American Buffalo by Melissa Walker

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downtown pawtucket busines street

In the months after 9/11, I was seized by an overwhelming desire to touch base with people who had been important in my past, people I had lost contact with. I’m not sure why connecting with people from my past seemed so urgent. Somehow it just seemed important to find that friend I hadn’t seen since she moved away in fifth grade, my Wisconsin pen pal Sarah, the 4-H leader who taught me to sew, and other people who had drifted out of my life. It was as if I had to reassure myself that no one I had ever loved had been lost in the conflagration of that awful day.

I immediately turned to Google, the new go-to tool for finding anyone and anything. One of the first people I looked for was Bert. He had been my great love in college, that overwhelming passion I could not let go. I had fallen for him hard in my senior year, his sophomore year, and we had an on-again off-again relationship. We flirted in the college post office where he worked, talked on the phone until late at night, sharing our deepest secrets, fears, and desires, and spent a few ardent evenings together. He ran hot, then cold, and I threw myself at him with an intensity I would never risk again. And in the end, it was me who ran away. I couldn’t stand any more on-again, off-again, so I took a job in another state, 900 miles away.

But here I was, fifteen years later, in February 2002, sitting at my office computer Googling Bert’s name. After a few tries, I finally found the right combination of clues: his name, our college, and Maine (the state where his family lived). His face appeared on my computer screen, and I caught my breath. He looked the same, except his hair was entirely gray now. Same blue eyes, same guarded smile, same self-contained expression. The bio said he was working for a special events production company in Boston, producing elaborate shindigs for corporations like big banks and pharmaceutical companies. He had previously worked in Hollywood, doing set decoration and production design on Hollywood films. Now he lived in suburban Boston with his wife and his dog.

Boston. I had lived in Rhode Island for nine years in the 1980s and 90s, only fifty miles away. My in-laws still lived in Massachusetts. I went to Boston regularly.

I bookmarked Bert’s page, and I looked at his photo frequently, but it took me another month to get up my nerve to contact him. Finally on a dreary day in early March when no students were coming for my office hours, I sent him a brief email. Just a “Gee, hi. The Internet is amazing. I was playing around with Google and found you” kind of email. I wrote, “It looks like you’ve carved out the kind of career you’ve always wanted. . . . I’d love to hear how you’re doing. I long ago reached the point where I smile instead of frown when I think of you. You taught me a lot. Best always, Melissa.”

He emailed back within an hour. “I could never forget you,” he wrote. “I have looked for you and found you but I was not sure how you would feel about hearing from me. . . Every time I think of you I smile. . . . I would love to hear from you more. As time goes by I find that you were always the only person ever to challenge me. Best always, Bert.”

Late that afternoon, classes finished, I sent a follow-up email. I told Bert about my life since the day in 1987 when I threw his Christmas present in his face and walked out of his life. I told him about my marriage to a man who announced four months after our wedding that he was abandoning his job at a woodworking firm because he wanted to be a “country music star.” I told him how tedious it became to be expected to be head groupie for a man who fancied himself the next Garth Brooks, about how our marriage broke up because I could never meet his expectation of being both breadwinner and worshipful fan with no identity of my own. I told him about graduate school, my teaching, my remarriage to a man who could accept me for myself. I told Bert about the life my husband and I had built in this small southern town. “Over the years, I’ve thought of you most often on your birthday,” I wrote. “Funny how I remembered that; I’m not particularly good with dates. I’m glad you smile when you think of me. I sometimes feared that you must have thought of me as completely screwed up. . . . It’s nice to know that time has mellowed your memories, too.”

The next afternoon, Bert’s update waited in my in-box. He had married, sold real estate, waited tables, divorced, moved to Maine, and by chance, met a location scout for a film being shot there. One thing led to another, and soon he had carved out a career as a set decorator. He wrote, “I worked on Man Without a Face, Oleanna, American Buffalo, Cider House Rules, and some others.”

I stopped there. I re-read the last sentence. He worked on American Buffalo.

* * *

In the summer of 1995, between my third and final years of graduate school, I worked as a fundraising consultant for a nonprofit agency in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was a part-time job, a temporary gig to help make ends meet while I wrote my dissertation. Pawtucket, the birthplace of the American textile industry, was now a skeleton of an industrial city. Three mornings a week, I made my way through Pawtucket’s rabbit warren of streets lined with boarded up buildings, past shabby tenement buildings with laundry strung from upper floor windows, to the agency offices in an old school building. Each afternoon, Pawtucket’s bizarre system of one-way streets forced me to navigate an alternative path back to my apartment in North Providence. In both directions, my route took me past a familiar building, a run-down, early twentieth-century redbrick edifice with art deco details. It reminded me of the building that housed Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon, intended to house retail space on the ground level and offices for lawyers, insurance agents, and assorted professionals upstairs.

I had spent a little time in that building. When my ex-husband had decided to launch his musical career, he headed to the music store that occupied half of the first floor of the building to buy his first keyboard. There he met Scott, another thirty-something musician wannabe, and the two of them decided to form a band. Soon they recruited a couple of other folks who had their sights set on Nashville, and the four of them rehearsed upstairs where the landlord rented Scott a makeshift, off-the-books apartment carved out of the empty offices. With my husband’s prodding, I occasionally accompanied him to practice. While they rehearsed cover tunes from Travis Tritt or Garth Brooks, I found a corner to sit and read. When I got restless, I prowled the marble-tiled restrooms, the wide terrazzo hallways with glass-fronted doors, their carefully-lettered signs long-faded and their transoms still propped open.

Now, a couple of years after my last visit to that building, it had become a film location. I had read in the Providence Journal that Dustin Hoffman and Michael Corrente were shooting a film version of a David Mamet play called American Buffalo in downtown Pawtucket. Some days, the crews had closed off a lane of traffic, and cops directed cars around big equipment trucks in the street. I routinely drove over power cords snaking across four lanes. I’d crane my neck to see if I could spot Hoffman or Dennis Franz, the other star of the production.

One hot July afternoon as I drove back to North Providence, I glanced over at the film crew and did a double-take. I nearly drove into a pole. A tall, blue-eyed guy standing under the music store awning looked just like Bert. I took my foot off the gas and crept down the street, my heart pounding. It couldn’t be him, I thought. Last I heard Bert was in Tennessee waiting tables and married. Our college friend Tom had told me that. Yes, it had been a few years ago when I heard that update from Tom, but Bert couldn’t be in Rhode Island. That would have just been too perfect a coincidence. I pulled into a Cumberland Farms parking lot and thought for a minute. I grew up with stories of unrequited love and lovers reunited years later programmed into my emotional software. But I had given up on romantic notions of being reunited with Bert years ago. Hadn’t I? I knew seeing him again would be a painful mistake. Wouldn’t it? By this point in my life, I knew a lot about the miscalculations passion could generate.

* * *

I heard bits and pieces of these family love stories from my grandmother over the years, but it was Aunt Laura, my dad’s older sister, who filled in the blanks for me. My aunt and uncle ran Big Springs Grocery, the gas station and general store half a mile from our family farm, and I stocked shelves and tended the register in the summer and after school. Aunt Laura helped me make sense of all the things I didn’t understand about my manipulative, controlling grandmother and the ways she continually disrupted our family. I must have been about twelve when I asked Aunt Laura about Rex. One day, when she and I were having a cup of hot tea and a Little Debbie cake during a lull in business after school, I asked her, “Who is Rex Clendenen?”

“Why do you ask, Sugar?”

“Well, Mamaw was quarreling at Pampaw last night, and he told her she should have married Rex Clendenen instead of him. I’ve heard them mention that guy before when they were fighting. Who was he?”

Aunt Laura explained that Rex Clendenen was my grandmother’s first love. “He was a bad boy, a roughneck whose daddy took up bootlegging back during Prohibition,” Aunt Laura explained. “Granddad Lambert despised him and told your Mamaw that if she kept seeing Rex, he’d cut her off without a cent.”

A customer came in and interrupted us, but when we were alone again, I asked, “What happened to Rex?”

“Well, eventually she did break up with him. She married your Pampaw, who was eight years older. Granddaddy Lambert approved of him. He was a good man, a hard worker, had a steady job in road construction, sober and serious. But I don’t think my mother ever got over Rex Clendenen. As I’ve told you before, she and Pampaw fought like cats and dogs through our whole childhood, and Rex Clendenen was kind of a household name. We all knew that Rex was the man Mother wished she had married, and our daddy knew it, too.”

Of course, I knew about my grandparents’ fighting. They were vicious with each other, even now, well into their sixties. They exchanged cruel words, hurling profanity at each other and slamming things around the house. Aunt Laura told me that when she was young, Mamaw and Pampaw often came to blows, hitting each other as they screamed epithets and accusations. Once, when I was around six, I had been so frightened by their threats to kill each other that I ran to the milk barn to summon my dad to intervene.

“Yes, but what happened to Rex?” I asked Aunt Laura again that afternoon.

“Well, he moved to Detroit for a few years and worked at one of the automobile plants up there. Then when the World War II started and the Aluminum Company of America plant here began hiring again, Rex came home and got on there. He married and had a bunch of kids, and he still lives over on his daddy’s place on Clendenen Road.”

Clendenen Road was less than a mile away. How, I wondered, had my grandmother and Rex stood it, being so close and yet so far apart? Years later, as part of my dissertation research, I conducted an oral history interview with one of my grandmother’s high school classmates. Miss Lee told me that during the 1920s, “Maude used to sneak off in that fancy car her daddy bought her and meet Rex Clendenen down there in the knobs at Marble Hill.” The knobs, a nest of steep hills and narrow valleys barely penetrated by roads, was located just west of our small community. The dead end lanes had long been a favorite parking spot for amorous young couples. Somehow I could not imagine my prudish grandmother, the woman who insisted that kissing on the lips was “unsanitary,” ever going parking with a boy. “Really?” I asked Miss Lee. I must have looked stupefied. She cackled and said, “Yes, and Lord honey, when your great-granddaddy found out, there was hell to pay. That’s when he made Maude transfer to the town high school—trying to get her away from Rex.”

A year or so after my conversation with Aunt Laura in the store, my grandfather was hit by a car; he died of his injuries seven months later. Several men began calling my grandmother on the phone, inviting her to go to lunch or supper. She resolutely put them off. Eventually we all concluded that she was happy in her widowhood and that she would never remarry. Then, when I was in college and my grandmother was in her seventies, Rex Clendenen’s wife died. Within a short time, we learned that he and my grandmother were courting hot and heavy. Soon after, they married.

Mamaw and Rex spent more time enjoying each other’s company than my grandparents ever had. They hopped in Rex’s Chevrolet and drove all over the country—to Key West, Florida, and the American Southwest. They’d go for days without reporting their whereabouts, and we worried about them, because Rex was a terrible driver, but we were also glad they seemed to appreciate each other. When they were home, sometimes they seemed serenely happy, but at other times they fought as ferociously as my grandmother and grandfather.

In the end, Mamaw and Rex’s story did not have a happy ending. In his early eighties, Rex developed Alzheimer’s disease. Their fights became more frequent and more ferocious. Rex displayed the paranoia that often accompanies Alzheimer’s. My grandmother gave my dad all of Rex’s guns and ammunition for safekeeping, then she unplugged the phone to keep Rex from reporting them stolen. She told him he must have forgotten where he stored them. She became more and more afraid of Rex. Finally she called his children and said, “We have to do something about your daddy. I can’t care for him, and I’m afraid he’ll hurt me when he’s having one of his crazy days.” The kids came to get him, and they eventually placed him in an Alzheimer’s facility. They sued my grandmother for his support in spite of the fact that Rex’s pension more than covered his bills. My grandmother filed for divorce. Her lifelong passion was spent. If she grieved for Rex, she did not say so.

* * *

That afternoon in 1995, sitting in that grungy Cumberland Farms parking lot in between rows of dreary tenements, heat shimmering on the pavement, I thought about the story of Mamaw and Rex. I thought about whether I wanted to turn around and go back to see if it was really Bert on that street corner. But I was in a new relationship, and it was going well. My new lover did not play mind games and did not demand worship. I didn’t think it really was Bert in front of the music store, but if it was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to open that can of worms. So I put the car into gear and headed to my apartment.

melissa-walker on hikeMelissa Walker lives and writes in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Voices From the Porch (Main Street Rag, 2013) and Black Earth and Ivory Tower (University of South Carolina Press, 2005). “American Buffalo” was awarded second place in creative nonfiction in the Hub City Writers Project/Emrys writing competition in 2014. In her other life, she is a historian who teaches at Converse College. She is also the author or editor of eight scholarly books–two of them winners of national prizes. She blogs at Diversions and Distractions for the History Lover.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT/Flickr Creative Commons, H.C. Williams.

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