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I got a handful of positive responses and as I’m headed to the
river this weekend for a camping trip, here’s another “Take Me to the River”
LIVING IN A SHOTGUN SHACK
I put myself through school working a series of minimum wage food service jobs. I didn’t get any financial aid or scholarships or even student loans those first four years. I lived with my parents, who helped with car insurance, but my tuition, books, and beer money all came from jobs involving the unique smell of the mixture of grease and bleach, a smell that still takes me back whenever I am seated a bit too close to the kitchen in just about any restaurant in the world.
One summer I was slaving away at Pizza Hut, not the worst job I’ve ever had but definitely in the bottom 5. I found out some of my friends were coming home for the summer from their out-of-town schools to work at the local Methodist childrens' summer camp. My stepfather gave me hell about dropping the Pizza Slut job for a temporary position “with no future” at the summer camp, but it paid a few cents more per hour and I’d be working with a old friends. The schedule was better too – no scrubbing pots and floors until 2 AM on weekends. It was such a slack job I returned to it every summer for a few years.
One of those years ARA Food Services took over the dining hall and provided a manager and assistant manager, more like head slacker and cook.
There was some kid, probably 13, the son of some staff member or something that had gotten him a job, a smartassed little bastard that reminded me a bit too much of myself at the same age. I can’t remember his name so let’s call him Kevin.
There were two high school girls, one 15 and the other 16, pretty by small town standards, one blonde with creamy skin, the other brunette with coffee skin, too young but at the time I wasn’t that much older and I wouldn’t have turned either of them down. I can’t remember their names either so let’s call them Buffy and Jenny.
Then there was L., a fat girl from another small town college who was cynical and obnoxious. I immediately had a hate/love relationship with her. We were too much alike. Between her and my old friends we had a blast making fun of the rest of the group.
One day I learned that L. was in her school’s theater group so I went to Buffy and said, “Hey, did you hear? L. is a…” my voice dropped to a whisper, “thespian.”
I knew small town Buffy would misinterpret the word but I didn’t expect a perfect-sitcom-conversation to follow.
“Really?” she said, eyes wide.
”How do you know?”
“She told me,” I said, then turned to yell at L. across the kitchen, “L., aren’t you a thespian?”
“Oh sure. We’ve got a group at school.”
“You do?” Buffy said in disbelief.
“Yeah, we meet a couple times a week and rehearse.”
By this time I couldn’t stop giggling, “Ever perform in front of an audience?”
“Sure, we have a couple of shows a year.”
I’m not sure Buffy ever did figure out what we were really talking about.
So the days passed. Sometimes we’d knock off in the afternoons between the lunch
and dinner meals to go swimming in the camp pool. We’d even stay on the clock
for the extra $4/hour, minus taxes. We played whatever music we wanted in the
kitchen and joked a lot. Good times.
Eventually the end of the summer was upon us so we decided to have a going-away party. My friends would be returning to their schools, the managers back to their regular ARA jobs, while I’d get another crappy job in town and go back to school.
We loaded up the cars full of booze and beer and headed to the river, the same spot I’d camped at many times, the same spot we’d stashed the keg in last episode. The water is chilly, even on the hottest days, but with enough alcohol it’s tolerable on a hot summer afternoon. We sat in a waterfall, chatting, laughing and drinking the day away.
When the sun crept behind the trees the two ARA managers decided it was time to head back to the cars. I looked at the sky and decided we had plenty of daylight left, but the managers wouldn’t listen and started the long hike up the hill.
I have since learned my lesson – even when the sky is light, the woods can be dark as night. Had I taken one step off into the trees I would’ve told everyone to get their shit and start trekking. But full of booze, I just eased down into the water and relaxed.
It got dark quickly in the bottom of that ravine. Soon we were chilled, despite the alcohol, and collected the empties and wet towels and headed up the trail.
As mentioned last episode, this path takes several unexpected turns and has many branches that end up at dead-ends of tangled laurel bushes or rocky cliffs. It’s not an easy path to follow even by daylight, and sober. But filled with artificial confidence, I led the way. Pretty soon L. was clutching the back of my shirt just to keep from walking into a tree. The others followed suit and we ended up with an elephant train trudging up the hill, the blind following the blind drunk. One of the trail’s many false splits got me and I found myself pushing into a seemingly solid wall of laurel branches. I pushed left – the same. Right – the same. DC yelled from the back, “Why did we stop? Go! Go! Go!”
“Motherfucker, you want to lead the way get up here!” I said, frustrated.
He found his way to the head of the line and mimicked my motions, pushing this way and that.
“Yeah. We missed a turn or something.”
We doubled back, found the missed turn and continued on. Soon we hit another impasse and were forced back again.
I could feel my shins getting mangled by the undergrowth and I knew I’d be covered in chiggers, possibly a tick or two, and god knows what else by the time we got out of there.
IF we got out of there. Poisonous snakes, bears, rednecks from Deliverance – the dark was beginning to get to me.
“Shhhh!” I said, stopping suddenly.
Of course everyone started talking, “What? What is it? What do you hear?”
“Shut up for a second!”
I listened intently. Voices off in the distance. I figured out it was the sound of the chow hall managers, probably leaning casually against the car drinking beer.
“HEY! HEY, GODDAMMIT!” I yelled.
Eventually one of them heard me.
“Get the flashlight out of the back of my car and come find us!”
After a long-distance discussion about how to get into my car and where exactly the flashlight was, I saw the light flickering through the trees.
One of the guys found us, perhaps 4 feet from the beaten path.
He led us back to the cars where, in the light of the clearing, we got a good look at ourselves. We were black from head to toe from rubbing against the bark of every tree and bush in the entire Chattahoochee National Forest. We looked like we’d gone to work in a coal mine in t-shirts and bathing suits. I had the expected scrapes and scratches as well.
Several of us had carpooled in my Toyota wagon, so I hauled everyone to their respective vehicles and homes. L. was staying in the staff housing at the camp and was last on the route. We sat staring at her front door from the car.
“Well, I could get a shower at your place…” I said, or something along those lines.
Of course we ended up in bed together. It was awkward. Too much booze and too many mixed feelings on my part, too little experience on her part. In the end it was a long, unsatisfying night involving more bumps and scrapes.
In the morning I stumbled out to my car. I feared what was coming next. The parking spot for her place was right at the entrance to the camp and some of my fellow chow hall staffers would’ve driven right past on their way to the breakfast shift.
By the time I arrived for the lunch shift, smartassed Kevin had already spread the word. He rode me like a horse for the rest of that final week.
“Kid, one of these days you’ll sleep with someone you regret. That, or you won’t have lived,” I told the little bastard. At the time it didn’t really make me feel any better. Looking back, I can’t help but fantasize him thinking to himself, some cold morning in some stranger's bed, “Damn. He was right…”
A couple of years later L. contacted me again. I can’t remember why (or how in those pre-internet days) but we talked a bit and she confessed our little tryst had been as uncomfortable for her as it had been for me. When we met in person the love/hate chemical thing returned and we had another uncomfortable night in the sack. We just weren’t right for each other.
Eventually we would end up as something approaching friends. My roommate invited her to a party we were having, hoping she’d bring friends. One of her friends, who’s name I think started with H., so let’s say so for the sake of storytelling convenience, obviously had a crush on me the moment she walked in the door. At the time I was – there is no better way to put it – a slut. I had what some friends referred to as “a harem.” I didn’t really like some of them, and some of them didn’t really like me, but we all had one thing or another in common – young, horny, bored, lonely, and/or stupid.
So no matter what I felt like doing on any night of the week – going to dinner, a movie, a show, or just fucking – there was someone I could call that would be in the mood for the same thing. Some of them were aware I was a wandering dog, others weren’t. I figured H. knew, since I made no mention otherwise and was fairly blunt about my emotional inaccessibility. I can’t remember if her friends left her behind at the party, or she showed up again by herself a few days later, but we had a fine time in my bed. It was dirty in all the right ways, whereas my nights with L. had been dirty in every other way.
New Year’s Eve was coming up. Some friends of mine were throwing a party in a small cabin near Dahlonega. My roommate liked to invite girls to our parties even if he knew their might be fireworks as a result of the various harem members clashing. I suspected he did this on purpose. Of course he invited L. and her friends.
I warned H. I had another date that night, but in a moment of foolish optimism told her to come anyway.
“That will be weird. I’m not sure I want to be there,” said H.
“Come on, it’ll be fun.”
She said she and L. might make it, might not. New Year’s Eve rolled around and my date, M.J., and I headed to the party. The place was fairly crowded, a mix of old friends and strangers, some North Georgia rednecks and some folks who’d worked hard to get the hell out of the place. My date was a suburban girl inexperienced in the ways of drunken lunacy of this particular flavor.
My roommate brought a case of whip-its and passed around a canister to anyone interested in the siren-inducing euphoria associated with nitrous.
Others were content with alcohol and/or pot and/or acid and/or whatever their intoxicant of choice.
One of the house-mates, J., had a bit too much of one or more of the above and went into that Eddie Murphy routine, “This is MY house, I’ll do whatever the hell I want.”
What he wanted was to put his fist through his bedroom door, on the other side of which was a mirror. The door splintered, the mirror shattered, and his roommates decided it was time he calmed down. They tried talking him down but that only resulted in more thrashing and yelling, “This is MY house!”
Everyone stood back, either giggling if they were used to this sort of party, or in shock and fear if not. Soon J. was attacking the ceiling fan.
One of the roommates, P., had been state wrestling champ in high school. He decided enough was enough and pinned J. to the floor. “Man, just relax and hold still,” he said, trying to calm his victim down.
But J. wouldn’t have it. He kept thrashing around, grinding his face into the dirty shag carpet. Eventually he tired and P. asked, calmly, “Are you ready to quiet down?”
J. groaned, gasped, and finally let out, “yeah.”
P. let him stand and J. wandered into the next room where he suddenly changed his mind about the promise to quiet down and began kicking the stereo system.
P. shoved him onto a bed and rolled him up in the mattress into a squirming pink burrito. J.’s skin was red from either rug burns or rage or both. But the mattress kept him from hurting himself or others and soon he passed out, either from lack of air or excess of booze or both. Regardless, he finally shut the hell up. P. tucked him into bed.
Somewhere in there, L. and H. showed up with a couple of friends. It was even more awkward than they feared. My date didn’t know I’d slept with both of them, and I wasn’t about to have that discussion on New Year’s Eve at a party where we’d already argued about whether or not I should be sucking down nitrous and falling on the floor in laughing fits.
So I basically stayed away from L. and H. and managed to have a fine, though often distracted, evening. As midnight approached the roommates pulled a couple of trash bags full of bottle rockets from the closet and set them up on a plywood platform in the back yard. We counted down and they lit the things with a flaming burst from a can of WD40, launching the fireworks over the empty field behind the house. The effect was mesmerizing and to this day there’s not much more an exciting sight for me than $1200 worth of bottle rockets all going off at once. Professional displays don’t hold the same sense of being in the trenches during WWI.
My date, M.J., and I snuck out to my car to ring in the New Year properly. We were rolling around in the back of my Toyota hatchback, not the most comfortable place but roomy enough to get it on, when I heard voices outside.
“Shhh,” I told M.J., giggling. We were half-naked and the windows were fogged up.
This is where pushing my luck caught up with me. H. and L. had parked in the spot adjacent to mine. One of their friends realized what was happening right there next to them and was none too pleased about it.
“Goddammit, why are you fucking that little slut when you’ve got H.?!?!” she screamed.
M.J. took it as a challenge, screaming out a tremendous fake orgasm, “OOOHHHH, FREDERICK!!! YES!!!!”
Someone kicked the door of my car. The situation was so absurd I couldn’t stop laughing, though more out of terror than anything else. Of course the girls outside didn’t know that. They thought I was laughing at them.
They piled into their car and stomped the gas, sending gravel flying into my rear windshield.
A day or three later I called to apologize to H. I don’t remember speaking to her or L. again.
A few months later I brought M.J. to a party and was having a fine time when the topic came up of who else we were dating. Rather than lie, I was blunt.
“Oh, I don’t know, three, maybe four girls,” I said. “We’ve never talked about being monogamous.”
What a dumbass.
We left the party, her in a huff and me in a panic. Unbeknownst to me, the entire argument had been filmed on the host’s brand new camcorder. My roommate had invited some of the other harem members to the party and one happened to walk in the door right as they were reviewing the tape on the big screen in the living room.
One by one the harem abandoned me, rightfully so. I ended up dating M.J. for a year afterward, but we weren’t meant to be.
In other readings, the weekly Loafing blather is here:
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