Mending Fences

Abby was also on break after her first few months at the San Bernardino Job Corps Center where she was being subjected to a much different experience from a program efficacy standpoint as well as a demographic one. Like me, she dove in head first and was making the best of a chaotic situation. Her first stop was my dad’s place in Yuba City. They drove to Reno and checked dad into Circus Circus before coming to get me in the boonies. Abby and I would be taking a Greyhound later that night to spend Christmas in Colorado with my mother, little brother and our new step family at their house in Loveland, stopping first in Denver to hang with some old friends.

Dad parked the truck and we took the small glass-walled monorail a hundred feet off the ground that connected the garage to the main casino building. After dropping my backpack in the room, we sought out a buffet dinner from among the many choices available to us. In contrast to the last time dad was in Reno, he packed away three solid platefuls followed by dessert before we parted ways. Abby and I took off to the amusement levels while dad hit the games of chances and free drinks downstairs in the casino.

We made it to the station on time and boarded the bus to Denver, maybe half full at this point in its route. The smoking section at the back was where we selected two empty seats and settled in for what would be a 22-hour, overnight ride. The bus rolled out of the station at ten pm and weaved through the brightly chaotic downtown streets to the eastbound ramp of Interstate 80. A shared pint of booze and many smokes led to a party atmosphere of idle chatter and random barks of laughter at the back of the bus. A couple of Dead Heads on their way home after catching the legendary band in Long Beach were happy to share their remaining stash of LSD. A tab for each of us and it wasn’t long before the boring ride we anticipated became electric and fun.

I’m not sure what the people in the front of the bus were thinking, but there must have been six or seven of us tripping balls that night in the back. We weren’t really quiet, though we did make an attempt to contain our giggles and snorts since most of the passengers were more interested in sleeping than commenting on the pretty lights in the dark night speeding by outside our windows. The one thing I recall vividly from that crazy trip is being taken to task the next morning by a woman in Vernal, Utah for smoking a cigarette inside McDonalds while waiting for my Egg McMuffin to go. I stumbled outside into the cold to finish my smoke without making a fuss, surprised someone would be so offended. “Vernal” became “Urinal” and was a verbal tic that kept me amused for miles to come. The rest of the trip was spent winding our way through the Rocky Mountains via highway 40.

Abby and I passed out around noon, about halfway through the trip, and didn’t wake until we pulled into Denver’s downtown Greyhound station. Abby’s life-long best friend Rachel waited to pick us up. She dropped us off at another friend’s house, actually my girlfriend Sarah from years earlier who was living with her boyfriend Darryl in the basement of his mom’s home as they both finished the last year of high school. The next night there was a keg party featuring both a live band and all our old friends, so our timing couldn’t have been better. I was my adult height now, so former bullies didn’t know what to think and instead treated me like a tentative equal. I actually took it easy on the beer and other assorted amusements that night which should have been a wake-up call but wasn’t.

The first in a series of evolutionary changes that week came when my mom picked me up from my uncle’s house in Denver on her way home to Loveland before starting the Christmas holiday with the rest of the family. I had been hanging with his kids by marriage, one of whom was straight up OG – an Original Goth with platinum hair and black lipstick and monochromatic wardrobe. My cousin shared some really good weed with me before we settled in to play Legend of Zelda on my uncle’s Nintendo while listening to The Cure. We stepped outside for a smoke before my mom was to arrive and indulged a couple of tokes for good measure.

No stranger to the symptoms of a marijuana high, it wasn’t more than a minute or two after I climbed into mom’s dark green VW Rabbit before she turned to me and asked, “Are you high?” A lie would have been my instinctual first response, but for some reason, this trip found me doing the exact opposite of what I would normally do. I answered that I was indeed more than a little bit high. This was met with a surprised smile before the matter was dropped and we headed for the home she had been building with Jerry and his kids since I left a little over a year earlier. We picked Abby up from her best friend’s house and finished the ride to Loveland, a small town 45-minutes north of Denver. We joked and talked about what we were doing at our respective Job Corps centers.

The split-level house was a stone’s throw from Loveland High School. A large, comfortable living room was the first thing to greet us when we entered the front door. A kitchen and dining room combination with sliding glass doors to the backyard completed the main level areas. Three bedrooms upstairs and three bedrooms downstairs made a cozy home for a combined family of seven. The whole place was decorated in what I like to call Mom Classic. That meant a creative selection of art and curios gathered into an eclectic mix of styles. This has been an unending battle between my mom and Jerry as his aesthetic is considerably more Spartan.

That week with mom and our new family by marriage registers as the most normal I could remember. Eating gourmet breakfasts, lunches and dinners prepared by my mom. Playing with my new siblings on the snow-covered hills nearby, testing out the snowboards they got for Christmas. I found a calm center that quieted my demons for a minute and let me function within a typical family setting. That Jerry was both laid back and kind of scary made it very easy to follow the standards being set for the house. It was the beginning of the end of the strife and tension that had marred my relationship with my mom for more years than I am comfortable claiming.

It was also the year I got my first journal. The black cloth cover was decorated with red flowers and the inside featured a note from my mom challenging me to explore my creative voice on the blank pages within. I decided to write song lyrics and be a lead singer for a heavy metal band, filling page after page with  derivative homages to my favorite hard rock troubadours. The poetry was popular with the few girls I knew back in Reno, but the singing was less of a hit and would inadvertently lead to my next fall from grace.

I proceeded to crank through the academic requirements at Sierra Nevada Job Corps but left auto mechanics not long after I got back from Colorado. I selected administrative assistant training as my next professional goal. I might have lasted a week or three learning how to type and ten key and answer a phone before transferring to the carpentry program. It was a perfect fit, and I dove in with gusto, moving through the curriculum with speed and precision.

A couple of new friends I met in my automotive classes provided less constructive training. They were brothers from Massachusetts, expatriated to the hinterlands of Reno with their single mom and a pair of attractive younger sisters. The family lived conveniently across the street and mom worked late nights at the casinos downtown, leaving us to our own devices. It was just the type of trouble I tend to find. The house featured a rotating bevy of miscreants and malcontents, most of whom attended Job Corps. A ferocious party could be found on any given night, oddly contained within the four walls to keep the cops from being called. Enormous quantities of whiskey and rum and forty-ounce bottles of Old English malt liquor disappeared down thirsty throats starting around thirteen years old and topping out in their late twenties.

It made for a crazy atmosphere that should have been counterproductive to completing Job Corps, but the extreme partying never really interfered with my studies and getting through the training proved to be a lesson in teaching a fish how to swim. My ego took a turn for the worse as my intellect and smart mouth started showing up at the same time. My would-be rock stardom brought with it an overweening love of my long, black hair as well, so the areas of irritation to others were adding up fast. I started dating the younger sister and walked a tightrope of brotherly disapproval versus mostly liking me and wanting to give their blessing. The relationship didn’t last long, though I did switch to a long-term crush on the older sister as her various trysts became fodder for my compulsive writing habit.

My poetry was becoming less derivative, thankfully, but the singing never gained in popularity since I only sang when I was hammered which made singing next to impossible. I even earned a split eyebrow one night from the faux-diamond ring of an athletic girl who took my efforts at finding my voice offensive and punched me to make me stop. It may explain why I never joined a band, one lingering regret from the paths not taken. I rarely sang outside of the shower until I met my wife in 2005. I suspect she wishes that was still the case, but my lyrical Tourette’s Syndrome (so coined by my little sister Abby) finds any number of verses making their way from my brain to my lips on any given day.

I finished the last of my high school studies with little fanfare, graduating when I demolished the GED test. It was then full-time every day in the carpentry program to prepare for the entrance exam to join the union as a second year apprentice the following year. Job Corps “paid” us every two weeks, but the miniscule stipend we earned wasn’t nearly enough to cover our smokes much less our booze. Regular escapades at the party house across the street meant regular trips downtown to donate my blood plasma for supplemental funds. I still have the track marks inside both elbows as a reminder of that part-time gig.

A keg party and bonfire in the desert not long after getting back from Colorado turned into yet another life or death situation I barely escaped. The night was dry and bitter cold as only the high desert can achieve. There wasn’t much snow left, but winter wasn’t done. Stacks of pallets waited to one side of a raging bonfire and a couple dirty mattresses arranged around the flames for seating, close but not too close. Never shy about drinking myself into a stupor, that night I parked myself at the front of the keg and challenged everyone who stepped up for a refill to a guzzling contest, quaffing beer being one of my more dubious talents. This inspired choice led to a command performance of stumbling around the fire like a toddler new to his legs. I even fell into the roaring flames a couple times, badly burning both palms but feeling no pain as I mumbled nonsense tunes in a decidedly off-key fashion. The rest of the tale is based on conjecture and eye-witness accounts from partygoers.

Right around midnight, someone screamed “Everyone get naked!” as a joke. I took it seriously and fell to my butt on a mattress to comply. I got my shoes and socks off before passing out in a boneless heap. I am not sure how long I slept there, but the party cleared out around two, a few diehards staying to drain the keg and put out the fire. It was then that a couple my “friends” thought pissing on me was simply hilarious. Foul comedy complete, a guy with a particular loathing for me broke out a butterfly knife and sawed away at one side of my cherished locks, starting at the ear and working his way around to the back until only a lopsided mullet remained.

I was tossed into the back of someone’s pickup truck, still barefoot and dripping wet with urine, and dropped on the street just outside of the perimeter fence. Rather than heading toward the warmth and light of the nearby Job Corps security office, I stumbled down the sidewalk with a sleeping neighborhood of townhomes on one side and the center on the other. I turned into one of the townhouse developments at the end of the block, just before the small municipal airfield, and found an unlocked door that I thought was my dorm. The first floor had a living room, kitchen and dining room combination with bedrooms on the second floor up a steep set of stairs. I stripped out of my wet clothes and wrapped myself in a blanket from the couch before curling up to shiver myself to sleep.

It wasn’t long before the freaked-out homeowner crept down the stairs, shouting a warning that he had called the police. I shot awake at the voice and started to get dressed in my soiled pants, shirt and jacket, apologizing profusely the entire time and assuring him I thought this was my dorm room and I wouldn’t give him any trouble. The man stopped me from leaving and guided me back to the sofa, wrapping the blanket around my still quivering shoulders. With hair butchered, crispy palms and bare feet, I am sure the threat level had dropped to zero. That I was five foot ten and 120 pounds dripping wet probably helped in that regard. I learned later the man worked at Job Corps in some capacity and was happy to let the matter drop once the facts came out.

The next clear memory I have is sitting on a police car and falling backward, my head bouncing off the hood. Unseen hands helped me to a sitting position and then guided me to the locked back seat. A small holding cell at the security office I passed earlier in my journey was the next stop, still wrapped in the blanket provided by the man whose home I recently violated. I slept it off until morning and was driven back to the dorms by a security guard who helped me hobble to his Jeep at both ends.

Walking up the stairs presented a similar challenge, so I gritted my teeth and took one halting step after the other until I made it to my room at the end of a painfully long hall. My two roommates had left for their day’s scheduled activities, so my damage and humiliation was a solo event in an empty room. A lukewarm shower was sharp needles of pain but nevertheless made me feel semi-human. I collapsed on my bed, now the lone single in the room in addition to a set of bunk beds, and was asleep moments after my head hit the pillow. It wouldn’t last long enough to dream of a more pleasant reality. The dorm’s Resident Advisor woke me after a half hour to get dressed, so another administrator could drive me to the hospital.

I was admitted and started on IV antibiotics to combat the sixteenth of an inch of dead flesh on the bottom of both feet, including all ten toes. The diagnosis was third-degree frostbite. The prognosis was unknown. There was a good chance I could lose one or more toes. I also had third-degree burns on both palms. They were slathered in a silver paste to aid with healing and wrapped loosely in gauze. My hair was a lopsided mess that I constantly explored with the tips of my fingers, mercifully untouched by the flames. Tears leaked from my eyes randomly, unbidden and unexpected. I would wipe them away, wishing I had the tools to write my thoughts down once my hands could provide the service. I still have the sheets of paper a nurse scrounged up for me tucked away somewhere.

I spoke to my mom and dad on the phone. More tears. A couple of friends visited. Mostly girls. One brought scissors to even my hair out, though I was distraught over losing it in such a violent fashion. Given how short I keep it these days, such an emotional attachment to hair is clearly ridiculous, but I was convinced it was my best trait and should be celebrated at all costs. A misguided Sampson who was clearly unable to measure his true worth. I stayed in the hospital for nearly two weeks receiving IV medication and kept all my toes, though walking across a tiled floor with bare feet sounded like dog claws clicking on a hardwood floor for the next few months. The last of my time in Job Corps was spent hobbling to class and painfully peeling dead, black skin from my toes to reveal a bright pink interior of brand new dermis.