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Dropping acid with a local hooker on a Saturday night was typical for Brandon Cowley after a rough week of seeing patients and charting for managed care. His marriage was over despite the fact he and his wife still shared a home. He had moved into a second bedroom two years ago to avoid her snoring, but the truth was, he was escaping into his own fantasy world. The ladies of the evening were painted in primary colors with track marks clearly visible amidst the dangling cheap jewelry. Skirts were hiked up above the thighs leaving little to the imagination for the Johns who frequented south Austin. Neon glare erased the deep lines and sagging skin of aging prostitutes who turned tricks to feed their drug habits or to satisfy their pimps. The scene was definitely not one published by the Austin Chamber of Commerce for businessmen seeking dark pleasures beyond the usual escort services.
In one corner of a stairwell, a young girl barely sixteen years old smiled at Brandon as he cruised the red light district. "You want a good time tonight, Romeo? I can make your dreams come true." The girl's breasts pushed hard against her D-cup with stretch marks from the silicone implants. Her wrap-around, floral skirt in pinks and blues met her sleeveless, white blouse above her navel. A red, push-up bra was apparent underneath her blouse, giving her top a pinkish color of youth. Her skin was shiny and tan, undoubtedly from hours spent in a tanning salon. The black hair fell over her soft shoulders, giving her the appearance of a porcelain doll. As Brandon moved closer, her rose-scented, shiny hair permeated his nostrils. Fingernails and toenails were painted a dark, ruby red. Her eye shadow was lavender surrounding each brown eye. Electrolysis had removed any facial hair from her olive skin.
Tonight was special. Brandon was celebrating his thirtieth wedding anniversary with a woman dying slowly of breast cancer. He could not stand to look at the scars from her reconstructive breast surgery. For years he had fondled her small breasts, now grotesquely deformed from the radiation, surgery, and chemo. When they shared a bed, he closed his eyes while making love to his wife to keep from having to look at her scarred body, growing stretch marks, and sagging skin. She had been beautiful when they met in college thirty-two years ago. He was majoring in chemistry in the premed program at the University of Texas. She was majoring in journalism and was a Kappa and superb swimmer.
Their first encounter was at a fraternity mixer at the Sig Ep house on nineteenth street. A friend introduced him to Marlene who was from River Oaks in Houston. Her father was a prominent banker who had started River Oaks Bank and Trust. His wealth grew exponentially as property values skyrocketed inside the loop and big oil and gas fed the bank. Marlene was an only child who knew only the opulence of private schools, cotillions, European vacations, and the usual assortment of toys that accompany an only child. Marlene was daddy's little princess and he showered her with affection and gifts. Dating was perfunctory in the upper, social circles wherein the event was more important that the participants.
Marlene was a Houston debutante and volunteered with the Houston Symphony and ballet. Her parents were Platinum Patrons of the arts and owned front-row seats for all the major performances in the Theater District. Her petite frame was the result of years of bingeing and purging to avoid extra pounds and inches that might insult her waistline. At least two hospital admissions were due to her eating disorder. The first one came at twelve when her hair fell out and her menses had not started. Her eight-five pounds barely covered her sixty-three inches. An irregular heartbeat prompted her parents to call the paramedics. A six-week stay put twenty pounds on her emaciated body and she was able to keep food down. Her second admission occurred at eighteen when her weight plummeted to ninety pounds after a year of laxatives that led to Hepatitis C and a severe GI infection with stomach ulcers. She would have died in the hospital if it were not for the heroic efforts of her doctors and nurses.
Marlene was tired of the limelight by the time she reached college. Her decision to major in journalism was to make use of her writing talents and to put her behind the scenes. Reporting about others' lives allowed her the anonymity she desperately sought as a child. Pampered and cajoled her entire life, she longed for a more secluded existence which was precisely the reason she chose the University of Texas. With forty thousand students she had no trouble hiding in her large freshman and sophomore classes. Even her swimming provided her some privacy, neatly tucked away between two other swimmers in a lane running fifty meters. With the headgear and goggles she could retreat into a world of blue water. Her sleek body, hardened by years of conditioning and training, propelled her through the water with ease and grace.
Brandon enjoyed watching Marlene's practices and meets and was her biggest fan. He vicariously pulled for his girlfriend from the stands. Not the jock in high school, his nerdy appearance did not permit him to travel in the same social circles as Marlene. Brandon's family was from Dallas. His father owned a body shop where his mother kept the books. The family business grew modestly over the years but at the expense of Brandon and his two brothers spending afternoons after school bonding and spray painting damaged vehicles. Summers were hot and sticky inside the garage, despite the warm air being pushed around by the floor fans. When Brandon was not studying to maintain his A average he worked to reduce labor costs.
The Cowleys were a close family where evening meals were shared and grace was given. Brandon's mother was deeply religious and went to mass daily to seek forgiveness and favor for her family. As a boy, Brandon and his brother would kneel in the pews poking each other while the priest mumbled in Latin. Many a rib had been bruised by his mother's sharp elbow. His father was more subdued and said little at home. Brandon's paternal grandparents lived with them because of his father's refusal to place his parents in a nursing home. Despite their frailty, grandma and grandpa Cowley still toasted an eight-ounce glass of beer at mealtime. The elder Cowleys had emigrated to the U.S. from Belfast in the twenties. Grandpa Cowley worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh while grandma sewed for families before landing a job in the garment district on the lower, east side. Hard work was not a stranger to the Cowleys, but it did take its toll on the body. Emphysema and arthritis had taken hold of his grandparents when he was in high school, ravaging their once-strong Irish bodies.
Brandon's grandparents came to America to escape persecution from the Protestants who controlled jobs and the streets in Belfast in the early twentieth century. Grandpa Cowley was a blacksmith in Ireland and left the country with his new bride of eighteen to escape the bigotry and zealotry of Northern Ireland. The young bride quickly delivered to her husband five children in seven years before a hysterectomy was ordered by her physician to prevent any further hemorrhaging during subsequent pregnancies. Brandon's father was the oldest of five boys who all worked in the steel mills. The smelter reached temperatures of a thousand degrees as the amorphous metal was molded into steel beams for the undergirding that would support the skyscrapers overlooking the three rivers encapsulating downtown Pittsburgh. His father was strong and sinewy and broke up many a fight when he was a young lad on the lower, east side.
Brandon's uncles all stayed in Pittsburgh. Two continued with the steel mills, one became a fireman and the other decided to wear the blue uniform and protect the people. Only his father decided to move south when he finished high school and used his mechanical skills to work on cars in Dallas in the forties. He met Brandon's mother at a USO dance after returning from Europe in nineteen forty-five. His father had fought Rommel in Northern Africa as part of Patton's tiger tank patrol. His mechanical prowess kept many a tank rolling across the sandy desert in hundred and ten-degree climate. When the war in Europe was over in June, Brandon's father and mother quickly married after finding out Brandon was three months in utero.
The next ten years of Brandon's parents' lives were spent raising two boys and running a two-stall garage. Brandon and his younger brother, Kevin, played on the floor with the adding machine tape that spilled over from their mother's quick and dexterous pushing of the ten keys. Their father sweated underneath cars in the back of the garage. His blue coveralls were smeared with grease and oil as a testament to his hard work. Brandon remembers his father's hands as huge sometimes carrying three wrenches, jack, and tire swung over one arm. He also remembered his father's big imprint left on his butt after a minor scuffle with his brother. Most, if not all of the spankings were deserved because of the boredom for a nine and seven-year old.
When Brandon entered high school, his father purchased a body shop with the help of an SBA loan. It was here that the younger Cowley learned to work with his hands with the deftness of a skilled surgeon, transforming the scrapes and dents into a work of art. Time not at the shop was spent studying. Ever since Brandon was sixteen he knew he wanted to be a doctor and utilize his hands to save lives rather than restoring damaged cars. The heat of the garage, he would gladly trade for the heat of a ceiling lamp carefully positioned over the reposed body awaiting a new heart.
Kevin was not the student that Brandon was, in large part due to his dyslexia that prevented Kevin from reading numbers and letters like his brother. Math and English were exceedingly difficult for the younger brother despite Brandon's tutoring. Kevin squeaked by in special education classes and was delighted when he could begin his co-op program as a junior in high school. Kevin worked along side his father to sharpen the craft his father had taught him. It was understood by all that Kevin would one day take over the shop when his father was ready to retire. Brandon had no interest in becoming a grease monkey and longed for a better, less arduous life.
Brandon was delighted to receive his acceptance letter to the University of Texas in the spring of nineteen sixty-four and spent his last summer in Dallas helping his family with the business. In August he loaded his belongings in two suitcases and took a Trailways bus southbound I 35 for the two hundred mile-trip to Austin. His dorm assignment was on the second floor of Prather Dorm right across from the football stadium. The dorms were not air-conditioned and his first purchase was a small, oscillating fan that moved the warm air around the room. Except for the lack of tools and vehicles, Brandon might as well been back in his father's garage.
His first semester was a no-brainer. Even his calculus and chemistry classes were easy. Weekends were spent at the Student Union where cheap entertainment was available. Across campus his future wife was caught up in her Kappa pledge class and pretending to be interested in Neanderthal jocks who fancied themselves as God's gift to women. Mixers were a favorite among the Greek community on weekends. As the evening regressed, the coats and ties were coated with beer stains while alcohol levels climbed into the teens. As long as the music was loud and the tap was flowing, the evening was deemed a success by the frat boys who lusted after their dates attempting to score and improve their macho ranking within the fraternity.
Marlene was not a drinker and sipped on ginger ale with a twist of lime. Her dates were too drunk to notice the difference. She typically left the parties by eleven to escape the drunken brawls that ensued after the beer ran out. She lived in the Kappa house and was president of her pledge class. She spent the rest of her evenings reading and listening to music. The raucous crowd of Greeks typically dropped their dates off by two a.m. Marlene nursed her pledge class back to life after too much drinking and groping. Kappa's were known for their intellect and athleticism, unlike the Chi Os and Tri-Delts who were more class conscious and interested in marrying into even more money.
After fall grades came out, Brandon was heavily recruited by the major frats interested in improving their collective GPAs to improve their status within the Inter-fraternity Council (IFC). The Sig Eps had a reputation for hard drinkers and good old boys whose daddies owned plenty of Texas land with cattle and mineral rights. Grades were not their strong suit and Brandon was the first Catholic to pledge the Sig Eps. He quickly became a tutor for many in his pledge class who had previously relied on old exams neatly cataloged in file cabinets on the second floor of the frat house. The house was a welcomed change from his dorm room, despite the fact of increased noise and senseless hazing. His big brother, Hank, went easy on Brandon for fear of damaging his one asset that would improve the GPAs of the freshman pledges.
It was in March at the annual Texas Independence Day celebration where the Sig Eps shot the cannon towards the university with its Anglo members dressed as Mexicans in ridiculous sombreros and serapes. Plenty of beer flowed beginning around ten in the morning, well in time for the afternoon siesta to restore their fighting spirit for the Kappa mixer that night. It was at this meeting that Brandon and Marlene would forge a friendship that would last the next thirty years. The spark that ignited their friendship was their love of learning and helping others. Marlene was delighted that Brandon was a teetotaler, preferring large amounts of cola.
They quickly dated each other exclusively and spent many study-nights together at the library. To say that they were in love was stretching it a bit. Friends and companions, yes, but lovers, no. The body chemistry was not there but they cared deeply for one another. They went everywhere together-to Barton Springs, Zilker Park, the lake, and small towns surrounding Austin in the hill country of mesquite trees and limestone. They both graduated in nineteen sixty-nine-Marlene with a degree in journalism and Brandon with his degree in chemistry and his acceptance at UTMB in Galveston for medical school. They married that summer and spent their first year together on Galveston Island.
The young girl took Brandon by the arm and led him up a dimly-lit stairwell to a second-floor room. He rolled a reefer while she snorted three lines of coke. The next fifteen minutes were uneventful except for a few faked moans while she allowed Brandon to use all her orifices to pleasure himself. Fifty dollars was a cheap date without the trappings of intimacy and commitment. He dressed quietly and left the girl showering for her next customer. After thirty years of marriage, a thriving surgical practice, lucrative board appointments, and local community philanthropy, his life was reduced to a fifteen-minute interlude with a prostitute on a Saturday night.