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Big Yellow by Bill Tope


Sturges tells the story of the despicable housemate with whom he shared his drug-addled student accommodation in the early 1970s.

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Before I ever met him, Brett was described to me by my Iranian friend and housemate Vahid as “some barfly from The Stagger Inn,” referencing a tavern where we all hung out. Brett, who fancied himself a “real man,” and who somehow became my latest in a long line of itinerant housemates, usually glommed onto broken, lonely or neglected women because their standards often weren’t as high as more confident women. Nowhere near as high.

We all lived in a large, three-story building known locally as the Big Yellow House for the awful mustard-yellow paint on the exterior. I stayed there in the 1970s. Five students – three men and two women, usually – shared the expenses, which were minimal, befitting our status as poor college students. Brett had a room on the second floor and it was a veritable rat’s nest. Though eventually blighted with soiled linens, grungy walls and a carpet that was but a single step up from a dirt floor, it had started out as a pretty nice room – till Brett got hold of it. He usually wouldn’t bring his dates home with him: “If they can stand this mess,” he’d say, “then they’re not the kind of chick I want to screw.” Everyone, he maintained, must have standards. One time, he got lucky with the single mother of a little girl, who lived just down the block from our home.

Next morning, Brett came home whistling merrily, and I asked him, “Have a good night?”

“She was fat and ugly,” he admitted, “but she screwed good!” High praise indeed. Perhaps it’s apropos at this juncture to mention that Brett had a bit of a drinking problem. The only problem as he saw it, was that of getting the alcohol out of the bottle and into his belly faster. After Brett’s initial amorous endeavor, he sought to replicate the experience and proceeded the next night to pound vigorously on “Rose’s” front door, at midnight, raising all kinds of unearthly clatter.

“Go away, Brett!” urged Rose, upset because little four-year-old Betty was home with her that night.

“Open up,” he bellowed. “I want to screw you!”

“You’re frightening my daughter!” She implored desperately, “Please stop.”

Across the neighborhood, lights began flashing on in windows. Finally, a police car came rampaging down the road, its colorful array of lights blazing away. Alarmed, Brett immediately took off, lumbering the two-house distance back to Big Yellow. But the squad car continued on its merry way, concerned not at all with mere sexual harassment. The next day Brett was all smiles; he laughed about it.

“I had the little girl crying,” he reminisced proudly. “I guess my sex drive is pretty strong,” he congratulated himself matter-of-factly.

And Brett always had an abundance of sage financial advice to tender any unsuspecting male.

“Always break up with your girlfriend during Christmas and around her birthday,” he counseled. “That way,” he concluded frugally, “you don’t have to buy her a present!”

When an equally alcoholic housemate – “Jenks” – suspected that Brett was pilfering his stock of orange juice, he made no bones about it: he confronted him. Jenks was drunk that night, but then, so was Brett. And since Brett, an athlete in high school, outweighed Jenks by easily a hundred pounds, the outcome of this grudge match was never in any doubt. At 2am Brett danced into the kitchen with his latest date and began a fruitless search for additional alcohol. At length he sat sucking on a bottle of Angostura bitters; his companion, the lovely Diana, was taking this all in rather blandly. There is little doubt that she was profoundly stoned. Jenks took that moment to make an untimely appearance in the kitchen and after first casting a dark look at Brett, opened the refrigerator door, extracted his carton of juice and shook it, checking its volume. He frowned, then immediately began berating Brett for his “orange juice thievery.” At first Brett laughed at Jenks, at the little insect character that he had become, but Jenks turned livid. “I’ll have your ass up on charges,” he threatened. He made his fatal mistake when he pointed his index finger at his nemesis and said, “Don’t you ever freakin’ take my orange juice again!”

In short, Brett went berserk. Climbing to his feet, he snatched the carton of juice out of Jenks’s hands and proceeded to pour it on the little guy’s head. Still, Jenks couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He spluttered, “Why you fat-ass…” It was at that point that Brett hoisted the kitchen table – heavy oak – and smashed Jenks like a bug. He ripped a leg off the table for good measure. While this was going on, a newly-sobered Diana climbed out a window and fled to safety. Of course, there were police and attorneys and emergency rooms and all the rest, but those are mere details. Nobody, it turned out, ever even remotely learned their lesson.

Dorms and college houses are traditionally great bastions of storytelling, some of it even true. Big Yellow was no exception. When it came to “When did you, you know, lose your… umm, cherry?” everybody sat around the living room, stoned, reminiscing. The noonday sun peeked through the window.

One girl said she was seventeen; a guy said nineteen; another girl chirped, “Any day now!”

Brett, predictably, topped us all. “Thirteen,” he said with an air of wearied sophistication.

“Thirteen?” we exclaimed, not sure if he was telling the truth or not. “What was her name?” someone asked.

He shrugged. “I dunno. Some retarded chick, from the Special School District,” he said and laughed, full of fond memories. “We all did her,” he remembered.

All of you?” asked John, the gay house manager. “How many were there?”

Brett actually began counting on his fingers. “Fourteen,” he said at last.

“Man,” said John. “And people say gays are indiscriminate!” Brett, taking up the thread, went on to remark conversationally that someone had actually urinated in this unfortunate girl’s vagina. We just stared at him, horrified. Under scrutiny, Brett’s face got red as a beet and he confessed that, “It was me. Hadda go to the bathroom real bad.”

Brett and I both worked in a family-owned restaurant and one day back in the kitchen the three cooks, Brett, myself and Rocco, an African American man about our age, were talking about – what else – sex. Rocco told us proudly that he had bedded over two hundred different women “so far,” and he already had five kids. Brett said that’s nothing: he turned up a small cassette player and inserted a tape. Coming from the speakers was the tinny voice of a woman we all knew, enraptured in passion. Brett explained that he had “wired my bed” prior to entertaining this woman one night. He had actually taken the tape, he said, “To White City,” home to a regional porn festival, with some of his best (male) friends and entertained them with her moaning and gasping. He laughed uproariously. Rocco and I, once again, just stared at him.

One weekend night, Vahid and I sat in my third floor atelier, eating psilocybin and smoking dope. Suddenly there was a deafening knock at the door at the base of the stairway which connected the two floors. “Come on up,” I shouted. Up tromped our housemate Brett plus a friend, Rick. The former carried with him two prodigious bottles of wine. The first of the bottles I recognized as my own, from the stock that I kept in the refrigerator downstairs. Brett had apparently appropriated it without permission. The other bottle, to me, was a mystery. Rick was a Philosophy major, dedicated to Nietzsche, while Brett had an undeclared major, if you didn’t count drinking.

“What are you guys doing?” bellowed Brett. The other three men winced a little at the painfully loud voice. Clearly Brett had already been imbibing heavily. “Let’s have some wine,” he enjoined.

“What kind is it?” asked Vahid a little suspiciously. Brett was not known for his taste in spirits. Or in much of anything else, either.

Brett shrugged. “Two dollars a bottle,” he replied. The others figuratively rolled their eyes. Vahid accepted the bottles, examined the one that Brett had bought, said, “Annie Green Springs, ’72; that was a good year.”

“That’s this year,” Rick pointed out, speaking for the first time. His hands were shaking. His long blond hair appeared uncharacteristically tousled and dirty.

“Well,” said Brett. “This has been a pretty good year, so far. I’ll drink it.”

I turned up four wine glasses and the two newcomers spread out over the floor, joining me. Vahid remained on his perch in the hammock. Carefully, I decanted the wine. We all sipped except for Brett, who upended his like a shot glass, draining it. While the others continued sipping, Brett filled and emptied his own glass no less than three times. The first bottle was soon depleted and the second was fast losing volume. At length, Brett bawled, “Hey, Sturges, you got any more booze?”

I walked in the direction of a mini-fridge and returned bearing two bottles of champagne. “Oh, boy!” Brett grinned stupidly, reaching for one of the bottles.

Vahid asked Rick: “What’s the matter with you?” The other man, whose complexion was ashen, was still trembling and was now breathing rapidly as well. “I dropped some acid a little while ago,” he confessed through chattering teeth.

“What kind was it?” asked Vahid.

“I don’t know, I bought it down at the bar. It was a little square of cardboard and it had a picture of Mr. Natural emblazoned on it. The guy said it was Windowpane.”

“Huh,” I remarked. “I never saw a hit of acid that wasn’t supposedly Windowpane. It’s probably rat poison diluted with aspirin.” Rick got a little paler.

“We both did some magic mushrooms,” said Vahid. “Sturges had some wild hallucinations, but I haven’t got off yet.” Brett, meanwhile, had by himself consumed an entire bottle of the wine and was reaching eagerly for the other.

“Hey, slow down, man,” cautioned Vahid. “We have to stretch that out and there are three more of us here.” With poor grace, Brett relinquished the bottle and sat sulking.

“Anybody got any pot?” Vahid asked the assembly for perhaps the tenth time, in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone shook their heads but for Brett, who frowned disgustedly; he did not approve of marijuana. “I want to get higher. The mushrooms are wearing off,” explained Vahid. “Come on, someone of you has to have something…”

Suddenly Brett’s eyes opened wide. “I got some Black Beauties,” he said helpfully, then hiccupped loudly.

“Where’d you get these?” I asked.

“Got ’em for my birthday, from Laura,” replied Brett, referencing his sometimes girlfriend. “She got them so I could cram for midterms.”

“Yeah, General Studies can be brutal,” snarked Vahid.

“Your birthday isn’t till March,” Rick pointed out.

“Yeah, but Laura don’t know that,” said Brett with a wink.

“Why’d you lie to her?” asked Vahid.

“Because, Laura’s birthday’s in March, too. And I want to be sure and break up with her just before. Then I won’t have to buy her a present,” he explained with elegant simplicity. “You guys should remember: always break up with your girl just before your birthday and around Christmas,” he counseled. We had all heard this before.

“Great,” I replied. “If you’re done giving out romantic advice, then cough ’em up.” Brett dug in his pockets, pulled out six large black capsules, along with a ball of fuzz and an old Tic Tac. I repaired to my dresser, where I turned up a small square mirror, a razor blade and a ten-dollar bill. “I’ll be ready in just a minute,” I promised, breaking open a capsule and spreading the crystalline contents over the surface of the mirror. Brett, meanwhile, sat eyeing the remaining bottle of wine enviously. Vahid clutched it tighter to his chest. Rolling the bill into a tight narrow tube, I handed it to Vahid. Next, I occupied myself with moving the bright white particles over the surface of the mirror with the razor blade, eventually coaxing it into long, narrow lines. “Go ahead, Vahid,” I said, “take a hit.”

“Hey,” protested Brett belligerently. “I should go first! I brought ’em. What have you guys ever given me?”

“Try three bottles of wine,” I advised pointedly.

“Two bottles,” corrected Brett.

“Don’t worry, you’ll drink the third one,” predicted Vahid. At this, Brett had the grace to blush, and then he grinned a little sheepishly.

“You’ll get your turn,” I promised. The housemates, excluding Rick, proceeded to snort up the Biphetamine crystals, each capsule, then each line, in its turn. Rick, meanwhile, appeared to be steadily declining. “Doesn’t that stuff burn your nose?’ he asked. No one answered him.

Brett, stoked up on the speed, leaned close to Rick, told him in an earnest voice, “Those bugs are really something.” Rick startled a little.

“What bugs?” he demanded, trembling a bit more.

“The ones all over your arms and shoulders and chest, and crawling in your hair…” replied Brett. At this, Rick became unraveled, scratching his arms and torso with frenzied hands.

“Hey, that’s not cool.” remarked Vahid. “That’s not cool at all! Come here, Rick. You need to come down off that acid.” Rick regarded him with what Vahid took for a look of desperate gratitude. “Here,” said Vahid, “I’ll give you some Valium; that’s what takes people down off acid.”

“It does?” asked Rick, his eyes even wider than ever but shaking a little less now.

“Yes,” said Vahid, sounding as authoritative as a worldly 17-year-old can. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a blue tablet. “Valium is supposed to be yellow,” Rick pointed out.

“Valium comes in three strengths,” Vahid said knowingly. “The white ones, the 1s, are for the housewives who can’t cope; the 5s, the yellow ones, are for people to come down off the speed they take all day to stay awake; people like Brett,” he nodded curtly at the dipsomaniac. Brett frowned darkly at Vahid’s dismissive tone. He continued, “And the blue ones, the 10s, are for coming down from psychotic episodes, like a bad trip. Swallow this,” he said, handing Rick the tablet and extracting the now opened wine bottle from Brett’s hands. Rick did as directed, drank from the bottle, looked at Vahid expectantly. “Takes about fifteen minutes to get into your bloodstream,” advised the teenaged drug expert.

“Hey, gimme one of those Valiums,” said Brett. “I’m all tied up in knots from the speed.” Vahid obligingly offered a tablet to his housemate. Brett took up and drained the remaining wine. Vahid and I glanced at each other and shook our heads wryly. Within moments, Brett was unconscious and lying across my bed, and closely resembling a beached whale.

Ten minutes later, Rick was asleep in the hammock that Vahid had vacated. I regarded the A-frame, took stock of the inert bodies, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays, discarded clothing, other detritus from the party. “How are we going to get all this dead meat out of here?” I asked Vahid.

“We could drag them to the window and toss them out.” I looked speculatively at my friend. “We’re only on the third floor,” Vahid added persuasively.

“I guess we could roll them down the stairs,” i conjectured.

“I know,” said Vahid, “I’ll bring the blender and some plastic bags up here and we can cut them into tiny pieces and…”

“We’ll just let them sleep it off,” I said determinedly. “Man,” I asked, “was that really Valium you gave them? I mean, they went out like lights. I thought maybe it was Darvon on Seconal or something.” Vahid mustered a tiny smile.

“Actually,” he said, “I didn’t have any Valium, but I had read where that’s part of the protocol to bring people down off LSD trips. They use it in Emergency Rooms and Drug Rehab Centers, at rock concerts, you know.”

“Then what was it?”


“Huh? What’s that?”

“A super laxative, man. When I went to the bathroom the last time I pulled them out of the medicine chest. And they should all be getting off in their own way in just a couple of hours.” Through the open window the morning sun was breaking, a gentle breeze ruffling the curtains. The temperature in the apartment was frigid.

“Party poopers, in other words,” I suggested, with a tiny smile.

“Exactly, man.”

Time wore on and eventually everybody got degrees of one sort or another. But just before he graduated, the lion was bearded in his den: Brett somehow got a regular, permanent-type girlfriend, with whom he was going to live. He seemed to actually have feelings for her. He had always waxed eloquent on the prospects of such a person in his life: “You know,” he’d say, “about a two or three year relationship, where the girl would post your bail or take you in if you’re drunk, and like that…” As I helped him load his belongings onto the truck he’d rented, Brett paused and patted a disreputable old recliner sitting in the corner of his room. The fabric was torn and the stuffing was coming out on all sides. “A lot of good screwing happened in this old chair,” he remembered fondly. “I’ll leave it to the house,” he announced generously.

Brett waxed eloquent in his final minutes in Big Yellow about how to “control” the women in your life. “You screw them in the ass at least once,” he advised, “in order to humiliate them.” That left me… speechless. Then, taking a shoebox full of unused condoms – we’d find out later that he’d left the used ones in his closet – he staggered, drunk, down the stairs, out the door, past the rented truck and into the street, where he was immediately run over by a liquor store delivery truck. The last I saw of Brett, the EMTs were loading him onto a stretcher as Brett juggled a bottle of Crown Royal. But I did hear from a mutual acquaintance that he’d eventually become a lawyer and then a judge. He was really going somewhere, they said.


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