Fall 2017, Volume 23

Nonfiction by Gary M. Almeter

“Put a Little Something In Our Lemonade and Take It With Us”

I. Finger

Kevin B. fingered Carla F. on Saturday, April 7, 1984.  I know this to be so because a) Kevin told us and b) he told us on the Monday of the last week of school before a two-week Easter break that he fingered Carla the Saturday prior. Since Easter Sunday fell on April 22 that year, it’s just a matter of arithmetic; and the complex system of neurons and synapses that makes us have memories.  We were in 8th grade and it was Kevin’s inaugural fingering, done whilst they he and Carla were out riding dirt bikes through the muddy and as-yet-unplanted spring fields of our hometown. I do not know if it was also Carla’s inaugural fingering.  While we ate lunch that Monday, Kevin told us, the four other boys with whom he went to St. Vincent’s School, that he fingered Carla.  I had no idea what he was talking about.  But then Craig asked to smell Kevin’s fingers—a request to which Kevin readily assented—and I began to understand what had transpired.1 Craig vigorously sniffed Kevin’s fingers with the same enthusiasm an oenophile might sniff a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson once owned; Craig also pretended that the scent of Kevin’s fingers replete with the residual scent of Carla’s hoo-hoo, rendered him intoxicated, as though he had actually consumed a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux, recently found in Monticello’s wine cellar.  At least I think he was pretending.  Perhaps Carla’s hoo-hoo really was an intoxicant.

We, the five young men who comprised St. Vincent’s 8th grade spent the rest of the lunch period ascertaining the details of and reliving the fingering:  Kevin went riding dirt bikes with his friends, they saw Carla walking somewhere, Carla got on Kevin’s dirt bike, Kevin and Carla rode on Kevin’s dirt bike together, they let the other boys with whom they were dirt biking go ahead of them so they could stop and make out; Kevin and Carla stopped near a patch of trees, ostensibly to pee but with the tacit understanding that they would be making out2 ; Kevin and Carla made out on the ground; and Kevin fingered Carla.  Kevin was surprised that Carla let him finger her but then Carla was wearing sweatpants and so what was he supposed to do?

For the remainder of that week, the last week before school ended so that we could prepare to celebrate the risen Savior, Craig asked Kevin if he could smell his fingers and Kevin always said yes and Craig sniffed the fingers for the next four days with the same enthusiasm with which an oenophile might sniff a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux once owned by Thomas Jefferson and every day Craig pretended to be intoxicated by the scent of Carla’s hoo-hoo.

School ended for a fortnight and there was no more sniffing and no more talk of fingering.

I watched “America’s Top 10” with Casey Kasem religiously in those days.  I loved seeing the songs move up and down the charts.  We didn’t have MTV so the snippets of video on Casey’s syndicated show were all I got to see.  I watched America’s Top 10 on the Saturday before Easter, the second day that Christ was in his post-crucifixion tomb.  “Against All Odds” was the number one song in the land that week and in the video snippet of the song that Casey played, Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward made out on the sand and in the waterfall and in a bedroom with flowy curtains.  I wondered if Jeff fingered Rachel and assumed, in light of the fact that even a novice like Kevin fingered, that he did.  Then I felt ashamed for thinking about fingering instead of spiritually preparing for the resurrection of the risen Savior.

_______________________________
1 For the record, Kevin also asked me if I wanted to sniff his fingers; I had to make a split-second decision – risk being mocked for not wanting to smell his fingers or actually smell his fingers and risk getting some sort of digitally transmitted STD from the likes of someone who let boys penetrate her whilst dirt-biking.  I politely declined.  The first of many such declarations of independence.  My laser-like analysis went something like this:  first, I had no interest in learning what Carla’s hoo-hoo smelled like.  Additionally, I was really confused about what I would actually smell.  Had Kevin not washed his hands in the intervening 48 hours between his inaugural fingering and school on Monday?  If not, gross. And also if not, wouldn’t I also be smelling 48 additional hours of grime and grunge and who knows what else?  If so, wouldn’t the smell of Carla’s hoo-hoo be diminished by whatever soap Kevin used to wash his hands and its residual lavender or jasmine or peach blossom essence?  .
2 Kevin assured us that had he been trying, he would have been in front of all the other dirt bikers.
 

II. Overdose

On Thursday, April 26, 1984, a few days after Easter, I went roller skating with Grandpa.   It was warm—unusually so—for an April in Buffalo so I walked to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, roller skates I bought for $2.00 at a garage sale slung over my shoulder. It took just a few minutes to walk to their house and when I arrived I found them sitting on the davenport,  drinking lemonade and reading the The Buffalo Evening News.  Grandma was still not emotionally over the fact that Buffalo had devolved into a city with but one newspaper. The Courier Express—their preferred paper—had ceased publication just a few years prior.  I always got the sense that she read The Buffalo Evening News reluctantly and with suspicion.  In that sub-standard paper that day, was a story which alerted the world that police had found David Kennedy, son of Robert and Ethel, on the floor of his Palm Beach hotel room.  He had died; presumably from a drug overdose.  I knew who David Kennedy was because the 20th Anniversary of JFK’s assassination was a few months prior and I watched the 20th anniversary memorials and became fascinated.

The only other person I knew of who had overdosed was John Belushi.  Overdosing as a concept was difficult to understand.  I could not reconcile Belushi’s characteristic boorishness and untidiness with Kennedy sophistication and refinement. Later I would learn that addiction does not discriminate; that it is wholly possible for anyone to consume too much of something; that if life was really fair I would likely be dead too; and that there are many who yearn not to feel the pain they feel and yet do not know what to do with it.  Grandma seemed disgusted with the news.  I recall Grandma saying that David’s death was “such a shame.”  They had a picture of JFK in their dining room; the first Roman Catholic president.   

I was 13 at the time and things were starting to change.  Friends were no longer more excited to see Tawny Kitaen in “Bachelor Party” than they were to see Harrison Ford in the “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”  Friends were eschewing Darth Vader and E.T.  in favor of  Bo Derek.  Friends were fingering.  The revelation that my friend Kevin—a friend with whom I had always had much in common—had done fingering was still with me, sitting uneasily.  Frankly, I thought it sounded gross—that it didn’t sound fun for anyone, neither the fingerer nor the fingeree. And for this I felt shame. That I did not yearn to finger. I also had no understanding of what drugs were. Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” campaign in 1982 and we learned about the perils of drugs in school.  But while we identified and categorized the drugs, e.g. morphine is an opiate, caffeine is a stimulant, LSD is a hallucinogen etc., we never learned what addiction was.

For the first time, I was acutely aware that in other parts of my small town, 13 year olds were fingering.  And enjoying the fingering.  They were yearning to finger.  They were probably doing drugs too.  By extension, this meant that in other parts of the world, 13 year-olds were expected to be war fighting, bread winning and baby making. Maybe even stealing bags of morphine from their mom’s purse.  I thought of what life would be like if I lived in another part of the world where I was tasked with fingering and making babies with my teen wife.  It didn’t sound that fun. Especially when you factor in the fact that such an existence would necessarily include ancillary responsibilities like coal mining and possum hunting. I could no more imagine those responsibilities than I could understand how a rich, sophisticated man could be sad and lonely enough to die alone in a hotel room in Palm Beach.

The world seemed like a horrible place that year.  Political discourse was teeming with acrimony and freedom’s demise seemed imminent on all fronts.3   Around dawn on October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with the equivalent of twenty-one thousand pounds of dynamite into the heart of a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, killing two-hundred and forty-one servicemen.   And on November 23, 1983, ABC aired “The Day After,” a movie which postulates what the town of Lawrence, KS would do during and after a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia. 

Roller skating with Grandpa was fine with me in lieu of fingering; in lieu of taking or injecting or smoking drugs; but such contentment was tethered by the knowledge that I would have to grow up and finger people and say no to drugs and face the problems of the world.4   Roller skating with Grandpa was the perfect antidote—or at least a minor respite—from the chronic doom and gloom.  

Grandpa had just had his 70th birthday in March. We had a party for him at our house—the farmhouse where Grandpa and Grandma once lived—and the grown-ups, in the midst of the Democratic primaries, were joking about all the people who were running for president.  With the money he received, Grandpa did something unexpected and bought a pair of roller skates as a birthday present for himself.5   I know they were expensive because I wanted a pair too. I used to look at the roller skates in the catalogs.   The pair that I bought at a garage sale for $2.00 weren’t really that cool.  They were brown and had wooden wheels.  Grandpa bought a black pair with red wheels.

Roller skating was a very trendy thing to in 1984, at least it was in Western New York, though I do not think Grandpa was merely trying to be cool.  There must have come a time when Grandpa determined that the world in which he lived no longer belonged to him.  Or he to it.  When he no longer recognized the celebrity faces on the covers of magazines, or the songs on contemporary radio, or the garish labels on bags of potato chips or the concept of bottled water.  But in the early eighties there were a few instances where our interests converged.  I liked Pac-Man, E.T., “The A-Team,” Footloose (movie and soundtrack) and Van Halen; He liked square dancing, Popular Mechanics magazine, working, “Murder, She Wrote” and helping others.  But he was also into Stompers6; and roller skating; and there was that one time he got the Kenny Rogers’s “Twenty Greatest Hits” album for Christmas; an album also on my Christmas list.7 I had always thought of Grandpa as belonging to another time.  He had to go to school early to start the fire in the stove to keep the school warm.  He wore a suit to church.  He drove in cars that looked like Model T’s because they were actual Model T’s.

_______________________________
3 To say nothing of the fact that two of the highest grossing movies that year were Beverly Hills Cop and Police Academy, two substandard movies that would collectively spawn eight substandard sequels. 
4 David Kennedy died of an overdose of cocaine and Demerol at the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Beach.  Recently, a friend of mine flew to Palm Beach to orchestrate an intervention for an alcoholic friend of his.  The alcoholic friend’s wife paid for everyone to stay at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, about 1.2 miles from the Brazilian Court.  My friend asked me if I had ever been to Palm Beach.  I haven’t.  He told me that it’s utopia.  I said, “But apparently, it isn’t.”  Because it must not be.   
5 The fact that Grandpa used his birthday money to buy roller skates makes me really, really happy.  It is hard for men to treat themselves.  And Grandpa was astonishingly frugal. 
6 Stompers were little toy trucks which were popular in the early 1980s.  They ran on a single AA battery and featured four-wheel drive.
7 Casey Kasem’s charts were replete with Kenny Rogers’ songs in the early 1980s.  “Lady” was number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks in 1980.  He had other Top 10 hits including “She Believes in Me”, “You Decorated My Life”, “Coward of the County”, and “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer”.  It was not so odd to have country songs in the top 10.  In 1981, Dolly Parton and Eddie Rabbit reached number 1 with “9 to 5” and “I Love a Rainy Night” respectively. 
 

III. Decay

The four corners formed by the intersection of Centerline and North Sheldon Roads, one of the busiest in my hometown, were each in the midst of some variety of decay. There was some variety of disappearing, of being gone, with each variety unique.  At one time, these four corners were the epicenter of something more significant, something more bustling.8

St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church was the only thing at that corner still functioning in 1984.  There was a series of buildings: a massive stone church built in the late 1800s, an open area with a statue of St. John Neumann surrounded by flowers and benches upon which people could reflect, a two-story rectory, and a three-story school.  The church is majestic.  It stands 70 feet high and recently had a newly refurbished pipe organ installed in its choir loft.  However, as the result of a generally declining and aging local population, declining rates of men entering the priesthood, declining global esteem for the church in general, the church community was dwindling. No one lived in the six-bedroom rectory and the school was rarely if ever used.

At one time, the school was a fully functioning school, and fielded a sufficient number of students for 1st – 8th grades.  My dad and my aunts spent their first eight years of school there.  It closed soon after my youngest aunt, Aunt Karen graduated, and was just used for Sunday school and for meetings of church-related groups— ladies’ sodality meetings, fundraising groups, Catholic Youth Organization meetings etc.  In the early 1980s the two old sheds, once used as stables for parking your horse and buggy during mass, were converted to function space.  So meetings— including wedding receptions, funeral dinners and chicken BBQ fundraisers—were held there in lieu of the school.  

But even before the decay began in earnest, it seemed like the corner was weathered.  Weathered by the weather, weathered by falling milk prices, weathered by the decline of Buffalo which had recently become a one newspaper city; barely a city at all. 

Decay was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees when you’re in its midst, but from the empty meadow outside, you see its true limits.  Decay had little to do with the appearance of a thing—and more to do with where the thing was relative to time and place.  The town, once flourishing, now seems populated by weathered people; weathered Caucasians. Its homogeneousness and its industriousness, once the source of its pride, now something sad and outdated.

_______________________________
8 There was once a hotel, “The Sheldon Hotel”, at the NW corner.  It was not and had never been the Ritz; but it was a functioning hotel with a bar frequented by locals who had their own numbered mugs suspended over the bar.  There was a neon Budweiser sign that made my baseball uniform glow when I went there after little league games to play Space Invaders.  It burned to the ground in 1982.  There was a farm at the SW corner of the intersection.  The cows were sold and the barn eventually collapsed.  The house remains and the people live there now. The people are not farmers - they work in Buffalo and unable to have kids of their own, adopted three kids.  Mary Jane’s old store sits on the SE corner.  At one time this was a fully functioning general store; the sales floor had a myriad display cases and shelves filled with motor oil, wires and twines of all sorts, coffee, fabric, egg beaters and spoons and dishes of every kind. It had glass front windows and a door with a bell attached to the top of it that rang.  When the store was fully functioning, the bell roused Mary Jane to emerge from her attached apartment and onto the sales floor.  In my lifetime, Mary Jane only sold candy after church on Sundays.  And she seemed to do so begrudgingly, flicking coins across the glass counter with her big craggy knuckles as parishioners bought Three Musketeers bars.  The store still stands but is empty of provisions. A man named Norman now lives in Mary Jane’s apartment.  He was married to Gloria who left him for a man named Chet. One of Norman and Gloria’s four children died in childbirth just a few years ago; the baby died too.
 

IV. Skate

On Thursday, April 26, 1984, Grandpa drove to the old St. Cecilia’s school in his truck.  We climbed the three stories to the top floor, which was at one time used as an auditorium, with skates slung over our shoulder. It had once been a vast, majestic space, with 20 foot ceilings and huge floor to ceiling windows; a wooden stage with a crucifix inlay and a large beautifully embroidered stage curtain with gold tassels.  But the first thing I noticed was the 14 trillion dead houseflies on the floor.  Clearly the auditorium had not been used in years.  We spent about an hour sweeping the flies into a giant heap into the middle of the floor.  The windows overlooked the cemetery.  And beyond that, fields where I now knew kids were dirt biking and fingering.  I was anxious, and secretly checked behind the stage for the feral raccoons and feral cats and feral children I was certain had taken residence in the school.  Finding none, I put on our roller skates.

I was also a bit anxious when Grandpa stood up on his skates.  What if he fell and I had to carry him downstairs?  What if I couldn’t lift him and a feral muskrat or the ghost of a murdered altar boy came and ate us?  But Grandpa roller skated well.  He had a little bit of a hunched back so it always looked like he was leaning forward a little too far when he skated. I was just as apprehensive about the fly carcasses on the floor.  As we skated around them, the fly carcasses, weightless in their varying stages of decomposition, became airborne in our wake.  I could see bits and pieces of fly carcass float through the air, the carcass wings sparkling in the sunshine beams that shined through the majestic school windows. I wondered if I was breathing in decomposed fly guts.  Point of fact, I definitely was breathing in the fly carcasses.  Mostly though, I was nervous because I wanted to impress Grandpa so.  This skating was something I could do.  And that he wanted to do.

I am really lucky for a host of reasons; one of them is that I have a good imagination.  While we skated I could let the shadows the two of us created as we passed the giant windows of the school be our high tech light show.  I could let the transistor radio we brought be our AV system.  I could let the old auditorium above the old church school be the hottest skating rink in Western New York.9   I could expect throngs of people to arrive any minute. 

If Grandpa was prone to so doing, what might he have been imagining? 

Inevitably, the bumps on the rudimentary and weathered wooden floor served to remind us that we were not traversing the super waxed floor of a traditional rink.  The sound of our wheels on the floor rendered the transistor radio inaudible.  There was no snack bar that sold slushies and soft pretzels.  We stopped for lemonade and the song on the radio while we drank was Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” 10   I thought how funny it was to be listening to that song with Grandpa while roller skating in the old church school.  Grandma had supplied us with cups but we didn’t use them—electing instead to drink right from the Tupperware pitcher.  Like the hardworking men in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I suspect Grandma—ever the sleuth —admonished Grandpa for this breach when he got home.

We skated for about an hour and went home.

Grandpa never lived more than a mile from the small farm on which he was born.  As such, Grandpa was part of the fabric of this decaying town.  I think city-folks, a group of which I proudly consider myself a member, for all their wisdom and sophistication, do not understand the pressure of what it’s like to be known; to be relied upon; to be watched and considered and in most instances, inevitably judged.  Whimsy and folly were—in this decaying town—judged harshly.11   Perfectly parallel rows of corn and healthy, milk-producing Holsteins were lauded.  Corn fields were their own sort of battlefields.  Young stalks, newly planted in April which would appear in May.  (Assuming Kevin and Carla’s dirt biking didn’t kill the corn.)  One’s planting adeptness was readily determined by the straightness of the rows, how the planter navigated hills and curves and recesses which would inevitably get flooded.  If, by the 4th of July, the corn was not knee-high, then, in relation to the other farmers and considering any ancillary weather-related phenomena to account for the substandard corn, you were judged.  Later, post-harvest, the depleted stalks appeared blanched and bonelike, cornstalks like femurs left on the battlefield awaiting the inevitable decay, the inevitable onslaught of worms.

It took courage, then, for Grandpa to go roller skating in the school.  Not the sort of courage necessary to raise the flag at Iwo Jima; or fly a plane over hostile territory.  But courage nonetheless.  His neighbors inevitably drove by and saw his truck in the school parking lot.  They inevitably wondered what he was doing there; people in small towns just perpetually wonder that sort of pertinent information.

This roller-skating day cemented for me—though I suspect it merely congealed that day and solidified sometime later in the intervening decades between April 26, 1984 and today—the idea that a person can do whatever he or she wants to do.  In fact, authenticity is necessary; laudable even.  Skate when you’re 70; skate in the old parochial school; drink out of the pitcher; turn the day into something extraordinary.

If you would rather roller skate than work or finger Carla, then do so.  If you feel pain, find a way to deal with it.  If you feel shame, then find a way to get rid of it.

It also made me think of Grandpa differently.  He had always been a fixer; an analyst; a worker; a provider.  But it turned out he was also a poet in many respects.  A man who valued imagination.  Grandpa was 70 and was roller skating on the top floor of the old schoolhouse.  He bought roller skates, identified a flat open indoor area where he could roller skate and he fucking did it.  He was a man who suddenly defied convention; who could embrace whimsy now and again. 

Grandpa seemed to occupy two worlds—the quintessential farmer, diligent father, able-bodied worker, ardent Catholic side by side with the whimsical dreamer, prone to flights of fancy and an eagerness to explore.  He was a rebel in many ways.12   I wonder what parts of him Grandma preferred; to which ones she was attracted; by which ones she was repelled.

I loved being there, amidst the decay of the rotting housefly carcasses in the decaying schoolhouse belonging to a decaying institution on a decaying corner in a decaying town near a decaying city with but one newspaper.  I was far removed from the imminent future and drew strength from the knowledge that there would always be someone with whom I could not belong.

_______________________________
9 In reality, Skate 98 was the hottest roller rink in Western New York. 
10 “Flashdance…What A Feeling” was the third most popular song of 1983, according to Billboard.  It was behind Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Rounding out the top five for that year were “Down Under” by Men at Work and “Beat It” by Michael Jackson.
11 I recall an event celebrating an anniversary of the priest of St. Cecilia’s.  The president of the parish council, recited a poem for the priest, an avid golfer.  “And while we are out working and plowing the ground, you’re out there swinging your golf clubs around.”  It was made in jest but as Sigmund Freud suggested, and as the saying goes, “a joke is a truth wrapped in a smile”. 
12 Grandpa also found and bought old cars—not necessarily classics but teetering on the precipice of being such—and fixed them up.  He called them “jibby cars”.  The act of naming them itself an act of creative rebellion.  And pride.  History was often in open rebellion on his front lawn—a car with fins for sale which had earlier been discarded.
 

 

 

 

BIO: Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and former English teacher. His work has recently won first place in the Maryland Writers Associationís Creative Nonfiction contest. He has had essays published in 1966, Writerís Bone, and The Good Men Project, and humor published in SplitSider, Higgs Weldon, and Bullshit.Ist.