“I owe it all to Father Justus,” I muttered.
“Boys Town, 1938 …” answered Aeneas, my roommate. Aeneas was already fully dressed. Prep school blazer, snap-on bow tie, slacks and polished shoes were all in order. He sat at his desk, his back to me, no doubt working on some extra credit physics assignment. He looked up briefly and continued, “… but Mickey Rooney owed it all to Father Flanagan.”
It was May 1, 1961, at 0630. I had just awakened from a dream about a shadow floating around the room at floor level. And there was a raven in the dream, too, trying to tell me something. I’m sure there was more that I blocked out. The dream felt so real, it saddled me with dread. I couldn’t put my finger on why it bothered me so much, so I did what I usually do when I feel powerless. I blamed the priest who made my life miserable when I was a kid.
“Mickey Rooney yeah,” I said, “but at St. Jerome’s, the orphanage where they stuck me, the priest’s name was Justus. He was anything but. He called me a coward. My father dead and my mother bonkers and in the loony bin, and that prick, black coat heard me crying and called me a coward. I was ten, fer Chrissake.
I looked to see if Aeneas was listening. He didn’t appear to be. I added, “The world was not warm and white with Justus around. It was shit creek.” I sat on the edge of my bed, pulled the sheet over my mid-section, and added, “Shit creek without a paddle.”
“John dos Passos, Adventures of a Young Man, 1939 – betcha thought I didn’t know that.”
So he was listening.
“Actually it goes back further than that – to Scots-Irish rebels in the Civil War,” I said, trying once again to one-up my roomie.
“Check, but dos Passos added the paddle,” Aeneas smiled.
OK, you won that round, I allowed. It’s a game we played. One of us quoted; the other said the source if he knew, and winged it if he didn’t. There was no reward, no score being kept, but if there were a score, I would be down probably three-to-one. There were several four-year 4.0’s in the senior class at Priam. Aeneas was one of them. There were even a couple of 1600 SAT’s: Aeneas was one of them. He was on track to be a Rhodes scholar someday. No way I could ever overtake him.
He looked at the sheet across my mid-section and smirked. “So, is that your paddle?”
“Shit creek’s paddle. You’ve got one. You wake up every morning sporting the definition of priapic. Damn, Woody, that thing looks like it could rudder a whaling ship. I should be so lucky.”
I looked down. The sheet was looking very tent-like. “Yeah, well, maybe if you weren’t hung-over every morning. And what do you mean, ‘Woody?’” I asked.
“It’s May 1st. You haven’t changed your name since – when, a month now? In January it was Clay. In February you changed it to Hunter. In March you went with Stone. Personally, I think Woody is very appropriate.”
“My stupid name change experiment isn’t working out too well. On my diploma it’s going to say Norbert. In fact, it’ll say Norbert, Jr. It means Northern Brightness. It was my father’s name, but all the Indians on the rez called him ‘Snow Blind.’ Him bein’ a white preacher, it wasn’t a compliment. Which reminds me, you didn’t get the ‘warm and white’ reference.”
“‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow.’ Conrad Aiken. 1934.”
Damn, I thought I had him on that one. I mean, how obscure is that?
“You know, screw it,” I conceded. “It’s normal to wake up rigid. According to Philip Roth, Alex Portnoy got hard twenty times a day! Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘My rod and my staff, it comforts me?’”
“So now I should call you David? This place doesn’t take Jews. If you want I’ll call you Alex, but I have to say after I read Portnoy’s Complaint I had to take a shower.
“Ay Chihuahua,” I surrendered. Aeneas was a very funny guy when sober. It’s the main reason we survived as roomies.
“Ay Chihuahua is an interjection. It was an expression of dismay, annoyance, or resignation that arose in West Texas during the Poncho Villa Era.”
“Stop, goddammit, I wasn’t asking,” I grumbled. Changing the subject, I said, “Raintree County is playing at the Paramount tonight. Wanna go?”
“Might as well.”
“You got something better to do?” I was by then halfway into my preppie uniform – white shirt, dark slacks and socks – I’d be back after I used the head to get the tie, shoes and blazer.
“Yeah, drink,” he said, swiveling in his chair to faced me. “I scored a bottle of rum from my mother.”
“Damn man, Raintree County, Elizabeth Taylor – we’ll drink after the movie,” I said as I grabbed my toilet kit and headed out the door for the bathroom.
So how did a St. Regis reservation, white preacher’s kid manage to not just survive but succeed at the most prestigious college preparatory school in the State of New Jersey after spending a year in an orphanage and two years in a New York state juvenile detention center? For starters, I was a quiet, outwardly obedient, inwardly resistant boy taught to be seen and not heard. (Is that why I dug that Aiken story about a kid slipping into a catatonic reverie?) Showing off was a sin; poverty was a virtue. Anyway, at age ten my father spun out and crashed the Chevy driving home in a blizzard. He lost consciousness (passed out is more likely) and froze to death. My mother soon thereafter suffered a complete nervous breakdown. I ended up first in the Catholic orphanage on the rez and next in a state detention center for juvenile delinquents after I tried to torch the priest’s study with gasoline and a match. (That was my idea of justice for Justus.)
In the late summer of my thirteenth year my maternal grandfather, a state appeals court judge, had a sensible epiphany. Up till then he hadn’t given a rusty you-know-what about his daughter or me. But, when my maternal grandmother developed Parkinson’s, Judge Granddad thought his daughter, my polarized mother, could help care for her. Since I was due to be released from juvenile jail, Granddad also reasoned that I would buffer my mother’s deep depressions. So in 1956 I shunted from juvenile jail to an almost worse life with my mother’s droopy shadows and under my grandfather’s judgmental thumbs in a suburb of the third most populous city in America, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Against all common sense my mother enrolled me in a prim, prissy, private academy called Parizeau in the heart of the city – the place where she matriculated (her word) her teenage years. Even though I was both country rube and street punk, school wasn’t a problem. I love to read, I am a quick learner and all that, but I have to say I only adjusted to that fairy-godmother school because of Nancy, also a Parizeau outlander due to her pigeon-toes and lanky body. Nancy’s father was a hotshot doctor, head of some medical lab, and a Villanova professor. The family owned a town house in Bryn Mawr and an estate near Gettysburg. She was audacious, aggressive, and not self-conscious. I was the exact opposite. I believe she took me on as a project. Since she filled a need for me too, I was open to her remaking me.
We went steady from ages fourteen to sixteen. We were such an item I spent some summer weekends at the Gettysburg estate. Finally, on a long Labor Day weekend there in 1959, Nancy and I, after reading the juicy parts of Peyton Place, quietly gravitated to the hayloft in an historic, two-hundred-year-old barn on the property. We started by French kissing, then played with each other’s pink parts, and ended up naked, just like Tom did with Allison. After I emitted in her hand, we dried the wet on both of us with my T-shirt. Then we lay back in the hay and shared a cigarette, again like Grace Metalious’s characters always did.
Believe me, Nancy and I did not intend to burn a two-hundred-year-old barn to the ground. I foresaw the word arson appearing on my record for the second time, but the Judge, my grandfather, advised differently.
“You were never in that barn,” Judge Granddad said. “Look at me. You saw the fire from the road and ran to the house to report it. Understand?”
“But what about Nancy?”
“I’ll take care of her. Her father owes me. From now on you stay away from her. She’s nothing but an unparticular fleshpot, just like her mother.” Granddad said “her mother” with a leer in his voice. One month later he had pulled strings, paid money, and enrolled his sixteen-year-old, 6’2”, 165-pound, weight-lifting-muscled, apparently unparticular grandson into Priam. The elitist fops at that joint immediately nicknamed me "Joe Palooka" and assumed I was a big dumb oaf.
I quickly proved them half right. During a pickup flag football game some upper class asshole took a hand-off and came at me full tilt. It was flag football. No one comes into the middle of the line jamming a straight-arm who isn’t asking for it. I blocked the arm aside with my left and uppercut the kid to the jaw with my right, and then stepped on the fool’s ankle as he fell sideways. Asshole spent a few hours in outpatient getting a high-ankle sprain wrapped and a dislocated jaw wired back together. After that, nobody tried pushing me around. They viewed me not as someone who wouldn’t back down, but as someone mean and unfair. I admit I was an angry kid with a lot of resentment, so maybe I was mean.
The first year at Priam I got stuck with Fat Joey as a roommate. He was another of the students nobody else would take as a roomie. He’s dead now. Springtime of year one Fat Joey broke his neck in a gymnastic accident. There was human error. I was the human. It was an honest mistake, but, no matter, I was blamed. Everyone, even the gym coach, shunned me, except for Aeneas, a war bastard with a backstory crazier than mine.
Aeneas nearly died at birth. He had some heart valve problem and his mouth and his eye, hell, the whole right side of his face, drooped like he was in the throes of a stroke. He had an operation to fix the valve and plastic surgery partially lifted the droop. His heart remained at risk and his smile will forever be bent. Also, he nearly died at age ten from celiac disease. That stunted his growth. He was like 5’1” and skinny, couldn’t put on weight if he tried, and he did try, judging from the amount of booze he consumed. He had no athletic ability at all. He couldn’t drop a wadded piece of paper in the wastebasket at his desk without missing at least once. Thing is, though, he was Mensa smart, chess-champion smart, off the scale compared to me. Aeneas had a photographic memory. He knew the Latin names of every plant on campus. He read Sartre and Camus in French on one hand, explained Symmetric Field Coordinate Systems with the other. He had already decided to obtain a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and a law degree, both from Princeton, “Just so no one at DuPont or wherever I get a job will dare to mess with me because of my appearance,” he explained.
Aeneas and I spent two school years looking out for each other, me as protector and him as the brain.
“Decoherence, you dick! Your frickin’ wormholes are an illusion!” It was about 0730 (Priam used the 24-hour clock for its European pretense) and Aeneas was slamming blonde, blue-eyed, Germanic Charles Krause for defending Einstein. Ten of us, the top ten seniors by grade points at Priam, were seated at our separate, privileged table commiserating after busing our breakfast dishes. There were four to a side and two at the ends. I was one of those at an end because I needed shoulder room.
We’d had a half hour to choke down a bowl of the gruel called oatmeal, though it did vary between Cream of Wheat, Mother’s Oats, or Malt O Meal. Thankfully there were bananas, apples, raisins and brown sugar for taste. If we chose, we could slap salty butter on toasted slices of some fresh baked bread. I developed a liking for burnt toast because of that decent bakery bread. Of course, we had milk or orange juice to drink. No coffee, Priam’s Episcopal masters preferred tea.
“Good grief, Aeneas,” Charles snorted, “the man’s won the Nobel Prize, he’s the greatest mind of the century, and you call him a dick?”
“I called you a dick, not Einstein. Einstein is a putz. I know. He put the make on my mother and even she wouldn’t schtupp him.”
Krause’s blue-eyes glazed and his tongue twisted. I’ve noted, when Aeneas invoked his mother’s lack of virtue, he always managed to silence those who didn’t know him or his mother. Murielle was a stone-cold opportunist who could charm the fur from a wolverine. When I first met her and addressed her as Mrs. Vanek, she laughed and said, “Call me Murielle. I haven’t used that Vanek name for a long time.”
“But isn’t that Aeneas’ last name?”
OK, don’t be any more forthcoming than that, but what wasn’t easy about calling her “Murielle” was that she was the best looking, most seductive forty-something woman I had ever met. She had clear blue eyes that were scary inviting. I couldn’t look into them. If I looked at her mouth, I wanted to kiss it. If I even glanced at her remarkably unwrinkled cleavage, I got so flustered and tongue-tied it was embarrassing. Calling her Mrs. Something therefore gave me distance. Calling her Murielle was like wanting to have sex with my aunt.
“How about if I call you Aunt Murielle?” As soon as I said that I felt like a fool. My gaze fixed on her shoes.
“Oh, aren’t you too innocent. And look, you’re blushing. I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said as she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek and the left side of my mouth. “Thank you,” she whispered while still close, “for being such a good friend to my son, but that doesn’t make me an aunt.”
Thank God she mentioned Aeneas. If she had just left me with that kiss and the soft brush of her breasts against my chest, I might have soiled my looms.
From what I could glean of Murielle’s story, late in 1939 she escaped Czechoslovakia a few months pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter in England, and being a broke refugee, put the daughter up for adoption. Mid-way into 1943 she married an American Air Force captain and six months later gave birth to Aeneas.
“Fortunately,” Aeneas told me after I had pried into his background for the third time, “the captain and his crew were killed during a B-29 bombing run over Hamburg in early 1945. My mother parlayed the Air Force life insurance money into a trip to America and citizenship for both of us. It helped that she spoke five languages, including Russian. Even before she was a citizen, she worked at the Penn Language Center in a division the State Department funded. Look, I have no illusions about my mother. She’s been widowed twice, so she says, and divorced twice, and carried on affairs through all of it. I have no idea who my father is. It could be anybody. She probably doesn’t know for sure. My English birth certificate lists the American, but I doubt it’s the bomber pilot. I look nothing like him.” Aeneas gestured with his hands framing his face. He had a look of regret saying that.
Murielle, at the time my story intersected with Aeneas, was mistress to a Princeton vice chancellor and alum of Priam. Murielle screwing the vice guy got Aeneas into Priam, and next year will get Aeneas into Princeton, probably on a full scholarship. “And once I’m there,” Aeneas assured me, “she’ll drop him and move on to the next one on the ladder. Thanks to her I’ll end up with a corporate job or a think tank position at top dollar. I can’t reflect her beauty but I can reflect her willpower.”
“So what is decoherence?” I asked, breaking into the phase-state standoff at the breakfast table. Aeneas answered, though at least half the guys at the table probably knew.
“Decoherence hides the quantum world by destroying the waves arising from quantum effects, but how decoherence works is unexplained,” Aeneas began patiently. “This makes for a probability that the classical world is an illusion. Acne Scab here (he pointed at Charles) is saying the waves are not destroyed, just suppressed into a wormhole where they end up in some alternate or parallel universe.”
“I don’t have to offend to make my point,” Charles bristled. “And I just might mention that environmental decoherence, derived by tracing out unobserved variables from a universal wave function, precisely describes quantum jumps and collapse events, which means the waves are not destroyed, only suppressed. Now, where do they go? Einstein said wormholes …”
“Until Polchinsky came up with black hole firewalls, which means the waves are destroyed,” Aeneas interrupted. “Albino brain’s problem is for wormholes to exist everything must be a wave. For him to be right, there are no particles.”
“That’s not true! I’m a d-dualist. I b-believe in b-both,” an on-edge Charles Krause spit stuttered. “I believe both m-macro and m-micro are one and coherent. Therefore, de-c-coherence is not how they’re connected.” Krause was standing and his eyes were bulging. Aeneas was laughing at him. Underclass students around us had turned to stare.
“Stop, both of you, ” I said, defusing the situation. “Impermanence. They’re connected by impermanence.”
”And what’s that?” asked Wesley Ritter, the other large-framed, odd-duck Merit Scholar sitting at the far end of the table. His question gave Charles the chance to catch his breath and wipe his mouth.
“It’s the force in the universe that makes everything fall apart, even makes falling apart fall apart.”
“Sounds like entropy.” I shook my head. “It’s entropy and it’s more than that. On the spirit side of things it’s syntropy. It’s cold going to heat. It’s the force behind resurrection.”
Aeneas butted in. “Woody’s logic is myth-logic. You notice he said ‘resurrection’ when he meant ‘his erection’? He’s a cross between Byron and Tarzan.”
“Your name is Woody now? What happened to Clay or Rabbit or Wolf or whoever you are now?” Cliff Caviness asked.
“Aeneas named me Woody this morning. I don’t know who I am. I don’t want to know who I am. I want to be nobody. I believe I won’t understand impermanence until I no longer identify with anything. By ‘impermanence’ I mean rebirth or come-back-to-life.”
“But you still haven’t explained it.”
“That’s because it is ineffable. All I know for sure is that it has heat, because everything has heat. So, that connection you’re talking about? Look for it in the low point in a gravity wave.”
“Gravity waves have never been proven to exist. They’re hypothetical,” Charles said, attempting to salvage his honor.
“In your linear world, that’s true,” I answered. “In my world they’re whirlpools.”
“Guys,” said Aeneas, “I hate to break this up but we have convocation in fifteen minutes, and it’s gonna take that long for Woody here to get his head out of his ass. Which reminds me, what’s the over-under today?”
“Thirty,” I answered, feeling a little betrayed. Aeneas could be hurtful at times. Still, I always forgave because I understood – Aeneas caused pain to cover up his own.
On Fridays at 0800 we all shuffled into the chapel for a convocation led by Reverend Bell, the Religion, Philosophy, and Latin instructor. Bell always wore blue suits with blue ties. He had two chins and a pear-shaped body. He cinched his belt above his navel and walked as though he had a cob up his ass. Consequently, he was nicknamed The Blue Fairy. His convocations every week invariably pontificated five minutes of gratuitous Pauline scripture and twenty-two minutes of ruminated doctrine. Those ecclesiastical drones were so boring and so predictable some of us early on began making book on when he would clean his reading glasses, or how many times he cleared his throat, and/or sipped from a cup of water. When that got predictable, we started counting facial tics and blinks, and created an over-under scale with odds.
Face it, Norbert, I thought, as we crossed the quad to the chapel. Aeneas hangs with me because he has no other friends. He needs me and I need to be needed and even though he is often demeaning, in a way he validates me, makes me whole.
Just then I heard a tapping sound. I looked around and saw a raven in a tree crackling that kind gently rapping sound of theirs. I was reminded of my dream. It was a blue-sky day with temperatures in the seventies and out of that blue a raven made me nonplussed, anxious even. It was my last month of my last year at Priam Academy. I assumed it would be a walk in the park. I had aced every class during my senior year. I already had more than enough credits to graduate. The wind was at my back, metaphorically speaking. So why feel anxious? It wasn’t because I had a paper due for the Blue Fairy on Monday next and hadn’t started it yet. I wrote those in my sleep. I took 2-1 odds on under thirty and lost five bucks, but no way that caused the haunting feeling. So, why did I sense an ax was going to fall?
Back on February 15th Aeneas and I went to my grandparent’s home in Bryn Mawr for my eighteenth birthday celebration. I had a fantasy hope my grandfather would give me a car. After all, an 18th birthday deserves something big, especially if the old man is rich, right? Wrong.
“I pay for your schooling, you know,” Judge Granddad grumbled. Then he shoved some money at me. “Here, don’t spend it all in one place.”
I’m sure Granddad didn’t realize how much he gave me. Five hundred bucks. In the past he had never given me a penny that didn’t have a catch to it. Maybe he was testing me. Or, maybe it was because he was preoccupied. Grandmother Ruth was bedridden and on oxygen. The Parkinson’s had taken its toll and clearly her organs were prepping to shut down.
On top of that my mother was suffering a severe bout of melancholy. Her episodes first came on after my father died. She had a breakdown and tried suicide. That put her in the bin and me in the orphanage. While there she was diagnosed bipolar, although they called it manic-depressive.
On my 18th birthday mother happened to be on a happy high. She flew around the house like a guinea hen chasing ticks. She accomplished nothing, tripped over everything, chattered incessantly. I even found her outside in the snow at one point smoking a cigarette, a Chesterfield, no less! I couldn’t believe it! The Judge hated smoking. If he found out she was smoking, he would turn into Thunder.
As for Aeneas, who had invited himself, Granddad didn’t like him. He considered Aeneas weak and damaged, didn’t want him around, and told Aeneas so to his face. Then, instead of celebrating with us, the old man left for the evening. Aeneas got back at him by jimmying the cheap lock on the ornate liquor cabinet and guzzling the Judge’s Grand Marnier.
Alma, the cook, made a cake. We ate it after dinner in the kitchen with Alma and Javi, the part-time houseboy. "Houseboy" was the Judge’s word. Javi was fifty-six years old. Mom had mellowed by then. She didn’t chatter, she seemed to enjoy being with the "help." Before I left the next day to take the train back to school, Mom slipped $200 more in my coat pocket.
Aeneas saw that. He didn’t see what the Judge gave, though. Over the next three months the two of us drank the $200. Aeneas drank the lion’s share. I hung on to the five hundred.
“She’s on drugs,” Aeneas said on the train ride from Philly back to Priam.
“Your mother. Priadel, that’s why she was mellowed out last night. It blocks or slows serotonin in the brain. If you’re depressed, it brings you up. If you’re manic, it mellows you out. It’s some stiff shit.”
“How do you know?”
“You saw her. She zoomed around like Bugs Bunny, then come nightfall she was smooth as Pepi LaPew.”
“No, I mean, how do you know its Priadel.”
“I saw the bottle.”
“Dammit ‘Neas, you were nosing around again. You break into the liquor, you root round in the medicine cabinet. It ain’t right.”
He looked hurt, gave me his puppy dog eyes.
“I thought you would want to know.”
Grandmother Ruth died April 20th. She wasn’t even seventy. Aeneas came for the funeral. He wasn’t expected. There was booze at the feed after the funeral and Aeneas drank too much again. He passed out in mother’s bathroom. It took me a half hour to find him. I was pissed at Aeneas but I didn’t rat on him to mother or the Judge Granddad.
“Goddamn, I want to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor,” I crowed. “Did you see her in A Place in the Sun?’ She was eighteen, that’s our age! When what’s-his-name made that behind-the-back, three-bank, kiss-in pool shot? She walked in the door and stood there in a white evening gown; her two huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ‘Wow!’ she said. Wow is right.”
Aeneas and I were walking back from the Paramount along a tree-lined West Windsor street. I was carrying a six-pack of Coke. We were headed to our room to drink the bottle of rum Aeneas had copped. Usually we rode bikes downtown. Last time we did, though, some local high school assholes made fun of Aeneas. If I hadn’t been along, they might have thumped on him. Aeneas was so short he had to ride a girl’s bike. He wasn’t a dwarf. It was the celiac disease.
“I don’t want to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t even want to sleep with McCurry’s Jayne Mansfield hot-water bottle,” Aeneas replied. “Lots of people don’t want to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor, but I’m one of the few who will admit it.”
“Why the hell not? Wait a minute, McCurry’s got a Jayne Mansfield hot-water bottle?”
“I’ve seen it. It’s got tits and place to put your …”
“McCurry doesn’t have a hot water bottle with tits and no you haven‘t seen it. Why don’t you want to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor?”
“Imagine what sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor would be like? She’d laugh at me. She’d lie back and laugh. It would be like sleeping with a hot-water bottle, worse even, like being up shit creek without a paddle.”
“I don’t care. I mean…”
“She’s a heartbreaker. She’s a tease. She’ll make a fool of any man who comes near her.”
I knew Aeneas was right, but I couldn’t admit it. Even if Liz laughed at me, I’d still want to do it with her.
An hour later we were half-way through our supply of rum and cokes. There was no ice but it was Agricole rum and it tasted amazing. Aeneas scored a fifth from the last time he visited “Mom.” “Mom,” by the way, lived just eighteen miles away in Princeton, but she never once made a trip to Priam to see Aeneas.
“Chacun prepare’ sa propre mort.” He was looking at a saying on the label of the rum bottle.
“Huh?” I said, annoyed at the word “mort,” which I knew meant death.
“It’s San Martinique-patois. The best rums come from San Martinique.” He lifted and took a long straight swig from the bottle.
“How do you know stuff like that?”
“My mother, God bless her silky hide. She told me years ago that my only leg up on life, given my weak heart and modified digestive system, was to know more and be smarter than everyone else. She’d say knowing stuff like that Creole saying gives me savoir faire.”
“What’s savoir faire?”
“You don’t know?”
“They don’t teach French here, remember?”
“Yeah, sure, right,” he muttered, then paused, took another drink. “Jesus, eighteen years old and you don’t know savoir faire.” He pondered a moment, blinked, and then dredged up an explanation. “According to Mom, it’s like this: an Englishman comes home early one day, walks into his bedroom, and lo and behold finds his wife in bed making love with a Frenchman. The Englishman doesn’t even blink. ‘Continue on, continue on,’ the Englishman says with a wave of his handkerchief. Mom says according to the Englishman, ‘that is savoir faire’.”
Aeneas then slid into a creepy French accent and talked with his hands. “Oh, mais non, mais non, monsieur. Oui, ze Anglais comes home to find ze Francais making mad passionate love with heez wive. ‘Oui,’ ze Anglais says ‘continu-ay, continu-ay’ with a flip of his breast-pocket hanky. But, ‘Mais non, mais non, zat is not savoir faire,’ Ma mère says, ‘Eef he continues, eef he continues, zat is savoir faire.’”
I chuckled politely.
Aeneas looked at his fingernails, picked up an emery board, and made a miniscule swipe at an index finger. “Sometimes,” he continued, after next blowing his nose and then checking his snot through drunken eyes, “just from the way she tells that story with such delight, I figure she was the woman in that bed. In fact, I’d bet on it.”
Aeneas put the bottle to his lips, glanced at me, put the bottle down, swallowed at nothing and said, “You looked surprised. You’ve met my mother. Why are you surprised?”
“I’m not surprised by your mother. I’m surprised you would say that about her.”
He picked up the bottle and took another long straight swig, even though he had a full glass of rum and coke on his desk. He put the bottle down with a thump and drunkenly turned his desk-size, Playboy Calendar toward me.
“See this girl, Miss May? Remind you of anyone?”
“Wow. That really looks like...”
“Looks like my mother, right? Or, maybe my half-sister. Twenty years, that’s about right.”
“Wait, get the mag and check her bio. It’ll say where she was born,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter. They change the names; change the backgrounds. ‘Ginger Hill.’ Tell me that’s not a made-up name. Just look, the hair, the eyes, the body – it’s uncanny the resemblance.” Aeneas pondered Miss May for several sad feeling seconds.
I felt obliged to say, “Soo, how does that … how do you feel about that, I mean, if it turned out she really is your, you know … Sister.”
“How do I feel,” he smiled and then swallowed hard. “I figure my mother must have schtupped some German officer, some Nazi, to get papers to escape Czechoslovakia. She’s always done what she has to do to survive. My mother never mentions her daughter, never once talked to me about her. She gave up the healthy, beautiful child and then had to keep me. Denial, shame, maybe? I’ve always been afraid to ask.” He turns the playmate calendar back toward him and muses. “And now, along comes Miss May, front and center, to remind me of all that. So, how do I feel? I feel embarrassment; I feel disgrace … for both of us.”
Aeneas took a long slug, again straight from the bottle. “If I believed in past lives like Bridey Murphy, I’d say my mother was a concubine to Kings and Popes. And I’d say I was a eunuch in those harems. Her whoring is the source of my impotence, you know. Can’t even jack off. I can get it up, but can’t keep it up. That’s why Elizabeth Taylor would laugh at me.” His laugh was sheepish, but then he said with a smirk, “Of course, that too is 'savoir faire.'”
“Friggin’ leper. Goddamn spastic clubfoot. Now I don’t know if you pulling my leg, or what.”
“But it’s true. I can’t even jerk off. Do you know how that makes me feel, watching you do it all the time?” He sipped from the glass of rum and coke. “Doing it to a picture of my own sister, maybe.”
“Not fair, Aeneas. Really cheap shot, little man.” I knew those words would make him blink and think. “Piss off, pal, I don’t do it all the time! I don’t do it hardly at all. And I sure haven’t done it to your – to Miss May. That’s the first I’ve seen her.” I was getting in deep; I needed to change the subject. “Look, I got to get some sleep. I got to get to the library early to get the one book I need for my essay for the Blue Fairy before someone else cops it.”
“Who you writing it on?” Aeneas sighed, yet happy to change the subject.
“Leibniz? Isn’t he the guy who first asked, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’”
“Not the first to ask, but the first to phrase it as 'Why is there not nothing?'”
“You don’t know anything about this guy Leibniz, do you?” Aeneas, even though drunk, still had to turn the conversation back to his advantage.
“I know some about him. What makes you say that?”
Aeneas sucked a deep drunken inhale in, then long burped out, “Sounds like you’re gonna go with semantics, in other words, bullshit.” He burped again, smacked his lips, and took a swallow from his glass. “Bell will see through you. He’s a dork but he’s not stupid. And if you wing it, you’re screwed. You won’t graduate.”
“Yes I will. I’ve already got enough credits, I’ve got nothing to lose by winging it.”
“Nothing to lose except grade points and scholarships. Write about something you know. Write about … ” He stopped, picked up the glass, gave me a sly glance, drank some more.
“What were you going to say?”
Aeneas shook his head, drained his rum and coke glass and poured himself another half and half, then slurred, “…that impermanence crap you were talking about. How does it go?” His hand went to his stomach as he belched hard this time. “It’s ineffable. It has no taste, no sniff, no sound. No sniff, I love that.” He slugged half the contents in his glass. “You know, Woody, you employ the most fragmented thought patterns since, I don’t know, Madam Ouspensky.” The word Ouspensky came out mostly spit.
“You’re hitting that rum pretty hard tonight. Jesus, did you piss your pants?”
Aeneas’ head popped forward and down to look at his crotch. ”Yeah, damn, maybe I did. Don’t worry about me,” he hiccupped, looked around. “Where’s my trashcan. I’ll piss in that. I’d use a Coke bottle, but even my dick isn’t that small.”
“Why don’t you go to the head?”
“You know the saying, ‘it’s a good thing I’m driving cause I’m too drunk to walk?’ That one.”
“I’ll help you!”
“No, no, someone might see.” He was really slurring his words and his mouth seemed droopier than ever. “Woody, my friend, I will truly miss you after I leave here.”
“Oh, you’ll find another drinking buddy wherever you go.” I knew this gambit, too. Having regained control of the conversation, he needed to soften my anger at him with flattery.
“No, I won’t. Not like you.” Aeneas’ head dipped forward again. With exaggerated effort he snapped it up. His eyes frogged wide open, then faded closed. “You’re the only good friend I’ve ever had.” He mumbled, “Who taught you to think the way you do?”
“Father Justus!” I knew that answer right away. “I owe it all to Father frickin’ Justus, remember? When I was in St. Jerome’s, one time, Father Justus made me sit in a corner facing a wall while my nose was bleeding from getting sucker punched. Not only that, he hung a sign around my neck that said, ‘What color is yellow?’ So later, I started thinking about it. What color is yellow? You tell me, you’re so smart, what color is yellow?”
“I…it’s a … wave pattern, a light wave … thing.”
“But what color is it? These curtains, what colors are the stripes?”
Aeneas’ eyes were half shut. He squinted to see. “Brown, jellow, breen …” he jumbled.
I went over to the curtain. “This stripe, what color is it?”
After a long pause, he exhaled, “Yellow.”
“Why is it yellow?”
No response. Aeneas had slumped to the right, his droopy side.
“It’s yellow!” I almost shouted, hoping to wake him. “It’s yellow only because we were told that it’s yellow. Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing that what you see is what I see. Whatever we each see, we define it, we name it as yellow, but that doesn’t mean we’re seeing yellow the same way.”
There was no response, Aeneas was out of it, not even snoring, passed out. What else was new? He boozed out nearly every weekend. I did what I always do when Aeneas passed out. I went over behind him and got my arms under the little guy’s arms and picked him up from wherever he was and dragged him to his bed and flopped him in.
Aeneas didn’t feel right. He was limp but unyielding at the same time. There was something in his shirt pocket that didn’t belong. It fell out as I lifted him. It was a pill bottle. It fell on the floor and spilled open.
I flopped Aeneas in bed, then picked up the bottle and looked at the label. Instantly wobbly, I felt blood drain from my face. I became dizzy, weak, but at the same time so stunned I didn’t move to sit down. On the bottle were the words Priadel in bold letters and in smaller print my mother’s name. There were ten pills on the label, three pills in the bottle, three pills on the floor. They were white, about the size of a wartime vitamin.
I’d held my breath, how long, a few seconds, a minute? I exhaled and let out the most mortal, miserable, agonizing sob I’d ever wailed. I didn’t know that sound was in me.
I leaned over Aeneas, checked his pulse, neck first, then wrist, then the other wrist. I smelled shit; noticed Aeneas had totally pissed his pants. A bubble of snot hung un-popped in one nostril. Still holding Aeneas’ wrist, I glanced – consciously, unconsciously, who knows – at the pouting smile of Playboy’s Miss May on the small calendar and then at the pouty smile in the framed picture on Aeneas’s desk of Murielle when she was a young woman.
“Jesus,” I shook my head, “what a last straw.”
Next to the picture of Murielle on the desk sat the rum bottle. The label on the rum bottle was almost glaring at me. ‘Chacun prepare’ sa propre mort.’
Wait a minute; under the patois was an English translation.
“Chacun prepare’ sa propre mort.” “Each prepares his own death.”
Each prepares … he goddamn killed himself. He took pills and drank more than a half-fifth of 90 proof, on purpose. And, I had a foreboding. I could have, should have stopped him.
With tears in my eyes and the question why on my tongue, I looked at Aeneas’ sad, droopy, grey face.
“Why, Aeneas, damn you, why? How could you do this?” I cried.
They will do an autopsy. I thought. They will know how he died. Murielle won’t waste a New York minute suing the school. Eighteen-year-olds drinking … forget graduating. I will be expelled. Judge Granddad will kick me out, too. I’m bloody screwed. Why didn’t I see this coming?
I called the police from the payphone in the hall. I gave them the building name. I gave them the room number. I said, “Bring an ambulance.” When they asked, “Why?” I answered, “He has a congenital heart defect and he’s unconscious.” I didn’t say, “He’s dead.”
Then I beat on the proctor’s door, woke him, told him Aeneas needed help, told him I would meet the ambulance and show them in. The proctor’s not a bad guy. He knows we drink. He doesn’t know how much, because we’ve never been a problem.
Running rashly back and forth, I dumped the rest of the pills in the toilet at the end of the hall, crushed the pill bottle and then tossed that with the liquor bottle in a trash can across the quad. I hesitated before I threw the picture of Miss May and the framed photo of Murielle in that same trash. But, my guilt won and then I couldn’t look at them without disgust. So I tossed them.
Impermanence, right? Everything falls apart? Yeah, everything except the color of yellow and shit creek without a paddle.