I was sitting in an armchair with brown upholstery, matching ottoman at my feet. A bed lay to my right, unmolested, made with military corners. Against the far wall, a roll-top desk with swivel chair, IBM Selectric blocking the pigeonholes, a grey wooden file cabinet to the right. To the other side of the bed a door, shower and toilet visible within.
I exhaled and settled back into my grandmother's chair. I was in Dad's study in Fred, Texas. I checked my watch. Three A.M. The midnight of the soul as Bradbury called it. A fading echo of images from my dreams swirled in my brain Ð a pale woman clothed like Godiva, hand outstretched, a red dirt hill, a white steeple against a cobalt sky, the ferric taste of blood, the musty scent of pine pitch, the sensation of pine needles pressed into my cheek. My hand reflexively stroked the pale scars on my face.
"The mark," I heard myself whisper into the thickness of the silence.
The patches of vapor cleared and I recalled why I was here. The phone call from Heidi, the rushed arrangement of flights, arriving in Houston, driving to Fred.
He was already gone by the time I arrived. The next morning Heidi, Hannah and I drove to Farmer Funeral Home in Silsbee for the viewing. Then we spent the day going through the house. I took the study, a job worth several other rooms for the filing cabinet alone. I remembered cleaning the desk and looked around. The small black three-ring binder I found lay on the floor next to me, one tab for each letter.
I picked it up and flipped through it. The first entry for the letter F leapt out at me.
Faith , n:
-Ambrose Bierce's definition: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
-Paul's definition: The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
-Matthew Cloud Lexicon definition: The determination to believe that which resonates in the soul, particularly when it ceases to resonate. See: life.
I fell back and wondered what had awakened me. I felt the suggestion of a door snapping closed. No telling who looked in. I was glad whoever it was saw fit to leave me alone. I didn't need anyone telling me to go to bed.
Dad. Faith. My mind worked back to the time when the entry was likely written. The year Patty Hearst was convicted, Apple Computer was formed, Son of Sam began shooting people and Viking I landed on Mars. The year of the bicentennial.
It was the year that changed my life. The watershed year that divided all that came before from all that came after. The time leading up to that year began innocently enough. It wasn't until much later that the wheels came off.
"Feagin Hall? They named the guy's dorm Feagin Hall?" I looked back at Bubba.
He set his suitcase on the sidewalk and examined his fingernails. A semicircle of stairs led to thirty-foot white columns along the outer edge of a half-moon porch. The gabled roof three stories up was labeled in Roman letters.
I was undeterred by his studied disinterest. "It's not spelled the same, but I bet it's pronounced the same."
Bubba scuffed the taps on his cowboy boots against the sidewalk.
"Do you know who Fagin was?"
"Can't say I've had the pleasure."
"He took in young boys and trained them to be pickpockets and sneak thieves. Oliver Twist. " Silence from Bubba. "Charles Dickens."
"Never met him, either."
Bubba ranked fourth in our graduating class, a fact he kept hidden from the gang like a shameful secret. He knew Charles Dickens. But during the drive from Fred to Marshall a strained formality developed between us. Perhaps I was too vocal about his pigheaded obsession with the welfare of his Corvair convertible. He doubled our travel time to five hours by driving 30 mph the entire trip. Before we left, Darnell Ray told him the head gasket was very iffy. I scoffed at the diagnosis, a fatal mistake that destroyed my credibility. We both knew it was more likely that Donny and Marie would marry each other than Darnell would be wrong about an engine.
But few things are more unnerving than creeping along a two-lane farm-to-market road while pickups and LTDs pulling bass boats stack up behind. On the straight-aways they screamed past en masse, hurling obscene words, gestures and fast food containers. I didn't endure it gracefully. My reflections on Feagin Hall were the first words uttered in 30 miles.
"If the guy behind the desk introduces himself as the Artful Dodger, don't say anything. Just follow me back out."
Bubba snorted. I walked up the steps. He picked up his suitcase and followed. The lobby was littered with easy chairs and couches facing an old console television. The ceiling was two stories up. A balcony overlooked a grand piano and a set of more delicate-looking chairs. To the right a half-door revealed a guy with blonde hair that swept down across one eye and flipped up at his collar. Much like mine.
I walked to the door and dropped my suitcase. The guy didn't even look up.
"Twist. Oliver Twist. This here's Bill Sykes." I nodded at Bubba. He rolled his eyes.
The guy flipped through a roster on a clipboard.
"Don't see no Twist. Or Sykes. How do you spell that?" He glanced up for a second and flipped a few more pages.
Bubba pushed me aside and leaned on the counter. "I'm Bubba Culpepper. C-U-L pepper."
The guy flipped back to the first page. "Culpepper, B. Got it." He looked at me. "But we ain't got no Twist."
"He's Mark Cloud. Probably right above my name."
"Here it is." He eyed me. "Wise guy, huh?" I batted my eyes sweetly. His eyes narrowed. "Hmm. I think we have a room for you on the third floor." He consulted a floor plan. "Yes, Room 320. You'll love it." He turned to the wall and grabbed a key and a piece of paper. "Here, sign this."
"Sure." I stepped to the window. "Where's the elevator?"
"Right there." He pointed to the stairs.
"Great." I signed my name and grabbed the key.
He went back to the clipboard. "Let's see. Culpepper. Looks like . . . looks like you're roommates with Oliver Twist." He winced. "Sorry about that."
"Is it too late to change?" Bubba asked.
He gave Bubba a sympathetic look. "Yep, Ôfraid so. We got a full house."
Thirty minutes later the Corvair was empty and Room 320 was full. Such as it was.
From the door a narrow hallway opened into a small rectangle of floor space. At each end a writing desk with chair sat below a bookcase hanging on the wall. Two beds were end-to-end under the windows on the far wall. Actually, the term bed was too generous for what we beheld. In reality a plywood platform three feet deep and two feet high ran the length of the room. A 2x6 split the platform in the middle. On each half lay an institutional pinstripe mattress with the density of a collapsed star.
We made the beds, placing the pillows at opposite ends. I plopped on my bed, the one that allowed me to look down the short passage to the room across the hall, adjusted the pillow and leaned against the wall. Bubba took the bed by the door to the bathroom that was shared by the adjoining room.
I looked at Bubba, who was arranging the reference books Dad gave him as a graduation present, and then out the window to the porch three floors below. "Hey, you need the exercise, anyway."
His lack of response was relieved by the bathroom door opening. A light-brown Brillo-head poked into the room. A tall, slender body followed.
"Hey, you must be our suite-mates."
Bubba whirled around, knocking a Strong's Concordance to the floor. "Sweet mates?"
"Yeah." Brillo Head stepped into the room and held out his hand. "Phil Moore."
"Bubba." He looked at the hand, evidently reluctant to shake hands with a sweet mate.
"Hey, Bubba Culpepper."
I waved from the corner. "I'm Mark."
"Mark what?" he said, crossing the room in two strides.
"Hey, Mark Cloud. Phil Moore."
"Fillmore what?" I asked, shaking hands.
"That's it. Just Phil Moore."
"Yep, no middle name."
"What about a last name?"
"Last name is Moore," he said, puzzled.
"No, just Phil Moore."
We were interrupted by a short dark-haired guy entering from the bathroom door. "Hey, just checking to see who's here. I'm in the next room."
Phil was next to him in an instant. "Then we must be roommates." He grabbed the dark guy's hand, towering over him. "Phil Moore."
The dark guy looked puzzled, his arm going up and down like a pump handle. "No, Phil Lancaster."
"Nope, I'm definitely Phil Moore."
"You're Phil Moore?"
"I'm Phil Lancaster."
Bubba's laughter startled everyone. "Phil and Phil."
"This could be a problem," Phil said.
"Yep," Phil said.
"Looks like we have our fill of Phils," I said. Bubba smiled. The Phils didn't.
"We could go by our last names," Phil said.
"Moore and Lancaster?" Phil asked.
"Or Lancaster and Moore," Phil answered.
"Too long," Phil said. "I don't want to have to say ÔLancaster' every time I call you."
"Then don't call me."
"Might I make a suggestion?" The Phils turned to me. "How about Thing One and Thing Two?" Blank stares. "Theodore Geisel." Blank stares. "Dr. Seuss. Cat in the Hat."
"How about Phil One and Phil Two?" Phil suggested.
"Which one is One?" Phil challenged.
Then it hit me. I leapt from my bed to the center of the room and held one finger aloft. "Since there is more to Phil Moore, we call him Phil-more. And, as there is less to Phil Lancaster, we call him Phil-less."
"Phyllis?" Phil roared. The short one.
"Fillmore. I like it," Phil said. The tall one.
"No way," Phil said.
"Let's vote," Phil said. "All in favor." Bubba and I held up our hands. So did Phil. The tall one. "All opposed." Phil scowled. The short one. "Abstaining? Looks like it passes. Fillmore and Phyllis it is."
Phyllis muttered a curse and disappeared into Room 322. Fillmore shrugged.
Monday night a group of sophomore sadists rounded up the freshman guys, known as Fish, for a forced march to the freshman girl's dorm where we were obliged to serenade the inmates. The next night we were lounging in Room 320 when the door slammed open and Captain Kangaroo burst in.
It wasn't actually Captain Kangaroo, but the guy could have been his kid brother. He had the same blonde Dutch Boy haircut and bristle brush mustache. Before we could protest he raced to the windows.
"This will hardly do. The screens are still on." He leaned over my legs as I lay on the bed, punched the screen out of the window, caught it just before it fell and hauled it into the room. "Here." He dropped it in my lap and did the same to Bubba's screen.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"I understand your alarm, but expedience must take precedence over propriety," The Captain boomed. "Take these and fill them with water from the sink." He dropped a bag of twenty-five party balloons on the screen. He pointed at Bubba. "You, sir. Clear the immediate vicinity of all screens and mattresses."
I knocked the screen off my lap. "What are you talking about? And who are you?"
"Allow me to lay the essential facts before you. In a mere three minutes that porch will be teeming with freshman girls singing the school song in dulcet tones. Doubtless they will have an encore planned, perhaps Bicycle Built for Two or Purple Polka Dot Bikini. In anticipation of their arrival I propose that we prepare a minimum of one hundred water balloons." He began dragging the mattress off my bed with me on it. "So let us now secure these mattresses in the shower and fill the balloons."
Bubba leaped from his bed and wrestled his mattress to the shower.
"I approve of your prompt response," The Captain called over his shoulder to Bubba as he dumped me on the floor and shoved my mattress toward the bathroom. The Phils appeared in the bathroom, demanding an explanation.
I finally grasped the plan. I grabbed the pack of balloons. "Do you have more of these?" I asked The Captain.
"Indubitably." He pulled out a handful.
I grabbed two bags and cornered the Phils. "Remember our serenade last night?" They nodded. "The girls are coming here to return the favor. They will be crammed onto the porch." I pointed to the windows. "Before they get here, we need lots of water balloons."
I tossed a package to Bubba. He tore it open and wrapped a balloon over the bathroom faucet. "One person fills, the other ties. I'll help Bubba." I shoved a package into Fillmore's hands. "Take these across the hall and get whoever is there to help you." I turned to The Captain. "Next door, 324. Phyllis, you take 318."
By the time we heard the sounds of a crowd gathering below the windows, Bubba and I had twenty balloons stacked on the plywood. I left Bubba to fill the last five. I dragged the mattresses off the Phil's beds, removed their screens and took a pillowcase to the neighboring rooms to harvest the crop.
As the girls began warming up with the school song, The Captain slapped the light switch and marshaled our forces in the gloom. Bubba and I, the two Phils and three accomplices from the other rooms lined up along the beds.
"First, I want everyone to wave to the ladies." We leaned over the balloons and looked out. Over a hundred girls were packed into the half-circle of the porch 25 feet below us like cattle at the stockyards in Ft. Worth. More pressed in from the steps. We smiled and waved. The ones who could wrest an arm free waved back, oblivious to their fate.
"I shall now reveal the plan. Four to a room, two to a window. Starting from this end you shall consider yourself numbered 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2. Do you apprehend me?" We all nodded. "In front of you find two rows of six balloons, one row for each hand. When I call out your number, eject two balloons through the window and acquire another set. They will emerge eight at a time. Before the first set reaches its intended victims, there will be a dozen more in the air. When the little dears realize their predicament a hundred water balloons will be descending upon them."
The light spilling through the windows from the porch cast upside-down shadows on our faces, transforming our smiles into macabre leers.
"Gentlemen, to your positions." When all was ready, he began repeating "one, two" in a steady rhythm and it was just as he said. Before the first squeals broke through the melody of I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover a third of the balloons were airborne. We unloaded the whole nine yards on them, poked our heads out and waved again. Some girls returned fire with the handful of balloons that didn't break, but we easily fended off the few that made it to the window. The rest assaulted us with unmaidenly verbal abuse, hair plastered to their Fish heads. We smiled and waved before tumbling back into the room in an orgy of laughter.
I looked around the room. The Captain had disappeared.
After the soggy girls departed, I put Dark Side of the Moon in the tape deck and leaned back against my pillow, watching Bubba put his mattress back in place and fuss over the arrangement of his shaving mug and aftershave collection.
It would be interesting rooming with the twin brother of Jolene Culpepper, the beautiful but incurable practical joker who humiliated every eligible male in a thirty-mile radius of Fred. One might think that Bubba would have partnered with his evil twin at an early age and shared in a reign of hilarity and terror. One would be wrong. Jolene used Bubba as a target for many years before dating widened her scope. By the time I met him in 1968, he was reduced to a cautious misogynist who flinched at loud noises like a Weight Watcher on a midnight refrigerator raid. It was a wonder he was still sane.
Then in 1972 a white-shoed, saliva-spewing evangelist swept through Fred like a wildfire, burning away the chaff. Bubba was set ablaze, to the astonishment of many. His photographic memory and voracious reading gained him a reputation for having a ready scripture for any occasion. His popcorn delivery of verses startled many of his old friends, but after a while no one flinched.
Unbeknownst to the gang, the following year he pounced on Dad at frequent intervals and quizzed him about all manner of doctrinal and theological issues, often trapping him in his study at the church on Saturdays. Had we known, it might not have come as such a shock when he announced after graduation that he was going to college to become a preacher.
Bubba arrived on campus with the fire still burning, although perhaps not at the white-hot intensity that characterized the early days. The coals were banked, prepared to burn through the night.
By contrast, I traveled a more rocky terrain. As a preacher's kid I was inoculated with the virus of faith at an early age, and as often happens in such cases, it served as a vaccination, sufficient to safeguard against any serious case of religion, even when most of my classmates succumbed to the epidemic of revival that claimed Bubba.
However, the Hound of Heaven stalked and eventually overwhelmed me in the California desert. I attempted a practical implementation of the gospel with the bumbling intensity of adolescence. In the process I formed an unlikely bond with a WWII vet and caused the deacon board to demand Dad's resignation.
Graduation and a summer job at the lumberyard in Silsbee tempered my passion. By the time I arrived on campus, spiritual matters were of less consequence to me than starting a fresh era with a clean slate. I wanted the chance to live outside the PK straightjacket, to be taken for who I was and not what people thought I should be. I asked only for anonymity and the chance to experience life. Bubba and Heidi knew I was a PK. I saw no need to publicize it to a larger audience.