I spent thirty years in Bloomington, where one of my angles was to treat Southern Indiana as my personal Vermont. I would take the overnight bus to Manhattan, stagger out of the Port Authority on Saturday morning and spend the day walking around and pretending I lived there. Some sleep on Joe’s West Village couch, Sunday brunch, and then back on the Sunday overnight. Everyone in Bloomington agreed I was closeted and went there to cruise. That’s what I would have thought too. Now I live in New York and daydream about Indiana tomatoes, lightning bugs, and my screened-in porch.
Adults rarely played with kids back then. Grandfather Strohm would occasionally poke me with his cane, and say: Sportin’ Jack Rogers, or Old Sportin’ Jack. Writhing and giggling I would also wonder, who was this Jack and what obligations might this identification impose on me? His other game was sitting in a chair while I drew him; a family joke, since he always came out looking like FDR and the Strohms were Republicans. I played with my father by mounting the arm of his easychair. While he read his newspaper, I imagined us as two horseback-riding cowboys, Tex and Slim.
Everybody wants to change hair cutters and can’t figure out how. My barber Harry and I used to go mushroom hunting together. He invited me to join his lodge, the Order of Redmen. We exchanged Christmas gifts. But he gave terrible haircuts. Mary Ellen put her foot down; she was losing libido over my crummy hair. On a research trip to England, I sent Harry a postcard with lots of stamps on it saying I had moved there and wasn’t coming back. I even faked a return address. Back in Bloomington, I lived like a fugitive, trapped in my lie.
After the divorce, explaining to my son Jacob how two such different people got together in the first place, I said that his mother and I at least met auspiciously, at a Sonny Rollins concert. Sonny was touring college campuses, in the doghouse and performing solo because of music world drug frictions. He was stuck in a humiliating shared bill with a novelty trumpet tooter named Maynard Ferguson. Jacob came back and said, I asked Mom and she doesn’t know anything about Sonny Rollins; she says you met at a Maynard Ferguson concert. No mystery about that divorce, I said.
Returning from the college library, Jacob was overtaken by a troop of naked runners. Where were they going, he yelled, and they yelled back that this was a midnight naked run. Impressed, he stripped, hid his clothes, and joined them. It was exhilarating: the night, the camaraderie, the affront to parochial Grinnell. They ran for a half hour and suddenly stopped, far from the campus. Why here? he asked them. This, they said, is where we left our clothes, and proceeded to dress. Jacob made his way back, pensive, holding, like seaworn Ulysses, a branch in front of his privates.
Uncle Don met her on a navy base. She looked like Rita Hayworth. She wore puckered halter tops and maddening blue shorts, cut high in the waist. I was six, but passing as a littler kid, four or five, so I could haunt her room. One afternoon she complained about heat and went up to “change” and I, pretending nonchalance, followed, mad to see her out of that halter top. But she changed like a movie star, behind some kind of screen, draping clothes over the top. I remember everything. The sound of a neighbor’s push-mower through the window screen.
First female Phi Beta Kappa at the University, Aunt Margaret moved East to Poughkeepsie and her visits terrorized us all. Whenever a point of usage was in doubt, she would say, Now let us consult Mr. Webster. She sprang this on my father once and, after pretending to look, he admitted that we didn’t have a dictionary. So you are, she said, triumphantly, raising this child in a home without a dictionary??? Next day my shamed father ordered one, leather bound and embossed with his name for good measure. I used it to look up words like “masturbate” and “vagina.”
Listening to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Me sitting at the bar, everyone else about 23. I was hallucinating that Junior was looking at me. At the break, I saw him halfway across the room. Then he was beside me at the bar. Junior fucking Wells! Hey, Old Man, you sellin? he said. Oh jeez! Didn’t I wish. I made frantic slapping and pounding gestures at my pockets, like something would normally be there. Not tonight, I had to say. Huh, he said, and withdrew. Some students came over. Saw you talkin to Junior, one said. Oh, yeah, I said.
My friend’s wife had a husky voice and a cute sideways look. She used to read literature out loud to convicts in the local jail. She was reading to her favorite prisoner when he whispered that he had cut the pockets out of his trousers. Reach in when you want, he said, just keep on pretending to read. When he got paroled he asked if he could park his trailer in their driveway until he got things straightened out. They started having coffee in the trailer every morning. It’s temporary, she told her husband, who didn’t know about the pockets.
When my son John was little he had a plastic ukelele with rubber strings. One night he was going thrumma-thrumma on the strings. I asked what he was doing and he said, Writing songs. He went thrumma-thrumma again. I asked what was that one and he said, A rock and roll song. What was he going to call it? “You Can Get It,” he said. After a while he went thrumma-thrumma again. What was that one, I asked, and he said, A country song. What are you going to call it, I wanted to know. His title, “Ain’t Got None.”