View Sidebar

A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Our First Apartment

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/3/2024
Occurred: 2/19/1972
Page Views: 4865
Topics: #Autobiography #Palatka #Florida
Playing 'Married' at 20 years old.

In the early '70s, people—especially Mary's 80-year-old father—still had the idea that getting married equaled a stay-at-home wife. And so, when she and I got married, Mary quit her job—one that she enjoyed and was good at, working with blind kids—and we moved into our new apartment on Laurel Street in Palatka, Florida.

The apartment was built above an open (and unused) garage and had just been refurbished according to the landlord, who worked in real estate. It consisted of a bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen, plus a large, second-floor screened-in porch. The front stairs led from the ground up to the porch. The back stairs rose from the garage up into the kitchen.

The floors were carpeted in forest green, which went fairly well with our few pieces of furniture. The main piece was my burnt orange sofa bed, which Mom had bought me a couple years earlier. Next to it was the faux leather-topped phonograph table/record chest I had built in shop class in high school. We got a used dinette set for the kitchen and slept on the foam mattress from the sofa, which we put directly on the bedroom floor. A couple of posters completed the decor.

Except for the bathroom. I had issues with it. I don't know what that room had been before the refurbishing, but now the door, which opened inward, could not open fully because the sink was in the way. It also had a shower stall rather than a tub, a prefab unit that was made of thin sheets of unpainted steel. I decided, since this was to be our home, that we should put our touch on it. But Mary didn't express any preferences, so it wound up being mostly my touch. And thus the Red Bathroom was conceived.

We began by removing the wooden door entirely and replacing it with a sliding vinyl accordion door. We papered the walls with a vinyl covering depicting bright red tropical fish against a pure white background, and covered the outside of the shower stall with the same covering. Putting up wall covering was harder than I'd thought; I was unable to get out all the air bubbles so there were a few little bulges here and there.

I then painted the inside of the shower stall a bright, pure, Crayola red. A daringly clear plastic shower curtain completed the job. Overall, it didn't look bad except the rest of the apartment was so muted that visitors, if they saw the bathroom, later could remember nothing else. And taking showers in the morning was quite a shock. I had thought the bright red color would help a morning bather wake up; but instead it just engendered thoughts of suicide that would linger for the remainder of the day.

Since I was still attending St. John's River Junior College, I was working a part-time job at The Hungry Pelican, a one-off would-be franchise fast food place owned by a fellow named Bob Greene.

When I went to apply for the job, I was unaware that Bob had a variant of Tourette's Syndrome, which manifested as an arm twitch. He invited me into the back room of The Hungry Pelican, where he sat himself on a horizontal refrigerator, one of those old units they used to have to keep bottles of soda pop chilling in water. Back in the sixties, every little grocery store kept one; and since this was before polarized electric plugs, often the units were poorly grounded and would give the unsuspecting customer a ZAP when touched.

So when, as we talked, Bob's hand would drift downward until it touched the surface of the unit, and then snap upward, I thought he was getting little zaps of electricity. The minutes went by and it slowly drove me crazy. Finally, just as he casually asked where I'd gone to high school and I just as casually replied St. Joseph Academy, I blurted out, "Are you being shocked?"

"No," he replied. "I have lots of Catholic friends."

"No, I mean, are you being shocked, sitting on that thing?"

"No, why?" he asked.

Too late, I realized that he must have some sort of twitch. But I was compelled to follow through. "Every time you touch the top of the refrigerator, your arm jerks as if you were being shocked."

"Oh, that…that's nothing." He said it in an embarrassed way. I found out about the Tourette's Syndrome later from a long-time employee who had apparently found a more subtle way to ask about it. I'm the one who wound up being shocked, because he actually hired me anyway.

And soon after, when it was clear my minimum-wage job couldn't possibly pay our rent and car payments, Mary joined me there.

The work was hard, hot and dirty. But it was a fun place, nevertheless. Bob was a nice guy and the other employees were pleasant. And every now and then a world-view-altering customer would come along and push me along a bit further on my understanding of how the world worked. For example, one night I was at the window taking orders and manning the cash register when a guy came along, ordered a hamburger, and gave me a twenty-dollar bill. I put it in the drawer, but before I could make change, he said, "Oh, I have a ten. Here, use this." He then proceeded to ask for change for a five, and to change his mind about his order. I had never heard of a "quick-change artist" and so didn't realize he was one. But I have never responded well to being rushed—and the more someone tries to hurry me, the slower I go. He really tried to hurry me, and acted annoyed and frustrated, I suppose to get me flustered; but other people being annoyed has never really been a concern of mine. The bottom line is, by the time he got really mad and left, I was ahead by the original twenty dollars. I found out later from Bob he was a regular "customer" but he never came by again.

But the salary from the Hungry Pelican wasn't enough, either. So I also got a part-time job at the title assurance company that employed our landlord. It was a fairly boring job, involving looking up land titles from the last two hundred years, checking to see that each time the parcel changed hands, the description of its boundaries was identical. It was mind-numbing work, until I realized that the descriptions, in reality, never changed. So I stopped bothering to actually look them up, and okayed all of them. I realize now that there would have been serious ramifications if any of the property lines I okayed were, in fact, flawed. But, you know what? They were paying a kid minimum wage to do the work they were charging customers thousands of dollars for, so fuck 'em.

I also continued to work a part-time job at the library in the junior college. That consisted mostly of returning books to the shelves in accordance with the Dewey Decimal System. Because I did understand the importance of filing books where they could be found, I did this job very carefully. Besides, filing those books exposed me to the existence of lots of titles of which I would never otherwise have known, such as Twenty Cases Suggestive Of Reincarnation.

At school, my friends became our friends. Especially, these were Mike Tucker, Kim Bartlett and Johanna DeWitt, as well as my music teacher (and head of the music department) George Champion. Kim lived with several other female students who, as a group, adopted Mary. Mike, Kim, Johanna and I had formed a "folk quartet" and sang wherever George could find us gigs. Unfortunately, no money ever changed hands but it was a lot of fun.

I was already familiar with the Spiritualist Camp of Cassadaga, Florida, and it occurred to me to introduce Spiritualism to my mostly Southern Baptist friends. So one day Mary and I and the gang piled in my Valiant and made the ninety-minute drive. Although it was a weekday, they were having a "message service". I had never been to one, so we all filed into the Spiritualist meeting hall, where we were handed paper and pencil to write down our "question", which we then placed with a dollar into a collection basket. Concerned that I couldn't pay the rent on our apartment, I scrawled, "WILL WE BE MOVING SOON?"

The service opened with the Lord's Prayer; then a somewhat flamboyant (yes, I mean my gaydar was beeping) gentleman in a suit came onto the stage, located where an altar would have been in most other churches. He was introduced as a "visiting medium" of some renown, but I don't remember his name. My mind was pretty much taken up by the procedure, with which I was unfamiliar. An usher brought up the collection basket (from which the dollars had been removed) and, one at a time, the medium selected one of the folded "questions" which he held, closed, to his forehead. After a moment, he pointed to someone in the congregation and provided an "answer". He would then open the paper and read the question aloud, asking if that was, in fact, the question asked by the person to whom he'd pointed. It always was the right paper, though sometimes the question on it didn't match his answer. However, in such a case, the person always said, "That's what I really wanted to ask." The medium would then answer the written question as well.

Finally, he took a piece of paper, held it to his forehead, and pointed to me. "You have a sister on the other side," he announced. "She suffocated as a baby."

"I had a baby sister," I admitted. "But she died of crib death."

Kim reached over and poked me, saying in her gravelly stage whisper, "That is suffocation!"

I had never thought of it that way. But the medium continued on. "She's bringing you a baby girl."

My mind was blank. "Huh?"

"Your wife is pregnant," he clarified. Mary's jaw dropped, and I said, "You're kidding!"

"The spirits never kid," was his rather pompous return. He then opened the paper. "You asked, will you be moving soon. Was that your question?"

I nodded, still dumb with surprise.

"You'll be moving to Fort Lauderdale," he said. "That's where the baby will be born."

As we left the church parishioners congratulated us on the coming addition to our family, not realizing that Mary had been taking birth control pills. I good-naturedly accepted their best wishes, but we all had a good laugh over the "rare medium whose performance was so well-done" but who had gotten Mary's non-pregnancy wrong.

"He knew about Dorothy Gene," Mary pointed out, reminding me about my dead sister.

"Well, there was that," I acknowledged. "But we're not moving back to Fort Lauderdale; I've lived there and it's not that great. Besides, what I really wanted to know was, would we be moving into a cheaper place in Palatka."

Mary shrugged. "He knew about Dorothy Gene."

He also, it turned out, knew more than we did about Mary's pregnancy. Unknown to me, Mary "occasionally" forgot to take her birth control pills. She may have gotten pregnant as recently as the day before. (Our first child, Dorothy Elizabeth, was born in Fort Lauderdale, where we moved the following January.)

I was taking mostly music and theatre courses. George, Mike, Kim and Jo were associated with the music classes. Another friend of mine, John, was a theatre student. He was charismatic, and all the girls would get all gooshy around him. He lived in a house with three girls, but they were driving him crazy because they all wanted to have sex with him, to the point he was having trouble getting his homework done. I gave him a key to our house so he'd have a place for some down time.

One day Mary and I offered to drive some of our friends to St. Augustine Beach, about 30 minutes away. We had all piled into our car, when I realized I had forgotten my keys. So I went back into the house via the back stairs. I looked in all the usual places: the kitchen counter, the armrest of my burnt orange sofa, and finally found them on the floor of the bedroom. I went back through the living room, into the kitchen, down the back stairs and got into the car. Just as I was starting the motor, I heard someone call my name. Looking around outside, I spotted John's face framed by my living room window.

When he met us downstairs, I said, "What a coincidence! You must have just gone up the front stairs as I was going down the back stairs."

"No," John corrected. "I've been napping on your sofa. The girls were fighting again and it gave me a headache."

"You weren't on the sofa a moment ago when I was upstairs?" I challenged.

"You were upstairs?" John was becoming as confused as I. "I've been there. I was asleep."

"I would have seen you if you'd been on the sofa," I insisted.

We stared at each other. I had looked directly at the sofa when I was looking for my keys. The thing was a very bright burnt orange color and dominated the little living room. I couldn't have missed him on it. Yet I knew he wouldn't be lying; there was no reason to.

Finally, John said in quiet wonder, "All I was thinking as I went to sleep was that I wished I was invisible." And with that admission, we could only conclude that this would have to remain a mystery.

John stayed with us more and more frequently in the following days.

By the time we got to the end of the semester, both John and I were considering quitting school for awhile. John had graduated from junior college and wanted a break before continuing for his bachelor's. I was just out of money, and exhausted from working three jobs, plus there was a baby on the way. Plus, I had told my student advisor I wanted to become a "film director" and she had no idea what classes I should take to study for that. (She should have advised me to go to UCLA, but neither she nor I knew that.) So my courses weren't really leading anywhere I wanted to go, and it never occurred to me that a student advisor in an upper-level college—or even another student advisor in my junior college—might be better informed. Plus, the pressure of being (by this time) three weeks behind on my rent was making the whole experience of Palatka distasteful to me.

So I dropped out of junior college and worked every waking hour at the Hungry Pelican, except for when I was at the title assurance company. As mentioned, Mary began working at the Hungry Pelican, too. I was terribly embarrassed that my wife had to work, especially with the baby on its way (though she wasn't yet "showing"). And still I was getting farther and farther behind on our modest rent.

So when John told me that our mutual friend, Jim, whose mother owned a campground in St. Augustine, had told him a trailer there was available for rent, and that the rent was only $7 a week, it seemed to me to be the answer to my prayers. Obviously such a cheap place would not be a mansion, but if we could live there even a month or so, I could use the time to find a better-paying full-time job in St. Augustine (where both my folks and Mary's lived) and then maybe build up some savings and return to school.

Too embarrassed to face my long-suffering landlord, I instead rented a U—Haul trailer and John and Mary and I loaded it with all our stuff, John's and Mary's and mine. I did go by the title assurance company (at a time I was pretty sure the landlord wouldn't be there) and left the key in an envelope with his name on it, above the word, "SORRY". Then, with the trailer hitched to the 1966 Plymouth Valiant, and followed by Mary's GMC Cricket, we made the half-hour drive back to St. Augustine.

Mary had her own car from before we were married. The payments on it, added to my own car payments, were part of my financial burden. But now, with a precipitous drop in rental payments, I hoped I could manage all these responsibilities.

Mary's parents would become quite unpleasant if Mary came to town without visiting them before doing anything else; so she went on to do that while John and I pulled into the campground to claim the $7-a-week trailer.

I'm not sure what I could possibly have expected, but the trailer did not live up to even my already low expectations. It was an ancient aluminum travel trailer, without a toilet, much less a shower. (We would have to use the campground restroom and showers.) It was about 24 feet long, but nevertheless packed a bedroom, kitchen and living room into that space…sort of. The bedroom had a "three-quarters" bed (3/4 of a full, that is), the kitchen had a two-burner stove with no oven, and the living room sofa, where we had expected John to sleep, was not as long as John was tall.

More to the point, however, was the fact that, when we removed the heavy padlock from the door and peered inside, the walls seemed to be moving.

This was Florida, and, according to Jim's mother, the trailer had been vacant for "the required 45 days," whatever that meant. Whoever had lived there previously, had left food on the table. And the cockroaches had gotten out of control. They literally covered the walls and floor, and less aggressive (or more daring) roaches who got pushed onto the ceiling were doing their best to walk there, too, dropping in a steady brown drizzle.

John and I looked at each other, disconnected the U—Haul trailer from the Valiant, and drove off for some cans of roach-killing fog.

Thus armed, and with our jaws clenched, John and I set off four carefully-placed foggers, ran out and slammed the door.

We then waited for the required two hours as streams of dying roaches crawled from the cracks in the trailer walls, futilely trying to escape the destruction of their world.

Afterwards, John and I thoroughly vacuumed, taking turns emptying out the roach carcasses from the canister into the trash.

The sofa John was supposed to sleep on crunched when I sat on it. We discovered the cushions were packed with roach bodies. The roaches had eaten the foam rubber; then started in on each other. We had to throw the cushions out. In the trailer, Mary and I had our full-size foam rubber mattress from the burnt orange sofa. John and I laid it on top of the 3/4 box spring in the bedroom. (The mattress, like the cushions, had to be disposed of.) It bowed on both sides, but we thought that if we slept close enough together it might hold the three of us.

There was still the stench of the kerosene-based insecticide fog, and a large dark stain on the rug in front of the cushion-less sofa, but there was nothing we could do about either other than to open all the windows in hopes of airing the place out.

About that time, Mary returned from visiting her folks. She was even less enthusiastic about the place than I had been. Especially when she saw the stain on the floor. "Who died there?" she demanded. It was unusual to hear her speak with such conviction.

"Don't be silly," I said. "It's just really, really old."

"What's that smell?"

"There were some roaches, but John and I fogged and they're dead and the smell will clear away soon."

The place still stunk too strongly of bug fog to eat in it, so we had "dinner" at McDonald's. On our return we had to sleep, and the only sleepable surface was the 3/4 full bed with the foam rubber mattress topper. I had to sleep in the supported middle of the full-size foam mattress that was balanced on the bed (to chaperone Mary and John, who had no interest in each other) and I wrapped my arm around Mary to keep her from falling on the floor. John had to put his arm around me, to keep from falling on his side.

It was a long night.

In the morning, John and I set out to find another place to live. I had no clue where to look or how, but John seemed to know about these things. By noon we were able to return to Mary with the good news we had found a place. We found her sitting on the curb with all our belongings boxed on either side of her.

As we left Jim's mother's campground behind, John confessed. "I wasn't going to tell you," he began, which is never a good sign, "but that trailer's previous tenant murdered his wife there with an ax. That stain on the rug was her blood. He was arrested the next day and the trailer couldn't be rented until yesterday because it was a crime scene."

Mary was triumphant. "I knew I saw a body lying on that rug!" It was easy to forget that Mary was very psychic, because she seldom mentioned it. But her instincts were pretty nearly never wrong.

The new place John and I had found was a mobile home in the Breezy Brae Mobile Home park. Yes, it was a mobile home and a sparsely-furnished one at that. But compared to the murder trailer, it was a grand and glorious mansion.

It was a single-wide with two bedrooms and one bathroom, plus the usual kitchen, dinette and living room in the center. Mary and I took the bedroom near the bathroom and John took the one beyond the living room.

We now had a pleasant and safe place to live. The next order of business: getting jobs.

Mary and I had been married two months, and we'd already had three different addresses.