One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate

One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate
a regular guy

Friday, December 16, 2011


The Reverend Armenus Thomas was exceptionally large and muscular. He was known to lift and carry a pair of Chevy transmissions across his shop, gripping the steel bell housings one in each hand, a herculean feat. He worked on Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs and so forth; he didn’t work on imports.

Tom hired me, once, to clean the windows of his transmission shop. I thought I had done a good job, but I heard later that the Reverend was not happy with my work, and he never hired me again. I don’t recall if I ever got paid. Maybe he just forgot, or maybe I’ve forgotten since. If not, I must have let the matter drop because the Reverend was known to be an honest and scrupulous man, a man of few words and an impeccable, though murky, reputation. At middle age he was very much my senior, and I tended to respect my seniors.

Tom and I never hung out or made small talk. To me he was a shadowy figure in an oversized ballcap and grimy blue coveralls, lumbering back and forth across his transmission shop, staring obliquely into space mulling over some mechanical problem, muttering, working it out in his solemn and solitary way.

I didn’t know Tom very well, and I might have addressed him as Mr. Thomas, or maybe just Tom. Maureen, though, had a habit of referring to him as Black Tom, a fairly obvious nickname since the rest of us were white. Blackness was immensely honorable among us revolutionaries, but still alien. We wanted to be casual and comfortable with our soul brothers, but we were not.

Beside his weekday transmission shop business, Tom had another life down in northeast Denver where he was a pulpit Reverend at a gospel church. But we never discussed religion.

There was more to Tom’s history than transmissions and pulpits. Tom used to live in Minneapolis, where he was employed as a professional thug. Tom had done unpleasant jobs for reasonable pay, and to earn the long term benefits of mutual obligation among a certain circle of associates. Jobs unpleasant both for the deliveryman and the recipient, but sometimes necessary at a certain time and place. Jobs never talked about, all that stuff no more than a bad dream now. Nothing left in the world but a few old friends, connections rarely spoken of, or to. Armenus Thomas had long since seen the light, been born again, and had traveled far in his heart and shoes from those mean streets.

I had met Tom through Steven, and Steven through Ted and Maureen. We all admired Steven, who had been to other countries and continents, and who seemed to have deep connections in both the counterculture and the underworld. He knew exotic people. Steven had a noble bearing but he was dissolute, in fragile health, a self-described recovering schizophrenic. Equal parts Lord Byron and Svengali, Stephen was charismatic, sly, slender, given to lounging around his curtained little downtown house in dramatic costumes—robes and leather, rich colors and patterns. Lounging and holding court was what Steven did best. His messengers and co-conspirators, the characters we casually called his court, might call or come knocking at any hour.

Ted, on the other hand, was a hairy giant with a protruding belly and voluminous beard under dirty thick-lensed horn-rim glasses, shuffling around in old slippers and a pungent sweatshirt. Ted was, had been a graduate student of philosophy for the last few years. After dropping out of the priesthood he divided his time between trying to explain Leibniz’ monads to the rest of us and dropping acid, preferably Owsley or windowpane, then staying up all night hairy-bear naked in front of the fireplace in his comfy old house on the Hill talking about those monads, the universe, the impending revolution and so forth. He didn’t smell as bad when he was naked; the sharp body odor remained but it lacked the sour overtones of his clothing.

Ted and I had met the first time when I was a sophomore at a Jesuit high school where he was a recently-ordained priest of the Society of Jesus. Young Ted the Novice in his black suit and white collar drilled us though second-year Latin every weekday afternoon. He didn’t smell much back then, and he was merely chubby. His beard was already full but had not yet reached its full rasputinesque grandeur. In Latin class he was known to lean over a boy hard at work at his desk conjugating verbs, lean way over him, gently rubbing his black paunch back and forth against the boy’s back. This amused us by way of gossip, but he was not cruel or overly serious like some of the priests, so none of us hated him, as far as I knew.

Now a college student, I had run into the new Ted in the old humanities building on campus where the 100-level philosophy courses were taught. He had quit the priesthood and had already been on campus for years. I was still half-living with my parents, still in my own home town, and happy to have a second, more social home among the freaks who lived on the Hill near the campus. I introduced Ted to some other students I knew, he did the same, and before long I would drift up to his house on long breaks between classes to eat a sandwich or smoke a joint or talk at length on the rarefied subjects that excite some first-year college students. Or used to.

Ted’s wife, Maureen, was a fair match for him both in size and smell. She was obviously an intelligent woman (they had met at Loyola) so I was all the more shocked at her lack of personal hygiene and saucy pride in her feminine miasma. Tad bragged about how Maureen had once stolen a textbook for him, shuffling it out of the store between her legs, no undies, trusting her folds of sticky flesh to hold the book in place. Ted showed us the book. It was not small, and it stank.

Maureen would cook a broth of meat and root vegetables in a massive tureen on the stove in the kitchen, which was probably the most unsanitary room in the whole filthy house. The soup was invariably tasty, and it was safe to eat, at least for a few days, if it was thoroughly boiled from time to time. But when Maureen made a lot of soup, she left it open and tepid for days in its pot on the stove. More than once her old, bacterial soup sent some unsuspecting guest or roommate to bed or the toilet or the hospital.

A cast of characters came and went through Ted and Maureen’s house. A few of them were clean-cut, studious, quiet, honest students just passing through on the way to a well-understood career. More of them were drifters, dealers, musicians, maniacs, visionaries, petty thieves or con-men, proletarian ciphers, incipient Luddites or Jacobins. Some of them actually had dramatic backstories or terrible secrets. The rest of us were tentative, still hazy in outline, hanging loose and trying to pay attention. And Stephen had considerable charisma. We were all a part of his court, a loyal following, though most of us were never sure which kind of character he really was.