I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Greg Hungerford: A Remembrance

I met Greg Hungerford in college as a friend of a friend of a friend. We talked occasionally, but weren’t particularly close. Then fall break rolled around and the campus cleared out. I didn’t have a car and my parents couldn’t afford the gas to drive across the state to pick me up. I was facing a long weekend hanging around my dorm alone.

On the afternoon that the break began the cafeteria was closing at 5:00. I went in to grab my last free meal and spotted Greg sitting alone. I joined him and found out he also was going to be stuck on campus during the break.

After dinner, we wound up playing rummy. It was customary to play to 500. As luck would have it we wound up tied. Instead of playing one more hand to see who could break the tie, we decided to play to 1000. We talked a lot as we played. I discovered he’d also been raised as a fundamentalist, but was now an atheist. I’d been an atheist for years, but Greg was the first fellow atheist I’d ever met. In addition to being godless, we also bonded over the fact that we were both flat broke at a school where so many of the students came from wealthy families. We found it ironic that so much wealth was thrown around at a Christian college by people whose faith regarded money as the root of all evil.

We neared 1000 points in our game. We decided to keep playing until the break was over and see how many points could be scored in a four day rummy game.

Greg finished the long weekend with 12000 points, handily beating me with only 11,000. He filled an entire notebook with our scorekeeping. From that game forward, we were close friends.

When I graduated college, Greg remained in school because he was a few credits away from finishing his degree. He kept changing majors, and kept dropping classes that bored him. His four year degree stretched into five years, then six. From the day I met Greg, he was a left-wing radical, proudly declaring himself a communist. He hated every aspect of capitalism, especially the whole having a job part, and was notorious for never holding on to any job more than a week, assuming he even showed up for a job at all. For a while, I rented a house with him and another guy I knew from college, but Greg’s lackluster approach to paying his bills created tension that eventually sent us in different directions. In those pre-internet days, it was difficult to keep track of people. From time to time I’d hear rumors that Greg had gone back to school, or that he’d moved to Atlanta, or had landed a role in a play somewhere.

I got married and moved to Richmond. My parents lived near Asheboro. I went home to see them for Thanksgiving. I’d once dropped Greg off at his mother’s house in Walnut Cove, about 50 miles away, and thought I could find my way back to it. On the chance he’d come home for Thanksgiving, I drove up to pay his mother a visit. If nothing else, maybe I’d at least get his current address or phone number. When I knocked on the door, it was Greg who answered.

We spent hours catching up. He didn’t think he was ever going back to school. He’d gotten involved with a woman he met doing a play and wound up moving to Athens. She’d smoked and now he smoked, a big shock, since in college we both hated smokers. The girlfriend hadn’t stuck around, but the cigarettes had. I told him I was worried about my own marriage, and pretty unhappy with my job. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t quit. I had rent and a car payment and several thousand dollars in credit card debt. He’d had his last car repossessed and no bank in its right mind would issue him a credit card. He didn’t even have a checking account. He assured me it made his life simpler to handle everything with cash. I kind of envied him.

Before I left, he told he had something to show me. He ran up to his room and came back a minute later with a notebook. It was the book he’d filled up with our rummy scores. We said the next time we got together we’d have to play another game.

I left with his mother’s phone number. I didn’t see him again until I got divorced. He’d just broken up with another girlfriend and moved back in with his mother. I was about to turn thirty, and felt like my life was falling apart. I hated my job, felt trapped by my debts, and worried I was destined to grow old alone. A had some time off around the New Year, so we drove out to Atlantic beach. We played a lot of rummy. We also wound up taking a five mile walk on the beach where we both did a pretty thorough inventory of all the ways we’d screwed up our lives. As we reached the end of the island, it started to rain. It felt like a metaphor for the funk we were in. Greg wondered why I wasn’t doing art any more, since I’d drawn all the time in college. I told him that work sapped all my energy. I’d decided to focus on writing since it was a better vehicle for expressing my life’s philosophy, and that I’d finally finished my first novel.

He asked me what my life’s philosophy was. I thought about all the stuff I’d put into the novel.
“Things go wrong,” I said. “Then they get worse. And eventually, something kills you.” Saying it out loud opened my eyes to some of the mental sabotage I was committing against myself. I was working under the premise that failure was inevitable, which gave me an excuse never to accomplish anything important.

I asked Greg about his philosophy. His main goal in life was not to let jerks win. It was why he quit every job he held the second some supervisor gave him grief. I was never able to adopt his attitude of doing what I wanted and ignoring the consequences, but I did respect his approach to life.

I’ve talked about Greg’s joblessness, but I don’t want to give the impression he was lazy. He was actually extremely hardworking, and constantly strived to educate himself. Once he had a daughter, he did start holding onto jobs for longer than he once had, and started to see money as a necessary evil. He drove up to the casino in Cherokee once a month and eventually hit a $25,000 dollar jackpot. He bought a computer with his winnings, got a better car, and stashed away a princely sum of 10,000 dollars. Then the mother of his child stole the money and ran off, abandoning him and their daughter.
Rather than cursing his fate, Greg buckled down, determined to be a great father. The computer he bought turned out to be a lemon, which meant he learned how to repair it, and eventually made a good living repairing computers and scavenging parts off of old computers people threw away and selling the parts on eBay. He was the most organized man I ever knew. If you needed some random screw that attached some tiny piece on a computer no one had made in ten years, he would have that screw bagged and labeled in a filing cabinet. He bought a house and quit smoking. He finally had life figured out.

And all during this time, he helped me figure out my life as well. We lived 90 minutes apart, but every week we’d meet at a restaurant midway between our houses. We’d sit for hours arguing about politics and talking through our latest challenges. I got married again, then got divorced again. I started living with a woman who developed cancer and passed away. Through it all I kept writing, and Greg kept reading what I wrote. When I had my first book published we drove to New York together for the launch party. After the party, we got back to where we’d parked the car and found it had been towed. We had a memorable adventure with a cab driver who spoke no English and a sullen, bitter woman who worked at the New York City impoundment lot who seemed very inconvenienced that I wanted to pay the fine and get my car back.

I have ten thousand crazy Greg stories I don’t have time to tell. We once faked a murder to scam a guy out of fifty bucks. Another time, we watched as someone stole a car parked at a gas pump and then had to flee the car when it ran out of gas barely 100 yards away. We once went into a mall in Asheville to call a friend we hadn’t seen in years, and as we reached the payphone we saw the guy we planned to call walking toward the phone. Another time I drove down to Athens to spend a week with Greg. He was living in a mobile home he rented for twenty bucks a week. The rent was cheap because the whole back side of the mobile home had been torn off by a tornado and was now only a sheet of plastic. On that same trip, we pulled up to a stoplight and saw a paperback book in the intersection. Greg jumped out of the car and grabbed the book. It turned out to be a copy of On the Road\, found on the road. And through the years, we played an insane amount of rummy.

Then, in 2009, our shared adventures came to an end. Greg had been having issues with an irregular heartbeat, and his doctor decided to fit him with a pacemaker. During the operation, he developed a blood clot and passed away.

His loss still haunts me. At the time, I couldn’t imagine life without Greg. But it turns out I’ve never lived my life without Greg. He’s still my best friend. There’s not a day in my life I don’t have conversations with him in my head. Every political story of the last 8 years, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence what his opinion would have been. The fact he never got to vote for Bernie Sanders is heartbreaking.

That isn’t to say I don’t miss him. He wasn’t there when I married Cheryl. He saw my first couple of books make it into print, but never saw the bookshelves in my living room filled with over a dozen titles. We attended a party for his daughter’s high school graduation, and the sting of him not being there was hard to take.

But I’m grateful to have known him. I’m grateful to have learned a lot about life from him while he was living. I’m also grateful for the things he taught me in death. I no longer take my time for granted. I used to take years to write a book. Now, I usually finish at least two a year, with the awareness of mortality pushing me forward. I’m also more careful with my health, eating better and exercising enthusiastically, enjoying life outdoors as I hike and bike and kayak with Cheryl. I think about all the advice he’d give me, and try, when I can, to follow it. Life can be a heavy burden. I’m glad he was there to help me carry it.

I’m still an atheist. I don’t daydream much about heaven. But perhaps I’m wrong. If there is an afterlife, it’s nice to think that Greg is waiting there. I bet he’s shuffling a deck of cards.

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