June-August, 1994

A long summer in upstate New York.

I stayed at Alfred in the summers, not wanting to go home, and scraped up work from the university, doing desktop publishing, serving food, and whatever else I could find.

The summer before my last year of college, I decided I had to be as far away from a particular girl as possible, after I learned that she was also staying. So I found an apartment for $150 a month, three and a half miles from the campus, and walked that distance to work every day, and back every night, never able to remember my umbrella.

The room I rented was too low-ceilinged for me to stand up, so I spent most of my time there lolling in depression with my feet hanging off the bed, and sitting at the heavily varnished desk that my landlords provided. There I collaged pictures of serious medical conditions onto postcards, and sent them to friends around the country. Occasionally I listened to music. Sometimes, for something to do, I would get lost in the woods on purpose, then try to find my way out before dark.

The room was on the second floor of a house owned by a retired couple named Ron and Flo, who liked to watch television and eat soft things that contained raisins. It was the most carpeted house I had ever seen.

We spoke rarely, and when we did it was usually about the weather. But sometimes they would say things like: “We love to put on costumes and march in parades. Sometimes I'm a she-gorilla, and Ron is a he-gorilla. Other times it's Mickey and Minnie. Once we were hippos” Occasionally they would share their popcorn with me. Ron was the head of the volunteer fire department.

Sometimes, in town, people would ask me where I was living. I would mention Ron and Flo, and the person with whom I was speaking would shake their heads sadly. Then they would tell me how Ron's son, who was in the fire department with his father, had burned down a number of buildings around town, and “been put away.” I imagined the visitation room, Ron and Flo dressed as gorillas, their son in his orange coveralls.

Son: Someone tried to cut me in the shower with a wooden shiv.

Ron: Ooh ooh ooh oooh! Ah! Ah! Ooh ooh.

Flo: Ah ah ah!

Son: I don't know if I can make it in here.

Ron: Ooh! Bah! Bah! (Grabs crotch.) Aah!

Flo: Ooh.

One day I came home to find an ancient woman in the hallway, on a stretcher. There was no one else home.

“Hello,” I said.

“Mmmm,” she said, not seeing me. Her hair was thin and white, her eyes milky with cataract. One of her fingers shook, then was still.

“I'm just going upstairs,” I said.

“Mmmm,” she said. “Patsy!”

Ron and Flo offered no explanation, and I was too shy to ask. So I asked around town. “That's Ron's mother,” explained a professor who was also a volunteer fireman. “She's there to die.”

Three weeks passed. Rain fell. I ate sandwiches and looked at the sky. A barbershop quartet convention was held at the school, and the last night of the convention there was an open bar, all 50 quartets fully soused. The entire valley resonated with drunken, conflicting harmonies, like a Charles Ives fever-dream, and I was half a mile towards home before the voices faded. I found work in the biology department, sorting through their collection of dead and pickled specimen animals for minimum wage, cleaning out fruit flies from vials. I would talk to the stuffed pelican as I drove it around the hallways on a cart, and developed a reputation for strangeness. My mother, from whom I'd been estranged for nearly a year, came up from Pennsylvania to visit some friends who lived in the area, and one day as I walked home, she drove by, and waved, and I watched her car vanish over a hill. At the end of three weeks, in July, the stretcher was gone from its place by the front door, and the old woman was gone, too.

Two weeks after that, Ron and Flo took off in their camper for parts unknown, wishing me well and asking me to keep an eye on the place. In the next few weeks my jobs ended as the campus prepared itself for the coming semester, so I went into town only rarely. In my tiny room, I sat on the edge of the bed and played music so loudly that my ears began to ring, browsed dictionaries of medicine for interesting conditions (acephaly—the absence of a head), and talked to myself in different voices. When, with a week's beard on my face, I would stumble across my friends or professors, or meet someone in the library, I had trouble meeting their eyes, and my tongue was thick in my mouth.

I decided to rejoin society, so I bought a bicycle for $100, but on its third voyage, as I pushed hard up a hill, both of its pedals suddenly shot off into a bramble and I fell hard into the road, ending up with gravel burns along the side of my face. I took it as a sign to remain pedestrian and alone until the summer ended.

In mid-August, Ron and Flo returned, and I helped them empty their camper. A week later, the semester began. My commute went from an hour-long walk along dirty roads to stumbling out of bed, finding a cap to cover my ugly hair, and yawning my way through the hundred-yard walk to Seidlin Hall, where, poorly prepared, I would attempt to participate in the mysteries of world literature. I figured out how to speak again, if not to women.

Before I graduated, I saw Ron only once on the town's main street, and asked after Flo, and learned that both were healthy and well, getting ready for another adventure in their camper. Ron was on his way to buy birdseed. He said nothing of the costumes, or of their son.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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