Friday, December 31, 2010

The giant roommate who paid the bills, cleaned the place, & nearly killed me

Darryl, the former roommate, is the hulking giant to the far right.

Next week, I will be seeing a former roommate I haven't set eyes on since Ronald Reagan was a president with a prostate problem. Thinking about this guy again has been good for my heart. Let me tell you the story.

Ayatollah Joe and I put up a notice for a third roommate. It was Darryl who answered. He was very tall and broad, bright and smiling, a beaming giant. Freshly sprung from the U.S. Navy, a veteran of special forces.

He needed a place to put his air mattress and his pile of clothes while he was working one of his two jobs or sleeping over at his girlfriend's house. We would have taken anybody with a pulse and a paycheck, but Darryl went out of his way to explain that he would be a light burden on us. We took him on.

More than half my life later, I still remember so much about those days. It was an unforgettable roommate experience.

Toward the end of every month, Darryl would pop up suddenly, after weeks of toal absence. It was not often we would see him when he popped in, but certainly we could see that he had been there after he was gone again.

He would have cleaned the entire apartment, down to the dust bunnies and the ring around the toilet water. He would have left his portion of the rent on the counter. The payment would be pinned to a note apologizing that he was such a poor roommate because he was never there to hang around with "the guys".

Ayatollah Joe and I had a very different understanding of the value of "the guys". Our previous third wheel in the apartment had been an unemployed chainsmoker with a threadbare trust fund that paid for his cigarettes, condoms, wine and rent - barely.

These were his only apparent needs. This guy never left the apartment, certainly not to launder his clothes, and he never cleaned the apartment, not even his own room, not even after he abdicated it. When Ayatollah Joe and I cleaned up after this dirty man following his disappearance from our lives, he had left a perimeter of used condoms in a circle on the floor around where his mattress had been.

So it was not a problem at all to Ayatollah Joe and me that Darryl was was never there to hang around with "the guys".

From time to time, there would be a sighting at the apartment. Darryl would just be getting finished mopping the entire place, or maybe he would simply have forced himself to stay on premise until he actually saw one of his roommates. He would always be full of stories when we did see him.

Sometimes, he would talk about the past. He had been a major college football player who partied away the academic opportunity and ended up in the U.S. Navy, where he went into special forces. Like almost all people who really have been there, in the dark heart of it, he didn't feel any great need to talk about what he had seen and done.

He would say, "We were the first ones in and the last ones out, and no one could know we had been there. We were trained to kill by hand. Sometimes, somebody noticed we had been there. We had to handle that."

He was tall, thick and strong, but not scary or boastful. This, simply, had been his life.

He scared me one time, though. I had been out drinking at Cicero's Basemen Bar, just around the corner from our apartment. I had lost my keys. So I went around to the back of the apartment, noisily popped out a screen, noisily worked up a window pane, and then crawled drunkenly into the window.

I am alive today because I flipped on the light switch to the kitchen that night before staggering across it. The second the light went on, I heard this deep groan. Then, a loud thud. The thud was Darryl dropping from a position of assassin's vigilance, flat smack chest-first onto the floor he had just mopped.

I knew the deal when his head and then the rest of him appeared gradually above the counter that separated the kitchen from the hallway. He was shaking his head, deeply disturbed. He was saying, "Chris, I was ready to break your neck. The very next thing I was going to do was break the neck of the burglar. Then, you turned on the light -- and it was YOU!"

I believe he was in the doghouse that night with his girlfriend, who was an heiress. Or maybe she had company in town and he was needing to prove actual independent residence. He wasn't supposed to be shacking up with the heiress, which helped to explain this apartment he paid for, cleaned up, but didn't actually sleep in.

Darryl's nearly having killed me woke both of us up. We talked as much that night as we ever did before -- or since, not counting the new days, now that we are back in touch as middle-aged parents.

Darryl talked about tripping on acid in the middle of the sea on a helo carrier, between operations. He talked about the daily challenges of adjusting to civilian life.

It was hard not to be a little nervous out there, knowing what he knew and having seen what he had seen. And it was hard to pay attention to the little things when you knew so much about real life and real death.

The other day, for example, he had driven off from the gas standard with the nozzle still fit into his gas tank. This was before the introduction of gas hoses that snapped off easily, and he had driven away so fast that he actually had done some damage to the gas hose and standard - probably thousands of dollars of damage.

Darryl so forcefully explained his predicament that the owner forgave him the cost of fixing his equipment, and then went on to offer Darryl a job, which Darryl declined.

Then one day, he was gone from Ayatollah Joe and me, as fast as he pulled away from that gas standard, though he left no damage behind. He just moved on with his life. And now, he is back -- and I will be sleeping in his house in a few short days!

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