Strike Your Enemy Pretty, Crow
In Lucca, in line for the concert of The Good, The Bad and The Queen, heat sticks to skin like a tarantula’s web. It slithers and stabs the wrinkles in Priscilla’s neck, the ones she hates so much.
While she’s in line, the band on stage gifts the passers-by with the notes from the sound check. Priscilla wonders if it’s Paul Simonon who’s filling the air with his bass riffs, but the musicians are protected by tall barriers covered with posters, and she can’t see them. The girls in line squeal anyway.
“I made this shirt with stencil,” one of them chirps. She has evened-out bangs, and her stick legs bend under her corduroy miniskirt as she takes a selfie with her friend.
Priscilla tries to remind herself to enjoy her night. She jumped through hoops to get some alone time while her colleague Sara takes care of her mother, and now she’s about to see Paul Simonon.
Sweat glides along her back to her butt, to the hollow of her knees, hidden under her oversized, flapping pants. Sep hated palazzo pants; he said they were too hippy. Priscilla knows that palazzo pants are very fifty-year-old-woman-trying-to-hide-cellulite, and she knows that she’s just jealous of the girl with the corduroy miniskirt. Women her age are meant to be jealous.
The stencil letters on the girl’s shirt say London Calling, Cut the Crap; Joe Strummer’s cheekbones sting her left breast.
The concert’s photographer wanders in the lined audience, greedy; he sees the stencil girl in the crowd, and her selfies stop abruptly. She poses; the photographer takes pictures of her.
Priscilla scoots over and wraps her fingers around her ticket.
At sixteen, Priscilla escaped to London to see The Clash live.
Well, she tried. It was one of the last shows before the end, years before Joe Strummer’s heart exploded in his ribcage. Priscilla just wanted to see Paul Simonon jump.
When her mother was still healthy and Priscilla could go wherever she wanted to, she planned to hop on a bus from Shangai, the north suburbs of Livorno. She waited at the bus stop next to the grocery store, between the Bastia swimming pool and San Marco square; she got to the railway station, jumped on a train to Pisa, then on a shuttle to the airport, all this dragging a canvas suitcase full of fake IDs and a bunch of plaid miniskirts, studded combat boots, shredded t-shirts.
It was 1985. Who cared about “We Are the World”; who cared about Live Aid. Who cared about Bob Geldof, Phil Collins, Elton John, Sting, Queen, about the charity for Ethiopia. Priscilla wanted to see The Clash.
Where are your parents, the flight attendant asked at the check-in. Her hair was combed so far up in the air that it looked like the atomic bomb mushroom.
I’m eighteen, Priscilla said, no sign of hesitation, the tips of her fingers sliding on her fake ID as she pushed it on the counter.
Priscilla chewed her gum and smiled, showing all her teeth, her mouth so tense that it felt like it was breaking her face in a half.
Five minutes later, she was outside the airport, her fingers still wrapped around the flight ticket and the handle of her suitcase full of punk clothes, her teeth shredding her lips.
Piazza Napoleone is split between the area that’s closer to the stage, meant for the holders of priority tickets, and the back, for the economy ticket holders. The two areas are divided by barriers that split poor people from the rich. There’s no pit. The priority area is full of lined chairs, just like the economy one.
Priscilla could have bought the priority ticket, but now, as in any other situation where money makes the difference even on the most mundane aspects of life, she feels discomfort in her hands—they start shaking, her neck itches, her mouth dries up, and her teeth start torturing her lips, tearing dead skin up like ribbons. The day she’ll buy a sitting place at a concert, she’ll have both her legs broken. She’ll be a rickety old woman on a wheelchair. She’ll be her mother.
Priscilla sits down in the first row, behind the poor people barrier, and she puts her purse on her knees. She doesn’t know what to do, at a sit-down concert.
The stencil girl is sitting a few chairs from hers and she’s rolling a cigarette.
The stage is ready and the show will begin in two hours. Priscilla has been to concerts by herself in the past, but never at fifty, surrounded by twenty-year-olds with full sets of hair combed in Mohawks and evened-out bangs. She brought a book, but in the ocean of cellphones, she doesn’t want to look pretentious, as if being one of the very few over-forty spectators didn’t make her uncomfortable enough. Priscilla wonders whether Sep ever goes to concerts alone, Sep with his prestigious job and the list of grandiose titles at the end of the email that he sent her years ago.
Simon Ellis Paulson
Head of the Music Department
Georgia State University
She’d like to remember more (there was more), but the stencil girl keeps talking. “I can’t wait to go to London. Imagine how great it will be. Just imagine Camden.”
Priscilla listens to the girls chatting about an upcoming study trip to London. Just imagine Camden.
“Where does the name Sep come from?” Priscilla asked him one night, as Sep lay on the windowsill of her London apartment.
At eighteen, two years after the debacle of her attempt to go see The Clash live, Priscilla saved enough money to escape to London. The Clash had split. She found an apartment in Chalk Farm, a few steps from Camden, and Sep loved to lie on her windowsill as he smoked dope and looked outside.
Priscilla was naked in bed. She fished chips from a plastic bag and listened to him. Sep’s tattoos traced webs of dry blood between the black moles on his back. Anarchy symbols were scattered like stars on his muscles and bones.
“The Sep thing was born when I was in Taos with my parents. They had dragged me with them on a ski trip,” Sep was saying.
His American accent still sounded foreign compared to the British ones she was used to hear in London. It was new, almost exotic. Every time Sep spoke, Priscilla had a million questions. What kind of place was Taos? It seemed like a Hawaiian island, maybe an Asian village. And what did Sep mean, when he said that his parents had dragged him on a ski trip? In New Mexico? How could there be snow, in a place called New Mexico? She couldn’t picture Sep on a nice fancy trip like that. He was a nineteen-year-old punk boy with a leopard-print haircut. In London, Sep said that he didn’t even have the money to pay for the tube ticket. But Priscilla never understood anything, with Sep.
“So my dad brings me to this museum in downtown Taos, and I’m boring myself to death, when I see this painting—like, a painting by a white artist who, like, got off on Native Americans. I’m saying: straight-up obsessed.” Sep turned to her and tossed the joint wick from the window. “And that’s it, I look at this painting, and it’s nothing special, it’s just this portrait of Native American guy like all the others in the museum. Cool, but they all look the same. However, the title—shit, the title.” Sep scratched the nape of his neck. The day before he had dyed the leopard spots on his head blue, and the dye had given him a rash. “Strike Your Enemy Pretty, Crow.”
Priscilla liked the story and the title immediately.
“A name, an imperative,” Sep went on. “The name of this Native American dude was, Strike Your Enemy Pretty. Crow was his tribe.”
“So, when you had to choose a punk name, you took the initials of that title,” Priscilla concluded. She wanted to show him she was smarter than he thought. “SEP.”
Sep got up, grabbed a cigarette pack from the coffee table, and broke one of the smokes to get the tobacco and roll another joint. “Exactly,” he said, then he kissed her. “You got it.”
“Have you ever seen them live?”
The forty-year-old guy in front of her is carrying a pizza box and a light beer.
“No,” she says. Priscilla doesn’t feel like talking. She knows that she should hold on to every relationship, every human contact. She knows that there’s not much more in her life, other than her job as a secretary at the British School in Livorno, and her mother’s illness. She knows she shouldn’t be picky.
But the forty-year-old guy doesn’t want to give up. “Come on. I’m Francesco.”
He seems so pathetic, with his receding hairline, his beaded bracelets, and this need to talk to her, that Priscilla doesn’t even point out his annoying inability to accept that a woman may not be immediately available to listen to him.
Priscilla listened to Sep’s bullshit for years.
“Do I seem that lonely?” she snaps.
Priscilla doesn’t want to feel as squalid as the guy and his receding hairline, but her hair has been thinning constantly in the last few years, and when she tries to fix it in a ponytail, the perimeter of the circle between her thumb and her finger around her hair is so short that she feels like punching the mirror. Everything about her body is gray, saggy, flaccid.
“At our age, talking back is just rude,” the guy says.
“And how was it before?”
“It was different,” he goes on. “It meant a woman had better stuff to do.”
Priscilla starts biting the skin of her dried lips. “How about now?” she snaps back.
The guy looks around: a crowd of young people. The answer to her question is so obvious that he seems to be in the comfortable position of not having to reply.
Priscilla would like to rip the pizza box from his hands and toss it on stage like a flying saucer. She’d like security to kick her out of the concert and tell her that girls like her end up in hell.
“I’ve never seen them live,” Priscilla tells the guy. “The only other time they came to Italy, my married ex and I had sex, and on the actual day of their concert, I was having an abortion.” Priscilla enjoys the guy’s facial expression as it changes slowly, even in his attempt to remain unperturbed. She smiles at him, seraphic. “Have you ever seen them live?”
The guy finally walks on; the pizza box trembles slightly between his fingers.
Priscilla met Sep at a Smiths gig at Dingwall’s Club. He asked her for a cigarette; she gave it to him and he broke it in a half.
Initially, Priscilla thought that Sep wanted to challenge her with a punk gesture of some sort. He looked at her with Sid Vicious’s crooked smile. Then he gathered the tobacco in his hand, which was all cut, with an Anarchy symbol carved between the lines on his palm.
“Thank you,” he said, and Priscilla recognized his American accent from the movies.
They spent the rest of the night dancing; at the end of the concert, he invited her to a party. Sep didn’t specify who was the host.
“It’s a party to honor Dirk. Everyone will be there.”
Priscilla shrugged. She’d go, whoever Dirk was.
“Where do you live?” Sep asked, sweat gathering under his hairline.
“In a flat in Chalk Farm.”
“You don’t squat?” he asked, his eyes wide and shiny like light bulbs in the Camden night.
Priscilla worked forty-five hours a week at an Italian restaurant in Islington to afford her rent. She had never thought of occupying a place illegally, but she had heard of people doing it. She had read punk magazines and listened to songs. She wanted the studs and the drugs and the fluorescent hair colors and the music shot in her ears like cannonballs. She didn’t hesitate to follow Sep. At the party, he didn’t leave her alone for a second; they danced and screamed and drank and smoked. At four in the morning, police arrived.
Sep rubbed his hands, his joint dangling from his lips like a bird on a branch. “We about to have fun,” he said.
Priscilla didn’t know what he meant.
“These pigs arrested Dirk for some pot,” he said. “They blindfolded him like an animal. He’s got two black eyes now. He fell from the stairs.”
Before Priscilla could ask any questions, Sep threw the joint on the floor, grabbed her by the wrist, and ran into the crowd. Sep kicked a police officer and squeezed his way out, dragging Priscilla like a cat on a leash. Priscilla felt the crowd closing on her, her fingers losing their grip, and she lost Sep. She found herself squished against the wall until he came back, all sweaty, blood smeared on his left cheek. He grabbed her again and ran from the window. Sep jumped first; Priscilla hesitated. In the few seconds before falling, she felt like a punk Juliet. She landed on her combat boots to run to her Romeo.
At sixteen she didn’t see The Clash; at eighteen, she became a punk.
The guitars are aligned on stage; for the background, The Good, The Bad and The Queen chose a beautiful print depicting a pier on the sea, scattered with the gleaming lights of lampposts. They hanged light bulbs everywhere; two red abat-jours tower from an amplifier and a keyboard.
Priscilla knows that she won’t see the typical rock concert she is—was—used to. When Paul Simonon will come on stage, dragging his sixty-five years with him after the glory with The Clash, he won’t jump and smash his bass guitar on the ground like in the famous picture on the cover of London Calling, her favorite album when she was a teenager. It won’t be the same Paul Simonon that Priscilla adored in the eighties, when she wanted to scream her anger for being born in Livorno, in a stupid family in a stupid neighborhood, where the graffiti and the cemented soccer fields and the churches were just slabs of concrete with no way out. Quicksand of squalor.
She loved punk because she was angry. She had never cared for hippies, love, Bob Dylan, and then later for Queen, the Live Aid, and so on. She never cared for world peace. Her mother couldn’t afford buying her schoolbooks and her lunch; Priscilla started working at the port when she was fifteen, where men her grandpa’s age whistled at her from behind the containers. Who cared about Bob Geldof, world peace, and the hunger crisis in Ethiopia? The Clash was enough.
Now Priscilla listens to the stencil girl. “There’s this store in Camden, the Cyberdog, that sells rave shit. Latex skirts, fluo bras. I can’t wait to go.”
Priscilla lowers her gaze on the cover of her book. At the end of the seventies, The Clash lived and recorded their albums in the building where the Cyberdog is now. Maybe the stencil girl doesn’t know; maybe it doesn’t matter, as it didn’t matter for Priscilla at the time. When, at eighteen, she finally got to London, The Clash had dismantled, and she could never see them.
In July 1989, Sep came to Livorno. Priscilla introduced him to her mother. Obviously she didn’t like him; Priscilla saw her mother’s eyes lingering on his blue leopard print hair and the Anarchy tattoos on the palm of his hand. Even before getting sick, her mother had always been difficult.
Sep, instead, fell in love with the sea, the taste of the wind, the stains of salt on the concrete, the rough roads with the scooters zigzagging between the holes. Sep loved the Anarchy symbols on the walls, the Che Guevara flags, the worn-off graffiti with the hammer and sickle. The amaranthine color of the city.
They spent every day on the seaside. Priscilla had moved to London as soon as she turned eighteen, so she had never gotten her driving license, mainly because she couldn’t afford a car or a scooter. Now, in Livorno, she and Sep walked hand in hand under the sun. Their ribs pierced their shredded shirts.
It was their second year together, when they were still in love and Sep hadn’t started to feel guilty yet. His father still hadn’t called from the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to remind him that he was splurging all his money acting like a punk in Europe, that he had to get his degree, come back to America, gain his masters in Museum Management and become a rich bourgeois like the rest of his American family, the one who went to Taos on ski trips and visited art museums. The one Priscilla knew nothing about.
Priscilla didn’t even know that Sep was in London to get his bachelor degree. Sep was a punk dude who squatted and always said he didn’t have money for tube rides.
He never told her anything about his real life.
Priscilla never understood anything, with Sep.
Her phone rings from her purse and Priscilla is happy to take a break from the stencil girl’s chitchat. Sara, the colleague who’s supposed to take care of her mother for dinner, is calling. Priscilla didn’t tell her anything about The Good, The Bad and The Queen gig. She didn’t want to explain who the group was, why she went alone, why she drove to Lucca thinking about Sep non-stop instead of appreciating the fact that she had a night for herself.
“The reading will start soon,” Priscilla tells Sara, biting her lips and torturing the spine of her book with her nails. The stencil girl looks at her as she lies.
“I’m with your mom,” Sara says. “I helped her drain the pasta. Everything’s ok.”
“Thanks so much,” Priscilla replies.
“No worries at all.”
Priscilla knows she should feel guilty, both towards Sara and her mother, the same guilt that she feels every single day of her life, because of her mother, because of what happened with Sep in the last few years. Tonight she wants to take a break and see The Good, The Bad and The Queen. They’re not The Clash, but still.
Her mother used to tell her that Sep would never stay, that dreams were for young people.
Before she got sick, she told Priscilla that a woman without a husband and a family was nothing. Priscilla dreamed for too long and stayed in London for years, until she wasn’t young anymore. Maybe her mother was right; maybe Priscilla was nothing.
Sep broke things off one night at the beginning of the nineties, when Priscilla came back from her shift at the Italian restaurant and Sep was waiting for her in front of her apartment, holding a hyacinth between his fingers.
“The fuck is that?” Priscilla asked. Sep wasn’t one for romantic gestures, if she didn’t count that he always gave her the last drag of his joint.
“It’s my apology,” he said.
“For not telling you some stuff about me.”
Priscilla let him in. “Like what?”
“Sep comes from my full name. Simon Ellis Porter.”
Priscilla started laughing, but his name was only the first lie.
A month later, Sep left England to go back to Albuquerque forever, and three years later he emailed her to ask her how she was. The email ended with two pieces of good news: he got married with a classmate from his masters in Museum Management, and he won an assistantship as a PhD student at Georgia State University. He wanted to become an art professor and a curator, just like his dad.
Priscilla read the email and glanced from the window of her apartment in Chalk Farm. She was still in London. She had left her job at the restaurant and started working at a punk clothing store in Camden.
The nineties had come, bringing with them all the tourists buying and wearing corduroy skirts, safety pins, combat boots, shredded shirts. Tourists acting punk.
Every day, as Priscilla got home, she took off her punk clothes—the store uniform—and slipped into an old The Clash t-shirt and jeans shorts. She wasn’t punk anymore, but she had been. Sep, instead, had always been someone else.
As the sky in Lucca goes dark, Priscilla tries to kick the guilt away. The light bulbs and abat-jours on stage aren’t lit yet.
It’s only thirty minutes before the concert starts. Priscilla doesn’t remember ever having to wait for so long, even at the times when she sat in front of the venues early in the morning to make sure she saw the bands from the first row. After decades, she still regrets not seeing The Clash, but sometimes she just feels resentment. She can’t pinpoint what or who she resents exactly – maybe Sep, maybe her mother, who lost her job and got sick too soon; maybe her father, who was never there, or maybe Livorno, which took her away from England and held her back because London was too far away, too expensive, too full of dreams.
Priscilla never realizes when she starts flaying the skin of her lips with her teeth, until she tastes the blood in her mouth. She watches the forty-year-old man as he throws the empty pizza box away before the concert starts. He walks past her; Priscilla looks down as the gravel creaks under his sneakers. “I’m sorry about earlier,” she says.
He shrugs. “No worries. Enjoy the show.”
He walks off. It’s really true when they say that old age makes you resigned and peaceful.
In 2007, almost twenty years after their last night in London, Sep came to Italy for a conference. He tracked Priscilla’s number on the Internet and called her at the British School in Livorno where she worked as a secretary. When she heard Sep’s voice on the phone, she jumped on her seat.
“I’m in Florence for an art conference,” he said. “But I can come see you in Livorno on Friday.”
Priscilla didn’t ask questions.
She picked him up from the railway station with her green, beat-up Fiat—she had cleaned it up to perfection. She saw him before he would see her. He wore a beautiful light gray suit, his salt-and-pepper hair was longer and curly on top of his head, and shaved on the sides. The blue leopard haircut was an old memory.
The thought of looking ugly and sloppy haunted her—she dyed her hair blonde to hide the gray; her neck was full of wrinkles, and a slight double chin accompanied every movement of her head. She had never been a blonde, and when she was young she was super skinny. Sep would never recognize her.
She was wrong—he saw her before Priscilla could drive off.
She parked the car a few steps away from the entrance of the station, fighting the instinct to check herself in the rearview mirror one last time to fix her hair.
Sep got into the car and gave her a print. “It’s so good to see you,” he said, in a broken Italian. “This is the painting. You remember?”
Priscilla didn’t say anything. The print depicted a boy with brick-colored skin, wearing a large brown cowboy hat and a big eagle feather.
Strike his Enemy—Pretty Crow, said the caption. Signed, Joseph H. Sharp.
“I was wrong the whole time,” Sep told her in English. “I thought it said, Strike your Enemy Pretty, Crow. An imperative. I wrote a paper about this painting. The author was this rich white guy who didn’t know anything about the struggles of Native Americans.”
Priscilla had no idea what a paper was, and didn’t know what he was talking about. As always with Sep, she didn’t understand. “It’s beautiful, Sep,” she said. “Thank you.”
At dinner they drank too much. Every time he brought the wine glass to his lips, Priscilla saw the wedding ring shine around his finger under the light of the restaurant.
The boy who chugged pints of cheap lager in Camden dirty pubs was gone. The blue leopard spots on the sides of his head, obviously gone. His shredded clothes, gone.
When they ended up in bed together, Priscilla realized that there was no trace of his Anarchy tattoos. She thought she would see at least one, even if faded away.
At nine thirty-five, Paul Simonon jumps on stage with The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
When he played with The Clash, Paul Simonon was a little older than twenty. He had a beautiful haircut; his legs flashed on stage like light bolts. He squirmed, screamed, spat. His bass guitar dangled from his shoulders; he carried a cigarette behind his ear and sometimes lit it up on stage. Priscilla had seen The Clash on television and in magazines before moving to London. She had looked for them around Camden alleys, unable to find them.
Now Paul Simonon grabs the neck of his bass guitar, the gray one with the Jolly Roger sticker next to the strings, all scratched, the paint coming off, the same he played in the seventies. Priscilla looks at him fix the strap on his shoulders, and wonders how many times he has done the same gesture, for so many years. She wonders if he’s tired as she is, but then he starts jumping, squirming, his legs flashing like the usual light bolts. A flame-red handkerchief waves from the left pocket of his pinstriped pants.
Priscilla is fifty, and she finally sees The Clash.
In 2007, Priscilla had bought the ticket for the first tour of The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Then she found out she was pregnant.
The day of the show she was at the clinic. She didn’t tell anything to Sep; he was already back in America. She didn’t say anything to her mother, obviously. She went to the clinic and drove back home, listening to the album of the band she hadn’t seen live.
“Mom?” she said, as she came home. The lunch dishes were piled up in the sink, surrounded by some gnats flying in buzzing spirals. The floor tiles were scattered with the drywall paint falling to pieces.
Her mom was sitting on her bed.
“Mom?” Priscilla asked again.
Her mother turned to her. “Antonio?”
Antonio, Priscilla’s father. He had left when Priscilla was two.
Priscilla sat on the windowsill and talked to her mother. “I’m not Antonio, mom. Dad is gone,” she said. “But he’ll always be with you.” She knew it was true.
When her mother fell asleep, Priscilla looked at the Shangai suburbs of her town, with the cemented soccer field next to the church, the roof of the Bastia swimming pool, the plaster falling to pieces. She didn’t feel the love that Sep felt for the salt stains and the wind that tasted like the sea. Quicksand of squalor. She thought about her apartment in Chalk Farm, the uniform from her job at the punk shop in Camden, and then the author of Strike Your Enemy, Crow, or whatever the title was, the rich white American guy who didn’t know shit about the struggles of Native Americans but painted them as if he knew them.
The next day, she brought her mother to the doctor and got the diagnosis she expected: dementia. London was as far away as a dream in the morning.
This piece first appeared in the magazine Spazinclusi, in Italian, “Colpisci Bene il Nemico, Corvo.”
Rachele Salvini is an Italian woman based in the U.S., where she is doing a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She spent most of her life in Italy, and she writes both in English and Italian. Her work in English has been published or is forthcoming in Prime Number Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Takahe Magazine, Sagebrush Review, Sarah Lawrence College Review, and others. She is also a translator, and her translation work has appeared or forthcoming in several literary journals, including Lunch Ticket.