I’m writing my memoirs.
I know. Who do I think I am? I am not famous. Nor do I know famous people. And I’ve made absolutely no impact on science or history or anything else that matters. But I’ve not let that get in my way.
Here is an excerpt from a draft of Albion and New Augusta (Confessions of a Midlist Writer) about my first, somewhat lonely days at Indiana University. I had found three other freshmen who knew how to play the card game, euchre. Having that in common, the four of us formed a tenuous friendship. And that’s how we passed the time, even though studying would have been a better investment. Of this new group of friends, one stood out.
I spent a lot of time with Pete, the smart but cynical one. He was heavyset. He wore glasses. He always wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and dark pants. Always. He was adamant about having nothing around his neck. During the coldest winter days, he wouldn't wear a scarf.
He was moody, brooding, an avid reader and there wasn’t an easy read in his stack of books. When we met he was reading Nietzsche, about whom he seemed obsessed. I wasn’t nearly as well read; but I had devoured plays, especially the "modern" ones, beginning with Shaw and continuing to contemporary British playwrights. The other two in the Euchre group had no such interests. Neither did my roommate. These were the people in my world. I don't believe Pete's social world was any larger. So Pete and I spent time together.
I looked forward to it. I was more comfortable in matters of the mind as opposed to matters of the heart. I was comfortable with concepts rather than details. In fact, intellectual matters were preferable given my most recent experience in matters of lovers and family. And like Pete and his Nietzschean mindset, I had no love for the church-going masses. Right and wrong existed for me, but were notions outside of religion. And if there was disagreement between Pete and I, we could disagree without a lot of Biblical baggage. Authority took a back seat to logic.
In other matters Pete was explosive. He had his personal passion when it came to cards and pool. A couple of times, when he lost at Euchre, he kicked over the table. He locked himself in his room once and did not come out for days. I saw that as sulking not depression. On the other hand it was interesting drama in what had otherwise had become a boring routine. One day he lost a game of pool and snapped the pool cue. It wasn’t so much that he lost; it was to whom he lost. I was the whom. Not only were these domains over which he was master, I was just learning the game. I’ll have to admit that I took some pleasure in surprising him with the notion that luck was sometimes victorious over talent and discipline. He hated the idea of "luck." It has to do with randomness rather than order.
Despite the flaws, I thought Pete was one of the most formidable and memorable people I had ever met. That was true until I met his father. I don't remember why I went to Pete's house, but one day, up from Bloomington and back in Indianapolis, I visited Pete at his place. Maybe school was out. I’m not sure.
Pete's house was in another one of those housing developments in the city with street after street of mostly two- or three-bedroom frame homes. Each had small front and back lawns. His home, like those of his neighbors, was modest but well built. If I remember correctly the home was set back, up on a small incline. It had a smooth asphalt driveway, on which was parked a big black two-door Cadillac with black walls and a red light on the roof.
Inside, the rooms were small and seemed even smaller because the furniture was huge. One had to angle through oversized chairs, a mammoth sofa, and a grand piano, not to mention a sweet but overweight Boxer. It was as if Botero was the set designer. Pete’s dad, a doctor, was a deputy coroner for the city. He was huge and round as well, twice the size of Pete and three times as scary. His hair was closely cropped, he wore a .38, and he smoked a cigar. Rather, he chewed it.
The three of us had a little lunch. Pete couldn’t have gotten any smaller. He — all hunched into himself — looked as if he expected the ceiling to come tumbling down at any moment. He seemed nervous and frightened as his father talked about his work as coroner and as a kind of volunteer physician to the down and out. As we ate, Pete’s father provided lurid descriptions of prostitutes and the debilitating diseases they were likely to acquire. At one point, the doctor held up a small carrot stick, using it to show the size of a boy’s penis that he had been describing in a story. After finishing his sentence, he bit off the tip of the carrot with, I thought, a bit too much exuberance.
This struck me as hilarious. I started laughing, which seemed to further distress Pete. In moments, perhaps realizing what he had done or maybe, fully aware of his purpose and surprised by its effect, the doctor started laughing himself. He laughed so hard, he turned pink. He lit his dead cigar and invited me to dinner the following Friday.
He would show some family slides, he said, as if this gesture was in response to my questions about his growing up in New York.
When the evening of the dinner came, I was shocked at the way that not only the doctor talked to his wife, berating her, yelling at her in the kitchen, calling her stupid, and worse. No one came to her rescue. I wanted to say something, but I was sitting next to King Kong. When dinner was over, the slide projector was set up. There may have been a few photos of the family's earlier days in New York, but the bulk of the show was made up of autopsy slides — graphic, bloody slides of various human organs, sliced and diced, and in various stages in preparation for examination.
I kept a poker face. I don’t know where or how I learned it, or why I thought it was necessary; but I was determined not to show fear or shock. Another skill I had learned was to go off to some other place in my mind until the unpleasantness had passed. It was a mechanism I would cultivate. But during the time at the doctor’s house all I really wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
I couldn’t imagine what life was like for Pete and the others in the household.
|A lurid torture/murder case that still shocks the city|
I had no idea what life was like for the deputy coroner. I didn’t know at the time, for example, that he had been the examiner on the scene when Sylvia Likens’ tortured body was found in an Eastside home. She had been cut and burned over many days. She died of brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition. The facts of the story — the chief actor in this horrid drama punished the victim on moral grounds — were so tragic, that the drama was made into films, novels and plays. The Likens case may have been the most gruesome the doctor had to deal with, but his practice exposed him to the most heinous acts on a regular basis. He, like police and firefighters, witness the saddest, unluckiest and most depraved moments in human existence. He saw and knew things too impolite for the general public, but perhaps not too impolite for his family. How much of this he brought home, I’d have to estimate from the entertainment after dinner, probably was more than most families needed to know.
I was content to get back to the university in Bloomington. I had been cast in a Noel Coward play. Much good can be said about the importance of trivializing existence.