A Little Bit of Fun Before He Died

Only weeks before, I’d been across the street at the University of Texas at El Paso museum, working a three-story add-on as a carpenter—the second-highest-paid worker on the job site at five dollars an hour. It was because I could also tie steel, an ironworker’s trade, that I got this big-time wage. No, it was not good money even then, in 1979, except in El Paso. Yes, I was proud of myself to have backdoored my way into an English department teaching job that included a well-airconditioned, downstairs office. It really belonged to a full-timer who never used it, and because he liked me, he wanted to help a young writer out. A sweaty carpenter banging nails those weeks ago, now I was banging an electric typewriter, finishing my first novel. I would learn that lots of my new colleagues there didn’t really like my having an office. I was only a part-timer—a couple of remedial composition classes I had to learn to teach under the false assumption, theirs, that I had a graduate degree in English. But there I was, a luxurious office completely to myself, with a sweet, picturesque view of the very poorest lean-to shacks of Juárez across the border. Typing. I was not unhappy with the change in my personnel status.

Next door was one of the many and mostly shared offices. I did not socialize much with campus people, so initially I was not very responsive when Bill Ripley, half of my next-door neighbor, interrupted the precious artist-at-work concentration I kept on my first opus. He was bigger than those numbers, six-two. His belly was prominent even then, and that’s what I and many called him, too, Belly Ripley. He showed much personal abuse all over his body already, beginning with the acne scars from his youth. I don’t remember what his exact first words to me were, how he charmed me, but I am sure it had to do with his country-boy grin, and I’m sure it had something to do with him suggesting how both of us surely needed an afternoon toddy. I had never heard the word “toddy” before, and so I certainly had never had one. So I stepped out with him, persuaded, sold, actually smiling about cutting my afternoon schedule short.

I think the word “toddy” didn’t only make me want to laugh in itself. It was the way Ripley made the word’s fussiness sound even funnier, especially as it echoed in an air-conditioned hall at the Texas-Mexico border. It was so, like, Eastern—at once both sophisticated and classy, yet mocking that pretension. Like drinking hot tea in teacups and saucers with those rings in the middle to secure the cup there and teaspoons (as in, spoons for tea) for, I guess, a lump of sugar. Or honey. Or maybe to stir milk? I hadn’t been taught any of this in my youth. El Paso was the most East I’d ever lived. Whereas Ripley, with his Texas drawl, he’d gone to Harvard. I knew what Harvard was like; I knew what the White House was. President Kennedy went to Harvard. Ripley was the first person I ever met and talked to—had a toddy with, which he taught me was just a shot of whiskey at a bar—who’d gone to Harvard.

Always get the last word.

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Not only that, Ripley’d published his first short story in the Harvard Crimson, the campus paper. Which was all the more impressive to me, as he thereby became the first person I hung out with who’d ever published anything. He’d turned down a scholarship offer, he told me, to play football at Texas. After Harvard, he got into a law school—I think in Colorado—but he hated law school and loved drugs and therefore lasted only a week, give or take. He moved to Austin. He had title, he would say, to some iddy biddy acres there in Central Texas, which, like anyone else who’d never been east of El Paso, I assumed was lots of dirt, not what I know now to be Dripping Springs, which is twenty miles west of Austin, in what is the idyllic Texas Hill Country. He began to sell marijuana on a larger scale than many, moving it out of West Texas to the north and east. He had three women drivers who, he claimed, listened to him attentively and loved his cocaine. Women, he explained, were the best drivers because the cops never suspected them. When one of them got pulled over with a few hundred pounds of weed, his theory was proven to be mistaken. Except his stepdaddywas a congressman in Colorado, and he knew a lawmaker in El Paso. His conviction was adjudicated into a sentence of him never leaving the city limits of El Paso without permission while enrolling himself in a master’s degree program in creative writing at UTEP.

I knew nothing about creative writing. Until that point, despite evidence everywhere that apparently didn’t register in my brain, I thought all writers were dead—not their literature, only them—and therefore I had a good shot at some openings. For years, I was the only living person I was conscious of who wrote. What I knew of the contemporary writing business came out of a used copy of Writer’s Market. In El Paso, with my new job, my outlook was transmogrifying. I had even befriended a much-praised, published poet and teacher who introduced me to Gary Snyder when he visited. We had dinner together at a small table! I watched and heard a spectacular Robert Bly reading—way before his men’s movement fetish and probably before that drum-beating-in-a-circle thing. And the faculty at UTEP, my “colleagues,” included Raymond Carver. Now there was Ripley: my first fiction-writer role model.

I liked knowing men who were older than me, because I liked learning from them, and so I liked Ripley, even when I wasn’t always comfortable with him. First of all, despite being a large landowner in Central Texas (he’d sell an acre now and then when he needed cash), he was always broke and mooching. He would often slump his big shoulders and virtually pull out the pockets of his pants right when he got to the cash register with a bottle of whiskey, looking at me like a puppy dog. I didn’t really like whiskey, and though I plead guilty to drinking more of it than I ever had in my life, he drank three to my one. I lived in an apartment with only a wife, a double mattress on the floor we shared, a rocking chair, a TV (black-and-white), and a newborn baby who shared the rocking chair with her and the mattress with both of us. This was the entire expanse of our belongings besides clothes and books. I barely made the monthly rent, and that was with construction side jobs I did.

Along with Ripley’s busty girlfriend, whom he called Peaches or Cookies or Creamy—I can’t remember—we were once asked to leave a late-night Denny’s. They’d been eating their food with too much wet, licking spoons and chewing on forks, too drunk and high, and I did laugh too loud myself, too. Though I’d concede that the noise at our table didn’t help, in my opinion the heap of staring was out of a visual taboo—his petite girlfriend, who was in her early twenties, looked fifteen and would often be taken for his daughter if left without an introduction, while he, being over-indulgent in every category of intake, had more middle-aged bulk, and his other excesses prematurely lined his face into that of a man in his mid-forties. Not that the two of them couldn’t in fact offend. Back in his apartment, little Peachie might jump on his stuffed chair, straddle his lap, and pull up her top so that he could nibble and suckle. I had to tell Ripley that, nice as that seemed even from my distance, could he please take me home?

Numbers of events in his El Camino. I had to tell him often to be careful when he spoke about Mexicans. Always uncomfortable with his cracker side, I would steam about his favorite descriptives. When I’d blow, he’d say I was crazy and exaggerating and being overly sensitive. Once he was driving and another car did something he didn’t appreciate. Niggers, he yelled, though none were black. I had to tell him: Let’s be clear, Ripley. You ever have a problem with any black dudes because you just said that, I’m telling you now I do not and will not back you up. You are on your own, and I will make it very well known whose side I’m on. He could only shake his big head and go like it was me making something of nothing, not getting his humor, while I would wonder what I was doing riding with him. I didn’t drink whiskey and I didn’t like shitkickers. Maybe it’d be considered exciting to be moving at a hundred mph, bouncing high off the small rises on Mesa, that big westside El Paso street, but I was never drunk enough to not think it was way stupid and beg him to stop. Like slowing through red lights and stop signs, driving too fast was his deal. Maybe the draw for me was that Harvard mix in it: He was going maybe forty-five through Kern Place—a desirable, rich, attractive Anglo neighborhood—and ahead not fifty yards, on the left side of the street, a yardman in a straw hat was raking leaves. Without losing any speed, Ripley steered that El Camino and ran it over the curb and onto the middle of the lawn and into a stop exactly beside the man who could not have moved fast enough. He rolled down his window. As stunned as I was as a passenger, the Mexicano clutched the rake.His mouth might not have been open, even if it seems as though it was to my memory. I swear he didn’t blink. I, too, would have thought I had just survived death were I him. And then, as he did, I started listening to Ripley lecturing on the topic of life’s sorrows and expectations after retirement from sports. The yardman, who I don’t think was following a word of it even if he knew enough English, didn’t move, didn’t flinch, made no sound whatsoever. It certainly was not as hilarious as it hit me, drunk enough, but I was crying with shameless and shameful laughter.

Laughter. Laughing was how we wrote a poem one afternoon at a relatively new gourmet-style coffee shop on Mesa Street. Ripley was in a graduate class in poetry and had to write a poem. He didn’t write poetry and, no, I certainly could not help him—never an attempt at verse ever. “Come on, Dagoberto.” There was always something funny, humor-inducing, about Ripley even saying my name. It alone caused me to grin. Maybe how he made each syllable a drawled word of badly accented Spanish. … He wrote a line. I shook my head. Then we had to talk and figure until we started laughing about what we were trying to do—you know, scamming out a poem for a class to keep his parole grades up—and it got so that what the poem should be about was us doing this. That is, not working, drinking, high, creating poetry, more cheating on “homework” than making art. Which was the art of it! As true poets, he’d pronounced us, we were so often so very busy “researching” for serious art that it was demeaning to have to write obligatory poetry for a class. Therefore, it wasn’t fair. He’d write a line about life not being fair. Once a line made us both laugh, it became a keeper, and more lines piled up. It got so that, toward the end, we were laughing way out of control. A funny poem, the fun, much of it off the page, was that we were writing this at all, and editing it through laughing. We were just messed up, until finally he was downing coffee to get sober enough to type it up and submit it to his early-evening seminar.

The poem was about us sitting there in an air-conditioned coffee shop, in the middle of a scorching desert afternoon in El Paso, having nothing but poetry to do, while everybody else out there in the world was responsibly employed. All we wanted to do—all we had to do—was to have a little bit of fun. That was what Ripley always said, like it was his motto or creed. Especially when he was Rippedly, wasted on drugs or liquor, usually both, which was a lot. Funny, Ripley was a sad, self-destructive, self-abusing man. And when he was really too fucked up, so gone his mass became a limp blob of can-barely-move, he might get his breath too close to my face, and in his most insincere voice, say, “Dagoberto, all I want to do is have a little bit of fun before I die. Now is that too much to ask for? Is it?”

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