Friday, September 29, 2006


In Which I Hang Out With BB and Bobo...

My brother had never mentioned that he lived with the creature we would come to call Bobo Jones. The fact that Bobo didn't actually exist may have had something to do with it.

I discovered this myself as I edged closer to the figure slumped in the chair. Of course, it turned out he was nothing more than a stuffed set of clothes with an impressive latex gorilla mask for a head. He had no more substance than a scarecrow. And in fact, that's exactly what he was.

Before I could give my brother some well-deserved shit about having too much free time, he explained--in case we hadn't noticed on our way in--that this wasn't the safest neighborhood. All of the apartments in the building had been broken into at one time or another and BB determined his wasn't going to be next. It helped that he worked nights--most of the apartments were rifled during the day when folks were out at work, but my brother was generally at home during daylight hours. Still, for those savvy criminals who he imagined had cased the place and watched his movements and determined nighttime was the time to break in, BB had conceived of Bobo.

At around 5, just before he left for work, BB slid Bobo over to the front window, positioned a swivel-arm lamp behind him and turned it on for the night. This projected Bobo's impressive silhouette on the curtain where it was clearly visible from the street below. As a final touch, my brother ran a small fan on the floor near the window. This caused the curtain to ripple slightly at random intervals, which gave Bobo the illusion of movement. From a distance, he could have been some large, crazed insomniac, shifting in his chair, turning a page of an unseen book. Much as it galled me to give my brother a scintilla of credit, I had to admit I was full of admiration for his invention. And the fact that his place hadn't been robbed thus far seemed to be the proof of it.

I would come to learn lots more about my brother, but not until my mom left us later that afternoon. She still had a job back in New Jersey and had to finish getting our house there ready for sale. The hastily sketched plan was that she would spend the next month to six weeks finishing this up while I stayed in Providence, helping BB. When she finally wrapped things up in New Jersey and came north to New Hampshire for the summer, she'd collect me along the way. It was exciting to have my summer plans change so quickly, but it was also a bit of a challenge too. With my brother almost completely incapacitated, I was going to have to drive him to doctor appointments (I was late getting my driver's license and had only just earned it a month earlier. I was nervous driving anywhere, let alone in a city of any kind); I was going to be in charge of the apartment, cooking meals and paying bills.

That last one was going to be the biggest challenge of all. Because of his inability to work, BB would have to quit his catering job and find a new one when he got back on his feet. Meanwhile, he had no money in savings (natch) and my parents certainly had none to speak of--my dad had been in detox or out of work for almost a year, and my mom's job barely covered household expenses back home. We were lucky in one respect--when my brother had rented the sublet, he had had to pay for the whole summer in advance. At the time, my mom thought he had been railroaded, but now it seemed a genuine boon that we didn't have rent hanging over our heads. We still had to pay the phone bill and buy food and gas, though, and between us we had my brother's last paycheck and about $85 in my checking account.

With everything I had to do for BB, I didn't really have the freedom to get a part-time job, but I did find a few ways to supplement our income. One was picking trash. I had worked long enough for my uncle to know there was plenty of treasure to be found if you were willing to get your hands dirty. In my case, I had especially good luck loading up on books--paperbacks, castoff textbooks, you name it--by trolling the neighborhoods around Brown University. Most of what I found I was able to sell to used bookstores or the campus bookshop. It never amounted to much--I think I made about $100 that whole month--but it paid the phone bill for the summer and it bought a sack or two of groceries.

Another way was selling comics, which was something of a first for me. Generally, and because of my inherited C.R.A.P. tendencies, comics flowed one way into my collection. But that summer, with my family's financial straits fast approaching dire, I realized that I was going to have to thin the herd a bit if I wanted to keep money in my pocket. So in addition to a few clothes and books, I had lined my duffel bag with comics I was willing to sell or trade.

This was just before the rise of the boutique comic shops. Back then, comic stores were few and far between, usually in a low-rent section of town, often within orbit of the area college. Finding the local shop was the first challenge. Finding it open was the second--these places always had the oddest hours. But once you cleared those hurdles, they were wonderful places: dark, dusty storefronts perfumed with the pulp of ages. Row upon row of scuffed boxes held back issues that really were back issues, not just last month's new comics stuffed in bags and jacked up a dollar in price. Over in a corner by the door, there was the glass counter that held the real gems--what few valuable issues the owner had cobbled together over the years. And there, within arm's reach of those treasures sat the owner himself with his scraggly beard and his unkempt hair and his John Lennon glasses. Usually he was engaged in conversation--of varying degrees of animation--with some shopfly who always remarked on the comics you were buying, which would launch him into a diatribe about the parlous state of the comics industry, which usually led him to a monologue about how comics had reached their apex in the 1960s, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were still doing the Fantastic Four--in particular FF 48-50--as if he were the first person to make this observation in the history of comics-shop loitering.

But these shopflies had their uses. When I brought my comics in, I timed it so that the maximum number of flies were around, which was just after the rush on new comics day (nowadays, it's always Wednesday. Back then, it varied from store to store, city to city). After the new books were put out, the owner usually had time to shoot the shit with the flies and to look at new stuff people brought in. In Providence, I didn't have much that the dealer needed--he picked a few books and offered me 8 in cash or 10 in trade--but a few of the flies followed me out and we did some business on the street. I didn't make a killing, but I ended up getting about 60 or 70 bucks and that, coupled with my trash-picking, was enough to get us through the summer.

I've heard people say "I was happiest when I was broke." I don't know that I'd go that far. In my experience, anyone who could say that with a straight face probably had a rich relative somewhere, a trust fund that would kick in in a few years, or some other escape hatch that they simply hadn't used yet. I certainly wasn't happy to be so desperate for money. And yet, I must admit there was something immensely satisfying about that month I spent with my brother. It was a real turning point in my sense of self-sufficiency. Sure, I'd already had a year of college under my belt, but dorm life was substantially different from trying to make do in a strange city, and having to take care of someone else on top of it.

And I have to admit, I rather enjoyed living with my brother. It had been a few years since we'd shared the same living space and it was interesting to see how we'd changed in that time. He was surprised at how responsible I'd become and I think it weirded him out to have our roles reversed, to have me taking care of him. For my part, I was six kinds of impressed with his culinary skills. I had basic water-boiling skills at that time, but in the space of a month, my brother taught me how to really cook, and especially how to improvise meals with whatever ingredients you have on hand (my triumph was the night I made fried chicken using plain yogurt and the crumbs at the bottom of five boxes of cereal in the pantry. We called it Cereal Killer Chicken. Har har).

But this was us, after all, so I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that month was one big love fest. We got in more than a few squabbles, such as when I learned that after three weeks BB was well enough to lurch out into the kitchen for a midnight snack that he could take back to his room. But instead of lurching back out with the dirty dishes, he stuffed them under his bed and kept doing it until we had almost no plates and cutlery left in the kitchen. Or there was the time BB got an unexpectedly prompt notice from the city about an unpaid ticket that I managed to get my very first day in town, when I drove to the grocery store for supplies and parked in a no-parking zone.

Then there was Bobo.

Our third roommate enjoyed a more active lifestyle once I moved in. Since BB and I both hung out in the apartment and didn't need a scarecrow much, I had taken to moving Bobo around the place, usually without bothering to inform BB. My first week there, I laid Bobo in the bathtub and pulled the shower curtain closed, placing one of his gloved hands discreetly on the edge of the tub, just poking out of the shower curtain. BB didn't notice it until I had helped him into the bathroom for his morning sitdown, and when he did spot the hand, he yelled in a very satisfying way (although he claims my prank caused him undue pain to his affected area. And stopped him up for the rest of the day). Another time, I put Bobo in BB's bed and covered him up with rumpled blankets and pillows.

This freaked BB out more than the bathroom incident, but not because he hadn't seen the telltale form in bed. No, BB was afraid he'd finally been cornered by his downstairs neighbor, a fellow summer subletter whose identity I will obscure by calling her Ellie. She was a substantial woman, to put it delicately. Not that the men in my family--me included--have ever had a problem with that. "A big woman is shade in the summer 'n warmth in the winter," my dad has always said, and I happen to agree. But Ellie was in a class by herself. When she trod the floor in her apartment below us, you could hear the entire house shake and creak. She was very open and self-effacing about her size, though. In fact, when she met me that first week, she introduced herself as the "biggest girl a little peckerwood like you will ever meet!" And then she laughed a high, sneezing laugh.

Despite her size, Ellie was a skittish creature. Her ground-floor apartment had been burglarized her second week there and she had been constantly knocking on my brother's door ever since, asking him to check out suspicious sounds, or nail fresh two-by-fours over her boarded-up back door. It was no secret that she had developed a crush on BB and when I remarked on this fact to him, he snorted. "Crush is right!" he cried. "Between the two of us, if she ever climbed on top of me, we'd collapse the floor!"

We saw quite a lot of Ellie that summer, and not just because there was quite a lot of her to see. Once she learned of BB's injuries, she assigned herself the task of coming up every day to check on him and baby him. In a curious coincidence of timing, she often managed to show up just as I was finishing supper preparations and, gentlemen that we sort-of were, we always invited her to join us. She never refused the invitation. I didn't mind so much--I was always a light eater--but BB had designs on my leftovers. "Maybe we should start eating supper at 4," he said once, after she'd matched BB bowl for bowl on chili night (and BB can put away five bowls, easy). "We can't afford this. And she's not even putting out for us!"

"I'm sure she would if you asked," I said.

"Jesus H. fuck!" he cried, shuddering at the idea. "Please. I'm not that desperate."

But Ellie was. As the weeks wore on, she came for supper and stayed later and later into the evening, often snuggling up against my brother's helpless form as he watched TV. Once or twice, she slept on the futon in the front room--or claimed to. I didn't stick around to confirm it. I holed up in a back bedroom with my Walkman turned up high so as to mask out what I was sure would be the impending sound of leviathan lovemaking.

Whether she and BB ever hooked up that summer, I'm not entirely sure, and really, I don't want to know. But I can tell you that their relationship--whatever its nature--was short-lived. And it was all Bobo's fault...

(Now don't get your undies in a bunch. I'll post the conclusion over the weekend.)

Hello, this is my first visit here. Suldog said you were the best writer on the internet. I think he's right.
Man, MM, you were WAY more diplomatic with Ellie than I would have been...had I been on a super-tight budget and kept having a neighbor show up for dinner, I would have said something about money for groceries sooner rather than later. Of course, when it comes to food, I'm not a light eater myself. Looking forward to hearing the rest of the story.
Have to say that you are an awesome writer. I laugh to the point of almost wetting myself (I know TMI!).The people at work think I am crazy at how hard I laugh reading your tales. Keep up the great work!Sitting on the edge of my seat for your next blog.
Hey Barbara, you have just joined MM's unoffical fan club, the Deans of Discipline. BY the time you read all his old posts you will know what it means.

And it *is* worth reading them all.
"Leviathan lovemaking"...

I agree with Heather - I almost spit out my coffee when I read "Leviathan Lovemaking." Can't wait to see where this goes...
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