In the winter of 1974, I was living in a tiny bedroom in a house in Port Washington owned by a junior high school teacher named Fred, who had a soft spot for his young female students. (This was at least a year before Ian went crazy.) I’d run away from home a couple of months before, and Fred had agreed to rent me this room, which was only big enough for a single bed and a dresser. It had a slanted ceiling and one window, which seemed huge in that space. I was not quite seventeen, and Geoff—who lived with his mother, but stayed with me most of the time—almost eighteen.
Downstairs, on the sun porch, was a big-boned, red-headed guy in his late twenties with freckles and aviator glasses who screwed at least two women a day—I kid you not. He said his name was Danny Lee, but his mail came to Danny Bonini. When we asked him how he did it—got so many girls—he said he just walked up to women every day and said, “Do you want to have the best time of your life?” Many said yes. Geoff and I both liked to think of Danny as dangerous (a dangerous creep, to be precise), and we made up a whole story around the fact that he had alias.
Upstairs, on our floor, was Rusty, also in his late twenties—ancient, with thinning, long blond hair. I don’t remember what he did for a living, but I do remember that he was quiet and drank himself into a stupor every night. One morning, after a night when his troll-like, drunken mother had come for a visit, I went into the bathroom to pee and discovered pubic hair all over the toilet bowl, a pair of scissors, and blood everywhere. Rusty didn’t come home that night. Then, the next evening, while we were cooking dinner (undoubtedly spaghetti), the back door opened and there he was, lipstick smeared on his mouth and his mother’s little black velvet hat tied onto his head with a bow. (She had called looking for that hat the night before, and when I’d told her it wasn’t there, she’d said I was a nincompoop.) Ashamed at finding us home, he ran down into the basement and didn’t come up until we were asleep.
But that story is not the point of this. Today is Geoff’s birthday. He is fifty-five.
Back in 1974, Geoff pumped gas at a station about a half mile from our house, and his shift started very early every day. Nixon had invoked the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act that winter, and the clocks were turned ahead an extra hour, so it was dark in the mornings (so dark that many more schoolchildren were hit by cars that winter). From our little bed, I’d watch Geoff get dressed in the shadows. He wore a uniform: blue chinos, a matching blue shirt with his name embroidered on the pocket, and a big blue coat with a Mobil emblem on the breast: the flying red horse. Geoff looked like Michaelangelo’s David—no lie—though he never believed me when I told him that.
I have not said explicitly that Geoff was an angel: He was. He wanted to change the world. In those days, he did it partly by being polite and attentive to his customers. I can see him looking into their eyes and smiling when he said hello. I can hear him saying, “Thanks so much!” after he’d handed over their change—a few ones he’d peeled off the giant, greasy roll he kept in his pocket.
Anyway, it snowed a lot that winter, and the gas lines were very long. Every morning I’d lie in bed and look out that big window after I heard him shut the front door behind him. The street was like an empty stage—quiet, dark, and snowy. I could see one streetlamp from my vantage point, and it’s light shone on the snow like a spotlight. I looked forward, every morning, to seeing Geoff come into that spotlight, his shoulders hunched, his hands deep in his pockets. His boots left solitary tracks in the snow.
At night, when he came home, his hands were always black, and he smelled like oil. I still love that smell; it is like the perfume from a faraway dream.