Dead Guys: An Excerpt from In Search Of A Lost Penny

Excerpted from “In Search of a Lost Penny,” a memoir in progress.
Copyright  2009 by William V. Raney. All Rights Reserved:

WHEN I WAS A KID I LIKED TO SEE DEAD GUYS. Grand Forks, North Dakota, where I was born, was the land of the Lutherans. But there was also a Catholic church down the street, where they kept all the dead guys.  You just got to keep an eye-out for a line outside the church, and then you just go stand in it.  So long as you don’t act goofy, you’re congregation. You got to act all somber and stuff like the guy in front of you, because when you finally get through that big front door, you got to do this complicated clean up sort of thing. First you stick your hand in a bowl of water and then you sprinkle it all over your head and stomach, in a sort of back and forth, up and down, round and round sort of motion. Most people get pretty good at it but I never got much good at it because it takes lots of practice and I never got much practice because the only time I went to church was to see dead guys.

Once you get inside the church, there’s this little chapel off to the right where they keep all the dead guys. They got lots lipstick and makeup and stuff. Because they’re dead. And they got powdered white noses and wigs on, just like Count Dracula laying there in his coffin waiting for the sun to go down so he can jump out at you and suck out all your blood. The only thing about seeing dead guys is that you don’t get to see them very long. Because you got to keep moving in order to keep up with the line. Otherwise they’re gonna know you’re up to something and then they kick you out. Gotta use your head!

After you seen your dead guys, the line takes you back into the big part of the church, where, if you want to be inconspicuous so you can come back and see dead guys again, you got to sit down on one of those shiny old pews and listen to the guy up on the stage say his sermon. But there’s lots of old statues and candles and stuff to look at, and people getting up and down and doing all kinds of things—and then one day this old live guy in a funny collar goes back into one of the side rooms off to the left of the stage and pretty soon he comes back out with an armload of candles.  Candles, candles, candles, they got candles everywhere!

• • •

Down by the river, on the North Dakota side of the bridge over the Red River to East Grand Forks, Minnesota, the end of a big culvert still pokes out into the river today, just like it did in the olden days.  It is the terminus of the Grand Forks City storm sewer system. The last time I was in Grand Forks, they had sealed it off so kids couldn’t get into it anymore. But back in the 1940s, if you were careful, you could ease yourself into the sewer there—and even if you weren’t careful you could still get in.  A friend and I got in once, and followed it back until it got too dark to see. It didn’t smell so bad, it was only a storm sewer built to catch rainwater and snowmelt running down from the gutters at the edges of the streets above, through those little grates you see built into curbs. Here was a promising situation that called for further investigation.  Unfortunately, we had no light to light our wayward way.  Which got me to thinking about all those candles.

One fine day that wasn’t a Sunday, two little sewer rats ambled on down to the Catholic Church, looking cool. There not being any line, we tried to pull open that big front door, and, whadaya know, it wasn’t locked. There being no dead guys around to slow us down, we headed straight for that door behind the altar, and soon found ourselves in a storage room full of candles. No one would ever miss a few. So we each grabbed a box of them and headed back down into the sewer.

Putting up a candle every fifty feet or so, we blasted our way back into the darkness, one block at a time, thanks to the light of the church. Ever deeper and deeper we worked our way into the bowels of the unsuspecting city above. A few blocks back, we came to a junction where three smaller sewer lines joined the main line. At the junction was a huge cylindrical caisson chamber with myriad shafts of light sparkling down from on high, filling the darkness with a magical light. It was like standing at the nave of a gothic cathedral and looking upwards, into sunlight sparkling down through a stained glass window. Up at the very top was a many-perforated disc, floating and twinkling in the twilight, like the star over Bethlehem.  A manhole cover.  In this hallowed place did two little sewer monks build a secret clubhouse. To sequester them from the world on high. We scrounged and we scrounged. You could find anything at the dump, all kinds of furniture, even a bed.

You could say we had sex in our sewer, but why do people say that, anyway?  Once you’ve had your sex, what are you supposed to do with it? Flush it down the toilet, or keep it in the refrigerator so it don’t stink up the house?  What we had in our sewer back then was known as, “Gonna get me a piece of ass!” Which was sometimes shortened to, “Gonna rip me off a piece!” I got me a piece in that sewer, and I may have even lost my virginity too, depending on just how icky and technical you want to get about it.

I’d been hanging around with this guy Al, see. Al was bigger than me and a whole lot tougher. Al was so tough all the teachers had to hold him back in school. I liked to impress people, too, so I showed Al our secret clubhouse, which was a really dumb thing to do, because once you’ve shown people your secrets they’re not your secrets anymore, I discovered, belatedly. Al told me it was a good place to bring girls.

There was this girl in our class named Lucy, see.  She had a bad reputation, or maybe a good reputation, depending on how you like to look at it.  The kids all said Lucy came through. So Al brought her down in the sewer. By then we had it fixed up all nice, with lots of candles and furniture and stuff, and with a lot of old boards we hauled into the sewer so you didn’t have to step in the sewage anymore. It was all very beautiful when all lit up.

So Lucy lays down on the bed and Al starts jacking off. Then Al lies down on top of her and starts wiggling around. He couldn’t have been having much fun, because pretty soon he got all tired. And then it was my turn. I didn’t know what to do, so I started jacking off too, just like Al. “Don’t get it too hard,” Lucy giggled. So I climbed aboard and started wiggling around on her too. Just like Al.  And then I got up, and pulled up my pants. Lucy never said a word. Turned out she was a good egg after all.

Our grade school principal must have caught wind of what was going on down in the sewer, because a few days later he kicked me out of Belmont School and I had to go to Roosevelt School for the Sixth Grade. Roosevelt was a really long walk out to the edge of town. But the good thing was that now I didn’t have to go down in the principal’s office anymore and listen to him call up my mother and tell her how “incorrigible, incorrigible, incorrigible!” I was. Don’t you just love that word?

Our principal used to tell us he was our “princi-pal,” not our “princi-ple,” which, he explained, meant he was our pal, not our ple. But I doubt he had any pals at all. He used to line us all up and make us pull down our pants, and then you would hear him coming, Coming, COMING, on down the line, his big old paddle going whack, Whack, WHACK!  But it didn’t hurt so much, especially if you yelled and hollered a lot. I just didn’t like the guy looking up my butt. Thinking back on it all, I’ll bet he really was a ple!

Excerpted from “In Search of a Lost Penny”, a memoir in progress
Copyright © 2009 William V. Raney.  All rights reserved