Prologue to Tales From the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve

It’s already been five years since Gary called to tell me his brother had died. Doug had just graduated from Portland State University with a degree in Accounting only a few weeks earlier. He had even lined up a job! Doug going to school was nothing unusual. He was more or less a professional student. Getting a full-time job was not a goal I ever knew him to have in mind, nor to pursue at all unless financially challenged to the point of desperation.

He had almost twelve hundred hours of college credits to his name in over thirty subjects, with many degrees, I don’t think anybody knew how many, certainly not Doug. But, by the time one of those degrees was finally acquired, he’d instantly lose interest in the subject as a possible vocation—and just head on back to school. He had degrees in pretty much every field other than Medicine, and that was only because he wasn’t interested in Medicine. He didn’t care for bodily functions. So, it wasn’t that he lacked ambition. It’s just that nothing ever stuck.

AlCan Highway

AlCan Highway

I’d recently been back in touch with him after about five or six years. It was just sort of that way with us. In the thirty-five years we knew each other, he was always heading off on some sort of expedition. Doug and Linda took that old, gray pick-up truck with the little cabin built in the bed all the way up the AlCan Highway to Juneau and back. Several times. As a couple, the two of them were socially ADD. A mutual wanderlust was the chief feature in their relationship.

I met Doug and Tom in college at OCE in Monmouth, in the spring of my sophomore year. Fred brought them in. My high school buddy Jeff Penny and I had been living in the spacious 50’s-style ranch house since the fall. When we moved in, a couple of Viet Nam vet/students were living there, whom, in retrospect, most definitely had acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You walked very lightly around them. They both wore army field jackets and appeared to still be at war. One was William. The other was Robert, I think, I’m not sure I ever actually spoke to him. It was a big house.

When Robert left in winter term, we got Steve Varney in to take his room. Varney was a regular guy, more on Jeff’s wavelength than mine, but cool. As he was a member of the school tennis team, I do not recall him dressed in anything but tennis whites. He dedicated himself to living the gym rat lifestyle to its greatest potential. Because of this, he was one of my clients.

I had a little business on the side writing papers for jocks. It was lucrative and fairly easy—as neither my clients nor their teachers had particularly high expectations for these guys, given their performances in class. For my part, I would briefly interview my clients in order to get some idea of how their minds worked, if at all, and to see if they knew anything about the topic at hand, which was rarely the case. Steve was one of my four regular accounts.

Hallowed Butler Hall

Hallowed Butler Hall

Dave Dingle and Jimmy Price were dorm roommates of mine from freshman year at Butler Hall, football players, good athletes, but scholastically challenged. They were difficult to write for, because their language skill levels were so elementary and typically they knew nothing about their class subjects, because they rarely attended. I also wrote papers for Masa Misake, but he was problematic in a different way, as English was his second language.

He was Japanese, from Gresham. His family owned a bean and berry farm. A wrestler, he wasn’t very tall, but amazingly compact. Solid. Dense. We took a swimming class together and it was quickly discovered that he was unable to float. He’d try to swim the regular Australian crawl, madly flailing, stroking and kicking, yet still slowly sink to the bottom of the pool.

Masa was a card shark and I was a naïve tool. Therefore he won every poker hand we ever played and I owed him a lot of money. So I ended up writing all his papers for free. After first term in Butler, he and I moved to an apartment off-campus for winter term of my freshman year. In the spring, Jeff escaped the dorm regimen as well, and the three of us moved into a tiny apartment in a converted old house just a couple blocks away from the campus. It was just two rooms, a “kitchen/living room,” area and a bedroom, in which we had wedged three beds, with only enough room to navigate between them and three small sets of drawers against the back wall.

Masa was the individual responsible for getting Jeff and I stoned for the first time. For my part, I had never smoked or drunk anything in my life. In high school I was a three-sport jock with bloodstream as clean as a silver thaw. Jeff had been our high school band drum major and was far more likely to mess around with mind-altering substances than I. He had fondness for blackberry brandy and Crooks cigars.

Red Moroccan Hash

Moroccan Red Hash

One day we dispatched Masa on a mission to procure for us some substance by which we might attain this “stoned” state he had been relentlessly proselytizing. Not exactly an expert on the subject himself, despite his bluster to the contrary, he bought two grams of Moroccan red hash with the understanding such a quantity would be more than enough for the three of us to get royally wasted.

So, that night we made a pipe out of foil and a toilet paper roll and smoked both grams consecutively. I determined that I didn’t really notice any effects whatsoever and decided to hit the hay. While lying in bed I felt my arms and legs detach from my body, spin around the room and reattach. But otherwise nothing out of the ordinary to report and I fell asleep.

The following fall term, sophomore year, Masa decided to move in with his girlfriend. Jeff and I moved in with William and Robert in that expansive ranch house on the east edge of town by the boundary between Monmouth and Independence city limits. Jeff knew Steve Varney from their mutual interest in pursuing their preferences for fine armcandy. And somewhere along the line Masa had introduced him to me as another potential patron in my burgeoning enterprise as a pedagogic ghostwriter. So, when Robert shipped out that winter, bringing in Varney was not an issue at all.

B+Impoverished, it was imperative that my little writing venture thrived and it did just that through the winter. I was averaging five or six clients per week. I charged twenty-five dollars for up to a 500-word essay and guaranteed a C grade or better, or a full refund. For most of the guys (oddly, never any women) that was easy money for me, because, as I said, expectations were low all around. I never had to pay a refund.

I developed styles for each of my regulars. Dave was sort of the dumb guy who always missed a major point or two, but got the basics. Jimmy liked to dig in, but he had a short attention span. Varney was easy, because he was just a laid back guy. I always pretended to be sleepy when I wrote his compositions, sort of distracted. But Masa was the one to require a lot of work—until I developed a “voice” for him.

In fact, I mastered his actual voice. I learned to write as he spoke. Masa expressed himself in short, curt phrases, often very sarcastic, even mean at times, frequently missing articles or fouling up prepositions. Spare with words, he sometimes used them incorrectly, or in an odd, inadvertent way. Few adjectives, or other modifiers. He often got his tenses fouled up and omitted pronouns. He articulated ideas very directly, as if his world was continuously under complete control. Though perhaps not necessarily accurate with an assertion, he was never less than entirely persuasive in saying so.bacon

For one English Lit 101 class I had him naively argue that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. It was that other man. That Bacon guy. He write Hamlet. People say friends egg him on. He figure why not, career already toasted. There was other stupid stuff like that, but his professor gave him an A on that one for the attempt at levity, I guess—considering it came from someone not so familiar with the English language. That’s the only way that one ever would have flown. I also had a good working knowledge of the instructor audiences for whom I was writing. Consequently, my pieces were always tailored with a high degree of specificity.toast

The crowning achievement within my writing concern came at the end of winter term. I wrote five papers for the same World Literature 101 class. That was less complicated than it may sound, as, armed with my extensive palette of low styles and muffled voices, I was able to cobble together a quintet of viewpoints—that mixed and matched and argued with one another in fresh, exciting new ways, which I fairly well knew our target academic recipient had surely yet to witness within the field of multiple counterfeit submissions in a single course. The ruse worked.

As lucrative as it was, I had to abandon that line of work when an unfortunate side effect became apparent. My own grades had begun to suffer. Because my high school cumulative GPA had been an astoundingly abysmal 1.7, I was only able to get into college at all because I had the third highest SAT score in my senior class. Yes, it’s true. I may have lacked focus in high school. I entered college on academic probation.

It became a point of pride for me to prove to myself, or whoever, that I could be a good student. My freshman year I took over twenty hours per term, all 200 level courses or higher. At the end of my first year in college I had a cumulative 3.7 GPA.

And my sophomore year had been just as successful until that winter term, when things began to slide a bit. I only had a 3.2 GPA for twenty-two hours taken. I got a B in Geology. And my Drama class with Professor Hanson had not gone well. He seemed not to see things my way. I had opinions. I was nearly twenty years old, after all. And I’d written a couple plays in high school. No big deal.

Other changes befell the household near the end of that winter term. William elected to bivouac elsewhere and decamped in early March. Thus we were again thrust into the unwelcomed position of seeking a new lodger. But, fortuitously, that dilemma was more easily solved than we could have foreseen.

Because his efforts in college primarily consisted of avoiding all things scholastic (as well as the military draft) if at all possible, Varney took a lot of fluff classes that didn’t require much work, but which, coincidentally, also almost always had a very high female-to-male ratio. Most of them were art classes. It was in one of those art classes that Jeff first met Varney. And it was in another of those art classes in which Varney met Fred. However, against all odds, Fred happened to be a real artist. He wasn’t just taking art classes to lay low and score with the chicks, although he wasn’t necessarily opposed to that.

In casually befriending the impish fellow, it came to Varney’s attention that Fred was himself in the midst of seeking new quarters. Having recently vacated intolerable conditions, he was sleeping on a friend’s couch—his welcome veering dangerously close to running out altogether. Never one to miss an opportunity, Varney invited Fred over to check out our luxury lifestyle at the edge of town.

overallsFred Harmon was a well-known anomaly around Monmouth. Built like a buffalo, he was short, with a stubby, stout-set frame. Bedecked in his uniform of a dirty t-shirt, clay-smeared Oshkosh bib overalls, wire-rimmed glasses, long stringy, copper brown hair, and bushy beard, the role of town eccentric suited him almost too well, too comfortably. His whereabouts were always known. His incessant, booming, demented chortle could be heard for blocks in all directions. A character of mottled reputation to be sure.

Seeking in vain some impossible reconciliation with a militantly military father retired to the Oregon coast, Fred migrated west from Kennebunkport, Maine via an extended detour to Silver Spring, Maryland. He had been there trying to rekindle the fire of Marie, a former flame. He was not entirely unsuccessful in that endeavor. But the siren call of attempting to mend familial rifts beckoned him westward. Ultimately to no avail.

Stranded in Cannon Beach with no further destination in mind, Fred was lured to Monmouth, Oregon because there happened to be a college there. And he had once lived near Monmouth, Maine. Kismet. While courting Marie, he had been attending school at the University of Maryland in College Park, so his credits were easily transferred.

Campbell Hall Remodel, Oct. 12, 1962

Campbell Hall Remodel, Oct. 12, 1962

In no time Fred became the intolerably voluble resident wheelmaster in the pottery department in the basement of Campbell Hall—even though he had no prior experience in the craft. Soon his fame spilled out of the art department and washed across the campus. Rumors spread of an irrepressibly ebullient, raving elfin creature covered in mud, running around town getting into deep philosophical dialogues with students and instructors alike about Kierkegaard, Rosenweig, Buber; arguments regarding Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, or raging debates concerning raku pottery and the efficacy of low fire glaze components.



It did not take him long to begin sounding like an expert, and, renowned for sometimes spending twenty hours a day down there among the mixers and mills and tubs of pugged clay, he soon became one. So Fred came with a certain cache that preceded him in some quarters—always persuasively credible. With his heavy Northeastern accent and the overtly demonstrative manner by which he expressed himself, it was often impossible to overcome Fred’s insistent authority. He was nearly larger than life.

Varney brought him out to the house to inspect the expansive estate. Satisfied and not a little desperate, Fred quickly arrived at terms with the three of us. By our fairly conservative reckoning he seemed a tad radical, but on the whole harmless. He moved in the next day, which was the Ides of March, 1970. He took William’s old room, the converted den that adjoined the spacious living room on the east side of the house.

Four years my senior, Fred quickly came to represent for me the elder sibling I never had. He freely dispensed his wisdom about the essence of life or pretty much anything that was on his mind, effusively gesticulating—always in buoyant motion. Fred at rest was a very rare state indeed. Our discussions about art and philosophy were monumental, rivaling those between the great minds of the ages (if they just so happened to be attending a small college in Monmouth, Oregon: Socrates meet Fred Nietzsche. Okay fellas, let’s rap).

Fred’s sly east coast savvy and unabashed freight train of erudition never failed to leave a lasting impression upon all who crossed his tracks. Even if he knew absolutely nothing about a subject, he could effortlessly convince you he was an expert—never as an act of deviousness, but more as a sincere expression of his formidable confidence in himself. If Fred didn’t know, there probably wasn’t an answer.

loafThe household was transformed by his arrival. In a matter of a week or so, what had previously seemed to be an army barracks became a site suitable for another Woodstock gathering. Fred coached Varney and me (Jeff did not wish to participate in any mutual food combines) through the process of signing up for the Government Food Surplus Program, where we could get two-pound blocks of American cheese, flour, evaporated milk, “luncheon loaf” and other basic supplies.

From these meager provisions Fred would consistently concoct delectable dishes, predominantly consisting of flour and cheese in an incredible variety of mixtures and combinations. He made his own noodles and we ate American cheese fettuccine. He baked bread. The house always reeked of the stuff. We had grilled cheese sandwiches on home-baked bread. Scrambled powdered eggs and toast. Powdered egg omelets with luncheon loaf and American cheese. French toast. We ate like kings for nothing—which was just as well. I was broke.

And it was Fred who introduced marijuana into the routine within our humble abode. As with everything else, he was an authority on the subject. He knew all the strains: your Acapulco Golds, your Panama Reds, your Michoacan, and Oaxacan, Columbian, Jamaican, Thai, Maui Wowie, Hindu Kush. As for me, I’d only had that one indifferent experience with a large quantity of hashish. I took his word for it.

cartoon3Summoning Jeff and me into his room one afternoon, soon after he had moved in, the odd little man revealed in hushed, conspiratorial tones the secret—of something very magical in his possession. With a dramatic flourish, he produced a baggy containing two fingers of some kind of grass that appeared to have a sort of rainbow-like brown and green color.  Thrusting it before us, he excitedly proclaimed, “Cartoon grass!”

yosemite2That sounded interesting to me. I liked cartoons. Fred produced a corncob pipe and a handful of wooden matches. Jamming a wad of weed into the bowl, he struck a matchstick and puffed heartily before handing the pipe to me. As directed, I inhaled deeply and held the sweet smoke into my lungs. After the first hit, I was pretty sure I didn’t feel much of anything. After the second, I didn’t know who I was, where I was, or what the hell I was doing standing next to Yosemite Sam and Pepé Le Pew.

pepe_le_pew-stonedPepé and I jumped and danced around like two young men stoned for the first time in their lives, while Yosemite Sam stood by puffing on his pipe and cackling maniacally at our theatrics. Pepé began to hop in the doorway between the dusky afternoon light in Sam’s room and the dark and cavernous living room, chanting “It’s day, it’s night. It’s night, it’s day.” Curious to understand Pepé’s experience, I did the same. And we did that for god knows how long. It seemed like years. Many, many days and nights. It could have been thirty seconds. Who’s to say?

After a while, I wandered off to my room where I wrote copious quantities of unintelligible poetry—the written equivalent of speaking in tongues. Writing in tongues. Is that a thing? All these years later, I can still remember two short phrases I wrote. One was “Proverdale highway,” apparently not any particular road to somewhere. The other was “chopus klotmos,” which certainly bore a darker, Lovecraftian aspect. I had no idea where that came from, nor what it could possibly mean.

As a result, however, I found it imperative that I retrace my steps as soon as possible—the following afternoon, in fact—in order to attempt a comprehensive inquiry into the whole matter. So once again I entered the land of incoherent cartoons, finding no answers, only more questions still. But, on the up side, I was inspired to retreat to my room to write a bunch of cool songs in a brand new style, which seemed to be reason enough to continue with further investigation the day after that. And the day after that. Etc.


Khartoum: Idealized

Being a young man of estimable erudition, Fred perceived that I had become a seeker of a higher plane and sought to provide me with the necessary guidance to move forward in my quest. He also provided me with pot, as I hadn’t the slightest idea how to get a hold of the stuff. But I was committed to deeper exploration of cartoon grass. That was up until Fred informed me that it was Khartoum grass. From Khartoum. In Africa. Over by Egypt. Khartoum. Oh.

Conversely, Jeff had found the entire night/day encounter somewhat discorporative. I think it frightened him to lose control of his world. He chose not to actively participate in any further experiments in the field, though when offered a pipe or a joint he never failed to take a few grandiose puffs, expelling most of the smoke before it ever reached his lungs, prior to rambling back into that other world I had left behind. Our paths diverged from there.

Under Fred’s tutelage, I began to change, while Jeff, not so much or perhaps in a more predictable way that I couldn’t understand. It’s true that for his part, my high school friend had become preoccupied with sports cars and all related accessories. Increasingly, his car obsession served as preamble to his compulsion for females. In that regard, Jeff had indeed changed a great deal.

In high school, he was a nerd like me. Maybe even a bigger one. But, upon entering college, Jeff seemed to physically metamorphose into another person. He let his black hair grow out from a flat-top into modest, Valiantesque nobility. He grew a beard, which he kept fastidiously trimmed. That beard gave his face unanticipated proportion. His prominent nose was offered balance and perspective. He was suddenly handsome. He hardly knew what to do with himself, though he figured it out pretty quickly.

sprite3And all things became a validation of Jeff’s manhood. His room, his clothes, his car: everything became ritualized. Every morning at precisely 8:30, dressed in his jaunty brown tweed coat and matching driving cap, dashing scarf, Foster Grant sunglasses, and expensive goatskin driving gloves, he would fire up his red Austin-Healey Sprite, pumping the gas pedal methodically, revving the engine into eruptive orgasmic bursts.

Sears Exec

Sears Exec

Finally, motor reaching suitable lubricity and properly warmed to precise running temperature, he would race from the driveway in front of the house, scattering gravel like seed into the lawn. The guy was twenty years old fer Christ’s sake! He acted like a forty-five year old divorced Sears executive from Syracuse.

All day, every day, an endless parade of females passed through the door to his bedroom. Tall ones, short ones. Blondes, brunettes, gingers. Cute ones, ugly ones. Smart, stupid. Pudgy, slender. Jeff seemed to have no precise parameters when it came to women. They were all mere conquests for him. They served no other purpose. He had a few girlfriends along the way. But none of them ever distinguished themselves from the other four or five girls tramping into his room every day—notches on some phallic gun in his mind. Jeff became a vain, effete, lothario whom I began to dislike very much.

As for Varney, he wasn’t around that much. He’d settled in with a girlfriend named Dorothy—a short woman with a compassionate demeanor that led one to conclude she would likely become a nurse. A very pleasant person. Dorothy shared an apartment with another coed, but she had her own room, and her roommate was very quiet and reclusive, which apparently Varney found more conducive to his lifestyle of kicking back than our place where there were young women coming and going at all times of the day, clouds of pot smoke and aromatic plumes of fresh-baked bread vapor wafting through the premises, some album or another (or more than one) blasting from one of the five music sources, emanating from different parts of the house simultaneously in cacophony. There was also the factor that since I had stopped writing his papers for him, he was forced to actually study from time to time, although I’m pretty sure Dorothy did most of his written assignments for him.


Fred: Age-Progressed

Meanwhile, Fred had his own coterie of pulchritudinous young women dropping in, enamored of his dazzling creative vision, forthright self-assurance and gnome-like physical appeal. That combination worked surprisingly well for Fred, although it must be said that he did not actively pursue exacting goals and rewards on Jeff’s scale. Instead, he seemed to genuinely like the young women that came by and to enjoy sharing his enthusiasm for almost any available subject. He also had an equal number of cool male friends—which Jeff did not.

I felt shy and somewhat awkward around most women at school, and had enough problems trying to forget the one woman in my life, back home in Milwaukie. I mostly stayed in my room, writing and recording songs, writing poetry or otherwise keeping to myself. Though there were only three guys actively living at that house, there always seemed to be a crowd around.

The spring unfolding in the Willamette Valley that year was magical. It was sunny and warm nearly everyday. Idyllic. The rolling hills of the countryside are a thousand shades of green at that time of year and the incessant sunshine gave the world a verdant incandescence that was thoroughly intoxicating, especially for a twenty-year-old college student eager to do practically anything besides school work.

Think of this in olive green

Think of this in olive green

It wasn’t a month after he’d moved in, early April, I had just been out to the mailbox to see if the check from my Mom had arrived. As I dejectedly walked back up the long drive way Fred rolled up to the hacienda in his gigantic, military olive-green Dodge Town Wagon panel truck. Out from the passenger side dropped a pretty young woman, with beautiful blue eyes who was dressed similarly to Fred. Well, she was wearing bib overalls. That was it. No shirt. Barefoot. Her hair was wet, as if she had just gotten out of the shower.

She had cradled in her arms a tiny white, fuzzy little dog. It was like a badly distorted albino Chihuahua nightmare, possibly the ugliest little dog I had ever seen. It shivered in fear of god only knows what, everything I suppose. It wasn’t the temperature: it was eighty degrees outside.  In his blunt, abrupt fashion, Fred introduced us.

“Jilly, this is Steve. Steve this is Jilly.” Gesturing with his hand toward the miserable little dog, he beamed proudly. “And this…is Chopus.” In an instant, I sprinted away from the two of them and stayed in my room until they left.

A reasonable facsimile of Chopus

A reasonable facsimile of Chopus

It turns out Fred was quite taken with my invented etymology and told his pottery class chum, Jilly Bing, of the crazy guy he was living with who smoked a bit of weed and started creating his own language. For whatever reason, she was attracted to the syllables Chopus, and when her roommate Karen came home from class with the ugly little dog she had seen dawdling forlornly around the campus for the past few days, Julie immediately designated Chopus to be the tiny stranger’s name—thus securing its destiny as the most misbegotten creature on the face of the planet. And Chopus was his name-o.

arcane weirdness

Arcane Weirdness

But in our brief encounter I did find Jilly’s arcane weirdness quite charming—I have always found arcane weirdness appealing, because of my own I would suppose. So a couple days later I tracked down her student mailbox number, 799, and left her a note apologizing for my arcane weirdness. Apology accepted, we reconvened at some point shortly thereafter, beginning an adventure that lasted the rest of the spring. We saw each other nearly every day.

She had graduated from high school in Salem the same year as I, after spending most of her life shuttling back and forth between her mother in Ventura and her father in Salem. Graduation just happened to fall during the year she was living with her dad.

There was a boyfriend, from high school, Buzz, who was going to college in Corvallis. Jilly shared with me her incredible ambivalence over their relationship. They did not see each other very often. She had another boyfriend Craig, who was attending Cal at Berkeley, but they hadn’t seen each other in almost two years. Still, she spoke of him often, as if they still had some sort of active relationship.

She probably used these other guys as a protective shield to prevent others from coming too near. I know that approach worked reasonably well on me. I was too naïve not to be completely threatened by these unseen names who weighed so heavily upon her psyche. But, because they weren’t around, I wasn’t so intimidated as to discontinue our innocently happy vernal gambol.

mothersAll the peace and love in the air began to rankle Jeff, who had no use whatsoever for the hippie chicks Fred was attracting. Their presence impeded his presentation, and made difficult the manufacture of a proper milieu for seduction—especially with the Mothers of Invention blaring from a stereo and a bunch of people getting high in the kitchen.

But there were other matters for concern. For one thing, Fred was not at all reluctant to confront some of Jeff’s more obvious Freudian issues. Nor did he feel any compunction about “borrowing” some of Jeff’s food or booze, if the situation necessitated such action. When confronted, he never failed to generously offer fresh bread in return.

So, April wasn’t nearly half over when Jeff came forward to inform Fred and me—and Varney (by proxy, I’m sure)­—that he would be abandoning our living situation for better accommodations. Um, tomorrow! Given such short notice, there was only one thing to do: send Fred out to find another roommate.

Jeff was still packing stuff away in his room, the following afternoon, when Fred wheeled into the driveway, transporting with him two scraggly passengers. Both of them had beards and long hair, and vaguely resembled Fred and me, in the non-conformist style of the day. I figured they were friends of Fred’s and paid no attention. But once the three of them were through the front door, he motioned for them to follow him and they moved directly down the hall toward Jeff’s room.

star trek 3They stood in the entry talking, as if Jeff weren’t there boxing up items right in front of them. After a couple of minutes the trio came out to the living room where I was watching the afternoon broadcast of Star Trek on Channel 12. They sat down on a couch and a nearby chair, and Fred introduced us. Jamming a thumb in their direction he said, “Steve, this is Tom and Doug. They’re going to be moving in as soon as Jeff gets his shit out of here.”

And in that moment the L-Shaped House on the S-Curve was born.




The Bible XI

Jonah got swallowed
By a gigantic sturgeon,
Which didn’t sit well.