Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day (Terry)

When I was sixteen, and didn’t have a car, my older sister, Melissa , took me to the big mall, Woodfield, and we did some shopping.  She bought some clothes while I sat out in the court watching the fish they had in aquariums and indoor ponds.  We went to the record store and I bought a couple of albums with the money I made over the summer as an actor in a children’s program at the park district.  We went into the big bookstore, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, so that I could pick up something else that I wanted. Melissa said, “I think if you want another job, you should work here.”  I talked to the manager, Mike, and he had me fill out an application.  I really wanted that job bad so for the next three days I called him relentlessly until he finally said, “OK. You start on Monday afternoon. Wear a tie.”  When I got there on Monday, Mike said, “Can I help you?”  I said “I’m supposed to start working here today.” He said, “Hmmmm. …OK, we’ll start you in the back and then we’ll work you into paperbacks.”  

I worked at that bookstore  part-time from then on all through college. I made a lot of good friends, and we had a lot of good times.  Many of them I still stay in touch with. There was one guy, though, named Terry that I couldn’t seem to connect with at first.  He was a whole lot older than me but I never really had a problem talking to older people.  Terry didn’t really want to talk anyone. He managed the inventory and stayed in the back room.  He made sure books were delivered on time and that we put the right amount on the shelves.   He seemed like a nice guy and I asked the girl, Jeanne, the girl I worked the paperback desk with, what the deal with him was.  She said “I know very little about Terry but this is what I know. I know he is from southern Indiana. I know he was once part of the group came up from ISU and became Steppenwolf, and that he once performed in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and won an award. I know he is very good at drawing.  I said, “He sounds like a very interesting man.”  She said, “He is but he is very shy. The only time I ever saw him smile was when we had a Halloween party in the mall and he dressed up as a clown, did caricatures, and made balloon animals for the kids.  It was like once he had a mask on he was finally comfortable.”

Terry had a girlfriend named Patty that used to come in the store all of the time. She was a vivacious, funny girl.  She taught at a Catholic school but in the summer she would come and work with us. She was almost the opposite of Terry.  We figured out that my father and her father were at one time very good friends at work that ate lunch together a lot. One Saturday in the summer she brought in a blanket and sandwiches, and she said to me, “T.S., let’s go have a picnic.”  We went out on a lawn outside the mall. As we sat eating chicken salad sandwiches, she said to me, “Terry really likes you, he appreciates your love of books and that you want to write, but he is just not there yet.”  I said, “What do you mean?”  She said, “I met him college and then he got drafted. He spent two years in Viet Nam.  He lied to an officer that he could type and then had a desk job in Saigon. He still had to visit a lot of field camps and hospitals, and he saw lot of things that messed him up.  He had to fight sometimes. He saw monks light themselves on fire on embassy steps in protest. When he came home he sat for four days in a lawn chair in my parents’ backyard, and had horrible nightmares.”  I said to Patty, “I did not know that about him. I have never met someone who was in a war.”  She smiled, gave me some grapes, and said, “Just try to be his friend. Mike is his friend but he needs more friends.”   

Over time Terry and I got to be really good friends. He came out of his shell and started working the floor more.  He even became a manager.  He picked out books that he thought I had to read and we talked a lot about dramatists. He went back to school to study CAD design.  He and I would do inventory together at night after the store was closed and we would play a quarter betting game as we jettisoned old copies of the New Yorker. The goal was to flip through the pages and see who could find the most clever and funniest cartoon.  He always won.  He started pranking me.  He was very good with double-stick tape.  He would put it on books I was reading, staplers , cash registers and phone receivers, so I looked like a total moron when I was serving customers at my station.  They would always laugh and I would say, “I have a very bad friend.”  

The summer after my junior year in college, after my heart was broken, I started bringing by my new girlfriends to see him and Patty.  As I left sometimes they would nod their heads up and down, and sometimes they would shake them to say, “No.”  I sometimes went alone to their place, drank a little beer and stayed over.  Terry made me laugh by singing bad versions of Billy Joel songs as I woke up on their sleeper sofa.  “Don’t go changing… this apartment…” was one of my favorites.  One night I stayed out until the morning with a girl I met. When I went to the bookstore, I looked like hell. Terry sent me home because he thought I looked ill. Patty called me later. She told me that Terry couldn’t stop laughing because he didn’t think I had it in me to be so irresponsible.

One morning when I woke up in their apartment, Patty came to me.  She brought me coffee, and lied down next to me.  Patty was never a shy person, who told you exactly what was on her mind. She could sometimes be quite ribald. She told me, “Terry and I are finally getting married. “I said “That’s great!” She said “I want to have a baby, T.S., but Terry is very reluctant.”  I asked “Why?” She said, “He is afraid that one day that child will have to go to war like he did….He is also afraid he can’t have one. “ I asked, “Why?“ She said very forthrightly, “T.S. when he was in Viet Nam, he was in an explosion and hurt very bad. He lost a lot of friends while he was there. He also left something behind in that country. I keep telling him, ‘You don’t need two of those things to help make a baby,’ but he is scared.  Can you talk to him?”  The next day at the bookstore, as Terry and I went to get our customary popcorn lunch, I did talk to him, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “T.S., I don’t know how to feel anymore.  We’ll see what we see.”  

The day after I came home from college for the last time, I stopped by the bookstore to see him.  We went outside and he said, “I want to give you something.”  He asked, “Do you still smoke?” I sheepishly said, “Yeah, I still do, Terry.”  He handed me a Zippo lighter. He said, “You have tendency to collect things and pocket lighters, so I thought you might like this.”  He said, “It’s a piece of crap but I have a lot of them because when I was overseas my friend used to send them to me all of the time. They were very expensive in the commissary. I want you to have it.”  Terry was a very tall, lean man and when I took it, I said, “Thank you,” and he rubbed my head vigorously.  He said to me, “You did good. Go get a real job, get yourself an apartment, and marry that girl that you’re hanging out with these days.”  He left the parkway where we all used to eat and play on our breaks at the bookstore and went back inside.

When I got home to my parents’ house that night, I took the Zippo lighter apart to see what shape it really was in.   On the inner cartridge was inscribed, “Terry, don’t get your ass shot off in Viet Nam.  Love, Steve.”  I still have that lighter but I never use it and I don’t let anyone touch it.

As I began my career and got married, and they moved around, I lost touch with Terry and Patty.  The last time I saw them was at an antique fair/swap meet thing in St. Charles a few years after we got our first house in the city. It was a rainy day and my father-in-law and I were more interested in what the Bears were doing while our wives shopped looking for furniture for our new home.  Patty saw me first, ran to me, wrapped her arms around me, and kissed me on the cheek.  When I ran and hugged Terry too, he winced. I looked at Patty. She shook her head.  We talked awhile and as she hugged me again to say good-bye, she whispered in my ear. “He might have liked it, but he still can’t return it.”  I whispered back, “I understand.  No baby?” She looked sad and shook her head. . . I took Terry’s hand and he smiled, rubbed my head. I said, “Thank you” and then they went away.

That night as I read T.S. Eliot before I went to sleep, as I always do, I came across a quote in “The Waste Land” that he wrote after WWI…. “I had not thought death and war had undone so many.”   It seemed very fitting to how I was feeling.

I don’t know whatever happened with Terry and Patty, but I do know this.  Every time I go into the garage studio and look at that lighter Terry gave me and another one on my shelf of collectible crap and memories, I think about all of the men and women, like Terry, my Dad, my uncles, my cousins, and all my friends who served all across the world to make sure I can have this shelf and do what I do. I particularly feel for the ones that came home broken and the ones who did not get to come home to their families. Mostly what I feel is love and gratitude.

Today, on this Memorial Day, I am thinking about Terry.