I didn’t know much about Fred, except as a familiar face in the college pub when I first got back to William Paterson College in 1979. I was a decade older than most of the other students, giving me a status on campus half way between student and teacher. Teachers tended to talk to me more as an equal, students tended to confide in me as I was an older brother or a younger parent.
Fred seemed to find my company in the pub a comfort, though at first I did not know why. Despite his being a frat man, he seemed lonely, and perhaps a little confused - which struck me as strange, since the whole point of a fraternity, I thought, was to provide a kind of companionship to help young men overcome the isolation of college life.
Fraternities - while not completely vanishing in the late 1960s and early 1970s - were making a comeback on campus, one of those early signs of a change in national attitude best reflected a year later with the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Young people began to ache for values left behind in the 1950s, the simplicity of a life shaped by rules and dogma. This generation, a decade after mine, seemed to need institutions to direct their behavior, unable to stand the utter freedom my generation of Woodstock sought. Most of those I encountered on the pathways between buildings or in the classrooms, wanted to think less about their behavior than we did. They wanted to come to school, get their degree then move onto a job, thinking as little about the details as possible, leaving it up to the college or the employer to tell them what to do.
Fred, from our brief conversations, seemed to fit this characteristic as well, which was why he joined the fraternity in the first place.
“My old man belonged,” he said, describing some businessman who had gone to college in the 1950s and apparently instilled his values into his son. “So I figured I had to join.”
But since frat boys tended to clump together - taking over their own tables in the cafeteria or holding frat night drinking parties in the pub - and I rarely saw Fred with anyone, I suspected something had gone wrong with his plans to duplicate his father’s life. Each time I saw him, he sat moody and alone, as if not completely comfortable alone or with his compatriots.
Then, one night when I came in for a beer before my long rush hour drive back to Passaic, I noticed him in one of the booths, several empty pitchers of beer spread across the table in front of him with him pouring from a nearly full one. He wasn’t drunk exactly, although seemed to determined to get that way - with some inner demon keeping the alcohol from erasing his pain.
“You mind if I join you?” I asked, carrying my beer to his booth when almost all the other booths were vacant.
He glanced up, cringing at first, clearly thinking I was someone else, perhaps one of the members of his fraternity. Then, squinting, he recognized me and seemed relieved, motioning for me to take a seat across from him, offering to fill my half-empty glass with beer from his pitcher. I accepted.
“Is something wrong?” I asked, when I had taken a deep sip and let the tension of the day’s classes ease out of me a little. Having started college a decade late, I had made up my mind to finish quickly, taking a heavy schedule that often left me very, very weary by the end of the day.
“What makes you say that?” Fred said so sharply someone might have thought I had accused him of something.
I indicated the empty pitchers. “I’ve never seen you drink so much in so short a sitting,” I said.
Fred snorted out a laugh. “Then you haven’t seen me at the frat house,” he mumbled, then shuddered and shook his head. “No nothing’s wrong, except, I guess, with me.”
“I don’t get you?” I said.
Again, he looked up, this time seeming to study my features. I had seen the same look before during my years working as roadie and sound man for local bands, women - burdened with some trouble - studying me to determine if I was trust worthy enough to confess to. As with the women before, Fred seemed to think so, and laughed.
“No, I guess I’m talking in riddles,” he said, and took a heavy swig on his beer, motioning for another pitcher even though this one was only half empty. “My whole life is a riddle, I think. My old man said college was going to be easy, said that all I had to do was go with the flow of things. He told me `Don’t think about anything, just do what you have to do to graduate.’ Some advice, eh?”
I shrugged. “I’m not one to comment, I tend to think about everything.”
“Me, too,” Fred said. “And old man knows that. He’s always been on me about questioning things, saying that sometimes everything will work out if you don’t study on it so much.”
“And it hasn’t worked out?”
Fred snorted again, took another sip, then shook his head. “No,” he mumbled, “at least not where me and the frat house is concerned. I tried to tell my old man that the first week I got here and I met with the other boys. They just weren’t the kind of guys I was used to hanging out with at high school.
“I’m not sure what it was about them. Maybe they reminded me too much of the cool crowd in high school. I always hung out with the nerds, pocket protector and all. Or maybe the frat was really the nerds I knew from school who had decided they didn’t want to be nerds any more, so they started acting the way the cool kids did, doing all the things cool kids were supposed to do.
“My old man told me to relax. That it was only nerves. But warned me that the fraternity was important for my future career.
“`Those boys will help you later when you need business contacts,’ he said. `When you need a break on a bid for a contract or some other favor, you’ll be able to depend upon a frat boy to help you.’
“That’s how my old man made it,” Fred said. “At night around the dinner table, he was always bragging about who he knew and how those people helped him. I didn’t see him as being all so important, but he thought he was, so I didn’t argue.
“When I felt myself uncomfortable in the frat house I thought it was me, not them. My old man was always yelling about me taking after my mother more than I took after him, blaming me for being `a momma’s boy’ when I really wasn’t. I guess that’s why I stuck it out with the frat. I didn’t want to hear about what a momma’s boy I was when I got back home.
“Then things began to happen, and the boys began to act like jerks, expecting me to act like a jerk, too. I went along with it. I mean, I really did want to fit in. But last night was too much, and I don’t know what to do.”
Fred paused to empty his glass, refill it and draw deeply from the refilled drink.
“Billy is the one I really dislike the most. He’s the one who always has ideas about what we ought to be doing. Most of the others just listen to him and do what he says, even when they all know they shouldn’t. Like last night when he barged into the house asking what the hell we were doing just sitting around. He was already drunk, or at least he stunk of alcohol and cologne, looking and sounding a lot like my old man must have back in the 1950s. He even had a pompadour haircut, you know one of those exaggerated Elvis Presley things that he thought made him look cool, but I thought looked silly.
“Maybe that’s why I couldn’t say no to Billy. He had the same rude manners my old man had, always blurting out what he thought, always getting into something with somebody on campus - generally over insignificant things.
“`What do mean?’ I asked, looking up from my books. We have midterms all next week, tough stuff even for someone like me who was used to studying in high school.
“`I mean sitting here on a Thursday night. You should be out partying.’
“`With what?’ said Louie, a lazy lout who spent day and night living on the couch, one hand wrapped around a beer can, the other inserted into a bag of chips. `Like we got money or girls.’
“This was a sore point with us all. For all my old man’s talk about living a life of plenty once I got into a frat house, sex has been particularly sparse. I guess most of us - being nerds and all in high school - never really got the dating thing down, too shy except when we were together, and even then, most of it was all talk, somebody saying he got it when he really didn’t, the rest of us pretending to believe him so we could say the same thing later.
“This was different with Billy. He never seemed to come up short. We’d see him all over campus with a girl under his arm, and never the same girl twice. The girls liked his style, even though they thought it a little weird. They called him Elvis and liked to watch him swivel his hips when he got drunk.
“Like my old man, Billy seemed determined to get me into the groove of things, and when he saw that I was deep in study, he got mad, telling me to put away the goddamn books and start thinking like a frat man.
“`If you need money, ask. Hell, why not have a party here. It’s cheaper than going over to the pub and -- ‘ he winked at me sly. ` --I know a girl or two who’ll join us.’
“Even as he said it, I got a sinking a feeling, though Louie popped right off his couch with a grin that split his chip-encrusted face. `Girls, really? Just point them out, Billy. I’m more than ready,’ Louie said.
“That’s when Billy pulled his little black book from his pocket, saying he had a whole shit-load or girls to choose from and asked us to point him to a phone, which Louise more than willingly did, asking about what we would do for booze. Billy grinned, pulled out a wad of bills and threw some at me, telling me to go buy a couple of kegs.
“By the time I got back, word of the party had gotten around so that most of our fraternity had come back, panting in expectation at the women Billy promised to deliver. But a little while later, only one girl showed up, and she glanced around the room at us, slowly shaking her head.
“`Look, Billy,’ she said, shaking her head. `I don’t mind doing you a favor, but you said party not a gangbang. If you had a few more girls, I wouldn’t mind so much. But all of these¼’
“`Look, baby,’ Billy said. `I’m not asking you. These are my frat brothers and I promised them a good time. I’m not going to let any bitch disappoint them.’
“That’s when the queer feeling really hit me. My old man had talked like that, too, especially after a few belts in him, always looking back to the days when he and the boys did fun things. For all his talk about how his fraternity brothers had helped him back it later, his life seemed to have ended with graduation and marriage. More than once I’d heard him mumble about how happy he’d been, grumbling - especially after a fight with mom - about `those girls who knew how to make a man happy.’
“`Billy, I think she’s right,’ I said, drawing such a dark look from the other boys I knew I would never live it down, drawing a look a lot darker from Billy.
“`What’s the matter with you, Fred? Ain’t she good enough?’
“`I didn’t say that -- “
“`Good, because you going to be first.’
“I didn’t want to be first or last or anything, but I kept hearing my old man in my head saying `don’t make waves, boy,’ and so I went in the other room with her, and then came out, letting the rest of the boys go in after her, some of them going in more than once, each of them so drunk they couldn’t hear her whimpering after the first round the way I could.
“Later, when it was all over, I called home, trying to talk to my old man about it, trying to explain how I felt, how I couldn’t wash myself enough to ever feel clean again, and his voice on the other end of the line telling me to grow up.
“`Don’t you know this is the best part of your life?’ he kept saying. `Don’t be a momma’s boy all your life.’“