How The Young Man became The Pencilneck ©

B y the summer of 1995, I had got moved back to Regina from Calgary and was making myself comfortable at Rod’s, and my scheme of hiring an artist and marketing his artwork with Rod doing the custom framing had borne fruit.

After a painful false start with a local air-headed artist, we landed Tom Boyko, a former animator who worked on “Duck Tales” and “An American Tale” and struck a deal where Tom got the publicity and a royalty on terms that allowed us to manage cash flow during the first crucial months.

Historical records from this era are spotty at best. This photo is from a wedding where things were evidently beginning to take off. Apparently, I’m being stalked by Dracula in the background. He was no doubt deterred by my truly heroic blood alcohol content. There’s a lesson there.

 

It’s one of those great stretches of time where it’s easy to wax nostalgic.

The pangs of the ended relationship with The Colonel had closed over and eventually, Rod booted me off of his couch. I took a small, hep, one-bedroom pad on the south end of Regina on a heavily treed street just behind the mall where Grandpa’s store, Bird Films, was. We finally had the first two prints of Tom’s done, and had begun our little venture, and sales were brisk.

Since my total business and personal expenses were less than $700 a month, I was pouching so much cash that I crinkled when I walked. Maybe not Porsche driving, Armani wearing, Caviar spreading, Champagne guzzling cash, but for a chap with Bohemian tastes, things were sweet.

The previous few months rarely saw me in a restaurant, and if I did go it was “just a soup and keep the crackers coming…” but now, I could do what I wanted; if I wanted to see a movie, I could. If I wanted to order the steak, I did. If I wanted to go to a club, I was there.

 

Around this time, I began dating Pamela (not her real name)

If you lined up the women that I’ve dated, not that I suppose you could, but if you did, the casual bystander would soon ask, “How’s he picking them?” You could say that I’ve tended towards variety in my love life. Tall, short, dark, blonde, athletic, dumpy, loud, quiet, hot, cold, smart, bright…and maybe not so bright.

Pam was one of the hotties. She was 25 and a high school teacher of medium height, with feline eyes, long dark hair, a great big flashy smile and lots of honking laughter.

It’s funny how when you get smitten in a new relationship, you take all of the little quirks and oddities of the other person and explain them away or dismiss them offhand.

For instance, it became apparent that Pam seemed a little…ah…‘uninformed’ about a variety of things that most of us take for granted. For instance, if the drain in the sink gets clogged, you take steps to unclog it; you don’t move out of your apartment. If your “better get some gas” light comes on in your car, you go fill up so you don’t run out during rush hour traffic. If the pot of potatoes boils over you turn down the heat, you don’t “just let the extra boil away”.  And if, while boiling away all the extra in a pot of potatoes, the smoke alarm goes off, you don’t shriek in panic and call the fire department, convinced of your imminent death because “the building must be on fire because the thingy went off!”, etc.

I chalked that up to nothing more than naivety. She’d only just moved away from home, and hadn’t seen much or done much outside of Regina, so how could she be worldly?

But that didn’t make her dumb… *cough*

 

A month or two into it…

Pam and I were hanging out watching TV at Chez Owen and Pam started talking about the time she had driven to Texas, how it was the biggest adventure she’d had, and how great it all was. She knew that I’d been a few places, and asked me about them.

I confess to a certain something in my character that can’t resist the urge to swank. I had two great old medieval maps of Scandinavia and Europe on the wall, and using them as visual aids I began crowing on about my trip to my trip to Norway, my trip to England with Foo, and my mainland trip to Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, and Belgium.

She cocked her head at me. “Norway!?” She sounded doubtful. It sounded like “You didn’t go to Norway.”

“Yes,” I said, pointing it out on the map, “Remember, I showed you the scar?”

‘Oh…nothing!” She said. This time, it sounded like a slap down, as if to end the conversation.

“Eh?” I said.

“Nothing. Drop it” she said, her attention back on the TV.

This was weird. “Did I say something wrong?”

“It’s nothing; I just didn’t know Norway was by England,” she said.

Hmm. I’d misread her tone. It wasn’t disbelieving…it was defensive.

 

We all have an internal warning system that’s evolved as a survival mechanism.

Some call it intuition, some call it hunches, and it’s supposed to keep us out of trouble. And right now, mine was waving red flags, and the air raid siren was beginning to wail.

I’m sure there are thousands of perfectly intelligent people who’ve just never had reason to solidify in their minds the positions of Norway to England. By itself, it’s not a big deal. In fact, as I’m writing this, I may be a bit iffy on the exact placement of Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, but there was something more ominous at work here. It was as if my radar had instantly sifted through countless conversations and observations, and had now picked up on all of the lapses of diction, poor facts, bad grammar, dumb questions, and belligerence if she was asked for any clarification.

It seems that there were some inconstancies between the image I’d made of Pamela in my mind, and of this new realization.

Uh oh. Now I had to find out.

I smiled, unconvincingly, and walked to the bookcase and pulled down the atlas.

“Here, humor me a bit…find Canada on the map.” I said, trying for a jovial, humorous tone. I opened the atlas to the worldview and spread it on the coffee table.

She leaned forward to look. And look. And look.

Oh no.

And look. And look. I raised an astonished eyebrow. She looked some more. I raised another astonished eyebrow.

“Well…there’s the United States.” She said, incredibly, with a touch of triumph!

I looked expectantly, with my mouth hanging open. She’d just just told me about driving to Texas…she’s got the map.

Egad.

Once upon a time, I got kicked in the stomach while trying to break up a rodeo fight, and this little experiment with Pamela gave me the same sort of sensations.

First, a big whoosh of air comes out, then a nauseous kind of feeling rushes in, you can’t seem to stand up quite straight, and you find yourself wearing a strained smile as you try to convince the bystanders that nothing’s wrong.

Things had gotten way out of hand. This was going to end badly. My little test had gotten to the point of being insulting, and I knew that I didn’t have enough cool to not come off like a complete arse.

“Oh, that’s fine; a-ha-ha, never mind,” I said nonchalantly as I closed the book and put it back.

“Now you’re all mad because you found out I’m stupid!” she complained.

I didn’t quite know what to say…

 

So we watched some uncomfortable television for a while.

I desperately wanted to get another topic going, and before long she spared me the effort.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that” she was pointing at a small drawing of a tiger. “What grade were you in when you drew that!”

I may have been a bit sensitive, but that comment seemed to lack the tactful note.

Apparently, this was where she was going to start taking potshots at me in retaliation for finding out her ‘secret’.

“I did it last Christmas, which made me 25.” I said, with some haughtiness.

“What made you do it?” she said, honestly confused.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever drawn anything, but when you sweat and swear and scrabble on an effort like this, you look upon it as an offspring; a distillation of all of your talents, stubbornness, and experience. And while one doesn’t pander to a fickle public, one appreciates the small adorations of the populace. One fantasizes astonished praise and congratulations, not the wrinkled nose and the curled lip.

However, I admit that in retrospect, my first drawing was pretty coarse.

“I was looking for something to get Grandma for Christmas, and since I’d done nothing but those little jellies for several years, inspiration struck and I whipped off a quick tiger. It turned out so well that I made several limited edition prints to give to everyone that year. It was a big hit.” I said. “Maybe I’ll take it up seriously.”

She let out a chesty horse laugh that could be heard out on the street. When she saw the look on my face, she reined it in a bit. “Oh right; you’re going to be an artist.” She looked at the tiger once more and was off on her laughter again. “You’d better warn Tom! A-HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HAAAAAaaaaaa!!!”

And that was it.

Looking back, it’s fascinating how the most offhanded remark can alter the whole course of your life. The insidious thing is that a good portion of the time, it’s a loved one who drops the bomb; well…maybe not this time, but quite often. How many confidences have been shattered by one knee-jerk comment? How many dreams have fallen to the floor, gutted and torn and left to die due to a careless statement? How many of us toil away at toxic careers because somebody cut us from our life’s work with a thoughtless word?

However, once in a great while, a tactless remark is received as a challenge. It galvanizes. It tempers.

People are always asking me how I became The Pencilneck © and what the deciding factor was, and that was it…spite!

The evening dragged on forever. After I’d suffered through the television she wanted to watch, I took her home. I’d been bubbling all night, and my angers vacillated between being insulted over the hacks at my little drawing effort, and my inability to catch on to her…er…”intellectual gifts.”

 

About a block from her house, I snapped.

“How the hell can you be a teacher and not be able to find Canada on the map?!?!”

“Well, I don’t teach social studies, so I don’t need to know it,” she said, with a flavor of defiance.

“I don’t teach geography either…I mean, how did you get a teaching degree?”

“I got lots of help from the guys that sat around me.”

Nice.

“But didn’t you even watch Sesame Street as a kid?” I asked.

“No, that’s just stupid.”

I fizzed some more. She considered herself too highbrow for Sesame Street?!

Seriously, this stuff was GOLD!

“I mean…but…aren’t you curious about…anything?” My voice was uneven.

“What? I live here; I don’t need to know anything about it.” She said, and smugly, as if that won her the debate.

What else is there to say? I dropped her off, and declined the invitation.

 

At that time, Earl’s was one of The Hip Places in Regina…

and Rod and I lunched there several times a week, and eventually, we crossed that line and had spent enough bread so that we became ‘Members’.

“Bad night with Pam?” Rod asked, piling ingredients into his coffee.

“It was pretty bad.” I said, stirring my own mix. Every time I’m in a low mood and I stir coffee, I’m reminded of a line in a Lawrence Block story where somebody wondered if it was possible to look at coffee stirring and NOT be reflective.

I told him about the fiasco with the maps and the atlas, and of the conversation on the way home.

Rod took a long airy sip on his coffee.

“Was that the best way to handle it?” he asked, with that wince that coffee drinkers give when the first sip is too hot.

“Of course it wasn’t the right way to handle it….when have I ever handled stuff the right way?” I asked, suavely allowing my coffee to cool.

“Have you spoken to her today?”

“Natch. I tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, but she’s not d…, well, of course she’s dumb, but you know what I mean. She picked up on it.” I said.

Rod leapt like a spawning salmon as he knocked his coffee into his lap.

He took a pinch of pants between each thumb and forefinger and tried to pull it from his skin as he launched into that bent over leg-to-leg hopping with the extra wide stance.

The air filled with “hoo’s and haa’s” and flapping and crisp language.

“You know,” I said “I’ve been meaning to ask you about your habit of taking a poke at every cup of coffee on the table. If it’s too hot to drink, how do you figure that it’d feel better dumped onto your lap?”

Rod muttered something I couldn’t quite catch as he began a frantic semaphoring for more napkins. A waitress, Tara, if I remember correctly, appeared with her usual stack and Rod gushed apologies as she leaned across the table to sop up.

 

He ordered water and took a hesitant gulp of his remaining coffee.

“So what are you going to do?” he asked as I began constructing an embankment out of sugar packets.

“What does it look like I’m doing? You don’t think that I’m just going to sit here and get swept away on a raging current of Earl’s Famous Coffee without making a stand do you?” I said.

“Ass. I mean what are you going to do about Pamela?”

“Well…I think we’re done.” I said.

“What’s so wrong with being dumb anyway?” he asked.

“I finally got my teeth into it after I dropped her off last night. Stupidity is one thing, but angry ignorance is different. If she was just plain old ordinary stupid, that is, she just didn’t know very much due to a sheltered life, but had a genuinely curiously happy vibe going on, that’d be great!”

“Plus, look at all of the opportunities you’d have to show her how smart YOU are.” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, a little stung.

“Oh please, that’d be a PERFECT relationship for you…you’d have a captive audience while you gas on and on and on about stuff that NOBODY cares about.”

When you have troubles with your love life and decide to open up to one of The Fellas, you look for sympathy and backslapping, not disparaging remarks about your character.

I got a bit sniffy and replied with a cool dignity. “It comes down to compatibility and respect. I’m cursed with a certain…‘intellectual vanity’ perhaps, but it’s a great big interesting world, and my melon seems to sop up odd unrelated facts…”

“Plus,” he interrupted “you can’t help showing off. Quick: What was the name of Bluebeard’s ship?” he asked.

“If you mean ‘Blackbeard’, it was Queen Anne’s Revenge.”

“See! See what I mean? It can’t be too pleasant always having you say ‘guess what?’ all the time, and ‘did you know that a shark’s liver can be up to a third of it’s bodyweight?’ and ‘did you know that virtually all of South America lies east of Atlanta Georgia?’ I also happen to know firsthand how much your women hate having their grammar corrected too.”

He waved his hand and narrowly missed this coffee, but he made up for it as he brought his hand back and slapped his water sideways.

“Well,” I said, looking for higher ground away from the rising tide of beverage, “I don’t know which conversation we’re having here, but I’ll admit that I do kind of enjoy being a smarter sort of dude.” I gave a dismissive wave of my hand, and didn’t, I’d like to point out, knock anything over.

“Yes you do,” Rod said.

“And while I may not be as smart as I think I am …”

“No, you’re not.”

“There seems to be a pretty big gap between Pam’s and my…er…level of…uh…worldliness”

“Yup.” He was giving an energetic wave for more napkins.

“I think I could handle it if she was curious about stuff, but she’s not, she’s belligerent. If she doesn’t understand something, she attacks it ‘that’s just stupid’. And it doesn’t stop there; it’s a constant stream of irritable questions. ‘Why are you reading that? Why are you watching that? This music is just stupid.’ It’s as if her whole existence revolves around her car, her job, her hairdo, how many times she got up to go pee during the night, and there’s no room in there for anything else. I can dig that she hasn’t done very much, but I can’t stand the way everything else gets mocked and ridiculed.” I took an angry sip.

“It’s tough to be in a relationship with someone that you don’t respect,” Rod said as he wrung out his shirttails.

“Yes! That’s exactly right! As much as I appreciate her more …ah…intrinsic…no, wait…her…”

Rod stopped bailing and waggled a roguish eyebrow.

“Uh-uh, it’s still not worth it. No matter how the jammies drop…er…not that they have, of course.”

“Of course.” Rod wrung out a contemplative mop. “How’d she get to be a teacher?” he asked.

“I have no freaking idea, but it just goes to show how teachers are like cops: the good ones are fantastic, but the bad ones are a complete disaster, and the unions are strong enough to ensure that we have lots of both kinds because it’s almost impossible to dig out the incompetent ones,” I said.

A cautious waitress wearing galoshes and a raincoat waded in and took our order.

“If that’s the way you feel about Pam, then rip the band-aid off and end it, because you’ll just stew and pick over every little thing that she says and does and you’ll both be miserable. So get out before A) it gets ugly, or B) you end up one of those rotten old couples who haven’t anything in common, but have been together for so long that they’re just plain old used to being bitter,” he said, as he swung a haymaker at my water glass.

“I know that you can’t stand seeing a cup or a glass loafing around without asserting yourself, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dribble anything down your chin,” I said, whisking my drink out of harm’s way.

“I wouldn’t want to stain my shirt,” he said, looking at me like it was a dumb question.

After we ate, I looked at my reflection in a quiet pond of coffee and saw that yes, the only fair thing was to call it off with Pam. The question becomes how to do it in a way that would leave her dignity together, without creating too much flak for myself.

I decided to do the old standby: I’d be a grumpy old crank and bicker about everything and then pull the pin because it ‘wasn’t working out’. By that point, she’d be thinking about ending it too, and would be relieved that she didn’t have to be The Heavy.

Shouldn’t take any more than a week.

It usually took a while for Rod to dry out enough so that we could leave without too much comment. He had the fortunate knack of dumping water onto the spot he’d soaked with coffee. It probably helped to cool the burns, but it also seemed to lessen the effects of the stain.

We paddled out of the restaurant, and as we were wedging ourselves into Rod’s Vette, I said “Hey, would you mind swinging by The Book and Brier? I’m going to pick up some art supplies.”

“What…more tigers?” Rod laughed.

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