Installment #20/ But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

Next thing I knew it was morning. When I went in the living room the lamps were still lit, though no match for the harsh sunlight engulfing the room. Moose, Gus, and Ernie were sitting there, wasted, all still up from the night before. Suddenly there was a loud rap on the door and everyone jumped out of their skin.

I asked who it was and the landlord answered that he was there to collect the rent. Just a second I called out, scurrying around the apartment cleaning and straightening up, gathering all the bottles empty or otherwise, emptying the ashtrays, and disposing of any drugs I could find. I had Ernie, Moose, and Gus go down the back stairway as quickly and quietly as they could.

I opened the door reluctantly and, hoping to circumvent him, said, I was going to send you a check. I have the money but it’s not here, I have to go and get it. This isn’t a good way to start things, the landlord said. I always collect the money in person, no checks, cash only, it says that clearly on the lease.

Can you come back later or I can meet you somewhere in the village? I said. I guess I can let it go this time, he said grudgingly, but I’ll be back this afternoon, and you better be there, cash in hand.

As far as the money was concerned, I had no idea where it was but obviously needed to find out, and quick. I called Moose but he wasn’t home yet, so I asked his mother to have him call me as soon as he got there. In the meantime I went over to the Rowan’s’ a few blocks away to apprise them of my situation. As I mentioned before, the Rowans were a family from our church, whose son Joe was a good friend. They were very liberal, Mrs. Rowan taking in foster kids (which resonated with me) in addition to her own four children, including the first black child (as far as I know) in the village of Wilsonville.

We’d gotten closer when I went on my own. It turned out Mrs. Rowan, who naturally had a very maternal instinct, knew something was wrong at our house when she observed us in our pew at church over the years, and said her heart went out to us. They were one of those families I’d always longed for: the parents loved each other and their kids, and although they could be strict when needed, there was a lot more freedom, and the children were allowed to speak their mind.

As I also mentioned before, they’d helped me with the deposit and first month’s rent and, though they wanted me to think of them as their surrogate family, I couldn’t ask them for any more money. I spent a lot of time there as it was, hanging out with Joe, often staying for dinner. It was comforting to know I had some kind of safety net and wasn’t completely on my own, which is how it felt when I first left the Barnes’s.

It was in that spirit that I went to talk to them, to feel them out, see if they had any suggestions. I was hesitant to tell them about the party, but, as I wanted them to see I’d shown some ingenuity, I did, not emphasizing the drugs of course. The, only thing they could think of was to find the money from the night before, and that they’d be there for me if I couldn’t.

Albeit ruefully, I realized they were right, and went back to the apartment. I finally got ahold of Moose and he came over right away with the money he’d collected the night before, red-faced because in all the commotion he’d forgotten to give it to me. With my money and Tom’s money and the rent party money I had just enough, and was determined to never be in that position again.

By the fall things had settled into a pretty regular routine, something I wanted and needed. I had hunkered down and laid low, being short on scoots, but finally got to the point where I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck, had even managed to pay back my loans and sock what little was left in the bank. I did the household chores and, although my cooking at that point was barely edible bought my own food, and made sure the bills (especially the rent) were paid on time.

But mostly what I did was read. There was a tarpapered porch of sorts looking out into the back yard, which I could step onto through a door in the kitchen. Rummaging through a box of books I hadn’t even unpacked yet I found a Modern Library edition of Emerson’s Essays, which, along with one of the kitchen chairs, I took outside and sat there in the soft September sun reading, every now and then pausing to watch the birds flit from tree to lawn to bush and back, my very own bird’s eye view as it were.

You know how it is when you first fall in love or that once in a lifetime revelation comes out of the blue like a lightning bolt? I could not believe what I was reading when I read Emerson’s essays, especially, “Nature,” and “American Scholar.” I’d never read anything before that made so much sense, was so beautifully written, was so agreeable to my sensibilities, or evoked nature and the era he lived in so well. I went to the library to get a book about the Transcendental Movement and found Brooks’ Flowering of New England, which I devoured.

Though Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, and Jones Very seemed to me the most interesting, there were various and sundry others such as Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne- even Melville.

Brooks skillfully wove their lives, the historical events that created the milieu they lived in, and critical surveys of their writings together seamlessly, bringing them so alive I felt as though I was there among the enlightened smithies, saunterers, yeomen farmers, reformists, ministers, lecturers, and intellectuals .

But it was Thoreau who really knocked me out. Knowing Emerson was his mentor I set about first becoming thoroughly imbued with his writings, especially “Nature,” which had such a profound effect on Thoreau. I’d heard vaguely of Thoreau, and reading one of Ferlinghetti’s poems in A Coney Island of the Mind I came across the phrase “discus throwers reading Walden.”

I had no idea what Walden was, but the name resonated with me for some reason, especially when I found out later it was a book written by Thoreau. When I felt I was ready I set out to tackle Thoreau, reading his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers first, and I was immediately hooked. Besides the bucolic atmosphere and setting of the book I loved the names of the little towns surrounding Concord: Bellerica, Fairhaven, Lincoln, Sudbury, etc., there was the fact that it was conceived as an elegy recounting a canoe excursion down those rivers several years before with his beloved brother John, who had recently died of lockjaw, for the most part was written during his sojourn at Walden, and, finally, it was also my first introduction to Eastern religion (specifically Hindu), and was a real eye-opener given my provincial view of religion.

I’m not even sure where I got my first copy of Walden from (it wasn’t new) but I remember when I started it I couldn’t get enough. Walden is not an easy book to read but I raced through it, knowing I would re-read it as soon as I finished it the first time, then again and again. I felt like I had a great secret to tell people about, but who could I tell? The guys at the sewer? Rory no longer read and would probably think it was square anyway.

I decided not to tell anyone but keep it to myself until the time was right to discuss it with others. I was bursting, a light had gone on inside me, I’d never be the same again. I was intoxicated by the writing as well as the message. It was hilarious, witty, a veritable library catalog pointing me to other good books (The Iliad, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Urn Burial, and Selborn’s Natural History, to name a few) rebellious, a primer on how to conduct one’s life. Thoreau was Adam, discovering and naming the world for the first time. His voice reminded me of nothing less than Jesus, and Walden was my Bible. Chapter after chapter, line after line, went against everything I’d been taught.

Where had this been all my life? I felt cheated but realized maybe I wasn’t ready for it then and this was a perfect time for a book to change my life.  For now, his portrayal of the solitary scholarly life, of the self-sufficient jack of all trades, and the radical hermit living life on his own terms was just what I wanted to hear. I re-read Walden three times that Indian summer and made plans to visit Walden Pond as soon as I could.

Meanwhile, going from the sublime to the ridiculous, there was my other life in the sewer. At least I was beginning to feel as though I belonged, which was both bad and good. I hardly ever saw my high school friends anymore, as most were away at college, so I resigned myself to this profoundly alien existence.

Instead I began to hang out with Gerry, Bill, and sometimes Studs. Gerry was big on going to greasy spoons and sitting in a booth and talking interminably, mostly about hunting, music, and cars (his brother was a race car driver) but not about work, never about work, while he slurped heavily-creamed coffee, holding the cup in both hands, setting it down only to light up a Pall Mall, which he puffed furiously, his cheeks as inflated as Duke Ellington’s, holding the smoke in so long it looked like it might come out of his ears, until he finally exhaled it all with a great woosh.

He could be the nicest guy (always offering to lend me money or come over for dinner) one day, and the most preternaturally jealous the next (he still hadn’t quite forgiven me for not inviting him to the rent party). When I originally mentioned it in casual conversation he immediately responded, Gee I’m disappointed you didn’t invite me. We’d never been together socially outside of work before so I quickly tried to explain why I hadn’t, using the drugs and the music in explanation, but when I’d finished he looked me right in the eye and said, Sure it’s not that you’re ashamed of me? Of course not Gerry, I responded immediately. We’ll go out with Bill soon if you want. I just didn’t invite many people in the first place, in fact, most of the people who showed up I didn’t even know. Okay, I guess, he said, only partially mollified, but I’m gonna hold you to it.

Still, things were pretty copacetic between us until I let him talk me into going on one of his hunting trips with him and a couple of his buddies. We left right from work so I was still in my funky work clothes and hadn’t had a chance to get cleaned up at all, but Gerry assured me this was the only way to do it.

As soon as I got there I began to have my doubts, as the first thing they did after setting up camp was pull their guns out and start shooting at nothing in particular, something I’d never experienced before and found quite unsettling, to say the least. I’d never been anywhere near guns before, they just weren’t part of my world, except the odd time I’d gone to the Trap and Field Club to watch John Chambers do some skeet shooting, hardly the same thing. I found the initial noise they made along with its accompanying reverberations and the smell it produced, to be nerve wracking.

Not to mention that I didn’t know any of these people at all, not even Gerry very well, the thought first flashing through my head and then I couldn’t help but contemplate that I could be killed at any moment should one of these crazies decided to turn the gun on me, especially after all the beer they’d drunk since we’d arrived.

Oblivious to my discomfort, Gerry tried to get me to shoot his gun, which I emphatically resisted, despite his insistence, even going so far as to say, when he finally relented, That’s okay, you’ll do it once the beer starts flowing.

More to my taste was knife throwing that ensued shortly after. I’d gotten Gerry a Case Bowie knife for his birthday and we had a contest throwing it into trees, seeing who could get each other’s knife closest to the last one thrown, much like you’d do throwing horseshoes and darts. I happened to be very good at it, which garnered me the (if grudging) respect of the group, even Gerry, whom I knew was not a little embarrassed by my refusal to shoot a gun.

Which didn’t last long because at dusk the June bugs arrived and began dive-bombing and buzzing, targeting only me it seemed and I jumped up and made for the tent flailing my arms frantically around me to fend them off, and once I got inside my sleeping bag I made sure it was zipped up tightly behind me, while everyone outside whooped and danced around the campfire like a bunch of savages. It reminded me of the nightmare of my Boy Scout outings, only then it was watching the daddy long-legs climb up the tent pole, their shadows made monstrous when they were cast against the tent walls by the campfire outside.

After a long chilly uncomfortable night out in the country, where seemingly I slept very little, what with the trepidation at sleeping in a strange place among strange people, with the constant noise of their drunken belching, farting, puking, foul odors, not to mention the relating of graphic details of sexual conquests recent, long ago, or patently fictional.

I arose early, dog tired, hungry, and wired. As I was the first one up I walked around and got the lay of the land, actually experiencing some of the blitheness of nature Emerson wrote about as I walked along the creek, the quiet punctuated by birdsong, the golden sunrise, a fish dimpling the surface now and then, alone with my thoughts, lost in a kind of reverie that I’d rarely if ever had before, so languorous I fell asleep shortly after I laid down, stretched right there out on the sand bordering the lake.

That proved by far the highlight of the trip and it went precipitously downhill after that. It seemed like I’d slept for ages, and when I finally awoke under the warm sun now fully risen I felt momentarily like I was lost in some Shangri la- until I realized I’d been awoken by a reverberating explosion like gun fire.

Hey Wes! I heard a voice shout, then recognized it as Gerry’s. Come here and see what we’ve got! Suddenly wary, I grudgingly made my way to a small cove further down the beach, where I saw Gerry and his buddies huddled around something laying on the sand, with smoke lingering above in the air, and the acrid smell of cordite.

Come here, Wes, Gerry said, beckoning me excitedly. I wanna show you one of god’s creatures, something I bet you never saw before.

What is it? I asked warily, now fully convinced something was up, though curious to see what it was. I approached them cautiously, afraid to look, watching carefully with each step I took, hoping to at least prepare myself a little for what awaited me. The minute they deemed me close enough the circle broke and what I saw shocked and sickened me: there lay a huge snapping turtle all torn and bleeding, his huge shell in jagged shards all around him. He was still barely alive, his claws spasmodically fanning the surface of the sand, his hooked mouth gasping.

What the fuck have you done? I shouted, almost staggering, not wanting to look again, but barely able to look away.

What, said one of the guys, you gonna tell me you don’t like turtle soup?

I just wanted to see what would happen if I put an M-80 in his mouth, Gerry said, shrugging his shoulders. And there you have it. Seeing how upset I was he added, We were just having a little fun. The group all began laughing hilariously, and even seemed somewhat miffed I didn’t join in.

So here was an ancient turtle, gigantic with age, I said to Gerry, spitting out the words, One of god’s creatures, as you like to say, a survivor if there ever was one, only to have you and these other morons think it was all right to kill it senselessly, for your own pleasure? You bastards, I continued, I shouted at all of them, hearing it echo across the lake you’re a bunch of ignorant savages. I turned to Gerry and said, How could you do it? I never ever wanted to see something like that! I turned around and tramped off to be by myself, glad I hadn’t seen the actual explosion, but sick over it nevertheless. What was I thinking? I should never have come out there with these savages.

After being by myself for a while I smelled freshly brewed coffee and bacon frying, and, being faint with hunger and exhausted, I grudgingly made my way back to the camp. No one said anything when I returned, I just wanted to get out of there. I was still so angry that after I ate and rested awhile I challenged Gerry, You want me to shoot that gun, I’ll shoot it! Give it to me.

Though Gerry looked a little wary, he brought me the gun, a hunting rifle. He showed me how to sight it and told me to shoot at the opposite riverbank. I pulled the trigger and the gun nearly separated my shoulder and I lost control of it and had no idea where the bullet eventually landed. Of course everybody got a big kick out of it but it was the last time I would ever shoot or be near a gun again if I could help it.

In the meantime, classmates were being drafted for ‘Nam, some had already been casualities, while others had already returned shells of their former selves, ravaged by drugs and horrible memories.

It was strange how much difference even a year made. The senior class before ours had been very politically aware (as well as much smarter), already protesting against the war/draft, and become active in the student underground as well as in the community.

My class, on the other hand, having graduated on the cusp of the summer of Woodstock was  apathetic and apolitical, many becoming as hedonistic as their parents had been, as well as dependent on them to perpetuate the lifestyle they were accustomed to.

Others, the Junior Achievement crowd, who had constantly competed with each other for grades, test scores, and which colleges they’d be accepted in, went on to these schools and mostly became big fishes in little ponds, though often graduating with honors and finding sinecures in their chosen professions.

Still others made a half-hearted pass at college but gradually returned home to work in the family business, while others just stayed home and partied on their parent’s dime. The remainder, to whom college was not an option for one reason or another, were snapped up by the Selective Service, or spared by the lottery to toil at menial jobs for the village, town or county, I among this latter group.

The summer commenced apace. Studs rambled into work late every day, Gerry took his lunches down in the sewer, and Bill chased all the available tail he could find.

Myself, I embarked on what would prove to be an exhaustive reading program, beginning with Moby Dick, which I read every day on the lawn in the back of the plant, or stayed in the truck to read in inclement weather. The beginning was great- you know, Call me Ishmael…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…sub-sub librarian, Queequeg, Father Mapple, but my attention began to flag when I got to the cetology chapters, coincidentally during the hottest August on record. I forged on, however, pitching horse shoes with the guys on days when I needed a break from it, and was more than rewarded by its biblical denouement. I wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination through though, and read it so many times in the ensuing years I had much of it committed to memory.

As with any behavior beyond the pale (who would have thought these guys even had a pale?), it was taken note of that I wasn’t eating lunch with the group, or pitching horseshoes as frequently, and, most egregiously, I was oftentimes nowhere to be found.

When it was gradually discovered I was spending this precious free time reading I took a lot of kidding. Gerry, Studs, and Bill kept asking me what I was reading and I kept putting them off by saying they’d never heard of it anyway so what did it matter, until one day, exasperated, I blurted out, Moby Dick.

Moby Dick, Gerry said, I thought that was the name of a wuzzy rock group you liked. No, I said, as calmly as I could, that’s Moby Grape, if you want to know.

Oh, Gerry said, and, not content to let it go, pressed on, So what’s the book about?

Actually I think you’d like it, I replied, totally sarcastic, it’s about a whale, a huge white whale who the whalers are hunting, it having taken off the whaling ship’s captain’s leg years ago, and he’d been chasing it ever since.

Gerry’s response? It does sound like something I’d like if I could read, but are you sure you’re not just looking at porn? By the time it eventually got around the plant, the story was that I was reading a book about a guy who had a dick the size of a whale.

Why on earth would it matter so much to them? I guess when you’re different people just won’t leave you alone. It didn’t deter me from finishing Moby Dick but I never brought a book in to work again.

There was a lot of flux in the sewers, further demonstrating Heraclitus’ parable of the stream, so much so that it was almost like seasonal labor, with new hires usually lasting less than a year in spite of the decent pay and bennies, and college kids hired (mostly patronage jobs) in the summer who had absolutely no intention of staying on but very intent on doing as little as possible, which meant they’d fit right in.

The usual assortment of the vicissitudes of life in the twentieth-century were arrayed there, which for some reason surprised me. I’m not sure why I thought the sewer would be any different, maybe because I was young and naïve, or because it was such a hermetic occupation, or that since it was bad enough just having to work there in the first place, it might somehow generate some good karma, but was I wrong.

One guy, nominally a foreman, an inveterate drinker and smoker with an extremely obese wife, butt of the usual Jack Sprat jokes after he left the room, sad-eyed, wizened though still in his forties, buck-toothed, affable, nostalgic, tough guy persona, homespun philosopher, kind of a know-it-all wannabe, prone to hyperbole, went outside his rural trailer park by the same lake we’d camped at early one morning and blew his brains out. It was bandied about in hushed voices the next morning and the void was acknowledged for some time after with either shock (at the cowardly act) or awe (that he had the guts to do it).

Eventually the normal backbiting, banality, and pettiness returned with a vengeance, but his legacy was a warning to the rest not to take life too seriously.

As you might expect there were Viet Nam vets, still young, already scarred for life by what they’d seen in that horror show when all they’d wanted out of life was to come back to their high school sweetheart and settle down in a nice house with a picket fence, a souped-up car, and a good fishing-hole.

Now they not only experienced the disdain of people (even family) because of the line of work they were in but also because of that unpopular war. There were no parades with streaming confetti and screaming girls, and it wasn’t like they had a GI Bill to come back to, or a rapidly expanding middle class as in the fifties, no, it was pretty much what you see was what you got, and what they got were the sewers.

There were pair of brothers enough alike to be twins: Donny, the older one by two years, was a brusque towhead with a walrus mustache and psoriasis, plainly angry and combative, a hard worker. The other, Robert, also a blonde with rosacea, quiet as a mouse, worked back at the plant, so no one knew much at all about him. Donny was a loose cannon and we avoided him whenever possible.

I found out later they both had attempted suicide, Donny (who had ridden with the guy who shot himself), became a Jehovah’s Witness, which didn’t preclude him from trying to hang himself. Robert had tried to kill himself once by slitting his wrists (his brother found him), and eventually succeeded in hanging himself (his brother found him and took him down).

There was Ricky, (almost as despised as his old man Bill, who was a lead foreman and as snaky as they come) who had been in the Navy but had been relegated to light duty because of flat feet, whom nobody trusted but everyone had to tolerate because of his old man. Though fairly reserved, you had to watch what you said around him, though, because he’d blow you in to his old man without a second thought.

Joe Wolf, the guy who had given me a ride to work early on, was different from the rest, almost as much as I was. An unconfirmed bachelor, he still lived with this mother up on the hill by the cemetery on Union Road. He knew many of the guys from high school, and watched the goings on with a bemused smile, yet never participated. Neat, clean, reliable, and undoubtedly a virgin, he shrewdly saved and invested the money he kept by living at home, his goal in life to accrue enough to take his pension and retire early to Florida to live on his luxurious houseboat, where he could relax and fish his remaining days away. More power to him, I have no doubt he succeeded, and certainly didn’t begrudge him it.

And there was Joe Sorrento, the angry man I mentioned earlier, who would forever remain a cipher to me, but, I heard much later, not surprisingly, he was so tightly wound, died very young of a heart attack.

The rest of the lifers I didn’t have much truck with but I’ll mention them for posterity’s sake: Ed Princess, a very thin balding guy with glasses, a poor man’s buddy holly who rolled his shirt sleeves up to his shoulders tough guy style, wore Cuban heels, smoked filter-recessed Parliaments, who proudly cruised into work each day in a mint Caddy, and also had a wife twice his size; shell-shocked Eddie Bayer (Fast Eddie), a WWII vet with a brush cut, nervous as all get-out who made everyone around him nervous, did everything in double-time (including talking), smoked Pall-Mall non-filters rapid-fire, was proud of his well-manicured lawn, industrial-sized Weber propane grill and 10,000 BTU air-conditioner, his little similarly nervous-nelly wire-haired terrier Butch, liking everything tidy and ship-shape, and spent his summer evenings out on the patio, something on the grill, drinking ice-cold cans of Labatts Blue exclusively with matching coasters with his wife Margie before retiring at a reasonable hour, hardly ever going out for a social evening unless it was a union meeting at the VFW where he could pretty much replicate his evenings at home; the afore-mentioned Mike Stanley, part American Indian, good looking guy who was losing his teeth, wore wife beaters though no one knew for sure if he actually did beat his wife (there were rumors that he did), I wouldn’t put it past him as he was a mean drunk with no tolerance for alcohol, loved to fight, was pound for pound pretty tough and lightning quick, and a great sense of humor; Frank Sheer, my foreman and the cheapest man I ever knew, dressed like he was from the piney woods with bald on top but with thick mutton-chop sideburns and copious hair sprouting out of his ears and nose, rolled his own Bull Durham cigarettes, copped electricity from a nearby power plant, never got anything more than coffee on breaks, never left a tip, the first recycler I ever met although the term wasn’t prevalent yet, which meant that he picked through garbage for used car parts, clothes, silver ware- anything he could use instead of having to buy new, he even took home a telephone he found in the sewer one day! (laugh all you want, it still works, he crowed later, I got me a free phone); then there was the odd couple Ed (the aforementioned Fat Eddie) Laver and Yogi (real name Frances) Peltier, Eddie a pot-bellied pock-marked guy who was the local fire chief, impressively young for having attained that, with a filthy mouth and a penchant for grabbing his crotch each time he saw you, and who thought everyone was queer, mostly he was a Peter Boyle type, but at times he evinced a persona so sinister he resembled a portly Richard Speck, though he was, in fact, harmless underneath all those layers; his partner Yogi was quite a character, dumb as a bag of rocks (illiterate in fact, if not mentally challenged), whose favorite retort when presented with a dilemma was fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em all if they can’t take a joke, fuck the cocksuckers, an all right what you see is what you got kind of guy, very approachable, with seemingly no prejudices at all, though difficult if not impossible to have a conversation with, vis-à-vis the aforementioned social challenges that resulted in a limited vocabulary and short attention span, he lived alone above a local landmark, Onnetto’s Restaurant (later razed in favor of a Burger King), that seemed like a place you’d find on Cape Cod rather than in the city, with unbelievable  spaghetti sauce and frogs legs (my favorite dish) on the menu (to say they don’t have places like that anymore would be redundant), a French Canadian (not sure if he spoke the language- maybe that was the problem now that I come to think of it), Yogi was said to be hung like a mule, which explained why, despite his gross eating habits and crude mealy-mouthed speech, he never lacked for female companionship. The last two guys I’m going to mention were another odd pairing, Bob Ellison and Frankie Lehman; Bob was a gregarious empathetic guy with a melancholic face and a raspy voice, a fireman, madly in love with a cheating wife; Frankie was diminutive guy with a Napoleonic complex, a real bitter loner living totally alone out in the sticks with no use (or even a good word) for anyone after his beloved mother (with whom he lived) died a quarter-century ago.

All in all it was a very sad motley crew, reminiscent of my class at Martin Luther School, people you were in close quarters with on a daily basis but hardly knew, accepted for who they were but who you’d never want to be seen with outside of work.

But mostly it was Gerry, Bill, Studs, and I, even though Gerry wasn’t on our crew. Of the four of us Studs was the most aloof, sharing very little of his private life. He was separated only (or so he said) because his long drawn-out divorce hadn’t yet been made official from a pretty blond wife with bad teeth who he still hooked up with every now and then (Mrs. Merkel we called her), no kids, who lived with his dad, a Martin Landau look-alike car salesman. It was the damnedest thing, not only that they often went out together, but when they did (which was quite often), the old man seemed much the younger and definitely the more suave of the two, although between them they were known as lady killers. There was a mother/wife in the background whom they spoke of with great respect when they spoke of her (which was seldom) so they used dad’s bachelor pad when they brought their conquests home. Studs wore the odd chain, motorcycle boots, and a leather jacket, but was soft as mush inside, the result of a steady diet of brandy stingers, greasy food, and little sleep. He was a big Elvis fan and lacked only the motorcycle to complete the fifties greaser look he aspired to. A maudlin and nasty drunk, he was rejected from the service for an undisclosed medical condition (we surmised it was a bad case of the piles), which forever after he lamented because he would have kicked some serious ass “over there,” wherever ‘there” was, which I doubted he even knew.  How he ended up in the sewer was a matter of conjecture although he intimated it was through his old man’s “political connections.” Studs was a good looking guy quickly going to seed, with seemingly no interests except his car and women (though the latter was more a result of tagging along with his old man). We saw him as lazy and a bad though harmless drunk. Witness one night at a local gin mill after a bunch of stingers and suddenly Studs got into it with someone at the other end of the bar. Studs went into the karate stance he must have learned from Elvis and told the guy to meet him outside, waited for him to take him up on it, then simply walked (stumbled) out the opposite door. We were watching the whole time to make sure nothing happened and never mentioned we’d seen the whole thing but I’m sure Studs knew we had, though he not only never acknowledged it had happened when we asked him about it every now and then, but perpetuated his tough guy routine (his mantra a ludicrous I like ya, babe, but don’t ever cross me, or I’ll break every bone in your body, accompanied by a karate chop into his palm) many times after, though luckily no one ever called him on it. They must have known too.

Gerry, Bill, and I used to hang out quite a lot after work, practically every Friday night, in fact, after going home to eat dinner first (coating our stomachs so to speak) and getting cleaned up (even Gerry, who didn’t really feel the need but we insisted), usually to one of two places: The Eagle House, a popular local quasi-hotel cum restaurant but mostly a watering hole for the local politicians, police and fire men, and ne-er do well businessmen  directly across from Town Hall, or the Keystone Nineties, a guido pick-up spot way out in the sticks. I was Bill’s de facto wing man only because Gerry was automatically disqualified, being married, and wore gaudy Hawaiian shirts, and couldn’t hold his liquor, his eyes becoming beadier the more beer he drank, and with a predilection for blurting out embarrassing things and sometimes slipping on the drink-splashed floor and falling right on his face, somehow not spilling a drop in the process, then springing right back up to declare to anyone in the vicinity Hi, I’m from Hawaii, his opening pickup line.

Bill, on the other hand, was a serious horn dog (he sometimes referred to his prey as taint which sounded revolting even more so when I realized what it meant) planning his strategy well in advance of our arrival: now Wes, if I get something we’re gonna do this or that, or if she has a friend plan B, which is go to your place, and for god’s sakes don’t just ignore the prettiest woman in the place if she comes up and talks to you- talk to her, or at least tell her you have a friend who’d be interested. I have to say I never tried very hard to play along but he always managed to do ok in spite of me. It even got to the point that he was eventually resigned to the fact that I wasn’t all that interested and so he’d pretend he wasn’t interested either, saying, eff it, let’s just go out and have a good time and if something happens it happens, which I knew to be the ultimate rationalization on his part and in a way a compliment to me, which I appreciated, although as soon as we got in the place (especially the Keystone on a busy night) all pretense was gone, he was on high alert, literally snuffling the air and declaring, there’s some prime talent here tonight Wes- watch me do my thing.

Usually, though, Bill, a very self-effacing guy, would finally admit defeat (even then only after last call was announced), and using Cagney’s line, say, Looks like we’re going home with the paper. That didn’t preclude him from taking one last shot at Charley Brown’s, where he knew several of the waitresses and had gotten lucky with a couple of them. I also knew he went out with buddies from his old neighborhood and so was never without it for any lengthy period of time. If nothing else, you had to admire his spunk. Here was a man dedicated to his craft and I have to admit I could have learned a few things from him if I was so inclined.

It so happened Mr. Rowan’s father bought a house near them, although he lived in Massachusetts and wouldn’t be able to move in for a year or so. I’m not sure of any of the particulars but the upshot of it was that here was going to be a vacant house, which, though Wilsonville was known as a crime-free place (they even won an award for being the safest town in the country), Mr. Rowan didn’t feel comfortable having the house vacant and asked me if I could house-sit for him, rent free, if I agreed to stick pretty close to home, do the yard work, and empty the trash on a weekly basis. But under no circumstances was I to let anyone else stay there. I could have friends over but no parties. Rent free? Are you kidding me? Of course I readily agreed and moved in immediately.

The house was beautiful, built length-wise, squeezed in between a funeral home and a regular home, with genuine wood paneling throughout, hardwood floors with Persian and throw rugs, and was completely furnished! Again, I didn’t know whose furniture it was, the previous owners, the Rowan’s, or Mr. Rowan’s father, but there it was. It was very comfy and, being just up the street from the Rowans had the added inducement of my being able to hang out there whenever I wanted.

Still, wouldn’t you know it that the “No Visitors” rule was tested almost immediately when Rory knocked on my door one night near dusk, asking if he could crash there with a friend named Dudley.

It was quite the quandary but having Dudley (a low-life mooch) as part of the package made the decision easier and I said no. Naturally Rory expressed my misgivings as though he was reading my mind: you’re going to turn your brother out, don’t you have a heart, and I have nowhere else to go. Of course I felt for him, I of all people knew what that felt like. I finally agreed to let him sleep out on the enclosed sun porch, but under no circumstances could Dudley stay.

I felt awful doing that but my word was my word and I had to keep it. I asked the Rowans about it the next day and they strongly concurred, not even wanting Rory out on the porch, though I finally convinced them it would be all right and only for a few days. When I told Rory this he was very put out (literally as well as figuratively) but grudgingly agreed when I told him there was no other way.

Even at that, I made certain that he left during the day and didn’t come back until I got home from work. Perhaps you think this was cruel but I knew Rory and so did the Rowans. He was doing a lot of drugs, not working, constantly drunk, filthy, hanging around with a bad crowd, and, I hate to say it, couldn’t be trusted. I had very little doubt that given the chance he’d steal whatever had any value to support his habits, I’d already seen it happen.

I almost got to the point where I couldn’t worry about him any longer (nowadays it’s called tough love), he had to fend for himself, sink or swim. I certainly couldn’t afford to support him. He never listened to any of my or the Rowan’s advice on how to better himself, and, on top of that, he was bitter towards me, saying I had it easy because Mr. Rowan got me a job. Although I could admit that was partially true (I got a job but didn’t have it easy), he was nowhere to be found around that time or perhaps Mr. Rowan could have helped him too. Besides, I didn’t think he could handle a job in the shape he was in. He left after a week at the Rowan’s insistence, and I heard about it many times thereafter.

I was also having a spiritual crisis in my life at the time, realizing I no longer believed in the Lutheran God or his Bible I’d loved and partly feared so much growing up. In fact I wanted no part of organized religion ever again. As with everything else I’d always had an extremely ambivalent relationship with it, drawn to it on one hand, obviated by it in many ways on the other. As with music and books it literally helped us get through our childhood despair and teenage angst, in part by, the older we got, a carte blanche opportunity to get out of the house with the Barnes’ approval, truly a sanctuary in all sense of the word through many trying times.

Still feeling the need for some sort of spiritual exercise, I began seeking out somewhere I might fit in. One place I tried was a non-denominational hippy-happy church called The House of Life. The church was an old house just outside the city and at first I felt very welcome there, especially compared to my old church. It was a young crowd as you might imagine, a nerdy bunch wearing head-bands, tie-dyes, peace signs, crucifixes, and some with questionable hygiene.

I knew pretty much what I wanted out of it: to be left alone to pursue my own thoughts and to take part in the service as little as possible and still be a part of a community. To be in it, not of it.

At first it fulfilled that, but then the proselytizing began: wanna join the choir, work at the co-op, the city mission, teach Sunday school, be part of a bible study group?  Soon I couldn’t avoid it or keep saying no so I decided I’d either quit or, to pacify them attend the least odious of the choices, a Bible study group session or two, see how it went.

I was hoping we’d study the KJV Bible or possibly the Boo Hoo BibleThe Whole Earth Catalog even- but it was none of those. Instead we were reading the works of Hesse, Tolkien, Castenada, Brautigan, and C.S. Lewis. I was very put out, as I considered the Bible in any form to be of literary merit, while those writers were just for druggies, people who normally didn’t read, but thought these writers to be very “heavy,” which, whatever that entailed, seemed to be what they were looking for.

I’d known for a long time things were not as they seemed. I had a lot of questions about myself, and I hoped the answers would be in a book and, if not, at least they were comforting, each one giving me hope I might find the answer, if I read further, and then another, and another.

Along with this bout of introspection and knowing nothing of my real parents I began wondering about the circumstances leading up to my (us) being put in foster homes practically as infants (other than the reasons that Mrs. Barnes had given us, that we were unloved, unwanted), nothing to make any sense out of at least.

This was brought home even further when, upon applying for things like a driver’s license or Social Security card, I found I needed a copy of my birth certificate, which I didn’t have. I asked the Rowans where I might obtain one and when I subsequently went to the Erie County Clerk’s Office down town and asked for a copy of it I was told the records were sealed and I would have to apply for a copy in Albany.

I was shocked and pretty put out that this was the case, and, besides it being annoying, I felt like a second class citizen. I thought what I wanted was pretty basic, to know where I’d come from, but it seemed that according to the state I wasn’t allowed to have that information. And when I applied for a copy of my birth certificate in Albany and I received it I found that it looked fake for several reasons: first, it was a grainy, tacky, almost moist photostat, not unlike a self-developing Polaroid, and second, most of the information on it was patently false.

All bets were off when it hit me that the state could lie to you and it was legal. While the birth certificate had my proper birth date and the hospital where I was born (that was at least new information), it said my parents were Mr. and Mrs. Barnes and it was dated five years after my birthday. I think I realized from that moment on I was truly on my own.


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