Chapter 17


Photo: Me and Danny on Houston Street. 1981.

Written by Michael Blankenburg

Published September 23, 2013

A Memoir Project Chapter 17: Goodbye, ‘79

Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! hree! Two! One!! HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

We always watched Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve until the lighted ball made its slow and shaky descent into the roaring Times Square crowd, as if it held its own uncertainty about the upcoming year. I, on the other hand, had great hopes for the 80s. For this was the decade when I’d turn 18, graduate high school and maybe even leave small town Kilgore for some other life in a bigger city far, far away. At 14, there was nothing more thrilling than thinking about what the future may hold, where I’d end up, who I might become.

As a way to honor the first New Year’s in our apartment on Houston Street, Mom invented a new tradition—couch writing, a kind of newfangled way (and place) to write resolutions. We peeled off the cushions revealing the smooth cloth surface of the frame underneath and, with a black felt pen, each of us took turns writing something good about the old year and what we hoped for the new. It was Mom’s creative attempt to timestamp the moment. In books, photographs, paintings, whatever, she often laid claim to these objects by writing her name and the date in a dramatic, English-teacher cursive. And with a flourish of the Bic felt pen, she began her apostrophe in the uppermost corner of the couch’s lining: “Hello 1980!! We’re so glad to meet you!!”

When it was my turn, I couldn’t help thinking about all that happened the previous year. Danny had graduated high school that spring and Mom had finally left Gibson’s Department Store for a sales position at Skeeter, a bass boat company whose recent expansion included moving its manufacturing plant to Kilgore. She thrived in her new role. Wheeling and dealing with flirty, big-shot pro anglers. Working the seasonal Boat Shows where she proudly donned the company’s red and black monogrammed polo shirts. Her new salary had prompted our leaving—for the second time—Tanglewood’s now worn and stained shag carpet, chipped and faded wood paneling and loose railings that creaked with the simplest touch of the hand. One Saturday morning we awoke to the throaty grind of a chainsaw and watched incredulously as city workers cut down the one and only tree that had canopied our corner lot, leaving behind a stark barrenness that brought Mom to tears.

I thought about Michael D. too. Our spontaneous adventures in fort-building, tree-houses and get-rich-quick schemes. Our wild abandon in the seemingly mundane. Then a pall came over these memories as I thought about Kevin, a gunshot one January night, and a sea of black that was Michael D.’s funeral. I felt nauseous. What if I had told someone about what Kevin did to me? What if I was somehow a part of a chain of events that ended in Michael D.’s death? I was more than ready to put the year behind me, to start over, to maybe find a new best friend. Gripping the black felt pen in hand I wrote in blocky all caps: “GOODBYE ‘79!!!”

Our location on Houston Street was a brand new set of five single-story duplexes right across from Kilgore Heights Elementary, where Kathy Higginbotham had gleefully announced seven years earlier, “He peed, he peed. Everybody Michael peed!” all throughout the playground. The move to our new duplex was also a strategic one. It was practically a part of the Kilgore Junior College campus which meant easy access for Danny when he began taking classes in the fall. And since the world-famous Kilgore College Rangerettes’ dorm was nearby, there’d be a parade of teenaged and twenty-something guys lining up with lawn chairs on the blocks behind us with their vodka-spiked Sonic slushes waiting to catch a glimpse of the bare-legged beauties as they marched their way from the gymnasium back to the dorm. Though she wasn’t a Rangerette, Danny ended up dating Debbie Birdsong, the feature twirler for the KJC marching band. He even took her to a Heart concert in Tyler and enjoyed her popularity and its vaunting him to new social heights (feature twirlers being the next best thing to a Rangerette or cheerleader).

I didn’t keep in contact with the Ewells after Michael D.’s death. Though I did see Mr. Ewells on occasion. From a distance. His machine shop sat near the railroad tracks that marked the edge of downtown and the beginning of the industrial neighborhood, where more temporary buildings cropped up, portables and trailers with homemade signs telling what business operated there and what specials they were running. The high school was located just across those tracks and for years, whether by school bus or carpool with friends, I’d ride by the forlorn shop and get a sinking feeling. Sometimes I’d see Mr. Ewells out front talking to another mechanic or just standing alone in the parking lot smoking a cigarette, looking small and hopeless, his eyes staring off into the distance just as lost as his wife’s had always been.

I only saw Kevin once. Years later I was home visiting from college and on my way to Nan and Pap’s when, out of the dusky shadows of twilight, there emerged a tiny figure on the road’s distant horizon. It swayed side to side along the shoulder until the image came into focus. It was someone on a bike. As I approached the biker and moved around to pass him on the left, there was a split second when we were traveling the exact same speed. Then the instant of recognition as our heads turned toward one another and I saw his face. The shoulder-length greasy hair. The gray teeth as he flashed a sinister smile, those wild black eyes boring holes through me and looking like Charles Manson. He pedaled faster in a vain attempt to keep up with the car. But I accelerated well past the speed limit and watched his figure diminish in the rearview mirror until he was just a speck of black shadow being swallowed by the advancing dusk. A cold chill ran down the back of my neck and I gave a quick shake of the head to erase the phantom image.

Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one… HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Mom locked arms with Danny and me while singing “Auld Lang Syne” as we watched the Times Square revelers with their noisemakers, confetti, and party hats. “1980” flashed across the TV screen in different colors, sizes and fonts. Mom’s hors d’oeuvre tray of vienna sausages, olives, carrots, pickles, and celery stuffed with cream cheese sat mostly untouched on the coffee table. And before Danny headed out to meet up with friends, we passed the black felt pen to write our tributes on the couch. Yes, I was glad to leave behind a very dark year. But more importantly, I knew beyond the horizon of this new decade awaited something so palpable, so enticing. I didn’t quite know what it was. But I couldn’t wait.