Become a Fan
By Mark Phaneuf
Friday, October 26, 2007
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Here is the first chapter of my novel.
hristmas vacation couldn’t end soon enough for Thomas Brautigan. He wasn’t looking forward to term papers or biology labs or any of the other academic requirements that awaited him back at Chandler College, but the sophomore was happy to be getting away from home.
His home-life was like a soap opera, only that all the people in it were a lot less beautiful and he couldn’t change the channel. Yet, while nasty divorce proceedings and a self-destructive sibling surrounded him, nothing ever seemed to happen to Tom himself. Nothing ever happened at school either but at Chandler, he could, at least, have his privacy.
Tom’s parents decided to get a divorce his senior year of high school and they were still divvying up the loot two years later. Tom had to juggle Christmas Day visits to both his parents. He lived with his mom in Annapolis but his dad had moved to Northern Virginia and he had to try not to upset either of them, while each of them jockeyed for position as “Best Parent.”
On New Year’s Eve, Tom, against his better judgment, went to a party with his younger brother Jeff, a senior in high school. Tom spent most of the night keeping an eye on his brother, who was intent on drinking his weight in alcohol.
It was like everyone had conspired to make this the worst holiday ever for Thomas. He even ran into a girl he dated in high school, the red-haired, green-eyed Maureen Flanagan. She was going to Notre Dame; with a name like that, how could she go anywhere else? She told him how she was having the time of her life in South Bend, Indiana, and how she was dating a cornerback for the Fighting Irish. It didn’t look like any flames would be re-ignited with Maureen.
A social life, dating, a girlfriend, these were all things Tom saw all around him or read about in books.
At Chandler, he lived in a house officially called Whistler House, the de facto home of the Delta Chi fraternity. Braut, as he was known around the Delt House, was not a member of the fraternity. His best friend at college, Dan Clemens, was a frat brother, and he got Braut a room in the house. That was another reason Tom wanted to get back to school, to see Clemens again. According to Braut, Dan Clemens was the only other sane person at Chandler. They shared the same sense of humor about the absurdity of life at college. Tom thought it was strange that he didn’t speak to Dan over break but assumed that nothing ever happened in his life, either.
Tom didn’t fit in very well with the brothers of Delta Chi and always felt like an outsider at the Delta House. He lacked the athleticism and braggadocio of most of them. A brooding, contemplative person by nature, his personality didn’t quite mesh with the all-night drinking games and round-robin promiscuity of Delta Chi.
He wore a baseball cap, which was practically standard issue for the preppy horde of Chandler students, but he pulled the bill way down low to cover his blue eyes. Tom was about six-feet tall but had no sort of developed physique, and did not exercise very much, except for late night walks down to the water when he couldn’t sleep or to walk off an alcohol buzz.
Most of his freshman year, along with hanging out with Clemens, Tom spent time hanging out with the creative side of Chandler: the writers, artists, and theater majors. He wasn’t very comfortable in that environment, either. By the end of the first year he had had enough of their angst and black jeans in warm weather, and didn’t want to socialize with the pony-tailed boys and hairy armpit girls anymore. Conversely, the fraternity boys seemed less pretentious but were much more superficial and vacuous than the writers and artists. It was a trade-off with which Braut thought he would be able to live.
Despite what appeared to be the natural laws of a frat house, Tom never dated his first semester, sophomore year (the Fall of ‘91). All the sorority girls who almost lived at the Delt House didn’t do much for Tom. He knew they all thought Braut was weird and never could figure out what exactly he was doing always hanging around there.
The way the brothers talked about women, like they were inanimate yet fully functional sex-toys, the Orwellian amount of detail they kept in files of all their sexual adventures, and the adoration the girls bestowed on the guys’ loutish behavior, made Tom sick at the very thought of socializing with any of these ladies. He was not only disgusted by the people with whom he lived and their collective lifestyle, but with anyone who came in contact with this group of people. Most of the time he thought he deserved something better.
om got back to school on a Tuesday and classes didn’t start until Thursday. Not many cars were in the parking lot, and there were still piles of plowed snow left over from the storm the week before; record amounts of snowfall came during the last few weeks of December and beginning of the New Year. He drove through the parking lot and backed his car up to the side door of Whistler.
It was still pretty cold, especially with the wind blowing, but they weren’t predicting more snow. It snowed the week before Christmas and then in the first two weeks of January, the Eastern Seaboard was battered by blizzards, and, at one point, dumped about three and a half feet of snow in a little over thirty-six hours.
Tom got his backpack from the front seat and went to open the door. He lived on the ground floor in a suite, which he shared with three other guys, including his buddy, Dan Clemens. Each guy had his own room but they shared a bathroom, refrigerator and common area.
The side door, which was never locked and wasn’t that day, opened up to the common room, which was unnaturally clean. As soon as the semester got going though, the room would return to its normal state of half-filled beer cans and empty pizza boxes. It still had the all-too-familiar smell of stale air, which caused a shiver down Braut’s spine. Even though many of them weren’t exactly fond, he had many memories of the Delt House. Maybe the new semester would be more exciting than the last. That was what Braut was thinking, when he went to unlock his room door and looked down the hallway to see that Clemens’ door was slightly open, with no light on inside.
He was surprised because Dan had a big screen TV that they kept out in the lounge, and since it wasn’t there, Braut assumed Dan wasn’t back at school yet.
“You there, Clemens?” Braut called out. He unlocked his door and threw his backpack on his sheetless bed without turning on the light.
There was no answer.
He walked down the hall and knocked on Dan’s door, hard enough so that it would swing open. The light was on in the hallway and Braut could see into the room. It was empty. And not just of Dan Clemens, but all of his belongings too. The walls were stripped bare and the bed frame was turned up on its side.
Braut couldn’t believe what he saw. He tried to make himself believe that it was some sort of prank, at best, or that Clemens moved to a different room in the house, at worst. But he knew that that wasn’t the case. Nobody moves their stuff like that during winter break unless they’re moving for good. Moving out for good and not coming back to Chandler.
Clemens had been having some academic problems but Braut never believed that his friend wouldn’t be back for the semester. That’s what they have academic probation for, right? Besides, he played baseball and the coach would make sure he was there for the season, right?
Knox and Ronstadt, Braut’s other two suite mates sauntered in to the picture.
“Heard the bad news, eh?” baby-faced Carl Ronstadt observed. The rail-thin Ronstadt was a sharp-dresser and always wore oxford shirts and sweater-vests. “They kicked his drunken ass out. Oh well, got an extra room, though. Maybe a game room, eh?”
“So, he’s gone?” Brautigan asked, feeling like he was a deep-cover agent who just lost his contact with the outside world.
“Outta here.” Billy Knox, a fat and ill-mannered slob, said. “I heard about it from Wormsy.” Wormsy was a fifth year senior who lived upstairs and was always on the verge of graduating. “He (meaning Wormsy) was here over break, trying to get work done on his thesis, and that lazy little shit (meaning Clemens) showed up a day before New Year’s and got all his stuff out. Guess he lost his scholarship or something.”
“Fuck.” Braut said. “I can’t believe it.” He thought to himself: What am I gonna do in this place all by myself?
“Figured he woulda called you. I thought you guys were buds,” commented Knox, as he finished up his beer.
“We’re going up to the outlets. Spend some Christmas money. You wanna come?” Ronstadt asked. Knox went back around the corner to his room.
Braut looked at his watch. Three thirty in the afternoon. “Sure, why not? I can unpack later,” he managed to utter in his disoriented state.
handler College was located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a small, colonial town called Granville, on the shores of the Gran River. There wasn’t much in Granville, except for the College, and that wasn’t much in itself. About a half hour west of Granville there was an outlet mall, where you could often find bargain prices on clothes and stuff. Tom was not a big shopper but they had a book warehouse that he liked to go to. It didn’t seem like they ever had any books he liked but it didn’t hurt to look.
The three of them went into the trendy J. Crew store, which sold sporty clothing. Ronstadt and Knox browsed through corduroy pants and rugby shirts. Braut stayed for a few minutes but knew he was not going to buy any clothes so he told them he was going to go over to the bookstore and would be back in a half-hour.
The bookstore had tables piled up with stacks of marked-down books, divided up in to sections like “Cooking” or “Travel.” Brautigan went right to the “Fiction” table. All they had were popular romance and science fiction novels, which he wasn’t interested in. He turned to the comic book rack to try and get his mind off the fact that Dan Clemens wasn’t going to be around.
How would he spend his time? Who would he hang out with? It was a rough enough place to live when you had someone to make fun of everyone with, someone to keep you sane. All of a sudden, Clemens’ desertion made spring semester look unbearable. All Christmas Break, he couldn’t wait to get back to Chandler College and once he finally made it back, Tom couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
After about twenty minutes of getting himself worked into a depression, while trying to distract himself by reading an Alpha Flight comic book, he went to find the guys.
Knox was still in J Crew. Braut looked around but didn’t see Ronstadt.
“You ready to go?” Braut asked. “Where’s Ronstadt?”
Knox held a jean jacket on a hanger in one hand and with his free one motioned to the dressing room. “He’s trying on some pants. What d’you think of this?” He said referring to the coat.
“It’s nice” Braut answered, not really putting much thought behind his response.
“I like the collar. But it’s seventy bucks. I was gonna get a leather jacket but I really dig this one. Buy anything at the book store?”
Ronstadt walked over to them with some brown corduroys, the wide-whale fashionable kind. “No, I don’t like them. You guys ready to go?”
“Are you getting anything?” asked Braut, surprised that they weren’t buying anything and were ready to leave.
He turned to Knox, “You gonna get that?”
“Nah. I’ll wait and get the leather jacket. It’ll make me look tougher.”
“Were you gonna get a black or brown one?” Ronstadt asked as they left the store.
“Black. I’d get a brown one if it looked like Indiana Jones’ but they never do.”
“Tell me about it” Ronstadt agreed. “Wanna go anywhere else?”
“Fuck no. I’m hungry,” shouted Knox.
Once the car was out of the parking lot and back on the highway, Knox, who was driving, turned to Ronstadt in the passenger seat. “Did you get it?”
“Damn straight!” he howled as he pulled a long sleeve navy blue collar-less shirt out of his pants.
“You stole that?” Brautigan was in shock.
“Of course. Five-fingered discount.” Ronstadt wiggled his fingers with malicious glee.
“We gotta go back soon and get me that jean jacket.”
“No problemo, senor.”
Thomas couldn’t believe what was happening. “I can’t believe you shoplifted.”
“Easy there, boy scout. We do it all the time,” Ronstadt said as he neatly folded the shirt.
“How...how did you do it?”
“I wear spandex under my pants. Why do you think I wear such baggy pants? I stuff the stuff down in the spandex in the dressing room and nobody knows,” explained Ronstadt, who was obviously proud of his technique.
“That’s incredible!” Braut was still in a state of disbelief and felt stupid.
“Hell, that’s nothing. My man once lifted a pair of shoes! A pair of shoes, do you fucking believe that? No one steals shoes. Do you have any fucking clue how hard it is to shoplift shoes, Braut-man?”
“It’s pretty damn hard” Ronstadt replied.
“But it’s illegal” complained the naive Braut.
“So? It’s fun. Besides, nobody cares, Braut. I know you are all moral and everything but, really, it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s all covered by insurance or something,” Knox tried to sound intelligent.
Tom Brautigan slumped down in the back seat and rubbed his temple. He knew Knox and Ronstadt were pretty vapid but he didn’t know they were felons. If they would have been caught, he could have been arrested as an accomplice or something. Tom promised himself that he would never go shopping with them again.
When he got back to campus, Braut didn’t unpack his clothes or set up his computer. He swallowed three extra-strength cold tablets to make him drowsy and went to sleep at 6 p.m.
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