A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #19: My Roommate’s Books

My roommate arrived before I did; I met his stuff before I met him.

Meeting his stuff first was fine with me, because the truth was that I was a little afraid of him. Wilfred Carter Boiteaux III. From New Orleans. Or maybe of New Orleans? I had not known anyone with a name like that before.

A month earlier we had spoken on the phone. I had expected Thurston Howell but he didn’t sound quite like that. He sounded like a decent guy who would make a good roommate. If anything he sounded as anxious and nervous as me.

And now, as I gazed at his stuff, I saw nothing to concern me. Nothing violent or bizarre; no gaudy signs of wealth. A suitcase, unopened, stood in his closet. A small black-and-white television sat on the corner of the desk, next to the folder of orientation materials we’d received in the mail. On the top of the folder was the yellow sheet with the room assignments, just like the one I had, only in the blank for roommate, his sheet would have my name instead of his own.

Jacke Wilson from Cadbridge, Wisconsin. Just how disappointed had he been to see that?

Well, what could I do about it now? Maybe I’d grow on him.

Then I looked up and noticed something else: his bookshelf. It was completely full.
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Today’s Comment of the Week: Advice for the Study Abroad Student Headed to Bologna!

Wonderful Reader Corra22s, commenting on Object #12 – Tickets to the Premiere, writes:

As a current twenty-year-old soon-to-be studying abroad in Bologna (a whole year early!), I really enjoyed your reflections and your hilariously illuminating recount of class relations.

I was wondering if you could give me any advice or suggestions for doors I should try to find. As you said, there are so many! (I’m still TWENTY.) It’d be fun to have a place to look forward to finding, a challenge of sorts.

TWENTY! She’s TWENTY! (You’ll understand the importance of this if you read the story.)

Okay, Corra22s, the first thing to say is that you are indeed a very lucky person, because studying abroad in Bologna is one of the very best things a person could ever hope to do. And the second thing to say is that advice from old people like me to young people like you is pretty much always annoying because it always boils down to the same basic thing:

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Getting Dumped by Charlotte Brontë

From the Internet’s best magpie Maria Popova comes the tale of Charlotte Brontë turning down her suitor’s proposal of marriage. As Popova mentions, it’s hard to top this as an example of “it’s not you it’s me.” I’m not sure what my favorite part is, so I bolded a few.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric -- you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

How awesome is this? Makes me want to read Jane Eyre all over again. (Along with the book this came from, Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair by Anna Holmes.)

And let’s all watch this again. Forty-four seconds with the great Orson Welles, if for no other reason than to recall how awesome his voice was:

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

When I was young, my class took a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. On the way back from Chicago we stopped at a McDonald’s, and along with the meal everyone received a Monopoly game piece. It was a small square piece of cardboard with the monocle man – Uncle Pennybags – on the front and two perforated tabs running down each side. On the back were rules and the red text in the Monopoly font. And the magic words:

WIN $1,000,000

Everyone else tore theirs open. A couple of kids won – a small fries, an apple pie. I put mine in my pocket and got busy with other things. I had a meal to eat, friends to hang out with – I don’t know why I didn’t open mine. I just didn’t.

I was astonished by the reaction. On the bus, everyone went crazy with the rumor – I hadn’t opened mine yet! What was in there? What was I waiting for?

For some reason this made me decide not to open it. I didn’t want to be on display. I figured I’d open it later. So I refused.

By the time we returned to the school parking lot I was surrounded by other kids.

“When you gonna open it?”

“Yeah, when? Come on.”

“I might not,” I said. “I might never open it.”

“Come on. S’amillion dollars.”

They could not fathom my refusal. People got angry. They did not forget about it. I waited. Days went by, then a week, then another, until I began to realize that it meant more unopened than opened. It was a one in 80 million chance of winning the big prize – infinitesimal odds I could live with defying – and who cared about the smaller prizes? Not opening it was worth more than a small Coke.

I kept it in my wallet. I never brought it up. Once in a while a rumor would spread that I’d opened it, and I would produce the piece to verify that I hadn’t.

I became a freak: the kid who turned down a million dollars. The rumor spread to other schools. At parties I’d be pointed at – yeah, that’s the guy. The guy with the Monopoly thing. Never opened it. He’ll show it to us if we bug him about it.

The toughest kid in school grabbed me one day and shoved me against a locker. Continue reading

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Camus on Love

What a great idea! The always excellent Maria Popova has teamed up with the talented Wendy McNaughton to produce a print based on the notebooks of Camus. Now you can have Albert and his thoughts on love gracing your wall:

 

Could this get any better? It can! 50% of the proceeds will be going toward A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women artists and writers. Awesome.

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A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #17 – The Shirts and Skins

In the stories so far I’ve talked a lot about death and fear and failure, and that makes sense because we spend our lives immersed in those qualities (or at least I have). But other aspects of life drive us just as hard: love, for example. And pride and desire and friendship.

I grew up admiring high school athletes. College was remote, professionals were on television only. But high school athletes were up close, personal, live, exciting. You could see them around town, wearing their letter jackets and driving cars and generally being the coolest people I had ever seen in my life. That’s who I wanted to be. It looked like fun; they were the kings of the town. And unlike most of my dreams, which I learned I needed to give up as unrealistic, it was achievable.

It’s easy enough to succeed when your goals are set low. At my school you could get pretty far just by showing up for practice every day and remaining academically eligible. So I turned into that high school athlete myself – football, basketball, baseball. I was not the best player on any of the teams, but I was decent. I held my own, I guess you could say. And in those years I saw the hero worship from the other side. The young eyes of a town looking to me and my teammates. We weren’t always heroic. But we were what they had. We were theirs.

During basketball season the varsity coach ran a youth basketball program on Saturday mornings. Every Saturday, some teammates and I would stop by to help out. We demonstrated drills, helped to keep the kids organized, and talked with the kids (and their parents) about things that had happened at the game the night before or the one coming up next Tuesday. After a few practices we held a draft and divided the kids into teams that we would coach.

My first pick was a second-grader named Poffenberger who could steal the ball off the dribble from any other kid in the league. My friends all wanted him; I picked him first. He would be a holy terror and everyone knew it. My team was looking good already.

My second pick was a first-grader named Amy. I had to take Poffenberger with the first pick – you don’t turn down a chance like that – but Amy was my favorite kid of them all. Not just because she was a girl – the only girl out of a hundred kids who showed up each week – although that was part of it. I admired her for taking on the boys and wanted her to do well. She was good, too: she had good hands and could catch any kind of pass, and she was one of the few kids who could reliably make layups. And she was the most fun to coach: she was so excited to be there, she was the first one in every line, the first one to hold the ball when I started talking, and the only one who never interrupted me.

Coaches of young kids will know how important this last one is. A gym full of bouncing basketballs and squeaking shoes is very loud. If you’re trying to shout over them, and the kids are shouting too, you have no chance at all to be heard. Most of the time I had to give up on the four or five kids who were wandering around and talking to each other and just focus on the six or seven who were actually listening. Amy was always in that group, her eyes wide, nodding as she took in everything I said.

One day in the middle of our season I was telling them something basic I don’t remember now—probably that if they picked the ball up with both hands they had to pass or shoot, or that they had to move their feet on defense instead of wrapping up the offensive player in their arms. And a kid blurted out his comment:

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A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #16 – The Laundry

In high school I worked for a man who had a business mind as sharp as any I encountered before or since, a brilliant schemer who had worked his way out of a factory job and now worked for no man but himself. When I started working for him and his wife he owned an industrial laundry, a concessions business, and a string of rental houses.

A veteran of the Korean War, Jerry had a large tattoo of an anchor on his arm, bright brown eyes, and dark curly hair he insisted was natural. (Photographs of him as a young man indicated otherwise.) He loved games and tricks and fun, and he teased everyone he encountered. He had married his wife Inga after knowing her for six weeks. Inga worked in the laundry too. Unlike Jerry, who carried on a constant, joking patter, she barely spoke. Although she communicated with quiet smiles far more often than words, I soon learned that Jerry deferred to her in everything important.

The contrast with my own parents was clear to me, even then. My mom and dad performed their parental duties with admirable, steady blandness. I could count on them being home by five-thirty and in bed by ten. I could also count on a full refrigerator, new clothes when I outgrew the old ones, and a parenting style full of unconditional love, firm guidelines, and reasonable expectations. Jerry and Inga pulled their kids out of school to take two-week trips to Mexico and laughed in the face of a principal who demanded they never do that again. The idea of my own parents doing anything like that seemed incredible to me.

I thought of Jerry and Inga as being much younger than my parents, and it surprised me to learn that my father and Jerry were exact contemporaries—they had even in fact briefly attended the same college. Here again the differences were striking. My father stayed in school, for one thing. He lived in the same dorm room for four years, because he was happy where he was and saw no reason to move. Jerry, restless and unwilling to submit to professors, only attended for “two weeks and a half a day” before dropping out and signing up for the army.

Their personalities carried through into their adult lives, giving me two distinct examples of grownup men: my father, the B-plus student with perfect attendance, who brought in a decent salary and did everything society could have wanted. His best skill was showing up on time and working hard. Jerry had an A-plus intellect but could not follow anyone else’s rules or instructions. Everything he did was marked by his grifter’s delight in working the system.

Their influence on me was enormous. My father doled out practical advice that no one could contradict: don’t break any rules, you’ll only make things harder on yourself. Jerry roped me into his cons, delighted by my shock at his willingness to take risks. My father gave me an example to live up to. Jerry’s example was more like a dare.

Those were glorious summers. Every day was different. I would turn up at the laundry as dawn broke. Steam would already be pouring out of the small brown building. Inside, Jerry would be stuffing shirts into one of the giant machines as Inga pulled pants out of the dryer, snapped them straight, and folded them over wire hangers. I would fill the back of the truck with hundreds of work uniforms, hanging on two long bars in five-pack bundles, the hangers tightened together with a twist tie. Then I would head out to the factories and small businesses on the route to deliver a week’s worth of clothes to the lockers or work stations of the men and women who welded machine parts and processed food and manufactured cardboard and assembled airplane governors in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Back in time for lunch, and the cool, quiet afternoons in the laundry before an early evening swim in the pool behind Jerry and Inga’s house, which was out in the country, or the pond they owned a mile away.

On one day I might be sent to a rental house to paint a living room before the new tenants moved in. Or I’d be sent on a special project: all the way to Chicago to pick up a set of bags covered with soot from a fire, which no other industrial laundry in all of Chicagoland was willing to touch. On Fridays I made a circuit of gas stations and banks, where I rolled up their rugs and unfurled clean ones.

But the best weeks of all were the ones when we hauled our popcorn wagons to carnivals and boat shows and softball tournaments and county fairs, selling high-margin products through a small glass window. (Even now, the numbers of cotton candy and popcorn and sno-cones astonish me. Cotton candy was two and a half cents of raw materials including the cone and the bag, sold for a dollar-fifty.) Those days had a lot of slow afternoons. Jerry and I sat on overturned buckets in the wagon, listening to baseball and waiting for the stray customer to pass by. At night we’d stand in the back pouring Cokes out of sixteen spigots, sending trays of Cokes into the grandstand, a team of twenty hustling kids filling those white pails with cash that Jerry and I counted and bundled until long after midnight.

Jerry loved cash, both for the success it measured and the freedom it bought. Fifties and hundreds were deemed “vacation money” and went into the bottom of the cash drawer, later to be transferred to a safe in his bedroom and used for winter trips to Mexico, where he traveled among ruins, dreaming of the past. When I ran the route I had to memorize a hundred different places to pick up cash—envelopes in lockers, ones and fives and quarters tucked into shirt pockets. As he was teaching me the route he swerved down a one-way street in reverse; a woman came running out of a house and handed him six dollars and twenty-five cents through the window, the cost of her husband’s weekly laundering.

I shook my head at the ritual. “Can’t you get them to mail you the money?” I asked. “Pay you once a month or something?”

“Let’s go get lunch,” he said, dropping the cash into a box he’d been filling all morning.

The cash came in handy for the lunch trips to Taco John’s, where he ordered the same thing five days a week (even now I know his order by heart), and the follow-up stop at the Burger King, where we bought a plain hamburger for his beloved and pampered dog.

And all day long I saw an entrepreneur’s mind at work. It was intoxicating, even though I was headed for other things. When college began I alternated school years of Great Books with summers filled with trucks and nachos and cash. And when graduation came, Jerry made me an offer.

“Ever think about being the ambassador to Mexico?” he asked.

I admitted I had not.

“Okay. Second best job: why don’t you buy the laundry?”

He had it worked out: I would keep working for him, gradually buying it from in increments, until finally I owned most or all of it and he could retire. He astonished me by telling me a young man with ambition could turn it into a million-dollar business, which I believed. (I’d seen him turn down more than one potential account by saying, “But if we do this, we won’t be able to go to Mexico!”) I remember looking around the laundry, a place I had come to love. It was early afternoon now, and the machines were quiet. It was a hot day but cool enough inside; soon I would be headed home, stopping for a swim and a trip to my girlfriend’s house on the way.

It was a good life. I too could live by my wits, subject to no man but myself, floating on a comfortable cloud of cash. And unlike Jerry, I could skip the twenty years in a factory. But factories were not part of my future. I was an English major, captivated by Shakespeare and Homer and Tolstoy and Austen, and something about the grit and grease of Jerry’s world seemed more fun than meaningful. It felt like I would be underachieving, somehow. I thought I might someday have regrets.

I fumbled out an answer—I think I said I was honored that he thought of me in this way. I don’t remember exactly what I said; all I remember is trailing off. He smiled sadly, as if I had missed the point, and knowing I was about to turn him down. Somehow I managed to continue without tearing up. He took the news the same way, joking to cover the pain of his rejection, and I teased him back, because this was how we expressed our affection for one another.

“So you don’t want to spend your life cleaning dirty clothes and scraping cotton candy off your arms! Come on, what could be more dignified than this life?”

“I don’t know, Jerry. Paying taxes?”

“I knew college was a bad idea. Do they give you drugs before they brainwash you?”

“Do Great Books count as drugs?”

“Books! Right there’s your problem!”

Inga had been watching the conversation with the interest one takes in a potential adoption. Over Jerry’s shoulder I saw her turn away, hiding her tears by busying herself with the dryer. My nose itched and it was all I could do to keep my own eyes dry until I got into my car.

But as soon as the door closed and I pulled away—waving at the two of them as they stood on the loading dock to watch me leave, something they had never done before—I wept freely.

I had not realized until that moment how much they loved me, or how much I loved them.

Adapted from The Blow (forthcoming).

#

Another somber post. Well, what can I say? My history is not all moonbeams and rainbows. You can find other work-related posts in #3 – The Blood Cake and #6 – The Mugs. High school and college era stories are in #4 – The Sweater and #1 – the Padlock and #10 – The Spitwad. Oh, and #15 – The Coffepot, but don’t read that one, because I am ashamed. And of course, you can find all of the 100 Objects on the main page. All this free fiction! The Internets are awesome.

Or if you’ve found yourself in possession of five dollars and would like something to hold in your hands, you could just head over to Amazon and pick up The Promotion and The Race: for a few bucks you can own one of my short novels and see where all this history took me in the end. E-books (even cheaper!) also available for smartphoners and tableters and e-readerers.

Still too expensive? Tell me you’re a reviewer and I’ll ship you copies for free! And my thanks to all my reviewers and commenters and rebloggers and everyone else who has helped to get the word out. Onward and upward, everyone!

Image Credit: mgmelectricalsurplus.com

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