Drooling on the Pillow

Friday, May 06, 2005

Faking the Irony 

I had a pal in high school named Steve. Steve, Bill, Kenny, Roger and I were what passed for the underground in Brick, New Jersey in the early sixties. The avant garde. Which is to say Bill got us physically ill trying to smoke banana skins and I won a prize for painting a picture of "The Agony of An Ingrown Toenail." Like I said, Brick, New Jersey. Just up the road in Freehold Springsteen was finding his groove. We were doofs.

Bill was a total brain, Steve was smart enough and I added whatever confusion and lack of impulse control that was missing from the others.

I thought Steve was cool because there was not, even at age fifteen, an unironic bone in his body. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded like a homily on conventional values, but everything that came out of his mouth was a goof. He was incapable of so much as a casual observation that was not fundamentally anarchic. You can see how appealing that would be to a suburban adolescent.

We graduated in 1966, spilling into our respective seats of higher learning, doing what kids do when they get out of the house, which is breaking our lives into small pieces and throwing them into every dark corner we could find as if they would never run out. This left us vulnerable for the national wave of disassociation that crested over our heads in 1967 and 1968. Bill was flung into a commune somewhere, Roger and Ken were among the earliest freakonauts in Haight-Ashberry, but Steve kind of disappeared for a few years.

When I saw him again it was a year or two after college. He was exactly the same guy in a completely different way. The irony that was so characteristic of him had been cooked into conviction. He said the same things in the same way about the same things, but now he meant them. When he went into a riff about his career path it wasn't a Jon Stewart routine, it had an undercurrent of fear.

He had looked me up to offer me a job. In the many intervening years I've forgotten whether he was working as a PI, working for a PI or trying to become a PI. Or something else. He wanted me to tail a guy to find out if he was cheating on his wife. He gave me an address for the wife just a few blocks from my house and told me it would be a couple days work at $20 an hour. I decided to do it for two reasons. First, I have always loved detective stories and wanted to write them. A little on-the-job-training sounded like a good idea. Secondly, the new Steve confused me. Maybe his humor was just getting more subtle and complicated. Or maybe he had been been faking the irony before and what I was seeing was the real Steve.

I went to see the wife. It was the middle of the afternoon and she was quite attractive, but coming apart. She gave me pictures of the guy, the suspected inamorata and his cars along with a few addresses. She kept squeezing her hands like she was milking a cow. I remember that very well.

I followed him for two days. He was bigger, older, rougher and angrier than me. I sat outside his office in my '62 Rambler wondering what I would do if he came out and asked me what the hell I was doing. I didn't come up with anything. I followed him to the other woman's house for what I presumed was a nooner and back to the office. I followed him to a tavern that evening and sat across the circular bar from him. No one met him and he talked to no one. His face was hollow and set all the time like a guy who just heard the worst news of his life. You wouldn't want to come up behind and tap him on the shoulder. I followed him home.

When I settled up with the wife she gave me a couple hundred dollars and wanted me out of her sight instantly. Okay with me. I had absorbed more misery and rage in the in the last two days than, up to that day, I knew existed. It was exhausting.

I have no idea what happened to these poor people, but I did go through a divorce about ten years later so I eventually lost the bruisable membrane I had at the time.

I did learn that this was no line of work for me. I just didn't have the hide. I'm still wondering if you can fake irony.
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