Thirty Years On
August 1, 2002
Now his lips are sealed
by Roberta Gale
'Who will walk me down to church when I'm sixty years of age
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave...
I've no wish to be living sixty years on.'
he first time I came close to love I was sitting in Randy Gardner's basement in suburban Cincinnati. Randy's pad was the dream of most kids who came of age in the early seventies: Black and strobe lights assaulting the faces of Yes and The Doors, top-of-the-line speakers, a powerful amp, a great turntable with an expensive cartridge (Advents? Marantz? Garrard? Shure M91ED? Is it possible I've remembered these details?), a library of underground comics, and an unlimited supply of the best pot Cincinnati had to offer.
We listened to the same albums over and over, reassuring ourselves that the more obscure cuts were the coolest. In those pre-FM-radio-in-car days, when copping an FM converter
meant entering the ultra-hip universe of WEBN's eclectic rock, I would have sooner given my beaded leather stash bag to a stranger than admit to liking a hit song. When occasionally the music and drugs greased the way for sensory overload, Randy's dad would poke his head in from the top of the stairs with his military issue DB meter. Newtas we nicknamed himpreferred to have technology run interference when it came to communicating with his son.
'Randy, your music is ten decibels over your allotted maximum,' he'd say in the clipped, confident tones of a man used to having others obey his commands. Randy always turned the stereo down without saying a word. He understood that sometimes the greatest power comes from silent compliance.
I met Randy in the parking lot of The Coffeehouse, a teen hangout run by the Jewish Family Service in suburban Roselawn. Although intended as a place where kids could listen to music while absorbing wisdom from the counselor du jour, The Coffeehouse became the drug-buying and dry-humping center of our underage universe. The drug purchases took place outside in the parking lot, the dry humping in the aptly named make-out roomdecorated with the requisite black light, some artistically misguided black-light-graffiti, and a 'Make Love, Not War' poster. Once in a while I'd poke my head in to see who was coupled up, or to drag my friend Debbie away from a lip-lock with a new acquaintance to grab a Coney dog at Chili Time.
I was the only girl who never went into the make-out room with a guy. I was so far removed from the realm of relationships in 1972 that I didn't even feel unwanted or embarrassed. Three years earlier my dad had put one end of a garden hose in the exhaust of his car and the other through a crack in his driver's side window. Since then, I'd wasted no time supplanting whatever I did or didn't feel with sopors, acid, mescaline, speed, seconal, codeine, angel dust, mushrooms, psilocybin, cocaine, hash, pot, and platonic daddy surrogates.
Randy was the product of an early divorce, an anomaly in a time when parents usually endured mutual hatred rather than break up the family. He lived with Newt, for whom emotion was still as much the enemy as the Koreans he'd fought against decades before. Randy was too young for Vietnam and too untethered to play ROTC-boy, so his dad decided to turn his house into boot camp. Randy had to get up early, even on weekends, and although Newt never raised his voice at his son, I remember his orders carrying the force of Sgt. Carter in scream mode. I don't remember any father-son discussions of household rules, family issues, or anything at all of substance. I didn't think this was unusual because talking about everything but what was really going on was the comfortable way of life in my own family.
A few years after high school I lost track of Randy. I hadn't heard from him or any of our other friends until earlier this year, when Paul found me on classmates.com. Paul was Randy's best friend since elementary school. They'd shared a penchant for paper clip fights, water balloon bombs and other forms of teacher torture. Paul was known in our outré clique as Uncle Weird, later shortened to Wad. Randy was The Great Gizinky, Joel was Sparky, Mel was Slinky, Doug was Fish, and I waswell, girls didn't have cool nicknames back then, and Roberta had to suffice. Within a month of that first message all of us were e-mailing back and forth on a regular basis. Except Randy. No one knew where he was. Paul said he heard Randy was working as an engineer for a Dayton copier company. Group curiosity encouraged Paul to do some digging, but we had no idea his detective work would end up taking such a macabre turn.
April 9, 2002
Randy checked himself into an alcohol treatment program in late June of 2000. He did not complete the program but checked himself out in early July, armed with a cornucopia of anti-depressants; the kind that don't play well with alcohol.
He was supposed to have gotten daily checkups from a caseworker but didn't. His mom spoke with him and repeatedly warned him not to drink on top of the anti-depressants. When she was unable to reach him for a couple of weeks, and after coaxing his attorney to get a locksmith to open the door, they found him dead on the floor.
He was cremated and his mom has the ashes. She voiced regret that she didn't know how to reach any of us, but she feels that Randy, wherever he may be, is happier now than he was in the later years of his life.
Sorry to tell you like this, but such things are better left in blunt form.
I had neither the skills nor the lucidity to articulate what about Randy attracted me then, and I'm not sure I do now. An R. Crumb character come to life, he sported a zigzagged, tight-lipped smile, aviator glasses hiding alternately squinting and widening eyes, and varying asymmetrical comb-overs designed to hide that cruelest of nature's tricks: teenage hair loss. I do recall it was easy for him to impress me. All he had to do was walk over to the Farfisa keyboards in the corner of his basement and knock off a few Rick Wakeman riffs at lightning speed, or talk about anything he thought he knew everything aboutthrowing in some impressive jargon in the process. He once regaled me for a half-hour on the superiority of his speakers because 'the woofer and the tweeter and the midrange blah blah blah...' I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, but I somehow felt enlightened. Randy's every thought and action was meticulously researched and footnoted with facts. This intellectual perfectionism drew circles around my thirsty analytical mind, and I was hooked.
Randy had a gift for making whatever he was doing at the time seem like it was the coolest thing in the worldwhether it was feeding his dog, Sam, or working on his VW bus in the backyard of his Bond Hill manse. If he did it or had it, I thought it was the thing to do or the one to get. He was one of the few people whose advice I ever really heeded, and his iconoclastic charisma turned this congenital anarchist into a willing member of his cult. When he told me I should buy a bike because riding would give me the 'best thighs of any woman,' I went out and bought one. Not because I cared about my thighs (in hindsight perhaps I should have paid more attention), but simply because Randy thought I should do it.
I now think Randy's spell over me was not some inexplicable magic, but the work of a person who knew from an early age that he had to cultivate some kind of angle in order to win over the other kids and keep from getting beaten up. I, on the other hand, desperately needed to be won over and to stop beating myself up.
We used to talk for hours in that basement. Our synapses jumped double Dutch, moving from such banal topics as money, or cars, to life, philosophy, or deeper subjects like: 'Wow the sky is so big it must go on forever but there has to be an end to the universe but if there is what's behind the end of that how can something go on and on everything has to end but then what's past the end of the end...?' Still, even those tritest of stoner conversations became seductive when Randy joined in with his passion and precisely controlled intellect.
I started visiting the basement when I knew Wad, Sparky, Slinky and the rest of our friends wouldn't be there. Randy and I developed a mutual crush. We knew it was getting deeper and deeper, but we couldn't guide it to the next level because, frankly, we were both emotional protozoa. Like a password whispered which would only gain entrance to some dark and scary place, neither one of us could mention this sacred feeling for fear the other would feign ignorance or, worse yet, reject the other.
One night, in the middle of debating which of our favorite underground comic characters was smarter, Flaky Foont or Mr. Natural, Randy and I had a 'moment.' We both stopped talking and stared at each other for a few seconds. Given that reverie transforms mental snapshots into feature-length films, I recall it as the proverbial forever.
There we were, on either side of the card table, illuminated by the red bulb in the ceiling. We knew it was now or never. One of us had to say something right this second to acknowledge our feelings or we'd never have the guts to open that tiny, cracked window in that stuffy, annoyingly metaphoric basement again. Randy spoke first, spitting out the only thing he could muster without totally giving away the store.
'Roberta, uh, you're the smartest girl I know.'
Several minutes of silence dragged by, both of us looking anywhere but at each other. I forced myself to slow my breathing down, not sure if the heart palpitations were from the pot or the precarious nature of the unspoken subject matter.
It wasn't enough for me. I couldn't do it. I couldn't allow myself to open up to Randy unless he expressed his feelings beyond the shadow of a doubt. I needed simple and direct emotions that even an idiot, or a scared, fucked-up girl in the cocoon of that basement, couldn't misinterpret. I needed Randy to turn down the stereo, look me in the eyes through the pot haze, and fulfill all my little girl romantic fantasies by telling me I was wonderful and beautiful and he loved me and wanted me until the end of time
Of course I could never be the first to say such things. I was too frozen, too insecure, too distrustful of my own instincts to say words like that out loud. My mind pureed thoughts like a blender. 'What if I'm wrong about his feelings for me? What if I misread the signs? What if he just likes me as a friend? I'd be so embarrassed I could never face him or anyone else again.'
Embarrassment was the worst thing that could happen to me, worse than a broken heart, worse even than death. Pretending to play the 'I-do-what-I-want-I-don't-care-what-anyone-says' game, it was only the possibility of shame that truly broke me. My entire life was punctuated by attempts to avoid shame for my father's random public displays of rage. I once ran mortified from a Radio Shack when he poured a coke over my head as punishment for slurping it from the side of my mouth. I hid my face as I silently helped pick up the remains of our dinner after my father threw the dining room table out our front door. I plugged my ears when he screamed to the neighbors that he was cursed with an incompetent wife who couldn't cook a steak correctly. At fifteen, I couldn't separate my father's actions from my own.
After a few minutes of very small talk, I said good-bye to Randy and walked out of the basement. Neither one of us ever mentioned the incident again, though we made no attempts to minimize our time spent together. A month later Randy confessed, with some awkwardness, that he had a girlfriend. He mentioned the name of someone I knew from school, and I remember feeling proud that I kept my disappointment and shock well hidden. Holly was a dull, chubby, hairdresser-to-be who never had any problem letting a guy know she liked him. For Holly, Randy was a catch because he was in a band and had a car. For Randy, Holly was a catch because he didn't have to go out on an emotional limb to get her. She overtly started paying attention to him, and he gladly let her do all the work.
Randy and I still had our one-on-ones at the card table, and now and again I thought I caught some random wistfulness on his part. Yet never again did we invite another prelude to intimacywe both made sure of that. When the conversation became too brainy, funny, or intense, we stopped. Either I left or Randy feigned some reason for having to leave. In the wake of our stilted relationship, we treated each other with a sad new respect, the way I imagine weary divorced couples feel after trying to make it work again and again, only to admit defeat. Perhaps it was our mutual, self-fulfilling prophecies about the doomed nature of true love that allowed me to bond with him more deeply than any other girl during those high school years.
A few years agolong before Paul dropped the death bombI was trolling the Internet for people I used to know and came across Randy's e-mail address. I was about to write him but something stopped me. I felt he had turned too creepy, and I decided not to reconnect. I had nothing concrete to validate this feeling, just a gut instinct that he was too needythe kind of person who gloms onto people and doesn't let go until you peel them off. At first I felt guilty for shirking from someone who was once so vital to my existence, but in a few months, Randy was forgotten in the forward push of everyday life.
The guilt returned to haunt me when I found out he was dead. 'If onlys' filled my waking hours for weeks afterward. I wondered if things would have turned out differently had I extended myself to him in some form.
I decided not to go to Randy's wake. I admit I was tempted. His Ohio friends did a bang-up job of pre-promoting the treasures that would await that evening. Randy's death cooler filled with his favorite Rolling Rock! An actual human skull in a coffin! Muted red lighting just like Randy's basement! A papier-mâché effigy of Randy's head lovingly fashioned by his best friend Wad and festooned with human hair plugs! Tapes of Randy's band featuring his frenzied keyboard playing! Seventies party favors!
Though I had the convenient excuse of moving into a new home the following week, I told everyone the truth. I didn't want to fly from Tucson to Cincinnati for closure. Actually, I didn't want to fly from anywhere for closure. The change in attitude seemed out of character for meall my adult life I fought and begged for proper ritualistic endings in everything from jobs to relationshipsbut I wanted my memory of Randy to rest eternally in that basement, at that card table, remembering what it was like to not take a chance.
So thirty years later, I chose not to sit in someone else's living room, bullshitting and eating bad food with a bunch of guys whose memories of Randy are decidedly less romantic than mine. Instead, I rolled a joint and put 'The Yes Album' on my turntable with the same Shure M91ED cartridge that Randy advised me to buy. My tolerance for pot has decreased over the decades, and in three hits the joint was out in the ashtray. My tolerance for 'Yes' has also diminished, and after two songs I turned off the music. I realized I never did like Yes, and what I needed was silence, not classic rock. I sat and pondered how a life once filled with friends, invention and adventure could be reduced to two weeks rotting on the floor until someone finds your body.
Hungry for an immediately gratifying connection, I called my husband on his cell phone to tell him I loved him. He said he was on the other line and he'd call me back later. As I hung up the phone, I felt disconnected in more ways than one. I realized that, like Randy, I had an addiction too. My addiction was to the attention of others; a captive audience that I demanded at my desire and on my own terms. I wondered if my need to be so constantly and demonstratively adored by others could lead to the same kind of loneliness and ultimate fate that befell Randy. The thought scared the shit out of me.
Lyrics quoted from Sixty Years On, (John/Taupin, 1969), performed by Elton John, off '11-17-70,' Re-release Rocket Records, 1996.
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