"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I don’t remember any of what I’m about to tell you. Sure, I know the story, but it is just a story related to me by others, in bits and pieces, over many years. I have attempted to collect those scraps in order to present a narrative that feels real and whole. But it has been difficult. I have had to interpret the story, to picture the scenes in my mind, just as you are about to do. Some of the pieces are missing, because the people who witnessed them have forgotten the details, or because the people have themselves disappeared. Part of what continues to be maddening for me is the number of questions I still have that nobody seems to be able to answer in any kind of satisfactory way. Imagine the defining day of your life, stitched together from other people’s memories.
This story starts on May 22, 1988. It is important to appreciate that what happened on that day was quite literally life changing for many people. Not just me. As I write about what transpired, I will rely chiefly on the memories of my husband, Jim, the only living soul who was present on that day and can recount what happened. Or at least how he remembers it happening. I was there, too, of course, but my memories are lost. My two sons were there, but they were too young to remember what took place that day.
This was the day that my old life ended and my new life began. I died, in a way, and was reborn, with the same physical form, but not the same mind. My body still knew how to do a few of the things I had taught it to do, like play the drums and ride a bicycle. But that’s where the similarities end. The two Sus have lived separate lives. She never knew me, and I know nothing of her except what people have told me. She rebelled; I conform. She broke rules; I follow them. She drank and smoked pot; I don’t even know the taste of beer or wine, and the smell of smoke makes me physically ill. I like vegetables; she hated them. She loved to swim; I am absolutely terrified of the water.
I still to this day sit around with my family and listen to stories about the other Su, in the same way that a child might sit and hear of things that happened before she was born. Our family history has two distinct chapters, Before Su and After Su. My husband, being a computer geek, sometimes calls me Su 2.0.
You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are. I don’t know. The accident didn’t just wipe out all my memories; it hindered me from making new ones for quite some time. I awoke each day to a house full of strangers. Every morning began with a lesson: Welcome to your new life. And this wasn’t just a few days. It was weeks before I recognized my boys when they toddled into the room, months before I knew my own telephone number, years before I was able to find my way home from anywhere. I have no more memory of those first several years after the accident than my own kids have of their first years of life.
Until recently, I didn’t even know the exact date that the accident happened. Isn’t that sad, not knowing the precise moment when your life changed forever? All I knew, or thought I knew, was that it was a February afternoon in 1988. Jim thought it was a weekday. Those details and facts turned out to be wrong. The hospital records, when we finally got them, put the date of my injury at May 22, a Sunday, three days before Jim’s and my third wedding anniversary.
That particular day started out as a very typical Sunday in the Meck home. The first nine hours of that day were so routine, in fact, that there’s not much Jim remembers for certain. When people remember stuff, it’s usually the remarkable or shocking things, and the first part of that day was utterly unremarkable. It’s the events from later in the day that are unforgettable. Well, not for me. And try to keep in mind that every memory from Jim is scarred by panic, pain, and loss.
Here, then, is what would have happened on a typical Sunday for me in the spring of 1988. I can’t stress enough that this is not a factual account of what transpired that day, but merely an educated guess.
I awoke that morning tangled up in candy-striped flannel sheets on our king-size waterbed. Warm Texas sunshine was already streaming through the arched Spanish-style window of the bedroom, making a crisscross shadow pattern of the decorative wrought-iron bars on our beige carpet.
As I lay in that place halfway between sleep and wakefulness, I looked around the white-walled room and took stock of the facts: I was only twenty-two, and already twice a college dropout, thrust into the routines of marriage and motherhood, transplanted from Main Line Philadelphia to a faceless working-class suburb of Fort Worth. Next to me lay Jim, my husband and the father of my two baby boys. Benjamin, who was just shy of his second birthday, was sleeping in a twin bed in his room, beneath a dinosaur comforter. Patrick, at eight months, slept in his crib in the tiny third bedroom. Because it was a Sunday, Jim and I would head to church with the boys in a few hours. But first, if our early-morning whispers with each other did not wake the boys, Jim and I may have quickly and quietly made love. Afterward, we may have talked about plans for our wedding anniversary as well as Benjamin’s second birthday. Both were coming up. Our anniversary was in just three days. Were reservations already made for a fancy dinner out? Did we have a babysitter lined up? Did we exchange cards? Gifts? Benjamin’s birthday was only ten days away. Were there birthday gifts for him already bought, wrapped, and hidden away somewhere? Had I sent birthday party invitations to a bunch of the neighborhood kids? Or maybe that’s something that I was going to do after church that day.
We eventually got up and padded off to the shower together, tiptoeing across the worn carpet on soft feet, still trying our best not to wake the boys. After showers and dressing, I poked my head into Benjamin’s room to get him up and going before heading to change Patrick’s diaper and get him his morning bottle. As I carried Patrick toward the kitchen, I couldn’t help but glance at the walls in the hallway lined with dozens of framed photos of our young family: Benjamin being held by my parents, dressed in his white baptismal outfit; another of Benjamin, sleeping facedown in his cake on his first birthday; Jim and me out in Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, holding hands with strangers during Hands Across America; a photo of my tiny, premature baby, Patrick; and then other pictures as he fattened up; pictures taken at our wedding; our first Christmas together; the four of us moving into this, our first house.
That was my life. Was it the life I wanted?
Had I always dreamed of marrying at nineteen and having a child at twenty, and another child just one year later? Did I really envision myself dropping out of college and living as a homemaker in Fort Worth? Probably not. But if my life wasn’t proceeding quite according to plan, was there some other plan? Did I wake up that morning to any pangs of regret, or of resignation? Did I lie in bed sometimes and fantasize of escape, silently wishing myself away from this family and this home? Did I still think of or dream about my high school boyfriend? I imagine I did. After all, he and I had dated for more than three years. Did I ever wonder where he was or what he was doing? Did I even have time for any of this wondering, wishing, and thinking, or did I just accept things as they were? Everyone has secrets, don’t they? What were mine? I will never know. Jim, my husband, remembers what I was like back then, but his memories are not mine. And there are limits to what one person can really know of another. Jim can barely remember what I said and did back then. How could he possibly know what I thought about?
It was a thirty-minute drive to First Presbyterian, a huge church along the Trinity River in downtown Fort Worth. Jim and I probably entered the sanctuary a few minutes late after dropping Benjamin and Patrick off with the attendants in the nursery. We sat in roughly the same place every Sunday, on the right-hand side in front of the pulpit, halfway down the aisle. Never too close to the front, like the good Presbyterians we were. For the next hour, Jim and I sang the hymns, recited readings, prayed, and listened to the sermon, something I can’t even imagine now. Church is one of those things that the new me has never quite figured out. I still don’t fully understand the endless monologues about this man named Jesus who lives everywhere while being invisible, who is dead but still alive, both father and son. I have no idea if I in fact had faith or even believed in God before. But after the accident, I found myself wishing that instead of having to sit through an hour-long church service, I could instead slip away and join my sons in their Sunday school classrooms, where perhaps things were explained a bit more clearly.
After church, we returned home to our ranch house on El Greco Avenue, a tiny house with the water heater tucked right inside the front hall closet to save space. I cannot recall that house on El Greco, but Jim has shown me pictures. It was a tract home in a working-class neighborhood called Wedgwood, south of downtown Fort Worth. All the homes in that neighborhood, constructed in the mid-1970s, were built for first-time homeowners. It was a neighborhood of pregnant moms and strollers, older station wagons, and backyard barbecues. Our house at 6609 El Greco was indistinguishable from all the others. There was a house just like ours to the left, and another on our right. We moved into it in 1987, hoping to settle down and stay put after five moves in and around Fort Worth in just two years.
It was my habit in those days to sit outside on the ribbed, folding lawn chair on our back patio with a fresh legal pad for a Sunday-afternoon routine of letter writing while the kids played in the yard. I was a good writer back then, with a broad vocabulary of SAT words and a confident, flowing script. Family and friends all lived far away from us, so I regularly included updated photos of the boys in my letters. One letter for my parents, one for my grandparents, letters for my brothers and sisters, possibly one for my high school friend Kathy and another for Michele, my college roommate. One for each of the people I was about to forget.
* * *
When I was in high school, I lived with my family in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb. I was the fourth of five children, and I wanted for nothing. My father was a chemical engineer, my mother an overachieving stay-at-home mom who did more in five minutes than most moms accomplished in a whole day. I was made in their image, with a clever mind, musical talent, an athletic body, and a determined, but reasonably stubborn personality.
But I ended up labeled as the Millers’ rebellious child. In fifth grade, when I was asked to pick a musical instrument, I chose the drums. In high school, I drank, smoked pot, and partied hard, though I still managed to earn mostly A’s and B’s. I went to college at Ohio Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts school, with a pretty campus in the town of Delaware, just north of Columbus. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got pregnant and had an abortion. At the end of my sophomore year, I dropped out of college, got married, moved to Texas, started school at Texas Christian University, got pregnant again, and dropped out again, all by the age of twenty.
I married at nineteen, over my parents’ strong objections. It’s weird for me to think about, but I was, then, younger than my daughter, Kassidy, is now. My parents apparently couldn’t stop me. I sure as hell would stop her. Or at least I hope I would. What was it about me that couldn’t be stopped? What about me was so uncontrollable? To run off and get married at nineteen? I would go to the ends of the earth before I would let my daughter do that. What about me could my parents not stop? That’s a big question for me now, and I don’t have an answer. Nobody does.
I met Jim at Ohio Wesleyan my freshman year. He was a junior and had seen me in the OWU Look Book, the book put out by the school with all the pictures of new freshman and transfer students, in the fall of 1983. He walked up to me at a band practice that September and said, “Oh, hi, you must be Su. You’re a freshman here, right?” He says I looked at him as if he was dog shit I had just scraped off my shoe. Both of us were in other relationships. But late that fall, we ended up in a car together on a weekend canoe outing with his fraternity and my sorority. On the way back, in a Wendy’s drive-through, he kissed me.
Four years later, Jim was a twenty-four-year-old software engineer at General Dynamics, a campus of forty-thousand workers across from Carswell Air Force Base, and part of the Strategic Air Command. GD and Carswell AFB were cogs in the tank-tread wheels of the old Cold War America. He left at 7:15 each morning in jeans, loafers, and a polo shirt and spent his days writing software for F-16 fighter jets. Many of our neighbors were young single-income families whose husbands and fathers also worked at General Dynamics. Mike and Pam Knote, for example, lived right across the street and were only a few years older than we were, with two boys of their own, a five-year-old and a toddler. Mike Knote went off to work at General Dynamics every day, just like Jim. Pam stayed home, just like me.
During the day, Jim and I seldom spoke to each other. His scheduled work hours usually ended at four, but most days he worked late into the evenings in order to get the overtime. So I never really knew when he was going to arrive home. He didn’t like me to call him at work, but I was okay with that. I was happy to sit at home and wait to eat with him after feeding the boys their supper. The evening entertainment was usually books or a video. And there was always music playing.
I loved rock-and-roll music, mostly from the 1960s and 70s, as well as all the great current 1980s stuff. I still have all of my old vinyl records and a huge cassette-tape collection. More than anything, I liked and often played along with my favorite drummers: Neil Peart from Rush, Keith Moon from the Who, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd, John Bonham from Led Zep, and, of course, Ringo. Unfortunately, we ended up having to sell my drum kit early in our marriage. There were bills to pay. After the accident, Jim remembers me putting on records and dancing around the living room with the boys. Maybe we did that before the accident, too. Maybe we had danced around the living room on that very Sunday afternoon in May.
We had resided in the house on El Greco for less than a year, but Jim already knew the way to the hospital. I was apparently accident-prone. Less than three years earlier, at our wedding, my father had taken Jim aside and told him, “Find the nearest emergency room as soon as you get to Texas, because about every six months, Su finds a need to be there.”
In our short time living on El Greco, I had already proven him right. Eight months earlier, a fierce bout of influenza had sent me into early labor. Patrick was born in the hospital downtown, a month premature and weighing not quite four pounds. We called him our little spider monkey. A few months after that, Benjamin, while throwing a typical eighteen-month-old’s temper tantrum, had hurled a heavy wooden Playskool truck through the window in our bedroom, creating a hole the size of a volleyball in the glass. Impulsive and impatient, I reached through the broken glass to pick up the truck and somehow managed to slice through the webbing between my thumb and forefinger, badly injuring my hand. When I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop on my own, I called Jim. He drove right home and took me to the ER. I ended up needing nineteen stitches both inside my hand and out.
* * *
As we settled into our evening routine on that Sunday in May, Jim thinks that he and I talked about the possibility of renting a movie after the kids had gone to bed. Then our thoughts turned to, “What shall we eat for dinner?”
Later I was clattering around the electric stove making macaroni and cheese, adding dollops of Velveeta to the pot because that was the way Benjamin liked it, smooth and creamy with no lumps. I may have been planning to boil some peas in another pot. Jim sat at the kitchen table, reading the Sunday edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and playing the part of suburban dad. Benjamin sat in his high chair eating Cheerios. I may have also been fixing a bottle of milk for Patrick, who was crawling around entertaining himself with his toys on the carpet in the family room right off the kitchen.
It’s the next moment when Jim’s memories come into sharp focus. He distinctly remembers seeing Patrick out of the corner of his eye, crawling from the family room into the kitchen.
Nobody knows what exactly happened next. Jim’s back was turned. “I hear this noise,” Jim recalls. “I have only an auditory memory of what it sounded like. I remember being startled. I turn, and this is the picture: It’s something out of the movie Carrie, where I’m standing, I’m turning, you’re holding out Patrick, and as you’re handing him to me, you’re collapsing, blood flowing from your head down your front.” As I crumpled to the floor, Jim says he watched the light in my eyes go out.
For a few seconds, Jim just stood there, his mind not yet comprehending what had happened.
“I’m trying to figure out what to do next,” he recalls, “because what I’m seeing makes no sense.”
My body lay on the floor in a heap, inert. The ceiling fan hovered a foot or so above me. Somehow, those facts were connected.
Jim’s moment of paralysis passed. He stepped around my fallen body and the swaying ceiling fan and crossed the kitchen to the telephone hanging on the wall just around the corner. With Patrick in one arm and the phone in the other, he dialed 911.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?” “I’m in my house. My wife has collapsed.” “All right, sir. Is she breathing?”
“I don’t know.”
“All right, sir. We’ll get someone there as soon as we can.”
Patrick’s voice had risen to a wail, and by the end of the call, Jim was shouting over it. Jim gave the dispatcher our address and hung up the phone. Benjamin sat in his high chair, speechless, his eyes fixed on the floor where his mommy lay.
Jim stood in the kitchen and studied the scene. I lay on the floor, a pool of blood expanding outward from the gash in my forehead. Above my limp body swung the ceiling fan, now freakishly suspended by a frayed cord. Jim’s eyes followed the cord to the ceiling and saw the bare hook that had once held it sticking out from a ragged hole in the plaster. I wonder now about that fan. Were there any other exposed wires hanging down? Was it a fire hazard? Wasn’t Jim worried about himself or the boys getting electrocuted? How could he have left it hanging there? How is it that the oddly dangling fan could have been ignored?
The fan had come with the house. Nothing in its previous behavior had given us cause for alarm. It was quiet, well balanced, and it had always cooled the kitchen nicely.
For a few moments, panic receded and Jim’s engineer brain asserted itself. He pieced together what he thinks might have happened: “I thought back, and I can remember you saying, ‘Weeee,’ ” Jim recalls. “And I’m thinking, so, you walked over to Patrick and said, ‘Weeee,’ and picked him up. As you held him up, over your head, either his back or his feet hit the fan, and it came crashing down on you.” He reenacts this scene for me with a pillow.
I have often thought about Patrick: By what miracle was he totally unharmed? How is it the fan did not hit him? How was it that I was able to hand him to Jim before collapsing? And what about Benjamin? Jim says he was right there, sitting in his high chair. What did he see? His mom lying on the floor, in a pool of blood? How awful would that be for him? Thankfully, he says he doesn’t remember anything about that day.
Jim considered what to do next. He knew enough first aid to know not to try to move me. He thought, “Okay, the ambulance is coming and they’re going to take you. I need to figure out somewhere for the boys to be.” He scooped them up and dashed across the street to the Knotes, our neighbors and friends.
Pam Knote opened the door. Jim said, “There’s been an accident. The ambulance is coming. Can I leave the guys with you?”
Pam recalls that Jim looked “calm but frantic, you know, very urgent.” The tone in his voice told her there was no time to explain. “I mostly remember him just handing me Patrick.” She left all four kids with her husband, Mike, and set off across the street with Jim to put together a diaper bag.
An ambulance had arrived by this point and now sat parked outside our home; Jim and Pam walked in to find two paramedics tending to me. “You were lying on the kitchen floor,” Pam recalls. “There was blood on your face and under your head. The paramedics were asking you some questions, and you were able to respond, but I don’t know how coherent you were.”
Pam, too, remembers seeing the ceiling fan dangling near the floor. She also saw, protruding from the ceiling, “a hook with a lip on it that should have been up in the ceiling but wasn’t.” As she took in the scene, she marveled that I had somehow managed to keep the fan from hurting my baby. “That was your first instinct as a mom,” Pam remembers thinking to herself, “to protect Patrick.” Pam collected diapers, bottles, blankets, and changes of clothing, stuffed everything into a bag, and headed back across the street to Benjamin and Patrick, leaving Jim to stay with me.
Jim hovered over the paramedics. One looked up, gestured across the room, and said, “Sir, please stand over there and stay out of our way.”
A paramedic shined a bright pen light into my pupils. One of them had shrunk to a pinprick; the other had swelled. Neither one responded to the light the way it should. Jim watched the men stick pins in my fingers and then heard one of them say, “She’s completely unresponsive.”
Was I awake? Jim and Pam’s accounts differ on this point. Pam says she remembers me speaking to the paramedics. But is she really just remembering them speaking to me? Jim says he doesn’t remember hearing my voice or seeing me stir at any point, not in the seven minutes from when the fan hit me till the paramedics arrived, nor in the ten minutes from their arrival until my body was whisked away on a backboard. But his memories of that day are colored by panic and shock. When he heard the paramedics say, “She’s completely unresponsive,” did they mean that I was out cold, or merely that some of my fingers and toes were numb and failing to react to the prick of a pin?
A second rescue unit pulled up; this one was a full-size fire truck. An incident commander entered the house with two or three other men in heavy fire jackets and hats. Two of them carried a backboard that was meant for me.
A big red fire engine with flashing lights and firefighters rushing around in jackets and hats must have made for quite a scene outside the door of our little home. Did our neighbors step outside to see what was going on? Did they stay indoors and peer through curtains? Did other people on El Greco wonder what could have drawn the Fort Worth Fire Department to the Mecks’ door? Did they care?
Inside our house no one was talking much, but Jim remembers glimpsing the frequent nonverbal cues passed back and forth between the commander and the paramedics, a faint shaking of heads and furrowing of brows, all seeding a sense of foreboding. “I remember them being very grim,” Jim recalls. “You know: it just did not look good, not good at all.”
The paramedics bandaged an inch-long gash on my forehead: such a small wound, but so much blood, pooling in a three-foot diameter around my head. Workers carefully fitted a cervical brace around my neck. Then several of them encircled me and ever so gently lifted me onto the backboard. They strapped my body to the board and rushed out of the house to load me into the ambulance.
Jim asked if he could come along. “No, sir,” a paramedic told him, “you can’t go in the ambulance. We aren’t covered for that.”
The ambulance door swung closed, and I began my journey to the hospital. I would like to tell you that the paramedic gazed pensively at my vital signs, steadied my wounded head, held my hand, and even though I couldn’t hear the words, he told me in a thick Texas accent, “Everything’s gonna be just fine.” But Jim wasn’t there, and I don’t remember, so there is nothing more to tell.
Excerpted from “I Forgot to Remember” by Su Meck with Daniel de Visé. Copyright © 2014 by Susan E. Meck. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)