I’ve prevaricated as long as I possibly could, but sooner or later I have to finish this, my last novel. So, sleepless in East PA, I went back to see how bad it really was, and found a couple snippets that seemed okay. Here’s an entirely fictitious vignette of my last days in NC, back when they had no use for curly haired bastards from anywhere north of Fuqua-Varina.
************************************************************************************************************Back at Duke, I had finally had enough of my room-mates snarky attitudes, and LK and I were stuck together at the hip, which was not bad at all. I tried to convince the Duke housing authority that we were soon to be wed so I could skip the spring payment on the house, but the girl just congratulated me and said I would have to make the payment anyhow, just as I had promised when I signed the lease.
But things have changed for me. Shouldn’t the agreement change, too? I suggested.
That’s not the way it works, she said. You made a deal and we expect you to keep up the payments, or no diploma. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
She smiled at me, or maybe it was kind of a smirk̶—a smlerk?—plainly used to hearing BS stories about keeping fiduciary promises. I left there and packed my few belongings anyway, found a tiny camper belonging to one of my buddies that he let me use, parked on the shoulder of 15-501 not far from campus, with the funky smell of poorly ventilated and un-used spaces to it. That lasted a couple weeks, with me couch surfing more often than not, winding up at LW’s along with her male roommate, a Jewish guy from Connecticut that played the guitar and pretended to be a psychoanalyst whenever LK or I had what he called “issues,” back in the day when regular people just had problems.
Long about April, I got an offer to move up to a share-cropper’s shack in Timber Hill, fifteen miles north of Durham. Several Forestry students had discovered the place, and the owner was glad to have college kids in there instead of having the place used by drunken locals, so that worked out pretty well. There were three rooms off the main living area, the only heat the fireplace, and no running water inside, just a rusty pump outside. No indoor plumbing, either, but the lads had built a killer outhouse, a two-lunger complete with sky-light.
We would spend evenings around the fireplace, drinking Pearl beer or moonshine we would buy from the owner at 7 bucks a quart, which would last us quite awhile. One of the tribe was fond of going up to Asheville and Boone, and he found out you could buy the oak barrels the moonshiners used to age their stuff for a couple bucks, cut them in half and sell them as planters, and get a pint of two of residual shine out of the deal. So between happy hour at the CI, pitch and put golf with the basketball team, stag nights at Timber Hill and languorous nights with LK, I was pleasantly potted most of the time. I breezed through my last few courses, Rocks for Jocks included, and had only a small semester’s worth of work to complete that summer’
I could have jammed it into the spring semester, and graduated with the rest of my class, but I had been taking overloads and working myself pretty hard, and I told myself I deserved to have one care-free college semester where I could emulate the rich kids and just screw around.
So that’s what I did, playing Frisbee and climbing trees, smoking pot and learning to enjoy peyote and mushrooms, which I rationalized was way better than acid, because it was organic. Huh. Funny how adept we are at that sort of thing. Anyhow, it was a Joe College kind of existence, but graduation was rushing up to grab most all of the people I hung out with, Joe Alphabet and T bone and Mares, a small group I would spend hours playing cards or backgammon with.
Mares and Joe were an item. He was from Philly, a large man with a simple outlook on life, she was from Baltimore, a ginger, a business major, full of piss and vinegar. For breakfast, Mares drank two huge glasses of Mountain Dew and smoked several Kools, and they would play “Up for the day”, randomly picking five stocks each with a pin on the Business page of the Sun to see who had made the most money or lost the least. Loser would buy the Mountain Dew and Joe’s more traditional two cups of coffee and a Danish.
Then, if we all weren’t kind of pissed at each other from the prior day’s card game, we would play a game Mares had invented called “Rag,” a combination of Crazy Eights and F*** your Buddy. Games might last for two or three hours, and, just as in Risk, there were alliances made and broken throughout, hence the name.
It’s been forty years now since I have seen or heard from any of them, but when the game Uno caught on, I was pretty sure it was Mares all over again, because it was precisely the same game, and it would have been precisely like her to make a fortune out of nothing like that.
Graduation day dawned hot and sunny, and it was a grand party culminating on “Joe College Day,” a three day bacchanalia with the Bryds and fireworks and all things bright and beautiful. And then, just like that my world dissolved, as all college worlds do at the end of every year. LK landed a job in Manteo for the Sentinal, a weekly paper that mostly had pictures of car wrecks and people with large fish—Here’s Burt Midgett with a 9 foot hammerhead he caught at the Nag’s Head Pier. I got a job inputting data at the Medical Center, a study on transient isthmic attacks, and despite my initial misgivings about working with computer geeks, found them to be nothing like the mathophiles I had known, demanding linear perfection and order. No, they were definitely fuzzy thinkers, just like me, and I got on well with them. My boss was a little retentive, fitting for a post-grad student trying to do serious research, and she sat with me for the first day or so as I learned the program needed to imput the data.
I wish the kids today could see that computer, with one-inch tape and hard discs that were platters two feet across scanned by a stylus microns above the disc. The beast occupied every square inch of a 30 by 30 room, and you weren’t allowed to wear perfume or shaving lotion, because the scent molecules were large enough to fit between the stylus and the hard discs, causing it to skip and shutting down the system until they could swap out the dinged up hard drive platter. Every day at 3 a convection storm would come up, and at the first strike of lightning, the computer would go down, and you would open up a secret little door, after the power had come back on. Inside the little door was a tiny cassette tape, the kind spies used in the old James Bond movies, and you would punch in a 5 digit code to start the tape. That tape would tell another, bigger tape to run, which in turn imported data from back-up tape machines that spun and blinked just like on Dr. No, until the system had successfully “pulled itself up by it’s own bootstraps,” what people simply call “booting” today. Even the janitors at the center knew how to boot the system, it was so routine an occurance.
The temperature in the computing center was always kept at a frosty 68 degrees, which you would think was awesome if you had ever lived, as I had been living, in Durham without air conditioning. In fact, I had a head cold almost all the time I was working there, alleviated only when I was off work. My boss had timed me on imputing the data, and I was doing a form in a little over a minute, inputting anywhere from 12 to 25 data points, depending on how the respondant answered the “If you answered ‘No” skip to Question 12” kinds of things. But because of my musical background, I guess, I found that, with the right combination of coffee and nicotine, I could pump out 3 or 4 forms a minute and get a week’s worth of work done in three days. My boss hardly ever actually came downstairs to the center, uploading and verifying data in a building across campus, and she was gone Fridays and Mondays, either teaching as a TA or going on long weekends to take clogging lessons in Hickory.
And, starting in April, I was gone those days, too. Grandma Josie gave me 1500 bucks to buy a Datsun station wagon, and suddenly I had wheels again! Ah, freedom, you taste so good! Anyhow, some weekends LK came back to Durham, but mostly I drove out Route 64 to stay with her. She had a small trailer she rented off a guy named Midgette, who lived on a farm near Wanchese where LK boarded her horse. We would camp near the Sound, and I would collect buckets of clams and buy fresh Spanish mackerel from the boats, and we would strip and swim, or loll about the sand naked as the day we were borne, butter juicing our chins as we smoked a joint or drank a big jug of wine.
It was very possibly the most perfect of all perfect worlds.