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Authors: Ben Hamper

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BOOK: Rivethead
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Things were definitely on the upswing my sophomore year at Powers. My honor roll status delighted my mother and seemed to soothe my father's doubts regarding my factory-bent tendencies. I was even beginning to think I might defy my shoprat heritage after all. I became interested in poetry and spent long hours up in my bedroom concocting silly little love poems that combined all the worst elements of Rod McKuen and my hippie mentor, Richard Brautigan. I actually penned my own large collection of poems called “Intestines of a Balloon.” Ouch.

I did discover that the poetry, as awkward and schmaltzy as it was, drew great favor from the girls of my sophomore class. Suddenly I was no longer just another wiseacre with a pesky libido and murky future. My lovelorn poetics won them over. I grabbed an honorable mention for one of my poems in a contest that ran in the
Detroit News.
Presto, I was like some hippie-dippie Alan Alda twangin’ heartstrings in the sap-happy Love Generation. Someone to be trusted. An alternative to the sex-starved jockos and wily potheads and the piranha greasers in their clunky Dingo boots. Everyone had an angle and since I didn't have any money or any terrific athletic prowess and I didn't dance very well, I relied on the muse of the poet to garner whatever female appreciation I could drum up.

We had an English teacher named Miss Kane who took a particular shine to my budding enshrinement as the poet laureate of Powers High. She often mimeographed my poems and passed them around her Creative Writing class. She'd read some of my poems in front of the class and the girls all smiled brightly in my direction. I smiled back, thankful for their innocence and terrible judgment of talent. Meanwhile, the guys all slouched down in their desks, half pissed that they hadn't stumbled onto such an ingenious scam.

By my junior year in high school, strange new vices had risen from out of the murk to pull me under. I exchanged my textbooks for Mothers of Invention albums. I grew my hair down to my ass and attended classes on an infrequent basis. I exchanged my loner personage to join up with a small band of brooding hooligans. I spent most of my time swallowing or inhaling every type of illegal substance they would pass me. Needless to say, my two-year run on the honor roll dissolved in one glorious heap of incompletes and lazy failures.

I was feeling more and more pressure trying to hold the family together while my mother worked. The occasional runins with my old man were tense. He'd rip into my ass about the length of my hair, my hoodlum pals, my grades, my wardrobe, anything he could find. I would stand there in silent rage. All I could really dwell on was kicking his drunken ass. My fists would ball up and then recoil.

In the end, I was just too chickenshit to try the old man. I turned to the bonds I had made with my new friends. We ate acid at every opportunity. I sat in the back of the classroom throughout my junior year stoned to the gills on orange barrel mescaline or windowpane acid. Sometimes I laughed so hard at the proceedings taking place around me that the teacher would ask me if I had a problem. Outside of the fact that I hardly knew my name and everything around me had this incredible purple glow, there was no problem at all. Acid replaced lots of things. Most importantly, it took down reality.

By the time my senior year rolled around, things were beginning to get jumbled. My father had mysteriously slid away one autumn night and the only information any of us had was that he was shacking up with some bar floozie somewhere in southern Florida. He'd taken off without so much as an adios or a fresh change of skivvies. This desertion again thrust me into the role of surrogate dad while my mother toiled long hours on the hospital night shift.

My devotion to school matters became a complete joke. I rarely attended class, preferring to hang out at a friend's dreary apartment with a bunch of fellow lunks who were most certainly headed for jail, the morgue or General Motors. Our scholastic majors ranged from chemical abuse to hashish peddling. My long-standing reign as love poem ambassador dissolved into a mire of radical blatherings. Quaaludes became the new curse on campus and I gobbled my fair share, often falling asleep in various stairwells and auditorium catwalks.

Having arrived this far on the academic route, it was time for all students to start funneling a vision career-wise. They had guidance counselors who summoned you into their offices attempting to find what kind of mold fit you best. Doctor? Attorney? Accountant? Shoprat? No, no, no—they never mentioned shoprat. Nor did they mention serial killer, pimp, poet, ambulance driver or disc jockey.

I went to the guidance counselor's office and stared at the floor. He rummaged through a thick file cabinet bursting with worthless, lunatic occupational data while I sat there and daydreamed about Darlene Ranzik's breasts. The lime green halter was the best. You got a good sideview of the complete works. They were as round as cantaloupes and easily twice the size. Some lucky fucker was gonna tie his nuts around a wedding band and be nursin’ on those miracles for the rest of his life. It wouldn't be me. I didn't have a game plan in order.

The guidance counselor pulled file after file. Time dragged on and on and I sensed that he was growing increasingly edgy with my indifference to latching on to a viable vocational goal. I felt sorta sorry for him. There just wasn't anything in there for me. This seemed to upset him far more than it did me.

I began writing love poems again. For the first time, I had a specific reason why. Her name was Joanie, a hippie maiden with beautiful red hair. We had attended Catholic school together ever since St. Luke's though we had never really spoken. We were attracted to each other, but shy. The arrival of drugs seemed to knock that barrier down. Before long, we were inseparable—skipping classes, making love in my station wagon, dropping LSD at football games, trompin’ off to every rotten rock ‘n’ roll concert within the Saginaw valley.

I enjoyed spending time at Joanie's house. It was like a replica of what I wished mine could be. Her father was a wonderful man—always fair, always friendly, always available. Not an easy trick considering Joanie's folks had eleven kids. You would think
her
father would be the ragin’ alcoholic nomad. Not so. They all got along just fine and it seemed I would concoct any excuse just to visit there.

By the middle of my senior year things at home were at least beginning to settle into a tolerable routine. With the old man gone there were no more early morning tantrums. No more stolen paperboy loot. No more idiot IOU's wadded up in sock drawers where our allowance money used to hide. No more intimidation and lies and confusion and guilt and surrenders to snockered lunacy. Joanie would come by and together we would cook dinner for the troop. We'd play with my brothers and sisters and once they were put in bed, we'd lie down and make love in the middle of the living room floor. It all seemed to be healing over. Even my stinkin’ love poems were improving vastly.

Nothing lasts forever. One Friday night in March, while we were all huddled around wrestling and watching
The Brady Bunch,
my old man reappeared. He had been AWOL for a total of six months. And, as always, he acted like he had merely stepped out to buy a loaf of bread or get a haircut. He was wearing this ugly Hawaiian shirt and reeked of alcohol. “Hi, son,” he said. I didn't respond. Within ten minutes, he was snorin’ like a bulldozer on the sofa.

The old man was back and as full of shit as ever. The flooze down in Florida had tired of his mooching and sent him packing northward. Everything returned to its horrible norm. What little faith I had in anything soon evaporated. I retreated deep into my own little universe of chemicals and inhalants. The higher I got, the less it hurt. This arrangement didn't preclude me from making a major ass out of myself on a regular basis.

There was the time I flipped out in Journalism class. My job was to provide headlines for all the articles that went into the school newspaper. My fellow classmates started clamoring around me for witty scrawls to peg above their precious columns. I was totally gone. I politely told everyone to fuck off and ran outside to my car. I started it up, drove ten feet and hopped back out. It felt as though I was driving on the rims. I circled the car several times, kicking each tire. They appeared just fine. I got back in the car and goosed it. Unfortunately, during my little stoned escapade to check the tires out, I hadn't noticed that the entire Powers High marching band had paraded out to the parking lot. Some kid with a tuba went rollin’ across my hood. The band instructor started screaming. I sped away shivering badly and breathin’ funny.

Then there was the time I got caught rolling a mammoth joint on a desk in the school library. Miss Kane, the same teacher who thought so highly of my weepy poems, marched me right to the principal's office. The evidence was presented, a small confab was held and I was immediately expelled. My mother came up to the school to plead for my reinstatement. The principal refused. It killed me to see my mother reduced to begging. I got the principal off to the side and started talking deal. I told him if he would allow me back in school, I would become his own private narc. The idea caught his fancy. Of course what he didn't know was that I was lyin’ through my teeth. We shook hands and I was reinstated. As the months went by, I became a very unpopular guy with the principal. Each time he shook me down for information, I turned dumber than a tree stump. He'd been scammed. I rolled my joints in the John from then on.

By graduation time, my old man had once again taken flight to Florida to shack up with who-knows-who. Good riddance, the family concurred. My mother finally had had her fill of the bastard and started divorce proceedings. It was only after the old man had left that my mother discovered she was going to be giving birth to the eighth addition to our clan. A child that my father would never return to see.

There must have been something in the frosty Michigan air that winter that fueled the reproduction cycle. The Catholic-as-rabbit theory was suddenly twirling amuck. Joanie called me over to her place one evening to inform me that she too was bloomin’ with child. Joanie's due date was only a couple of weeks from my mother's.

Since Joanie already had accumulated enough credits to graduate, the school let her have her diploma early. She was just beginning to show and there was no way in hell they were gonna allow her to waltz the hallways in her preggy state. The nuns would have spewed pea soup and banged to their knees.

Joanie stayed home while I finished up my senior year. One day I was summoned to the counselor's office. Terrific, I thought, maybe the guy had found a job for me in that fat file cabinet of his. With a baby due, I had a feeling I might need one.

This was not the case. The counselor instructed me to have a seat and as I sat down I could gather that the news was not good. He told me that he had been poring over my transcript and found that I was several credits short of the required number necessary to graduate. All those days skipping class and chucking textbooks had finally caught up to me. The counselor said he would have to see what would need to be done and talk it over with the principal. He said he would let me know in a couple of days.

The counselor never did call me back to his office. All I can assume is that when my name was mentioned, the principal must have told him to rig the paperwork so everything fell into place. He had seen enough of my act. There was no way he was going to flunk me and have me back for another fun-filled year. Here's your fuckin’ diploma, get scarce and may the Lord be with you always!

After graduation, I hurriedly planned for the unknown. First up came marriage. Since we'd both been reared as God-fearin’ Catholics, the inevitable solution to this teen pregnancy mishap was immediate matrimony. Abortion and adoption were sordid eight-letter words that existed only in made-for-TV movies starring Kay Lenz or Susan Dey. We tied the knot at Sacred Heart Church. My best man was some guy we found cleanin’ the pews.

My uncle got me a job painting apartments for a large rental complex. After our marriage, Joanie and I moved into one of the apartments. In August, Joanie had our child, a beautiful little girl with bright red hair we named Sonya. We were poor but happy in our sudden little universe. Back at home, my brother Bob filled my role as teen nanny. Bob was much stronger than I. It worked well.

I enjoyed painting apartments. There were no human beings to contend with and everyone at the complex just left me alone. The closest thing I had to a boss was this senile old man who was the maintenance manager. Once upon a time, he had been a big-league attorney for Ford Motors. Then he had a nervous breakdown and began plowing the bottle. His son-in-law owned the company and the old man I were just another pair of his uninspired lackeys.

After months of practice, I got a routine down to where I could blaze my way through a unit in the morning, be finished by lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon reading paperbacks and listening to the oldies station on my latex-splattered transistor radio. I could have easily painted two units per day but, with the way these pricks were payin’ me, I felt it only justified to give them the lowest accountable output for their lousy three bucks an hour. Besides, where several of the other maintenance workers were receiving their apartments rent-free, I was being charged the full shot just like any other tenant. What it boiled down to was that I would have to turn over half of my earnings right back to the company just to keep a roof over my family's head. They weren't gettin’ anything extra out of me.

I met another guy who worked at the apartments who was in the identical situation I was. His name was Glen and he was also newly married with a new baby and was living it dime-to-dime like Joanie and I were. They lived in the apartment building next to ours and we all became accomplished at dodging the rut of constant poverty.

Glen and I received our paychecks on Mondays and we'd skim seven or eight bucks off the top of our measly pay and buy a week's worth of this piss-water beer called Columbia. The local grocer sold this crap for a dollar a six-pack, a real bargain for fun-starved minimum wagers like Glen and myself. Almost every night we held court at Glen and Barb's, swigging down this awful-tastin’ beer while Barb cued up scratchy Abba singles and wonderful Lou Christie albums salvaged from the junk bins of the nearby Goodwill. We laughed and danced and got very intoxicated.

BOOK: Rivethead
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