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Before Dementia: Part 1 – The man I met

We met at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1982. Robert was taking a creative writing class at UT-Austin and his professor, David, was fond of his wild, stream-of-consciousness prose that could bounce the reader from the surf in southern California to a conversation with a crocodile at a dance hall. David had invited a handful of his older students to dinner. This was an annual event of his; put a few unfiltered voices at the same table and anything can happen. 

I had just moved to Austin and was rooming with a friend who happened to be enrolled in the same creative writing class. I was invited to tag along since I had nowhere else to go for the holiday. (How different my life would have been had I declined the invitation!)

Robert looked ridiculous

Robert answered the door at David’s place, the party already in swing, burbles of conversation tumbling to the front of the house behind him. He was in character wearing a too-tight, button-down, double-knit polyester, light blue, Western-style shirt stretched taut across his chest, with mother-of-pearl snaps straining, acting like a drawling cowboy, his weight supported on his right leg and his left leg striking a jaunty pose out front.

His body kind of undulated. He was almost floppy. His posturing was not attractive, but he was mesmerizing in a train wreck kind of way. I had one piercing thought as our eyes met and held, “Oh no! I’m going to marry this man!” I cannot explain the connection; it didn’t make sense. (Robert later confessed his behavior was in part induced by a dose of painkiller he had taken following a dental appointment earlier that day.)

Our first date

On our first date, Robert picked me up in his old, dull yellow, Volkswagen station wagon that appeared road worthy enough. The car carried a few dings and rust spots but nothing too egregious. He helped me to the passenger’s seat, which creaked and wheezed out a plume of old car smell as I sat down. While Robert skirted to the driver’s side, I attempted to pull the passenger door shut. It would not latch. The loose plastic paneling of the interior shuddered with my increasingly exuberant attempts to close the door. I was embarrassed.

By the time Robert was seated, I confessed I needed help to shut the door. “Oh, is it doing that again? I’m so sorry. Let me help.” He hopped back to my side of the car and jiggled the hasp on the door in an attempt to better align it with the catch on the frame, but he just could not get the door to latch.

For a few beats, we gazed at each other with uneasy “you go first” anticipation. Robert broke the silence, suggesting we use the seat belt from the back seat to tie the door shut. “I’ll wind the seat belt around the front and back window jambs and loop them together in a loose knot.” Easy enough.

Oh no!

I hopped out of the front seat so Robert could crowbar his way into the back to find the seat belt. With a gentle tug and a grunt, it tore clear of the backseat! Frayed webbing in hand, Robert considered this turn of events and proceeded with the plan anyway. He opened the dusty, side pop-out window in the back. The window fell out of its frame, freely swinging in a casual arc on the side of the car, just barely held to its mount by the pop-out latch.

At this point, I was laughing. This series of events was not planned but it captured something so familiar. Robert owned a shitty, broken-down car. He was like me. Doing the best he could with very few resources. At that point, Robert did the only thing that might salvage the evening. ”If you think that’s funny, watch this.” He turned on the windshield wipers.

The passenger side wiper held a steady arc across the face of the glass. The driver-side wiper, on the other hand, stood up in full salute, stuttering back and forth at a 90-degree angle to the windshield. We had a great time that night.

Our second date

On our second date, Robert shared with me his passion for stand-up comedy. He performed at an open mic at a club in Austin. In one bit, Bucky, his on-stage persona, became a chemistry professor at UT-El Paso. The Prof explained rudiments of elements, compounds, and mixtures in a thick, fast drawl that made it seem a radio wasn’t properly tuned. His words were almost recognizable as English, but not quite.

Bucky punctuated his speech with pointy jabs at the air and impassioned lunges toward his captive “student” audience. Robert reminded me of Andy Kaufman in terms of his style…he was the character; he wasn’t telling jokes per se, but he was hilarious.

I wish I could say a star was born, but stand-up is not as generous as that. Still watching Robert on stage, I thought, “That doesn’t look too hard. I bet I could do that.” We spent the next few years, during the height of the club comedy scene in the 1980s, pursuing our shared passion for performance. Robert was funny. He never broke through, but he never stopped trying. I have reams and reams of his writing stored in a closet.

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