During the majority of the portions of my early life spent in the town of Half Moon, north of Albany, N.Y. [see entry of October 15, 2001], I had one friend to hang out with. Jeff Matthiesson -- four years younger (a major difference in those years), pudgy, with white, white skin, freckles, a brush cut. His father owned and worked at the gas station up the road. Their family lived in the small apartment above the business (garage/small store), tight, cramped quarters for a clan of five.
I hung out with Jeff most days, generally up at his place, providing me with some relief during the long summer seasons spent trapped in the woods with my family. Killing time, mostly -- around the garage, up in the apartment, out in the surrounding acres of open country and woods. Talking, reading comics, drifting through the fields or along the river.
Mr. Matthiesson: a redhead, with muscular arms, a ruddy complexion and fair skin that burned easily during the summers. Mrs. Matthiesson: round-faced, with brown hair cut in a bob. Slightly heavyset, even a bit dumpy. Hard workers, both of them, putting in long days between the gas station and taking care of their growing family. Not people I remember smiling much -- probably tired, constantly laboring to stay ahead.
My parents were close with Jeff's folks. They socialized regularly, my father (a shop teacher, the original handyman) helped them convert a big old barn into a house, creating more space for what had become a clan of six.
All of which resulted in the Matthiessons being a fixture of my life for quite a while. Until my junior high years, when I found myself with less and less desire to pass hours with Jeff, drifted away, stopped going north with my parents during the warm seasons, finally lost contact with the Matthiessons altogether.
During my years in high school, my parents planned and built a house on the land in Half Moon, moving up there as soon as I graduated. Somewhere during that time I noticed that mentions of the Matthiessons, once common, had suddenly become rare. My passing questions about them were met with terse, uncomfortable replies, imparting little information apart from clear, nonverbal indications of a major change in situation. Which made me curious.
It took a point blank interrogation to get my mother -- not one to discuss difficult issues directly, never mind comfortably -- to tell me what was going on. The story turned out to be gratifyingly strange, classically strange.
While working on a car during the course of what probably started as a normal day, Mr. Matthiesson suffered a blow to head. A hard enough blow to knock him out. Hard enough to give an intense shock, all the way down into the deepest parts of his system.
My mother said the blow caused a personality change, that the post-accident Mr. Matthiesson was a different individual from the person they'd known. I can't say. What I know is that he came to, looked around, decided he no longer wanted to be where he was, that the life he'd been living -- a difficult existence of hard work in what at that time was a dreary part of upstate New York -- was no longer acceptable. He moved out of the house, found an apartment in Waterford, a town a few miles to the south, took up with a younger woman. I think he stopped working at the garage, found another job.
Scandalous, incomprehensible happenings for that part of the world. Changes that left people like my parents aghast, that must have left Mrs. Matthiesson feeling stunned, bereft, ashamed.
The Matthiessons didn't divorce. They led lives as separate as they could manage, money matters and four kids forcing regular contact. And that's how things stood for a few years. Every once in a while one of my parents dropped a passing comment about the situation, short on details, then immediately clammed up. I gathered they'd taken Mrs. Matthiesson's side, something I suspect most everyone did. I gathered Mr. Matthiesson remained troubled, difficult to deal with, that his life seemed to be drifting in no particular direction, despite all the changes. With time, I got the vague impression that the Matthiessons were having more contact, until my mother mentioned one day that Mr. M. had moved back into the house.
And from there, the Matthiessons were a couple again. Not necessarily a happy one, but more in line with how middle-class folk thought things should be. For quite a while, my parents seemed to regard Mr. Matthiesson with an attitude of heavy disapproval, as if their opinion of him had been damaged irreparably. As if he were on probation for an unlimited period, maybe forever.