3. Hiding the Pain
It’s not that easy to build a profile of Gary. I can only tell you the one thing he told me, the few things others told me, and the many things I now know by wallowing in this little bit of nostalgia.
Gary told me his name. But he did not tell me about Jane.
Other things I readily knew because they were so self-evident. He loved trucks, carburetors, grease, oil, speed, and drift. He drove fast and while I hung on for dear life he showed me how if he entered a turn in the road too fast, the trick was to keep the car pulling, gradually going even faster, so that it would hold the road.
Others who knew him told me things as well. They told me his mother died when he was seven or eight years old. When he was old enough for crystal memories. When he was old enough for the pain to persist without abatement.
They told me his father was a successful professional. Schooled and universitied to the hilt. And that, from his father there was always pressure for Gary to follow in the same pre-set pattern, and with the sudden death of his mother, that pressure only increased. But Gary hated school and walked out of there in the middle of grade nine or ten. That made him, in every respect, a monstrous disappointment to his father. After all, there is only one rigid interpretation of success in this world, and that is education. And so, because of this, their relationship was thin and fragile. There was no nurturing in it and separation from each other was more preferable for both of them, than togetherness.
Gary had few friends. The one very close friendship he had struck me as very odd. He was incredibly fond of an old woman working as a cook at the gas station restaurant. She was crippled and walked with a heavy limp. She was hard of face and short on temper. But when Gary walked in, she scurried to him as if he was the most important person in her life. If he was pale, she checked his temperature with her cheek. She examined his hands for scratches or cuts. If there were any, they were immediately bandaged. She looked him up and down, checking his weight. She inquired for an accounting of all that took place since she saw him last. And in that exchange she interjected words of concern and caution about keeping well and safe.
And then, if her boss wasn’t around, she fed him. Generous portions of the best she could find in the restaurant kitchen. Steak, pies, fried chicken, seafood, nothing was too good for Gary. They had an understanding. If the boss was in they had a brief chat and Gary left. If the boss was out, it was old homeweek for Gary. And usually when he left there was extra soup or pie to go. And before he left she always gave him a tender hug with patty-pats on his shoulders and a warm kiss on the forehead.
Rather than seeing this relationship, as something that fulfilled needs Gary had never expressed, I just thought it all very silly. His friend never took very kindly to me, but I can’t say I was overly congenial towards her. When she spoke to me, her voice was always sharp and sassy. I only heard gentleness in it when she spoke to Gary. I thought her an evil old grouch. Two visits were enough for me and I told Gary that if that was where he planned to go, to go alone.
And so later, so much later, only the wisdom that comes from my own life experiences lead me to the realization that Gary’s childhood was an embodiment of pain and loss that he had no escape from. And because he was motherless, he was in sore need of the kindness that came from that old woman. But still, at the time, none of it made the least sense to me. Not with Gary’s permanent happy face and prevalent philosophy that mastery of life is about never revealing the pain.
While the rest of us groom ourselves in our finest clothes and allow ourselves the freedom of expressing disdain, to Gary, it mattered little what he wore as long as he kept all his personal pain sequestered within. And he was an expert at hiding it. Deserving of letters behind his name for the expert he was in this discipline to the fullest degree.
But behind those twinkling eyes and that broad smile there remained concealed, the injuries of motherlessness, and the pain of all the failures he was reminded of so often by his father. And if Jane had caused pain, that too was hidden. That big ol’ smile just went on and on.
Shortly after I met Gary, he bought an old beat-up truck. He stuck his head under the hood and there it stayed for a month or more. Working non-stop to get it into shape. Now he seldom went home. He slept in his truck. Lived in his truck, dining off a roll of sausage and a loaf of bread stashed under the seat. And when the gnawing hunger got too great, he was off to the old hag’s kitchen.
But with the acquisition of that truck, the smile got bigger than ever. I sat on the fender of that truck many long days and found incredible joy in his funny jokes and unbounded enthusiasm.
But yet again, I must remind you that I was too self-centered (as young people are prone to be), to take much interest in Gary’s work, or details of his existence. Nevertheless, and I am guessing now, when the old truck was finally ready to roll, I expect he got a few hauls that left him enough money to squeak a payment and replenish his truck pantry. His clothes remained grease-stained and plenty worn. Occasionally, in private, he’d drown all those sorrows I was so unaware of in a bottle.
But I never knew about those sorrows and never saw the bottle. In all the time I knew him I never saw, or met, the sorrowful boy within even though I spent so much time with him. All I ever saw was a funny boy with a beaming smile, an incredible laugh, and an easy manner that always set me to laughing as well.
It is not quite possible for me to convey to you, the enchantment of the company of someone who is chronically joyful. Whose presence is always uplifting and pleasant. You may shake your head and say that is not possible. But it is and it was.
But though the smile never faltered, some other things did. And I will tell you about that in my next rant...