Friday, December 9, 2016
(Author's note: When the Lights Go Out is about a lot of things. It's about family and the many shapes it can take. It's about love and loss, and what we'll do to deal with it. But more than anything, it's about music, our relationship with it and what we'll do to preserve that relationship. After working in music as a college DJ and intern, as a bartender at rock clubs, and now as a reporter and novelist, I still don't fully understand my relationship with music. I don't fully grasp why The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" grabs me from beginning to end. I can't explain why the sound of Neko Case's voice on "The Needle Has Landed" makes me cry; why The Clash's "Stay Free" brings me back to my formative years in the Southtowns; or why it took until my early 20s to understand the perfection of every word of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." But after existing in a variety of settings, standing or sitting and absorbing chords and choruses and countless encores, I simply know I could never live without music. It's not possible, and this novel exists as my love letter to not only those who feel the same, but to those who need to create to feel alive. This is for all of you, so please read its first six chapters on this site, or simply buy the entire book here. Thanks for following along with these posts, and Happy Holidays to you and yours. -MF)
Some see this guitar
And hear a distraction
Others see you, girl
A walking attraction
-“You, Girl” by J. Nolan
I stepped to our office’s counter and saw her standing there, waiting and smiling.
“Hey, I’m here to pick up the entertainment license for Cigarettes & Coffee,” she said. “Do you have it ready?”
Of course it was ready. Any license for the beautiful and mysterious Samantha was made a priority. The only reason I knew her three-syllable name was because it was printed on a yellow Post-it note, stuck to every manila envelope she picked up. One of the functions of our office was to issue one-time licenses for events at city bars and restaurants not zoned for everyday live entertainment. Sometimes we licensed senior dances or college trivia competitions; other times we dealt with singing contests at a coffee shop named after an Otis Redding song. On the second Friday of every month, Samantha came strolling through our glass door to pick up such a license for Cigarettes & Coffee, a soul-themed coffee shop on Allen Street that, ironically, was a non-smoking establishment. The place was famous for its Second Saturday Serenade, which featured musicians and vocalists of varying styles vying for the event’s grand prize: free coffee for the year. For this event, the shop needed a license.
Dark brown shoulder-length hair was always slung tightly behind unpierced ears entertained with white iPod ear buds. Her large blue eyes and mascara-laden eyelashes were hidden behind tortoise shell-rimmed rectangular frames, balancing her hip attractiveness with fashionable intelligence. She’d always tap her slim fingers on our countertop and her canvas sneakers on the linoleum both to grab our attention and, presumably, satisfy the beats galloping into her ears. If any other consumer or bar owner tapped that counter, Pete and I purposely ignored them until we heard their frustrated “hell-o?” ring over our cubicle walls. With Samantha, we welcomed the rhythm.
Every time we reached her, she’d remove her earbuds, smile and try to exchange pleasantries, with comments on the weather or football or hockey or music. We kept our daily responses to a minimum, with a stammering “hello,” “sounds good” or “goodbye.” Samantha would occasionally make appearances in my nightly dreams, cameos likely ignited by my timidity. Remarkably, these dreams weren’t salacious; they merely featured her amid typical nonsensical dream imagery and conversations. That Friday, I tried to have real interaction with Samantha, something actual to balance with the exchanges in my sleep.
“Your license is right here,” I said, then handed her an envelope with the document inside.
“You know, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I always come in here and I have no clue what your name is.”
“It’s John,’ I said, extending my hand. “John Nolan.”
“John Nolan? Um, okay.” She briefly paused to absorb the answer. “Oh, and I’m Samantha. Sam, actually. But I guess you already know that since I see it’s written right here on this envelope. God, I feel stupid.”
“Don’t worry about it. So, um do you—”
Before I could continue, the door behind Sam swung open to reveal an angry old man. He barreled past her and slapped his wrinkled, heavy hands on the counter.
“Where is Pete?” he said, seemingly unaware of how loud he was talking. “I need to speak with him right now. Immediately.”
“Sir, if you’ll take a seat, I can find Pete and get him out here for you.”
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know who the hell you are, son, but I suggest you get Mr. Konarski out here before I lose my temper. Northtown Windows and their installation department are putting the goddamn screws to me, and Konarski’s work on my behalf has been egregious. Do you know what the word egregious means?”
“Sir, if you’ll calm down I can get Pete out here and—”
“Egregious,” he bellowed. Startled co-workers peered over their cube walls at this disturbance before he took a seat and yelled again. “Egregious!”
I glanced toward Sam, standing frightened, albeit still interested. She put the envelope in her bag and backed out of the office, sure to keep her distance from the old man while opening the door.
“Well, hey, you should check out the Serenade sometime. Every now and then, we actually host real-life, skilled musicians,” she said. “It’s not always just vegan girls crooning Tori Amos numbers.”
“Cool,” I said, uneasy with the stewing gentleman in front of me. “Maybe I’ll pop in sometime.”
“All right. Nice,” she said, nodding her head. “Until then, it was nice to finally get your name, and I’ll see you around, John.”
“Please,” she said. “It’s Sam. Just Sam.”
She turned and exited. My smile joined a hint of déjà vu, momentarily freezing me before hearing the voice of the day’s visitor.
“Hey, Casanova. My taxes aren’t paying you to make nice with the broads,” he said. “Now either you get Konarski out here or I’ll find the mayor’s office and make a goddamn stink like you’ve never smelt before. You’ll have all kinds of time to chase skirts after I get your ass tossed out into Niagara Square.”
“One minute, sir,” I said, then clenched my teeth and walked back to Pete’s office.
“Um, Konarski? You’ve got a real irritated fellow out here demanding to speak with you. Immediately.”
“Fuck, is he an elderly guy? Walt Zimmerman?” said Pete. “I heard his gravelly voice from back here.”
“He didn’t give his name. Whoever he is, he’s pissed.”
“I guess he never read the specs on his installation agreement, and Northtown apparently switched the brand of window to a more expensive one on him. But he signed it, and now they’re scooping him for an extra eight hundred bucks.”
“The store won’t fix it?”
“Why should they? They have a signed contract, and that’ll hold up over this old codger’s he-said argument. What can you do, right?”
“You have to come out and talk to him. I don’t know how old he is, but I’d bet he’s not too old to cause a scene.”
“I got that from our phone conversations. Is he a big guy?”
“Not really, but you should see his hands. Looks like they’re made of fucking stone. He slapped those mitts down on the counter and the thing nearly caved.”
“Oh, that sounds great. Fucking fantastic.”
He walked out from behind his desk to follow me through the office and find Walt, still seated and seething.
“Mr. Zimmerman, sir,” said Pete, “So, I’ve talked with North—”
“Save it, Konarski,” said Walt. “I don’t want to hear a single word of your bullshit excuses. Am I getting a refund from those grifters or not?”
“Jesus, what is it about your generation of college-educated babblers? Can’t you go a second without filling the air with excuses?” he said, arms folded across his chest. “I want a simple goddamn answer: yes or no.”
“No,” said Pete. “They’re not going to budge, so you’ll have to take them to small claims court.”
“Small claims court?” Walt stood from his chair. “So let me get this straight: I now have to go waste my time in a courtroom because your gold-bricking, Polak ass didn’t lift a finger to handle my case? These crooks pulled a bait-and-switch on me, dammit!”
“Mr. Zimmerman,” said Pete before taking a step behind our front counter, “if you can’t calm down, I’m going to have to ask you leave.”
“Leave? This is my goddamned building!” He slapped his calcified paws on the counter again. “My taxes paid for that chair, that desk and your salary. And what do I get when I need your help? Not an ounce of effort!”
“John, you want to call security up here to escort Mr. Zimmerman out the door?”
“Sure,” I said, then jumped back to my desk and dialed behind their showdown.
“Security? Yeah, bring ‘em up here. Maybe they can escort me up to our mayor and I can ask him why city dollars are paying for slobs like Konarski here to get fat on my dime.”
Pete took a deep breath. It failed to calm him.
“You know what, you old prick?” said Pete, wide-eyed. “I’ve heard enough. If you didn’t want to get slipped for eight hundred bucks by Northtown, why didn’t you read the goddamn contract? The specs were written right there, in black and white. Didn’t have your magnifying glass that day, Magoo?”
“Magoo?” said Zimmerman, then folded his arms again across his chest. “Oh, that’s sharp. Like the blind cartoon character, right? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to, just some cranky old man? What say the two of us head out to Niagara Square and I kick your fat ass down to the naval yard?”
Pete stood firm for a moment, staring at the gentleman before he let out a laugh, one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me laughs that bursts out in one pop. He tried to take a step out from behind the counter, but I grabbed his shirttail and yanked him back. Before either party could shout another word, two security guards pushed through the door to flank both sides of Mr. Zimmerman.
“All right, sir,” said one of the guards to Zimmerman, “let’s take a nice easy stroll to the elevator, okay?”
“Sounds good to me, fellas. Mr. Konarski and I were just talking about taking a little walk outside, weren’t we Pete?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Zimmerman,” I said, standing next to Pete as he gnashed his teeth, hands in his pockets and breathing heavily. “Thanks for stopping in.”
“That’s fine, sure,” he said. “But God knows where this country would be if men like me were replaced by cowards like you, Konarski. Coward!”
When the door closed, Pete stormed back to his office and slammed the door shut. At first, I heard silence. At second, I heard a loud scream and the sound of a fist repeatedly smashing the side of a filing cabinet. After another moment of silence, the punching resumed.
Later that afternoon, well after North Buffalo resident Walt Zimmerman was ushered out of our office, the encounter with Sam was still swirling inside my head. Pete, sitting at his desk with a bandage wrapped around his bloodied right hand, was still teetering on the edge of rage after being verbally assaulted by a man nearly three times his age. Holding a fresh Tim Horton’s coffee, I leaned into his office to see him staring ahead at nothing in particular. He was still breathing heavily.
“You want to take a stroll out to the monument, have a smoke?” I said. “Might calm you down a bit.”
“Who the hell does this happen to? What kind of grown man gets verbally undressed by someone’s grandfather, then takes out his embarrassment on a filing cabinet?”
“Not sure. Are we talking drunk or sober?”
“Regrettably sober,” he said while massaging his knuckles. “Is it wrong that I was scared of that guy?”
“I really thought he might jab a pen into my jugular. Christ, he had to be involved in Korea or some other conflict, right? I’m scared of him, and I don’t give a shit who knows it.”
“Let’s take a stroll, okay?”
“You don’t think he’s waiting outside the building, do you?”
“My God, let’s just go.”
The elevator stopped on the first floor and we exited past the overhead lobby murals of Indians and buffaloes and steelworkers toiling in front of the American flag. Before striding past the busts of former Buffalo mayors Frank Schwab and Grover Cleveland, we stopped and patted their copper scalps before bursting through the revolving doors and down the steps to Niagara Square. Thankfully, Mr. Zimmerman was nowhere to be found. We reached an empty bench, sat down and lit our cigarettes in the shadow of the square’s towering McKinley Monument.
“So,” I said, “before your scrape with the war vet, you missed an appearance by our Samantha.”
“Aw, are you kidding?” he yelled, then took an exasperated drag. “As if things couldn’t get any worse. What did you say to her? Anything?”
“It wasn’t what I said to her; it was what she said to me. Kind of freaky.”
“You know how I told you that she pops into some of my dreams?”
“Well,” I said, “today, she said an exact line from one of the dreams.”
“No, you fucking creep. In the dream, we were sitting at a table, and I looked at her and said, ‘Samantha, my name is John, John Nolan.’ Then, she leaned across the table, looked right at me and said, ‘It’s Sam. Just Sam.’”
“Before she left today, she said the exact same line.”
Pete leaned back in his bench and took another drag.
“John, for a married man, you have pretty boring dreams. Maybe after the baby’s born, you’ll kick it up a notch. I’d be embarrassed to tell you some of the shit I dream about.”
“So you don’t find this a tad freaky?”
Pete pondered the details and exhaled smoke toward the square’s traffic circle.
“What kind of drink did she order at your dream table? Beer, scotch, gin? What?”
“Seriously? You’re hauling out your genius drink selection theory on this? It’s a yes or no answer. Was this odd or not?”
“Okay, it was odd. Even a tad spooky,” he said. “Now, my turn. What was she drinking?”
Pete had this theory about how a man could tell everything he wanted to know about a woman based on her bar drink. Vodka revealed a volatile problem drinker with a torrid past involving bad break-ups. Rum enabled sloppy drunks to recklessly sing karaoke. Whiskey was simply a deal-breaker. And according to Pete, imported beers apparently indicated a heightened level of European traveling experience he didn’t want to hear about. With these aforementioned choices all cautionary tales, Pete exclusively gravitated toward ladies drinking the domestic light beer trio of Miller, Coors and Bud Light. He claimed women sipping these selections appreciate the simplistic taste and social compatibility of watered-down American beer. They’re not after an escape via Long Island iced teas, or an image afforded through a dry, two-olive martini. These women just want to be; they present themselves as everything every reasonable male has ever searched for. They love dogs, hate cats. They hold doors for the elderly, say, “God bless you” to the sneezes of strangers. They like the Beatles, but live for the scruffy, leather jacket-wearing 1975 version of Bruce Springsteen. When they cry, something is very wrong. When they laugh, the moment is very right. In Pete’s estimation, these were the women a man should spend the night and make a life with. To validate his cherished theory, he found his eventual wife sipping a Coors Light under “Jungleland” when he first spotted her across a lakefront barroom. Still, he wanted me to confirm his theory with the images of my dream.
“She wasn’t drinking booze or beer. We were sitting in a coffee shop, with coffee,” I said. “What’s the point of this question, anyway? Are you planning on asking her out?”
“I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“She sips coffee. How does your compatibility meter read on coffee drinkers?”
Leaning his head to the left, he scratched the back of his neck while contemplating.
“That tells me nothing. If I had to guess, though, I’d say Samantha’s a beer girl. If you told me she was drinking a Miller Lite, this little talk of ours would be a lot more interesting.”
“Do you remember that one conversation I had with her?”
“You call the exchange you had a conversation?”
“What? We talked, exchanged musical tastes, blessings.”
“First of all,” I said, “you asked her what she was listening to on her iPod.”
“‘Torn and Frayed’ by the Stones,” he remembered, proudly.
“And then, you sneezed a mouthful of coffee all over the front of her winter coat.”
He smiled, reminiscing.
“Which she said ‘God bless you’ to,” he said. “And she was wearing a green raincoat, not a winter coat. She was protected.”
“Have you noticed how she now flinches whenever you hand her an envelope? Good for you, but that wasn’t a conversation. An incredibly embarrassing moment, yes. Not a conversation.”
Still, until my recent encounter, Pete’s awkward exchange was more communicative than any moment I’d had with her. I usually smiled, handed her the envelope and watched her alluring exit before I retreated to my desk. But why? If I thought she was that cool, that fond of dogs and Springsteen and light beer, why couldn’t I simply be friendly? Why couldn’t I just ask a question or two to validate Pete’s theory and confirm her legitimacy? Maybe because it would spoil the illusion.
Whenever we heard Sam’s low-top Chucks come clicking into our civic confines, we needed to believe in her perfection. She was a “what if” girl for two married men, an entity to look to and wonder how our lives would be different if we were dating her. If we asked her too many questions, her answers might prove our idealistic assumptions wrong. We wouldn’t admit it to each other, but Pete and I wanted to know as little as possible. This way, we could fill in the details ourselves and mold Samantha into exactly who we wanted her to be. We developed all kinds of scenarios for where she worked and what she did in her free time. The only thing we knew for sure was that she wasn’t a cashier at Cigarettes & Coffee. I’d been there on Saturday mornings to read the paper and listen to whatever saxophone-infused soul the baristas soothed through the shop’s overhead speakers. If she worked there, she would’ve been there those mornings.
In our favorite and most detailed fantasy scenario, she works as a cashier at an indie music shop, like Record Theater over by Canisius College. She spends her mornings stocking shelves with Canadian imports before helping some elitist audiophile complete his massive conversion from CDs back to vinyl. When her day is done, she goes back to her downtown loft to write poetry in spiral Mead notebooks and slowly sip from a tall pilsner glass full of ice cold domestic beer. Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview” serenades her scribbling and, a minute into the song, her sublime voice joins the rising percussion, precise guitar picking and piano tinkering to sing only one line:
“And it’s a long way to Buffalo.”
After filling a few pages with profound stanzas, she takes her male black lab Duke for a walk through her neighborhood full of rockers and painters and writers. And maybe one of her neighbors is the owner of Cigarettes & Coffee. One of the many neighborly favors she does for him or her is a nice stroll over to City Hall, where she takes an elevator ride to the fifth floor and picks up the Second Saturday Serenade entertainment licenses.
This was the kind of bullshit we invented instead of asking her real questions. Since Pete’s infamous sneeze, she never got a full sentence from either of us. There was once a time we weren’t hesitant to engage a woman like Samantha, a time when the mere chance to talk to any woman like her lured us into pubs and rock clubs. Those nights reigned in a different life, when each of us held idealistic assumptions for how our futures were going to erect themselves. When those assumptions yielded to a different reality, things changed, just as they do in everyone’s life. People act, react and absorb the aftermath. They get married, take civilized jobs and try to mature. That’s where Pete and I were standing. We were now embedded in a life of obligations, not impulses; a life of responsibilities, not recklessness. Love and commitment had put us on more solid ground. We were thankful for this. Most of the time.
Was I happy to be away from the Nighthawk, away from Lynyrd Skynyrd covers, Genesee pints and insane (yet alluring) pyromaniac jugglers? Sometimes, sure. Was Pete better off cradling a baby girl in his arms instead of being hog-tied on the 20-yard line of a nationally televised football game? Definitely. But despite the security this responsibility afforded, it could never soothe the glaring reality that those old nights of excitement, those hours spent in the early stages of dizzying attraction, were gone forever.
And maybe that’s why Samantha’s appearance every month was so thrilling for the two of us, so exciting that her voice and image filled the end of my sleep every once in a while. In her, we could see those old tavern nights and unknown possibilities we used to bask in, still right at her delicate fingertips. We could see her at the bar, adhering to some lucky bastard’s expectations before eclipsing every last desire. We imagined the moment she looked up through those tortoise shell frames of hers and injected the guy’s chest with that nascent warm surge we yearned for. Through our silence, these assumptions remained intact.
If we had a real conversation with her, she might tell us otherwise. She might tell us that her life sucks, that it’s complicated and empty and unfulfilling. She might tell us that, on her Friday nights, she drinks chardonnay while watching reality television with her best friend Bentley, her male housecat. She might reveal her life to be not nearly as romantic and reckless as Pete and I remember our own to be. With this remote possibility, we erred on the side of idealism. We needed to recall that euphoria of romantic possibilities.
Once a month, we were able to do that through the beautiful existence of a mysterious entity named Sam.
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)
Friday, December 2, 2016
(Author's note: In the earliest stages of writing When the Lights Go Out, I had the idea of starting every chapter with original lyrics from the story's musician protagonist, Johnny Nolan. These lyrics were meant to be indicative of who he was as an artist and person, but also lead the reader into the eventual details of the chapter. Some readers have understood this; other readers haven't; and some have assumed the lyrics were simply quoted from other actual songs by actual songwriters. They're not. They're Johnny Nolan's words, and they help introduce this and every other chapter of this novel. Enjoy the below, and if you haven't yet, please read the previous four chapters posted on this blog.)
The snow will fall down
Start a winter parade
Here in Buffalo
This is how we were made
-“Kings of the Queen” by J. Nolan
When a winter storm blows through Buffalo and the surrounding streets off Lake Erie, it’s a harsh, windswept blitzkrieg of snowflakes. It’s not a scene out of a Frank Capra film, where gentle white specks drop slowly over lampposts and passing cars. It’s frustrating accumulations on roads, yards and rooftops. Snow blows thick, sticks to car windshields so firmly wipers snap off, losers of a fight with an inch-thick layer of ice. When a strong storm relentlessly blows with a foot or more of overnight snow, it’s never something so delicate that you’re eager to stand outside with your girlfriend, embracing as soft flakes dust your eartops. You look for cover until the winds stop rattling your windows and heavy flakes cease burying your front porch.
The day after the storm? That’s the calendar portrait, with white fluff coating everything that sits idle. Men shovel out narrow driveways, with cigars dangling from their mouths as aromatic smoke drifts above their winter caps; children tap plastic orange balls with hockey sticks down plowed side streets. This is the calm after the rage in a region known more for its blizzards than its beauty. And on days like these, it’s good to be a Buffalonian.
“You think the Ridge is gonna be packed today, Uncle Finn?” said Brendan, bundled in his red Hawks hockey coat and a winter cap in the backseat of my Subaru Outback. With Finn next to me in shotgun and Mickey in back with his brother, we rolled over layers of Southtowns snow toward Chestnut Ridge Park for a day of sledding, tobogganing and football tosses.
“It’s definitely going to be packed,” said Finn, who pulled his wool Irish cap down his forehead before he turned to the backseat. “But that’s the fun of it, men. It’s the whole region together, enjoying conditions the rest of the country cries about. Are you ready, or are you ready?”
“Ready,” the boys yelled before each clapped their gloved hands together.
In the summer months, Chestnut Ridge accommodated daily picnics, scenic biking, jogging routes and hiding places for teenagers to polish off a few cases of beer. Winter ushered in a snow-coated wonderland, busy with giggling children gliding down adventurous hills on blue and red plastic sleds, their parents watching while snapping pictures and sipping Tim Horton’s coffee. The more adventurous guardians would haul out wooden toboggans, a longer sleigh-like transport to seat two or three at a time, and ride down the park’s rickety chutes with their children, hooting the whole way down until the ground became level. In the back of my Outback, we had two sleds and a football, as well as an archaic toboggan strapped atop the car.
When we pulled up the drive and into the Ridge’s main parking lot, it was mobbed, with families dragging sleds across icy pavement and toward the top of the park’s main run. There, parents and children stood with cocoa and coffee in gloved hands, staying warm inside ski coats and gazing at the panorama of downtown Buffalo in the cloudy distance. After we parked, we grabbed our gear and joined them.
“Should we take the toboggan down?” said Mickey, a royal blue and red Bills ski hat pulled down just above his eyebrows to complement a bulky bright red winter coat.
“Not yet, Mick,” I said. “Why don’t you grab your sled and go to the hill with Brendan. Finn and I are gonna stay up here and toss the football around.”
“Can I play too? I’ll sled around later.”
“No, Mick. Go with your brother. I’ll toss you a few passes later, okay? Nolan promise.”
He slumped away with his brother and found a place with the boys and girls playing in the snow. I waited until they were a good distance away to reach underneath my black wool pea coat to pull out a cigarette.
“You’re still smoking?” said Finn, zipping up his green ski jacket. “What’s wrong with you, kid? I can’t imagine you’re stressed out about work on a day off, right?”
I lit my cigarette and enjoyed a drag.
“No, no,” I said. “I think it’s the baby only five months away, that sort of thing.”
Finn held the football in his right hand, his fingers lined on the laces.
“What are you worried about? Being a father? You’ve been in training with Meg’s two for years. You’ll be fine.”
I stepped back, let the cigarette burn between my fingers.
“Look, I know we never talk about this, but can I ask you something?”
I took another long drag to let a few more seconds pass.
“Do you know why Billy left Meg?”
He glared at me. We never talked about Billy Doyle. Ever.
“Where is this coming from?”
“Meg never wanted to talk about it right after he split,” I said. “Hell, she never talks about it now, either, so I’ve been content assuming he was just another guy who fell in line with the rest of the shitbags she dated over the years.”
“There were plenty, sure.”
“But he wasn’t always a bad guy. You remember how in love he seemed with Meg during their first years dating? The matching Sabres jerseys he bought for the two of them?”
“The Pat LaFontaine ones,” he said. “I remember.”
“So while this was going on, did you ever sense that Billy was the same as the rest? That he’d eventually split?”
“Not until after Brendan was born, but yeah, I did. I’ve never told Meg this, but I stopped trusting Billy after he didn’t push for marriage after Brendan. I remember talking to him after church one day when Meg was pregnant with Mickey. He was so distant, so off. I could see this glazed fear in his eyes, this intention to bolt out the first open door. I can’t explain how I knew; I just did. He was gone soon after that.”
“So what do you think happened with the guy? What do you think made him bail on so much?”
“God only knows,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen with so many couples over the years, both young and old. On their wedding day, they’re on the altar together, wide-eyed and smiling as they promise to live for each other, through good times and bad. Then one day, one of them decides the deal isn’t convenient. One of them decides to reset their life and leave everything else behind. I imagine that’s what Billy did. And if you don’t mind me saying, good riddance to the bastard.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
I took another drag through a grin.
“So,” he said, “are you going to tell me or not? Why are you asking me about a shit like Billy Doyle? Why now?”
He leaned back and threw the ball to me. I caught the pass, looked at the ball and flipped it in the air to myself.
“You remember when we used to come here when I was a kid? My dad brought you and me, we found a picnic site and we’d play one-on-one football in the snow, with Dad as the all-time quarterback.”
“He used to always lead you a little bit, so you had to dive into the snow for it,” he said and smiled. “Then he’d yell, ‘If you can touch it, you can catch it.’ What about it?”
“When we were here, tossing that football around, I never wanted to be anywhere else. Never even had a thought about it,” I said, then watched Finn catch my toss. “My father didn’t, either. He was as enthusiastic as I was, as interested in throwing a pass as I was in catching it.”
“Of course he was. Guy was a spark plug. But is that it? Are you afraid you’re not going to perform like your father and, instead, wake up as a gutless Billy Doyle? Abandon your wife and kids?”
“I don’t know why, but yeah. Ever since my father and mother passed, I’ve been waiting for this day, waiting for a chance to become the parent they each were for me. Now that it’s approaching, I’m scared. Scared that whatever seeps in and infects guys like Billy Doyle will get to me, too. You see where I’m coming from?”
He stood there for a moment of silence, cradling the ball while staring stone-faced at me.
“Not really, no,” he said. “I’m a priest, thus preventing me from starting a family I’d even think about abandoning. The only guardian role I’ve experienced is being your uncle. When you were younger, I took you to Bills games, even took you down to Home of the Hits to buy you your first cassette tape, remember?”
“It was a double tape. The River.”
“Good memory,” he said, smiling. “I think I was a damn good uncle, right?”
“You bought me my first guitar, too. That old, beat-up Yamaha we picked up at Allentown Music. Of course you were a good uncle. Still are.”
“I know,” he said. “And do you know why I’m stating these feats?”
“Because despite all of these things I did for you as a kid, despite all I do for you now, you’re ten times the uncle and father figure to the boys that scumbag Doyle left behind than I’ve ever been to you. You care for them more than you care about yourself, and that’s what parental love is. If you can already do that, you’re golden, kid. Stop worrying.”
“What if I wake up one day, changed?”
“Well, a few things,” he said, then put the ball on the ground so he could count on his hands. “One, you look into the eyes of your wife and the faces of your children and know what they mean to you, and what you mean to them. Two, you turn to God and ask for the strength every man can summon. And three, stare into your own reflection and know who you are. You’re not a coward, and you’re not weak. You’re a Leary and a Nolan. Our families have always believed that depth of character defines the virtue of a man. Understand?”
He picked up the ball off the ground and continued.
“Is it going to be easy? No. Are you going to screw up, go through hard times? Absolutely. But please, know where you come from. Your parents are watching down on you, and your sister and I are here for you. We won’t let you walk away, ever. Got it?”
“Sure,” I said, then tossed my cigarette to the ground. I watched the ice extinguish it for a moment. “Thanks, Finn.”
“This is what I’m here for. I just didn’t expect to have such an in-depth Saturday discussion outside of a confessional. I’m supposed to be off today, dammit. Are we done?”
“For today, we’re done.”
“Good.” He lined his fingers up on the football’s laces again. “Now, you think your black lungs can still go long, past that tree on the left?”
“Never mind if I can get there. Do you think your rusty arm can throw it there?”
“Kid, there isn’t an arm like mine in the entire diocese. Just get near the pine tree and look up.”
I pulled my navy fleece cap down tight, rubbed my bare hands together and started kicking through the snow and wind, past coffee sippers and young sledders. Approaching the tree, I turned back and looked to the sky. The football was twisting, descending in a perfect spiral inches ahead of me. Before it reached the ground, I dove, arms outstretched and hands open. When the ball touched my fingertips, it bounced off and fell to the snow before my face mashed into the hard, cold ground. Immobile and atop snow, I heard faint cheers through my covered ears as random onlookers applauded my efforts. After the applause, I rolled over on my back and heard Finn in the distance.
“You see? Despite our best efforts, things don’t always fall the way we want them to.”
“Right,” I said, staring up into the light, falling snow.
“But it doesn’t mean we quit.”
“Nope,” I yelled back. “Just let me gain feeling again in my chest before going out for another, okay?”
I sat up to Finn’s laughter as an uprising of excited and angry children’s voices rose above it, floating up the main hill to the two of us.
“What’s going on down there,” I said to Finn, who was standing at a better vantage point than I was.
“Some of the kids have gathered around a little brawl. Looks like it could be a good one.”
“Finn,” I said, jogging toward him. “You see a red Hawks jacket in that mix?”
“No Hawks jacket,” he said, then let out a gasp of a laugh. “I do see a little boy in a floppy Bills ski cap, right in the middle of the scrum.”
“Mickey,” I said. “Dammit, c’mon. And stop laughing.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, still laughing as we made our way to the wooden stairway built into the side of the hill. “You’ll laugh too once you see the size of the other kid.”
I ran down the stairs, skipping every other step while holding the side railing to avoid a spill. When Finn and I hit the bottom, we tore toward the gathered circle and shouldered into the front. In the middle of it all was a yelling Mickey, arms flailing as Brendan pulled him backwards by his coattail. On the ground curled in the fetal position and covering his head was a boy a bit bigger than Brendan. Draped in a coat much like Brendan’s—except it was navy and read “Stars” on the back instead of “Hawks”—the poor kid laid sniffling and loudly whimpering. I burst through the front line, grabbed both Brendan and Mickey by their coat collars and dragged them out of the circle and away from the boy, who started to wail even louder once we left him alone.
“What’s going on down here?” I said. “Finn and I leave you two for five minutes and you’re starting fights?”
“But Uncle John, I—”
“No way, Brendan. You’re supposed to be watching after Mickey and instead, you’re slugging people? Is that kid on a rival hockey team?”
“He is, but I didn’t hit him,” said Brendan amid another loud wail from the circle.
“So why is that kid crying?” I said, confused. “What happened?”
“Mickey punched him in the stomach.”
“What?” I said, eyes wide open. The kid on the ground was at least twice the size of Mickey. “Mickey punched the kid once and he’s wailing like that?”
“No. After he fell down, Mick jumped on top of him and hit him in the face a bunch of times until I pulled him off.”
I looked down to Mickey, who stood staring at the tops of his boots.
“Why in the world would you pick a fight with a kid that big?”
“He started it,” said Mickey, still looking down. “When we got to the bottom of the hill, he saw Brendan’s coat and said the Hawks sucked.”
“That’s why you hit him?”
“Well,” he said, kicking some snow with his boot, “then he made fun of my Bills hat. He said it looked like it’s from the eighties.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Brendan, where were you when this was all happening?”
“Over there. I heard him say the Hawks sucked, but I ignored him and kept walking. I scored three goals against the Stars earlier this season,” he said. “Then I heard some yelling, turned around and saw that kid bawling like a baby. Mickey took him down pretty fast, and I tried to drag him out as fast as I could.”
Mickey looked up and exhaled.
“I’m sorry, Uncle John. Should I go apologize to that kid?”
I looked to the circle. The kid had risen under the taunts and laughter of red-faced tweeners in Columbias and Carhardts. To have Mickey approach him would be embarrassing, even more so than getting hammered by a kid half his size. I kept him away until the blubbering kid fled the scene—then felt an odd pride simmering inside me. Mickey defended his older brother. He beat up a kid twice his size. Still, when I looked down at my nephew, I kept that pride from swelling to my face.
“No, no,” I said. “Just grab your sleds and get up the stairs. Now.”
When the boys were safely in front of me, I turned back to Finn. He didn’t even try to hold back his laughter.
“I say we keep the Buffalo Brawler and his floppy hat off the hill before someone claims to be that kid’s parent. Deal?”
“Smart thinking, Johnny,” he said. “Smart thinking.”
We all sat on a bench to the left of the Ridge’s old toboggan chutes, recently repaired after years of neglect. Brendan and Mickey were on the inside; Finn and I took the outsides. The boys’ sleds were propped against the ends of the bench, dripping with wet snow. The day’s crowd had thinned out, leaving a spattering of children sledding and a few couples drinking hot chocolate outdoors with the sun dipping low on the downtown horizon. The four of us each had a hot cup and watched the steam drift out their sipping holes and up into the cold afternoon air.
“So we’re all in agreement,” I said. “We will not speak of Mickey’s little altercation today around Meg?”
“What’s an al-tar-ca-tion?” said Mickey.
“It’s when you have a disagreement with someone and punch that someone—repeatedly,” I said. “You’re lucky that kid’s parents were nowhere to be found.”
“But, Uncle John, I—”
“Enough, Mick. And I don’t care what he said. You can’t just go around punching people. What’s a little kid like you ever going to become if you keep swinging like that?”
“A Gold Gloves boxer,” said Finn. He mumbled it low enough for the bundled, snow-drenched boys not to hear, their ears now covered with different, non-descript dry ski hats. I bit the inside of my mouth and tried not to laugh at the thought of “Irish” Mickey Nolan.
Finn sat up to speak louder. “Your uncle’s right, Mick. Remember what I said before we got here? This is a day to be with our neighbors. And you don’t hit your neighbors. You help them.”
“Okay,” said Mickey. “I’m real sorry.”
“Good,” I said, then thought of him mercilessly pummeling that bigger kid. I had to take a deep breath to hold in my inflated pride.
“Uncle John,” said Brendan, “you and my mom used to come here all the time when you were kids, right?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Your grandpa used to send us down those old chutes over there on the toboggan, the same one strapped to my car. We’d stay out here for hours, freezing and laughing while your grandma snapped her camera. Your mom probably has a bunch of those pictures around your house.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Mickey. “You’re wearing a hat like mine.”
“Not like yours, Mick. It is yours,” I said of the fluffy royal blue and red ski cap now hidden in the car. “That Bills hat used to be mine.”
“So it is from the eighties?”
“Oh. Do you want it back?”
“No,” I said, laughing. “You fought for it, so now it’s yours.”
I turned away from Mickey and leaned back on the bench to look out at the city skyline. I thought more about those days past.
“After we were nice and frozen, we’d go into that building over there,” I said, pointing to the hilltop lodge. “We’d sit by the fireplace. They used to have an old piano in there, remember Finn?”
“How could I forget? You and Meg made me play songs on it. You both would jump up and down, singing at the top of your lungs. You two were a spectacle.”
“But it was fun, right?”
“Of course it was. You boys should have seen your mother back then. She was quite a little singer.”
“She still sings sometimes,” said Brendan. “She’s been singing that song Mickey loves, by Neil Young.”
“Long May You Run,” said Mickey. “That’s my new favorite song, Uncle John.”
“I think it’s your mom’s favorite, too. Maybe you should spend a little more time listening to Neil. Might mellow you out a bit.”
We all laughed and went back to sipping our drinks and gazing at the skyline. After a few minutes, it was time to leave.
“You guys want to head out of here?” I said. “I think we should call it a day.”
“Can we do one more thing before we leave?” said Brendan.
“Can we take the toboggan off the car and take it for a run? Please?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about the toboggan,” I said. “Sure, let’s go get it.”
We drained the last of our hot chocolate, untied the toboggan from the luggage rack and dragged it up the steps to the top of the chute. A few brave souls were still gliding through the snow, leaving a wide vacant expanse to openly navigate. After I set the toboggan down for the boys, I backed off and let them mount it. Once Brendan and Mickey were settled in, they looked back at me as I stood off to the side.
“Are you coming or not?” said Brendan.
“Me?” I wondered. “You want me on that thing, too?”
“Sure,” he said. “You can show us how you used to ride. Plus, you can stop Mickey if he tries to start another brawl at the bottom.”
“I already said I’m sorry,” yelled Mickey.
“Alright, alright. Settle down,” I said. “I’m in.”
I climbed in last to put the bulk of our weight at the back, with Mickey directly in front of me, then Brendan at the front of the toboggan. He grasped the front ropes while I pushed us to the edge and tipped us down the chute. After gliding down the chute’s steel track, we went flying through the snow, kicking up flakes with Mickey and Brendan howling. Faster and faster, wind numbed our faces as we slid past kids with sleds, teenagers with snowboards. Finally, we glided to a stop at the level bottom. When I climbed out, I looked back up the hill at Finn and raised my arms. After we were all off and standing in snow a foot high up our legs, Brendan looked up at me.
“That was awesome. Just like when you were a kid, right?”
Clutching the toboggan rope to drag it back up the hill, I laughed again.
“I think this was better,” I said. “Much better.”
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
(Author's note: When I was writing the first pages for When the Lights Go Out, I envisioned the story would open from the observation deck of Buffalo's towering, art deco City Hall. The opportunity to introduce the story's protagonist above the city's radial street configuration and staring out toward Canada seemed to be a good way to start things--but my graduate school professor disagreed. He thought the introduction was labored and lacked enough action to entice the reader to launch into the story, so I cut it. But, like any pack rat of a writer who's afraid to fully delete any paragraphs, I saved it and eventually moved it to the middle and end of Chapter Four, which unfolds below. Enjoy the read, and Happy Thanksgiving.)
When we see our lives go by
See the days roar on past
Do we ever stop and think
Of how to make ‘em last?
-“Stop, Feel” by J. Nolan
Later that Monday, a city resident stood in front of me at my office’s counter. I tried to ignore the scent of stale cigarettes off his black wool overcoat.
“When I ordered the latex suit, the clerk assured me it would be a tight fit,” he said, running his long, black-polished fingernails through the dark, greasy locks flowing past his ears. “It was for a party, so I wanted this cat suit to cling to the skin, you know? Really fucking tight.”
“I understand,” I said. “So you were dissatisfied with the way the suit fit your wife or girlfriend?”
“My wife or girlfriend?” He put his palms on the counter. “No, no. The suit was for me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course it was. My mistake.”
I was officially desensitized to such odd revelations. They had merely become the irregular order of my days. I stood in front of this festive visitor as a consumer mediator for the Consumer Aid and Entertainment Licensing division on the fifth floor of downtown Buffalo’s architectural jewel, City Hall. After I retired my guitar, an old high school friend hooked me up with the job. I needed a nine-to-five gig, one that would afford me the time and resources to get married and enjoy a family. After two interviews, I officially became an embedded government drone.
Every day since, I’ve monotonously dealt with incoming consumer complaints and mechanically issued entertainment licenses to bars and restaurants. Consumers have trudged into our downtown government office from the Metrorail station on Main Street. Tavern owners have strolled in from Niagara Square. On many mornings, I’ve listened to a litany of local consumers and their problems. I’ve helped these taxpayers garner refunds from businesses that have wronged them. The unkempt and greasy gentleman in front of me had, in his estimation, been wronged—in multiple ways.
“And the costume’s fit was my second problem,” he said.
“What was the first?”
“It wasn’t anatomically correct.”
“Cat penis,” he said, scratching his facial stubble. “There wasn’t a cat penis on the suit.”
I took a deep breath and crossed my arms over my blue dress shirt and navy tie.
“Do cats even have penises?”
“Well, they sure as shit better have something to distinguish themselves from the lady cats, right?” he said, very matter of fact-like. “I mean, I don’t want to split hairs here, but I was told I was getting a male cat suit. For three fifty, I want what I was promised.”
“Three hundred and fifty? Dollars?” I said, wide-eyed. “That’s what you paid for a Halloween costume?”
“Who said it was for Halloween?”
“Oh, well, I guess I assumed that—”
“Whatever, whatever,” he interrupted. “I bought a latex cat suit, but I wouldn’t have paid a goddamn dime if I knew I wasn’t getting a cock on it.”
“Okay,” I sighed, aware that maybe I wasn’t completely desensitized. “So you want a refund for a three hundred and fifty dollar cat suit because it didn’t cling to your skin and, most importantly, lacked proper feline genitalia?”
“Sure,” I said. “Could you wait here for a second?”
I walked away from the counter and past my shoulder-high cubicle walls, soft and gray and scattered with pictures of places I’d been and people I should be with. Every day, strangers I didn’t want to be with demanded refunds for televisions, radios, vacuums and telephones. Their new car broke down; their old car’s repairs weren’t performed. They wanted refunds for pants that didn’t fit, for winter coats they didn’t like. Their landlord’s a deadbeat, scumbag or general Nazi prick. A veterinarian killed their cat, Bubbles. Their neighbor scared their dog, Ruffles. They want a refund; they want to press charges, and they need to get paid right fucking now. Yelling. Crying. Screaming. As I walked back through our office, past more steel desktops and cube walls and pictures from Florida vacations, all these emotions pinballed through my head.
When I arrived at the back office of my old high school pal Pete Konarski, I found him staring at his computer monitor, stroking his neatly trimmed brown goatee. Without acknowledging him, I found the corner of the room and the six-foot high silver file cabinet tucked into the angle. I clutched its metallic sides and began pounding my head against its flimsy exterior. By the third time my forehead found the cabinet’s side, Pete looked up from his monitor.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he said, sitting up straight in his powder blue dress shirt and maroon necktie. “What the fuck, Nolan? I’m trying to read about last night’s Sabres game here.”
After I smashed my head two more times, I looked at Pete, dazed and enjoying the dancing specks floating in front of my sight. Thankfully, they adequately dulled my astonishment.
“I guarantee you can’t imagine the level of perversion that’s waiting at our counter.”
“Christ, don’t be so dramatic.” He took a sip from his coffee, still steaming in a blue ceramic Sabres mug. “Is this consumer so deranged he’s worth a lunchtime concussion?”
“How deranged is it to want a latex cat penis swinging between your legs?”
Pete put down his mug.
“Come again?” he said. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Afraid not, captain.”
Since he’d worked in our office for nearly six years, a consumer complaint had to be extra strange to pique Pete’s interest. He’d read or heard them all. He’d also engaged in his share of questionable adventures, so his understanding of what constitutes crazy was not that of the everyman. The stories about his past—some of which I’d witnessed in person—were giddily rehashed with City Hall employees during my first week of work. Did he really run onto the field during the Bills-Cowboys game on “Monday Night Football”? (Yes, and security mauled him before he hit the twenty.) Was it true that he once ran up a five-hundred-dollar bar tab at McGinty’s for himself and five co-workers—at lunch? (Actually, no; the bill was well over six hundred.) And on that Single’s Night on the Miss Buffalo cruise ship, the night he housed fifteen rum and cokes before singing karaoke to Bush’s “Little Things,” did he really jump into the Niagara River to close his performance? (Absolutely. He also swam back to shore and fell asleep in the Colonel Ward Pumping Station parking lot. That’s where I found him the next morning.)
When I first took the job, I enjoyed our Happy Hour trips that ended at last call, our table littered with empty Molson bottles. I played it straight while he convinced unsuspecting girls he was an ex-professional hockey player whose career was cut short by a horrific eye injury. Somehow, it always worked, always suckered some impressionable girl into drunken bar-necking. Then, Pete found Tracy, a rabid hockey fan who knew he’d never skated a professional shift. They dated and fell in love. Tracy became pregnant. Pete found marriage, fatherhood, financial commitments, and modest weight gain. In the throes of these changes, he came to work sober, went home before dark and woke up under moonlight to feed his beautiful baby girl, Mia. He stopped jumping off moving cruise boats, too. He became a regular guy in his early thirties, one who dealt with our derelict consumers better than I could.
“So, a cat dick, huh? Yikes,” he said, leaning back in his chair to scratch his small gut. “So what are we dealing with here? Standard goofball or dangerous deviant? The kind we might need to worry about, like a John Wayne Gacy type?”
“I don’t have a fucking clue. Why don’t you have a look at this dude and make your own judgment. See if this guy’s presence gets you to send a few BPD cars to check his litter box.”
“But what do you think, smartass?”
“Honestly? I think he’s another Nickel City weirdo who thinks this office is here to do his perverted bidding. Just like last week. You remember the call I got?”
“The Girls Gone Wild guy,” he said, grinned, and cracked his knuckles. “The guy who wanted his money back because the DVDs he ordered weren’t smutty enough.”
“I was under the impression there’d be actual sex in these videos,” I said in a mocking, hillbilly voice, mimicking the conversation in question. “You know, like a real porn film, couples just going at it. All these were just a guy with a camera, filming girlies showing off their goods at Mardi Gras. Hell, my buddy Tony has tapes like this all over his living room. If I wanted to see some titties, I could borrow one of his tailgating videos from last season’s Bills games. Titties everywhere on those!”
“That accent is dead on,” Pete said, laughing before he sipped his coffee. “But what do you want me to tell you, pal? It is what it is. We get a lot of shitheads who come in here because we’re all they have. We’re their safety net.”
“A safety net for dudes buying cockless cat suits? Christ, the city should commit these lunatics, not shuffle them into our office.”
“But he’s here, so let’s just give him a complaint form to fill out, file it and send him on his way. How long you been here for? Two fucking years?” He rose from his desk chair. “C’mon, I’ll show you how it’s done. We’ll get this pervert out of here, then you and I can jump up to the deck for a smoke. Sound good?”
After Pete took the necessary information from our visitor and sent him on his way, we grabbed our coats for a walk up to the 28th floor observation deck. In the fall, painters occupied the art deco-style civic cathedral’s upper stairwells with tarps and tin cans as they added a fresh coat of cream-colored latex to hallways and lobbies traveled by local sight-seers and Canadian tourists during the city’s pristine summer months. On a clear August day, one could peer through the deck’s protective plexiglass and across Lake Erie to see the sun set over green shores. In October, one could still find these views, but there were obstacles to avoid, like tarps, pans, brushes, scaffolding, and union laborers named names like Lou or Carl. If we wanted to feel the thick autumn breeze off the lake, we headed up the stairs, under the ladders and outside for a 360-degree view of Western New York and Southern Ontario. When Pete came along, he bummed a smoke. He never brought his own. Never.
“So how was Brendan’s birthday lunch yesterday?” Pete said, exhaling smoke toward Lake Erie. “Did he like the Sam Roberts album?”
“I think,” I said, then took a drag as I leaned against the deck’s exterior bricks and looked to the distant Canadian shores. “He always has the same reaction when I give him a new album. Grateful confusion, I guess. He was much more excited about the Sabres jersey. You should have seen the look on his face when he opened that.”
“Hey, how old is he now anyway? Eight? Nine?”
“Ten,” I said, smiling. “Can you believe it?”
“Number ten’s a big one, man. Double digits. And of course he liked the jersey better. He’s a sports-crazed kid. All kids don’t grow up attached to their guitar like you did.”
“I was a sports fanatic, too. Punched things when the Bills and Sabres lost games, that kind of shit. I did get my first guitar at ten. I remember borrowing one of my dad’s Stones albums so I could try to play along with the songs.”
“Really?” he said, impressed. “At ten, I think I was listening to dubbed Run DMC tapes I got from some dickhead neighbor of mine.”
“But you remember listening to the tapes, right? That’s the beauty of songs, their ability to help stamp moments in your memory. Each can attach to an event and align itself with those minutes forever. For instance, what song was playing the first time you got laid?”
“Honestly? I was so shit-faced the first time I got laid, I barely remember the girl’s face, let alone the background noise.”
“Mine was Van Morrison, ‘Sweet Thing.’ I set it up like that, but still. Every time I hear that song, I think of that night and laugh.”
“And that’s why you give these poor kids Canadian rock albums for their birthdays? Albums they could give two shits about?”
“That’s why I give the boys records they don’t give two shits about yet,” I said, flicked my smoke to the ground and stepped on it. “Eventually they will, and they can attach their own memories to the songs.”
“And what are you going to do with your own kids? You’ll have to be Dad, not the cool rocker uncle. I mean, I love Van Halen, but I don’t think Tracy would be cool with me giving Mia her own copy of 1984. We try to stick to Dora the Explorer. Is Dana going to be cool with you playing Springsteen while Elmo sits on the shelf?”
I turned to my left and took a few seconds to think about the question. Looking down Route Five, toward the Buffalo River and the billowing smoke from the General Mills factory, I thought about my first born flipping through my piles of records, exploring. My little boy or girl will find albums, spin them and ask questions. I’ll pull out Deirdre and play along with the songs, maybe even sing a verse or two. I couldn’t wait.
“Pete,” I said, then walked over and placed my hand on his shoulder, “if I can learn how to appease the wackos who roll into this building, I’m sure I can win over my wife when it comes to our children’s upbringing.”
“Don’t worry, Nolan,” said Pete, laughing. “I’ll be around to help you with both.”
Thursday, November 17, 2016
(Author's note: In the six years I spent writing, editing and rewriting this story, I spent a lot of time amid live music. Not only did I see a lot of performances on my own time, but I also worked for three years as a bartender at three different music venues in Boston, Massachusetts--including the legendary Paradise Rock Club. Over this period of time, I saw hundreds of musicians and bands, from acts as large as Arcade Fire to middling collectives still finding their footing. Every night provided a new entry, one with their own style, substance and deficiencies. Many of those shows provided motivation for characters and performances in this story--including some of the scenes that unfold in the following pages. This is Chapter Three of When the Lights Go Out, so enjoy.)
I look into your eyes
See you standing by the bar
Wonder if you’ll have the time
To dance with this young rock star
-“Nights of You & Me” by J. Nolan
My alarm clock was beeping and squealing as sunlight joined a wailing car alarm outside my window shades. When I glared at the clock, it read 7:23 a.m. Again.
The day was Monday, which was nowhere near Friday. On Fridays, I could slip out after work for an exhale away from the job, away from home. At the end of the week, McGinty’s Pub on Swan Street featured five-dollar Miller Lite pitchers to accompany its world-class jukebox, full of rock legends and undiscovered Canadian guitar magicians. But Monday was not Friday. The frustration of this reality brought my palm down hard on the clock, which silenced the cacophony and elicited grumblings from my wife, Dana.
“Why do you have to smack the shit out of that snooze every morning?”
I caught my first glimpse of a tanned twenty-one-year-old named Dana Morelli a little over four years ago, back in the thick of my Nighthawk residency. I remember exactly what she wore that night. I remember the way her raven hair hung past her emerald eyes and over her shoulders, covering the first and last letters of “CBGB” across the chest of her tight black T-shirt. I remember how she moved and swayed a few rows back from the front edge of stage. I even remember her vodka tonic and how she held her straw during every sip. Most of all, I’ll never forget her sharp green gaze, a look that didn’t burn as much as it warmed. When a look like that connects, it’s like a lightning bolt that staggers before it injects a dizzying sense of drug-free alteration. It’s hard to shake off, harder to forget. Still, I gathered myself, let that look wash over me. Once stable, I returned a glance of my own, one that connected and locked before I spoke up and took a chance.
“For my last one tonight, I want to take a request,” I said into the mic, looking right into her eyes. “How about you, miss? You in the black tee. Do you have a song you want to hear?”
She smiled, embarrassed at the attention.
“How about ‘American Woman’,” she asked. “Do you know that one?”
“Do I know it?” I asked, adjusting myself on the stool. “Sweetheart, after this rendition, you’re going to think I wrote it.”
Laughs, claps, hoots from the floor joined her smile as she took another sip from her drink. After my left hand was set on the guitar neck and my boot soles were planted comfortably on the stage, I began finger picking the loose strings, plucking lightly to incite the emanation of a sultry blues walk-down to a G. After I repeated this progression a few times, I replicated the humming and the doo-doos famous in the song’s introduction. I soothed out lyrics about an American woman and how she can mess your mind before I spelled out “American” letter-by-letter.
The crowd swayed in anticipation of what was coming—the visceral thrust forward that followed the tame picking and humming and singing. When I hit the last string of the lead-in, I paused, looked at her again. She was waiting. I pulled an orange pick from my pocket and stomped my black Doc Marten boot on the stage four times—THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP—before thundering down on the heavier acoustic strings to reach the power of the song’s electric guitar work. My fingers slid up and down the neck, through the frets, changing chords and manipulating strings to stir patrons into a head-bobbing lather. I continued to stomp the stage planks and replicate a beat in the absence of a bass drum.
I leaned into the mic to wail out the opening lyrics about an American woman, how she should stay away from me and let me be. This song wasn’t exactly conducive to what I hoped to achieve with my request solicitation. As the divisive lyrics hit her ears, I hoped she didn’t get the wrong idea. Even though I didn’t know anything about her, I knew I wanted her to stay. But she requested the song, so I played the shit out of it, regardless of the nasty lyrical connotations. Strumming and singing, I caught sight of her again. She was rocking back and forth, flailing her wiry arms above her head and calling for more, loving every second of it. At the end of the song, I struck a string so hard it snapped and curled up the neck, effectively ending the performance. When I stood to take a bow, sweat dropped from my shoulder-length black hair and stung my eyes. After I rubbed them dry, I opened them to see Dana, smiling and clapping. She waved me over to the bar, so I stashed my guitar before stepping off the stage. When I reached her, she already had a bottle of Budweiser waiting for me.
“For my request,” she said, holding out the beer to me. We did introductions. I was Johnny. She was Dana.
“Interesting take on that song,” she said. “I saw Lenny in concert last year and he doesn’t perform it like that at all.”
“Lenny?” I asked. “Lenny Kravitz?”
“Of course. Who else would sing his song?”
I turned my head to the side and took a long, deep swig. Annoyance, confusion and irritation were all simmering. I tossed strands of my sweaty hair away from my face.
“Kravitz’s version is a cover,” I said. “It’s originally sung by the Guess Who, from Canada. You’ve never heard the original version?”
She paused, perplexed.
“I guess not,” she said, looking a bit embarrassed. “When I think of that song, I think of the video with Lenny, the American flag, and Heather Graham gyrating on the roof of a school bus. He doesn’t do a bad version, though, right?”
It was the worst cover. Ever. Worse than Madonna’s cover of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Worse than U2’s cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” This was fact, not opinion, but I still shrugged with indifference. Damn those eyes of hers. Every time I locked with them, that radiating euphoria returned to my head and chest.
“This is my first time here,” she said. “My friend has been begging me to come with her for weeks, and she finally broke me down. She’s over there, at the high top with that guy.”
I turned to see a mass of snarled dyed blonde hair being cradled and led by a tattooed forearm. The girl’s lips were mashed into the face belonging to the inked forearm, and the pace the two moved with was aggressive and impressive. Even prudes throughout the barroom had to be inspired.
“No,” she said. “They just met a little while ago. She’s quick like that, I guess.”
“Decisive, for damn sure,” I said, smirking before I took another swig. “You two don’t go out much together?”
“Not really. Like I said, this is my first time here. After seeing you perform, though, maybe I’ll be back again. You play every Friday?”
“You got it. I tend to attract the heaviest drinkers on the scene, so that’s how I nailed down the Friday slot,” I said. “It’s not CBGB’s, but it’ll do.”
She looked at me, perplexed again.
“CBGB’s? Is that another rock joint around here? I don’t hang around this area of downtown too much.”
“Are you kidding?” I said, looking down and pinching her shirtsleeve. “You’re wearing the bar’s shirt. You didn’t know what this shirt was for when you bought it?”
“Not really, no. I got it at Urban Outfitters for twenty-eight bucks. It fits nice, looks cool. Don’t you think it looks good on me?”
And I did. I liked how tightly it fit over her breasts, how cool it looked with her skinny-legged black jeans, her black strap heels. I liked the depth in those emeralds, the style of her raven hair. The way her scent intermixed with the Nighthawk’s tobacco and Southern Comfort-tinged interior breeze; the way her delicate hand grazed my arm to send soothing warmth through my chest. I loved all of it.
Later that night, we sat outside the bar and shared a few cigarettes before we made out against a parked Honda. I kissed her left cheek before she pulled back and told me she had a boyfriend. I told her I didn’t care. She smiled at my confidence, then leaned toward me so I could move my lips down to her neck. I worked up to her mouth as she slid her fingers across the ink sleeve of Celtic knotting over my entire upper left arm. At four in the morning, we hiked up to my place on Allen Street and made love on the kitchen floor. She broke up with her boyfriend the next weekend.
Over the next year, we had some good times and survived some bad times. I took Dana to rock shows at the Nighthawk, for strolls up Elmwood, down Delaware and around the Erie Basin Marina. We went to Sabres games, grabbed postgame beers at the Swannie House. When my parents died, she was there for the crying, the depression and the hurt. She was there when I needed someone to take away the pain, to coax me toward some path of relevance. About sixteen months after our first night together, we stood in front of Uncle Finn at St. Stephen’s and were married. At the reception, we danced to both the Lenny Kravitz and Guess Who version of “American Woman,” our first necessary compromise as husband and wife. A little over four years after I played that song for her at the Nighthawk, we slept in the same bed—and dealt with drastically different schedules.
“Do you want me to make you some coffee?” I asked. “I’m gonna go turn the pot on for myself.”
“Coffee?” she grumbled. “I’m fucking pregnant. I can’t drink caffeine.”
“Right, right,” I said. Of course she couldn’t drink coffee. “Well, you missed out on Brendan’s party yesterday. Finn showed up with a cake, we had some laughs. Good times.”
“Look, I don’t mean to sound like a total rag, but could you please make yourself silent? I worked a double until two last night and my ears are still ringing from all the yelling and screaming during the football game. This talking isn’t helping the ringing.”
A little over three months into her pregnancy and she was already irritable. I just shook my head, set my feet on the cold hardwood and tucked the comforter tightly under a shivering Dana. She rolled away from me to cradle a body pillow between her arms and legs, cooing and moaning as she adjusted herself back into a sleeping position. I stood there enviously watching her as she jostled about. I leaned over and kissed the back of her head, pulled the window shades down and let her be.
Our schedules weren’t always so contrasting. When we started dating, Dana worked as a customer service representative for B&B Collections, located in an office park near downtown’s Amtrak station on Exchange Street. Every day, she went to her desk, put on a headset and went down a list of residents who missed payments on phones, cars, credit cards or student loans. She spent her mornings listening to excuses and reluctantly enforcing penalties. Every day, she absorbed the yelling, crying and pleading associated with problems considered bothersome one day, life-threatening the next.
“I’m out of work,” they’d say to her. “I’m still looking for work. The wife left me. My husband cheated on me. The kids are in college. The kids are selfish brats. I need my car for work. I need my car for fun. Mother died. Father died. Depression has worn me down. Gonna get paid soon. Have to get paid next week. Give me another week. How about another month? One more chance? Don’t you have a soul, you heartless bitch?”
By the time we married, this omnipresent flurry of resident fury buried Dana like a lake-effect snowdrift. Every morning, she walked into work hollowed, numb. The job transformed her, sucked out all that youthful exuberance stowed behind her eyes when we first connected at the Nighthawk. In its place, it instilled an acceptance of life’s brutal hand, a jaded attitude to combat a nagging empathy—and such emotions were useless between nine and five. Feeling bad for people didn’t relieve debt or remove boots from car tires. Sympathy didn’t dismiss the fact that Dana was on the delivering end of a harsh reality. Every evening, she returned to our Allen Street apartment depleted by the job, tortured with the nagging whispers of guilt from the necessary actions of her days.
One day, she decided to revolt.
Dana took her last call at B&B on a Tuesday. After she hung up the phone, she took off her headset, packed up her stuff, and walked right out the door. No goodbyes. No two weeks’ notice. No consultation with a boss. She simply left and never went back. She needed a change in her life before it was too late, before the resignation that extinguished the hopes of her methodical coworkers had a chance to douse hers. She wanted satisfaction, fulfillment and all that other shit young idealists want to bask in. She wanted to escape Buffalo, to leave behind the gray skies and long winters that could sap ambition. Dana wanted to work a job she loved under perpetual sunny skies, in a place where overcoats and tanning booths were unnecessary; where flip-flops were the preferable footwear. She wanted to move to Florida, a state her parents had already made home a couple years back, right when we started dating. Every few nights after she left B&B, she’d pitch a move. And every few nights, I talked her down. Eventually, I defeated the relocation idea. I had no interest in leaving my family behind to escape to the south; I didn’t intend to leave my birthplace. I wanted to live in Buffalo, raise my kids in Buffalo and be laid to rest in Buffalo. Dana still needed to find a new life path while she was young enough to abruptly change course. So a year into our marriage, she decided to go back to school. She decided to pursue an associate’s degree in the Eastern art of massage therapy.
While learning this trade, she needed to work somewhere on the side, somewhere with a flexible schedule and decent pay for someone absorbing the benefits of holism, Oriental anatomy and physiology at the Western New York College of Massage. With these considerations, Dana became a waitress at the White Room, a blues bar down the street from the Nighthawk. The joint was known for its Wednesday karaoke night and killer blues revues on Fridays and Saturdays. Also, according to the Buffalo Gazette article framed outside their men’s bathroom, the White Room hosted the city’s third best Sunday Night Football party, making Monday mornings a bleary ordeal for the bar’s Sunday evening patrons. Its battered wooden tables played lunch host for area Democrats, salesmen and servicemen, dealing out large portions of crisp, sauce-soaked chicken wings and pulled pork sandwiches, complete with the White Room’s own homemade barbeque sauce. These lunch shifts were the safe play for waitresses. With the standard wing and sandwich fare came few drinks and even fewer drunks, a welcome respite from the rowdy biker crowds who frequented the neighboring whiskey dives around Lafayette Square. If a waitress wanted to make some serious money, she’d have to brave the dinner elements, which were fueled by a loud trio of large appetites, leather-clad alcoholics and functional binge drinkers.
When Dana was offered night shifts to balance with her daytime therapy classes, she went for it. Her dark hair wooed older men into generous tips from dinner through the wee morning hours. Her emerald eyes invited even more, ranging from whispered pick-up lines by blue-collared union reps, to phone numbers from white-collared suitors. When she would hustle her delicate frame across the restaurant floor, these men watched and admired. Each kept the wings and pork and beer and liquor coming just to earn a glance in their direction, the same glance that hypnotized me. And Dana knew this. She knew that, every time she grooved her hips from side to side and tapped her heels on the tiles, the tips would pile up. Staged or not, she learned to like it. There were no more repossessions to deal with, no more faceless tears over the telephone. Anything was better than debt collection. Anything. Even working as a waitress through her first trimester.
After I left Dana to sleep that morning, I walked into the bathroom and shut the door behind me. I stepped into the shower and flicked on the waterproof radio, tuned it to 97 Rock and kept the volume low. I turned on the water and made it scalding hot, let it fall down on my dark hair as I listened to three straight wailers from Zeppelin. After ten minutes, I stepped out of the shower, humming the melody of Robert Plant’s vocals on “The Ocean.” Once toweled off, I returned to the bedroom to quietly grab a pair of navy blue pants from my dresser. Dana was still clutching the elongated pillow and was curled up next to it while rhythmically breathing. She had entered the heightened relaxation of back-to-sleep sleep, a state that elicits the most vivid dreams, the most tempting fantasies. Those were my Saturday mornings, the early hours I’d lie under the sheets and slip into dreams until thoughts of coffee and a newspaper put my feet on the floor. Watching Dana adjust herself under the sheets again, I wanted the rest she was having, the sleep she was lost in. I delicately crawled atop the sheets to sit next to her and watch her serene temperament until she felt my gaze on her lids. Her eyelids fluttered open, wearily.
“What?” she growled, her voice muffled as her face was still plowed into her pillow.
“I’m just watching you sleep,” I whispered.
“Great. Have fun with that.”
“Oh, I almost forgot,” I said. “Finn’s band scored a spot on the bill for the annual Joe Strummer tribute night and wants us to go.”
“Isn’t that show around Christmas?”
“A little after Christmas, at the Nighthawk. Finn would never do a show in the middle of Advent, so I imagine it’s a few days after. What do you think?”
“What do I think? I think it’s fucking October,” she said. “Ask me a little closer to the date, preferably when I’m not freezing and telling you to leave me alone. If I was forced into an answer right now, I’d tell you I have no interest in trudging through the snow to watch Clash covers before another one of your uncle’s bass players gets clipped by a shoe.”
“No, no. He said this new guy is—”
“I don’t care,” she interrupted. “Can’t you tell me this later? Also, why are you still here? Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
“That all depends,” I said. “Do you want me to go? I could stay home today, call in sick.”
“Are you joking?” she said, then turned over to yank the covers down to her waist. “Why the hell do you want to stay home from work?”
“I haven’t seen you in a while. I could stay in bed with you all day, keep you warm. Maybe you can practice your massage techniques on me. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” she said. “I think you’re talking like an asshole who’s thinking with his cock, not his brain. I’m a student and a waitress, pregnant and attached to your health insurance. If you lose your job, we’re completely screwed.”
“Dana, c’mon. You think I could get fired for calling in sick? Guys in my building have been lighting up their morning coffees with Jack for decades.”
“I don’t give a shit about the old drunks in your building,” she said. “You’re the one I’m depending on, so quit acting like a boy and think like a man, dammit. Get your fucking pants on and get out of here!”
“Fine, I get it. You’re in a bad mood.” I climbed off the bed and slipped into my pants. “You’re overworked. You’re tired. You’re pregnant. Maybe you’ll feel better when you give up some shifts at the bar. Did you tell them about the baby yet?”
“During yesterday’s Bills game? No. If I had to break the news during that shit show, my manager would have gone berserk. After we went down by three touchdowns, he looked like he was going to stab himself. I’m lucky I’m not showing that much.”
“But you’re going have to tell him soon, right?”
“This week. I’ll tell him this week.”
“And then what? How long can you wait tables pregnant?”
“A few more months, I guess.” She pulled the blankets up to her chin and over her shoulders. “I could probably do it for a little longer if I could get some proper rest. Uninterrupted.”
“Fine, I’m gone,” I said, clapping my hands while backing toward the door. “You need anything else before I go?”
“My God, just go,” she said, causing me to grab the bedroom door handle and exit. I had one foot into the kitchen before her voice turned me around.
“Wait, John, hold up a second,” she said, then sat up and let the comforter fall off her shoulders and down to her lap. After she flipped the matted black strands of hair from her face, she fluttered her eyelashes at me. “I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch, okay? I’m irritable and spent. Plus, after working the last four nights, my back is fucking killing me. I don’t mean to take it out on you; you just happen to be here. You’re the one in front of me when I feel like this.”
“You know you can quit, right?” I said. “I can go knock on some doors, get a job bartending nights somewhere. I know it’s not ideal, but say the word and I’ll make it happen.”
“I’m not letting you do that. Just let me get a little sleep and I’ll be fine, okay?”
“You got it,” I said. “And with that, I’m out.”
I shut the bedroom door behind me and had a sudden urge to say one more thing to her, just three more words before I let her be. After I turned the knob and poked my head back in, though, I couldn’t interrupt the silence. Dana lay curled and serene, utterly peaceful amid her rhythmic breathing. There was something about her exhaustion I found oddly endearing. Whether it was how her black strands lay strewn about the pillow or how she spooned with feathered pillows as if they were people, there was something so alluring it sucked the venom from her earlier attitude. Watching her slip into her therapeutic slumber, I could surrender within this truth and note my attraction as an element of love.