Lissa and the Lion

by Angeliska on October 10, 2017

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I met Lissa (pronounced like “Lisa”) Driscoll nearly twenty years ago, when I first moved to New Orleans. I was only 19 or 20 then, and had just started working at an occult shop in the French Quarter notorious for its staff of saucy witches and reputation for casting a lenient eye towards magic that strayed to the grayer side of black. Lissa worked there too (in her odd way), and I learned the ins and outs of divination, and selling herbs, candles and other occult goods from this woman who was the kind of bohemian “free-spirit” the French Quarter used to be overflowing with: the kind of wild lady the famous Storyville sign, “BEWARE PICKPOCKETS AND LOOSE WOMEN” seemed to be warning about. I remember she had one of those signs hanging proudly over the stove in her kitchen. When she wasn’t slinging tarot cards, and ritual daggers, you could find her belting out songs and beating on a washboard down on Chartres or Royal St. on sultry afternoons, rain or shine. Lissa favored raucous old time songs and the rowdy men who played them with her. She’d arrive to work at the crack of noon with a big bottle of red wine and a black peppered salami from Matassa’s in her bike basket, and would proceed to spend the day holding court from the antique armchair in the corner, its stuffing pouring out in white curdles around her strong legs. She’d roll countless cigarettes with Bugler tobacco, tell bawdy stories and work her way steadily through the cabernet and the salami until we closed at 10, when she’d wobble off on her bicycle to go tear up the night, or back to her cozy roost: half a shotgun in the Bywater always filled with fellow musicians and friends. I got invited there for my first Thanksgiving in New Orleans. I didn’t know many people then, and I guess the people I did know were with their families, so I found myself at loose ends with nowhere to go for the holiday. Lissa’s house was steamy with good cooking and warm with company, all who welcomed me as if I’d been in town all my life. Biking home that night with a full belly and new friends, I thought, “It’s gonna be okay here, after all.” I had been feeling pretty alone, and little trepidatious with the process of trying to find my way in a new city after leaving my hometown for the first time. I’ll always be grateful to Lissa for really helping me trust that New Orleans was the right place for me to be.

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Washboard Lissa was the real McCoy – realer than real. She had no time for phonies, posturers, stuffed suits, or any of the pretentious fools pretending to be vampires, warlocks or voodoo priests that would flock to the French Quarter hoping to impress the naive. I watched her guffaw many poseurs out of the witch shop right out onto the banquette, their black tailcoats tucked firmly between their legs. She was frequently laughing – a raspy, good-natured cackle that would split her face in two like a walnut, teeth glinting and flecked with shreds of loose tobacco. Her skin had a ruddy cast, from hours busking in the sun, and her face was slightly weathered, but surprisingly unwrinkled. Untamed brows nearly met in the middle over dark eyes always squinting through laughter and glinting with sass. Lady werewolf eyes, feral and alluring. Her long hair seemed to float down her back, as if with a life of its own, brown as a wren, or sometimes hennaed red, and silvered in wavy striations, looking always as though it had recently been taken out of many tight braids. Though she didn’t shave her armpits, and I don’t remember her wearing much makeup, she was exceedingly feminine in the way of Belloq’s famous whores: not a classic beauty, or even quite pretty exactly, but she gave off such a brash aura of raw and somehow innocent sexuality, that you couldn’t help but be totally disarmed by her. Lissa had the total lack of insecurity or self consciousness of some woodland creature: a swamp witch fond of wearing long flowing vintage dresses, usually backless, braless, and often sliding off her shoulders. Her brown areolas seemed constantly on the verge of making an appearance, and her belly was beginning to get a slight baby bird booze bloat, centering her gangle of gesturing limbs. Being as young and dumb as I was at the time, I had no concept of how to judge someone’s age if they were much older than 30. I’m guessing she was in her 40′s, but she was a hard-livin’ lady, so it’s kind of tough to say for sure. I hadn’t seen her in a long, long time – not since way before Katrina hit in 2005, but I still remember a story she told me about when she was a little bitty girl. I’ll relate it as best as I can, though it’s been years since I first heard it, and so over the years and many recounting, my memory may have taken quite a few liberties. I got in touch with her a few years ago, and we struck up a correspondence, during which she got to read this piece, and make her corrections. She was entertained by it, and thankfully didn’t mind me stitching some fanciful embroideries around the edges of her story.

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When Lissa was maybe 8 or 9 years old, she went camping with her daddy – I want to say out in Colorado. They were up in the mountains, and had been set up there for a week or more, hunting some, I guess, or just being in nature. I don’t know if her mom was with them, or where her mom was, but I always imagine this story to just be about little Lissa and her dad. I picture him looking just like Sam Shepherd, with that same gentle wise smile, and a bright spark in his black eyes. You’d know from looking at him where his daughter got it from. A man of the woods, of the backroads. Quiet of footstep and a calm, sure shot. The huntsman with a heart of gold, like in the fairytale. Snow White as child of the forest, adopted instead and raised by her savior, the woodsman – no gnomes or prince in sight. I like thinking of it as just the two of them living for weeks out-of-doors. The way you start to set up automatic systems of survival in the woods: waking with the first light, cowboy coffee and oatmeal, gazing out quiet over the small smoking coal-fire in the cold and golden dawning, clutching tin mugs in this wild place not quite their home. Letting the grouse’s song be their only conversation. Wash up, hang the grey wool socks out, get the food up put up tight where bears won’t be tempted. Not too many people out on the mountain, this far into autumn. After the camp’s cleaned and tidy, Paw goes out to hunt, and leaves Lissa free to do her thing, which is mainly to wander off in the opposite direction down the trails, while he goes out into the brush and thicket with his rifle. He trusts her to mind herself in nature and not do anything foolish, and she’s old enough to know what to watch out for – the signs of predator scat and big tracks. She goes off with a tin bucket, whistling a winding song that becomes a chant, a whisper, a garland of secrets, child-spells. A language of her own, from so much time spent alone in the green. The singing sends any animals out of her way, and out towards Paw, or that’s how they think it might work, anyway. She knows not to go too far, and to make a bobwhite call from time to time, so he’ll know she’s alright. Off she goes, swinging her berry-bucket, knees scratched and dirty, hair a soft cloud tangled with seedpods and milkweed fluff.

He, her Paw, is looking for a rabbit, or deer, or turkey, or even that grouse that was singing bright so early. He knows how to be completely still in the woods, listening, quiet as a tree. For a long time, there is no sound other than his slow breathing, and the chew-whit-pip-pip of a gnatcatcher. He know how to wait in perfect patience for that rustle in the underbrush, the scatter of dry leaves and cracking twigs that might reveal dinner, or something more dangerous. A couple of times he thought, maybe – rabbits, and got happy thinking of the stew they might cook up that night. But it was only a weasel, and he wasn’t quite that desperate, or really even quick enough. After a long time waiting, a different sound began to unspool itself from back up the trails, like a tape unwinding itself backwards. A wrong sound. Screaming. It sounds like a girl-child screaming and screaming. He busts out of the brambles with a father’s fury, no longer trying to be quiet at all – but then has to stop on the trail to pinpoint her distress call. He runs back towards the terrible sound, brandishing his gun already at whatever is hurting his daughter: a bear, a wolf, a bad man. But when he rounds the bend and sees her up near the trailhead, it’s none of these imagined enemies that has got to her, is attacking her. What he sees is there far worse, because he can’t quite get his mind around what’s in front of him. An enormous mountain lion is standing on its hind legs, huge paws wrapped around Lissa’s shoulders. Her berry-bucket is overturned in the gravel, little yellow dress stained dark with red. Now is the time where he must focus, save his child from this monster that is currently ripping out her throat, or tearing off her face, its velvety head twisting eagerly at her neck. Everything slows down and he can hear the lapping tongue of the cougar, the high-pitched shrieks coming from Lissa, his own heart beating hard. A deep breath in and out, and squinting, Paw struggles to get a bead on the beast. If he pulled the trigger now, firing directly into the cranium of the cat, he’d risk blowing her brains out at the same time. He has to wait until he can see her face, and the take that window quickly. Hands shaking bad, now. He could miss. It might be too late anyway, she’s probably near to bled out by now – how is she even still standing? Half tempted to just throw down the rifle and rush the damn cougar, let it take him. If she dies, life won’t be worth living anyway. Still aiming, the window comes – for a half second he can see her face when the cats flicks its ears west, and times starts to speed up again: Lissa’s little elfin face changing expressions rapidly – but strangely, from delight to horror rather than the other way round, and then a figure moves into the clearing shouting, “Sheena, DOWN! Sheena, COME!” The mountain lion immediately releases the girl, gracefully lowering down to all fours and moving in a long dun stream towards the interloper: an old woman, gray hair wrapped up in a scarf. They all stand there, dumbfounded for a moment. Lissa’s dad lowers his gun, realizing that the sounds he’d interpreted as cries of distress were in fact squeals of ticklish laughter. She’d been screaming and screaming with laughter, with joy – communing with this beast. Lissa is running up to him now, Her cheeks and hands are stained red from raspberries, despite the sandpapery attentions of the mountain lion, shouting “Pawpawpawpaw! Did you see?! That big ol’ cat jumped up on me and was licking my whole FACE!” The predator is docile, an overgrown kitten, rubbing up against the woman’s leg. She says, “I’m so sorry – usually no one else is up on the mountain this late in the year, and most folks that are already know Sheena. She was rescued from some bastard that had her declawed years ago. Usually she keeps close, but today I got distracted and let her get off down the trail. I see she found a friend…” He shakes his head slowly, trying to work it out, willing his bowels to return to solid form again, gazing at his happy, living daughter dancing with excitement in the dusty path. The sun is westering, it’s time to get back to camp, huntsack empty of game, but he has no taste for flesh tonight. He takes Lissa’s small sticky hand and they turn back towards the place that stands for home, for now – and the comforts it provides. A fire to stare into, a little whiskey to calm his thumping heart, and this story she will happily regale him with all night, and into the years to come. Weeks from now, months, he’ll tell it too, and then he’ll be able to laugh with her. Tonight, he will stay quiet and watch her berry-stained face blushed copper in the firelight, singing her favorite old songs.

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Lissa slipped her skin this past September, after many years of truly living, as one of her friends put it, “like someone truly alive”. She had gone up to Quebec City to be with her beloved mother who was dying, while also struggling with lung cancer herself. In a letter to a friend, she wrote about her retreat from social life, in preparation for her death, describing herself as, “embracing solitude without distractions”. She also shared this:

“My mom had this quote on her fridge from Baudelaire in 1829.

‘I have quite given up the social struggle. I have scratched from the race of life. I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last will be living within my own and other peoples income.’ I think that parts funny but he goes on. ‘I am tired of acquaintances tired of friends unless they are intelligent tired also of extrovert unbookish life. I am for good talk wet evenings vins rouges en carafe reading relative solitude street worship shop gazing alley sloping Seine loafing exploration of the least known arrondissements and plenty of writing from this table in the window where I can watch the streets light up. I am far past the north. The world of ideas. I am for the Hotel de la Louisiane.’”

I am imagine her inhabiting that world now, forever. Long live Lissa!

R.I.P. Lissa Driscoll (a.k.a. “Washboard Lissa”) – left this world of from at 12:45pm, on September 14th, 2017

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Photo by Shannon Brinkman who said, “Bye for a little while, Lissa.
We will remember you for all the moments you here and especially when we got to join in for more. 

Here is Lissa back in late ’90s doing her singing rain or shine in a spot near Jackson Square where Chartres curves into St Peter.

I will remember this moment always – thank you.”


From WWOZ – In Memoriam: Lissa Driscoll

 I was listening to this Odetta song when I found out Lissa had left us. It felt like a perfect serenade:

No it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
Like you never done before
And it ain’t no use in callin’ out my name, gal
I can’t hear ya any more

I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ wallkin’ way down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I am told
I give her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
So long honey babe

Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye is too good a word, babe
So I just say fare thee well…

One comment

Beautiful.

by Marlene Pohl on October 29, 2017 at 6:54 pm. #

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