Dead Guys

When I was a kid, I liked to watch 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 you could go to watch dead guys. You had to keep an eye-out for a line outside the church, and then you just had to go and stand in it. So long as you didn’t act goofy, you were congregation. That was the deal.

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 sort a clean-up sort of thing. You got to stick your hand in a bowl of water and then sprinkle it all over your head and your stomach, in a sort a sideways, back and forth, up and down, round and round, sort of motion. No dirty kids in church! That’s the rule. Most people are pretty good at this, but I never was much good at it at all because it takes lots of practice and I never got much practice because the only time I went to church was to watch dead guys.

Once you get inside the church, there’s this little chapel off to the right, where they keep all their dead guys. They always wear lots of lipstick and makeup and stuff because they’re dead. And they got powdered white noses just like Count Dracula laying there in his coffin waiting for you come by so he can jump out at you and suck out all your blood as soon as the sun goes down. The only problem with watching dead guys is that you never get to watch them very long because you always gotta keep up with the line, which always keeps on moving so you gotta keep on moving too, because otherwise everybody’s gonna know you’re up to something and then they kick you out. Gotta use your head!

After you seen your dead guy, the line takes you back into the big part of the church, where, if you want to stay inconspicuous (so you can come back and see dead guys again), you got to sit down on one of those shiny old pew things and pretend you’re listening to this guy up there say his sermon. But there’s tons of old candles around and lots of neat statues and stuff to look at and people getting up and down and doing all kinds of funny things, and then one time this old live guy in a funny collar and a funny black suit goes back into one of the side rooms behind the little altar off to one side of the stage and pretty soon he comes out with an armload of candles, candles, candles. They got candles everywhere!

Down by the river on the North Dakota side of the bridge over to East Grand Forks, in Minnesota, the end of a large culvert still pokes out into the Red River, like it did in the olden days. It is the terminus of the Grand Forks City storm-sewer system. Last time I visited Grand Forks, they had sealed it off, so kids couldn’t get into it. But back in the 1940s, if you were careful, you could ease yourself into the sewer there, without getting much sewage on you, and even if you weren’t very careful you could still get in. A friend and I got in once, and followed it back until it became too dark to see. It didn’t smell so bad, because it was only a storm sewer designed to catch all the rain water and snow-melt coming from the streets above, and gurgling down through those little grates you see built into curbs. Here was a promising situation that called for further investigation. But we didn’t have any light to light up our way. So I started 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 as cool and angelic as little sewer rats can look. We tried to open the big front door, and, sure enough, it wasn’t locked. There being no dead guys around to slow us down, we headed straight for that door behind the altar, where we soon found ourselves in a storage room full of zillions and zillions of candles. No one would miss a few, we decided, 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, thanks to the light of the church. Ever deeper and deeper we worked our way on back into the bowels of the unsuspecting city above. A block at a time. A few blocks back, we came to a junction where three smaller sewer lines joined the main one we had been following, in a huge cylindrical caisson-like room with a myriad of small shafts of light sparkling down from up on high, filling the chamber with a magical light. It was like standing in the nave of a Gothic cathedral and looking upward into the sunlight streaming in through the stained glass rose window of a church. At the very top of the caisson, was a many-perforated disc floating and twinkling in the darkness, like the star over Bethlehem. It was a man hole cover.

In this hallowed place, two little monks from the dark ages built a secret clubhouse to sequester them from the world on high. We scrounged and we scrounged. You could find anything at the nearby dump. All kinds of furniture, even a bed.

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

I’d been hanging around with this guy Al, see. Al was bigger than me and a whole lot tougher. He was so tough all the teachers had to hold him back in school. I liked to impress people, too, and I suppose that’s why I ended up showing Al our secret clubhouse, which was a really dumb thing to do, because once you show people your secrets they’re not secrets anymore. 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 look at it. The kids all said Lucy came through. So one day Al brought her down in the sewer. We had it fixed up all nice, with lots of furniture and candles and stuff, so you could see the sloping bottom of the culvert on your way in, and not have to step in sewage anymore. It was all very beautiful when all lit up, especially after we brought in all that furniture from the dump.

Lucy laid down on the bed and Al started jacking-off. And then he laid down on top of her and started wiggling around. I doubt he was 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. �Don�t get it too hard,� Lucy giggled. So I climbed aboard, and started wiggling around on her. For a few minutes that seemed like hours, even though it was probably only a few seconds. And then I got up and pulled up my pants. Just like Al. Lucy never said a thing. Turned out she was a good egg after all.

Our school principal must have caught wind of what we were doing down in the sewer, because a few days later he kicked me out of Belmont School. I had to go to Roosevelt School for the Sixth Grade. It was a long walk out to the edge of town. The good part of it all was that now I didn�t have to go down into the principal’s office anymore, and listen to him call up my mother and tell her how incorrigible I was. “Incorrigible, incorrigible, incorrigible!” Don’t you just love that word? He used to tell us he was our “princi-pal,” not our “princi-ple,” which I suppose was supposed to mean he was our “pal,” not our “ple.” Except that he was never anybody’s pal at all, as far as I could see. I doubt he even had any pals. And frankly I doubt he had many principles either. He liked to line us all up and make us pull down our pants, and then you could hear him coming on down the line with his great big paddle, going “whack, Whack, WHACK!,” you could hear him coming down the line, getting louder and closer. But it didn�t hurt so much, especially if you yelled and hollered a lot. I just didn’t like the old bugger looking up my ass. I suppose that was his job, but then again how do you ever know anything for sure about weird guys? Thinking back on it all, I think he really was a ple.

�From In Search of a Lost Penny, a memoir-in-progress by Bill Raney.

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