I needed a new roommate, so I put an ad on Craigslist. This is how I met Walter. He showed up at my apartment on a brisk March afternoon wearing khaki shorts and a University of Michigan windbreaker and introduced himself with a firm handshake and a booming Kansan twang. Walter spent less than two minutes touring the apartment, briefly examining the empty bedroom and the bathroom before stopping in the kitchen.
“Looks good to me,” he said.
After writing me a check for the first month’s rent, he pulled from his backpack a bottle of grappa, a most foul liquor he had acquired on a work-related trip to Italy, and poured me not one, but two shots. It was Tuesday. It was 2:30 p.m.
I eyed the twin glasses of golden liquid, aware that I might be in danger of imbibing more than I could stomach. Ever since I was a young boy, I have held two chief suspicions about all people. First, we all keep secrets. And second, because we all keep secrets, no one can know anything about anyone, ever. And a man like Walter, who demonstrated no reservations about showing up in a complete stranger’s kitchen, snatching several shot glasses from a high shelf as though he had lived there for years, and insisting said stranger partakes in his bitter, foreign liquor, certainly had to have his fair share of secrets. Nonetheless, I had been living alone for five months. I was almost broke. I took the shots and the check.
It is safe to say that, had Walter and I any mutual friends, none of them would ever have recommended him to me as a roommate. Our greatest difference, among many differences, is that I am non-confrontational to a frustrating degree, whereas Walter lacks what one would call a “filter,” which frequently gets him into troublesome situations involving girlfriends or airport security. But as roommates, we turned out to be a good match. What I learned to like most about Walter was that no filter meant no secrets. And he always paid his rent. I could live with that.
More than a year had passed since Walter moved in, when one evening he asked me what was the most trouble I had ever been in. I told him that when I was sixteen, I rear-ended another vehicle at very low speed while driving my father’s car. No one was hurt. I also told Walter the reason why I had hit the car in front of me: I didn’t have my eyes on the road, because I was searching a drug store parking lot for a silver sedan that belonged to one of the drug store employees, a girl on whom I had a hopeless, unrequited crush. I had neglected to mention the girl to my parents — or anyone, for that matter — for years after the accident. To this day, only a few people know what really happened.
“It turned out she wasn’t working that night,” I said. I was surprised to discover that I still felt a little ashamed to admit all of this to Walter. “And that’s it. In a legal sense that’s the most trouble I’ve ever been in. Kind of depressing.”
Walter nodded. “Could be worse.” He stirred his drink with a thick finger.
“What about you?” I asked.
Walter told me he was a sophomore in high school when it happened. “There were lawyers and investigators, and official charges filed against me. For about two weeks there I thought I was going to juvie.”
I knew Walter had been arrested enough times to recite his own Miranda Rights — mostly on drunk and disorderlies. I once asked him how many bars he’d been thrown out of in his life. His answer: “Definitely triple digits.” This seemed much more serious. I thought maybe Walter had hurt somebody. Walter wasn’t a violent guy, but he was big. I could picture him getting into a fight and injuring someone without trying very hard.
“What were the charges?” I asked.
Walter took a swig from his third Wednesday night whiskey and coke and answered, “Sodomy of a minor.”
I was making a salad. That’s not important to the story, but when your roommate tells you he was charged with sodomy of a minor, you remember what the fuck it was you were doing.
“Oh,” I said, looking into the leafy green abyss of my salad.
“Yeah, I was fifteen and she was twelve. She lived up the block from me. We were driving my old man’s beat-up station wagon around some empty fields. One thing led to another, and she gave me a blowjob.”
A thought crossed my mind: I hadn’t signed a lease on my apartment in years. It was possible the landlord had never run a background check on Walter.
“That would have been the end of it,” Walter continued, “except her old man didn’t like me too much. And that was a big problem, because her old man was the district attorney.”
What were the penalties, I wondered, for harboring a sex offender?
“So the cops came over a bunch of times and talked to me about what happened. I was taken out of school. I couldn’t leave the house. Then, one day out of the blue, they dropped the charges.”
He put his hands up in the air, as if mimicking how one might physically drop the charges.
“What happened?” I asked.
Walter walked to the freezer and removed the ice cube tray.
“Apparently they found her in a different station wagon, except this time she was completely naked.”
He began dropping ice cubes into his glass.
“And with her were one (plink), two (plink), three (plink), four boys (plink-plink). From the community college. So I guess they decided that I wasn’t the one with problem.”
With that, he poured his fourth Wednesday night whiskey and coke.
When I tell people Walter’s story (and I’ve told it to nearly everyone I know), I get one of two reactions. People either a) demonstrate disgust at what Walter did or b) chalk it up to two teenagers in the middle of Kansas doing what two teenagers in the middle of Kansas tend to do. I make no attempt to apologize for Walter or condemn him — that’s not the point. The point is that even someone as unrelentingly honest as Walter has secrets he keeps hidden for a year before revealing.
Like I learned to do with a lot of what troubled me about Walter, I ultimately coped with this secret by ignoring it. Walter and I remained roommates for another two years. Shortly before he moved out, he was away for several weeks on a long road trip for work. When he returned, I heard him drag his luggage through the front door, letting it fall with a slap against the kitchen tile. I called to him from the other room.
“How was the trip?”
He didn’t answer. I called out again. Nothing.
I walked into the living room and found Walter sitting in the recliner, a throwaway he pulled in from the alley on his second day in the apartment. He held his face in his hands. He said the doctors had done a biopsy on a tumor in his father’s lung, and just before he left the hospital, the lung collapsed. The doctors managed to stabilize him.
“But it’s everywhere,” Walter said. “He’s full of it now.”
So I made Walter a drink. And I made me a drink. Walter put on a movie, a documentary about Pearl Jam. I made a few more drinks. Near the end of the movie, Eddie Vedder said some pretentious bullshit about music and art. Walter hadn’t said a word in more than two hours. I had heard him snoring a couple times. But then he spoke, as if he were responding directly to Eddie Vedder.
“Art,” he said, “is why we live.”
Walter can give you the low-down on every barbeque joint in Memphis. He can name the entire roster of the 1985 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. He can recite the birthdays of the children of all the older divorcées he’s dated. But as far as I know, he can’t paint you a picture, or sing you a song, or write you a story. If you would have asked me what Walter lived for, I might have said family, or traveling, or whiskey and cigarettes. But he said these words with such conviction. Walter lives for art. It was the most shocking, honest thing I had ever heard him say.
I thought about asking Walter how it was he and I knew so little about one another. I thought about asking why we all keep so much to ourselves. I thought about asking whether it is our own knowledge of ourselves that keeps us from wanting to know others completely, and whether it is even possible to know anyone else when we couldn’t cope with what we knew about ourselves. I thought about asking Walter all of these things. But I was too drunk. I stayed quiet and passed out on the couch.