At the commune two VW vans are parked back to back beneath the oak in the door-yard Down the road the auction started at seven The barn yard is crowded so for a better view men have clambered onto the tin roof of the barn The auctioneer his shirt pocket sagging under the weight of glasses and pens wears a crooked green trebly and mud covered overalls He pulls a heifer before the crowd sticking his stubby fingers into her nose and pulling down her gums A chair maker from the commune with wild hair and an unkempt beard a cigarette in one hand stops harvesting cattails to sway to the singsong rhythm of the auctioneer
The boards do not touch at the peak of the spacious sugarhouse sunlight pours though gaps in the wall Steam rises from the evaporator past a single wire that holds two bare light bulbs Two men The older his tan fedora cocked to the side forearms clothed in wool his hands in leather gloves perches on the edge of a sofa covered with a stained canvas tarp The younger stands behind the evaporator his foot resting on an overturned sap bucket his back to a stacks of dozens more A quilted red coat and red wool cap with flaps ward off the chill
I found the fortune teller at the foot of the unnamed mountains to the east Claiming to cast spells and read palms she wanted gold shells for payment but all I had was a worn copy of The Sun Also Rises Along the road I saw a man his oiler’s cap was tilted at a jaunty angle a Purple Water vanity kit rattled in his pocket As I looked for fresh fonts and teenage angst he walked past me into the young sunlight
One day Tarik went off to class and never returned. It was then that we learned from Kyle that Tarik had a fondness for cocaine. A few days later his parents came for a scheduled visit, and as they walked around the parking lot, David and I watched them from our balcony and discussed how to tell them that their son seemed to have disappeared and that he apparently had a cocaine habit. His parents were both from Egypt and took the news stoically. We must have been in contact with them over the next, couple of weeks but Tarik never returned.
Then the collection calls began. At first the calls were unthreatening. The man on the other end simply wanted to speak to Tarik. When Tarik never called him back, the calls quickly escalated. I began keeping my “tire buddy” on the counter near the front door. The tire buddy was a short club with a steel ring on the end. It was for loosening the lug nuts on your car tire. But after the drug dealer threatened to kick down our door and break our knee caps, I decided keeping it in the apartment was of better use. At one point I told the dealer that we had no idea where Tarik was and that we did not have his money or his drugs and that we did not even know he was into drugs, but we would be sure to have him call if he ever came back. The calls seemed to stop after that. Then the messages from the 900 numbers began. Apparently, Tarik had run up a bill with them as well. One day, sick of the calls, I answered the phone and told the man the same thing I’d told the drug dealer. The man exploded.
“God Damn camel jockeys! Those fucking sand niggers always do this.”
Then he slammed down the phone. He never did call again.
David moved out and Tarik was gone and a kid my age moved in. It was quickly apparent that he was rather anti-social and had some anger issues. He listened to punk rock so loud it would rattle the pictures off the wall.
It’s great to live in a gated community but the gates don’t do much when the problems are inside the fence.
Rob was the next to move in. He was a football fanatic who would commandeer the TV from morning until night on Sundays, watching every game broadcast. Despite my not understanding how anyone could watch football for so long, he and I got along the best, and Thanksgiving of that year I gave him a ride to New Orleans to visit his brother on my way to visiting my brother in Texas.
We met his brother in a Walmart parking lot, and I ran in to use the bathroom. I walked through the doors, and as I remember it the place went silent, all conversation stopped, the cashiers stopped mid-swipe, and everyone looked at me. I was the only white person in the place. For a pasty white kid from podunk Vermont it was as much of a shock to me as it was to the hundreds of people in the store. I scurried off to the bathroom thinking, This is how someone of color must feel when they come to Vermont.
Rob’s brother took us to a chicken shack where I had the best Po’boy sandwich I’ve ever tasted and was again the minority. While we were standing in line someone called out to me. “Hey cracker where you from?”
Next we headed to Bourbon Street for the “best hurricanes” in New Orleans. We got them at what can only be described as an alcoholic slushy bar. Despite it being November, there was still a lot of partying going on. As we walked along Bourbon Street with our brightly colored drinks we passed two college-age looking girls who seemed to smile at me.
“They were cute,” I said.
“They were hookers,” Rob said.
I decided that if this was New Orleans in November, I certainly did not want to come for Mardi Gras, something that had been on my list, being a Buffett fan and all.
Rob’s childhood friend Tush was also in town visiting, and he’d won so much money at the casino the night before that he now had VIP status. He wanted all of us to go and see him in action. We went back to the apartment so he could change. He put on a suit and even had a cane with a flask in the handle. With his mullet and his wild suit he looked more like a stylized movie pimp than anything else. I am not sure how they got me onto the casino boat as it was for 21 and older, but given that I’d had an alcoholic slushy on Bourbon Street, checking ID did not seem to be a priority. Tush worked the room and it was not long until he was rolling dice and winning as well as yelling out
“Who do you love?”
“New York!” the table would yell back.
I was practically falling asleep sipping cokes and watching Tush when the pit boss came up to me and made a comment that made it clear he knew full well I was not twenty-one but he’d let it slide, since Tush was a VIP and I had not actually gambled. When you have to scrounge money for four dollar pizzas you tend not to play games of chance that you know nothing about.
The next morning, bleary eyed, I drove to Texas where I had my brother teach me how to play poker.
All of these crazy incidents were juxtaposed to the fact that I had no real friends and spent much of my time alone. I don’t mind being alone, and I learned a lot about myself and who the true me was although I would not allow that person to come out for many years. Between classes I would sit in the same chair in front of the floor to ceiling windows of the college library reading back issues of Outside and Bicycle magazines and watching all of the people walk by on their way to and from class.
By the end of my third semester, I’d had enough with the Sunshine State, and when I went to my last final exam, my car was packed with all my possessions. As soon as I finished my exam, I pointed the car west to Texas and then a week later northeast where I chased a thunder storm across the length of Tennessee singing along to Jimmy Buffett. I was going back to the place I had been so desperate to leave, but at the moment going back did not seem all that bad.