“Do not cease to drink beer, to eat, to intoxicate thyself, to make love, and to celebrate the good days.”
— Ancient Egyptian Credo
The summer in between my junior and senior years, I devised elaborate schemes to not only be away from home, but also out of town. The first one took me to nearby Lebanon Valley College, about 45 minutes from home, to take some music classes designed for college age and high school musicians. LVC had a good reputation locally for its music program, and offered a number of summer classes. I took just enough units so that I’d be gone for at least three weeks and it was just far enough away so that I couldn’t really commute and would have to stay in a dorm room at the college. I scraped together the tuition and most the money I’d need, but was a little short on extra spending cash for food or gas but I trusted it to luck that I’d figure something out. I told myself I could always give up and go home if I was truly starving.
The classes were actually a lot of fun. There were classes on improvisation, music arranging and scoring, and some on jazz theory. But the best part of being at Lebanon Valley was the dorm rooms. The college set aside one dorm building for the high school students. And rather than put boys and girls on different floors, we were all allowed to choose our own rooms wherever we wanted. The adults who were in charge of us were not really adults at all, but were college students working over the summer rather than going home or doing something else. Most of the ones we got to know were also taking summer classes and took this job to help pay for it.
The person in charge of all of us, the head honcho, was a young woman named Gypsy. I don’t think that was her real name but it suited her and I never knew if she had a different name or not. Gypsy was a real earth mother type, the kind that would have been at home at my old church camp or at a Grateful Dead show. She was very maternal, though she couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22. Most of my fellow students, if not in college, were around my age, 16 or 17, and from all over Pennsylvania. Gypsy and her fellow counselors, once they sized us up, were not only willing to buy us beer, but also made a potent sloe gin punch that was kept in the common area of the dorm’s second floor every night. I’m not sure why that was the drink of choice, but it appeared to be Gypsy’s favorite drink and who were we to complain about free booze. The local beer distributor there was having a special on Schlitz bottles the weeks I was there, and we could get a case of returnables for pretty cheap. So I became a Schlitz drinker that summer, though it wasn’t the best beer I’d ever had. The beer in some of the bottles was even a little hazy, but it still tasted okay. I just assumed that was the reason it was so cheap.
So I passed my days going to classes, getting drunk, and playing racquetball with one of the other counselors who needed a person to practice with. I told him I played tennis so he asked me to try racquetball so he could keep practicing over the summer. It didn’t last very long because within a couple of days I was beating him almost every game, and we didn’t like having to tell people a high school kid was besting him, so he quietly stopped asking me to join him. And that was fine with me because I was busy with other pursuits, and drinking was more fun anyway. The sloe gin created a different kind of drunk than beer alone and I grew to really like it. With beer, your buzz tended to build slowly, but with the punch you would continue to feel sober no matter how much you drank until all of a sudden you were very drunk, as if someone flipped a light switch. The high took you over that fast. It was a rush and I welcomed the feeling it produced.
I also met a girl, Mandy, in my classes. She was from the opposite side of the state from me, in Butler, which is about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Mandy was tall with brunette hair, cut short. She was a little skinny and wore nothing but olive drab cargo pants and the same sandals every day, but with a different shirt. We started eating lunch together every day, or rather I watched her eat lunch everyday, picking her plate clean of whatever she didn’t eat. Once she figured out I didn’t have money for food, she started buying extra food every day so I could eat more. She was an extraordinarily kind and caring person, far different from Kelly. We started spending more time together in the evening drinking and just hanging out. She told me she had a boyfriend back at home and I resigned myself to making a good friend and, more importantly, one who was willing to feed me.
Unlike me, she went home for the weekend at the end of the first week, along with almost all of the other students. I stayed in Lebanon with Gypsy and some of the other college counselors. When she got back on Sunday, I was already half in the bag. She found me in the common room, with a drink in my hand. She poured herself a tall one and motioned for me to follow her, which I did. We went back to her room and after letting me in, shut the door behind me. “I have something to tell you.” Mandy said with a smirk.
I looked up at her, with no idea what was coming next. “What’s that?”
“Jack and I broke up.”
Jack, of course, was the boyfriend back home. I stared into her green eyes, not quite sure what that meant to me, if anything. Why was she telling me this? She’d given me no real indication she liked me, at least not in a romantic way. I thought we were just friends. Finally she broke the awkward silence.
“Isn’t that great news?”
“Um, yeah.” I stammered. She took a step toward me. “That’s great news.” I repeated. She took another step closer. Mandy was now standing right in front of me. I was up against the foot of her bed, with my back to it. She pushed me hard so that I fell backwards onto her bed. Before I knew what had happened she had climbed on top of me and began kissing me. I kissed her right back and we made love twice that first night. Boy had I misread that one. I didn’t even see it coming, not that I wasn’t happy about it.
For the next three weeks we were a happy couple. Whenever we didn’t have class, we were together making love, getting drunk or even occasionally doing something normal. Once we went out on a real date. We had dinner and went to the movies. We saw “Logan’s Run.” One weekend we went on a Sunday afternoon picnic. It was a really great time.
I had two more weeks of classes, while she had another week after that. So I stayed an extra week just to hang around with her. Gypsy didn’t seem to mind at all and didn’t tell anybody so I didn’t get charged for the additional week. Eventually it was over and she had to leave for home. And I had a summer job I’d committed to in Mifflin County, which was in the middle of nowhere in between Harrisburg and State College. We spent the night before in bed and it was with a heavy heart we said a reluctant goodbye the next morning. We exchanged a few letters after that, but never saw one another again.
I drove home after being away for a full month. It was a great respite from my normal life and a tantalizing glimpse of how different the future could be after I graduated. I was reluctant to get home, but I was out of money and had nowhere else to go. My mother seemed genuinely glad to see me. She had a bruise on her upper arms, but refused to tell me how she’d gotten it. She did tell me Eddie had gone on a few benders and had wrapped his beloved ’63 Corvette around a tree. It was almost funny seeing him in a full leg cast, hobbling around. My mom was in full nursing mode, and Eddie being stuck home for a few months meant he was doomed to being mostly sober for a time.
I had only a week to watch the fun, however, before I had to head back on the road again. I caught up with some friends and what they’d been doing over the summer. I had only one quick reunion with Kelly but my heart wasn’t in it. I was still pining for Mandy but couldn’t tell her about that. I know she sensed something was up, but that was far as it went. We had come to just not tell each other too much about what we did when we were apart. It greatly reduced the confrontations between us.
I guy Eddie knew who owned a meat company had told me about the job I did for the next month at the Mifflin County Fair. I sold hot dogs at a stand at the fair and slept in our family van for the entire time on the old army cot. Eddie had graciously allowed me to use it for the time I was there since it was his friend I was helping out. I was responsible for the inventory and counting the cash, but in the mornings before the fair opened and after it closed at night my time was my own. And for part of the time there’d be another guy there to split time with so I didn’t have to work the entire time.
Of course, because the fair was in the middle of nowhere, there wasn’t much to do but drink, read and hand out and watch the other carnies. Luckily, the drinking age wasn’t strictly enforced for employees and getting beer was as easy as asking for one behind the scenes. I’d also brought some liquor from home because I didn’t know in advance what the situation would be like. But I was able to fall into a routine fairly quickly. The fair opened each day at noon and I’d have to get to the booth about a half hour before that to start cooking the hot dogs, fill the ice chest with sodas to sell, load the register with money and open up the windows on the booth. The first hour or so hardly anyone ever wanted a hot dog so I was free to read and listen to the radio or just watch the people.
The carnies I met were nice enough in their way, but I never really connected with any of them. It was pleasant, but casual. I had more fun with some of the locals who came to the fair almost every night since there wasn’t much else to do in Mifflin County that summer. There was one girl in particular — isn’t there always — that caught my attention. Rebecca, or Becky as she preferred, was a strawberry blonde with alabaster skin. She wasn’t as thin as my usual crushes, but was just plump enough to make her seem more rounded in all the right places. It reminded me more of baby fat, making her seem cherubic and more innocent than she was. She came to the fair most nights with a group of girlfriends and they often paired up with a pack of roving boys they apparently knew from school. Becky wasn’t spoken for but try as I might, she didn’t seem interested in any more than just talking with me. She was more than willing to hang out with me whenever I was off duty, which only increased how much she confounded me. So I got drunk almost every night with the locals on Yuengling, Schlitz or whiskey. Not having to work each day until noon made consecutive late nights a lot easier to take since I had plenty of time the next morning to work through any hangovers.
I probably embarrassed myself by how much attention I paid Becky, trying to get something going with her. But as there really wasn’t anything else to occupy myself with, I didn’t really care what the other people there thought of me. I didn’t think I’d see any of them after my month was up, so I figured what the hell did it matter. But after two weeks of rebuffing my advances, even I gave up and tried to let go of the situation. She kept coming around and when she did I’d make time for her, but I stopped going out of my way to find out where she was or seek her out. Soon enough the last two weeks were almost over and it was time to get back home. After a month of living out of my van and showering in a makeshift camping latrine was taking its toll, and I was ready to return to civilization.
The last night of the carnival was busier than usual, and at the end of the night there was a big fireworks display. I didn’t see Becky all evening and had assumed she wasn’t there that night and I wouldn’t get a chance to at least say goodbye to her. I was leaving the next day, as soon as Eddie’s friend who I was working for showed up to collect the money and tow the hot dog stand back to Reading or wherever it was heading next.
I started tearing down the stand for the final time as soon as the fireworks display ended as they were ushering everyone out of the fairgrounds. Everyone was keen to empty the place as quickly as possible, because the teardown for most would take most of the night. For my part, it wouldn’t take me anywhere near that long as the stand was pretty self-contained and it was my only responsibility. I finished up before the fair was even emptied of people and headed back to my van for a much-needed drink. Becky was waiting for me there by the back door, trying to stay out of sight. I silently put the key in the door and opened the double-doors wide. I threw in what I’d been carrying and got in. Without a word, she followed me in. I really wasn’t sure what to expect since it had been obvious all along that Rebecca had no interest in me. I spun open the cap of a bottle of Southern Comfort and took a swig. She reached out and took the bottle from my hand and gulped down a generous amount of the sweet gasoline.
We hardly spoke the whole night but made a strange sort of love in which we never even took off all of our clothes. Drunk and almost asleep, I lay on my back. She got me hard and pulled her underwear to one side under her skirt and slid me inside of her. We sat motionless for a time and then she began moving, slowly at first, and later with wild abandon. Afterward, she collapsed on my chest and we both slept in that position the rest of the night. She woke a little before dawn and put herself back together, waking me when she disengaged from me and I felt her weight removed from pressing on me. She looked at me forlornly and kissed me on the cheek. I was still exhausted and could feel my head tighten with the early signs of a coming hangover. I didn’t … no, couldn’t move. She didn’t say a word as she opened the van door and took one last look back at me on the cot. I smiled mournfully and she shut the door.
On to Chapter 20