What’s that? Westbye’s back?!? Well, not really, except to promote! First published article at Elephant right here. C’mon over!
I never meant for this page to be a “blog”, and I still cringe whenever anyone refers to it as such, well-intended though they may be in doing so.
The idea was to continue work I had started, first with a friend, then on my own, to have a page that served as a sort of resume, a body of work I could steer editors, agents, etc. to when the time came. I suppose I “blog” in other places, and I have no problem at all with the blog form, but I wanted something a little more “profound” here. A little more “professional.”
But then a funny thing happened. I started gaining a following of bloggers, and started to return serve. And a real sense of community evolved out of my work. This is not a bad thing, and I’m unspeakably grateful for it.
So why not? I guess I’ll call this a “blog” piece.
Being childless on Father’s Day, and reflecting on life in general lately, here’s a check-in.
I’m 40, pushing 41.
I’m mostly happily married, for ten years this coming Friday. I’m mostly gainfully employed, with a mostly secure life: a house, a paid-for car, two cats, insurance, blah-blah-blah.
I’ve been dealing with a low-level mid-life crisis for a while, I guess around turning 40. Turning 40 was easy. Being 40 has been a bit tougher. I wasn’t afraid of turning 40, except in the sense of wanting to hold on to my 30s a bit longer. My 30s were so great in comparison to my 20s, which were so awful. My 30s were like my chance to re-write my 20s and get it right, and I relished that chance. I guess turning 40, and eliding comfortably into middle age, was a bit of a tougher milestone than I realized, though I still feel younger than I ever have.
My wife and I just returned from nearly two weeks tripping around the U.K. and Paris. This was a trip I had been waiting my entire life for, and it was a game-changer for the good on so many levels. I stood in front of the Mona Lisa, ordered Steak Frites in French and had Crème Brule, mousse and cappuccino in a deserted bistro while a Parisian rain fell. I stuck a finger in Loch Ness. I rode trains everywhere and wrote like a possessed demon. I heard Big Ben strike the hour and spent time loitering in Hyde Park, Henry the VIII’s old hunting grounds. I stood on the graves of Dickens and Darwin and walked the Seine and the Thames and had fish & chips on a rocky beach on the English Channel. I saw thousands of sheep frolicking in pastoral fields along the North Sea and ate Cullen Skink in an Edinburgh gastropub that dated to the 1700s. I paid for drinks in pounds and Euros and I heard accents from every corner of the globe. I fucking LIVED on this trip, like I haven’t lived in years. I live for these chances to recontextualize my life, and this trip served to do so completely.
And I realized something mind-blowing. Back at home I’m existing nicely, but I’m not LIVING.
I’m not following my passions. I’m not living the song in my soul. I’m writing the words in my heart and soul, but I’m not publishing them for money. Full time. I’m not even approaching my potential in life.
I wake, shit/shave/shower, drive, work in a Cube, drive, watch COPS re-runs and a ballgame, try to write, read in bed for a bit and shut the lights out. Lather, rinse, repeat Monday through Friday. On weekends I mow the lawn, wash the cars, clean the house, run errands, try to write and go to bed. I don’t stay up all night burning with passion, I don’t see the sunrise, I don’t push myself to make it with the written word, although that’s the passion that is silently burning a hole in my heart.
I am also battling my demons.
I’ve lived with depression and anxiety my whole life. I’m drastically better than in my 20s, when the demons had such a stranglehold on me that I could hardly get out of bed and the thought of being around people was too much agony to bear.
I’ve spent years on the couch, indulged in my share of recreational self-medication and kept several major pharmaceutical corporations in business. I’ve conquered all this and come to a place of stability and some serenity.
But it’s getting bad again. The anxiety is winning.
I have the greatest friends and family in the world and all I ever want is to take care of them all and save the world, no matter that I can’t. I reach out to friends even if I don’t have to, and then I worry that I’ve reached out too much and am pushing said friends away. I crack a joke and then worry that it was taken the wrong way. I take a comment at face value and spiral into a worry cycle, fearing that everyone sees me in the negative light I suddenly see myself.
I’m drastically better at pulling myself back from these spirals, but it’s getting bad again. And that’s not living.
So I’m now taking a chance to take care of myself. I’m in the market for a new shrink (any recommendations?) and new drugs. I have a slight disorder with my mental wiring: nothing that treatment with therapy and drugs can’t (and haven’t) fixed before.
And I’m exploring new ways to follow my passion. I’m looking at ways to lessen my day-to-day demands and spend more time pursuing the written word and full-time self-sufficiency from it.
I’m going to travel more and write about it. I’m going to flush out that song and present it to the world and submit invoices. I’m going to burn with newly awoken passion. Because that’s all I know.
Life is short. Life is precious. Life is right fucking NOW, and it’s all we have and all we know. It’s time to maximize this life of mine.
I’ve had an amazing run on WordPress. I’ve virtually met some amazing new friends, and my life is richer for it. I’ve reached new peaks of creativity I never thought I could. I learned a hell of a lot about writing, and a hell of a lot about myself. Likesay, it’s been an amazing run.
But all runs come to an end. At some point the act ends, and you rip up the tent pegs and take the Dog & Pony show to the next town. And it feels like a good time to move on from WordPress.
I’ve got some ideas burning a hole in my pocket. I WILL be back, in some other form, and soon. And I’ll keep you all posted.
And I thank you all so much, for reading, for commenting and encouraging. And for allowing me into your worlds. We’ll continue together (and drop a line anytime: email@example.com), and it will be better than ever.
As my old singer Max once wrote, “Just wish me luck and say we’re just changing scenes.”
See you out there somewhere…
Bill Mushnick walked out to the kitchen, grabbed a Rheingold from the ice box, punched a hole in the top with a can opener, stopped and got cigarettes from the box in the living room and returned to the bedroom. Pop would never notice a few of his beers or smokes missing. He pulled up a chair next to the window, opened the turntable and set up a stack of 45s. He had picked out a collection of heartbreak singles for this hooky day.
The Shirelles: “Foolish Little Girl”
The Guess Who: “These Eyes”
Classics IV: “Traces”
Baby Washington: “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”
Gary Puckett And The Union Gap: “Over You”
The Buckinghams: “Kind Of A Drag”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Goin’ Out Of My Head”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Hurt So Bad”
The Association: “Cherish”
Dionne Warwick: “Walk On By”
Sometimes it felt like all he had was rock ‘n roll. Bill found salvation in the sound, comfort in the message. He would snap on his transistor after lights-out and devour his favorite deejays: Murray the K on WINS and Cousin Brucie on WABC. The jockeys and the bands all became his friends, and he wasn’t so lonely anymore. It meant everything to Bill to hear a song like “Cherish” and to know that he wasn’t the only one aching for a girl, or to hear a song like “Nowhere Man” and to know that he wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in. He collected 45s and LPs like other kids collected comic books, and he listened to the radio like other kids breathed.
From his sixth-floor window in the endless brick monolith of Peter Cooper Village, Bill could see 1st Ave, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay and, looming above it all, the old Met Life tower and the Empire State Building. And he could see his classmates heading for another day at M475, Stuyvesant High, on 15th.
And there was Annie, the girl who destroyed him, talking and laughing at the corner of 1st and 22nd with Mark Ingram, his greatest tormentor.
Bill was tall and awkward, with greasy hair and bad skin. Mark called him “Geoffrey Giraffe” after the Toys “R” Us mascot, and “Lava Face.” Mark’s favorite tricks included shoving Bill into his locker, slapping his books out of his hands and holding a lighter under Bill’s chair to make him jump in class. It was relentless torment, and after holding it in all day, Bill cried himself to sleep every weeknight.
And there was Mark, right below his window, with the girl that broke his heart.
Bill thought of yesterday, when he finally worked up the nerve to approach Annie and ask if she wanted to go out with him for a Coke and a movie. He thought of how nervous he was, and how he mispronounced “my treat” as “my sheet.” He thought of her expression and saw it change from confusion to hysterics in slow motion all over again. He thought of her laughing, loud enough for traffic to stop in the hall, and yelling, “with YOU?!? And your sheet?!? Shall I bring my pillow?!?”
Bill thought of his face, blazing red with embarrassment. He thought of how he went through the rest of the day with the eyes of all his classmates boring in on him and the whispered “…did you hear about…” following him from class to class like a snake. He thought of the life he dreamed of having with her crumbling and how he would have to start over.
Sixteen and he already had to start all over again.
He got another beer, pulled the needle off the turntable and snapped on the radio to see what was playing. Dion & The Belmonts: “Teenager In Love.” Perfect.
Then Simon & Garfunkle: “I Am A Rock.”
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
“Yeah, except for Annie,” Bill thought.
If I never loved I never would have cried…
Then Gerry & The Pacemakers: “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.”
But don’t forget that love’s a game, and it will always come again…
Then The Byrds: “My Back Pages.”
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…
And then The Beatles: “Getting Better.”
Getting so much better all the time…
Bill Mushnick rested his chin on the air conditioner unit in the window and stared at the spot where Mark and Annie had been before they headed south on 1st together. The morning was young, the day was new. He was sixteen and starting over, and he had a stack of 45s and a transistor and his best friends with him on the dial. And with that he wasn’t the only one. And he wasn’t alone.
Getting so much better all the time…
Turntable: Retro Wonders http://www.retrowonders.com/45_record_players.htm
Murray the K: Bruce Morrow (a.k.a. Cousin Brucie!) https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bruce-Morrow/109739985719925
Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town: Wired New York http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20403
Image Source: Secret Boston
I have spent countless hours during lunch and after work in Copley Square, around the corner from the blast sight, malingering on the steps of the Boston Public Library with my journal and smoke perpetually in hand.
I have walked past – and across – the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston St. more times than I remember, heart racing with excitement and pride.
I have whiled away many afternoons at the old Samuel Adams Brewpub (oh, don’t go looking for it: it’s not there anymore) in the lobby of the Lenox Hotel, at the finish line, being twenty four and wondering how I would ever earn a living or find a girl.
I have lingered at my bench in the Square, facing the new and old John Hancock towers and H.H. Richardson’s magnificent Trinity Church. This has always been my spot to find tranquility and center myself against the pain in my head.
I have sat at my desk on the 56th floor of the new Hancock Tower during the summer of 1999, when I was working a shitty go-nowhere data entry job, scanning the sweep of Beacon Hill, the dome of the State House – the gold of which was inlayed by Paul Revere himself – and the Harbor, soaking in the history and dreaming of making my own Boston history.
Several nights after the World changed forever for the first time, we walked seven miles from my apartment in Somerville to Copley Square, where we sat by the fountain in front of the church, lit candles and reflected on national tragedy. And we came together as Bostonians, as Americans, and grieved and healed.
Boston made me. Copley Square formed and informed me. My streets, Boylston and Dartmouth, were so tragically scarred forever today.
But there will be healing and rebirth. Boston is great at that.
Image Source: Bite
Carrying on a relationship with somebody you have no business being in a relationship with takes some doing, especially when your “better half” lives two states away. It’s an exercise in low self-esteem, lack of communication skills, apathy, frustration and stupidity. Masochism at its finest. Fortunately, I had practice.
Autumn 1997: I was twenty five and working the graveyard in Maine, having crawled back to my parents briefly, having run out of work and money in Boston. The first time I saw “Carla”, on my first night on the job, I immediately thought of Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) describing second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanaugh) in A League of Their Own: “You know General Omar Bradley? Well, there’s too strong a resemblance!” At the end of that first shift I discovered, much to my horror that I was making out with Carla/Marla in her car. Once committed, we were now stuck. For the next year and eight months.
Twenty months was also the amount of time I spent with The Psychotic Ex. As I said, I had practice. I didn’t have a girlfriend in high school until my senior year. “Anne” arrived fresh from the Midwest in September, and we got on at first. Then she dumped me for a classmate. Then we got back together. Then she dumped me for aNOTHer classmate. Then finally, over Christmas break, we got together for “real.” She was a total nutter, and I should have pressed charges many times over. Her greatest hits included: breaking into my house and stealing my guitar for ransom, stabbing me in the forearm with a steak knife and multiple instances of almost driving off the road in a “suicide” attempt with me in the car, to say nothing of the daily garden variety emotional blackmail, threats and invitations to join her and her other boyfriend(s) for bowling and pizza. BUT, I didn’t want to hurt her, so I took it. And took it. Until I couldn’t anymore.
At twenty five I found myself straddling an interesting line between extreme lack of self-esteem (hi, Anne!) and extreme self-importance: the kind of polar opposites that only serve to reinforce each other. I inhaled college radio during my high school days in the ‘80s. WRBC Bates and WBOR Bowdoin were lifelines, and I fell in love with indie bands such as The Ramones, Hüsker Dü, Agent Orange, The Smithereens, The Feelies and The Pixies. In college, my love of Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg grew, and I discovered Robert Creeley and the brilliant authors Hubert Selby Jr. and Charles Bukowski. Selby’s short-stories resonated, and I could relate to Buke’s drunken madman bum protagonist Henry Chinaski. And nobody else knew of any of my bands and books. At twenty five I figured nobody would want to go out with me, but if anyone ever did, I’d take them to school.
I knew things were doomed with Carla when I saw the Spice Girls poster in her bedroom.
The Spice Girls, fachrissakes?!? I held my tongue at this mainstream outrage, but it was unsettling. Little did I know that this would be the first glimpse of the incompatibility iceberg right ahead. Speaking of which, the next summer we saw Titanic together. She LOVED it, and with that I knew definitively that we had no business being together and that eventually – a year later, as it turns out – I would have to move on.
It wasn’t all bad. I returned to Boston in February 1998, and with that Carla came down usually every other weekend. We took long walks all over town, ate and drank and hung out with my roommates. We both knew that we were completely incompatible, but neither of us knew how to pull the trigger and admit it. So we continued on as…friends with occasional benefits? A couple by default? Other? Something like that.
I never took any steps to find something else, despite the distance. But we both felt the distance. By the summer of 1999, Carla admitted she was feeling a bit restless, and that she sometimes felt bisexual urges.
My self-importance kicked into high gear, and I channeled George Costanza of Seinfeld fame. “Wow, babe,” I said over the phone in my most benevolent encouraging voice. “Maybe that’s something you should look into. I mean, I wouldn’t want to hold you back from being you.” Nope. No, I wouldn’t. We had a trip planned: I was FINALLY going to Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. A trip I had been waiting for my entire life. We talked about the trip and her nascent curiosity and hung up, and for the first time in a loooong time I went to bed optimistic.
The morning of the trip finally arrived, and Carla took Trailways down to Boston. I could tell right away that something was off. She was even more distant than usual, and more emotional. We had a few stress factors that morning. Typical stuff for irresponsible mid 20-somethings: my paycheck was delayed, leaving us short of funds, and there was an issue picking up our rental car. Eventually it all became too much, and the truth came out: Carla started crying like mad and confessed that she couldn’t decide between me, her girlfriend or her other boyfriend.
WOW! What a trifecta! I was GIDDY inside!
We sat under a tree by, I think, the old Bread & Circus store on Westland Ave, and hugged and talked. And we agreed to give it a rest so she could figure things out. I assured Carla I wasn’t mad at her, and I understood and didn’t want to get in the way. (True enough) And she got back on Trailways to Portland.
I picked up a 12-Pack of Samuel Adams and headed back to my apartment to mourn the loss of a trip to Cooperstown and to celebrate the easiest, most gutless breakup of my life and the beginning of the next chapter.
Image Source: Maine Street Photography
She passes by every morning, dragging my heart with her. Always between 8:15 and 8:17, always crossing Congress a block down so that she disappears until she gets to my corner. And when she crosses I always move to the front window so I can see her disappear down the block. Always…always.
Shadows fall and she passes in and out of the sun. In and out, like the 90 seconds she’s in my life every morning, before she’s gone again. I’m the shadow above her, always watching and hoping, maybe this will be the day she looks up and notices and gives me the courage to come down and introduce myself. Maybe today. Maybe…
I want to sleep with her every night for the rest of my life, but I can’t stand the thought of saying hello. Maybe today she’ll look up and give me the courage. Maybe today…maybe…
But she won’t and I won’t.
Unless today is the day that I do. Unless…maybe…
Image Source: The Edmontonian
I love winter, and I embrace it. I can’t afford to go skiing anymore, but even so I love all the outdoor fun that comes from a good, deep blanket of New England snow and sharp cold: tobogganing, ice fishing, pond hockey, you name it. As a Maine man, I also love the romance of winter and the pride of merely surviving day-to-day in extreme conditions.
From November on, I love the absence of light. The sun leaves the sky by 4:00 PM and to me there is nothing cozier than returning home and settling into the night immediately. The back roads are covered in a fog of wood smoke, the most intoxicating smell in the world. These are the days of stews and pies and baked bean suppers, and finding comfort wherever we can. When the snow flies, we Mainers fly into action, and shoveling and plowing snow and sawing and stacking wood become activities ingrained into motor memory. It takes a special character to survive and thrive in a Maine winter, and we pride ourselves on having this fortitude of spirit and intestine.
One of the most critical aspects of surviving a Maine winter is dressing for the occasion, and that means layering. From November through April, my standard wardrobe is t-shirt and a sweater, or t-shirt and a flannel, and often I go t-shirt, long-sleeve Henley and flannel. And frequently I throw on a pair of Long Johns for extra warmth below the equator.
Layering is a time-honored Maine winter tradition. Ironically, I learned the lesson in Florida on a day of national tragedy.
January 28, 1986: I was in seventh grade at Hendricks Methodist in Jacksonville. I was not Methodist, nor anything else: my family went to church as often as we flew first class, which is to say never. I had run into some major bullying issues in public school during my first three years in Jax (as we saw in the five-part series that started here), so my parents thought private school might be a good fit. Good idea, not so great results. But I digress.
Eight days earlier, my science class, led by Ms. Harm, had taken a field trip to Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the First Teacher in Space, New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe. It was a brilliant, chilly day, and I had Led Zeppelin IV for my Walkman. We devoured all the exhibits and went crazy in the gift shop, and as we were herded back to the bus, there it was. The great ship was on the giant transport tractor, making the slow journey to the launch pad. Challenger and her booster rockets practically glowed against the brown/orange of the fuel tank. It was a magnificent site, and we all felt a sense of pride in the upcoming mission.
Eight days later, as the Challenger launched on her doomed flight, one of my “chums” spilled a full carton of chocolate milk all over my lap. The humiliation of my entire table laughing at me as my crotch and legs were doused was bad enough, but there was also a practical problem: my jeans were soaked and it was literally freezing out. What the hell was I going to do to stay warm?
I must have thought of my days tobogganing at the farm and my trusty Long Johns, because I went to my locker, grabbed my gym sweats and put them on, then pulled my jeans back on. I reeked like stale chocolate milk and humiliation. But I was warm.
The layout of Hendricks was definitely unconventional. There were rows of classroom buildings, almost like cabanas or military barracks, with outdoor paths in between wending through palm trees and evergreens with Spanish moss. I remember sitting in Ms. Harm’s science class, warm with my sweats on under my jeans, when she said, “The Challenger has exploded, and there were no survivors.” My class gasped and cried, and we all went outside. And 160 miles to the south, we saw the smoke in the sky: the Y-shaped cloud of death with the huge ball of fire in the middle where the shuttle blew up and the rockets separated. I stood there in the cold, stinking like sour chocolate milk, but layered in warmth, gazing at the smoke in the sky and realizing that the world had just changed inalterably forever.
Later at home I watched President Reagan’s “Touch the Face of God” speech in a fresh pair of pants. I remember the sky outside the Oval Office and how much it reminded me of winter sunsets in Maine (as we’ve seen here, this was a common occurrence for me back then). In spite of the horrors of the day, I remember dreaming of being back at the farm, back home in Maine. I dreamed of those 4:00 PM sunsets and cozy early evenings and wood smoke and sitting by the wood stove, safe and warm, and playing in the snow in the glorious winter cold.
And I remember thinking that when we moved back home, whenever that was, I would spend the rest of my winters layered and happy.
Dawn broke gently, casting charcoal blocks of light against the ink-black ceiling and walls. It was early May, the world in half-bloom, the semester nearly over. An overcast Sunday morning, with spits of rain and fog and birds and lilacs in the air. A beautiful morning to be alive.
Tom Moody lay in bed watching the gray light creep further and further into the room. He had been awake for hours, replaying a night that seemed to start an eternity ago and inhaling the pillow next to him to try to hold on to Corey.
Tom thought of the Galaxy Effect and the time when he coined the phrase. He and his brother Rick, five and eight respectively, awoke at 4:45 AM one Labor Day weekend morning for a flight back home from their grandparent’s and summer vacation. Rick said in the driveway, “Look, there’s Venus!” And Tom thought of that moment at 8:00 PM, 2,000 miles later, and he couldn’t possibly fathom that it had happened on the same day. It seemed like a galaxy ago. Thus, the Galaxy Effect, and he was feeling it thinking of the mere hours it had been since Corey was in this same bed with him.
As he lay in bed in the advancing dawn, Tom thought of Saturday night and how Corey’s boyfriend, his best friend Hank, had been short with her, and how he had left the club early after threatening to smack her one. He thought of Corey at the bar, alone and vulnerable, and how crazy he had been for her for so long. And he thought of how he had found enough of a pair to tell her, and how she had reciprocated in kind and how they had ended up at his off-campus apartment.
He thought of their time together, mutual lust overflowing in…not reckless, but contained…abandon, both of them knowing that this was just an interlude: a break in routine…and that all was fleeting but perfect.
He thought of Corey lying next to him, recovering, radio playing low, and her retreat back to Hank. He thought of her final kiss: firm, on closed lips, a definitive “if I weren’t with this guy, then…” statement.
He thought of her closing the bedroom door and slinking out of his off-campus apartment, back to her man, while he lay there sleepless and restless, the night and the past barreling through his mind like a film montage.
He thought of the gray blocks of light on the ceiling. The Gray Hour. Gray in the middle of everything. Black and White, Night and Day, Good and Evil. A world with a best friend and his girlfriend, and a world of recrimination and acrimony after the truth inevitably comes out.
But right now was the gray middle. The past was the night, and the inevitable future was the morning yet to come. Tom Moody laid back in bed, inhaling the pillow next to him like it was the night before and relishing a moment of consummation that he had been craving for years. The radio played low, and it all became the soundtrack to a magical evening in a spring of rebirth.
Image Source: Old Chicago
Jes US, I’m gonna be stuck in this shit all NIGHT! Ace Bennett pounded the steering wheel in frustration and junk-sickness as traffic slowed to nothing and Michigan Ave turned into a parking lot. He was supposed to meet Gumbo’s runner Two-Bit at the corner of Division and Milwaukee to pick up the goods. But right now it looked like he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
God DAMNit! It goddamn figures! It was a blistering hot Chicago night, with storm clouds threatening to blow in off the lake. Ace had all the windows rolled down, and a thick fog of heat and humidity, exhaust fumes and static electricity settled into the car like a sopping blanket. Those storms were coming soon, and they would be fierce. He lit a Merit and turned on the radio, which was tuned to WGN 720. Paul Harvey, blathering on with the Rest of the Story.
Something felt off about this entire trip. Sometimes there is an intangible feeling of something being wrong, a vague feeling that the cosmos aren’t quite aligned and bad things will result. Ace had had this feeling before, and it always meant something unpleasant, like the sudden death of a relative or friend. And here it was again.
Two-Bit had a reputation around Division and Milwaukee as a tough enforcer with a hair-trigger temper. He did the grunt work for Gumbo: shaking down Loop bankers who were behind on the vig, breaking up the local tavern if the owner didn’t agree to pay protection, that kind of thing. Two-Bit’s boss Gumbo was known as The King of Division Street, and nothing moved in or out of Cabrini-Green, the most notorious housing project in Chicago, without his say-so. Drugs, guns, sex…Gumbo owned it all. And Ace had just ripped him off.
Or so they said. After the last time Ace bought, Two-Bit tracked him down and said that he was ten bucks short on the deal. Ace didn’t think that was the case: why would he short-change a crazy street hood like Two-Bit? Besides, Two-Bit counted out the money rather quickly, and he didn’t say anything at the time. But knowing Two-Bit’s reputation, and having bought from him a few times, and having seen Gumbo himself once, he didn’t feel like making a federal case over ten bucks. Ace agreed to bring the missing ten-spot to the buy today. No big deal.
The sky overhead grew black with the coming storm and the tops of the Wrigley Building, Marina City and the Tribune Tower took on a silver glow as the light faded and the lightning picked up. Ace felt crazy paranoid, partly because he was coming down and partly because of the situation. He thought he saw Two-Bit at a phone booth way further up Michigan Ave, but it could have been anybody. He thought he saw Gumbo himself in a coffee shop on the Near North side of the river, but why would Gumbo be this far off his turf? Ace worked like crazy to bring back rational thought to his addled brain. He lit another Merit, rolled up the windows against the first drips of rain and turned up the radio. Paul Harvey gave way to highlights of the Cubs win over Philly that afternoon at Wrigley, with Jack Brickhouse’s call from WGN-TV.
Strike from Hooton, and the inning is over!…Whew, boy!…A drive by Bill Madlock!…What a catch by Rick Monday!…Hey-hey!
The first deafening clap of thunder hit.
“Hell of a game today, my man!”
Ace let out a yelp as he saw Gumbo sitting in the passenger seat. He felt something cold and hard under his right ear and realized it was a pistol held by Two-Bit in the back seat.
The rain pelted the roof of the car like thousands of marbles thrown full-blast on a concrete floor. The storm was almost directly overhead: less than a second between blinding bolts of lightning and the deafening claps of thunder.
Ace breathed deep through the greatest terror he had ever known. “H..hu..hi, guys” he said. “Fancy m-meeting you here.”
Gumbo did not look amused.
“My man Two-Bit say you rip him off,” he said. “That true?”
“N-n-no, Gumbo, I wouldn’t do t-th-thaa…”
“White boy lyin’, boss!” Two-Bit said, shoving the barrel harder against Ace’s ear.
“I sw—swe-swear, I didn’t mean to,” Ace said. “Swear! H-h-here, take all m-my money, here’s my wallet.”
Gumbo grabbed his wallet and shoved it in his pocket. Thunder cracked as the deluge continued and time slowed to an agonizing eternity.
“You didn’t mean to?” Gumbo said. “The fuck you mean you didn’t mean to? Two-Bit say you rip him off, you rip the man off! Don’t make a shit bit of diff’rence you didn’t mean to.”
Ace shook his head and started crying, the tears shimmering as the lightning flashed in the cloudburst. “I s-swe-swear, I wouldn’t. It was a mistake…”
“Ain’t no mistake, white motherfucker!” Two-Bit said. His rage was a palpable entity, like a bull waiting for the gate to open to start bucking.
“I s-s-SWEAR TO GOD!”
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Gumbo said, shaking his head sadly. “Sheeeeiiiiitttttt, now look what we have here. Fine, high class honky like yo’self reduced to this? Yo life ain’t nothin’ but Cubs games, spendin’ Daddy’s money at the mall an’ swimmin’ in all that fine Oak Park pussy, an’ you gotta come into the big city an’ rip off my poor oppressed man Two-Bit here? You ain’t got enough in life, you gotta take a hard-workin’ Neeegro like Two-Bit for ten motherfuckin’ dollar? That what you think of us?”
“G-gu-gumbo, I SWEAR I wouldn’t have…”
“Man, you jus’ ain’ got no respect, do you, white boy?” Two-Bit grabbed Ace around the neck and shoved the barrel in even harder against Ace’s ear. “Ought to show you a thing or two ‘bout what it mean when you mean to do something.”
“That it?” Gumbo said. “We need to teach you a thing or two about respect, white boy? We need to teach you what it mean when you mean to do something?”
Ace, paralyzed by fear, just shook his head sideways. Gumbo looked back at Two-Bit.
“Only way he learn, boss.” Two-Bit said.
Gumbo nodded. “Do it.”
Ace let out a blood-curdling scream as Two-Bit aimed the .44 at his lower body. As the last intense clap of thunder rolled, Two-Bit pulled off two shots. Ace slumped forward against the steering wheel as Gumbo and Two-Bit got out of the car, while the rain slacked off, and the deal was over.
Summer 2000: I’m living in Medford, not far from the Tufts campus, working for a non-profit at the corner of Boylston and Arlington and playing in a band. I pick up the 96 bus at the corner of Walnut and Summer St., and the bus takes College Ave to Harvard Square, where I catch the Red Line into Boston. The morning driver is often rather dour, and the bus is filled with people heading into offices and labor, thus the commute always has the feel of a death march.
Most mornings I end up sitting across from the same family. The mom is a natural beauty: chestnut hair, high cheekbones, glowing skin and personality. She always reads to her daughter, who is about six and having the time of her life, letting her natural exuberance and curiosity about the world guide her. The father is always set apart, reading the Wall Street Journal or crunching numbers in his portfolio. He looks like a heavier Kotter with a full beard, and he always wears a Rolex, a floppy fishing hat and Joey Ramone glasses.
They’re a striking couple: striking in their differences. Not just in their physical differences, but also in their demeanor. Sometimes the father plays with the daughter, but mostly it’s the mother. Occasionally they banter softly a bit, but it’s always strained and under their breath. The father will whisper and grunt; never looking up from his paper or work, and the mom will look frustrated, and then pull it back before returning to story time. The daughter is oblivious to it all, fortunately, but I can almost physically see the distance between them.
If the morning commute is a pall on the day, the evening commute is an entirely different world. The bus driver on the afternoon shift is older, and obviously loves his work and his friends. Every stop he adds “good old” to the street: “good old Royall Street!” “good old Florence Street!” It’s a touch of Mayberry in suburban Boston; a lovely break in the monotony of commute/work/commute/repeat.
Most evenings I end up sitting across from the mom and daughter, and most evenings the father is absent. Staying late at the office, no doubt. On these commutes, the mom seems freer, more of herself, as she reads to her daughter and points out landmarks along the way.
As the summer goes on, more and more, the father is also absent in the morning. By Labor Day, he’s gone, as is her ring. I have a front-row seat to a slow disintegration.
Thirteen years. A lifetime ago. I think of them sometimes. The daughter would be in college now. What school is she attending? What is her major? How did the divorce affect her? How did the mother make out? Was there one cause for the split, or many over time? Who pulled the trigger?
They were a family, and then they weren’t. I never learned their names, never spoke a word to them, knew nothing of them and still don’t. They had no idea of my existence, and still don’t. Parallel lives, never to intersect. But they remain with me; a vision of heartbreak during a high summer of golden twilights, “good old College Ave” and an unbroken horizon.