Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Vernon Hardapple

Back when my wife and I were first dating, she introduced me to the film, Wonder Boys. At the time we were still quite amorous and our physical urges kept us from finishing the film . It actually took us three sittings to watch the entire thing. The patience was worth it. Not only is it a compelling dark comedy with the professional writing world as a back drop, it also introduced me to Vernon Hardapple.

For those who have not seen the film, I will toss you a spoiler. Vernon is not Vernon. Rather he is a patron in a neighborhood tavern who, while sitting in a booth minding his own business, becomes a blank canvas in a game of verbal pin the tail on the donkey.

Michael Douglas plays writer Grady Tripp, a university professor who relies on his notoriety as the author of a popular novel published years earlier to keep him relevant to his students. His latest work in progress is at 2,000-plus pages and climbing with no end in sight and his drug use problem leads him to frequent spells of unconsciousness.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tripp's editor Terry Crabtree who is escaping his own lost glory as he is scorned by younger and more successful editors. Self consumed and desperate, he hopes his visit to Tripp's university during it's 'Wordfest' will turn his fortune around, possibly with Tripp's new novel under his arm.

Toby Maguire plays one of Tripp's students, James Leer, who is, well... he just isn't right. He is part literary genius with a gift for writing and part John Hinkley, appearing at the University Chancellor's home packing a pistol which he uses to shoot the Chancellor's dog as it is attacking Tripp. Every question asked of Leer is answered with unique complex narratives, each fit to be the introduction of their own novels.

In a particular scene, Tripp and Crabtree sit in a crowded booth in a neighborhood tavern. Beside them is  an unconscious Leer. Crabtree suggests that he and Tripp play the game, and stare at the unique looking man in the booth across from them. The game involves creating a character background for the unwitting suspect. The first move in the game is to name the character. In this case, the name chosen is Vernon Hardapple (pictured above).

The writing of this scene is brilliant and reveals more about the characters speaking than it does of Vernon. Especially interesting is that Leer, who still has his eyes closed and appears to remain unconscious, adds the most interesting palate of color to the character picture.

As a writer I would love to have this opportunity on a daily basis, to find such a distinct victim for my imagination, but seldom does this type of physical manifestation exist in my world. When it does however, I take notice. My Vernon Hardapple is Vincent Ambrose, and I saw him at McDonalds as I ate a snack with my sons at ten o'clock in the morning after we were done with meet the teacher day.

Vincent sat alone at the end of a long counter shaped table with his back to us. In front of him was a neatly folded newspaper which laid flat on the counter, it's edges aligned to be parallel to the table's edges. A coffee cup rested upright on one corner of the newspaper with the cup's lid placed upside down next to the cup. Vincent wore a clean, pink, short sleeve, button down shirt and khaki pants. The cuff of the pant legs seemed to ride higher than normal on his legs, revealing green socks with grey stripes leading to inexpensive looking black athletic shoes with a white bent line on the side, appearing to mimic the Nike swoosh.

Vincent's legs were spread apart and his knees bounced up and down in rhythm with the Bonnie Raitt song playing on speakers in the ceiling. His greying hair was cut short along the sides with the top cut longer. Where the different lengths met there was a distinct ledge formed around the perimeter of his skull. Vincent's left hand rested on the counter and his head bobbed periodically, a motion needed as he licked the ice cream cone he held in his right hand.

Vincent's look of loneliness belied the abundance of people in his life, most of whom he encountered at the nearby laundromat where he used to work. His father Tony purchased the laundromat thirty-two years ago when he was no longer able to work as a fireman. A drunk driver had run Tony down while he was connecting a hose to a street-side hydrant causing damage to his pelvic bone that prevented him from readily climbing a ladder. After less than eleven years of service in the fire department he was discharged with meager compensation which, along with the profits from the sale of their house, would become the down payment on the laundry building which would become the home for Vincent and his parents.

The thirteen year old Vincent did not like living in the apartment over his father's laundromat. The heat from the dryers in the summer beat back any breeze that might have found its way to his room that overlooked the alley next to the bakery below. The customers were often rude, a situation made worse by his father's diminished self esteem. With the change in domestic environment, Vincent watched as his mother Esther became less affectionate, trading her gentle caring disposition for the greed and desperation of a business owner. Nightly he would help Esther collect the coins from the machines, sorting the nickles, dimes, and quarters into canvas bags. Gone were the simple days of childhood. He still attended school and did homework but playing in the park was replaced with managing a coin laundry along side his parents.

Tony died five years after purchasing the laundromat. At age 18 Vincent found himself taking over for his father, following instructions from his mother, and operating a coin laundry. His entire world centered around the narrow stairway leading from the first floor to the second floor, from his bed to the small counter where he and his mother took in the drop-off laundry customers clothes. He envied the people whose lives were so busy they needed someone else to do their laundry. In Vincent's life, the only thing he had time for was doing laundry. If there was anything he needed help with from someone else it was actually living his life. Vincent never went to College. His mother did not attend his High School graduation. When it was over he laundered his gown and returned it to the school. On the way home he picked up more canvas bags from the bank.

For thirty years Vincent and Esther cleaned lint traps, pressed suits, collected coins, and inhaled detergent dust, all to pay off a mortgage with nickels, dimes, and quarters. Two days after the mortgage was paid off,  so was Esther. She died in her sleep. Vincent had gone down to open the laundromat in the morning and didn't notice until lunchtime that his mother hadn't joined him. Although he suspected she was gone, he didn't close the laundromat to check on her for fear she would be angry they were missing customers. At seven in the evening, after collecting the coins, Vincent climbed the narrow stairs to see his mother. He placed the coin bags at the foot of the bed and sat next to Esther's body. He took her cold hand in his and tried to offer a loving son's touch. He looked at her eye lids which drooped open slightly at the ends, revealing a matte reflection, and he smiled. "You're free, Mamma," Vincent said as he rubbed his hands across his head, feeling the uneven haircut his mother had given him the week previous.

Vincent arranged to have the visitation for Esther in the laundromat. Her coffin was laid out on the counter where she and Vincent had often sat together taking in other people's clothes for cleaning. As the scant number of mourners passed by Esther, they often had to stop to make room for a customer unloading wet clothes from one of the high-capacity washing machines. Vincent knew his mother would have wanted it this way, Thursdays were always very busy and closing the laundromat would have made her upset. At seven o'clock, the undertaker wheeled the coffin out the front door. Vincent remained behind at the counter folding a rush order.

As he delicately creased the shirts and pants he considered his parents' lives and how now at 42 years old, he could finally do whatever he wanted. After pausing a moment, Vincent decided what he wanted to do was fold the clothes. Not long after he was done, there was a tapping at the front door glass. Vincent picked up the two bundles of laundry he just finished ans walked them toward the dark figure on the other side of the door. Placing them in a rolling cart, Vincent unlocked the door and greeted the familiar face. "Sorry I'm late Vincent, is that my order?" the man asked, pointing at the cart. "Yes, I just got them done," Vincent answered without a hint of sadness or mourning in his voice. Picking up the bundles, the man attempted small talk as a way of further apologizing for being late saying, "Anything big happen today?" Vincent stared blankly back at the man and answered, "No... nothing big..." Vincent paused to consider an idea that came to him in the moment and continued, "not yet, anyway."

Vincent locked the front door to the laundromat and retrieved a can of tetrachloroethylene dry cleaning fluid from the back room. He opened it and placed it on the floor, near one of the gas fired dryers by the door that lead to the up stairs apartment. "Give me a hand with this one, Dad," Vincent said as he kicked over the can and entered the stairway. With each step Vincent took up the stairs, more fluid belched out of the can. The vapor was heavy in the air as Vincent went to his room. He looked at the decorations on the walls, old baseball pennants and drawings transplanted from his previous house when he was thirteen. He picked up a picture of him and his parents by his father's old fire engine and clutched it to his chest. "Time to go," Vincent said as the pilot light of the dryer ignited the dense, volatile air of the laundromat. The hungry fire burned the air rapidly and sucked all it could from the apartment above, pulling the curtains of Vincent's room open as if being held aside by two unseen angels.

On the alley pavement below landed Vincent's picture and several articles of clothing. Then Vincent landed alongside. As he stood up he saw his shadow highlighted by a brilliant orange light from behind him. The laundromat was burning. Fire fighters spent the night containing the blaze to protect the adjacent buildings. Vincent watched from the safety of a chair by the back door of the bakery, thinking of his father and mother. By dawn, the fire was reduced to smoke and steam. The apartment floor had collapsed onto the laundry machines below and the bare, scorched brick walls rose up like canyon walls either side. A firefighter approached Vincent carrying two blackened canvas bags. He cleared his throat of inhaled smoke and said, "We found these sir... thought you might need them." Vincent muttered "Thanks." By the shape of the bags he could tell they both contained quarters and the approximate amount was $250.00.

Using a garbage bag borrowed from the bakery staff who had arrived before dawn, Vincent collected his clothes and the picture. Hoisting it over his shoulder, he stood up. He picked up the coin bags and walked down the alley. Twenty minutes later he arrived at the only other laundromat in town with drop-off service where he deposited his bag of clothes to be cleaned. He sat on a bench outside the laundromat with the coin bags next to him, looking at the photograph. He studied the faces of his parents and was warmed by their smiles. He looked at his face, at the happy, thirty two year younger version of himself, at the boy whose adolescence was stolen. A sudden noise broke his concentration. It was the owner of the candy store on the corner opening his shop for the day. The brass bell attached to the coiled spring on the door rang and the door closed. Vincent looked at himself in the picture and longed to have that smile again.

The bell on the door rang again as Vincent walked into the candy shop. He was carrying the two coin bags and the picture. Timidly he said to the aproned man who stood smiling behind the glass lined cooler,  "I think I would... yes, I would like an ice cream please. In fact, I would like two."