11. Dark Days Best Forgotten

May 13, 2010

Returning home in the fall was always a mixed bag for Roger. There was school with the promise of seeing his friends and the threat of homework. Roger had three buddies, and all of them except Marty were indifferent students. Roger didn’t want to be a bad student. He tried to do his homework, but somehow it never seemed to turn out very well. Marty had offered to help him but that meant coming over to his house after school and Roger’s mother wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t get home from work until almost 7. During the long hours from the time he got home until she arrived, he sat looking at his books, trying to fathom their occult meaning. Sometimes he read the comic books his friends had lent him and that he kept secretly under the mattress of his bed. When he was really little, he read Superman and Batman, but he really preferred Superman. He was drawn in by the mystery of an orphan from a distant planet and skeptical of the banal myth of a rich man and bon vivant who could buy his superpowers through man-made technology.

Once in junior high Marty had come over and stood outside the door of the apartment. When he knocked, Roger answered through the door, “My mother said not to let anyone in.”

“But it’s only me,” Marty protested.

“I can’t open the door. She told me not to open the door,” Roger answered.

“But why not?” asked Marty. “It’s only me.” It was strange to talk to a door, strange to hear his friend’s voice muffled by the thin closed door and the cool, implacable wall. Roger had listened to the pause on the other side of the door, and then heard his friend padding softly down the carpeted hall, which Roger knew was dark and stale smelling.

In high school, things were different. Roger could go where he wanted, but by then Marty and Brian had gone to the new high school that was closer to where they lived, and Joey had taken to girls. When he got home, Roger would fix dinner for him and his mom. His mother always seemed to be sick, and her pain seemed to darken the rooms, hanging in the air like a dense, suffocating heat, exuding a profound silence. Roger felt burdened but he wasn’t sure why. He knew his mother felt alone, and he didn’t want her to. He seldom went out.

After graduation, Roger got a day job behind the counter at a café where he used to hang out during high school. It was odd seeing the high school kids coming in after school, some of whom he knew but now felt separate from. Then the worst happened. He got a letter from the recruitment center. He’d left school, and there was nothing to stop him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Soon after he told his mom he was leaving, going to visit his buddy Marty, who was now a freshman at a university in California. She had only nodded and pulled her sweater tighter around her thin body. She watched him pack and kissed him before he walked out the door. She also gave him an envelope with three hundred dollars inside. It was more than enough to pay his way to California, and back.

For several months Roger slept on Marty’s couch, earning himself the name of Roger the Lodger, a nickname that Marty and his friends seemed to adore, with their barely-out-of-high-school inclination for teasing rhyme. Roger liked it as well: it gave him a sense of belonging, as if a nickname were a badge or a handshake among the initiated. He worked part time at the Taco Bell in the little student community of Isla Vista just north of the university in Santa Barbara, and during his hours off he walked the beach, taking with him the band of dogs that belonged to Marty and his friends. There was Bear and Lucy—or Lucille, as her owner insisted was her real name—and Harley Davidson and a little terrier mix named Pancake. Some nights all of them slept on the couch with Roger, groaning and turning over restlessly, one or two of the dogs dropping to floor to curl up in relative comfort.

One afternoon a breathless Marty found Roger sitting on the beach with the dogs. His roommate Jim, who was Roger’s manager at the Taco Bell, had called to say two guys in suits from the FBI had come by looking for Roger. “Don’t come back to my place,” Marty had cautioned. “Go to John’s. And don’t go back to Taco Bell.”

Roger began moving between apartments, sleeping on couches and floors. The students were eager help, to protect the friends they could from the draft. He found food by going through the dumpsters behind Safeway, searching for fruit and vegetables that had been thrown out. He brought back what he found to whomever he was staying with. His male friends were always pleased, but the young women would frown and look suspiciously at the tattered lettuces and bruised apples. Most of the days he spent on the beach, avoiding strangers. At night he’d go to the occasional party, smoking dope and reading the Marvel comics that were the current fad among college kids. These were different, exciting—here were heroes who didn’t want to be heroes, who would have sacrificed their super powers readily if it meant they could be simply humans. One night, during a party at Marty’s apartment, Roger had gotten so high he thought the wall had turned into a woman, and he danced with her, rubbing his body against hers, reaching up to hold her breasts. John had commented, “Dance to the wall,” and one of the girls had giggled.

Easter break he caught a ride with Marty’s girlfriend, Linda, going north to San Francisco. One of John’s friends ran an underground railway out of Oakland, and Linda would drop him off at their house on East 14th. By June he should be in Vancouver. It would be summer, and if nothing else, he could live on the streets and in the parks. He just had to find a job before winter.

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