Moving On: Manslaughter

DSC04709John Vollrath filed out of Club Kaladu along with his girlfriend and his sister. Chris and Adam Short followed suit a moment later, slipping out a north-side exit with Joseph Mader a few feet behind. The three of them pursued Vollrath to his vehicle, where he stood behind a door that was ajar. There had been an exchange 10 minutes prior, and Adam Short began confronting Vollrath about an apparent comment he had made on his way out of the bar. There was a shove, and then a salvo; Vollrath tagging Adam soundly with a wide right to the eye.

Chris Short kicked Vollrath’s door shut. Joseph Mader grabbed a hold of the 23-year old from behind. They were in it now, the lock of the barrel, with John’s sister screaming wildly from the car. Chris Short pulled Vollrath’s shirt up over his shoulders, a maneuver which momentarily blinded the ex-naval officer, while cuffing both his arms. Adam gained his footing, then joined his brother in the fray. There were winding hooks and anchor punches, open blows to the skull and torso. Vollrath spiraled, his body pinwheeling. One hand jerked him forward, another knocked him back. With nothing left but for to falter, something cranial short-circuited, causing Vollrath to stiffen, then go limp, much like a sawhorse being tipped onto its side. Chris Short removed his shirt and threw it down across John’s body. He and his brother disappeared into a suite a hundred meters away.


I was in Delaware County that weekend, attending a funeral for Joe Kennedy’s nephew, who had died during a sledding accident. Joe and I were sitting at a sports bar on MacDade when I noticed a headline running across the TV. “1 Dead in Wildwood Beating,” it read. It came accompanied
by a headshot.

“Hey, I know that guy,” I said. It would have been more accurate to explain that I knew of him.

There had been an incident a couple of winters prior. John Vollrath had punched out several screens bordering a porch outside Gerry Vessels’ house. Vollrath was drunk, and he had made his getaway alone. Gerry spent the better part of a year threatening reprisal, usually by way of intermediaries. Mike Delinski wanted nothing to do with the situation. This despite being long-time friends with both Gerry and John.

Mike was working at Club Kaladu during the winter of 1997, though he was off throughout the night when Vollrath’s beating had occurred. There was only one man working the front entrance on that evening, and he was doubling as a barback, as well. Generally speaking, Jason Palombaro was the closest thing to muscle inside Kaladu. Jason’s father owned the establishment, and he had tricked the joint out with spinning lights and a decadent sound system; a wooden dance floor, industrial fog.

As for Vollrath’s attackers, Chris and Adam Short were primarily affiliated with Jimmy’s, a popular nightclub located in Anglesea. Adam was 18 and Chris 20. Yet they were plugged into a scene that allowed them to come and go from any bar in town. Joseph Mader was 21, a seasonal bouncer. He, too, was primarily affiliated with Jimmy’s.


John Vollrath was pronounced dead at 3:44 on the morning of Saturday, February 15th, a little over an hour after the initial call to 9-1-1. The cause of death: blunt-force trauma to the head. The Shorts had been apprehended inside the Landmark Motel; Joseph Mader on his way back to North Wildwood. All three were arraigned on charges of Manslaughter and Conspiracy, a thin matter of intent separating the applicable charges from Murder. Chris and Adam were eventually released on $100,000 bail. Joseph Mader remained behind bars in Cape May County.

On Monday, February 17th, The Philadelphia Daily News posted a photo of John Vollrath on its cover, a clean-cut boy in navy blues. The accompanying article portrayed Vollrath as a born-again Christian; a noble soul whose only reason for being out on that evening was to serve as a designated driver for his sister. One day later, The Daily News ran with a similar narrative pertaining to the accused. Joseph Mader was described as being a “big teddy bear” who just got mixed up with the wrong crowd. Chris and Adam Short were depicted as having come from a hard-working, South Philadelphia family. The Shorts were a churchgoing people, the
salt of the earth.

These stories came well-researched, albeit stricken by the usual bias and holes. To wit: The Daily News reported Chris Short was a student at Penn State, presumably because that was exactly what Chris Short told the Wildwood Police at the time of his arrest. But two days later, on February 19th, Penn State released a statement, explaining that Christopher Short had not been enrolled for the better part of a year. Initial reports portraying Adam as an All-Catholic letterman took a hit once it was revealed he had abandoned the Widener football team following the first few weeks of training camp. Meanwhile, a lot of the positive statements regarding the Short family, regardless of whether they were true, came by way of neighbors along Jackson Street – a tight-knit community of rowhomes with a reputation for taking care of its own. The people from that neighborhood were known as Two-Streeters, and whether out of blind loyalty or fear, most Two-Streeters considered themselves to be bound by a code.

Matters became increasingly muddled due to a discrepancy regarding what had led to an initial exchange between John Vollrath and the Shorts inside Kaladu. One version favored Vollrath, insisting he had been eyeing up the Shorts for several minutes, having noticed them making fun of a mentally-handicapped man on the dance floor. Another supported the accused, suggesting Adam had approached John to request that he stop leering at their girlfriends. In all matters pertaining to the Defense, any sequence of events appeared largely immaterial. Counsel was tasked with exonerating a trio that had pursued one victim to the extent of pummeling him amidst the horrified screams of his girlfriend and sister. Varying attempts to justify that by explaining the victim might have been staring at someone in an untoward manner, well, those would represent some strange alchemy, indeed … some real Johnnie-Cochran shit, if you know what I’m saying.

And yet these narratives, these stories people told themselves, they had a way of slithering into the zeitgeist, where they were geared and bent and refashioned into causes. Less than 24 hours after John Vollrath’s death, certain locals took to pointing fingers at Club Kaladu, insisting the establishment lacked a proper carding policy, perhaps an able crew of bouncers. Others began calling for Joe Palombaro to be stripped of his license, to be forbidden from operating another club within the city limits. But the major push – the push that had been lying dormant in city council for years – took the form of an emotionally-charged effort to roll the closing times at Wildwood bars back from 5 AM (during the summertime) to 3 AM, year-round. This was a ploy that preyed on hearts and minds, a way of convincing the dejected John Vollrath – a local who had sustained a fatal beating at 2:30 AM in the middle of the winter – would be remembered as a martyr, not a victim. The problem was it missed the point, in much the same way Wildwood at large had been missing the point for a decade.

Old-timers immortalized the original Wildwood as a picture postcard where moonlight split the ocean as lovers basked along its side. Theirs was a world of Artie Shaw and Easter Sunday; pastel parasols and the annual Baby Parade. Meanwhile, current business owners continued promoting this idea of Five-Mile Island as the rootin-tootin den of inequity it had very obviously become. The lack of balance created a schism, cold-war battle lines being drawn along the middle. One the one side, staunch tradition; on the other, debatable progress, with very little in between.

The Moreys had begun to spearhead an effort commemorating Wildwood’s Doo-Wop era in the hopes it might achieve for local tourism what the Victorian era had long accomplished for Cape May. It was the Broken Windows Theory, repurposed – develop an establishment full of architectural flare, and you’ll attract a clientele that reflects that. Dress the joint up like a fraternity or a brothel, and you’ll attract a clientele that reflects that, as well.

Redevelopment was only part of the equation. Another had to do with recognizing what an indispensable part of the economy summer tourism represented. There was an emboldened sense among locals that the summer people added up to nothing more than easy money. Take their income, serve them with citations, yet never recognize the town’s off-season livelihood depended on them. These people, these citizens for a day, they deserved the respect their taxable contributions should afford. In a town of weighted prices, on a boardwalk full of scams, there should be no feigned surprise when rain-made rubes returned the favor.


At the time of John Vollrath’s death, I had been living in Wildwood – on and off – for five years. Two summers before I arrived, on Memorial Day weekend of 1990, Susan Negersmith’s body had been found behind a dumpster outside Schellenger’s Restaurant. There were 26 areas of trauma about Negersmith’s body, including vaginal bruising, unidentified blood and the unidentified presence of semen. The official cause of death: alcohol poisoning, complicated by exposure. For a time, skeptics assumed Wildwood might have been eager to dismiss the case due to the fact there hadn’t been any capital murder stemming out of the city for years. Despite the eventual intervention of both the FBI and State Police, along with a re-examination of Negersmith’s preserved larynx which changed the official cause of death to strangulation, Susan Negersmith’s case had gone 70% of a decade without closure. In the meantime, OJ Simpson and the Innocence Project had combined to render DNA evidence a forensic mainstay, prompting one to wonder what could have – and should have – been, assuming Negersmith’s case had been investigated consistently. Any chance of that seemed vague now, relegated to black whispers, unfounded speculation regarding whether unnamed locals might have been accompanying Negersmith on the evening before her body was discovered. Court documents show police encountered Negersmith a little after 2 AM on her way home from a party. The 20-year old was being assisted by several males, and after engaging with one of them, the Wildwood Police allowed the group of them to go. This, of course, raises the question: What would motivate a sworn officer to turn his back on an underage female who was barely able to walk, a female who was staggering along an open-air mall at 2 AM with what appeared to be an all-male contingent of strangers? An honest answer might reveal some damning evidence. And yet, without any requisite preponderance, it appeared as irresponsible to speculate on the one hand as it did for the police not to intervene on the other.

Word of the Negersmith case reverberated like a rifle-crack during the opening season of the nineties. In retrospect, it should have been viewed more like a harbinger. During the summer of ’92, a fatal stabbing during Senior Week, followed by the sudden disappearance of a Canadian transvestite who still had not been found. During the winter of ’93, the execution-style murder of an unarmed father that traced its way back to the Bloods. During the winter of ’96, the murders of Erin West and Becky Russell, followed by a fatal stabbing at the Firehouse Tavern. And now, less than two months into 1997, the brutal death of a local that involved three others, all of whom were familiar to the town. Whoever you were, whatever your association to this city, it was clear that something integral had soured. One could feel it in the blocks just off the boardwalk, one could sense it whenever wandering alone. The danger, it was palpable, and it came hanging like an old snail’s gut now, laid out bare for all the world to see. John Vollrath’s case was moving forward. The case of Susan Negersmith, a summer tourist from New York, was forced to inch and claw its way out of the ground.

Day 1,196

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Lou Reed on Rewriting (1989)

“Rewriting really makes you focus. Haggling for weeks over a word. Just focusing. I tried all the vocals out before I ever went in the studio, and I’ve gotten pretty good at this, so that if I hear it in my head I ought to be able to sing it. But when we tried it out in the studio, sometimes I couldn’t quite get it right because, as I said, there’s so much rhythm going on in the words that is supposed to be working against the beat, and I could hear it clear as a bell in my mind but I couldn’t always execute it. Whenever I found that I couldn’t do it I didn’t start tearing my lyric apart because I knew it was OK, I just knew that it was me who couldn’t get into it, so we would keep at it until I did it right. It took hours sometimes, and it was maddening because I got so caught up trying to do it right that I’d lose the feel and the meaning of the words.”

(From the Rolling Stone Interview)

What to Expect During the Final 7 Episodes of ‘Mad Men’

One can see it throughout “Waterloo” – the closing episode of Mad Men, Season 7.1 – this era, these characters, Matthew Weiner seeks to bring them all back to circle. Most things being cyclical in nature (as Jon Hamm and several Mad Men promos have recently alluded to them being), with significant weight being afforded to the notion Weiner’s team is going to leave the lot of Mad Men‘s characters better off than they began, one can begin to see the forest for its trees. And so here now, based on minor clues and insight, is what one can expect to see by way of 10 primary characters during Mad Men‘s final run:

Don 2Don Draper. The story of Don Draper reads like a new-age Gatsby, perhaps a more realistic one, at that, with the difference being Don Draper has already realized his nadir, and begun to claw his way back. Don is a master of reinvention, and this is critical, as rebirth signaled Don’s emergence on the scene and it’ll likely play a role throughout his bow.

As the age of the antihero begins to exceed its critical mass, showrunners find themselves hard-pressed to put a harrowing end to primary characters. Tony Soprano is presumably dead (regardless of how some asshole misinterprets David Chase), Omar Little is dead, Walter White is dead, Nucky Thompson is dead, and so is Jackson Teller. Fortunately, Matthew Weiner seems more interested in salvation. In a story with the setting of Mad Men, it wouldn’t make much sense for Don Draper to simply kill himself. Lane Pryce and Adam Whitman have already done that, and the chances of seeing three significant characters committing suicide in one critically-acclaimed series seem unlikely. Forget about the opening credits. If you believe any television exec secretive enough to avoid releasing new footage prior to every upcoming season is simultaneously stupid enough to tip his hand during the opening seconds of every episode … well, that might be a poor assumption, at best. The only way a ritual suicide would make any sense would be if Don somehow went out as a martyr, bequeathing a great deal of his fortune to Anna Draper’s niece, or, more to the point, that niece’s child. The idea of Don providing a chance for the indirect descendant of a man whose identity he stole – a child born into this world under similar circumstances, no less – would appear to thread the needle almost seamlessly. Yet the thing is, there really is no need for Don to die in order for this to happen. Instead, look for Don to make a permanent move out west, providing full support for Anna Draper’s niece’s child. Don may even raise the child as his own, depending on its status. Look for Don to abandon advertising, to reinvent himself in California. Given the time period – and the setting – one might even imagine Don as securing a foothold in the computer industry. Silicon Valley represented a goldmine during the seventies, and the idea of Don getting in on the ground floor would bridge both eras like a lattice. The long-shot? Don becoming some sort of pitchman inside the Hollywood machine. Would he be fantastic? Sure. But the publicity arm of Hollywood seems like an unlikely destination for any man who’s vowed to leave that sort
of thing behind.

Peggy 2Peggy Olson. One of the more fascinating aspects of a long-running serial involves going back after the curtain falls and re-watching the original pilot. Breaking Bad is almost heartbreaking in this manner. Along those lines, no showrunner seems more aware of what each character was initially meant to represent than Matthew Weiner. Less than 15 minutes into the Mad Men pilot, Peggy Olson is introduced as “Don’s girl,” one in a revolving carousel of secretaries handling his desk. Peggy arrives appearing homely, green and unassuming, yet deceivingly intelligent. Looking back – even without the benefit of Season 7.2 – it’s clear that Peggy’s character was always meant to be a symbol of empowerment. The only way to properly seal Peggy’s ascent is by placing her in the same position Don originally inhabited back in 1960. Look for Peggy to represent the creative force in Jim Cutler’s advertising agency of the future. She may be a partner (albeit just barely), and she may be on the cusp. Mad Men’s writing team has been teasing this for the better part of a decade, most demonstrably when Peggy eases into Don’s chair toward the end of Season Six, caught in the pose of an iconic silhouette from the show’s opening credits.

The most recent episode of Mad Men included a scene during which Peggy walks into her apartment, entering into an exchange with a contractor. This contractor’s name is Nick, and at one point Nick hands Peggy his number, saying, “In case you have any odd jobs, too small for Kaz.” The odds are long against this contractor disappearing. In fact, a guy like Nick makes perfect sense for Peggy Olson (i.e., a young Don Draper married the cotillion queen; why not have Peggy get it on with a strapping Dan?). Peggy’s got an apartment opening up and she may be in need of a super. To have Peggy Olson end up in the same place Don began, well, that would be some symmetry, to say the least.

Pete 2Pete Campbell. In terms of arc, Roger Sterling represents the same to Peter Campbell as Donald Draper does to Peggy. Though the show initially harped on the surrogate relationship between Don and Pete (with Pete perennially pushing for – and eventually earning – Don’s approval), Pete’s ongoing pissing match with Roger has taken center stage. Pete retains that blue-blood air, a family crest that got his foot inside the door. Yet at the age of 36, one can see him maturing into partner … an ill-begotten brat who’s earned his keep along the way. In Jim Cutler’s advertising agency of the future, expect Pete Campbell’s name to be the second on the door.

Jim 2Jim Cutler. One of the last things Bert Cooper said to Roger Sterling – or anyone, for that matter – was that Jim Cutler has a vision. For six-and-a-half seasons, Bert Cooper represented the most whimsical of Mad Men‘s characters, stunningly unaware of his own eccentricity. Cooper was the sage, buried deep inside his vault, popping out only occasionally to dictate proper course. Those glasses, the elitism, an outward lack of physical emotion … Jim Cutler is slowly turning into Bertram Cooper. In the ad agency of the future, Cutler will become the figurehead Bertram Cooper always was, steering the ship when it prevails on him to do so.

Roger 1Roger Sterling. What does one do after he realizes money only represents one-third of the equation? If one is Roger Sterling, he winds up embarking on a vision quest in his 50s, drifting off in the hopes of rediscovering what’s lost. Expect Roger to take the money and run, spurred into action by the departure of Don Draper. Men like Roger Sterling prey upon prestige in the same way men like Cutler prey upon the investment. With little to gain and nothing to earn, you can expect Roger Sterling to bow out fiscally, and alone.

joan 3Joan Harris (nee Holloway). Matthew Weiner’s gone on record, explaining he knew exactly how Don Draper’s story would end when he originally pitched Mad Men. By way of contrast, Weiner’s also admitted he hadn’t originally conceived of Joan Holloway as being a recurring character. This is telling, in the same way it’s been telling to see the lack of evolution surrounding Joan throughout the seventh season. The perception of latter-day Joan is that of a beautiful-yet-aging woman who had to sleep her way into a minority share. Whatever comes of her, it won’t amount to much. Maybe Joan stays, maybe she leaves. Maybe she morphs into Ida Blankenship (who also shared a brief affair with Roger Sterling). The most tender thing about Joan is knowing her best assets are behind her. She’s got the money, yet she lacks the ingenuity that sent Peggy into orbit. You’ve gotta wonder what type of impact that might have on her, long-term.

BettyBetty Francis (nee Draper). There are only two reasons Betty Francis might play a critical role along the stretch. The first has to do with Don’s children, assuming that he leaves for California. The second has to do with what Betty knows regarding Don’s identity. Keep in mind, Henry Francis is an aspiring politician. The higher he rises, the greater the probability someone might dig into his spouse’s past. Is this a reach? It could be. But it’s also the most viable currency in terms of turning up the heat. With Bert Cooper out of the picture, and Jim Cutler slithering into Don’s garden, a reveal of that magnitude could shift the burners on, full-blast. Would disclosure set Don free? Would it send him into exile? In an odd sort of way, Betty Francis holds the key.

Ted 1Ted Chaough. Ted Chaough wants out, which is why it’s conceivable Don and Ted might reemerge as partners, in a new venture; one that reinvigorates them in the same way corporate advertising previously did. Barring that, expect Ted to show very little rage against the dying of the light. He’s been there; he’s done that. He wants a break that’s free and clean.

Bob 1Bob Benson. Bob Benson was brought in to introduce a point. And that point was that being gay and poor and Podunk in the late 1960s had the same stigma in a business culture as being black or Jewish or Dick Whitman in the fifties. Bob Benson … Don Draper. You do the math. We’ve seen what happens when an executive is unceremoniously outed during the sixties. Perhaps we’ll see how far that culture has evolved during the seventies.

sally 1Sally Draper. What viewers saw during “Waterloo” was the early maturation of Sally Draper, equal parts mother and father. Consider a scene in the Francis’ backyard. Sally kisses a boy, disregarding Betty’s one-time rule that, “You don’t kiss boys; boys kiss you.” Note that Sally kisses the pimple-faced nerd, as opposed to an older bohunk who arrives wearing a football jersey (this during an episode where Jim Cutler refers to Don as “a football player in a suit”). Following the kiss Sally remains in the backyard, alone, where she smokes a cigarette, striking the same pose Betty Draper did during Season One. Expect more along these lines throughout the remaining episodes. Sally is her mother. She’s her father. She’s seeking independence or validation from each one.

Related: “Ranking the Women in Don Draper’s Sex Life (1960-1969)”

(The final seven episodes of Mad Men begin Sunday, April 5th on AMC.)

Moving On: The Long Walk Back

Isle-of-the-Dead-Version-II-by-Arnold-BocklinIt was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the majority of college students were enjoying one last night at home, eating leftovers, watching cable on the floor. Marci and I were not enrolled, nor were we sentimental. And as such, we had committed to one more night on the town.

Marci picked me up in a Chevy Cavalier, the champagne frame of which appeared almost identical to the Impala I had crashed back in October. A state trooper had helped me replace the blown-out tire on that vehicle, yet I remained on the hook for another 350 in damages – necessary replacements for the front axle, wheel and guard. The owner had proven patient, yet persistent, leaving messages on our answering machine at State College once a week.

Marci made a left onto MacDade, continuing north past Tom N Jerry’s, which used to be Discovery, which used to be Mattero’s, which rarely had a use for its industrial-sized marquee. We passed Laspada’s. We passed Italian Village. We passed that old-school Carmen’s Pizza sign with the quarter-eaten pie that looked like Pac Man. We crossed a four-way intersection, conjuring images of a night in 1990 when I had coasted through that four-way on my torso, full body splayed across the rooftop of a Chevrolet Caprice.

Marci made a left onto 420. She parked her car a block away from Folsom Field. We joined a half-a-dozen others near the dugout. Marci was the only female, and she kept referring to everybody as either brother, punk or dude. She introduced me. A guy in sweatpants nodded. I took a seat along the bench and smoked my cigarette alone.

In the interest of inclusion Marci mentioned I was a student at Penn State. I ran with this, deflecting questions about the football team, its record (10-2), and whether Joe Paterno should retire. I described what the campus felt like during the aftermath of a recent shooting. Every detail was a lie, emphatically so, given I hadn’t even returned to State College until a week or so after the incident. Undeterred, I shifted gears, relating a story about how my roommate and I had hopped the fence at Beaver Stadium, enjoying a six-pack at midfield during the first snow of the season.

Beer and football seemed to be the obvious touchstones, and so I stuck to those, avoiding any references to Swarthmorewood or high school. It had been my experience that – in circles such as these – admitting one had graduated from a semi-rival school (a catholic school, no less) represented grounds for immediate McCarthyism. It made no difference I was 22, or that every other person on that field was 21. We were drinking on a township lot, smack-dab in the middle of a place where childhood labels still applied. Three feet from where I was sitting, the words, “Folsom Forever,” had been hand-carved into a post, the bottom bar of one F representing the top bar of another. Nothing had changed here. Not even the words.

By 11 PM, the nostalgia of drinking outside had given way to frostbitten fingers. Marci spent 10 minutes encouraging a pair of friends to leave with us, regardless of where we were going. I found this frustrating, given I had assumed Marci and I would eventually end up alone. We were good that way; we had always been, going belt-for-belt in the post-party hours before dawn. Marci had grown up three blocks away from me, yet we hadn’t actually met until she started dating John. For half-a-decade, our relationship had never graduated beyond the platonic. And yet, there was an unspoken charge in the air now, filtered clean in the burgeoning period after John and Marci called it quits.

Marci looked fantastic. She was wearing a cream-colored coat over a shimmering pantsuit, in contrast to the stagnant array of denim in her car. Marci had blonde hair and her body smelled like perfume. For as long as I had known her, she had always smelled superb.

We were driving on MacDade now, Marci, Barry, Jimmy Nicholson and I. I was drunk, in the backseat, making jokes about how Marci wouldn’t do this or wouldn’t do that. “The old Marci would’ve offered that guy on the corner a blowjob,” I’d say, or, “A year ago Marci would’ve laid on her horn.” Jimmy Nicholson took a shine to this idea, and as Marci made a right on Milmont Avenue, he began to riff on it alone.

“You won’t run that stop sign,” Jimmy Nicholson would say, or, “You won’t do a hundred down
this road.”

Marci responded by pressing her foot down on the gas pedal. She accelerated through a red light, barreling hard into a turn. Marci’s car began to serpentine, careening left, jumping a curb. The entire chassis seemed to plummet; the engine cut across a lawn.

Everything went quiet. I thought I heard a dog bark. Marci’s car began to rattle, sliding
down into a pole.

“BOOM!” I banged my head against the window. “FLAP!” A dozen beer cans hit the floor.

“Is everybody OK?” Marci whispered. For a moment no one answered. I was scanning nearby porches, expecting to see a light outside each door.

Marci put her car in Drive. She maneuvered free of the pole. She eased us down onto the roadway, rear bumper scraping like a hoe. Marci made a right, wedged her car into an open lot. She told us to get out. There was no humor in her tone.

Jimmy and Barry began to leave. “You weren’t with me,” Marci reminded them.

She and I remained there in silence. We were sitting outside a bar known as the Friendly Cafe.

Marci got out. We surveyed the damage. The back tires were blown, and they appeared like spools of mud sprouting patches of green grass. The car looked like a sinking ship with a running dent along its side. We followed several scrape marks up the street. They led onto a lawn that was eviscerated. Beyond that, a pair of skid marks, dark as night. Collectively, these beacons told a story with an indisputable beginning, middle and end.

Marci just kept walking. She showed no sign of turning back.

We made a right on Woodland Avenue, a dead-end block that ran deserted, the midnight air unfurling slow, like rolling mint against my tongue. The moon hung in the west, as if it had been smeared across a chalkboard. Notre Dame, the elementary school I’d once attended, loomed 300 meters in the distance. Its frame ran pale and ambient, like some factory whose only output was its furnace. To our left, Grace Park, the red-brick elementary school that Marci had attended. There was a football field between, all divots and dead earth. That field gave way to Nelson Hall, a banquet space equipped for basketball and bingo. Growing up I had attended summer masses in that hall, an air-conditioned alternative to the whirl of fans inside our church.

“What are you gonna do?” I said to Marci.

“What am I gonna do about what?” she said.

“About the car?”

“Nothing,” Marci said. She was laughing. “Whatever I was gonna do, I’ve already done it. So far as I can tell, somebody must’ve stolen that motherfucker.”

“Stolen the car?”

“Fuck, yeah,” Marci said. “You think I’m stupid enough to drive my Cavalier across a lawn?”

“So how did we get home?” I said.

“I walked,” Marci said. “Fuck if I’m supposed to know how you got home. Who would even think to ask?”

We parted ways at Fairview Road. Marci wandered off toward her parents’ house, and I continued southeast toward mine. I passed Notre Dame, and then the Lieper Cemetery, continuing down along a string of houses, TV tubes against drawn curtains. I passed the jaundiced blinking of a school zone, lights still operating after midnight. On this night, much like any, the only traffic was an occasional jalopy, burning pistons back and forth from either Wawa or MacDade.

Swarthmore was a Quaker settlement, and it still retained that Quaker air, right down to borough ordinances that forbid the sale of alcohol within its limits. There were signs all over town: “Do Not Enter – Local Traffic Only”. Behind closed doors, civil unrest was known to ensue. As a child, one might experience this at home before running into it at a friend’s house, perhaps even encountering it through walls. Swarthmore thrived upon the idea of domestic issues being handled “in-house” – a friendly euphemism meaning nothing ever changes, from a lack of transparency to several costly levels of shame.

I made a right into my parents’ driveway, squeezed my body between cars. I pulled the gate and let myself into the yard. I grabbed a chair and lit a cigarette. I cracked a beer that I’d kept stashed inside my pocket.

For a moment I could remember being happy here, could remember playing with my action figures, or riding around on a Huffy Extreme. I could remember hanging out two yards to the north, dressing up in homemade capes with David Fox. The Foxes moved away in 1981, and I lost touch with David Fox a few years after. From what I understood David was working as a tattoo artist now. He was competing as a freestyle biker and playing electric guitar in a band. All of this while I sat smoking in my parents’ yard, dangling a cigarette behind my back for fear that somebody
might see.

Across the street, at an angle south-southeast, I could make out the red-brick twin where Joe Kennedy, my best friend throughout high school, still lived. In years past I might wander over there around this time of night, wake Joe up and talk him into drinking with me. Those days were over now. I had no idea whether Joe would even be at home, and his parents were getting older. Besides, I hadn’t spoken to him in months. My late-night privileges had been repealed.

Everything felt so tainted, from the streets that ran so empty to duplex houses I could hurdle. The only thing that lingered was the memory. I had turned on my father. I knew that now, just as I was aware that I had done it with good reason, my reason; the type of reason one resorts to when practicality is gone.

A week before I left, in May of 1992, I had gone out one evening with friends. There were eight of us – six guys and two girls – all of whom had just completed finals. We bought a case of Busch Light pounders and a plastic gallon full of vodka. We were drinking in the Arboretum behind Swarthmore College, in a clearing that ran perpendicular to Lang Auditorium. We passed that bottle till it emptied, causing me to black out before 11 PM. Based on what I was told, security had descended upon the area around 11:30, giving chase by way of flashlights. I was unable to walk, and so a friend tossed me over his shoulder, carrying me out like a sack of potatoes. Upon arriving at his car, a group of friends threw me in the hatch. They drove me to my parents’ house, where they carted me along the driveway, then watched me timber in the door.

My father came downstairs, attempted to stir me. He turned me over. I asked him who he was. He helped me up, allowed me to go to the bathroom. I leaned my weight against a window and put my forearm through the glass. The only thing I can remember after that is static, freeze frames of me lying in bed, very possibly in tears, my father talking sense as I began to babble incoherently. Looking up from where I was sitting, I could see the Tot Finder sticker still affixed my old bedroom window, a reminder of Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren’s claim that  “There remains in the atmosphere of an empty room a little of the human soul.”

My parents assumed I was on drugs. I wasn’t, but who could blame them? I mean, the level of frustration that must accompany finding one’s son lying face down on the floor? Even prior to that, the rift had reached a point where there could be no equal ground. My father’s only mode of communication was anger, and my response had gone from apathy to silence. Putting sentiment aside, there appeared to be no point in sparring. What the two of us were suffering from was a fundamental split, a separation in our stars. One might argue it ran deeper, and I might counter that I had benefited immeasurably from slowly learning how to disengage.

I dropped my cigarette. I listened to it fizz inside the can. I hid the two of them beneath some garbage and made my way toward the door. It was late now and I was cold and tomorrow I’d be returning to Penn State. So far as what I knew about the accident, well, who would even think
to ask?

Day 1,171

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

William Styron on Melancholia (That Is to Say, ‘Depression’)

“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying – or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity – but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience – one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”

(Excerpted from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)

Moving On: Blowout

Turnpike 1The initial puncture threw me for a jolt, the right side of the vehicle sinking low onto the road. I was doing 80 in a 65, driving somebody else’s Impala, and I could hear the tiny pebbles turf like rock salt on the guard. I had no money, no means by which to pay for repairs. I had no clue whether there was even a donut in the well. And so I just kept driving, ignoring sparks that burned like embers as they flew into the air.

I had driven from State College all the way to North Philadelphia – 200 miles to take a girl named Shannen, four years my junior, to see The Ghost and the Darkness. Shannen, the blonde, pony-tailed waitress whom I had been flirting with all summer, whom I had kissed during the final week of August, whom I had screwed at Gerry Vessels’ house, whom I had refused to just let be.

The rites of autumn left me empty, drinking hard inside the Wildwood bars. I was still paying rent at State College, and – due to a combination of stupidity and exhaustion – I had mailed my August payment in the form of paltry bills. Come September, I received an invoice for two month’s rent, plus accumulating fees ($2 a day). The setback boxed me in, particularly at a time when there was less work, more drinking, and little savings to be found. I went to my parents for $600. I went to Bill Salerno for more. I began to pay off the balance in dribbles, $2 late fees accumulating one day at a time. My student loans were entering a period of repayment, a dynamic which I ignored for lack of money. I had no phone. I had three addresses (none of which I was calling home). There were collection agencies contacting my parents; urgent notices arriving at school.

The boarding house I had been living in was shutting down toward the end of September. And so I sat one night, and I worked out what I believed to be a viable plan. I would rent a P.O. Box in Wildwood, using the residence on my New Jersey driver’s license (212 East Magnolia) as a reliable proof of address. I would stake my claim for unemployment, enlisting a friend to pick up the checks (before depositing them in my account). I would return to State College, where I would supplement my unemployment writing papers for straight cash. I’d re-enroll, thereby avoiding any delinquency on student loans. I’d use the refund check to stay on-point with all my bills. I would pay back Bill Salerno. I would pay back both my parents. I would lie about my inclination to pay back either one.

Meanwhile, I would continue heaping blame. Upon my parents for pushing me into an engineering major that had nothing to do with my goals. Upon my father, for dismissing – and simultaneously trashing – my ongoing interest in writing. Upon an under-this-roof philosophy that had previously been enlisted to control my education, my vocation, and a student loan that kept on mounting with the meter stuck in spin.

I had little stake in returning to State College. I felt imprisoned by that lease, indebted to a real estate agency that had more than likely stolen one month’s rent. I was broke, living in a town that ran bone-dry on eligible employment. I had debts, and the only way I knew to keep from paying was by extending interest limits while holding creditors at bay.

I harbored no aspirations of becoming someone’s parent, or husband, or cantor, or witness. I had spent 18 years genuflecting before an altar where every word meant staged response, where morbid Godheads ate their young by way of platitudes, where dim-lit thinkers heaped dull nonsense down one’s throat. Literalism, contextualism, mindless blather cast as Dogma? Pedophile priests as vessels of Jesus; strong-minded women given the title of “none”? I had resisted; I had taken my stand, planting my freak flag on a hill. And yet, I could not seem to shake the old world’s traction, bleeding fingers wrapped in tendrils as I fought to gain control.

Rock n roll had saved my life in high school, providing heroes who inspired love and hate and questioning of authority, who sparked synapses that had never felt fresh wood before. Rock n roll pushed open doors that harbored art and myth and cinema, that harbored strength without demanding equal share. Rock n roll preserved ideals that held no sway in oil-barrel America; a place where guts ran wide with flesh and aging skin drooped low as wattle.

The illusion became one of squelching ambition, of convincing average dreamers that their lives were not their own. Small-town heroes earned felt letters for excelling at male sports, speeding long into a world of tending bar, peddling insurance, leasing an office on the second floor of a mall. Conformity became the only currency, a scale upon which mainstream order was controlled. Reasonable prejudice was applauded; county lines ran deep as moats.

To appear un-cog-ly was to welcome scorn, counseling sessions, parent-teacher meetings, whatsoever-will-we-do-with-Kevin? The disease was validation; a supreme level of we’re-all-just-so-OK that swept fresh air out of a room. Strained mortgages, starched collars; entire lives playing out like unconscionable business agreements. What kind of world was that? Forty years worth of Sisyphean discord.

By the age of 18 I had grown restless, displaying early symptoms of a mental illness that would gestate through the years. I was suffering bouts of depression, uncomfortable in social settings to an extent my only inclination was to drink. It had been explained that every impulse I held dear was wrong, that I was a screw-up, a letdown, a cog for which there was no wheel. Meanwhile, I was type-A, at risk, intelligent, innately built to battle hard. And so it came to pass one afternoon, a little over five years removed, I was driving west along the PA Turnpike, heading back toward State College in a broken-down Impala. The front right tire had just given way, causing the CV joint to cave. There were sparks flying and stones glancing and the smell of burning oil bruised the air. The steering column shook just like a jackhammer, several control-panel lights began to flare. And yet I could not seem to lift my foot off of the gas pedal. I was afraid of what might happen if I yield.

Day 1,144

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill