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.”
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)
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.
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
(Author's note: When I originally conceived this story, it was rooted in the idea that, sometimes, life isn't about celebrating the best of times. It's about survival, overcoming the worst of times and the strength you can summon in those moments. This message seems appropriate on a day like today, one when many in America and elsewhere are terrified of what comes next after the events of this morning. But thankfully, many find the best version of themselves when faced with calamity--and there are now tens of millions facing this same calamity. Hopefully, those of us in the aforementioned category can eventually take a deep breath and determine how we can work toward a better tomorrow for ourselves and our children. Until then, here's the second chapter of my second novel, When theLights Go Out.)
When my world went goodbye
I took a look inside
To find what kind of truths
I’d face or try to hide
-“My New Dawn” by J. Nolan
After my parents died, my family joined every October for their memorial mass inside Uncle Finn’s South Buffalo parish, St. Stephen’s. He’d conduct the annual service, donning his green Celtic vestment as he commemorated Colleen and Thomas Nolan, the faithfully departed. He’d echo their names over his congregation, who’d bow their heads and pray for God’s blessings upon those Colleen and Tom left behind. We accepted these sentiments every year.
It was the fourth Nolan memorial mass. I stood at the end of a pew next to my sister Meg and her two boys, six-year-old Mickey and newly ten-year-old Brendan, just a few hours into his birthday. After the service, we’d head downtown to balance the morning’s somber beginning with an afternoon celebration of Brendan’s birthday. Until then, we had to endure the mass and prayers, as well as the memories the mention of my parents’ names would elicit.
“And this is the Gospel of the Lord,” said Finn.
“Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”
After I took my seat, I dangled my right Doc Marten boot into the center aisle and slouched into the corner of the pew as surrounding parishioners nestled into their seats, awaiting the always-intriguing homily of Father Finn.
No matter how many Sundays I saw him in that flowing vestment, his life’s designation always seemed odd to me. My mother had told us of the heartthrob Finn was in his youth, how he spent very few Friday nights throughout high school or college without a date. When Meg and I were younger, we witnessed his popularity in person, before he became a priest. In his early and mid-twenties, he occasionally brought women—ones he said he’d met through volunteering at St. Stephen’s or working as coordinator downtown at St. Jude’s Community Center—to dinner. Devising activities and community outreach efforts appeared to have scored him an attractive date or three. When he reached his late twenties and announced his decision to enroll in the seminary, these memories of his popularity with the ladies made his vocational direction that much more confusing. Yet soon enough, there he was, patrolling the altar of our neighborhood parish as the noteworthy Father Finn.
Only in his early forties, he appeared and acted more like a gregarious corner tavern bartender than a respected priest. He stood tall and burly, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair tickling the eartops that flanked his round Irish head. As St. Stephen’s young and exuberant pastor, he made the most of his hours on the altar. In that time, he’d stress selflessness, love and community. He’d speak of how we all must honor God by reaching our potential not only spiritually, but also socially and professionally. He stressed compassion at every turn, especially when considering all sides of controversial wedge issues like abortion, gay marriage or divorce. Even in the face of intense dissention and diocesan backlash, he’d openly discuss difficult topics to elicit sincere and rational thought within his parishioners. In front of a weekly standing-room-only crowd, Father Finn used means neither conventional nor boring to regularly dismiss attendees inspired and contemplative. And if the number of these attendees weren’t as great as they were, if they didn’t ante up and stuff those collection boxes every week, the diocese would have removed him years ago.
“Okay,” he began, strolling off the altar with a gold Celtic cross stitched at the center of his vestment to represent St. Stephen’s surrounding Irish-American neighborhood. “Who here listens to the great Neil Young? C’mon, let’s see some hands, people. Don’t be shy, get ‘em in the air.”
After a simmer of commotion around us, I raised my hand, as did Meg and Brendan. Before Mickey followed, he looked at me to make sure he’d listened to Neil Young before. I nodded, so his hand went up. With arms rising around us, the church was buzzing. Unpredictable sermons were one reason Finn was so wildly popular with St. Stephen’s parishioners. He often referenced topical examples from music, literature, film, and sports to relay the day’s message. On some Sundays, he would even play pop songs on his acoustic guitar or the choir piano and sing whatever lyrics helped facilitate his message.
“Now, you’re all probably wondering why I’m asking you about Neil, a guy born just a smooth drive up the Q.E.W. in Toronto,” he said. “Because as we sit here today and remember the lives of my sister Colleen and her husband, Tom, I remember my own things about them. Personal things, like how much the two of them—particularly Colleen—loved to listen to Neil Young. I’ll never forget the stack of his albums she had. If he recorded something, anything, she had it.”
After The Goldrush. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. On The Beach. Zuma. Tonight’s The Night. I glanced down the pew to Meg and smiled. We remembered all the albums and their jacket covers. We remembered how many times my mother spun each on the rickety turntable in our living room.
“Yesterday, I’m over in the rectory, thinking of Colleen and Tom and what I’m going to say today. This is the fourth year we’ve done this, so you’d think this whole exercise would get easier with time, right? It doesn’t,” said Finn. “Whether you’re a priest or a plumber, losing a loved one is never easy to handle. As the years pass, the severity of the pain associated with their absence varies from tough to tougher. And some days, man, the pain is downright excruciating.”
About midway down the center aisle, he stopped walking and talking to scan the crowd, to look over the pews of men dressed in blue oxfords and Notre Dame sweatshirts, women clad in barn coats and khaki pants.
“Unfortunately, there is no universal answer to alleviate this pain. There’s no prayer to say, no spell to cast and no drug to take it all away. As long as you remember the loved ones you lost, remember how much they meant to you, how much you miss them, there’s going to be a sting right here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “and right here,” he said, clutching his stomach.
At the end of that sentence, I peered down the pew at Meg again. Looking forward to Finn, she was biting the inside of her mouth, holding in her emotions as best she could. Despite her efforts, a single tear slid down her right cheek, causing me to look away before I duplicated her reaction.
“Over these past four years, I can assure each of you that I’ve felt that sting many times, too many times to count. But the only way I’ve ever been able to alleviate that sting, that pain, is to do something that made those lost loved ones happy; something that made them sing or dance or laugh. Though I may be hurting, they’re the ones who are gone, the ones not around to bask in the things we can enjoy every day,” he said. “So yesterday, I played a little Neil Young in the rectory, for Colleen and Tom. I turned it up nice and loud, even opened a window or two to get the music out to Okell Street. One of the songs I played was a little number called ‘Long May You Run.’ Has anyone heard it?”
A few nods and smiles greeted his question. Most faces seemed frozen, anticipatory of where Finn was going with all of this. Waiting, they watched as he walked back up to the altar and over to its podium.
“If you haven’t heard it, you’re about to hear it from me and my old Fender here,” he said, reaching under the podium to pull out his chipped and scuffed acoustic guitar. “When I think of my sister and her husband, I think of music like this and the happy times they spent listening to it, together. I also think of Colleen playing this song over and over again when we were younger and—”
He stopped to let a laugh slip, then paused to scratch the back of his head and gather himself. Before he could let his own tears slip down his face, he inhaled and looked up through St. Stephen’s ceiling, then back to his waiting parishioners.
“Now, if I can just get through this song in one piece, maybe I can give the two of them something to smile about as they look down on us all, okay?” he said before another deep, composing breath. “All right then.”
He tossed his guitar’s leather strap over his shoulder, and applause erupted throughout the congregation, a Catholic oddity that was a mere regularity at St. Stephen’s. After he tossed a harmonica harness around his neck to perform some of the song’s most memorable instrumentation, he got another rousing ovation before he strummed and sang about things to do in stormy weather, about changes that have come. I didn’t look to Meg throughout his performance. I didn’t need to. As I absorbed every sound that soothed from Finn’s Fender, I knew we were channeling the same memories of our smiling parents. The same nights when they danced around our kitchen together to this same Neil Young song. Instead of turning to my left, I bit the inside of my mouth and enjoyed those chords as they bounced down side aisles and off stained-glass windows.
After Finn clipped his last note, he talked about how some of the song’s lyrics connected to his points about the pain of loss, about honoring our lost. This elicited more nods of recognition and understanding, then a shower of applause at the sermon’s end. In the entire diocese, St. Stephen’s was the only Catholic church where cheers after the homily were expected and accepted. But in the entire Diocese of Buffalo, there was only one Father Finn Leary. With him, you always expected the unexpected.
After mass, I headed downtown to the corner of Allen Street and Elmwood Avenue with Meg and the boys to find the sunlit interiors of Jim’s Steakout, a downtown Mecca for loyal bleu cheese and hot sauce-soaked chicken finger sub disciples like Brendan. After local taverns’ nightly last call at four a.m., Steakout routinely became packed with intoxicated loyalists, hungry for greasy wings and subs. Thankful that no one from that crowd was still hanging around, we huddled into a wooden booth for Brendan’s birthday celebration. Every Nolan was present—except one.
“It’s a real shame she couldn’t be here,” said Meg of my expectant wife, Dana. “What happened again?”
“She got called into work,” I said, frustrated as I straightened myself up in the bench and took a sip of my Dr. Pepper. “Guess the staff’s post-work drinking got out of hand last night and left a few waitresses violently ill this morning. Her boss called frantic at around ten, so she has to serve through lunch and dinner. She sends her birthday wishes, though. She really wanted to be here, and felt worse about having to miss the mass.”
“Should we go over there and say hello?” she asked before sipping her Diet Coke.
“If you were three months pregnant and exhausted, would you want people to come visit you at work?” I asked. “Trust me, we’re better off here. She was pretty pissed this morning, so we should definitely give her the day to cool off.”
Meg smiled while extending a sympathetic hand to my shoulder. After I took a deep, composing breath, I looked out one of the restaurant’s windows to see a young couple walking up Elmwood together. Both in black T-shirts and exposing their tattooed arms, they wrapped those limbs around each other’s waist as the strolled through the crosswalk at Allen and kissed on the opposite corner. Together on a Sunday; together to laugh and touch and feel in front of strangers, in front of passing motorists and mountain bikes. For a brief moment, I imagined myself on that Allen corner, clutching Dana absent of inconvenient obstructions that intruded on our lives. There’d be no Sunday shifts, no tables to wait on. There’d be no other place to be than that street corner, holding and touching and kissing within our own black-and-white photograph. Absent this desire, I let the couple walk from my view and continue up the avenue. I instead turned to focus on my reality, one that sat my nephews across the table from me.
“Okay, boys,” I said, extending my knuckles to both their fists for a bump. “Are we ready for a birthday lunch or what?”
“Yeah,” they said, then reached around their Cokes and connected with my fists.
“So, what are we ordering? Brendan, since you’re the man of the hour, I think you can do the honors and start us off.”
“How about a large pizza with extra pepperoni, waffle fries with gravy, and a chicken finger sub for me?”
Quieter than Mickey, Brendan had sandy blond hair and freckles across his face, marks poached from his mother. Thin but growing, he was already the star forward for his youth hockey team, the Hawks. Though emotionally reserved, the slick lefty was all heart on the ice, shining with grit and hustle when he’d fly after a loose puck and ignite a breakaway. After he’d flip a wrist shot over the shoulder of an opposing goaltender, he’d skate along the boards and flash a wide grin underneath his wire facemask. Once the season ended, he’d spend proceeding months repetitiously shooting an orange street hockey ball at a tape square on his battered garage door. Meg grew tired of making him come into the house at nightfall, so she had a garage spotlight installed to shine on Brendan and his target. She said it helped him see the square better, but I think she wanted a brighter view of the kid, a way to keep him closer as she watched from the kitchen window. Growing older and ordering saucy, scalding chicken finger subs, he was growing up fast. Meg knew it.
“And who do you think is going to eat all this food, mister?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I added. “You think the Mick’s gonna eat half a pizza himself?”
“I could do it,” said Mickey, sitting up straight and putting his small hands on the table. “I went to my friend’s house last week and had three pieces of pizza all by myself.”
“It was a sheet pizza, Mickey,” Brendan said before leaning forward to dismiss his baby brother’s significant achievement. “Those pieces are smaller, so they don’t count as whole slices.”
“Yes they do,” screamed Mickey. “Mommy, tell Brendan they count. They count!”
With floppy brown hair tickling his eyebrows and covering forehead freckles, Mickey was feisty, tough and shorter than his brother. The kid looked like he’d be a fighter one day, the type whose forearms would breathe out of black rolled-up sleeves in the doorway of a downtown tavern. Though only in the first grade, he didn’t let Brendan push him around. Dealing with his mother was a different story.
“Michael Patrick Nolan, you will lower your voice right now,” Meg calmly scolded, with dark eyes opened wide and use of the boy’s full, baptismal name. “Do you want me to take you out of here before we order even a slice of pizza?”
What made Meg such a good single mother was the line she drew between playmate and policeman, a distinction that earned her the simultaneous adoration and respect of her boys. In her early thirties, she looked younger. Her brown hair dropped to her shoulders and complemented scattered freckles over smooth, soft skin. She should have appeared more worn, working long hours as a court stenographer downtown. As a woman who’d been left alone to raise two boys, she should have stood angrier, full of a jaded distrust. It would have been understandable. The boys’ father, a loathsome fucker named Billy Doyle, fled Buffalo’s city limits in an F-150 pick-up before Mickey was born and hadn’t been heard from since. Billy and Meg didn’t marry before or after Brendan was born, so Meg attached our surname to her newborn boy. Maybe she did this because, somewhere deep down, she knew Billy would eventually split—and fulfill the underwhelming promise of every guy she drew close.
Meg knew how to be a mother; she was good at it. She was terrible at picking men, and had a tremendous knack for scooping the wrong ones. Before Billy Doyle, there was Joey Braun, a long-haired Lynyrd Skynyrd guy who drank frightening amounts of Southern Comfort—even for a Buffalonian. After Joe came Bobby Collins, a huge fan of Rush, jean jackets and cocaine. He stuffed about a thousand dollars of Meg’s money into one of his denim pockets before eventually landing in rehab. Finally, the quick-fisted Kevin Quinn stormed into Meg’s life to the thirsty licks of Van Halen’s “Panama.” A month into their relationship, Quinn earned a week’s stay at the Erie County Holding Center for instigating a massive drunken brawl inside Ralph Wilson Stadium. Shortly after, he earned the boot from Meg. His incarceration sucked all the promise out of their relationship.
Next to that calamitous trio, Billy seemed God-sent. Unfortunately, while she was pregnant with Mickey, Meg endured while Billy fulfilled his predictable destiny. He left her, split town without warning, and without leaving a forwarding address. If there were any positives to be taken from the situation, it was Meg’s tremendous foresight in legally making Brendan a Nolan, not a Doyle. When Mickey was born, he too became a Nolan, one more to add to Brendan, Meg and me.
When our parents died, we became the final four, the only Nolans left. Meg and I got over the loss partly by putting everything we had into her boys, who needed the love and guidance our parents gave to us. Every day, Meg and I thought about that guidance, thought about the things we’d have to do to honor our parents’ memory. There were the children’s books they read us, the open-air folk concerts they walked us to. There was the night our mother blindfolded us, put us in the car and drove us out to a surprise double-feature at the Buffalo Drive-In. There was our trip to old War Memorial Stadium to see The Beach Boys play, that humid summer night our father danced with us in the aisle. These were the memories we laughed and cried inside of before taking a deep breath and wishing they were each still alive, still around to be grandparents to Brendan and Mickey. With my fatherhood approaching, I wondered how I’d ever approach my parents’ dedication, their selflessness. With two boys already under her tutelage, Meg’s actions were her answers. She handled her boys masterfully, just like our parents would have.
“And Brendan,” she continued, “I don’t care if it is your birthday. You don’t embarrass your brother in front of Uncle John. Three pieces of sheet pizza is plenty in my book.”
“Mine too,” I said to Mickey.
I offered my fist across the table again to meet his kid-sized version before he flashed his tough, first-grade smile. After civility was restored, I went to the counter, put our order in and returned to the booth to settle in.
“So,” I said, tapping my fingertips on the table, “are we doing presents now or are we waiting until after we eat?”
“What do you want to do, Brendan?” said Meg. “It’s your day, so it’s your choice.”
Her sentence was barely finished before Brendan decided.
“Can we do the presents now, please?”
Such polite kids. If I thought Meg would let me, I’d have bought them presents every week. As the dominant male presence in their lives, I wanted to make up for the guy who wasn’t there, the coward who hit the road when reality became inconvenient. She wouldn’t have any of that. No charity for her or the boys. Just familial love, doled out in reasonable portions on weekdays, birthdays and holidays.
“Here’s mine, pal.” I pushed a two-tiered package across the table. First was the small square on top, which he tore open. Holding the gift, he seemed grateful, yet unfamiliar with the disc case in his hands.
“Who is the Sam Roberts Band?”
“Group I’ve been listening to, from Canada,” I said. “Rock and roll, lots of guitar. You’ll love it, I promise you. If it’s nice out this weekend, we’ll take a ride to the skate park and listen to it in the car together, okay?”
“Sure, Uncle John, sure,” he said, politely smiling like he did at some of the other albums I’d given him over the previous nine years of his life. “Thank you.”
“Uncle John, can I listen too?” asked Mickey. “I like rock and roll.”
“Sure thing, Mick.”
Meg and I grew up with the music of our parents, addicted to their Beatles and Bob Dylan records, their piles of Paul Simon cassette tapes. Music was a Nolan tradition, so for every one of the boys’ birthdays, I bought them each a CD or two to go with whatever toys or clothes or sports equipment they actually wanted. What I didn’t give them, Meg played for them, spinning the Grateful Dead’s hazy jams or Neil Young’s acoustical yearn on vinyl in place of bedtime stories. Unfortunately, both were too young to have seen me play the Nighthawk, but they’d heard the stories from their mother. Meg also had a bootleg recording of one of my shows, one she had the bar’s sound guys rip from the soundboard years back. When she played it for Brendan and Mickey, they loved it, so I broke out Deirdre from time to time and played a few of the tunes I used to cover on those Friday nights. On these occasions, I was their rocker uncle. On their birthdays, I was their music teacher.
When Brendan opened the second box, he was as excited as ever. Folded under tissue paper, he found a throwback royal blue and gold Sabres hockey jersey adorned with the name and number of his favorite Sabre, forward Derek Roy. With eyes wide and mouth agape, pure jubilation radiated as he pulled the jersey over his head and slid his arms into the sleeves. A perfect fit.
“So that’s why you wanted to open the presents, huh?” hushed Meg. “You show-off. How am I supposed to compete with that?”
“Sorry,” I said, even though I wasn’t. I basked in Brendan’s satisfaction and youthful awe. “I saw it and had to grab it. What do you think, Brendan?”
“Thank you so much,” he said before sliding over to give me another knuckle pound. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
With wrapping paper, tissue and box strewn across the table, Brendan ran his fingers over the stitched logo on the front of the jersey, the raging white buffalo and the crossed swords. When he found the gold stripes on the sleeves, he went over those as well, entranced. He didn’t even look up to see our bounty of food arrive.
“Brendan, you should take that jersey off and put it back in the box before you start eating,” said Meg. “You don’t want to get bleu cheese or pizza sauce on it, do you?”
“I don’t care,” Brendan said, smiling while he puffed out his chest and ran his hands over the front of the jersey again. “I’m never taking this off, Ma. Never.”
Meg sighed, then relented.
“Fine, but tuck that napkin into the neck and put another on your lap. Right now.”
We dug into the pizza and let the birthday boy pound down his bleu cheese-soaked chicken finger sub. Delicious grease coated each pizza slice’s layer of cheese and pepperoni, and dripped from our chins to the tabletop when we took bites. Mickey tried to eat his first slice fast, storing each large bite in the sides of his mouth like a greedy chipmunk. When one side of his mouth was packed, he jammed bites of mozzarella and tomato sauce in the other. He lowered his eyebrows to glare at Brendan through every bite.
“Mickey, don’t be a little pig,” said Meg. “Chew every bite and swallow before adding another. This isn’t some sort of race. Chew. Chew. Swallow.”
While scolding Mickey, she missed Brendan devouring his sandwich, pushing Frank’s hot sauce, bits of creamy bleu cheese and shards of lettuce out the back of his sub roll with every bite. After we finished, our table lay in ruins, with soda and hot sauce and bits of chicken strewn about the tabletop. On the tin pizza tray laid a single pepperoni. Mickey snatched it up, tossed it into his mouth and smiled wide: all teeth. Just as I was about to get up to clear this damage, a large hand from behind me touched my shoulder before a voice joined it.
“You can’t have a birthday without a cake, right?” said Finn in his deep baritone as he held a white and green frosted cake with 10 unlit candles above my head.
“Uncle Finn,” the boys yelled and jumped from their seats to hand out low-fives.
“What do you say, men?” he asked. He always called the boys men. After he handed me the cake, he mussed Mickey’s floppy hair and gave Brendan a pat on the back. Finn was our mother’s only brother, the last close relative we had to share birthdays and holidays with. That morning, he was a popular clergyman. In Jim’s Steakout, wearing blue jeans, a red flannel shirt and his brown secondhand overcoat, he was Uncle Finn. That was enough for us.
“So what is a great uncle to give his great nephew on such a great birthday?”
Brendan shrugged, waiting. Finn reached behind our wooden booth’s wall and revealed a hockey stick with a red bow attached to the top. When Brendan gripped the handle, his eyes lit up wide. Again.
“A buddy of mine at the arena owed me a favor,” said Finn, a smile curling the corner of his mouth. “On that stick are the autographs of every Sabre on last year’s team, even that defenseman who was traded to San Jose.”
“You got it.
“Wow,” said Brendan, his mouth open as he read every name scribbled on the stick. “Thanks, Uncle Finn. Thanks a lot.”
After I pushed the cake to the center of the table, I folded my arms across my chest and turned to shake my head.
“Nice try,” I whispered, “but he can’t wear that stick. I bought him the Roy sweater, so I win this year.”
“Sure, John. Sure.” He put both hands on my shoulders and leaned toward my ear. “But what if I told you my arena buddy got that stick from Roy’s locker? What would the score be then?”
“Um, call it even?”
“Deal,” he laughed, then turned his attention back to the boys. “I see I missed the feeding frenzy, but do you think there’s room for cake?”
Finn headed to the front counter to grab five forks and a plastic knife, then returned to light the cake’s candles with the royal blue lighter he pulled from his pocket. After we sang the birthday song, Brendan extinguished the candles and Finn served each sliced section on a napkin.
“So, did you hear about the gig we booked?” he said, sliding into the bench across from me.
“We slid into a spot for Strummerville, the Joe Strummer tribute night in December at your old stomping grounds, the Nighthawk,” he said. “We go on around 10-ish, after some old ska band called Mustache Tango. We’ve been practicing a bunch of Clash covers, so it should be pretty wild.”
Many things made Finn popular within the St. Stephen’s community, but nothing made him more notable with the parish’s youth and music enthusiasts than his wildly entertaining side gig. In local wedding halls, bars and the occasional downtown rock hole, Father Finn Leary was the only Buffalo priest who punched keys for a rollicking, non-denominational, piano-infused punk rock band called the Nickel City Kings.
In the years before he entered the priesthood, Finn was a normal, scruffy guy who played piano for a variety of local bands. After working with the city’s youth at St. Jude’s during the day, he spent his nights toiling in the smoke-filled bars and clubs that shook with Buffalo’s rock and blues acts of the late 1980s. He was just a passionate musician, one tinkling ivory keys behind gravely vocals and spastic guitar work; one trying to emulate the work of his vinyl heroes like Richard Manuel and Roy Bittan.
That was before Finn’s moment, before the transformational minutes of an event that led him away from his nights as a side musician and toward his unforeseen spiritual calling. He never told me the specifics of those minutes, the exact details of a scene that transformed his existence. All he ever said was it was as if a light switch was flipped on, as if his situational darkness was lifted and illuminated by an idea that seemed so right, so absolutely necessary. And so began the merger of the piano man with the priest, a union that instilled Finn with a duality that unconventionally augmented his position as the latter. His whole musical presence made him more relatable, more human to his parishioners. But for Buffalo’s tattooed barflies, jukebox armies and blues junkies, they could care less about Finn’s odd spiritual balancing act. As long as he was around to mash those black and whites, to hit those keys with the same fervor as he had before he donned the blacks and white, he’d have crowds to bask in his rhythmic presence.
“We picked up a new bass player, this big Jamaican named Neko,” said Finn. “Guy’s got a decent handle and a phenomenal stage presence. He just stalks his stage corner, slaps his strings and swings his dreads. The kids at our last show loved him.”
“Nobody threw a shoe at him?”
“No one,” he said, laughing. “But honestly, how many bands have lost two bass players to shoe-induced injuries? It has to mean something, right?”
“Punishment from the Almighty?” I suggested. “Maybe he’s not a fan of the new material.”
“If the good Lord wanted to break up the band, he’d have to break my hands.” Finn held up his palms up and wiggled his fingers. “Also, our new songs are brilliant. Imagine Mick Jones riffs married with Billy Joel keys. You’d pay to hear that, right?”
“That’s why you have to come out to the Strummerville show,” he replied, then slapped the tabletop for emphasis. “We’re going to slide in a few new numbers among Clash covers, so it’s going to be great. Bring Dana and we’ll make a night of it.”
“I’ll get back to you on that,” I said before slouching in my bench. “Dana will be almost five months in by then, so it could be dicey. She’s been having a tough go of it, carrying the pregnancy through school and work. I could use a few prayers for the two, er, three or us. Please.”
“You got it, kid,” he said, then reached across the table and slapped my arm. “I pray for you guys every day, but I’ll put in a special call to the boss tonight.”
He always referred to God as the boss.
“By late December,” he said, “you’ll be relaxed, the little Nolan won’t be stirring, and the wife will be begging you, pleading with you for a night of top-rate piano playing at the Nighthawk. Priest and uncle’s promise.”
“Tell the boss I give my best,” I said, smiling. “And say hello to my parents, too, will you?”“I always do, John,” he said. “I always do.”
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)
Friday, November 4, 2016
(Author's note: Last fall, I welcomed the release of my second novel, When the Lights Go Out. From its earliest stages, drafted throughout two years in grad school and edited after an unexpected return to Buffalo, it took six years to finish.
But as personally momentous of an occasion as this was, the novel was easily a distant second to another event that happened two days after its finalization: the birth of my son.
Yes, I was able to host some events at bars and bookstores and distribute some information over social media and through small publications. And yes, the work's found plenty of readers, ones that have been able to relate to the story's characters, its relationship between music and its meaning, and its elements of love, family and the ability to wade through tragedy in order to find some sort of purpose.
But overall, I wasn't able to promote the novel the way it should've been promoted. I thankfully had (and still have) more important things to worry about, and distributing the novel's contents to a larger audience fell by the wayside. I'd like to change that, starting today.
Below, you'll find the book's first chapter, and the next five will follow on the next five Fridays, ending December 9. If you like what you read, you can pick up the rest of it inside local Buffalo bookstores like Talking Leaves and Dog Ears; in paperback and Kindle form on Amazon; in under-scanned Internet areas like IndieBound; or with the publisher at No Frills/Amelia.
In the meantime, please enjoy the Buffalo-inspired content below, and keep checking back over the next weeks.)
Once upon a time
I had a life in mind
But then one day along the way
That dream was left behind
-“What I Lost” by J. Nolan
Four years ago, I was someone else.
I was Johnny Nolan, an acoustic guitarist who performed at the Nighthawk, a glorious and dingy downtown rock hole in Buffalo, New York. Every Friday night it used to be just me, isolated on stage, straddling a creaky stool in front of a white backdrop. The heat from overhead yellow, blue and red bulbs burned my eyelids. My left fingers aligned between frets on Deirdre, my Martin D-15 guitar. My right index finger and thumb clasped a small orange pick. The microphone waited, alive and hot. When I would glance out over the bar, I’d see strangers clutching beer bottles and pint glasses, taking sips of semi-cold Old Vienna and waiting for action. They’d shout together, join in a rhythmic arena-like chant of “Johnny Nolan” then clap five times (like John-nee No-lan, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap).
After the chant circulated five or six times, I’d bring the guitar to my knee and begin to strum, slowly but fluidly. The first line of lyrics, then the second. During the breaks in vocals, I’d shake my head around, like I was winding up for the next lyrical delivery. Every line would pour out, would wail through the crowded barroom, wrap around neon Budweiser signs and seep through the hairline cracks of windows weathered from harsh winters. The guitar chords bounced off steel coolers littered with Avail and Trashcan Sinatra stickers, walls that donned mounted Fender guitars and a framed Elvis concert poster from 1957. One cover song, then another. Once in a while, I’d throw in a Johnny Nolan original, just to make things interesting. Pretty girls in the front gazed and smiled. Tough guys in back nodded approval while ordering another round of beers. To others, those nights may have seemed insignificant or amateur. To me, those Fridays meant everything.
On one of those nights, I attracted a fan, a wiry blonde named Sara.
“With no ‘h’,” she insisted.
She had a sweet, bright smile when she laughed and cornflower blue eyes that opened wide when she emphasized the last word of every sentence. She also spoke about old punk music at such a frenetic and jittery pace I feared she’d collapse mid-sentence. Still, two hours after I stepped off stage that Friday, I sat in front of her on a leather-seated barstool, listening. She just rolled along, standing up straight for delivery.
“I love, love, love, love the Ramones and I hate people that say all their songs sound the same because, yeah, I know they sound the same because they’re all, like, totally fucking awesome and I’m not sure they’ve ever made a bad song, except maybe ‘Pet Cemetery,’ but I still like that song, but I don’t love it, and I want to love it, but I used to have this dog named Charlie who was hit by a school bus and every time I hear that song it reminds me of poor little Charlie getting run over, and I cry and cry and I don’t want to cry because I love the Ramones and all their songs and how fucking awesome they are, you know?”
I listened to her talk and nodded along between sips of beer. She was definitely a shade off, maybe on something. On Friday nights, I’d met girls way crazier, even ones who straddled the line between odd and socially problematic. There was the angry girl who gave a detailed explanation of the motivation behind her demonic wrist tattoo; the Jack Daniel’s drinker who moaned about my lack of inspired Bon Jovi numbers; the overtly flirtatious college student who’d send provocative pictures of herself to my cell phone every Wednesday. When my guitar was near me, I was approached by all types. Sara was one of them, and those hypnotic eyes were one reason I didn’t grab my guitar and split for the door.
That night, after the Nighthawk closed, we sat on the bar’s curb, sharing a cigarette just down the street from Lafayette Square. We exchanged drags, exhaled before we kissed, then repeated through a warm lakefront breeze. During breaks in the action, she rambled on about an old band called Brent’s TV who played California laundromats. I nodded politely while intermittently kissing her neck and cheeks between sentences. Eventually, she jumped up from the curb.
“Do you want to do something crazy, like, right now?”
“Sure,” I said. “What and where?”
“We have to go to my car. It’s across from the square.”
She walked quickly ahead of me as I plodded behind her, carrying my guitar case and wondering what she had hiding in her car. Would we up the ante on the curb fondling, or did she plan on taking this night in a whole new direction? Heavy drugs? Petty vandalism? She seemed crazy enough that nothing aside from homicide was off limits. When I got to her white Grand Am, though, she was already in the back seat, taking off her pants. When I saw this, I lightly rapped on the window.
“Um, should I come in?”
“No,” she answered. “Just wait out there, please. I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
I turned my back to the car and let Sara finish whatever it was she was doing. I could hear her shifting and struggling, her bare skin squeaking against the leather upholstery while she prepared for whatever crazy thing we were about to do.
“Tell you what,” she said. “Why don’t you wait for me in the square? I’ll be over in a minute.”
Under a bright, full moon that shined on the windows of shuttered storefronts and closed convenience shops, I headed over to the small park, complete with empty benches and strewn debris from recent outdoor concerts. The sun would soon sneak up to find me standing in the middle of a vacant park, waiting for this Sara. As I leaned against a tree, hands in my jean pockets, I lit another cigarette before she began her approach from across the street. In each of her hands, she held a short rope with dripping, softball-sized spheres attached to the ends. In place of the tight black pants and simple white T-shirt she wore in the bar were a long-sleeved fitted orange tee and free-flowing, bell-bottomed nylon windpants, navy blue with orange flames stitched on the outer seams. Her earlobe-length blonde hair was now pulled back tightly into a ponytail to reveal dark roots. When she reached me, she grinned mischievously.
“Can I use your lighter?”
“Can I ask for what?”
“Just give me the lighter and back up,” she said, like she was warning me to look both ways before crossing the street.
I handed over my green Bic and took a few steps back. With the lighter, Sara lit the end of the first rope, saturated in kerosene. With one rope ablaze, she ignited the other. When flames engulfed both rope ends, she began a maniacal dance, flinging the ropes over her shoulders and around her legs. She tossed one up in the air, then the other as I covered my face. Twirling the flames, she whirled around like some fanatical dervish. With her blue eyes now wide to emphasize nothing but fevered insanity, she was celebrating for whatever occasion the ropes and kerosene and firepants were trotted out. Finally, as she spun both ropes around, a portion of one of the fireballs detached and landed on a tree branch above my head, sending down a rush of sparks. After I ducked, I darted to the right, away from the tree. Sara was unfazed and continued to flip the ropes, despite the detachment. For her finale, she rapidly and simultaneously twirled both ropes at her sides, then dropped them to the ground. She leapt into the air, touching her toes in a full split. When her feet came down, she landed on the ropes’ lit ends and extinguished each with a single plant of her fireproof shoes. Standing atop each, she posed, arms raised to the night sky, under the stars and moonlight of downtown Buffalo. I clapped wildly while walking toward her as she smiled and laughed.
“Very impressive,” I said. “Definitely don’t think I’ll ever experience a show like that again.”
“Well,” she said, grasping my hips before pulling me close to her, “if you think that show was impressive, prepare to be dazzled twice in one night.”
She grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me down to the shadowed grass. After mounting herself on top of me, her thighs straddling my hips, she ripped off my T-shirt and flung it toward a nearby bench. She ran her hands over my chest before she took off her top and tossed it toward mine. As her soft hands ran over the inked outlines on my arms, her mouth found my chest to kiss and gently nibble every inch of it she could find. I lay on my back and grasped her hips, staring into the sky and loving every second before a thick aroma overtook the moment.
“Do you smell something burning?” I asked.
“I was just tossing some burning ropes around. You think that might be it?” she deadpanned, then brought her lips back to my chest before her fingers left to fiddle with my belt.
“No, no,” I said. “I think it’s something else.”
After I said this, I looked to my right. In the leaves of a large nearby oak tree, smoke wafted out as small flames emerged within. It had taken a few minutes, but that detached fireball from Sara’s dance routine had ignited the fresh leaves and branches above.
“Um, Sara?” I said. “What do you say we go back to my place?”
“What? Why? This is so—,” she said, then turned to see the nearby smoke and flames. “Oh shit! Yeah, we should go.”
She hopped off me, tossed me my shirt and feverishly pulled her own back on. I jumped to my feet, buckled my pants and grabbed my guitar. I took hold of Sara’s hand before she ran me to her car across the street. At the doors of her Grand Am, we heard a police siren wailing, approaching in the distance. We slammed both doors behind us, Sara hit the gas, and we fled a scene of accidental arson while laughing hysterically. The next morning, Sara the Fire Dancer was gone. I never saw her again, and our fling existed as a one-night affair. Unfortunately, that downtown tree was irrevocably affected. Our evening generated a giant bare spot it still has within its branches today.
These days, when I stroll past that Lafayette Square tree, I remember those wild Nighthawk nights, when everything was still carefree and unhinged. But those Fridays have been gone for four years now. They were the nights before I was married, before I prepared to become a father; before I left the stage and found a desk. It was a time before everything changed and transitioned as quickly as power chords, sliding from fret to fret. It was before the diagnosis, the hospital bed, the endless tears from the eyes of my father, my uncle Finn, my sister Meghan. It was before breast cancer snatched my mother, before a clutching hand on the chest of a navy ski vest became the last living image I’d have of my father. It was before everything in my life was transformed in a matter of weeks. It was before things that once seemed so important were dwarfed by the enormity of death and loss.
My mother went first, lying emaciated and still in a Mercy Hospital bed on a cold December day. As I peered down at the once beautiful Colleen Nolan, her pale, freckled skin yellowed and thin, the memories flowed forth. The nights she served up cold Dr. Peppers and Neil Young records on our front porch as Lake Erie breezes whisked up our street and kissed our faces; the frosty winter mornings she stirred up bowls of apple cinnamon oatmeal and mugs of hot chocolate. The sight of my mother as she took her last breaths curdled my stomach. The harsh realization that the aforementioned maternal moments would never be replicated stabbed it, ignited a sharp pain in my right side. Instead of succumbing to the sting, I clutched my mother’s limp hand, moved my fingers around in her palm and hoped her eyes would flutter open one last time. When I watched Finn walk into her room dressed in his blacks and Catholic collar, I knew it was too late.
“I know this is hard on everyone,” said Finn, standing at bedside with the three of us. “But we have to trust there’s a reason for this, a reason only God understands. Please, somewhere in your broken hearts, try to believe. Let us pray.”
Tears streamed down Meg’s face as she reached for my hand. My father clenched his teeth, held back his tears. Looking out a window and into the falling South Buffalo snow, he grabbed for Meg’s hand before he clutched onto Finn’s. I still held my mother’s hand, staring into her closed eyelids as I panned across her freckled forehead, her hanging auburn locks that dusted each mark. I reluctantly closed my eyelids and bowed my head under Finn’s prayers. For one moment, I stopped my mind from spiraling wildly into darkness, into pain and hopelessness. For one moment, I reached out to God and asked him to take my mother into his welcoming embrace. And just like that, she was his. Not mine. Not ours.
A month later, it was my father, struck with a heart attack as he shoveled the heavy lake-effect snow at the end of our driveway. As I cleared our sidewalk, I saw him drop the metal shovel before he tumbled helplessly into a snow pile. I ran to him and found him struggling to breathe, his hand scratching at his chest as his body lay twitching, encased in white. When I leaned over him to help, he grabbed my navy pea coat collar and pulled me down to his face as I struggled to break free and get to a phone. With his teeth clenched tight and his dark Irish eyes frightened, he stared right through me, but wouldn’t let go. He let the pain in his eyes act as the saddened and desperate voice he didn’t have.
“Pops,” I yelled. “Pops, you gotta let me go. Pops!”
With his grip still tight, his dying sight emitted one more glare, one more emotive stare that said goodbye. Those browns rolled to the side under weakened lids and I stared at him, petrified. His clutch on my coat loosened and I broke free. I tore up the driveway and into the kitchen, grabbed a phone and called for an ambulance. I screamed into the receiver with frightening urgency, stammering details. Then, I ran back outside to find Tom Nolan unconscious, his eyelids closed as his face rested in the snow, with more falling from the sky to sprinkle across his navy vest and brown wool cap.
Frozen in shock, I could only stare at his body and mumble inaudible hopes. I could only hope for some spiritual intervention to right this cruel injustice. I could only linger until God realized his mistake. There was no way he was taking them both. No fucking way. As minutes disappeared with my father motionless, my mind raced with evaporating moments. Paul Simon’s voice soothing from the old man’s stereo and out a screen window, over his canned beer and into our backyard; the sight of him at the Nighthawk, leaning against the bar with a bottle of Genesee, nodding approval as I sat on the stage. As those times were fading, my father slipped away, unable to be awoken by my screaming pleas or the blaring sirens that arrived too late.
And this was when the lights went out, when the darkness of loss dimmed the Nighthawk bulbs and transitioned me toward another life, another existence. It pushed me away from the stage and into the arms of family, into an embrace that soothed the trauma of absence. That absence irrevocably loomed over the isolated stool and microphone that projected my voice over the Nighthawk’s revelers. I could no longer appreciate the adulation of the beer sluggers and booze sippers who huddled in the bar’s dark corners and yelled for Springsteen covers. From my spot on that stage, I stopped enjoying the cheers of those present and became hollowed by the evidence of those missing, the empty spaces once filled by my mother and father. In this state, I walked away from the Nighthawk. I packed up Deirdre and let my moments of Friday mayhem fade into memory. As painful as it was to exit, it had to happen. The act of performing had merged with a pain too significant to play through.
There was a time when I could play through any problem, when one strum of my guitar cured all. When I clutched that Martin’s mahogany, all worries dissipated with a simple touch of its rosewood fingerboard. I didn’t care about anything except the strings, the chords, or the sounds; every issue I had disappeared. These days, I bring that guitar into my kitchen, set it on my lap and tune the strings. I caress the brown finish, run my fingers over the Nolan family crest sticker still clinging to the back. I run my left hand down the seductive neck, feel the nicks and splintered spots on the wood. I line up a chord and flick my fingernails against the strings. I slide from one chord to another and ignite a sound that doesn’t bring about sadness, but recollection.
Each note ushers in a moment from those Friday nights at the Nighthawk, the nights sweat glazed my Celtic arm tattoos, rolled down my long brown hair and collected on the stubble of my unshaven face. I think of the bottle of Budweiser that rested next to my stool’s leg. I’d pick it up, take a swig under the burning bulbs. If I took a long drink, hoots came from the back to encourage a finish. Someone else would yell out and jokingly ask me to play “Freebird.” After I put down the beer, I’d run my hand through my hair, flip the long strands away from my eyes. I’d start to strum, concentrate on the chord changes before I glared out to the crowd and exhaled one of their favorites. As I sang, people stood clapping, stomping and singing. Couples would swing around as my strings jangled and twanged. When I finished, drinkers applauded my homage to another great, to a group of geniuses so brilliant that their song was replicated on a dusty, sweat-soaked Buffalo stage. This was my release, my drug that made cheap Canadian beer taste like honey. Made the stale, sweat-tinged barroom breeze smell like cinnamon. Made dilapidated Rust Belt streets into parade routes. This was my life, and I loved every minute of it.
But that was four years ago. I was someone else then, an unscathed idealist addicted to the euphoria a crowd’s roar could instill in a man. I had to move on from nights infused with intoxicating rhythm, the mornings filled with sporadic reverberations. I don’t play at the Nighthawk anymore. Those nights are gone.