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Dr. Seuss

Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eight

Mister Muscles and the Music Man—Part II

The next weekend, as it turned out, would unfold some unfortunate and disappointing happenings.  My old girlfriend from Kansas State, Linda, came through Lawrence Saturday evening returning from an educational conference and stopped by to visit me.  It was strictly forbidden for women to be in any rooms at any time at the Hof House.  So it took a bit of daring and guile to sneak her down unobserved.  We were chatting it up and bringing each other up to date on our respective collegiate goings-on when we heard footsteps in the hall, and then a knock at my door.  Having no idea who it might be—worst case scenario, the landlord—we panicked.

Linda jumped up onto the bed and squeezed into a corner of the half-partition that separated the study from the kitchenette and entry.  She’d be hidden from view there as far as the end of the dining table.  And then with some trepidation I opened the door.  It was Wendell!

Perhaps if Linda hadn’t been hiding on the bed, some socially sufficing explanation of her presence might have been offered.  But as things stood, we faced an awkward and embarrassing dilemma.  So I didn’t invite Wendell in, but just conversed curtly at the door.  He’d come by to return a book he’d borrowed from me, and I took it back with a simple “thank you.”

He then asked if he might sit down a minute as he was tired from walking and his leg hurt.  And making a snap decision to maintain the ruse, I told him I was about to leave and needed privacy right away to change clothes.  He nodded, mumbled something of an apology, and left.  Linda and I had maintained secrecy, but I sensed regretfully I’d hurt Wendell’s feelings and might now have to find a way to make amends.  And I was, sadly, correct.

The next evening was the initial band session, and Bob considerately gave Neil and me a ride to the frat house with the electric guitar in tow.  Neil introduced me to the others and we set up with the instruments in the living-room area.  It quickly became apparent that the other three were experienced musicians, having played in groups before.  The lead guitarist was a blond-haired, handsome fellow who had nimble moves over the frets and knew all the riffs to the popular rock hits like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode.”  I didn’t know the chords to much of the music and in the customary keys they’d employ.  We weren’t able to ascertain one number we all knew how to play and sing all the way through.  The drummer kept saying, “Can’t we just learn and polish one song tonight?  I gotta make some money soon.”  The evening dwindled into just listening to the lead guitarist strum off fancy chords and Neil imitating this or that James Brown move and chorus.  Finally we all pulled the plugs and packed up.

All the way out the door, Neil kept offering encouragement to the other three, unwilling to relinquish his dream now he’d come so close.  “I know we got work to do, guys,” he admitted.  “But we can put it together.  I know we can.”  But I could tell from the others’ indulging but deflated expressions this wasn’t going to fly.  A few weeks later Neil would inform me he’d learned they’d found another singer and rhythm guitarist and formed their own band.  But that evening, riding back to the co-op house, he kept trying to convince himself and me that everything was going to work out.

In the immediate days that followed, when I returned from my afternoon psychology class, Wendell was nowhere to be seen.  The corner by the student union, in spite of the throngs of student passersby, seemed forlornly empty.  After more than a week of the same, I concluded that, indeed, he must feel painfully offended and had decided to forgo my company.  And it would be up to me to take the initiative to try and patch things up.

I knew where Wendell resided in a basement room, although I’d never been inside.  So one afternoon after my class I swung around to the location of the residence, descended the concrete steps and knocked on his door.  He was there, quite surprised to see me if a tad reserved in extending any welcome.

“I’ve missed catching up with you on campus,” I said.  “And I was thinking, well, maybe you had a pretty good idea about my working out some.  Is the offer still open?”

“I guess so,” he replied.  “Come on in.  The equipment is all down here.”

He had the full run of the basement, but it was certainly a Spartan arrangement.  A toilet and shower in one corner, a sink and small fridge in another, a desk and chair beneath a window, and a mattress and box springs on the concrete floor along one wall.  However, the middle accommodated a virtual gym—dumbbells and  barbells, exercise springs, a bench and squat rack, hand grips, and a magazine rack with a collection of body-building publications.  And complementing all that exercise equipment was a shelf above the sink counter containing numerous bottles and jars of health additives and herbal supplements—bone meal, multivitamins, seaweed, green tea.  I simply stood for a few moments with my jaw agape.  Then finally I managed to exclaim, “Wow, Wendell.  You’re really serious about this stuff!”

“Yeah, if you haven’t got your health, you’ve got nothing.”

I stepped over to the bench and removed my shirt.  Wendell pulled the chair out from the desk and sat down.

“I’m open to suggestions,” I said, “about how I should go about this.”

“The magazine on top of the rack has some routines for beginners.  The one with Charles Atlas on the cover.  You might want to start with the grips, and then the dumbbells.”

I did some stretching exercises, some light calisthenics.  Then some different reps with the dumbbells.  Wendell watched, now and then offering some comment about bodybuilding in general.  He ventured that with concentrated work I might accomplish some chest expansion.  He also suggested some health foods I might try.  When I finished the workout, I thanked Wendell and asked if I might come over again and avail myself of his instruction.  He agreed and I departed.

A couple days later I repeated the visit, trying out a little work with the barbells.  Wendell observed and occasionally offered suggestions while sitting in his chair.  Pleasant, but still a little reticent.  The third time, however, I found Wendell himself dressed in his warmups and having commenced some routines of his own before my arrival.

His greeting was warm, resembling more of the old Wendell.  I peeled off my shirt and began my little regimen, pulling and stretching and lifting.  Wendell did some pulls with the stretch springs while I worked with the dumbbells.  And later, as I was wrapping things up, Wendell did something that caught me totally by surprise.  I was preparing to leave, but Wendell was just getting to the heart of his own workout.  He suddenly pulled off his sweatshirt and sweatpants— clad now only in a T-shirt and silk athletic shorts—and began to pump the barbells, exposing to view his withered leg, something I felt certain he’d only do in the company of a most trusted and respected confidant.  I thanked him again and went on my way.  The next day he was waiting for me on the corner by the student union.

Near the end of the semester, Neil invited me to spend a Saturday and have dinner at the home of his parents and sister in Kansas City.  His father was a lawyer, obviously from their trappings quite a successful one.  He treated me most hospitably, inquiring about my psychology major and why I’d decided to abandon my engineering one.  His mother served a sumptuous meal, baked chicken and homemade pie.

Just before Christmas break, I went over to the co-op house to meet Neil for lunch.  I found him in bed with the sheet pulled up around his neck.  He was in an extreme funk, all upset about having ripped the seat out of his best pair of slacks with his other pants all in the wash.  When I stopped laughing, I told him that’s one reason they invented safety pins and soon we had him patched together and were on our way out for hamburgers.  But that was the first glimmer for me of how small things could sometimes throw Neil for a real loop.

My second year at KU would entail a continued friendship with Bob Hill and intramural basketball.  But Neil transferred to Colorado University and Wendell dropped out of college.  So I had no contact with either for some time.  After graduation and a year of working in California, I reestablished contact with Neil who was living in St. Louis when I traveled there for a job interview.  He had an apartment and I stayed there a couple days, catching up on what had transpired with us both since KU.  He was working in a manufacturing plant, doing heavy physical labor which he found to be a refreshing change from the mental activities of school.  And he was proud to have landed an invitation to sing one set once with a major band in a popular St. Louis nightclub.  His big “claim to fame,” as he called it.  But I learned then for the first time that Neil struggled with some emotional problems of which I’d been totally unaware before.  Debilitating ones.  And he’d chosen not to pursue writing any further.  We corresponded for a while after that, but then lost touch.

Some years later after I’d been overseas and returned to my hometown of Emporia, I drove up to Lawrence one evening with two friends to attend a reading at the Red Dog Inn by the famous writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.  I was deeply committed at that point to following a literary path.  Who should be working as a doorman there at the Red Dog Inn, but Wendell!

He’d grown his hair much longer, but his muscularity was unchanged.  He was as surprised to see me as I was him.  I introduced my two friends, and before leaving that night gave him the address and phone number where I was living in Emporia.  Some months later I received a letter saying he was going to be in Emporia for a day and hoped to pay me a visit.  A few days after, a phone call came from him announcing he’d just arrived at the bus depot.

Wendell explained, after I’d picked him up, that he was now living in Ottawa, Kansas.  He was exploring the possibility of starting up a small specialty bread bakery, and had come to Emporia to contact some potential wholesale suppliers.  I put him up for the night on my foldout couch and we talked into the wee hours.  He’d never finished college, worked at whatever odd jobs he could find, never dated any girls.  But he had always maintained his exercise and diet regimen and remained an avid reader—still amazingly conversant on modern philosophy.  The next day I drove him back to the bus depot and wished him well.  I never saw Wendell again.

Eventually I myself underwent some major life changes and moved to Kansas City, procuring a position with the Johnson County Library.  One day when assisting at the circulation desk, I started to check out books to a young woman and noticed she had the same last name as my old college chum Neil.  I mentioned that and she informed me, indeed, her husband was Neil’s cousin.  “No kidding!” I exclaimed.  “Well, what’s Neil doing now?”

“You didn’t know then?” she ventured solemnly.

“Didn’t know what?”

“Neil’s no longer living.”

“Oh!  Good heavens!  I’m so sorry.  What happened?”

“Well, maybe you’d like to contact his family and get the details from them.  His parents still live here in Kansas City.”

She gave me the phone number and address, and that very evening I rang them up.

Neil’s father answered and was more than a little shocked to hear a voice from the past who’d known his son.  When I explained exactly who I was, he vaguely remembered entertaining me in their home many years before.  Then he conveyed the sad fact that Neil had committed suicide.  He’d suffered from a bipolar condition that only got worse with time.  No treatment they’d tried seemed to benefit.  And one day Neil chose to end the pain.

He then assured me that it would mean a great deal to him and his wife if I’d have dinner with them soon at their favorite restaurant and share memories I had of Neil.  I accepted.  The next Saturday night I joined them along with Neil’s sister.

We no sooner were seated at our table than Neil’s mother brought out some of Neil’s poetry they’d saved, and, to my utter amazement, a letter from me on Red Cross stationery sent to Neil from Vietnam.  I related once more how Neil and I met, some details I remembered about the Don Henry Co-op House.  How Neil had invited me to dinner there once and the boys had served fish mixed into mashed potatoes without removing the bones.  I, being a Midwest landlubber and paranoid about fish bones, had quite a lengthy time picking them out of each mouthful.  I was the last one to finish the meal.  Then I told them about the hole in Neil’s pants and the safety-pin solution.  And the ill-fated fling at organizing the “Damnations” band.

Finally I described Neil and me at the movie.  I even stood up and imitated his wild enthusiasm over James Brown and the Fabulous Flames.  And they all listened with smiles on their faces but tears in their eyes.  In the dim lighting of the restaurant for a few precious minutes their son and brother was back, Neil, young and in his prime, full of energy and dreams, the promise of his future stretching before him.  Bursting with the sweetness of life.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

6 comments to Blossoms on the Vine—Chapter Eight

  • A nice piece of writing….and of shared humanity, Mark. For some reason, the old cliché “There’s more that unites us than divides us” came to mind….and then I was brought back to the alternate reality/downward spiral of our crude political and ideological discourse relentlessly bulldozing the divide wider than ever before. We can only hope that remembering what unites us will cause more of us to reflect that it doesn’t have to be that way — the way of the bulldozer.

  • markscheel1

    muse,

    Appreciate it, muse. Yes, you make a great point. Did you see 60 Minutes tonight with Oprah moderating a group of citizens of differing political opinions? Demonstrated what you said exactly, but in the end they did maintain contact and sharing. So perhaps there is hope.

    Mark

  • Don Frankel

    Mark,

    A girl in your room back in those days? Hmmm. Maybe you left something out here?

    But Bi-polar can be really nasty and it could be hard to notice back then. One because mental illness was all hush hush back then. Hell it’s still pretty hush hush. But that’s a time in our lives when we’re all having mood swings while we are falling in love for the first time and trying to figure out where we’re going.

    Don

  • markscheel1

    Don,

    I’ve never been one to kiss and tell, so you’ll have to fill in the blanks yourself! LOL

    Yeah, that was Neil. I really admired his enthusiasm when he was up. His parents tried everything, all to no avail.

    Mark

  • arekhill1

    Bipolar runs in my family, so I am sadly familiar with it. A nice piece of writing, Sr. Scheel.

  • markscheel1

    Thank you, Sir Richard. This was an emotionally draining piece to write. Memories. You know.

    Mark

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