The Troubles

His name, his last name, was Truman.  He went by a number of given names, depending on his mood and his audience.  Leonard. James. Springer. Arcadio. Guerra. Obsidian. Switch. There were others.  Many others. His long-expired New Mexico driver’s license read “James Springer Truman.” But the birth certificate, a forgery he kept in a small, fireproof safe in the trunk of his car, read “Springer James Truman.” His parole records from the Florida Department of Corrections were even further afield.  They were for the release of an inmate named “Robert Gaylord Sisk.”

The birth certificate asserted, correctly, he was brought into this world at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on December 11, 1943, son of Everett Clancy Truman and Maria Elena Rosario Truman.  When asked about his parents, which was rarely, Truman said his father had worked for a Glace Bay coal company and his mother had “retired early into housewifery after spending time in a convent.” Truman occasionally spoke of his own early years working as a bookkeeper’s apprentice in the colliery office, posting miners’ monthly contributions for health care services. Those monthly payments entitled miners to free treatment at St. Joseph’s Hospital, he said.

The story of Truman’s later years, after leaving Glace Bay as a young man, were more complex than his history in Glace Bay.  The rare conversations in which he willingly spoke to others about his post-departure years described time in Fargo, North Dakota; Kincardine, Ontario; Llano, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Española, New Mexico; Houma, Louisiana; Huntsville, Texas; New Port Richey, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and a host of other places.

I know about his post-Glace Bay years.  I met Truman about 40 years ago during my brief pursuit of a master’s degree in criminology and corrections.  Truman was doing the same, though he was almost finished with the program when I started it.   He was a graduate assistant, as was I, but being more advanced, he was actually teaching a class, whereas I was simply helping a professor grade papers.  The class he taught, Advanced Theoretical Perspectives, was the only one I found interesting.  His method of teaching was to engage students in conversation and debate, rather than to lecture and “profess” his knowledge.  One of the most interesting conversations involved an assignment in which he randomly selected students to be members of competing teams assigned to argue conflicting theories of deviance, his principal interest.  Just as the last team finished presenting and defending its theory, Truman opened a jar of blue tempera paint and poured it over his head, asking, “Is this deviance?  If so, which theory best explains it?”  The conversation lasted long after the class time was over; fortunately, there was nothing else scheduled in the room, so we were able to hold our two-hour discussion without having to leave.

Often, after class, we would have coffee and argue about theories of deviance.  Over time, I learned that he was especially intrigued by, and knowledgeable about, what he called “intentional extreme deviance.”  Intentional extreme deviance was behavior designed to surprise or frighten without being overtly aggressive.  During the course of two semesters, we became good friends.  We’d frequently meet at a bar and grill near campus for beer and a bite to eat.  I invariably ordered a burger.  Though he was vegetarian, he never urged me to leave my carnivorous ways behind.  His girlfriend, Cinnamon, made up for it.  Almost every time I saw her, she greeted me with, “Is it safe to leave my pet with you?”  That was her way of expressing disgust with my habit of eating the corpses of animals that had been killed for my dining pleasure.

MARCH 2, 1977

He had almost finished writing his thesis on intentional extreme deviance when it happened.  The phone rang about 1:30 a.m.  It was Truman.  “Cinnamon’s in the hospital.  Can you come down here?”  I had never heard Truman’s voice so weak and frightened.  He sounded fragile.  “Of course! What happened? Where are you?” “We’re in Houston, at Hermann, downtown.  On Fannin. I’ll fill you in when you get here.”

I hadn’t expected a call at 1:30 a.m.  I hadn’t expected to hear Truman’s voice when I answered the phone.  I hadn’t expected to hear that Cinnamon was in the hospital.  I hadn’t expected to hear that Truman, who lived half a mile from me in Huntsville, was at Hermann Hospital, 75 miles south of me.

It was almost 3:30 a.m. when I got to the emergency room.  I learned more about Truman in next four hours than I’d learned about him in the year I’d known him.  While we waited for the ER doctors to give us updates about Cinnamon, Truman shared things with me that shocked me.  He told me things you only tell to someone you trust as much as you trust yourself.  It was as if Cinnamon’s injuries triggered something over which he had no control. He had to talk.

Until that night, Truman had been on course toward an interesting but unremarkable career as a college professor.  But that night, the direction changed radically. That night was the first of many to come when I’d get a phone call from Truman, asking for my help.

AUGUST 15, 2012

When I arrived at the motel to cover the bill he had been unable to pay, I discovered he had already left.

He had called me the day before, the first communication I’d had with him in almost a year, asking if I might be able to help him out.

“I thought I’d managed to get something going, man, and I thought I could cover the cost of the room, but my predictions turned out to be fictions.  I wouldn’t ask, except I can’t just walk the bill and expect to stay a free man. If you can’t help me out, don’t give it a second thought; I have other options.  But if you can, you can add it to the list of favors I’m due to return.”

Truman was two states away, but he knew I’d be there for him if I could.  I could.  I told him I’d be there the next afternoon.  I left Memphis in the morning at 8:30 and arrived at the Super 8 in Big Cabin, Oklahoma that afternoon at around 5.

The Super 8 was more upscale than the places I figured Truman usually stayed. Typically, he’d find a one-nighter boarding house or, if he could get online, he would search for a place to land.  Obviously, he thought something was going his way to stay in a place like this.

“Can you call a guest room for me?  The last name is Truman.”

I expected the clerk to call his room when I asked for him.  Instead, she said “Are you Steve?” I nodded and she said, “He left early this morning and told me you would be by sometime today and asked me to give you this envelope.  He said you’d probably get here before he returns later tonight.”

When he left, the clerk said, he headed south on U.S. 69. She did not know he had vacated his room, nor that I was to pay the bill.

I opened the envelope and found a handwritten note and another piece of paper folded in thirds and then in half.  The note read:

Thank you, my friend, for everything.  I’m off to make another new start. I’ll try to stay in touch.  You asked me, a long time ago, to try my hand at writing again.  Here’s something I wrote.  Next time we talk, you can tell me what you think.


I unfolded the other piece of paper.

The clouds, what little I can see of them in the near darkness, are obsidian-black.  And the air feels just as hard.  It’s early yet, but there’s a sinister cast to the sky, caused not by the early hour but by something else, something ugly and frightening and as-yet unseen. I feel an odd sensation, as if there are demons swirling about, the wind from their wings spraying sand and gravel against a cast-iron sky. The dogs howling in the distance and the low, piercingly shrill chatter of birds in the trees far below me on this steep, deadly slope confirm I am not alone in my apprehension.  Even the clucking of squirrels is louder and more insistent than usual.

I think something is amiss.  I am the lone human awake at this hour to hear the hinges of the gates of hell squeal as they are pried open, centuries of rust protesting against the motion. But, by god, the birds and the dogs and the squirrels hear that awful noise!  They see, or at least feel, the bats swarming out of that crack in the door to the underworld.

It made me sad to read that.  He felt he had to give me something for my trouble; those two paragraphs were all he had to give.  I had asked him to write again because he had a way with words and he had stories and experiences that deserved to be recorded. More than that, though, I thought it might be a way for him to begin to heal. There was so much healing to be done.

Thos two short paragraphs offered a sample of how his mind worked.  It wasn’t fiction; it was the story of how Truman sees the world.

If only he had let me listen to him a little more, maybe it would have helped.  But, sometimes, Truman was his own worst enemy. Despite his proud demeanor and oddly dark optimism, I suspected he felt depressed and alone and worthless.

I paid the bill and explained to the clerk he would not be back. She had known something was amiss, she told me, when his debit card would not go through for the additional week’s stay; he had told her it was a glitch with the bank and he’d take care of it.  And he did, through me.  He always took care of things.

This bit of fiction is the beginning of what may be a short story; it may be something much longer. I’m sharing it just to see if it appeals to anyone who reads this little bit. I suppose the question is this: would you want to keep reading, if there were more?

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to The Troubles

  1. Bev, thanks very much for your comments. Just the kind of comments I need to help me improve my writing.

  2. bev says:

    I’m a short story reader – almost don’t read novels these days. I like this piece just s it stnds. I could see it being one piece in a collection of stories that might be on some theme – maybe on the hidden thoughts of people- perhas people connected in some way. Ths past week, I’ve been reding ‘Cannery Row’ and it is sort of like that – not really a novel so much as a series of chapters with characters united by a location. Anyhow, as a piece, it held my interest and curiosity to read onward. I did think that perhaps the two paragraphs written by Truman could have been a bit edgier or that you could have explained a bit more in your foreshadowing of Truman’s inner thoughts during the paragraph about the ER incident. If you lengthen the piece, it would be interesting to see where you take it.

  3. Thank you, Pauline. I appreciate your comments and your encouragement; you are a good person…but you must know that already!

  4. Combine hat with your writing talent and I believe you have a winning novel. The dark side is currently very popular. Go for it, John. He can be your main character.

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