn’t change. Katherine still snored like a marine division. She lay against my shoulder, cracking the walls with her snores.
Then she stopped in mid-snore. I reveled in the silence until I realized Katherine hadn’t started breathing again.
I looked down at her. Blood was coming out of her nose.
I shook her, calling out her name. I called the front desk and ran down the hallway to her cousin’s room, rousing her and her husband.
The paramedics worked on Katherine for twenty minutes but never detected a heartbeat. The coroner later said it was a brain hemorrhage caused by a tumor, and that Katherine would have known about her condition for a long time.
Her words, “Promise me you’ll always share your gift” still echo in my head every time I take the stage. And I can still feel Katherine pecking me on my cheek for good luck.
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This was a really fun read, Michael. I got Daisy and The Six vibes but with more adventures and hijinks. This feels reminiscent of memoir writing.
Thanks, Shea. I feel lucky to have had quite a few happy/melancholy adventures.