Mario Guerrero, 1979November 29, 2006
I don’t have a 1979 Mario Guerrero card. To address this gap, I’ve decided to insert a painting my wife and I just received as a wedding present from the painter, a family friend named Barbara who also happened to be my guidance counselor when I was in grade school. My most memorable moment of her as my guidance counselor occurred in the Mario Guerreroless year of 1979, when she plucked me and the other older kids out of my multiage class and walked us down to Mr. Stewart’s big sixth grade class of regular kids, then took all the multiage girls and Mr. Stewart girls with her while all the boys stayed and watched a movie about how hair was soon going to start exploding out of our bodies in unusual places. Mr. Stewart flicked on the lights when it was over and asked if there were any questions. We all just sat there blinking.
This is not to say that I associate that troubling, confusing day with Barbara. Actually, when I think of the liveliest times in the house I grew up in, parties in which the house filled up with my parents’ longhaired back-to-the-land friends, I usually think first of Barbara’s whooping laughter. She was practically a party unto herself. Her painting is of that house she lit up with her laughter. I don’t think the photo reproduction fully does justice to the painting. It is a beautiful piece of work. It makes me realize that I am often full of shit when I write about the past.
I’ve always been wary of lapsing into nostalgic fantasies of a joyful past that never existed, but the fact is I’ve often leaned on anti-reveries that are every bit as artificial and misleading, the past in my timid hands a succession of ritualistically humiliating failures set in a landscape of rusted car parts and athletic fields riddled with drunken longing and omens of imminent pederasty. I make East Randolph, the town of the house pictured here, into a grimy hollow of bullies and barbed wire and deer carcasses and sighing aging hippies and winters without end and mangy growling Dobermans chained to sagging aluminum trailers. And maybe East Randolph did have all those elements, but it was also, when viewed in a different way, a small, quiet village cradled within rolling green mountains, capable of receiving the tender light seen in this painting.
It’s always been harder for me to remember joy. Maybe this is because joy is something you can’t appreciate, or even name, until it’s fading. In the 1800s, the spectacular nature paintings of the Hudson River School celebrated the American landscape when that landscape was starting to vanish. The painters wanted to remember what had until that point always been taken for granted. My personal moment of seeing the parts of East Randolph that I would miss when they were out of my life came just after I’d been expelled from boarding school. I came home for what would turn out to be my last extended stay–soon the house would be sold and all its less essential but not completely disposable contents, such as my baseball card collection, would be packed into a storage unit. I’d been kicked out with very little time left in my senior year, and after an unsuccessful trip with my mom to the local high school to beg for admittance in time to graduate with the local seniors, the only thing that remained for me in Vermont was to wait for the next administration of the general equivalency diploma (GED) exam in the state capital.
This waiting period benefited from the aftermath of a weekend visit by some of my boarding school buddies. At one point I’d taken them down to the swimming hole that I’d always thought of as dismally small and boring, and one of my friends, a Kenyan-born Muslim kid who had in typically incongruous boarding school fashion been tagged with the nickname of Buddha, planted himself in the middle of the waist-high stream for a long time, glowing buddhistically, ignoring the defunct gravel pit on his right, the car skeleton on his left.
“Man, if I lived in this town,” he finally declared, “I’d be here every day.”
I filled the gnawing absence created by the departure of my friends with the ritual of not just going to the swimming hole every day but staying there until I convinced myself that I was actually hearing and seeing what the Buddha heard and saw. And the trip to the swimming hole was just one element of a larger effort on my part to drink in for the first (and last) time the bucolic splendor of my surroundings. The day I finally took the GED was probably the first day I’d worn shoes in weeks. Too late, my franchise already long eliminated from contention, I’d caught fire as the hippie nature boy the whole move to rural Vermont by my parents had been intended to create.
The test took place in a room in the courthouse building in Montpelier. There was only one other test-taker besides me, a 16-year-old kid hoping to join the air force. He chewed on his lip while we were waiting to get underway.
“Shit, you think there’s gonna be algebra on this fucker?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I don’t remember if there was algebra, but the test in general turned out to be pretty easy. I finished while the air force kid was still laboring away. I went out and stood on the steps of the courthouse, waiting for my mom to pick me up and pretending not to notice the guy on the other side of the steps who was pretending not to notice me.
His name was Mike and he was the son of the man who owned the general store in East Randolph where I bought all my baseball cards. He’d been the Coolest Kid for a while, his charisma peaking in grade school when he was the only local youngster to pepper his speech with the word “whore.” We’d been friends, sort of, in grade school, Mike hanging out with me when there wasn’t anything better to do, luckily for me a fairly frequent occurrence in our small town, but I hadn’t spoken to him in years. The silence between us had grown out of the general silence of victimhood that gradually engulfed all the members of our terrible 7th and 8th grade basketball teams as the losses continued to mount. By 9th grade, Mike had had enough of basketball. I kept playing and losing. We took different classes. Mike probably spent his Friday nights getting wasted and fornicating in cars while I was home watching The Incredible Hulk. If I hadn’t gone away to boarding school for my junior and senior years I probably would have finally had some contact with him again, either buying shitty brown pot from him or handing him the dribbling spout of a beer keg at a cold, drizzly party in the woods.
Anyway, by the time I took my GED test, Mike had become a fat glowering man smoking a cigarette outside a courthouse. I’d heard that he’d been arrested for some drug charge, and probably his presence at the courthouse had something to do with that. I stared down for what seemed like hours at the boarding school in-joke phrases I’d scrawled with a magic marker all over my Converse All-Stars. Finally my mom pulled up.
Her expression was still the weary stone-face she’d worn when she’d picked me up from boarding school the day of my expulsion. On the way home on that earlier day, I’d broken the first of many long, painful silences by saying “I’ll make you proud someday, Mom!” Believe it or not, it sounded even more overwrought and overdramatic at the time than it seems in the retelling, and my mom, who would be saddled for years to come with the large loan she’d taken out to send me to the school, let my bombastic vow hang in the air for a while before replying in a flat monotone, “That’s not the point.” I’d backed off any further pronouncements in the following weeks, but the moment after the GED test seemed to demand at least some sort of stab at ceremonial verbiage. I thought about t
he test itself, and then about the lip-gnawing air force kid, who was probably still flailing away at “the fucker.”
“Well, looks like I’m gonna be the valedictorian of my class,” I said. My mom wasn’t in a big laughing mood, but she did later pass on the line to her friend Barbara, the creator of the painting shown here, and Barbara filled our home for perhaps the last time with whooping laughter.