Right on schedule, Sexton entered Makanda Java at 2:00, walked to the back of the shop where he plopped down on a dilapidated sofa that I should have thrown out years ago, and waited for me to join him with a pot of our house blend. Every afternoon for the past ten years, ever since I started running Carbondale’s only coffee house, this had been our ritual, our routine. Friends since our freshmen year at Southern Illinois University, both of us stayed after graduating and carved out a livelihood and settled in a routine that was nothing we’d ever imagined when we declared our majors.
Today then should have been no different than any other day.
While my afternoon help took care of the counter, I joined Sexton in the back. He poured himself a cup of coffee and stretched out his long legs across an ottoman which was equally worse for wear as the sofa. He held the cup up to his nose and savored the rich full-bodied aromatic blend before he took a sip. Satisfied, he set the cup down on a table next to the sofa and stuck a clove cigarette in his mouth.
“I’m leaving,” he said matter-of-factly. “And this time I mean it.”
Sexton. That was his legal name. He had it changed after he read this fantasy trilogy, The Sexton Chronicles, and liked the name of the main character so much that he changed his name. He had been to three World Fantasy Conventions including the one in Nashville in 1987 where he actually met the author of the chronicles, David J. Steele; after the convention that was all he talked about for weeks. Sexton was tall and thin and if one got past his Mohawk, he reminded one of Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At Carbondale’s nationally acclaimed Halloween celebration, everyone who saw Sexton thought he was Riff Raff when he was of course, just Sexton.
I never forgot the first time I bumped into Sexton on the Southern Illinois University campus. He was walking out of the Student Center on his way to Faner Hall when he was verbally attacked by this traveling preacher who was speaking before a group of students in this free speech zone public forum area where anyone with a cause or an axe to grind could hop up on their proverbial soapboxes and speak to their heart’s content without being subject to harassment by school officials. Earlier in the year, NORML (National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws) had a marijuana smoke in and the university or local law enforcement officials couldn’t do anything—that is until you left when you were subject to arrest.
I was on a grassy knoll lounging in the sun with some classmates not paying any attention to the preacher, who was holding up a ten-foot flimsy wooden cross, drone on about the evils of drugs, alcohol, pre-marital sex, rock and roll, and homosexuality. I happened to look in the direction of the preacher just as Sexton walked by in all his punk and Riff Raff glory when the preacher took one look at him and unleashed his acerbic attack on the the immoral behavior of today’s youth.
“And here you see the consequences of drugs, alcohol, and rock and roll music,” the preacher atoned, pointing a bony finger at Sexton as he passed. The preacher, dressed in black slacks, white shirt and black tie was was just as tall and thin as Sexton. “Here you see a man, no less a homosexual, who has lost his way in the decadence of our time.”
Sexton looked around wondering who the preacher was talking to when he suddenly realized, with all eyes upon him, that the preacher had singled him out.
“What do you have to say for yourself, young man?” the preacher asked.
Sexton squinted in the bright sunlight and held up a hand in front of his forehead to block out the sun as he looked at the preacher. “Come again, padre?”
“You sir, you wear your homosexuality like a scarlet letter upon your breast.”
That’s all it took. Later, Sexton couldn’t remember charging at the preacher and breaking the cross but he did remember all the students yelling and applauding as he continued on his way to Faner Hall.
“What is it this time?” I asked, pouring myself a cup of coffee. “Music? Your job? Lucy?”
“Well, now that you’ve mentioned the music scene, it’s been all downhill since members of David and the Happenings and The Bras graduated and a lot of the old bars and clubs have closed or are under new management,” Sexton said grinning.
For the past three years, every month or so Sexton would talk about how he was finally leaving, as he put it, “to make something out of my life before I depart this swirling mass of life forms.” Sometimes it was job-related other times it was his on and off again relationship with Lucy or something more spiritual or philosophical, like the time after he read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and decided that he needed to go on an extended road trip to find himself. (He got as far as St. Louis and turned around. His dog-eared copy of the book was still on the shelf of free books at the front of the shop.) The next day everything was back to normal. It had been two months since the last time Sexton said he was leaving so he was due for another epiphany.
We had all talked about leaving at one time or another. Until I started to manage Makanda Java for Gary Biagoni, I thought about leaving all the time. I spent four years majoring in partying with a minor in film; when it came time to look for a job after graduation, I took that film degree and put it to good use as the manager of ABC Liquors where I ended up staying until five years ago when Gary approached me and asked if I wouldn’t mind running which at the time had been the only coffee house in town—the only authentic coffee house now that three Starbucks opened. He figured I spent so much time hanging out here when I wasn’t at ABC’s that I should run the coffee house for him. By then I had socked away enough money that when Gary put the shop up for sale due to health reasons, I was able to get a loan and buy him out.
“My mom’s boyfriend is a guard up at Vandalia,” Sexton explained. “He seems to think that he can get me a job teaching painting to the inmates.”
“What’s wrong with Electric Ink? I thought Javier wanted you to be his partner?”
Sexton had studied painting and graphic design in school and was quite the artist with a couple exhibitions and an acceptance letter to attend a prestigious school on the East coast. However, after he got his first tattoo, he thought he could do better. And he did. He spent two years training with Javier one of the leading tattooists in Southern Illinois (legend had it he was trained by Sailor Jerry) and shortly thereafter started working at Electric Ink. Sexton’s work was superb. Everyone talked about how much better he was than Javier.
“This is family stuff,” Sexton said, snubbing out the clove cigarette. “It’s something that I have to do.”
I furled my eyebrows. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Lose the Mohawk and the make-up,” I said.
“Oh yeah, good idea,” he said smiling.
When Gary moved the coffee shop from Makanda, a sleepy artist community about fifteen miles south of town, to Carbondale in the mid-sixties, it soon thrived as a haven for art, communication, and theater majors from SIU as well as Vietnam War protestors, musicians, and local artists. He rented out an old restaurant on Illinois Avenue, more affectionately known as “the strip” and not only sold coffee and tea, but also had exhibitions and screened avant-garde movies at night. Bands playing at bars up and down the strip always stopped in and dropped off one of their 45’s that Gary put in the vintage Wurlitzer jukebox which was free of charge for customers. And for years it was the only place in town where one could enjoy coffees and teas from around the world while enjoying organically baked goods.
The day after the preacher incident I ran into Sexton sitting outside Makanda Java on a tree stump around a wooden spool for electric power lines which had been turned on its side and converted into a table.
“You sure took care of that preacher yesterday.” I said, standing in front of Sexton.
“I feel bad that I broke his cross,” Sexton said, looking up from a copy of The Sexton Chronicles and checking me out. He nodded with approval when he noticed the Cramps T-shirt I was wearing underneath my leather jacket.
“That’s a cross you’ll have to bear.”
Sexton looked up at me and smiled. “You live in Stevenson Arms, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you around. You know Susan and Becky.”
I nodded again.
Over the years, Sexton and I grew very tight. He’d act in my student films; I’d help him lug his installation art from his studio to one of the galleries on campus. While our friends came and left, we were the one constant. We shared the same interests in music, movies, politics (we were huge Paul Simon supporters in 1984), even girlfriends. One night at the Trench Bar (this “after hours bar” some friends of ours had in the basement of the house where a lot of people would go after the bars on the strip closed) after I had broken up with my girlfriend, Lucy, so I could go out with Liz, Sexton asked me if I wouldn’t mind him dating Lucy. And just to show him that I was cool with it, I drove the two of them to Sexton’s place at the end of the night. That was just the way we were.
The only time we ever had a falling out in all the years we knew each other, though Sexton would be the first to disagree, was not long after I started managing the coffee shop. This was before he started tattooing when he was drifting from one thing to another. He thought that because we were friends and all, he would have carte blanche at the coffee shop to pursue his interests, albeit his side action which was keeping our “friends” supplied with recreational drugs or having a free run of the place the rest of the time—which meant crashing out there when his girlfriend kicked him out or landlord evicted him.
I lost my temper and told him that a real friend wouldn’t pull this kind of crap—not if they wanted to stay a friend. I had always looked up to him and admired his free-wheelin’ attitude, but it was the first time when I felt that I might have been blindly following Sexton all these years.
The mail carrier dropped off a stack of mail, mostly bills, a letter claiming that I might have already won ten thousand dollars, and another letter from my landlord’s attorney. I didn’t have to open it to know what was inside. I tossed it aside and poured myself another cup of coffee.
“Bad news?” Sexton asked.
“Just another bill,” I said not wanting to go there and quickly changing the subject. “What does Lucy have to say about all this?”
“Excuse me?” Sexton said.
“How does Lucy feel about your decision?” Despite their on and off again relationship they had been together for over ten years.
“I haven’t told her exactly.”
“What do you mean by exactly?”
“Well, not in so many words,” Sexton said closing the book and putting it in his book bag.
“You haven’t told your girlfriend that you’re leaving.”
“I was wondering if you could do it for me.”
I stared at Sexton with my mouth agape. Over the years Sexton had asked me to do some pretty strange favors for him, such as the time he asked me to stand in for him as best man at a mutual friend’s wedding so he could tattoo (which went really well because he forgot to give me the ring) the drummer from the LA heavy metal band Guns N’ Roses who was in supposedly town (he wasn’t) visiting a friend of a friend and in the market for a tattoo. After waiting for more than an hour for his friend to show, Sexton hurried to the church across town and got there just as the bride was walking down the aisle. He still forgot the ring, though.
“Look at you,” Sexton said laughing.
“I had you going. I am going to miss winding you up.”
“You bastard,” I said, throwing a magazine at him.
“You know you love it.”
“Then we’re going to have to throw you one heck of a going away party,” I said. “I’m sure there are at least one or two guys from Shakespeare’s Riot still hanging around who could put something together musically. We’ll have it right here and if it gets too crowded, we’ll move outside.”
I started planning the party in my mind. Depending on how much time Sexton had, I’d see how many of the old gang I could round out. There were a couple of friends living in Chicago. They could hop on the Amtrak—The City of New Orleans—and be here in the evening. We were going to have ourselves the kind of party that we used to have when we were back in school.
“I leave today at 6:00.”
I glanced at the clock. It was 4:00.
One night, Sexton and I were on our way home from a night of slam dancing at Airwaves this underground club in the basement of ABC Liquors, when we bumped into our friend Todd Larson walking along Freeman Street toward Freeman Hall, an off campus dormitory.
“What’s up, Todd.”
“I’m leaving in the morning. You guys want to drink some beer with me?”
He pulled out three cans of Foster’s Lager from the deep pockets of his trench coat.
Sexton and I nodded. Not exactly our beer of choice, we pulled up a piece of curb and popped open the Foster’s. Sexton lit up a joint he had been saving for later.
“Leaving, huh?” I asked.
“My mom’s sick and there’s no one to take care of her.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Sexton said.
“You’ll be the last two guys I see from here,” Todd said, taking a hit off the joint.
Todd was a regular at Makanda Java and if we had done our math right, from all the stories he told us, Todd had been going to SIU on and off for the past fifteen years. He’d get close to graduating and then he would change his major. Supposedly, he had been one of the demonstrators that got gassed in the Green Mansion, this prominent and dilapidated house on Freeman Street which found its way into the annals of Carbondale’s urban legends. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, a number of demonstrators, including Todd, who was just happened to be visiting a friend and ended up taking part in the demonstration, took refuge in the house after National Guardsmen chased them from the campus and into town. A tear gas canister was lobbed inside and the house caught on fire. Todd ended up staying and started his career at SIU. He was the smartest man I ever met, just didn’t have a degree to show for all those years.
“Doesn’t look like I’m going to graduate after all,” Todd said, passing the joint to me. “And to think I was so close.”
I laughed so hard I thought I was going to piss my pants. Sexton rolled on the damp ground and spilled most of his Foster’s. Then Todd started laughing. Good thing the cops weren’t patrolling the street at the time. We would have all been hauled in for drunk and disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and possession.
“It was fun while it lasted, but sooner or later we all have to move on,” Todd said. “Death, sickness, divorce, they are just life’s off-ramps for all the journeys we take. Some of us have more off ramps than others. But for every off-ramp, there’s always another on-ramp. Perhaps we’ll all meet again someday. In the meantime, to quote The Dead, ‘what a long strange trip it’s been.’”
“Far out, man,” Sexton replied.
“Hey, give some more of that joint,” I said.
When I glanced at the clock again, Sexton had just enough time to walk to the station three blocks away.
“The least I can do is walk you to the station,” I said, walking out from behind the counter.
Sexton nodded, but before we could leave for the station, a group of students came in all wanting café lattes.
“It’s not like I’m moving halfway across the country,” Sexton added. “Vandalia is only two hours north of here.”
“I know,” I said hurrying to finish the order. Sexton would only be two hours away. We would be able to get together every weekend if we wanted. I wondered what there was to do in Vandalia. It wasn’t like he was leaving forever.
“Sorry I couldn’t give you a proper send off or even walk you to the station.”
“No sweat, man. Remember, I’m only two hours away.”
We hugged and then I watched him head up Illinois Avenue to the bus station.
Sexton was gone this time.
Business was slow again that night. It was getting harder and harder to compete with the new Starbucks in town. I was barely making enough to cover my overhead and expenses and the landlord was threatening to raise the rent again. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I would have to make a decision.
Up and down Illinois Avenue the strip came alive as students headed toward their favorite watering holes, cafés, and clubs. I looked out the large plate glass window as the neon sign hummed and buzzed. A group of girls stopped out front, as if they were going to come inside, but then continued their way toward the heart of the strip. When I turned around and walked toward the counter, that’s when I noticed Sexton had left a copy of The Sexton Chronicles on a table near the door. There was no way that he would have left a copy of it here if he didn’t want me to have it. He wasn’t the sentimental type. I opened it to the first page, hoping that Sexton had written something inside, but it was blank.
Jeffrey Miller has spent over two decades in Asia as a university lecturer and writer, including a six-year stint as a feature writer for The Korea Times, South Korea’s oldest English-language newspaper. Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, he relocated to South Korea in 1990 where he nurtured a love for spicy Korean food, Buddhist temples, and East Asian History.
His work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including A-Minor Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Boston Literary Magazine, Caper Literary Journal, Eunoia Review, Full of Crow, Grey Sparrow Journal, Short, Fast, and Deadly, Thunderclap and the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.
He is the author of eight books including War Remains, A Korean War Novel, Ice Cream Headache, and When A Hard Rain Falls and I’ll Be Home For Christmas. His eighth novel, Paradise Lost: Love, Drugs and War in Panama will be out in September 2014.
He lives in Daejeon with his wife Aon, his three sons Bia, Jeremy Aaron, and Joseph and daughter Angelina.