“Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”
— Henry Lawson
“Not everybody is strong enough to endure life without an anesthetic. Drink probably averts more gross crime than it causes.”
— George Bernard Shaw
When I returned from the fair, I immersed myself in summer theatre, the youth group at my church that put on a musical every summer. It had been created for kids and you couldn’t be older than 24 to be involved. I’d started going when I was fourteen, the earliest age at which I could participate. I was in the pit orchestra but also helped out with stage crew stuff in order to have an excuse to spend most of my time there. Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” was that summer’s production.
I always felt comfortable with the theatre crowd. We seemed to have a lot in common. They knew about music, film, and art and they were also itinerate partiers, and I fit it with that philosophy perfectly. A group of older kids even had cards made up with a party hotline number on it and the motto, “have party, will travel” printed in the center of the card. The idea was if you heard about a party you were to call the number on the card. Then that person would call four previously designated people. Those four would do likewise, etcetera, until you had an instant party.
And the cast party was probably one of the best parties of the year. It was always an all-nighter complete with costumes, awards and all manner of drunken revelry. That party had come to signal the end of summer and the beginning of the school year, at least for me since band practice started earlier than classes did. I was thrilled that this would be last year of high school and my escape from Shillington seemed tantalizingly close as the school year began.
There were a new crop of girls, of course, and that fact alone quickened my step with endless possibilities. One in particular caught my attention right away. She was a fellow sax player and so we were often together on the field, which gave me plenty of opportunities for flirting with her. The trick with flirting there was to not let Kelly notice it since she took a dim view of cheating, not that it stopped her at all. Even when we were broken up, she was unmerciful if I flirted too openly in her presence. I suppose I understood that, since I hated it when she did the same thing. But no amount of charm, if indeed I had any left, would work on Lynn. No matter how goofy, funny or serious I tried to be, she wanted nothing to do with me. But that only made me try harder, which began to make me somewhat pathetic.
She was unlike any other girl I’d gone out with. For starters, her name didn’t end in a “y,’ a definite plus. She was very polished and mature for not just her age, but any age. Lynn carried herself with a certain air, not snobby but just that she was above it all. It wasn’t off-putting like many kids I knew whose parents were wealthy. Lynn’s family owned one of the biggest department stores in the area and they lived on a huge estate up in the hills above Mohnton. It was a huge house with acres and acres surrounding it. Lynn had her own horse. She was very much out of my league. I was, in almost every way, the kid from the wrong side of town.
Eventually I gave up and asked out another tenth grader, Tammy. She was also a majorette and lived in my neighborhood. But Kelly found out about our date and sabotaged it by tracking me down and having makeup sex with me so I’d take her back. As a result, I stood Tammy up while I was screwing Kelly. It took a good several months before she’d talk to me. I felt really bad. She did start dating a guy I knew who was a good guy, so at least it had a happy ending for her.
Senior year was a very busy year for me, and the months were passing quickly. I was drinking very heavily throughout the winter and was enjoying being at the top of the food chain for a change, at least at school. Home was the same, or worse, really. Eddie was not just a violent alcoholic anymore but had crossed over to full-blown psychopath. That was the diagnosis of a doctor my mother knew from the hospital to whom she confided in and described Eddie’s behavior. Because of his habitual drinking, Eddie’s business wasn’t doing too well, which only provided additional frustration, fueling his need to drink still more. It was hard to run a business if you drunk all the time. Even Jim had disappeared one night and hadn’t been seen in weeks, far longer than his usual absences. I had actually started to worry about him, because I couldn’t reach him at the usual place, a place even Eddie didn’t know about. He later turned up dead, face down in a ditch. He’d been stabbed about twenty times. The story came out that he’d owed the wrong person money. I went to his funeral with Eddie. My mother wouldn’t go, not that I could blame her.
Eddie also put a gun rack in the dining room, and began buying rifles to fill it. He bought some pistols, too including a .357 Magnum, like the one Clint Eastwood used in “Dirty Harry.” He even took me shooting with it at beer cans in the woods, which, quite frankly, scared the bejesus out of me. It was much heavier in my hand than I expected and it really knocked you back with the recoil. I kept thinking he was going to shoot me and leave me for dead there in the forest. There were few things I could imagine more dangerous than Eddie having guns within easy reach when he went nuts.
He was also getting increasingly paranoid and psychotic in public when drunk. My mother was getting increasingly worried that one day he was going to snap and there’d be a shout out with t he police. She seemed more frightened every time I saw her. And frankly, she didn’t even know the half of it. As far as I could tell he was getting into more stuff that even she didn’t know about. Eddie had taken a lot of how he treated women from an older uncle of his that he was very fond of, who came from the generation that believed that you didn’t tell women any more than you had to. It was better to keep them in the dark should anyone start asking questions went the reasoning. But Jim would tell me some of the stiff Eddie was getting himself into and some of it I witnessed firsthand. For example, Jim showed me a box of Polaroid photos of naked young girls, maybe high school age, that Eddie and some bad people he knew had given drugs to and then gang raped. At least that’s what it seemed like in the pictures I saw. Jim said he thought they were runaways. The two girls had these wide doe-eyed look in their eyes and looked very much like they’d been drugged. Some of the photos were very explicit. Looking at them made your stomach feel queasy.
At least a couple of times when he’d gotten his car parked in, a not uncommon occurrence in downtown Reading where parking was hard to find, he actually rammed the cars in front and behind him so they were pushed enough so he could get out of the space more easily. Then there was the time he’d tried to convince a waitress at a bar that I was dying of cancer in the hopes that she would sleep with both us. I had to play along or else. Luckily, she didn’t go for it. But the irony was that it was at this same time we discovered that my mother had developed breast cancer. Cancer ran in my family and my mother had been worried about it as long as I could remember. She had given up smoking as soon as it came to light that there was a connection between the two. It frankly seems weird to think there was a time when that wasn’t obvious.
Eddie couldn’t deal with my mom’s cancer and instead of being supportive, made life even more difficult for her by taking out his frustration, anger and the sense of helplessness we all felt on her. The best option appeared to be a mastectomy and the surgery was scheduled quickly in the hopes of containing the cancer before it spread. He rarely visited her when she was in the hospital and if he did, he came very drunk. He’d keep offering her food that she wasn’t allowed to have and then would get angry when she’d try to explain why she couldn’t accept it. I don’t think I did much better during this time period, though. I didn’t really know how to react to the idea of her being sick or the notion that she could die. It didn’t seem real and that’s unfortunately how I treated it. I pretended it simply wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t mature enough to do anything else. My relationship with my Mom wasn’t going too well and this might have brought us closer together again, but it didn’t. I visited her more often than Eddie did, but stayed as short a time as I could. I was secretly relieved whenever I’d find her asleep in her room because it meant I could leave a note and sneak out. At least twice, Kelly and I fooled around in the hospital parking lot so that I could delay going up to her room to see her. I just assumed that everything would be fine in that way teenagers think they will live forever. I had certainly been to enough funerals in my short years to know better, but I believed what I wanted to believe.
As it turned out, I was right, at l east for the time being. The doctors all believed that they had gotten all of the cancer. My mother was having some difficulty adjusting to wearing a prosthesis breast. I hadn’t realized how much of her identity was tied up in her looks before that time, I guess because we don’t see our mothers the way others do. But apart from occasional crying jags over the way she felt about her body, things returned relatively to normal, or as normal as out family could manage. I think it was a while before Eddie would touch her, which only saddened her and confirmed her worst fears.
Then suddenly I had my own crisis to deal with. Kelly showed up one day crying, which was very unusual for her. It turned out she was pregnant though she couldn’t tell me with absolute certainty if I was the father. I told her it didn’t matter and we’d go through whatever happened together. I certainly didn’t want to be a father before my eighteenth birthday but I didn’t see any way around it. Kelly talked with my mother a couple of times over the next few days and announced she wanted an abortion. If I had any protest, my mother silenced me before I could get it out. I guess it was her nursing instincts again, but my Mom insisted on going with us to the clinic and I was a little relieved not to have to deal with yet another medical crisis I had no clue about alone. Everything thing went fine with the abortion and there were no complications or problems. Kelly asked both of us to promise we wouldn’t tell anyone, especially her parents, about the abortion and we readily agreed. Kelly’s family was catholic and I didn’t relish that confrontation. Kelly’s Dad was almost as scary as my own.
Again, things went back to state of equilibrium, if not normalcy. But, of course, things never seem to stay that way for very long. My friend Phil’s dad sold car parts and Eddie’s Garage was on his route. As I understand how it happened, Eddie assumed Phil’s father knew about Kelly and me since Phil was one of my best friends and casually mentioned it to him. Later, when he was at the car dealership where Kelly’s father worked, Phil’s dad, believing it was common knowledge since Eddie had been so casual about it, asked him about it. Fifteen minutes after that, Kelly’s father was standing on my porch red-faced and threatening to do me bodily harm. Needless to say, Kelly was forbidden to ever see me again, though our love of danger just made sex even more attractive after that, though officially we were broken up. We’d just get together for sex whenever we could. It was actually a healthy arrangement as far as we were concerned. We both even began dating other people as cover but continued screwing around behind everyone’s backs.
I turned eighteen in the spring and within a few weeks had signed up to join the army band. Because they were in desperate need of both sax and clarinet players I was even allowed to choose my duty station, and I chose New York City figuring it was a great place for music. My mother had insisted on me applying to colleges, which I did, and was accepted at three of the five places where I had sent an application. But I could figure out how she would be able to pay for it and when I pressed her on it she said she’d get a second job if she had to. I don’t know if it was out of a desire that she not have to go through that or if I simply didn’t want to owe her so great a debt, but was not about to let her do that if I could possibly avoid it. So once I was eighteen and legally an adult I enlisted, knowing there would be nothing she could do about it. I also figured I could use the G.I. Bill to help me pay for college later, which turned out to be correct when I put myself through a few years later. My mother was livid, to say the least, but as I knew would be the case, my escape was foolproof and, now, inevitable. All I had to do was get through the next six months in one piece.