When we first met, I thought that he was odd. Odd, but harmless. He and I were first-year master’s students in the English department; we were supposed to be a little strange.

The accent underlying his slow speech pattern was pure New York. New Yorkers began making Vermont, especially Burlington, their colony sometime around 1968. These typically white, wealthy, and far-left urbanites sought out the bucolic dream and displaced the more rooted cultures of Scots-Irish Yankees and French-Canadian Catholics. The green grass and greener mountains are still there and still verdant, but Vermont will never again produce a Calvin Coolidge, America’s second greatest president, thanks to transplanted bilge like Bernie Sanders.

The University of Vermont was full of such New Yorkers. The Massachusetts contingent, dubbed “Massholes,” were equally annoying with their ski bunny outfits and redundant yarns about chasing white powder on Mont Blanc or Sunapee. Connecticut kids were the worst of all.

Allen (not his real name) was superficially no different than this contemptible lot. He was a lifelong city dweller that worshipped Mother Earth but made sure that he kept as far away from the soil as possible. He loved jazz and jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead. Worst of all, Allen would bore me to tears by talking nonstop about writing and his favorite writers.

You see, Allen’s one goal in life was to be a novelist. He wanted to be Philip K. Dick or Don DeLillo. His passion for novel writing was so strong that he talked his advisors into letting him do “something creative” for his thesis rather than the staid literary analysis that the rest of us were forced to complete.

Nobody doubted Allen’s love for the written word. Nobody except for me. I never saw him write a word, nor did I ever hear about him publishing so much as a fart joke in the student newspaper.

Our graduate cohort got along well enough. All told, there was the mom who was always sweet and always sweaty; the outrageously gay Southerner who worshiped New York City and Hillary Clinton; the attractive Vermont native whose dark hair and eyes made us all think that she was Abenaki or possibly Pennacook; the Turkish girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and a quick smile; the tattooed Woodchuck with an incurable Richard Brautigan jones; and the permanently depressed Baudelaire bum whose laziness was matched only by his delusional belief in his own brilliance.

Allen and I were simultaneously inside and outside of this peer group. My status was due to a multiplicity of factors. I am from a lower middle-class and broken family whose roots are in unfashionable locales like Fairmont, West Virginia, Oakland, Maryland, and Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I was neither from the South nor New England, having grown up in north-central West Virginia. When I started the program, I was fresh out of Lackland AFB, where I had spent months baking in the San Antonio heat as a junior enlisted man. I spent the first few weeks in Burlington homeless, and even after I got a moldy apartment in the town’s worst neighborhood, I still preferred to sleep in my office. I was known as the hardworking “fascist” who wore ties to work, polished his shoes, and turned in his assignments early.

Allen was mostly a ghost. Unlike me, he never hung around the office. When I’d be consoling crying students or trying to talk one out of stalking his ex-girlfriend, Allen would be somewhere in the town among the unwashed 40,000 or so. His usual haunts were a boutique soup kitchen (yes, you read that right) and a bar/café that trafficked in pretensions so large that it was vomit-inducing.

On the rare occasions when Allen would hang around in the office, he and I would talk about writing or his fruitless hunts for dishwashing jobs. Allen never did find work, and more tellingly, he never wrote a single word those four years we were in Vermont together.

Things did not get scary until the summer after our first year. That was a bad summer. Every job application I sent out went unanswered. The only thing keeping me afloat was my monthly payout from the U.S. Navy Reserve. Money was so thin that on one weekend, I couldn’t afford the gas my 1996 Buick Century required for the hour-plus drive to the station in White River Junction. I would go days with just one meal or would skip food altogether. When I managed to eat, my diet consisted of day-old bread and intermittent pieces of summer sausage. My grimy apartment had no electricity, no Internet connection, and no furniture beyond a single couch. At the nadir, I walked down to Lake Champlain with the full intention of jumping in and never coming back up for air.

During that awful summer, I would spend weeks in my office watching Netflix and YouTube. I would sleep on the floor or would straddle my body across two desk chairs. The Nepalese cleaners, who already thought that the building was haunted, hated me and resented my occupation of the office.

Allen would come around some nights. One night in particular stands out. I found Allen sweaty and glass-eyed in the dark hallway that connected our offices to the nearest restroom. I stopped to say hello. Allen just looked at me and tried to talk. Instead of words, his mouth barreled out one “um” after another. He never did form a single, coherent word. I went back to my office-cum-apartment and told myself, “Wow, something is really wrong with Allen.”

Allen got worse, but at first, his descent into madness had a type of bumbling, Mr. Magoo quality to it that was endearing. One time, he locked his office and went home without realizing that he had left Nathan, the piss-poor flâneur, in the lurch. We had to go to Allen’s surprisingly clean apartment in order to retrieve the flathead key.

It was a Monday or Tuesday morning when I covered Allen’s class for him, and his frightened-looking students told me that they had not done anything—not a single thing—for weeks. They told me that Allen would come into class with the textbook, open it, and would read quietly to himself for the full 50 minutes. The students pantomimed along. Well, some of them did. The bolder ones would put their feet up and look at their cell phones. Some just packed up and went home.

Allen would eventually stop going to class altogether. The grad student grapevine grew heavy with word that he had dropped out. The reason: a psychotic episode. I do not remember who, but one of us found out that Allen had a history of mental illness. We’re talking about the big guns, too. Allen had previously been institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His wealthy parents had used their many bank notes to bail him out of one jam after another, and even though Allen was in his early 30s when I knew him, his parents still regularly checked in on him to make sure he was taking his meds. Well, Allen wasn’t taking his pills.

The Allen front went quiet for a year and a half. He did not graduate with us, and he did not show up at the ceremony. I stuck around in Burlington. My original plan was to work for a year, save some cash, and then apply to doctorate programs. I wound up staying two years and was still broke when I started my Ph.D program. Despite working two QA jobs that paid me $50,000 and $48,000 respectively, and despite seven months of part-time work at Barnes and Noble, I could not hang on to a dime.

Burlington, a pointlessly expensive city, ate a big chunk of my billfold. My girlfriend, a beautiful, but depressive Korean who slept between 12 and 14 hours each day, ate some too, as I let her live rent-free in my trash heap of a pad. The rest went to my book addiction.

Allen sent me an email not long after I had been laid off from my first QA gig. The company’s new CEO had had the stones to make me train my Indian replacements before I was allowed to leave with a small severance package. I was steaming mad and without work when Allen asked me out to drinks.

Allen turned my rage into fear. The fear came from the fact that Allen, my former peer and sometime friend, had lost it. Gone were the glass eyes and stuttering mouth. They had been replaced by a wild-eyed man with an unkempt beard and mustard-stained clothing. Allen smelled like hell and looked even worse. That night, as we kicked back beers at the hipster watering hole, I listened as Allen pontificated on UFOs, whether or not Jesus Christ was actually Osama bin Laden, and the fact that his father was poisoning him with lithium. I paid for the drinks and bought Allen a hamburger, which promptly went all over his brown flannel shirt. That night, I made my girlfriend promise to never let me hang out with Allen ever again.

That promise didn’t see the end of the year. I got another email from Allen months later. This one said something about a court-ordered vacation at a hospital ward. Allen wanted to know if I would visit him. I agreed to go because nobody else would.

The loony bin was at the tippy-top of the hospital. Its floors and walls were antiseptic and smelled of ammonia. The two guards frisked me to make sure that I had nothing sharp on me. Only after passing them, a chubby white undergraduate and a large black man with East African, probably Somali features, was I allowed to walk the hallways in search of Allen. I found him standing next to his room.

Beside Allen was a patient with a larger beard, rat-like eyes, and a head full of gray teeth. The man had the blankest look that I have ever seen. I would later find out that he was an illegal immigrant from Russia who had been arrested several times for allegedly stalking local co-eds. Allen and him were talking, but not to each other or anyone in particular. I noticed that both Allen and the Russian wore soft and fuzzy wristbands, which I surmised were worn to prevent them from carving into their veins. It was that kind of place.

The hour or two I spent with Allen in the mental ward was uneventful. Allen talked about writing and the political bias of the New Yorker. He mocked the other patients for their addictions to happy pills. He also accused someone, maybe the Russian, of stealing his slick and glossy lit mags.

The only thing that I remember from this bizarre night was Allen’s confession. Without a trace of shame or embarrassment, Allen told me that Chittenden County had locked him up because he had attacked his neighbor. His female neighbor. In Allen’s telling, the woman was a spy for the CIA who Allen had caught rifling through his mail. The girl’s life was only saved because her boyfriend intervened and slugged the slight-shouldered Allen a few times in the mush. I didn’t see any bruises, but Allen’s beard could hide a lot of things, including black-and-blue blotches.

That was my last face-to-face meeting with Allen. I left the hospital that night convinced that he was soon to be a jailbird. Either that or a full-time resident of the funny farm. Allen’s silence was confirmation enough. But, as ever, Allen came stumbling back into my life thanks to an out-of-the-blue email.

This one, which I received after I had already moved 228 miles southeast, asked me if I would be willing to co-sign a lease application. Allen told me he had gotten kicked out of his last apartment and he was now looking at a cheaper option somewhere closer to downtown. The truth was that Allen had gotten the boot because he never paid his rent and fought all the time with his neighbors.

I made up some lame excuse and refused to put my name on anything. Allen sent back a terse “okay.” That’s it. That’s the end of it (I think). Allen is probably somewhere in Burlington, Vermont right now. He could be sleeping on a bench or out in the open air near Lake Champlain. He probably reeks of shit. His teeth have to be a shade between gold and green, and I would be surprised if he’s wearing a different shirt. The only good thing he has going is that birds probably find his beard a perfect nest.

Or, conversely, Allen could be dead or in New York City. If I had to choose, I’d choose death.


This is an excerpt from Benjamin Welton’s new memoir, Scattered Scenes of Sex and Violence. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.