Friday, November 4, 2016
"When the Lights Go Out" - Chapter One
(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.