Creative Nonfiction Funny

My Name Is Not Shirley

“Houston, we have a problem.”

“Dammit, Junior, stop calling me Houston! Surely you must know by now that drives me nuts.”

“Sorry, Dad, but then you’ve got to stop calling me Shirley.”

Reginald Q. Barnes, a/k/a Reggie, a/k/a Junior, made the Prodigal Son look like a pre-transformation Scrooge. Just two weeks after Dean Seymour’s admonition at matriculation that “your business here is learning”, Junior had set his own course- consume inordinate amounts of alcohol and lay as many bets and women as possible. Houston, a/k/a Mr. Harold Barnes, a/k/a Dad unwittingly financed the entire operation.

“Dad, you know how I hate asking you for money…”

“Aah! The only time you ever call me is when you need money! What did you do with the money I sent you a couple of weeks ago?”

“Books, fees, parking, gas, a couple of coffees at the union at night. Ok, I admit it. I went out for a couple of beers with the guys one night. You remember how stressful college can be. A guy has to take a break once in a while.”

Junior had been to Smith, UMass, and the horse racetrack at Saratoga Springs on successive weekends. He spent three days in New York City with his roommate and had to be carried back to his dorm after the last fraternity chapter meeting. He set a school record for monetary losses incurred in dorm card games and had a streak of bad luck worthy of the Guinness Book with a Boston bookie. Since his arrival on campus, Junior was tagged with a few additional well-earned monikers- “Flash”,” Dr. Nocturnal”, and “Buzzed”.

Mr. Barnes loved his son. Ever since the divorce, when Junior was just ten, he overcompensated in a competition with his ex-wife to win his son’s favor. It’s tough to “un-spoil” a kid.

“No, I understand, Junior. All work and no play make Junior a dull boy. I remember those days, had a little fun myself in college, Junior, ha, ha, ha. How much do you need?”

Harold Barnes, the human version of an ATM…and with no cash limit.

“Hey, Flash, road trip tonight! Two days in Boston. We’ll catch a Sox game and then we’ll show the Harvard boys how to party. Their Rugby guys are putting us up. You in?”

“Is the Pope Catholic?”

“Can we take your car?”

“Of course!”

Despite all efforts to fend him off, the Good Angel occasionally paid Junior a visit. The Bad Angel had established permanent residence.

Good Angel: “Junior! You’ve got your Stars 2 Exam on Tuesday! You haven’t been to class in a week, and you haven’t read the material. You need to book it the whole weekend!”

Bad Angel: “Red Sox and Yankees! How many times are you going to get to see that?! And those Rugby guys are nuts. It’s going to be wild!”

Good Angel: “School has to come first! You’ve got to do the responsible thing. You’re here for the education!”

Bad Angel: “It’s only a mid-term, no big deal. You’ve still got the term paper and the final. Put in an all-nighter Monday. You’ll be fine.”

Good Angel: “Your grades are going to matter when you start applying to grad school.”

Bad Angel: “That’s like forever away! You can make it all up. You’re supposed to have a little fun in college.”

It was, once again, a mismatch of historic proportions- Ali vs. Liston with the “Phantom Punch”, Sugar Ray Leonard humiliating “No Mas” Roberto Duran, the ’85 Bears crushing the Patriots in the Superbowl Shuffle. The Good Angel would do well in the future to throw in the towel before the match began.

Road beers, the essential ingredient to grease the wheels of any self-respecting road trip. Remarkably, the beverage was available in bountiful proportions due to the recent derailment of a freight train in upstate Vermont. It was a scene reminiscent of biblical mana from heaven-a box car had broken open spilling its precious cargo along the side of the tracks, the golden nectar of the young and foolish- beer. With the keen mental dexterity of a student at an elite college, Road Beers quickly became known as “Train Beers”. Caravans of anything on wheels were making round-trip runs to the unexpected treasure. Frat houses and dorm rooms were wallpapered with cases of Train Beers. It was added motivation to hit the road.

It was a different time, a different culture. The designated driver did not abstain. Rather, he was commissioned with the responsibility of maintaining consciousness throughout the journey. Foolish, irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid, but seemingly a fun thing to do at the time. It was a welcome world for Junior who had become a heat-seeking missile, drawn to anything of entertainment value, without thought, deliberation, or fear of consequences.

Ballpark beers proved to be an expensive enterprise for Junior, especially after becoming accustomed to consuming vast amounts of the freebies provided courtesy of the Bennington and Rutland Railroad Company. And it was hard to eat on the cheap in Boston, so by the end of the first night of the great adventure, Junior was broke.

“Houston, we have a problem!”

“What now, Junior?”

“The car, Dad, the thermostat in the car went. I just pulled into the Chapel parking lot and the radiator blew.”

“Are you ok?”

Oh, you poor man.

“Yeah, I’m fine, but I’ll have to have the car towed over to the garage. And then a new thermostat. I’m really sorry.”

“Not your fault, Junior. I guess we should have put a few more bucks into a used car for you. Do you know how much you need?”

“A couple hundred should cover it all.”

“I’ll put the money in your account right away.”

Ah, more carefree nights of sordid debauchery!

And so it went, money in, money out. School work neglected, fun had in immeasurable quantities. Late-night TV, beer pong in the basement of the frat house, nearly never-ending games of Hearts and Spades, drunken afternoons in the stands cheering on the Big Green, and best of all those memorable road trips to girls’ schools across the northeast. Dean Seymour, and Dad, would have been appalled.

First semester grades: C-, D, D.

Good Angel: “Well, aren’t you proud of yourself? You come in at barely literate.”

Bad Angel: “Shut up, you prissy-faced, lemon-sucking, Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes. Flash here can make his own decisions. You passed everything, Junior. You got the credits. That’s the main thing. Grades aren’t everything. You’re doing good. It’s ok to enjoy yourself once in a while.”

“Did your first semester grades come out yet, Junior?’

“Yeah, they did. I did ok, Dad. An A and two B’s, but I’m sure I can do better next semester.”

“Ok? An A and two B’s. That’s great, son! I knew all your hard work would pay off. Good job! Do you need any money right now?”

Good Angel: “Shame! Shame, shame, SHAME! How can you lie to your own father like that?”

Bad Angel: “Whose father is he supposed to lie to? Ha, ha, ha. You did the right thing, Flash. Don’t listen to her. How do you think he’d feel if you told him the truth? The poor guy would have had a coronary. Ignorance is bliss.”

Winter. Skiing. A gym class of skiing. And Junior was there every day. The lift fees were covered, but the equipment set Dad back a pretty penny. And the irresponsible behavior continued. Flash’s reputation grew with every drunken night and every missed class.

Junior had a flair for the arts and designed the Fraternity’s ice sculpture for Winter Carnival that year. Unfortunately, the craftily carved representation of “Tongue in Cheek” was deemed inappropriate, distasteful, and offensive by the faculty judges and had to be destroyed. The effort, however, did earn him considerable, additional, street cred with his peers.

One night, his propensity to reside in the land of the inebriated nearly cost him his life. Junior lost his way going back to the dorm after the fraternity Toga Party (which is hard to do on a small campus), tired, and fell into a snowbank, where he rested comfortably in only his toga (bedsheet), undies, and tennis shoes, in sub-freezing temperatures. He was miraculously discovered before achieving the frozen-solid state by his buddy Clark who had also (remarkably) lost his way heading back to the dorm. The “Human Popsicle” was cheerfully added to his growing list of nicknames.

 “Hey, Flash, you up for a Friday night in Boston? It’s all set up.”

“Just for Friday night?”

“Yeah, my folks are coming to town to take me to dinner Saturday night. You in?”

“For sure. When do we leave?”

“Friday around noon. Nerd-bag Foster wants to catch his English class.”

What’s not to like about Boston? Bars, restaurants, and countless colleges with thousands of fun-loving young people, half of them female. Junior was in his element. What could go wrong?

Junior woke up in a strange place, on the floor in the dorm of one of the rugby players. He didn’t even recognize any of the room’s occupants. He had no idea where his friends were. He remembered being thrown out of a bar and racing through bushes after a housemother at Wellesley called the police. He also had vague recollections of a girl named Marcy and her rather large, extraordinarily jealous, and hostile boyfriend. Though most of the events of the previous evening were foggy, the pain in his jaw was an unmistakable reality. Could things possibly get worse?

Unfortunately, yes. Junior couldn’t find his car. He was certain where he had parked it, but it wasn’t there. He covered a circumference of three blocks- no car. This was a problem of epic proportions. He told his dad he’d be studying all weekend; reporting that his car had been stolen in Boston would be difficult to explain.

He spent his last few dollars on coffee and a couple of donuts. Think, Junior, think. He had only one way out. He would wait until he got back to campus and then report the car stolen. If, whenever, and wherever it was found wouldn’t matter.

Junior turned his attention to the more immediate problem. He was in Boston, alone, with no car and no money.

Meanwhile, in a faraway place, a man Junior never met was about to have an unexpected, profound impact on his life. The man worked for the United States Post Office and was carrying a missive from his college to his mailbox back home. “In loco parentis” has its limits. There are always those pesky, obtrusive, old foggy, stick-in-the-mud, nosey, real-life parents meddling in a kid’s affairs and preaching the values of hard work, responsibility, and planning for the future, i.e., Harold Barnes, a/k/a Dad.

Despite repeated assurances from upperclassmen to the contrary, and perhaps due to a new oppressive, diabolical policy implemented by a devious, sadistic administration, grades were sent to the students’ homes. A letter warning of possible dismissal from the college was neatly tucked inside the same envelope for those close to failing. The near coronary prediction for poor Harold was close to fruition.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out what he needed to do. Junior had only one choice- call Dad for emergency funding. He wasn’t sure how good old Dad could do it, but since he worked in the banking business, he was confident it could be done. Mustering up the courage to make the call and coming up with a story were the challenging parts. Fortunately, Junior was the master of fabrication. Unfortunately, his father had just finished reading the materials from the college.

A few deep breaths and he was ready.

"Houston we have a problem... Dad?...Dad?...Dad! Are you there?”

Painful pause.

“No, Houston, you have a problem.”


February 08, 2023 18:04

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Lily Finch
20:16 Feb 08, 2023

Murray, Your story is clever and well-written. Your diction, as always, is stellar. So many kids fall into the "freedom, go crazy, never attend class mode" far more than we know. You captured that beautifully, nailing the soaking of dear old dad. Kudos to dad for finally being a parent instead of an ATM. The question is, will Junior learn his lesson and get his act together? Time will tell. You could easily write a sequel, perhaps. Thanks for the great read, as usual. LF6


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David Beeson
00:26 Feb 16, 2023

Murray, Funny and accurate story of a good portion of University "students." As a Dean once said to a Reggie, "I see that you are enrolled but you are far from a student." The pace of the story is great. My only suggestion is the use of a/k/a is off-putting particularly at the beginning. Maybe spell it out or shorthand it "known as" or "called" or something similar. I am glad I got through that initial "rub" because the story is entertaining with a subtle message to parents a/k/a ATMs; pay attention and require accountability or better yet, ...


Murray Burns
01:15 Feb 16, 2023

I appreciate your reading the story and your comments. I happen to have been at the same school at the same time as the guys who wrote Animal House, so it didn't take a lot of creativity or imagination. Thanks.


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