Sir Galahad Security.
In August 1992 I moved out of New Guild Co-op and into an efficiency apartment on Rio Grande Street. I continued writing term papers, and for a time, I kept working at the Alpha Xi Delta House. But for some reason the House Mother asked Rod to replace me. I was to be transferred to the Alpha Chi Omega House. The Alpha Xi Delta girls warned me that all the Alpha Chi Omega girls were sluts and that I should be careful.
My desk in the Alpha Chi Omega House was in the Dining Room. At the back of the room was a long buffet table, and the cook usually left fruit and other foods out their overnight for the girls to snack on.
A group of girls swept down the circular staircase, dressed up for a night on the town, and crossed the Dining Room without even noticing me on their way to the back door. One girl reached out and grabbed a big handful of grapes, without so much as breaking her stride. I silently brought up the rear, making sure the girls didn’t get raped in the parking lot.
Grape Girl blurted out:
–You know why I like these grapes? They remind me of the testicles of my ex-boyfriend.
I let fly with a big, snorting laugh, and the girls turned around, saw me, and burst into embarrassed laughter. A few minutes later, I was back inside and seated at my desk, when I heard the back door creak. I looked around. It was Grape Girl.
–Back for some more grapes, I see?
She turned very red.
Rod was very careful to schedule us only 39 ½ hours every week. Had we worked 40, he’d have had to pay us benefits. He paid us so little that I wasn’t able to pay rent and utilities and buy groceries as well. So I often had to steal to eat.
Different sorority houses had different policies. Some didn’t give guards keys to the kitchen, or if they did, the guards would find the food all locked up.
The Alpha Xi Delta House never had any food available, but there was always a ton of ice cream, especially Drumsticks and ice cream sandwiches, in the freezers. I was getting ready to leave the Alpha Xi Delta House one night and went into the Dining Room and asked the two girls still awake if they needed anything from the kitchen before I locked up. They stayed in there a long time and must’ve completely forgotten about me. Finally, I plopped down in an armchair by the door and listened as one girl told the other how to properly execute a dry hump. When they loped out they saw me sitting there, realized I’d heard every word, and got very embarrassed, and ran off to their rooms.
At the Alpha Chi Omega House, however, the leftovers stored in the refrigerators at the end of every night were probably equivalent to the amount of food the average American family prepares for Thanksgiving. Though I always ate the small meal that had been left to me on a covered plate on the buffet, I also swiped as many leftovers as I could. I took to bringing Ziploc bags with me to work. This was only fair, because I was told that the first thing the cooks did when they came to work in the morning was throw all the leftovers into the garbage.
I was at a party or some other gathering with my friend Riley Newton. I was hovering over the buffet, as always, and he assumed an accusatory tone of voice and asked,
–Why is you’re always eating? It seems that every time I see you you’re shoveling food into your mouth.
–I’m always eating because I’m always hungry. If I’m not eating because I’m nervous or restless, I’m eating because I’m so used to being broke and not having enough food in my house. I fill up whenever I have the chance because I don’t always know where I’m going to find my next meal.
Many times I have attended parties merely to get a free meal. The socializing was just the unpleasant and often steep price I paid for the food.
The Sir Galahad Security box in the ACO house was stored in a closet of the almost-bookless Library, along with a detailed chart showing how Alpha Chi Omega members were to dress for class, UT football games, parties, and every other event. The level of conformity expected of these girls was mind-numbing to me.
During the time I worked at the Alpha Chi Omega House, the House Mother of the Delta Gamma House a block away committed suicide. The guard on duty that night was David O___, a former co-worker from Rockville Bank. He said when he came on duty that night, he sat up his desk and tried to talk to the House Mother, but she ignored him and seemed to float through the rooms. The next day he was awakened by Austin Police, beating on his door, wanting to know if he’d seen anything suspicious. It turns out that the House Mother had been found sprawled in her bathtub, her wrists slashed.
Some sorority houses allowed the guards to watch TV, and some didn’t. Ramon decided, all by himself, that in any house where there was no official policy, TV would be forbidden. The Alpha Chi Omega House had no TV policy. Needless to say, I was enraged. So I went over Ramon’s head.
I wrote Rod a long professional, and meticulously argued letter. I explained how that at the ACO House, the TV Room was immediately to the left of my desk. The only way I could avoid seeing it if anyone was watching it would be if I covered my eyes, which was ridiculous. And it seemed rather nit-picking to expect me to run up and turn off the TV if all the girls left the TV Room. I had plenty to read and work on, in additional to my official duties, but seeing as there were no complaints about me goofing off, I didn’t see why there should be any problem with me watching TV now and then.
Rod called me back, a little embarrassed, because he could sense how angry I was, and said I was allowed to watch TV at the ACO House, but none of the other guards would be.
I was watching the beginning of the film “Slacker,” and had just watched the scene, early on, where someone at the intersection of San Antonio and 24th Streets is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. Just then, one of the ACO girls ran down the staircase and out the front door. I jumped up and followed her, to more or less give her an escort, and then, not forty-five seconds after seeing that scene on TV, I had the bizarre sensation of standing on San Antonio Street at roughly the exact same spot the camera had stood to film that scene.
Eventually, though, the House Mother asked Rod to remove me. In all the years that I worked for that company and in all the the times House Mothers asked to have me removed, I never found out what it was about me that those women disliked.
Some sorority houses employed one set of guards for the first part of the night, and Sir Galahad guards for the late shift. The early shift guards were male seminarians. They were quiet, polite, very conservative and dull, and they charged less per hour than Sir Galahad. They all looked to be in their late-thirties to early-forties. Maybe they were all twenty-two, but looked like they were fifty. The catch was they did not escort the girls to their cars—they just sat at their desks for hours.
Perhaps the House Mothers disliked Sir Galahad guards because so many of us seemed inept and gave off a bad attitude.
Next was the Alpha Epsilon Phi House. Why is this sorority different from all other sororities? Well, it was Jewish. The girls here all smoked and had husky voices, with voices that indicated either East Coast or European origins. Their boyfriends were all short and aggressive, with chips on their shoulders. I got along with the girls fine, but the boyfriends didn’t like me.
There was a courtyard in the center of the House. The Entrance Hall was to the east of it, and the TV Room was to the west. Boys were allowed in the TV Room, and the TV Room curtains were usually kept closed. The staircase to the bedrooms was located near the TV Room. As a result, I had no way of performing one of my chief duties—keeping boys out of the girls’s bedrooms.
When I was getting ready to leave my first night, I went into the TV Room to tell the boys to leave. The boys decided to have a confrontation:
–Why even bother making us leave? Surely you know that five minutes after you leave our girlfriends are just gonna open the door and let us back in.
–Yeah, I know that, and I don’t really care if you’re here or not. But I also know that if I didn’t go through the motions someone would see me and report me and I’d lose my job.
Early on at the AEP House, there was a big storm, with thunder and lightning. I heard a lightning clap, followed by a sinking sound, then went out the front door to see what was going on.
All of Rio Grande Street to the south of us was black. All the electricity was knocked out. Two of the girls joined me on the porch and lit up cigarettes. Then the apartments across the street went back. I asked the girls,
–Hey, I’m new here and I don’t know where anything is in the house. It would probably be a good idea if you could find me some candles in case we lose our power.
A few minutes later they came back smirking, carrying a menorah and Hanukkah candles. I said,
–Well, this’ll come in very handy if the power’s out for eight nights in a row.
At the AEP House I had no doubt that the House Mother disliked me.
She was very old and very deaf.
Now the Entrance Hall was lit with a large chandelier. My desk stood in an alcove on the opposite side of the hall from the door to the House Mother’s Suite. Unfortunately, there was a completely unnecessary spotlight in the ceiling of that alcove, and it shone right down onto my head and my me sweat profusely. So as soon as I arrived at night, the first thing I’d do was turn that goddamn light off.
Girls and their boyfriends would be bustling around, making a lot of noise, and the House Mother would come out to see what was going on. And then she’d make a beeline to the alcove and turn the light back on.
Eventually, she’d go into her Suite and watch TV (usually “Matlock”) well into the night, with the volume cranked all the way up. Her chair was positioned in such a way she could keep one eye on the TV and the other on me. But as soon as she went into that room, I turned the light back off. And if she came out again, she’d turn it back on. And it went on like this the entire time I worked at that house—which wasn’t very long. But she never spoke to me about the light directly. Come to think of it, she didn’t speak to me about much of anything.
Many Sir Galahad guards at this time, myself included, were addicted to Ephedrine. You could buy it by the packet or the bottle in every convenience store and gas station near campus. These “diet pills” were promoted for their ability to keep you awake on long nights of studying, but they were pure speed. They helped us stay awake during those long, boring, tiring, tiresome nights.
There were numerous side-effects. I would get over-heated and my heart would race or I’d think I was having a heart attack. I developed a periodic stammer that lasted for fifteen years, until a depression medication rewired my brain’s circuits.
My buddy and fellow guard used to down Ephedrine by the bottle, and when he suffered a serious leg break, it took him a long time to heal, because the Ephedrine had eaten away much of his bone density.
Ephedrine also made you impotent. I had a friend who heard that if you took Ephedrine before you went out partying at night, you could drink as much as you wanted and never feel the effects of drunkenness. He tried it. And indeed, he did not feel drunk. He picked someone up in a bar and went home to have sex, and then discovered that thanks to the Ephedrine, he couldn’t get an erection.
Maybe I was addicted and maybe I wasn’t. I know that as soon as I stopped working for Sir Galahad and stopped taking Ephedrine I didn’t experience anything akin to withdrawal.
At some point Rod started scheduling me to work part of the time at sorority houses and part of the time at Oakmont Towers, a nine-story condo on Lavaca Street between the State Capitol and the UT campus. Since it was obviously open year-round, I was able to work there during the summer of 1993.
Sometimes I worked part of the night at Oakmont and part at a sorority house. Other times I was at Oakmont all night—from before sunset until after sunrise. Those were long nights.
The residents included students both foreign and native, divorced men, single professionals, members of the Legislature, and retirees—most of whom were sour-tempered. The strangest group of all were the rich Indian kids who talked like white frat boys talking like black gangstas. They were just absurd.
This eclectic mix did not work well. Whenever someone’s stereo got too loud, I’d get called.
Any time any young people went out to use the pool or hot tub after the official closing time of 10pm, this busy-body old woman used to call me and bitch about it. I got so sick of her that any time I saw anyone heading to the pool I’d disconnect the phone. If I was ever questioned about it later I’d play dumb and say I was out making rounds and didn’t hear the phone ring.
There was a parking garage that was wrapped in chain-link fencing and fitted out with an automatic gate. But any time one resident parked in another resident’s parking spot in the garage, the offended party would kick up a fuss. I never understood why they’d get so upset, since the garage was so large that there were more parking slots than there residents. I’d always say,
–But did you get a place to park inside the garage?
–Well, yes, but it wasn’t my spot!
And I always wanted to add,
–Well, if your car is secure in the garage, then what are you bitching about? Because you had to walk ten extra feet to the back door?
The master fire alarm box, which was so elaborate it looked like some computer from NASA Mission Control, was kept in poor repair, and every few months it would short-circuit and send an alarm to the Austin Fire Department. Then a bunch of trucks and ambulances would pull up, sirens whining. Firemen would come in, search the building, floor by floor, find nothing, then tell me an invoice would be sent to the building’s Manager for a false alarm. The noise always upset the old people in the building, my phone would start ringing, and I’d get blamed for the trouble.
While I thought most of the residents were assholes, a few used to like to come talk to me.
A middle-aged bachelor who lived in a tiny apartment by the front door used to give me clothes he no longer wore.
There was an old man who was apparently a local gay rights pioneer. He’d been a typist at UT, but was fired when they discovered his sexual orientation. He sued the school and got his job back. There were always gay politicians dropping by to visit him. He was a sweet old fellow, and always brought me his newspaper in the evenings.
The building’s chief gossip was an old lady who lived with a little lap dog named “Henry.” She used to dress him up in a red sweater she’d made herself, and walk him around the block. She used to come by my desk and tell me all the things the other residents did that annoyed her. Maybe she saw in me a kindred spirit. I thought she was a very lonely and sad soul.
There was a young gay man who claimed to be the son of country singer Jim Reeves (though no official sources backed him up). He came by my desk one evening after he’d been diagnosed with a fatal illness (which I concluded was AIDS), and confided in me about all the worries and stressful burdens he’d been carrying around with him. As I was dealing with illness in my own family at the time, I was able to give him some insight, and he seemed genuinely relieved after we’d talked.
Most evenings I’d get to Oakmont and have to stand a flimsy cylindrical metal ashtray in a corner next to a window by the side entrance door, then climb up onto that and, while trying to maintain my balance and not break my fucking neck or fall through the window, would have to fumble with a key lock box that was seven or eight feet off the ground and had numbers that were too small for me to see. But apparently the Powers That Be didn’t think the security guards should have an easy time of getting inside.
If I did get in, I had a key to the guard room, and I’d soon set up my desk and “station.” Within about fifteen or twenty minutes Clint the maintenance man would swing by and have a chat before heading home.
He seemed a pleasant enough young guy, without a care in the world. So I was surprised when one night he said he had a serious problem he hoped I could help solve.
He had seen my Texas Private Investigators and Security Officer’s License and noticed that I was fond of reading, so he assumed I was a skilled detective, and naturally I didn’t want to disabuse him of this cool notion.
When Clint was a teenager he’d knocked up his girlfriend. They got married, had a baby girl, and split up not long afterwards. The divorce was so nasty that Clint had not seen his daughter since she was three months old, but Clint and his ex-wife had mutual friend who kept him posted on the girl’s development.
And now the daughter was a teenager, and Clint had just learned from his friend that she’d run away from her mother’s home in East Texas. The assumption was that the girl was trying to make her way to Austin to see her father, but everyone was afraid she’d fall in with the wrong crowd and be forced into prostitution or making porno films. Clint didn’t know where to start. He didn’t even know his ex-wife’s current married name or address.
I wish I could remember all the steps I told Clint to take, but suffice it to say that using skills I’d picked up from watching “The Rockford Files,” I taught Clint how to research various state agencies (this was in the days before the Internet), and how to impersonate important people on the phone and in person, when seeking information that is normally kept classified from the general public.
The next time I saw Clint he was ecstatic. He’d done what I told him, gotten the information he needed on his ex-wife and daughter, among other things, and managed to track his daughter a short distance away from Austin.
Now in April 1992, when the LA cops who’d beaten Rodney King were acquitted, race riots started in Los Angeles and spread across the country. Rod actually called all the guards to tell us what might happen if there was rioting in Austin. He thought that at worst someone might drive by and throw rocks through the windows, but as usual, his instructions were vague and useless. Of course, had there been some serious rioting, I’d have stripped off that uniform and run my fat ass the other way. I wasn’t going to put my safety at risk for these stick-up rich girls.
The only time I was ever in any danger was a few years later at Oakmont, when a disturbing homeless man managed to slip into the building. He started threatening me and playing mind games. He knew he was scaring me, and soon backed me all the way across the lobby. I had my big police flashlight raised over my head, threatening to use it if he didn’t leave.
He kept at it, kept taunting me. Occasionally some residents would walk through the lobby and I’d look over at them with a desperate look in my eyes, hoping they’d pick up the signal and get me help. He kept threatening to spring forward and attack me.
I was afraid because I knew that if I finally used the police flashlight on him, I was going to beat him in the head with it repeatedly until I killed him. Now the life of this piece of walking shit wrapped in dirty skin meant nothing more to me than a clump of discarded chewing gum stuck on the sidewalk, but I knew if I killed this filth, I’d be arrested, and I did not want to go to jail.
To me, jail is the line that divides “us” from “them.” As long as I stayed out of jail, no matter how low I sank, I could believe that I was still part of the decent level of society. But once I went to jail, I’d forever be branded the lowest of the low. Indeed, I decided long ago that I’d commit suicide before I ever let anyone put me in jail or prison.
But I digress.
I somehow managed to get that asshole out of the building and ran back to the Guard Room and called the cops. Unfortunately, a bunch of silly goddamn bicyclists had huge, traffic-stopping protests every Friday evening at rush hour, and most of the police downtown were over attending to that. They sent me one police woman, who merely scolded the asshole and sent him on his way. I was furious she’d not arrested him. I wanted to press charges to the fullest extent of the law.
When I told my father about this incident we agreed that my mother should never heard about it, as it would’ve just gotten her into a state.
During most of my first tour of duty in Austin in the early 80s, my father was in poor health. He’d been diagnosed with emphysema and had to quit smoking. He’d smoked three or four packs of unfiltered Camels for about forty years. Oddly enough, as dictatorial as he’d been with me most of my life, he didn’t lecture me about smoking. We were sitting on the front porch in Bellville and he said,
–I used to smoke heavily for forty years, but now…[and that “now” just seemed to stretch out across all the decades he’d lived and all the decades he’d lose out on]…I don’t smoke anymore.
He pinched a nerve in his neck and his doctor made him stay inside and not engage in any strenuous outdoor pursuits for a year. I’m sure that just crushed him.
Finally, around 1992, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He went into chemotherapy, but everyone probably knew he didn’t have long left to live.
For Christmas 1992 he gave all five of his kids big gifts. He paid off one son’s car. He set up trust funds for the kids of one of his daughters. And he gave me enough money to finally finish college. This, he said was it. If I screwed up this chance, there’d be no more college money.
But I didn’t screw it up.
Between June 1993 and August 1994 I took three Spanish courses and one computer course at Austin Community College and re-took, by correspondence, an English course I flunked at SHSU. This time I went to class diligently, studied hard, and got good grades.
I stopped hanging out at Quack’s and being a wit and public figure. In the mornings I went to class. In the afternoons I slept. At night I worked for Sir Galahad. I’d get off work around 6am, go home, shower, and start the cycle all over again. It was an exhausting way to live, but it was very rewarding. I actually felt I was accomplishing something, that my efforts would finally result in a happy, rewarding life, and a good career.
I stopped writing term papers for people. I developed a strange habit of bringing a big stack of newspapers along with me when I worked at Oakmont, and I’d clip articles out all night with scissors.
My obsession with Jorge Luis Borges complemented the Spanish classes I was taking. I knew that Borges used to write his works on graph paper, so to practice my Spanish skills during the long nights at Oakmont, I would try to translate Borges’s work from Spanish into English on graph paper. On the first line of the paper I would write the Spanish original. On the second line I’d write my ham-fisted translation. On the third line I’d write the official English version from one of Borges’s authorized translators, and the fourth line I’d leave blank. And you can imagine how thrilled I was to make the serendipitous discovery that when Borges was a guest professor at UT from 1961 to 1962, he lived in a building that was still standing one block away from Oakmont!
I continued to be a less than enthusiastic guard. Apart from the beginning and end of a shift, I seldom made rounds unless I needed to stretch my legs or grab a smoke. I often went up on the roof at Oakmont, and stood by the western edge, one foot propped up on the parapet, posing like Batman, surveying the city. Once in awhile a wino would stumble out of the convenience store across the street, look up, see me, and be startled.
In August 1993, just as school was about to start, Rod asked me to do a double-shift during Rush Week.
This was when freshmen girls would go to a series of back-to-back parties lasting from late morning until early evening, so they could decided which sorority they wanted to pledge and the sorority members in turn could decide which girls they wanted to invite to pledge. Each party last about forty minutes. Then the girls would have twenty minutes to rush over to the next house for the next party. Each day’s parties had different degrees of formality.
The houses needed a guard standing outside because frat boys were know to drive by and throw balloon filled with water, mud, or bleach at the girls, ruining their pretty clothes. The guards, theoretically, were supposed to scare the boys off, but how they were actually to prevent balloon throwing, I have no idea.
So Rod expected me to get up in late morning, stand outside in the August heat half the day, run home and grab dinner, then spend the entire night guarding a sorority house. This was an exhausting week.
One afternoon I worked the Chi Omega house, which was two-hundred feet from my apartment. One of the girls rushing had gone to my old high school in Willis, Texas, and dated the son of my old drama coach. I was terrified she’d go back home and tell everybody about my embarrassing and reduced circumstances.
The rest of the week I worked at the Kappa Alpha Theta House, at Pearl and 24th Street, right across the street from my old employer, the Acme Tutoring, and a block from the Sig Ep house, where Bill Tyler and his closet-case friends stripped me naked.
One afternoon before the most formal of the parties, the rushing girls were gathered in the forecourt of the House, all decked out in frilly party dresses. And I distinctly smelled a perfume that had the scent of old books. I went wild. I walked around, frantically sniffing the air, trying to find the girl who was wearing that divine perfume. I’m sure had I found her I’d have pounced on her or fallen to my knees in worshipful adoration. It was the only time in the three years that I guarded sorority houses that I was genuinely turned on.
The way that KAT House was designed, there was a long hallway that extended from the front door, with public rooms off to the north, and the bedrooms and stairs off the south. My desk was at the far eastern end of the hall, and the door to the bedroom wing was right next to the front door at the west end of the hall. So by the time I saw a girl walking out the front door, got up, trotted down the hall, and got outside, the girl was usually already in her car. And not surprisingly, there were a lot of complaints that I wasn’t escorting the girls. Plus, I was even slower responding because I was tired and overheated from my day in the sun.
At the KAT House there was a tiny TV on the guard’s desk. And one night during Rush Week, around 2am, I turned on Austin’s infamous Access Cable Channel, coming across a show called “Info Sex,” which was a call-in, sex education/Q&A show.
The host announced he was about to show a safe sex video, and before I knew it, there were two guys, one white, one black, buck naked and making out on the screen. The black guy had an inverted triangle shaved into the back of his head, which was dyed the colors of the rainbow. The white guy bent over, and the black guy knelt down, stretched a piece of cling film over the white guy’s asshole, and began licking it, stopping once to slap the white guy’s ass. Then the video cut suddenly and I saw the white guy put a condom onto the black guy’s cock and go down on him.
That was a little more than I was ready for at 2 in the morning. I went outside for a cigarette and to walk around the building.
I had just come around the side of the kitchen when I heard a car stereo blast out with thumping bass. I thought what an inconsiderate asshole the driver was to do that at that hour. I saw a Jeep speeding down Pearl Street with four drunk frat boys, all howling. Two were standing up in the back. They saw me and yelled out and insult, then sped up, not even bothering to pause for a second at the stop sign before tear-assing to the left onto 24th Street, where they were broadsided by an on-coming car.
One of the guys in the back was thrown clear of the Jeep, which the other one just flew up into the air and landed back in the vehicle. I ran out to the street to check on everybody, then went back inside to call 911. When I got back the two guys that had been thrown around were moaning, and the other two guys were busy pouring all their beer into the storm drain.
The cops and ambulance arrived, and the boy that was thrown out of the Jeep was loaded onto a board. The cops treated me like I was five-years-old and retarded, so as soon as I gave my statement I went back inside.
Later on that evening I went into the walled-in garden behind the house, stood beside the reflecting pool, and wondered how the fuck my life had reached this bewildering point.
The next afternoon, I was working another rush party. Things were coming to a head, and the parties were becoming more and more “important.” The freshmen girls seemed a little more panicky now. There was a greater sense of urgency in the air now as they rushed around West Campus between parties.
A party had ended no more than seven minutes before. I sauntered out the front gate of the KAT House and watched the traffic jam on Pearl. Then I heard a loud and sickening crunch. I was just beginning to react when some girls ran up to me and told me there’d been an accident—again at the intersection of Pearl and 24th.
I ran over to 24th and found a tiny car with its rear-end smashed in. Four Middle Easterners climbed out, rubbing their heads and looking distressed.
I looked at the girls who’d summoned me:
–Where’s the other car?
The girls exchanged embarrassed looks and then explained,
–It was our friend Melanie. She really wants to pledge Kappa Delta….
–And she was really scared she’d not get over to the Kappa Delta House in time. That’s the next party she has. So she was in a hurry and wasn’t looking where she was going, and that’s when she had the accident.
–And where is she now?
–Probably the Kappa Delta house.
–You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.
I went into the KAT House kitchen door (since men weren’t allowed in the House during rush parties) and used a phone back there to call 911.
–There’s been a two-car accident at the Kappa Alpha Theta Sorority House at the corner of Pearl and 24th….
–Yes, we have a record of that…at around 2:30 this morning.
–No. This is a new accident. Same place. Same guy calling it in.
By the time I got back outside, Melanie was stumbling along the sidewalk on 24th Street, crying hysterically, and being held up between two much taller friends. From what the friends told me she’d left the scene of the accident, crying her head off, drove the two blocks to the Kappa Delta House, ran inside, and cried even more there, before they convinced her to go back to the scene of the accident.
Melanie calmed down enough to tell the Middle Easterners her insurance information and phone number, and said they could call her at home that night, when she got home, some time after 10pm. Then she turned around and headed back to the Kappa Delta House, while the Middle Easterners just stood there dumbfounded.
And then the cops and EMS arrived. And they all gave me “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” looks as I explained this tale to them.
The Kappa Alpha Theta girls and House Mother didn’t like me at all. I wasn’t there for more than two weeks before I was transferred to a split shift between Greenwood and the Kappa Kappa Gamma House.
The Kappa Kappa Gamma House was a red brick Georgian Revival structure designed by prominent New York architect Harrie T. Lindeberg. The proportions were beautiful, and the original rooms were graceful and furnished in an elegantly restrained manner. The Entrance Hall was broad, with curved walls and an oval staircase. The Drawing Room was twice as long as it was wide, and the Library that opened off of it was a perfect cube.
I was taking a literature course by correspondence at the time, and had to read the books required at a speed that was faster than that to which I was accustomed. After I finished those books I decided I ought to try to read the Bible cover-to-cover, since I’d never done that before.
This was a period of intense religiosity for me. My father’s condition was getting worse. In the wee hours of the morning, after doing my homework, and reading the Bible, I would pace the width of the house, starting at one end of the darkened Drawing Room and down into the Library, then turn around and pace back. I’d do this for hours, pacing back and forth, praying harder than I ever had in my life that my father would get better, or that if he were to die, that he wouldn’t suffer any more.
I cannot explain this. When I think now about what a largely unpleasant relationship we had over the years, I wonder why I bothered to care….
Perhaps my conflicting feelings were due to the fact that we never resolved the issues between us. I wanted his affirmation and declaration that I was a man and an adult, and I never got that. I never managed to build up the courage to confront him over all the awful things he’d done to me….We did have some good times. He was sometimes a very funny person to be around, but for the most part he was an angry, unpleasant man….
In late 1991, four teenaged girls were killed during the robbery of an Austin yogurt shop. The shop was set on fire to cover the crime. The police conducted a massive search, especially in the Goth and underground club community, to find the killers.
My friend Max was working at a radio station in those days, and in 1993 or 1994 had heard a report given by the first fireman to break through the roof of the shop and discover the bodies of the girls. The gruesome details were not released to the media. But I heard about them.
For weeks I was terrified when I was at work. I was very uncomfortable walking around outside the House at night, or even inside, through the empty rooms. I felt like I was being watched, as if I’d just discovered that a secret, malevolent cloud was hanging over the city and that my life was in peril. I was especially scared when I walked through the House’s basement Recreation Room. I couldn’t shake the notion that a massacre had taken place there years before and had been covered up. I imagined girls in 1960s clothes and big bouffant hairdos, sprawled around in pools of blood.
One night I came home via the alley behind my apartment. I saw a figure crouched beside the dumpster, not fifty feet from my door. It stood up. It was a homeless woman, pants down around her ankles. She wiped her private parts and I walked about fifty feet out of my way to pass by her.
Ken C___ got one of the guards fired. Ken had been making rounds of the houses one night and didn’t find this guy at his desk. He waited for awhile, in case the guy was making rounds. After about thirty minutes, he went back to the kitchen to see if the guy was getting a snack. He started prowling around, and finally found this guard sleeping on the floor of the cooks’s break room.
He told the guard he’d give him one more chance to prove he still wanted to keep his job. (I would’ve thought the guard’s attitude about his job would’ve been obvious by this point.) The next time Ken made rounds the same scenario played out, only Ken found the guy inside the closet of the cooks’s break room, stripped down to his underwear, tucked into a sleeping bag, with an alarm clock set for fifteen minutes before the end of his shift.
Ever since my father had gotten sick, my mother had been his chief nurse, as well as the care taker of their place in Bellville, which consisted of something like 60 to 120 acres. My father was a proud man, and not one to ever ask for help, but he finally asked his two biological sons if they’d come help around the place. They made two visits a piece. I came down and helped when I could, but I wasn’t able to get away from my job that often.
Since my father was on chemotherapy, exposure to the slightest germ could kill him, so my mother told any potential visitors to stay away if they had even the slightest hint of an illness—even a slight cold.
My father’s doctor said it looked like the chemo had been successful. She just wanted him to have one more round of it to clear things up.
At Christmas 1993 my mother and I showed him our love the only way we knew how, by giving him lots of presents. He’d never gotten many presents from us before. When my mother indicated to me that he looked like he was about to start crying, I looked away. I couldn’t bear to see him lose control or be vulnerable.
His Baptist Holy Roller son D___ came by with a church friend to ask after the state of his soul. My father explained very simply that he’d made his peace with God. My mother got the impression that D___ and his friend were there not so much out of genuine concern as they were out of a desire to fill their monthly “saved souls” quota.
I got the sense my father regretted some of the things he’d done, but he could never take that one extra step and say he’d been wrong or apologize. He had an awkward conversation with his eldest son, B___. B___ said,
–Well, I think you know we all love you, even if we don’t come right out and say it.
My father responded,
–Well, still, it’s nice sometimes to hear the words.
I went to see the film “Shadowlands,” in which Anthony Hopkins played C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s quiet, bookish, academic life is disrupted when he suddenly falls in love, marries, and then loses his wife to cancer. In one scene that great affected me, Lewis runs into a former student:
LEWIS: What are you doing these days?
WHISTLER: Teaching. Feel free to give a hollow laugh.
LEWIS: No, I suspect you’re a born teacher.
WHISTLER: I do turn out to be quite good at it.
LEWIS: Good….Your father’s a teacher, isn’t he?
WHISTLER: He died a few months ago.
LEWIS: I’m sorry.
WHISTLER: I loved him very much.
LEWIS: Did he know that?
WHISTLER: I think so….I think he knew….Yeah.
LEWIS: One has to say things. The moment passes, and then you’re alone again.
LEWIS: “We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s what he said, wasn’t it? Your father? See, I haven’t forgotten.
In March of 1993 I asked Rod for a weekend off so I could visit some friends in Bryan/College Station. He agreed grudgingly. I stayed with my friend E___. I visited briefly with my friend T___ S___, who told me about a trip he’d recently take to Europe. He only told me a few of the highlights—I was eager to hear the full details, but never got the chance.
I went back to Austin and back to work.
My father went into the hospital for the third time that year.
My mother called:
–If you want to say anything to Papa or see him while he’s still conscious, you ought to come down this weekend.
I called Rod. He complained that it was a really bad time of the year for me to keep taking weekends off.
I went down to Houston. My father was in Intensive Care. He’d not eaten in some time and was so skinny he looked like a concentration camp inmate. Had this tiny, frail man been the person I was scared of all my life?
For the one and only time in his life I told him, directly to his face that I loved him. Not “We love you,” not “You are much loved by all of us,” but “I love you.” He groaned back,
–I love you too.
The nurses injected him with more medications, and as the afternoon wore on he seemed to go out of his head. At one point he decided he was going to pull the needles out of his arm and get out of bed. He was full of strength from the steroids, but very weak from everything else. It took me, my mother, our friend Wendy, and a nurse to hold him down. We had to exert enough strength to subdue him, but be careful enough not to hurt him.
He thrashed around a bit, his nostrils flaring and his eyes bugging. He was angry. The last words I ever heard him speak were a curse:
–You sons of bitches! You sons of bitches!
I went back to Austin.
On Monday I was awakened by a call from my mother saying my father had taken a turn for the worse.
An hour later my mother’s neighbor called. My grandfather’s home nurse had come to check on him and found him on the floor of his apartment. He’d fallen and been stuck there all night. He was now in the Bellville Hospital, critically ill.
Fuck this security guarding shit—I was needed elsewhere.
I called my Spanish III professor and explained my situation. (I’d already warned her something like this might happen.) I was two weeks away from completing my undergraduate degree. But I asked to be put on a status of “incomplete” until I had time to complete the course. I did the same with my English professor at SHSU.
I started running around Austin with a long to-do list. I’d never been so focused or organized. I had a feeling that my Austin life was coming to a sudden and complete end. I had to wrap a lot of things up. I didn’t know when I’d get back.
I called my friend Riley Newton and arranged for him to drive me down to Bellville the following day.
I went to Rod’s bank to cash my latest paycheck. I was told there was no money in Rod’s account. (You see, the House Mothers didn’t pay Rod until the first of the month. He’d put the checks in one account, then transfer some funds into his payroll account. So it was always several days into the month before I’d get paid. As a result of this, I had a special arrangement with my landlord to pay my rent a few days late.)
Rod had pulled this shit before. I called him and woke him up, and told him to get off his ass and transfer the money he owed me. I also said my father’s health had taken a turn for the worse and that I was going down to Houston for an unknown amount of time and would be unavailable to work. He started whining,
–Gee, J___, you’re really putting me in a bind here. So many of the guards are quitting so they can study for their finals. I really need someone like you who can work the long hours and cove the houses and Oakmont. You’ve already taken two weekends off in a row.
–Rod, I’m sorry my father has picked such an inconvenient time to die, but that’s how it is! I’m sure my father didn’t plan his time of death specifically to make it hard on you! Maybe he’ll do better next time!
In my running around that day I even had the presence of mind to stop by UT’s Main Library and photocopy all the sources I thought I’d need for the last few college papers I needed to write.
I left a portion of Frank Sinatra’s “Angel Eyes” on my answering machine:
–Pardon me but I got to run
The fact’s uncommonly clear
I got to find who’s now the number one
And why my angel eyes ain’t here
‘Scuse me while I disappear.
When I arrived in Bellville my mother was standing on the porch:
–S___, your grandfather’s not expected to live through the night. I have to stay here with your father. If your grandfather dies, you’ll have to represent the family at the funeral.
My grandfather survived. We explained we had to put him in a nursing home. He understood. He lived for four more years. The meds they gave him calmed him down. He was about as content as anyone could be surrounded by total strangers, waited on by attendants that stole his personal belongings, in a nursing home that smelled of piss and death.
I spent the last three weeks of my father’s life in Houston.
Some days my mother wanted to stay at the hospital all night. Some days she wanted to go home at 5pm. We played it by ear.
My father’s children and other relatives behaved abominably before, during, and after his death. But that’s another story.
One day my mother left me alone with him while she went to go get coffee. He couldn’t speak. But he did sit up in bed, grab my arm, and look at me intensely. With my profound sense of the melodramatic, I assumed he was asking me to take care of my mother for him. I vowed that I would. He seemed satisfied and sat back in the bed. When I told my mother about this months later she shrugged it off, saying she didn’t think he’d intended anything of the sort, and anyway, he doped to the gills at that point.
I finished the last undergraduate paper I would ever have graded, an essay in Spanish on my favorite writer, Jorge Luis Borges, on a typewriter in the family sitting room in the hospital. I had to write to keep my mind off the situation. Ninety minutes later I was holding my father’s left hand when he died.
My eldest step-brother, B___, was cowering in a corner, trying to avoid contact with him. My eldest steps-sister, F___, was on his right side, telling him everything was okay. Slowly, she slipped the oxygen mask off his face. I shot a look over to my mother, who was on my father’s left side, stroking his head. Just as slowly, my mother put the oxygen mask back over my father’s face.
The breaths were coming in at longer and longer intervals.
I distinctly felt every single molecule in his left fingers pull up stakes, as it were, and float up his bloodstream. Then the molecules in his left hand picked up and left, followed by the molecules in his left arm.
My mother said she saw a white light rise up out of the top of his head. I didn’t see anything….
At my mother’s request, I wrote my father’s obituary. I tried to write a eulogy, but broke down sobbing….
[NOTE: Ending removed for the time being.]