Over the last year you’ve had a chance to read letters about Louie’s life. He wrote several dozen letters, the last one about when he married the girl of his dreams. There aren’t many stories about his married life with Grace. There’s a reason. It wasn’t an easy life. Louie spent many of his days deep in a bottle of whiskey.
Fortunately for me, my brothers, and all of our children, he came out of that stupor in the late eighties, in time to write his story and share in the joy of his grand children. We loved having Louie back with us. He loved us, enjoyed a good laugh, several stories, and we returned the love.
The decades in between were difficult. I mostly lost touch with him. Judy only met him once or twice, and the experiences left her wondering. My youngest brothers were too little to catch on to what was really happening, but Linn was seventeen when he decided to unwind the wondering. So this kid got on his motor cycle and rode to meet his father.
I’m in awe of my younger brother and his letter, written when he was only seventeen, is the best example of why. I can’t come up with anything more than to throw you into reading Linn’s thoughts from forty years ago.
Note: Spelling, grammar and punctuation errors are from the original.
It was hot that day. The bugs had made it nearly impossible to see through the windshield on my motorcycle. I have spent most of the day dodging the dead rabbits splattered all over the Wyoming highway. Rock Springs was just a few miles ahead and I was very ready to find a motel and a long hot shower.
When I pulled into Rock Springs the first thing I noticed was the abundance of trailer courts. There were so numerous that it seemed nearly three-fourths of the town’s population lived in mobile homes. I hadn’t connected anything with this until a half hour later and a half dozen motels with no vacancy signs hung out. Then it hit me that Rock Springs is America’s boom town of the 1970’s. Several large corporations had begun operations there. I believe mostly involving refining shale oil. Anyway, there wasn’t a vacancy anywhere in Rock Springs, so after another half hour search, I again pointed my Honda toward Utah.
Another fifty miles and an hour and a half later I pulled into Little America, Wyoming. About five miles out of Rock Springs my bike decided it didn’t want to go any farther. After a half hour of cussing, kicks, and generalized playing around, it decided to go. Little America is a town unto itself, with a post office, a huge restaurant, a gas station with something like 50 pumps, 200 motel rooms, and uncountable billboards breaking up the monotony of the Wyoming prairie for hundreds of miles in any direction. The whole thing, and two others just like it is owned by one corporation. Little America, Inc., of course.
After standing in line for 15 minutes I reached the lobby desk only to find that the smallest room available was a suite with three queen-sized beds for around $40.00 a night. Since I was just a student with limited funds planning to spend less than three times that for my entire trip, I declined and headed for the restaurant. A coke and a Reuben sent me heading west again and into the Wyoming mountains.
When I reached Evanston it was already 10:30 in the evening, and getting much too cold for riding a motorcycle. I pulled up to the first motel I saw, and let out a huge sigh of relief when the desk clerk said she had a vacancy. I wasn’t long before I was stretched out on a clean new queen-sized bed, feeling squeaky clean from my shower in the tiled and marbled bath. With a pepsi and a bucket of ice and Johnny on the color TV, I felt pretty good.
The mountains in Utah are absolutely beautiful in late august. I had left Evanston about 10:00 AM and Wyoming about five minutes later. There are very few trees on these rough, rolling hills. But an incredibly wonderful mural of oranges and yellows made up for any lack of the Aspens and Pines I am used to in the Colorado rockies. The bushes which were the source of all this color covered the slopes like a deep pile carpet.
I pulled off the freeway about thirty miles inside the border to watch [a] flock of Turkey vultures circling over a small town. They were tremendously graceful birds in the air, coasting in giant lazy circles over some object of interest, probably the town dump.
The town, the vultures, and I were all in a lush green valley about 10 miles wide. It was a beautiful change from the stark grey plains of Wyoming. The mountains rose up on all sides and looking out over the valley at them was like a scene from Dr. Shivago. I bought some gas and headed for Ogden and my father.
I pulled into Ogden at about noon and drove into the center of town.
Ogden is a small city unusual in only a few respects. It is set so close to the mountains bordering the salt flats that one feels he only has to stretch out his arms to touch them. It has more Mormons than anywhere in the world except Salt Lake. And I didn’t meet one friendly person there – in any part of town.
The part I was going to was just west of the downtown section – on twenty fourth street. It was a section of little old bars, big old hotels and sexy little girls known as hookers. Nearly every town has such a section. They are mostly known as skid row. This is where my dad lives.
I had the address from his mother. The Marion Hotel had three floors, covered half a block, and had perhaps two hundred rooms. There was a lunch bar, a bar, and a color TV, all just off the lobby. The building seemed to be about World War One vintage, and the tile, not carpet, in the lobby looked like the original. What was left of the tile, that is.
Setting my bright orange backpack down, I felt very conspicuous. I was young and fairly well dressed under the circumstances. My attire just didn’t fit into the surroundings. I grinned as best I could and asked the desk clerk if he had a Donald Havelick registered there.
“Jus a minit.” He mumbled.
He started looking through the registration cards looking very much like he didn’t know what he was doing. After a few minutes he turned back to me and said, “Nope, he ain’t here.”
I started to realize that he was quite drunk. Trying to think of what to do next, I started to answer, “Hmm…well thanks…”
“There is a Louis Havelick, though” interrupted the clerk.
That’s him.” I said, thinking that my dad usually went by his middle name, Louis, but always signed with his first.
What’s his room number?”
“Oh. Yeah. “Just a sec,” he sputtered and turn back to the file.
Just then another man in his late forties and somewhat better dressed than the normal around here came in behind the counter looking sober and asked the clerk who I was looking for. When the clerk told him, he looked at me with a look of surprise and said, “Sure, he’s here, in 303 I think.”
“Is he here now?”
“No, I think he’s probably at work right now,” the sober one answered, and adding a question he asked, “Are you his brother?”
I laughed, “No, his son.”
“I’ll be damned,” came the reaction. “Well, he said, “he should be back around five.”
Registering, I watched with fascination as the clerk slowly printed out the card with the hand of a second grade grammar student. Thinking, “That guy is in sad shape,” I toted my pack up to my room on the second floor.
The stairs and the halls actually had carpet. Even though it was worn through to the mat in most places, and too faded to see the design in it in others, it was a carpet.
The steps all creaked.
And so did the floor in the dimly lighted hallway. Dimly lighted means on 30 watt bare bulb every 200 feet. Looking at the door and the door jamb as I unlocked my room, I thought, “Pretty good, it’s been painted within the last fifteen years.”
Room 214. “Home?” I asked myself, trying to put myself into my father’s place. I couldn’t do it. I had seen pictures of jail cells that looked nicer. The room was about 10 X 10 with a sink, a dresser that looked older than the hotel, a bed with a worn chennile spread and springs that sagged in the middle, making it look as though you would need to be an acrobat to sleep in it. The window looked out on an air shaft and a row of other windows just like it. Beautiful view.
The carpet, which was really a wall-to-wall rug, wasn’t too worn except next to either side of the bed. Here the carpet was rotted through to the cords on which the carpet was sewed and emitted a powerful odor of old vomit. That night I had to sleep with my head at the foot of the bed to get past the smell.
I opened up the window to get some fresh air, but even with the door open, I couldn’t get any circulation through the room. There was a stick on the window sill to prop it open, so I did just that and left the door open, hoping that a breeze would come up.
After unpacking my backpack I sat down to wait and started to read I magazine I had received before I left Denver. After about five minutes I realized that the smell of vomit can effectively inhibit any thought of reading. I decided to take a second look at my room.
In the closet was a collection of bent up hangers that could be useable only through much rebending. Also in the closet was a layer of dust about two years old, two towels that looked like they had been retired from my old high school locker room, and a bottle cap looking suspiciously new. The walls were bare and dirty with a tiny mirror above the sink. The toilet was down the hall.
I felt the urge to investigate. The men’s room was about half the size of the average closet. It was just wide enough to accommodate the commode, but no wider. When sitting on it you could lean on the wall on either side. It was long enough to stand in front of the stool, with six inches to spare. The walls consisted of painted board through which cracks admitted views of the hall, the women’s rest room, and a janitor’s closet. The hinge on the cover of the commode was broken, but workable. Considering the location, I expected a lot of graffitee to entertain me during my stay here, but even though the paint was as old as the rest of the place, not one word of wisdom adorned these walls. I was disappointed and went down to the lobby.
After spending a quarter on a Pepsi I saw a small rack of well-worn paperbacks in a corner of the lobby. Noting one of my favorite books I picked it up and sat down on a stiff vinyl-covered couch up against one wall. Across from me were a row of vending machines and a grey-haired man who looked to be in his sixties. Even though the temperature was quite comfortable he wore a threadbare overcoat and a paper sack with a bottle in his left hand. He was staring at the wall a few feet down from me, breaking his vigil only to closely examine every person that walked by or to spit into the ashtray next to him. I never saw him take a drink from his bottle. Somehow I had lost my appetite for the novel, so I returned it to the rack and started for another corner and the television.
Walking past the desk I said hello to the sober desk clerk. He inquired as to whether I had found my dad yet.
“Not yet,” I answered.
“He should be back any minute now,” he said reassuringly.
“Thanks.” I replied and sat down on the only empty chair near the television. The chair was another vinyl-covered one, except this had an option the one I had just left lacked. The vinyl had a large slit in it from the front of the chair to back. Being quite skinny, I had a certain amount of apprehension towards sitting on it. Feeling quite courageous, I sat down and was relived to find that it didn’t swallow me. A few feet away a man in an old cloth jacket and torn blue jeans lay sleeping soundly on a couch. Every few minutes he would belch loudly in his sleep, interrupting briefly the football spectacular.
Soon I realized that it had been a long afternoon since I had last eaten. I waked into the little lunch bar across from the desk. There next to the cash register was my father flirting with the waitress. Smiling, I thought, “That’s my dad.” He was wearing a pair of huge stained work boots, fourth-hand blue jeans, and an old flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows. He looked ten year older than he had looked when I last saw him two years earlier.
Since my trip was a surprise, he was not expecting me. Feeling quite devious, I nonchalantly strolled over to within about five feet of him, and stopped, waiting. I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to say, so I just stood there grinning. He glanced toward me a couple of times out of the corner of his eye with a puzzled look on his face, and after about thirty seconds turned towards me. Then his eyes grew wide and he bellowed, “Jesus Christ! Its my son!” We hugged each other, shook hands, laughing, talking. “How did you get here?”
“Rode my motorcycle.”
“All the way from Denver!?” he asked, proud of me.
“Sure, it isn’t that far,” I replied, as it didn’t seem that stupendous a feat to me.
“Damn, that is really something,” he declared, “you coming clear out here to see me.
I just smiled.
Here I must explain that everything was described with every expletive imaginable. Despite myself, I found it quite infectious, and had to watch myself carefully after my return to Denver. Anyway, to avoid endless repetition of obscenities, I’m taking the liberty of leaving them to your imagination from here on. Remember, though, that nearly everyone went to extremes to get their point across.[Emphasis in the original.]
Soon we were in the hotel bar and I was being introduced to everyone present. Here I met ‘Little Louie.’ (My dad’s nickname was ‘Big Louie.’) Little Louie was a short, likeable Puerto Rican man whose livelihood was that of a professional bum. He had spent much of the past ten years exploring the country from the vantage point of and was proud of seeing everything between Seattle and Miami.
We discussed the merits of wine and whiskey, the brutality of railroad cops, and billiards. I found myself in a game against my dad, who would make Minnesota Fats concentrate, and was soundly beaten. I was not at all surprised to see him win three games and three beers playing against various patrons in the bar.
Between games, my father and Little Louie discussed something as I was involved in a conversation with the bartender. A few dollars changed hands and Little Louie left.
In perhaps a quarter hour he returned with a couple of bottles and was obviously quite excited. We listened as he explained, “These two guys followed me to the store and waited outside when I went in. I’m sure they were going to roll me.”
“Did you know either of them?” inquired Big Louie, concerned.
He knew one of the, and continued with his heavy accent, “Before I went out, I palmed this.” He showed us a four inch switchblade knife. “I flashed it out at them and told ‘em to ‘F— off’, and they really disappeared,” he said, extremely proud of himself.
My dad, pouring bourbon into his beer from one of the bottles Little Louie had gallantly acquired, said, “Louie, you are going to get yourself killed with that thing.”
Soon after that the old man and I left to go find something more of a decent meal than we could get in the lunch bar of the hotel. By this time the old man was quite drunk and was getting very loud.
The street was old with the sidewalks broken every few feet and the brick walls of the buildings were faded and cracked. A good deal of activity was obvious along the erratically lighted road. In striking contrast to the decrepit alcoholics and winos (I had been informed of a very important difference by my father – winos were bums) were the young and flashy pimps and hookers lining the doorways. I brightened up along with the view as any change from the dull mixture of grays was welcome after that evening. Seeing this, Louie proclaimed loudly and drunkenly, “We’ll have to set you up later but we’ve got to get you some food right now.”
Since he was broke, and I could get more than my share free of charge in Denver, I kept my mouth shut. Somehow, he didn’t follow the example and began making loud racial insults that carried only too well. I grimaced, knowing nothing better to do, and kept on walking, hoping to get him into a restaurant before we both wound up with our guts in one place and the rest of us elsewhere.
After noticing that we attracted no attention whatsoever, I realized that Louie’s drunken insults must be quite common around here and considered harmless. I certainly hoped that was the case.
We went into a little storefront Japanese-American restaurant with Formica tables and bench-seat booths and two large ceiling fans turning slowly overhead. We sat down in a booth towards the back near the kitchen. Louie didn’t seem to notice the two blue-uniformed cops sitting in the booth directly behind him. In fact, he got louder and more obscene. I must have given him a slightly incredulous look, for he spouted, “Those cops? Hell, they won’t give us any trouble. Fuck ‘em.” True to his word, they didn’t.
Because of the booze, Louie’s stomach wouldn’t let him eat much of his meal, even though I had the impression that he hadn’t eaten in a week. I tore into a nice hamburger steak like it was top sirloin.
Since he had given the waitress a very hard time, I left an extra generous tip for our waitress.
Back at the hotel, when we were climbing the stairs Louie had to stop on nearly every landing to catch his breath. He explained that he had emphasema. On the way up I began to tally up his picture of health. He was smoking two packs of unfiltered cigarettes daily, working as a sandblaster, drinking over a pink of bourbon a day, eating a diet that would make any dietician faint, and working on a fairly advanced case of emphesema. When I started to add all of these together, I muttered “Jesus,” to myself and tried to forget it.
We sat talking in his room until late that night. I saw a man so completely demoralized and hopeless, that he didn’t seem to make an effort to see what might be worth living for. I realized that he wouldn’t die of lung disease or cirrhosis of the liver. My father had died long ago drowning in ten thousand shots of straight bourbon whiskey. The man that had taught me to ride a bicycle, how to live life and spit in your enemie’s eye wasn’t there. His spirit hadn’t been broken by alcohol, it had been crush, pulverized and strewn over the country as if he had been cremated. What I was talking to was a breathing, walking, talking ghost. A hollow paper-mach’e man.
That night I cried myself to sleep, for the first time since I was a kid, mourning the death of my father.
Eight a.m. A loud, persistant knocking at the door. I jump up, attired only in my BVD’s, ignoring my glasses without which I was nearly blind. Squinting to see who is there, I open the door. Flash!
As my eyes return to normal I see that Louie is standing in the hall holding a small instamatic camera and grinning widely.
I groaned and turned back into the room to find some clothes and my all important spectacles.
Starting to grin as I put on my pants thinking of what that photo will look like, I only half heard Louie say, “I’m going down to the lunch bar, come on down when you’re ready.”
“O.k. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
Five minutes later I locked my room and headed for the john. When I opened the door, I both saw and smelled that I had complained too soon about the lack of graffitee here. Sometime during the night a very drunk wino with bowel problems had visited the establishment and obviously had problems finding the commode. I decided I could wait and closed the door. Heading for the lobby, I reflected, “Lousy entertainment director here.”
Since I didn’t bother to explain, Louie couldn’t understand why I didn’t want something solid for breakfast instead of just coffee.
Leaving the hotel, we walked across the street to a row of apartments that were in such condition as to make me look on the door for condemnation notices. I didn’t see any and played a couple of minutes with the friendly yellow puppy of obvious international heritage in the weed and gravel yard. Louie said that there was someone he wanted me to meet and we went up to the last apartment in the row. A tiny oriental woman in her late sixties opened the door and gave us a big grin. She invited up in with a cacophony of some mixture of an oriental language plus English of which I caught only one or two words.
Her apartment consisted of two musty rooms and an incredible assortment of junk. Louie said that she wanted us to fix her clock after introducing her as Mamma-San. Great. I could see three clocks from where I stood. She led us to one in her back room and we spent about thirty seconds examining the timepiece before I saw that the cord was not plugged in. She insisted that I take a package of cigarettes before I left as payment for fixing the clock. Louie explained that she would be disappointed if I turned them down.
We walked down a few doors to Ed’s apartment to see if he would let me park his bike in his yard. Ed was the neighborhood bootlegger and a quite friendly fellow. He agreed and said it would be very safe, as every time anything moved, the dog sounded off loud enough to wake the whole neighborhood.
Louie had taken the day off so we headed for the mountains with one of his friends in a battered volkswagen. The drive was beautiful except that, with the help of a pint, by noon Louie had passed out in the back seat curled up in a position that would have given an Indian yoga expert trouble.
Late that afternoon back at the hotel, I learned that the work of the mystery artist still adorned the communal commode. I started packing.
When I went back to pick up my motorcycle the next morning I talked to Ed and found that he had gotten disgusted with the mutt’s barking during the night and shot it. I finished packing.
It was three weeks after I got back to Denver before I had another drink.
Author’s note: About ten years after this story was written, Louie gave up drinking and smoking for good. He lived to the ripe old age of 79, one year older than his father, which amazed Louie. His health problems were many and complex and he barely dodged many close calls in those last 20-30 years.
Once off the booze, Louie became the nicest, sweetest guy around and proved the 17 year-old’s claim that he was already dead quite wrong. Louie continued to have to beat the ladies off with a stick until the day he died.
Linn and Louie became great friends during his last 30 years.
At age 60, Linn has avoided ever becoming more than slightly inebriated ever since the trip to Utah.