Small town dive bar where the locals like to joke about suicide. But talk is cheap, right?
A year ago my friend Tim was driving me to grad school in Hanover, New Hampshire. We passed old New England farms. Green hills rose and fell. White fences lined the meadows. Barns stood red and still. We drove on. Clouds drifted together like giant ashes, stripping the landscape of its color. Sheep stared at nothing. A cow lowered its head. I flicked a butt out the window. We were trying to beat the rain.
Tim said, “You don’t seem too excited, man.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t know what it is.”
“Dude,” he said. “You’re going to Dartmouth.”
“I know, yeah.” I tried to summon the awe and wonder I felt when I arrived at Columbia after kicking heroin many years before. “I don’t know, man…” I looked at the road. “I don’t know.”
Earlier that day I’d vacated my attic studio apartment in Pearl River, New York, where I’d spent a year. There’d been squirrels in the walls, a used mattress on the floor, a scummy landlord, eviction threats. I’d stocked shelves during graveyard shifts at ShopRite, answered phones for a porn-addicted grease monkey at an auto repair shop, stained decks for a violent sociopath. I’d collected food stamps, hitched rides, bummed smokes. It was the stuff of early sobriety. It made sense for me to be excited about the move, but I wasn’t. Maybe I was doubting myself. Maybe I’d tired of moving. Maybe the Ivy League didn’t feel so Ivy anymore. Or maybe I sensed what was coming. It’s hard to say now.
Drops burst on the windshield like water balloons. There was nothing faint about it. It poured right away, and it poured all night. We unloaded in the dark. Tim drove back in the rain. He’d wanted to get home.
* * *
They say in twelve-step meetings that immersion is required for success. Make ninety meetings in ninety days… Get a sponsor and a home group… Thoroughly follow our path. I feel the same about leaving the Program. Make a clean break. Cut your connections. Drain the Kool Aid. After fifteen years in and out of the Program, I’d grown sick and tired of being sick and tired of empty clichés, unsolicited advice, absurd admonitions, and the profound intolerance shown original thought, and living, by its members. The pain had gotten great enough, as they say. So, on January 1, I left.
In February, a friend suggested that I take a writing class. I’d never heard of the professor, but I researched and found that he was the author of a number of books and wrote for Harper’s and Rolling Stone. His curriculum vitae read how I imagine my drug history would were it arranged the same way—staggering.
I asked my writer friend at Iowa if he’d heard of him. His reply: “That guy’s the hot dog over there at Dartmouth. Work with him if you get the chance.” I’d found the teacher I’d need to impress for future thesis work and recommendation to top-shelf MFA programs. And I was sure I would—impress.
I started class in March on a roll. I was working from home for a consulting firm. I’d recaptured some writing mojo. None of my more insatiable appetites had resurfaced despite some moderate drinking. And I’d met a girl.
Our job in this class was to go out into the surrounding area and find subjects to write about. I had one in mind when I went to White River Junction, Vermont that first week: an unsolved serial murder case that revolves around several fatal stabbings in the Connecticut River Valley in the 1970s and ’80s, its unknown perpetrator known as The Kelleyville Killer.
I thought such material would make for a good story. The other reason it interested me was that my aunt was murdered in 2010. Her death is considered by many to be part of another serial case, also unsolved. I thought that by investigating the Kelleyville murders, I’d determine how and whether I might eventually write a book about the one in my family.
My aunt was 69-years-old when she was stabbed over fifty times, her house then set afire—the home where she, my father, and my uncle had all grown up. I remember playing on that lawn as a boy. My aunt kept ice pops in her freezer especially for my visits. We’d eat them on the grass on summer days, my father nearby. She’d always ask how I was doing. I’d say, “Good, thank you,” and ask for another pop. I liked the blue ones best.
* * *
My parents sold the house that I grew up in the summer I finished high school. Since then, I’ve moved around. Wherever I’d go, I’d find a pool table right away. Never in halls. Always in dives. Bars where nicknames and memories seem to hang around like beer signs and regulars. Bars like Tiny’s in San Diego, Sluggo’s in Pensacola, Psycho Mondo in New York, Shangri La in Austin. How I found those places never mattered, only that I did. A town without a dive bar is like a wave without a shore. Nowhere to crash, nowhere to end.
I discovered The Filling Station bar in White River by chance, though I’d heard about it. Folks had told me to steer clear, that there might be “bikers,” even “meth” there. But, they said, it had a pool table. I’d been drawn to it for some time; I’d simply forgotten about it.
A large man in dark clothes sat hunched over his beer. A tired and tough-looking middle-aged woman stood leaning against the bar’s far end, not quite on either side. I dropped my bag on a chair between them. The television showed news. The woman sipped her beer. It was a little after noon.
I said, “I’m a writer looking for a story.”
No one spoke.
“Maybe The Kelleyville Killer...? Not sure if you guys ever heard—it’s a cold case from…”
The woman eyed me. I unzipped my bag. Then a neat, lean guy wearing a baseball hat with the letters RPM on it came out of the back, went behind the bar, and asked what I’d have.
“Or this place,” I said. “Word is it’s the only dive around, you got some dark shit going on—”
“Oh, no,” said the woman, “put that fuckin’ notebook away! I’m tired of people talkin’ shit about this place. I don’t need any more of that.”
She was the owner. I explained that I was on her side, that I’d liked what I’d heard about the bar, that dark shit isn’t always a bad thing. She wasn’t having it.
The “brats with money” from Dartmouth, she said, help sustain the bar’s reputation. She spoke at me, as though she considered me one of them. I offered that I’d been a homeless heroin addict on the streets of Manhattan many years before. In some places that’d be too much information. Here, just enough. The room loosened up.
“Well now that’s a story,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just not the one I’m looking for.”
The woman pointed to the television and said, “You wanna make a million bucks tellin’ a story—there’s a little plane missin’ right now. You find that little fucker, you’d be all set.” She was referring to the Malaysia Airlines jet that had recently vanished—or been “zapped” out of the sky, according to her, by the U.S. government in response to Russia’s recent show of force near Ukraine. She said the Russians detonated a stealth bomb with range and capacity that far exceed the nuclear variety. I had no idea what she was talking about. I did some research and still don’t.
The bartender, vacuuming around the pool table, said, “Or I could tell him about the guy who got shot in the ass.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the woman. “The White Dog Conspiracy.”
In April 2012, a show let out from the nearby Briggs Opera House. Two men walked past each other, exchanged a gesture or words, and kept going. One of them was walking a white dog,
“A white German Shepherd, I think,” said the bartender.
The man with the white dog turned around, pulled a gun, and shot the other guy right in the ass.
“Now there’s a cold case for ya!” the woman said.
“It’s unsolved?” I asked.
“Well,” said the barman, mopping near the exit now, “the shot guy wouldn’t talk. Said he never saw the shooter, but the theater folks said the way they passed—they waved or stopped or somethin’—they had to have known each other.”
I pointed to his hat. “Mind if I just call you RPM?”
“Nope. Call me whatever you want. It’s on my license plate, anyway.”
The woman poured herself another beer. I asked more about the guy with the white dog.
RPM said, “Well, all witnesses said was he was heavy-set with dark hair--and a white dog.”
We all laughed.
“Three days later,” he went on, “a hiker or hunter or somethin’ found a white dog dead in the woods.” Someone said the dog had been shot once through the head. I wondered if the dog had been found in snow. All that white. A blast of red. Two black eyes. The guy had made his best friend bite the bullet for him.
“Yep,” RPM went on, “prolly figured a big guy with a white dog is hard to miss in a small town.”
“Right,” I said, “but how many big dark guys with white dogs can there be in White River? Nobody knows a big dude with a white dog? Veterinarians? Somebody?”
RPM said, “Well, here’s the funny thing—”
The woman interrupted. “All right. I gotta go stack wood.” She finished her beer and snatched her keys off the bar.
As she made for the door, I said, “No way I could get a first name, huh?” She shook her head, swiping her hand across her neck. Game over. At least, with her.
As the door closed, the man at the end of the bar said, “See you later, Jen.”
RPM kept mopping. Closing in on his two customers.
“The funny thing,” he said, “is the cops never asked me anything. I was the only place open, two blocks away. They wanna nail me for a DWI and know I don’t drink, but when they need somebody for information, they don’t ask the one guy who’s been here forty-two years.”
“You been in this town that long?” I asked.
“All my life.”
“You gotta have a million stories then.”
“Shit. I got too many to tell one.”
“You’re full of great lines, you know that?”
“That’s funny. Most people say I’m full of shit.”
RPM was standing near a sign that read, “Illegitimi non carborundum”--Don’t let the bastards grind you down. I’d look it up and learn that carborundum, or silicon carbide, is by itself an industrial abrasive, employed frequently in the making of vehicle brakes and clutches as well as plates inside bulletproof vests. RPM—whose real name is Bobby Prior—used to race cars on the local circuit, winning Lee USA Speedway’s Outlaw Mini Stock feature in 2010.
I asked him for one of his million stories. “There’s gotta be a day, a night, something that pissed you off or made you happy. A fight, a girl…”
He said the cops have been called to The Filling Station only once in the last twenty years. A fight between two families erupted—Hatfield and McCoy-style—with men, women, and children swinging lamely at each other over tables, eventually pouring out onto Gates Street, finally being corralled by Filling Station regulars before police arrived. A customer had made the call. No charges were filed.
“I could tell you about that,” he said, “or I could tell you about the time I pissed off some Dartmouth professor—said she taught non-ver-bal communication.”
Laughing, I said, “Tell me more about the fight.”
“Shit. I had her so mad she couldn’t see straight,” he kept on about the professor.
“People who’re smart, or think they’re smart—sometimes the best thing to do is just baffle ’em—fuck ’em up.”
“What do you mean? Why?”
“Well, okay,” he said. “One night this sad guy comes in here. Never seen him before. Says he’s gonna kill himself—”
RPM went on, saying he’d told the man that the Quechee Gorge Bridge is “only about five miles up the road.” That if the man was serious, that’s the most popular place to do it around here. It’s New England’s version of the George Washington Memorial Bridge in Seattle, second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, in terms of jumpers.
I asked him why he'd suggest such a thing, even in jest.
“Well, for starters, anyone who’s talkin’ about it prolly ain’t gonna do it. And if your life’s that bad—but I don’t think life can ever get that bad.”
I agreed with the first part. People who talk about suicide are usually talking to a shrink, a friend, or maybe a bartender.
But life can get that bad.
“There were more,” he said. “But that one… He was fed up that night.”
RPM knew the guy had meant business, but had goaded him anyway. I started to wonder if RPM had some cruelty in him. Maybe he was lying just a little bit. To me. To himself. I wasn’t sure. So I asked if he’d shoot a game of pool. He paid and racked. His break was clean.
As RPM was shooting, I looked around. The inside of The Filling Station was spotless. The ceiling a smokeless white. The beer-ad mirrors Windexed. Two race car hoods hanging near the restrooms looked like they’d been polished. Even the knife-carved graffiti on the bathroom walls had been covered over with multiple coats of thick, blue paint. White Christmas lights hung from an overhead beam.
I heard a ball ride a long felt rail and drop softly into a pocket.
There was an Indian Motorcycle sign and one that read, “It’s better to listen to the bartender tonight, than to the judge in the morning.” A framed red-and-black print of Bob Marley hung on a wall with the quote: “Don’t gain the world to lose your soul. Wisdom is better than silver or gold.” Familiar words. “Redemption Song.”
RPM sank another ball, this time with authority.
I told him that New Hampshire is my tenth state of residence, that while I’m happy to have seen much of the country, I admire his sense of home and roots, his stability.
“Well, that’s people,” he said. “You always envy somethin’ you don’t got.”
When RPM finally missed, I took my first shot. Also my last. He cleaned the table.
I smiled. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
He grinned. “Nope.”
As the afternoon passed, RPM told me that the bar’s rough reputation had been established in the 1940s and ’50s when White River was smaller. Transplanted railroad workers brawled with local, blue-collar Italians back then. The ’60s and ’70s brought argumentative accelerants such as drugs, war, and politics into the bar, as the White River Junction railroad boom, which had begun in 1937, was petering out.
RPM spoke pensively of the ’80s. On September 7, 1984, a blackout caused parts of White River to lose power. His sister and brother-in-law, who co-owned the bar—The Del Roma then—called him in to help out. He was thirteen. He’s been there ever since.
“Shit,” he said, “I been here so long, it don’t feel like work anymore.”
RPM had a chance to buy the bar in 1994, but passed. He said, “I was young and dumb and thought, ‘I’m not gonna be in this bar forever.’ But here I am almost twenty years later. That’s my story—prolly about what? Two sentences?”
* * *
I went back on a Friday night with my friend J., a fellow grad student who happens to be Nigerian.
“How you fellas doin’?” RPM asked when we walked in. “What can I get for ya?”
I ordered a rum and Coke, J. a Coke. I noticed the owner, Jennifer Kaar, leaning against the far end of the bar the way she had that first day, not quite on either side. This time she looked happy. I nodded at her. She didn’t seem to notice.
The jukebox was playing AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock.” Two shaky old timers sat in silence at the bar, one tapping his finger, the other gripping his beer, each staring at nothing. A few guys wearing beards and camouflage stood around the pool table drinking, talking, waiting for something.
The place was half full. Regulars were pouring in, men and women in their forties, fifties, and sixties who greeted each other with big hugs, broad smiles, and questions about kids and work and how the hell their days had been. Conversations ranged from World War I to daycare to taxes to the laying of concrete foundations for the homes some of them build. They were laughing, calling out nicknames, buying the next round.
RPM went around the bar to the pool table—the guys had been waiting for him. I watched him sink ball after ball, returning to the bar whenever drinks needed filling. I never saw an empty one. And RPM didn’t lose a game all night.
As we were getting ready to leave, I saw a guy head to the jukebox. I realized that it hadn’t played for hours. He put on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.” Take your time... Don't live too fast… Troubles will come and they will pass… And be a simple kind of man…
At one point I’d told J. of my recent visit to the Canoe Club bar in Hanover, where many Dartmouth folks go, usually in something starched. A bartender there and I have a mutual acquaintance, who I know from twelve-step meetings. When I walked in, the bartender, Daniel, greeted me by saying, “Should you be drinking?”
So much for anonymity. Should you be bartending?
Later, I said, “What the fuck was that about?”
“Well, you know, no one brings anything small into a bar.”
I told him that’s just a line from a Tom Waits song that people like to throw around. Like dark shit.
When J. heard this story, he said, “These Filling Station folks could hold their own in any bar in the country.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, maybe not the Four Seasons.”
“Okay, yeah, I’ll give you that,” he laughed. “But you take the crowd at Canoe Club and put them here, they’d all be fucking lost.”
When I settled up with RPM, he grinned a little and said, “You guys are all set.” He charged us nothing.
As we stepped to the door, a guy of about thirty looked J. up and down, then at me—making sure I had seen that look. I had.
Outside, it was raining.
* * *
Not long after that Friday, I learned that the company I was working for would be sold. I’d be out of a job. Then my brother called and said that my 78-year-old stepfather had been diagnosed with dementia and was exhibiting pre-stroke symptoms. Then the girl said she had no intention of taking things further.
I’d also been drinking. Heavily. And fucking with medication.
I asked my department and the graduate studies office for a scholarship increase. They refused. My brother was pressuring me to move to Florida to help take care of my stepfather. I wasn’t moving to Florida. And I tried with the girl. No go.
So, with financial duress, consequential withdrawal from grad school, dementia, Florida, rejection, booze, and pills—uppers and downers prescribed by a doc who’d been fully aware of my drug history—tenderizing my mind, I—for the first time in my life—decided to kill myself.
I refilled prescriptions. I bought a fresh blade. I bought rope. I went for a hike and picked a tree. I had plans and backup plans. I would eat pills, open veins, snap vertebrae. But first I’d write a letter. So I did that. Then, I thought, I’d better drink for this.
After a few drinks, I remembered why I’ve never killed myself. There are simple things in this life like swimming in the ocean, eating prime filet, and getting laid that make the hells we endure somehow worth it. Waves. Steak. Pussy. What else is there? Right, family. I thought of my seven-year-old nephew, whose two other uncles, my two brothers—one of AIDS and the other of “undetermined” causes —have died. I thought of my mother, who had to bury them, and bury my father, her husband of 40 years, and—worse—has had to live a long time without them. I thought of my remaining brother, who, like my mother, and me, also grieves. The idea suddenly seemed very stupid. But this made it worse. To feel stupid, confused, unable to follow through, to feel… chicken.
Still, I thought—breathing gin fire--What about the ocean? What about good food? What about love? I couldn’t do it. You might say that alcohol saved my life. I would. I do. Booze saved my life.
But all that prep work and the seriousness with which I’d approached the whole thing—stone sober—freaked me out. And I considered how much my writing and schoolwork were suffering. I was making an impression, all right.
I decided to check myself in.
The psych ward was like any other: crazies, half crazies, not crazies, druggies, wannabe druggies, felons, farmers, preachers, perverts, bankers, cat ladies—recidivists all—mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grammies and pop pops, nieces and nephews—fighting over change, over phone time, fighting to make calls that no one really wants to answer.
Howling. Tears. Seizures. Foam. Specialists who want to help but can’t, who fancy themselves serene but always lose their cool. Medications to get off medications. Chores done and undone. Violence over Jell-O. Group, no Therapy. Folks peeping into your room every two hours to make sure you’re still breathing, leaving the door cracked, open enough for a single slant of light to keep you company, keep you awake, keep you from dreaming.
I listened to a large, twenty-year-old man wearing a Slayer shirt say how happy he was that his girlfriend, the mother of their child, was “less addicted to heroin” than he was, how the Oxycontin he’d been on for six years helped him cope, helped him “stay sober,” how the Librium they were detoxing him with was “the real problem”—and how grateful he was for all of this. Their little girl was three.
After the legally-requisite few days, I convinced staff to release me AMA—Against Medical Advice. I had seen enough.
* * *
At some point I realized that I’d lost the folder containing drafts of my story. I was afraid I’d left it in The Filling Station.
During a previous visit I’d met the bar’s unofficial mascot, Buddy the Boxer, a dog owned by a regular named Ralph. Buddy had greeted me with suspicious sniffs, hurrying away before I could pet him. I’d made a tradition of bringing a chicken parm hero from C & S Pizza around the corner to eat during each of my visits. C & S makes a killer chicken parm, and Buddy had leered and drooled as I’d eaten. I’d wanted to give him some, but we didn’t quite trust each other yet.
I figured that whatever awaited me in exchange for my folder gaffe—flak, praise, a shot to the jaw, or a good, old-fashioned 86—I at least wanted to get Buddy some chicken parm.
RPM was getting ready to mop when I walked in. The chairs were up, but for one. Ralph sat at the bar as Buddy again greeted me with suspicion.
“Did I fuck up?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” asked RPM.
“Did I leave a white folder here? I think it had drafts of this story in it.”
RPM looked around the bar. “Nope, no folder here.”
“I figured you wouldn’t have read it anyway, kept it behind the bar. You know, out of courtesy.”
“Oh,” he said, “we would’ve read it!”
I dropped my bag on a chair near the pool table and stood at the bar. RPM started mopping us in. I asked Ralph if I could give Buddy some chicken parm.
“Go ahead,” he said. “He don’t give a fuck what he eats.” I figured that. I was asking if he—Ralph—gave a fuck. I offered Buddy half a cutlet. He took it gingerly and backed away, his eyes on mine.
As Buddy and I ate, I asked for a timeline clarification about the bar. RPM and Ralph started talking—talking a lot.
They told me that it’s been The Filling Station since 1994. Before that, The Del Roma. Before that, just Del Roma, which opened in 1948. Before 1948, The Log Cabin Restaurant. Before it was a restaurant of any kind, the site at 70 Gates Street was home to White River’s first movie house, Dreamland. Before Dreamland, it served as White River’s first bus stop. The large White River Bus Terminal sign near the restroooms is an original, older than the building itself. Before the bus terminal it was a livery stable, frequented by affluent patrons of the Hotel Coolidge across the street.
I gave Buddy some more chicken and wrote as fast as I could. Ralph and RPM spoke of all the stories they could tell me, but wouldn’t settle on one.
“You guys gotta slow down,” I said.
“We’re gonna jump around on you,” said RPM. “Just to fuck-you-up.”
They mentioned The Chicken Story, the arrest of Louise the barmaid, the ancient Coca-Cola cooler behind the bar, and a fire or two at the Coolidge. I tried to slow them down again.
RPM said, “I guess Dartmouth needs a write faster class, huh?”
I agreed that it does and asked about the Coke cooler. It’s been in the bar “seventy, eighty years, maybe longer.” RPM’s mother had worked at the first Del Roma, in 1955. I told him I found it interesting that his mother’s hands had been in the same ice chest as his.
RPM looked at me with a slight and rare wistfulness and said, “Yeah, it’s funny the questions you wanna ask, but can’t, you know?”
“She would’ve loved you,” he went on. “She would’ve sat here and told you stories all day.” We both wished she could.
In the ’80s Louise the bartender sold cocaine from behind the bar, used and sold it in the kitchen. RPM’s brother-in-law, co-owner at the time, knew what Louise was doing and decided to have her busted to save his bar. A reasonable move, especially considering his brother was a local cop. They rigged the upstairs pay phone to a recorder in the basement. Soon after, Louise was gone. The bar closed for a week or so, then re-opened.
RPM said Louise was nice enough, though. “She used to serve me a ton of Kahlúa-and-milks. Just tryin’ to keep me happy—keep me quiet.” That’s a lot of White Russians, I thought.
“But you can’t write her name,” he said.
I mentioned I’d worked with a woman named Suki at The All State Café in New York, who, according to All State lore, had been the basis for Carla the waitress in Cheers.
“Well,” RPM said. “They changed her name, right? So you gotta do the same.” He had a point. Louise is not her real name.
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “There’s a few nights you never forget.”
“Most you wanna forget,” said RPM. He started packing bottles of Hi-Life and Bud into the Coke cooler.
When I asked about The Chicken Story, RPM said, “Ah, The Chicken Story’s gonna cost you money.”
Ralph, busy tearing through a fat stack of rip tickets, said, “Gonna cost somebody some money.”
I decided to bide time on The Chicken Story, though I gathered it involved a drug deal of some kind—made and spoiled with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Filled with what, I had no idea. I also learned it involved a life sentence in prison.
At one point, I realized that a disheveled older guy, George, had come in and settled at the bar. A friendly, younger guy, Matt, had come in, too. I’d been writing frantically, so hadn’t noticed. The floor was dry. The seats were down. Buddy looked relaxed. Time flies—things happen—when you’re not paying attention. Or paying too much.
RPM said, “Most of the stories that come out of here you’d think come out of the Enquirer or somethin’. But they’re true.”
I asked about the Gates Hotel Annex next door, which looks as though it’s condemned or shuttered. I asked if it’s still operational. RPM and Ralph said it is, that one guy’s been living there 15 years or more. RPM said it still has a sign outside that says “Water for a Dollar.”
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “But it’s two for hot.”
“That little guy’s still living up there?” asked George.
“Yeah,” RPM said, “he’s been there forever.” He said The Filling Station is the oldest building on the block, that the Coolidge has twice been destroyed by fire.
“Back when people were smoking,” he said, “I used to dump ashtrays straight in the garbage—smoldering or not. Never burnt the place down, though.”
“You should’ve,” said Ralph.
RPM started vacuuming by the pool table. I said that since my first day in the place, I’d noticed how often he cleans things that are clean.
“Yeah,” said Ralph. “It’s called taking pride in your work.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was kind of my point.” Ralph kept tearing through rip tickets.
I thought, Ralph’s a bit acerbic, got a mean streak. Maybe the excavation work he does has ground him down. Maybe alcohol. Maybe life. But when news on the television showed the recent ferry tragedy off the coast of South Korea, he huffed, looked down, and said, “Ahh, all the kids on that fucking thing.”
George said he’d once worked as a custodian at a bar in Massachusetts. Somebody mentioned The Chicken Story again—“a big bucket” was all I heard. RPM said, “Her name’s Cindy… I fucked her… Her dad owned the place… See if you get all that down.” When I mentioned using my recorder, someone said, “Bring that thing out, we all shut up.” The conversations kept rotating. Fast.
The news shifted to the Malaysia Airlines flight—still missing.
RPM said, “Who knows where that thing is?” Then, to me: “Why don’t you ping on that shit?”
George said, “You know they found that guy the other day that jumped back in February?”
He was referring to Michael J. Hayward, Jr.—and the Quechee Gorge Bridge. “MJ” Hayward was found in Hartland, Vermont on April 16 after having been missing since February 9. Hartland is about 15 miles downstream. The drop from the bridge is 163 feet.
“You’re gonna reach terminal velocity before you’re even halfway down,” said Matt.
Hayward had earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1994 from the University of New Hampshire. He liked Bob Dylan and The Band. He was a 32nd-degree mason. He is survived by his wife, young son, parents, brother, many other relatives, and two Weimaraners—all-purpose gun dogs. He was 42.
“Another one we ain’t gotta worry about,” said Ralph.
I thought of my first visit to The Filling Station when RPM had mentioned that suicidal customer, what he’d said to him about that bridge being five miles up the road.
Buddy nudged my leg. And let me pet his head for the first time. I made sure to get behind the ears.
Ralph said, one morning, years ago, he was driving over the bridge on his way to work. He saw a man getting ready to jump, already on the other side of the railing. He said he told the man, “Wait—lemme find a parking spot—I wanna watch!”
I said, “Yeah, but—”
Ralph cut me off. “Nahhh. He climbed back over that rail so fast.”
I asked if he’d recognized the man, considering how everyone seems to know everyone around here.
“No,” he said. “Nobody I knew. Found out later he was some kind of minister or something. And a pedophile. I should’ve fucking pushed him.”
Another man had “launched” himself into the gorge in his car. The guy sped up to over a hundred miles per hour, veered at the last second, and drove off the edge.
“No brake marks, huh?” I asked.
“No brake marks,” said Matt.
Ralph said, “Made it three-quarters of the way across the gorge. You could say he was pretty well crispy-crittered.” I pictured black smoke rising from a battered bucket of KFC.
Matt told a story of a young man who’d jumped two years ago when the water level in the underlying Ottauquechee River was low. The kid’s father had kept demanding to see his son. Until the cops had had to tell him his son was in pieces. Terminal. Velocity.
“Yeah,” Ralph said. “They don’t want anybody writing about that bridge.”
Many remove their shoes before jumping. It’s something of a tradition.
“Definitely a tradition,” Ralph said.
I thought of the different shoes left behind over the years: sneaks, clogs, loafers, sandals, boots, more boots, maybe a pair of flip-flops. I suggested that someone create a museum piece, a glass case with all the shoes of the Quechee jumpers, a small plaque for each with something funny on it--Here Lie Burt’s Timberlands, His Goth Girlfriend Left Him for a Pack of Camels. The joke didn’t go over well.
“Ohh-ayyy!” “You gotta respect the dead!” “That ain’t right, man.”
I pointed out how lightly they’d been treating death, how the first time I joined the chorus, I was being chastised.
RPM grinned. “You gotta know how to do it.”
I said I needed more dark shit.
“I get it, man,” said Matt. “Like with art. There’s over-painting, under-painting. It’s gotta have layers. Same as a story goes.”
I decided to go outside for a smoke. Nearing the door, I said, “You know, in all my time in this place, not one of you fuckers has even asked my name.”
“Well, you’re from Jersey, aintcha?” said RPM.
“Yeah?” I said.
“We’ll just call you Devil—the Jersey Devil. You ain’t a regular ’til you got a nickname.”
Outside, I realized I was wearing my New Jersey Devils hat, backward.
Back in the bar, I brought up The Chicken Story again.
“Ain’t gonna hear that story.”
RPM and Ralph said that a nearby pub, Than Wheeler’s, is a gay bar whose staff kills the pigeons in the Coolidge clock tower and sells them as chicken wings.
“And then they push your stool in!” said RPM.
“You know at some point I’m gonna sort through all this bullshit,” I said, “find out what’s true and what isn’t, right?”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” said Ralph.
I decided to test their bullshit barometers. I said, “You know, the reason I haven’t been in here in a while is ’cause I was locked up in a psych ward.”
RPM and Matt looked concerned. Just a flash.
“Came pretty close to offing myself,” I said.
Ralph said, “Didn’t do a very good job, did ya?” He grabbed Buddy’s leash off the bar, twirled it into a mock-noose, and slid it toward me. Before I could touch it, he pulled it back.
Early evening. The place was filling up. A group of starched young couples walked in, looked around, walked out.
A guy in the corner said, “Must not be swanky enough for ’em.”
RPM smiled at me. “More brats from Dartmouth.” I laughed, asking if he thought they were. “We get lots of that,” he said.
A big guy wearing a big smile came in. RPM said, “Oh—and here’s our resident gay guy!”
The big guy smiled wider and said, “Another day of abuse? Come to The Filly.”
* * *
A pool table stood in the basement of my childhood home. It was a fast table, its green felt having been faded and worn thin by thousands of games played, and usually won, by my older brothers. I kept my first bong hidden inside its frame, a blue two-footer with a sticker of Jerry Garcia on its side. I had sex with my first girlfriend on that table, a strawberry blond with soft brown eyes named Dana. Whenever homework, company, or arguments allowed, I’d retreat to the basement and shoot games of eight ball against imaginary opponents, missing shots on purpose in order to make dramatic comebacks. I always did.
My first memory is of sitting in the center of that table as a toddler, rolling balls against the cushions, watching them skitter around me, occasionally disappearing into a dark pocket, gone forever. My grandfather smiled as I cooed and wondered at the numbers I couldn’t yet understand, the colors I was beginning to. I grew dizzy marveling as they spun, those stripes and solids, those highs and lows. I tried to keep them away from the pockets as best I could. I kept aiming for the cushions.
My grandfather had to lift me from the table and pry a purple ball from my tiny hand. I squirmed and wailed as he carried me upstairs. I didn’t want it to end.
* * *
A month ago my friend Andy was driving me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in White River Junction, Vermont. We passed old New England farms. Green hills rose and fell. White fences lined the meadows. Barns stood red and still. We drove on.