Friday, December 9, 2016
(Author's note: When the Lights Go Out is about a lot of things. It's about family and the many shapes it can take. It's about love and loss, and what we'll do to deal with it. But more than anything, it's about music, our relationship with it and what we'll do to preserve that relationship. After working in music as a college DJ and intern, as a bartender at rock clubs, and now as a reporter and novelist, I still don't fully understand my relationship with music. I don't fully grasp why The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" grabs me from beginning to end. I can't explain why the sound of Neko Case's voice on "The Needle Has Landed" makes me cry; why The Clash's "Stay Free" brings me back to my formative years in the Southtowns; or why it took until my early 20s to understand the perfection of every word of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." But after existing in a variety of settings, standing or sitting and absorbing chords and choruses and countless encores, I simply know I could never live without music. It's not possible, and this novel exists as my love letter to not only those who feel the same, but to those who need to create to feel alive. This is for all of you, so please read its first six chapters on this site, or simply buy the entire book here. Thanks for following along with these posts, and Happy Holidays to you and yours. -MF)
Some see this guitar
And hear a distraction
Others see you, girl
A walking attraction
-“You, Girl” by J. Nolan
I stepped to our office’s counter and saw her standing there, waiting and smiling.
“Hey, I’m here to pick up the entertainment license for Cigarettes & Coffee,” she said. “Do you have it ready?”
Of course it was ready. Any license for the beautiful and mysterious Samantha was made a priority. The only reason I knew her three-syllable name was because it was printed on a yellow Post-it note, stuck to every manila envelope she picked up. One of the functions of our office was to issue one-time licenses for events at city bars and restaurants not zoned for everyday live entertainment. Sometimes we licensed senior dances or college trivia competitions; other times we dealt with singing contests at a coffee shop named after an Otis Redding song. On the second Friday of every month, Samantha came strolling through our glass door to pick up such a license for Cigarettes & Coffee, a soul-themed coffee shop on Allen Street that, ironically, was a non-smoking establishment. The place was famous for its Second Saturday Serenade, which featured musicians and vocalists of varying styles vying for the event’s grand prize: free coffee for the year. For this event, the shop needed a license.
Dark brown shoulder-length hair was always slung tightly behind unpierced ears entertained with white iPod ear buds. Her large blue eyes and mascara-laden eyelashes were hidden behind tortoise shell-rimmed rectangular frames, balancing her hip attractiveness with fashionable intelligence. She’d always tap her slim fingers on our countertop and her canvas sneakers on the linoleum both to grab our attention and, presumably, satisfy the beats galloping into her ears. If any other consumer or bar owner tapped that counter, Pete and I purposely ignored them until we heard their frustrated “hell-o?” ring over our cubicle walls. With Samantha, we welcomed the rhythm.
Every time we reached her, she’d remove her earbuds, smile and try to exchange pleasantries, with comments on the weather or football or hockey or music. We kept our daily responses to a minimum, with a stammering “hello,” “sounds good” or “goodbye.” Samantha would occasionally make appearances in my nightly dreams, cameos likely ignited by my timidity. Remarkably, these dreams weren’t salacious; they merely featured her amid typical nonsensical dream imagery and conversations. That Friday, I tried to have real interaction with Samantha, something actual to balance with the exchanges in my sleep.
“Your license is right here,” I said, then handed her an envelope with the document inside.
“You know, I’m so sorry,” she said. “I always come in here and I have no clue what your name is.”
“It’s John,’ I said, extending my hand. “John Nolan.”
“John Nolan? Um, okay.” She briefly paused to absorb the answer. “Oh, and I’m Samantha. Sam, actually. But I guess you already know that since I see it’s written right here on this envelope. God, I feel stupid.”
“Don’t worry about it. So, um do you—”
Before I could continue, the door behind Sam swung open to reveal an angry old man. He barreled past her and slapped his wrinkled, heavy hands on the counter.
“Where is Pete?” he said, seemingly unaware of how loud he was talking. “I need to speak with him right now. Immediately.”
“Sir, if you’ll take a seat, I can find Pete and get him out here for you.”
“Look,” he said, “I don’t know who the hell you are, son, but I suggest you get Mr. Konarski out here before I lose my temper. Northtown Windows and their installation department are putting the goddamn screws to me, and Konarski’s work on my behalf has been egregious. Do you know what the word egregious means?”
“Sir, if you’ll calm down I can get Pete out here and—”
“Egregious,” he bellowed. Startled co-workers peered over their cube walls at this disturbance before he took a seat and yelled again. “Egregious!”
I glanced toward Sam, standing frightened, albeit still interested. She put the envelope in her bag and backed out of the office, sure to keep her distance from the old man while opening the door.
“Well, hey, you should check out the Serenade sometime. Every now and then, we actually host real-life, skilled musicians,” she said. “It’s not always just vegan girls crooning Tori Amos numbers.”
“Cool,” I said, uneasy with the stewing gentleman in front of me. “Maybe I’ll pop in sometime.”
“All right. Nice,” she said, nodding her head. “Until then, it was nice to finally get your name, and I’ll see you around, John.”
“Please,” she said. “It’s Sam. Just Sam.”
She turned and exited. My smile joined a hint of déjà vu, momentarily freezing me before hearing the voice of the day’s visitor.
“Hey, Casanova. My taxes aren’t paying you to make nice with the broads,” he said. “Now either you get Konarski out here or I’ll find the mayor’s office and make a goddamn stink like you’ve never smelt before. You’ll have all kinds of time to chase skirts after I get your ass tossed out into Niagara Square.”
“One minute, sir,” I said, then clenched my teeth and walked back to Pete’s office.
“Um, Konarski? You’ve got a real irritated fellow out here demanding to speak with you. Immediately.”
“Fuck, is he an elderly guy? Walt Zimmerman?” said Pete. “I heard his gravelly voice from back here.”
“He didn’t give his name. Whoever he is, he’s pissed.”
“I guess he never read the specs on his installation agreement, and Northtown apparently switched the brand of window to a more expensive one on him. But he signed it, and now they’re scooping him for an extra eight hundred bucks.”
“The store won’t fix it?”
“Why should they? They have a signed contract, and that’ll hold up over this old codger’s he-said argument. What can you do, right?”
“You have to come out and talk to him. I don’t know how old he is, but I’d bet he’s not too old to cause a scene.”
“I got that from our phone conversations. Is he a big guy?”
“Not really, but you should see his hands. Looks like they’re made of fucking stone. He slapped those mitts down on the counter and the thing nearly caved.”
“Oh, that sounds great. Fucking fantastic.”
He walked out from behind his desk to follow me through the office and find Walt, still seated and seething.
“Mr. Zimmerman, sir,” said Pete, “So, I’ve talked with North—”
“Save it, Konarski,” said Walt. “I don’t want to hear a single word of your bullshit excuses. Am I getting a refund from those grifters or not?”
“Jesus, what is it about your generation of college-educated babblers? Can’t you go a second without filling the air with excuses?” he said, arms folded across his chest. “I want a simple goddamn answer: yes or no.”
“No,” said Pete. “They’re not going to budge, so you’ll have to take them to small claims court.”
“Small claims court?” Walt stood from his chair. “So let me get this straight: I now have to go waste my time in a courtroom because your gold-bricking, Polak ass didn’t lift a finger to handle my case? These crooks pulled a bait-and-switch on me, dammit!”
“Mr. Zimmerman,” said Pete before taking a step behind our front counter, “if you can’t calm down, I’m going to have to ask you leave.”
“Leave? This is my goddamned building!” He slapped his calcified paws on the counter again. “My taxes paid for that chair, that desk and your salary. And what do I get when I need your help? Not an ounce of effort!”
“John, you want to call security up here to escort Mr. Zimmerman out the door?”
“Sure,” I said, then jumped back to my desk and dialed behind their showdown.
“Security? Yeah, bring ‘em up here. Maybe they can escort me up to our mayor and I can ask him why city dollars are paying for slobs like Konarski here to get fat on my dime.”
Pete took a deep breath. It failed to calm him.
“You know what, you old prick?” said Pete, wide-eyed. “I’ve heard enough. If you didn’t want to get slipped for eight hundred bucks by Northtown, why didn’t you read the goddamn contract? The specs were written right there, in black and white. Didn’t have your magnifying glass that day, Magoo?”
“Magoo?” said Zimmerman, then folded his arms again across his chest. “Oh, that’s sharp. Like the blind cartoon character, right? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to, just some cranky old man? What say the two of us head out to Niagara Square and I kick your fat ass down to the naval yard?”
Pete stood firm for a moment, staring at the gentleman before he let out a laugh, one of those you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me laughs that bursts out in one pop. He tried to take a step out from behind the counter, but I grabbed his shirttail and yanked him back. Before either party could shout another word, two security guards pushed through the door to flank both sides of Mr. Zimmerman.
“All right, sir,” said one of the guards to Zimmerman, “let’s take a nice easy stroll to the elevator, okay?”
“Sounds good to me, fellas. Mr. Konarski and I were just talking about taking a little walk outside, weren’t we Pete?”
“Goodbye, Mr. Zimmerman,” I said, standing next to Pete as he gnashed his teeth, hands in his pockets and breathing heavily. “Thanks for stopping in.”
“That’s fine, sure,” he said. “But God knows where this country would be if men like me were replaced by cowards like you, Konarski. Coward!”
When the door closed, Pete stormed back to his office and slammed the door shut. At first, I heard silence. At second, I heard a loud scream and the sound of a fist repeatedly smashing the side of a filing cabinet. After another moment of silence, the punching resumed.
Later that afternoon, well after North Buffalo resident Walt Zimmerman was ushered out of our office, the encounter with Sam was still swirling inside my head. Pete, sitting at his desk with a bandage wrapped around his bloodied right hand, was still teetering on the edge of rage after being verbally assaulted by a man nearly three times his age. Holding a fresh Tim Horton’s coffee, I leaned into his office to see him staring ahead at nothing in particular. He was still breathing heavily.
“You want to take a stroll out to the monument, have a smoke?” I said. “Might calm you down a bit.”
“Who the hell does this happen to? What kind of grown man gets verbally undressed by someone’s grandfather, then takes out his embarrassment on a filing cabinet?”
“Not sure. Are we talking drunk or sober?”
“Regrettably sober,” he said while massaging his knuckles. “Is it wrong that I was scared of that guy?”
“I really thought he might jab a pen into my jugular. Christ, he had to be involved in Korea or some other conflict, right? I’m scared of him, and I don’t give a shit who knows it.”
“Let’s take a stroll, okay?”
“You don’t think he’s waiting outside the building, do you?”
“My God, let’s just go.”
The elevator stopped on the first floor and we exited past the overhead lobby murals of Indians and buffaloes and steelworkers toiling in front of the American flag. Before striding past the busts of former Buffalo mayors Frank Schwab and Grover Cleveland, we stopped and patted their copper scalps before bursting through the revolving doors and down the steps to Niagara Square. Thankfully, Mr. Zimmerman was nowhere to be found. We reached an empty bench, sat down and lit our cigarettes in the shadow of the square’s towering McKinley Monument.
“So,” I said, “before your scrape with the war vet, you missed an appearance by our Samantha.”
“Aw, are you kidding?” he yelled, then took an exasperated drag. “As if things couldn’t get any worse. What did you say to her? Anything?”
“It wasn’t what I said to her; it was what she said to me. Kind of freaky.”
“You know how I told you that she pops into some of my dreams?”
“Well,” I said, “today, she said an exact line from one of the dreams.”
“No, you fucking creep. In the dream, we were sitting at a table, and I looked at her and said, ‘Samantha, my name is John, John Nolan.’ Then, she leaned across the table, looked right at me and said, ‘It’s Sam. Just Sam.’”
“Before she left today, she said the exact same line.”
Pete leaned back in his bench and took another drag.
“John, for a married man, you have pretty boring dreams. Maybe after the baby’s born, you’ll kick it up a notch. I’d be embarrassed to tell you some of the shit I dream about.”
“So you don’t find this a tad freaky?”
Pete pondered the details and exhaled smoke toward the square’s traffic circle.
“What kind of drink did she order at your dream table? Beer, scotch, gin? What?”
“Seriously? You’re hauling out your genius drink selection theory on this? It’s a yes or no answer. Was this odd or not?”
“Okay, it was odd. Even a tad spooky,” he said. “Now, my turn. What was she drinking?”
Pete had this theory about how a man could tell everything he wanted to know about a woman based on her bar drink. Vodka revealed a volatile problem drinker with a torrid past involving bad break-ups. Rum enabled sloppy drunks to recklessly sing karaoke. Whiskey was simply a deal-breaker. And according to Pete, imported beers apparently indicated a heightened level of European traveling experience he didn’t want to hear about. With these aforementioned choices all cautionary tales, Pete exclusively gravitated toward ladies drinking the domestic light beer trio of Miller, Coors and Bud Light. He claimed women sipping these selections appreciate the simplistic taste and social compatibility of watered-down American beer. They’re not after an escape via Long Island iced teas, or an image afforded through a dry, two-olive martini. These women just want to be; they present themselves as everything every reasonable male has ever searched for. They love dogs, hate cats. They hold doors for the elderly, say, “God bless you” to the sneezes of strangers. They like the Beatles, but live for the scruffy, leather jacket-wearing 1975 version of Bruce Springsteen. When they cry, something is very wrong. When they laugh, the moment is very right. In Pete’s estimation, these were the women a man should spend the night and make a life with. To validate his cherished theory, he found his eventual wife sipping a Coors Light under “Jungleland” when he first spotted her across a lakefront barroom. Still, he wanted me to confirm his theory with the images of my dream.
“She wasn’t drinking booze or beer. We were sitting in a coffee shop, with coffee,” I said. “What’s the point of this question, anyway? Are you planning on asking her out?”
“I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“She sips coffee. How does your compatibility meter read on coffee drinkers?”
Leaning his head to the left, he scratched the back of his neck while contemplating.
“That tells me nothing. If I had to guess, though, I’d say Samantha’s a beer girl. If you told me she was drinking a Miller Lite, this little talk of ours would be a lot more interesting.”
“Do you remember that one conversation I had with her?”
“You call the exchange you had a conversation?”
“What? We talked, exchanged musical tastes, blessings.”
“First of all,” I said, “you asked her what she was listening to on her iPod.”
“‘Torn and Frayed’ by the Stones,” he remembered, proudly.
“And then, you sneezed a mouthful of coffee all over the front of her winter coat.”
He smiled, reminiscing.
“Which she said ‘God bless you’ to,” he said. “And she was wearing a green raincoat, not a winter coat. She was protected.”
“Have you noticed how she now flinches whenever you hand her an envelope? Good for you, but that wasn’t a conversation. An incredibly embarrassing moment, yes. Not a conversation.”
Still, until my recent encounter, Pete’s awkward exchange was more communicative than any moment I’d had with her. I usually smiled, handed her the envelope and watched her alluring exit before I retreated to my desk. But why? If I thought she was that cool, that fond of dogs and Springsteen and light beer, why couldn’t I simply be friendly? Why couldn’t I just ask a question or two to validate Pete’s theory and confirm her legitimacy? Maybe because it would spoil the illusion.
Whenever we heard Sam’s low-top Chucks come clicking into our civic confines, we needed to believe in her perfection. She was a “what if” girl for two married men, an entity to look to and wonder how our lives would be different if we were dating her. If we asked her too many questions, her answers might prove our idealistic assumptions wrong. We wouldn’t admit it to each other, but Pete and I wanted to know as little as possible. This way, we could fill in the details ourselves and mold Samantha into exactly who we wanted her to be. We developed all kinds of scenarios for where she worked and what she did in her free time. The only thing we knew for sure was that she wasn’t a cashier at Cigarettes & Coffee. I’d been there on Saturday mornings to read the paper and listen to whatever saxophone-infused soul the baristas soothed through the shop’s overhead speakers. If she worked there, she would’ve been there those mornings.
In our favorite and most detailed fantasy scenario, she works as a cashier at an indie music shop, like Record Theater over by Canisius College. She spends her mornings stocking shelves with Canadian imports before helping some elitist audiophile complete his massive conversion from CDs back to vinyl. When her day is done, she goes back to her downtown loft to write poetry in spiral Mead notebooks and slowly sip from a tall pilsner glass full of ice cold domestic beer. Van Morrison’s “St. Dominic’s Preview” serenades her scribbling and, a minute into the song, her sublime voice joins the rising percussion, precise guitar picking and piano tinkering to sing only one line:
“And it’s a long way to Buffalo.”
After filling a few pages with profound stanzas, she takes her male black lab Duke for a walk through her neighborhood full of rockers and painters and writers. And maybe one of her neighbors is the owner of Cigarettes & Coffee. One of the many neighborly favors she does for him or her is a nice stroll over to City Hall, where she takes an elevator ride to the fifth floor and picks up the Second Saturday Serenade entertainment licenses.
This was the kind of bullshit we invented instead of asking her real questions. Since Pete’s infamous sneeze, she never got a full sentence from either of us. There was once a time we weren’t hesitant to engage a woman like Samantha, a time when the mere chance to talk to any woman like her lured us into pubs and rock clubs. Those nights reigned in a different life, when each of us held idealistic assumptions for how our futures were going to erect themselves. When those assumptions yielded to a different reality, things changed, just as they do in everyone’s life. People act, react and absorb the aftermath. They get married, take civilized jobs and try to mature. That’s where Pete and I were standing. We were now embedded in a life of obligations, not impulses; a life of responsibilities, not recklessness. Love and commitment had put us on more solid ground. We were thankful for this. Most of the time.
Was I happy to be away from the Nighthawk, away from Lynyrd Skynyrd covers, Genesee pints and insane (yet alluring) pyromaniac jugglers? Sometimes, sure. Was Pete better off cradling a baby girl in his arms instead of being hog-tied on the 20-yard line of a nationally televised football game? Definitely. But despite the security this responsibility afforded, it could never soothe the glaring reality that those old nights of excitement, those hours spent in the early stages of dizzying attraction, were gone forever.
And maybe that’s why Samantha’s appearance every month was so thrilling for the two of us, so exciting that her voice and image filled the end of my sleep every once in a while. In her, we could see those old tavern nights and unknown possibilities we used to bask in, still right at her delicate fingertips. We could see her at the bar, adhering to some lucky bastard’s expectations before eclipsing every last desire. We imagined the moment she looked up through those tortoise shell frames of hers and injected the guy’s chest with that nascent warm surge we yearned for. Through our silence, these assumptions remained intact.
If we had a real conversation with her, she might tell us otherwise. She might tell us that her life sucks, that it’s complicated and empty and unfulfilling. She might tell us that, on her Friday nights, she drinks chardonnay while watching reality television with her best friend Bentley, her male housecat. She might reveal her life to be not nearly as romantic and reckless as Pete and I remember our own to be. With this remote possibility, we erred on the side of idealism. We needed to recall that euphoria of romantic possibilities.
Once a month, we were able to do that through the beautiful existence of a mysterious entity named Sam.
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)
Friday, December 2, 2016
(Author's note: In the earliest stages of writing When the Lights Go Out, I had the idea of starting every chapter with original lyrics from the story's musician protagonist, Johnny Nolan. These lyrics were meant to be indicative of who he was as an artist and person, but also lead the reader into the eventual details of the chapter. Some readers have understood this; other readers haven't; and some have assumed the lyrics were simply quoted from other actual songs by actual songwriters. They're not. They're Johnny Nolan's words, and they help introduce this and every other chapter of this novel. Enjoy the below, and if you haven't yet, please read the previous four chapters posted on this blog.)
The snow will fall down
Start a winter parade
Here in Buffalo
This is how we were made
-“Kings of the Queen” by J. Nolan
When a winter storm blows through Buffalo and the surrounding streets off Lake Erie, it’s a harsh, windswept blitzkrieg of snowflakes. It’s not a scene out of a Frank Capra film, where gentle white specks drop slowly over lampposts and passing cars. It’s frustrating accumulations on roads, yards and rooftops. Snow blows thick, sticks to car windshields so firmly wipers snap off, losers of a fight with an inch-thick layer of ice. When a strong storm relentlessly blows with a foot or more of overnight snow, it’s never something so delicate that you’re eager to stand outside with your girlfriend, embracing as soft flakes dust your eartops. You look for cover until the winds stop rattling your windows and heavy flakes cease burying your front porch.
The day after the storm? That’s the calendar portrait, with white fluff coating everything that sits idle. Men shovel out narrow driveways, with cigars dangling from their mouths as aromatic smoke drifts above their winter caps; children tap plastic orange balls with hockey sticks down plowed side streets. This is the calm after the rage in a region known more for its blizzards than its beauty. And on days like these, it’s good to be a Buffalonian.
“You think the Ridge is gonna be packed today, Uncle Finn?” said Brendan, bundled in his red Hawks hockey coat and a winter cap in the backseat of my Subaru Outback. With Finn next to me in shotgun and Mickey in back with his brother, we rolled over layers of Southtowns snow toward Chestnut Ridge Park for a day of sledding, tobogganing and football tosses.
“It’s definitely going to be packed,” said Finn, who pulled his wool Irish cap down his forehead before he turned to the backseat. “But that’s the fun of it, men. It’s the whole region together, enjoying conditions the rest of the country cries about. Are you ready, or are you ready?”
“Ready,” the boys yelled before each clapped their gloved hands together.
In the summer months, Chestnut Ridge accommodated daily picnics, scenic biking, jogging routes and hiding places for teenagers to polish off a few cases of beer. Winter ushered in a snow-coated wonderland, busy with giggling children gliding down adventurous hills on blue and red plastic sleds, their parents watching while snapping pictures and sipping Tim Horton’s coffee. The more adventurous guardians would haul out wooden toboggans, a longer sleigh-like transport to seat two or three at a time, and ride down the park’s rickety chutes with their children, hooting the whole way down until the ground became level. In the back of my Outback, we had two sleds and a football, as well as an archaic toboggan strapped atop the car.
When we pulled up the drive and into the Ridge’s main parking lot, it was mobbed, with families dragging sleds across icy pavement and toward the top of the park’s main run. There, parents and children stood with cocoa and coffee in gloved hands, staying warm inside ski coats and gazing at the panorama of downtown Buffalo in the cloudy distance. After we parked, we grabbed our gear and joined them.
“Should we take the toboggan down?” said Mickey, a royal blue and red Bills ski hat pulled down just above his eyebrows to complement a bulky bright red winter coat.
“Not yet, Mick,” I said. “Why don’t you grab your sled and go to the hill with Brendan. Finn and I are gonna stay up here and toss the football around.”
“Can I play too? I’ll sled around later.”
“No, Mick. Go with your brother. I’ll toss you a few passes later, okay? Nolan promise.”
He slumped away with his brother and found a place with the boys and girls playing in the snow. I waited until they were a good distance away to reach underneath my black wool pea coat to pull out a cigarette.
“You’re still smoking?” said Finn, zipping up his green ski jacket. “What’s wrong with you, kid? I can’t imagine you’re stressed out about work on a day off, right?”
I lit my cigarette and enjoyed a drag.
“No, no,” I said. “I think it’s the baby only five months away, that sort of thing.”
Finn held the football in his right hand, his fingers lined on the laces.
“What are you worried about? Being a father? You’ve been in training with Meg’s two for years. You’ll be fine.”
I stepped back, let the cigarette burn between my fingers.
“Look, I know we never talk about this, but can I ask you something?”
I took another long drag to let a few more seconds pass.
“Do you know why Billy left Meg?”
He glared at me. We never talked about Billy Doyle. Ever.
“Where is this coming from?”
“Meg never wanted to talk about it right after he split,” I said. “Hell, she never talks about it now, either, so I’ve been content assuming he was just another guy who fell in line with the rest of the shitbags she dated over the years.”
“There were plenty, sure.”
“But he wasn’t always a bad guy. You remember how in love he seemed with Meg during their first years dating? The matching Sabres jerseys he bought for the two of them?”
“The Pat LaFontaine ones,” he said. “I remember.”
“So while this was going on, did you ever sense that Billy was the same as the rest? That he’d eventually split?”
“Not until after Brendan was born, but yeah, I did. I’ve never told Meg this, but I stopped trusting Billy after he didn’t push for marriage after Brendan. I remember talking to him after church one day when Meg was pregnant with Mickey. He was so distant, so off. I could see this glazed fear in his eyes, this intention to bolt out the first open door. I can’t explain how I knew; I just did. He was gone soon after that.”
“So what do you think happened with the guy? What do you think made him bail on so much?”
“God only knows,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen with so many couples over the years, both young and old. On their wedding day, they’re on the altar together, wide-eyed and smiling as they promise to live for each other, through good times and bad. Then one day, one of them decides the deal isn’t convenient. One of them decides to reset their life and leave everything else behind. I imagine that’s what Billy did. And if you don’t mind me saying, good riddance to the bastard.”
“No, I don’t mind.”
I took another drag through a grin.
“So,” he said, “are you going to tell me or not? Why are you asking me about a shit like Billy Doyle? Why now?”
He leaned back and threw the ball to me. I caught the pass, looked at the ball and flipped it in the air to myself.
“You remember when we used to come here when I was a kid? My dad brought you and me, we found a picnic site and we’d play one-on-one football in the snow, with Dad as the all-time quarterback.”
“He used to always lead you a little bit, so you had to dive into the snow for it,” he said and smiled. “Then he’d yell, ‘If you can touch it, you can catch it.’ What about it?”
“When we were here, tossing that football around, I never wanted to be anywhere else. Never even had a thought about it,” I said, then watched Finn catch my toss. “My father didn’t, either. He was as enthusiastic as I was, as interested in throwing a pass as I was in catching it.”
“Of course he was. Guy was a spark plug. But is that it? Are you afraid you’re not going to perform like your father and, instead, wake up as a gutless Billy Doyle? Abandon your wife and kids?”
“I don’t know why, but yeah. Ever since my father and mother passed, I’ve been waiting for this day, waiting for a chance to become the parent they each were for me. Now that it’s approaching, I’m scared. Scared that whatever seeps in and infects guys like Billy Doyle will get to me, too. You see where I’m coming from?”
He stood there for a moment of silence, cradling the ball while staring stone-faced at me.
“Not really, no,” he said. “I’m a priest, thus preventing me from starting a family I’d even think about abandoning. The only guardian role I’ve experienced is being your uncle. When you were younger, I took you to Bills games, even took you down to Home of the Hits to buy you your first cassette tape, remember?”
“It was a double tape. The River.”
“Good memory,” he said, smiling. “I think I was a damn good uncle, right?”
“You bought me my first guitar, too. That old, beat-up Yamaha we picked up at Allentown Music. Of course you were a good uncle. Still are.”
“I know,” he said. “And do you know why I’m stating these feats?”
“Because despite all of these things I did for you as a kid, despite all I do for you now, you’re ten times the uncle and father figure to the boys that scumbag Doyle left behind than I’ve ever been to you. You care for them more than you care about yourself, and that’s what parental love is. If you can already do that, you’re golden, kid. Stop worrying.”
“What if I wake up one day, changed?”
“Well, a few things,” he said, then put the ball on the ground so he could count on his hands. “One, you look into the eyes of your wife and the faces of your children and know what they mean to you, and what you mean to them. Two, you turn to God and ask for the strength every man can summon. And three, stare into your own reflection and know who you are. You’re not a coward, and you’re not weak. You’re a Leary and a Nolan. Our families have always believed that depth of character defines the virtue of a man. Understand?”
He picked up the ball off the ground and continued.
“Is it going to be easy? No. Are you going to screw up, go through hard times? Absolutely. But please, know where you come from. Your parents are watching down on you, and your sister and I are here for you. We won’t let you walk away, ever. Got it?”
“Sure,” I said, then tossed my cigarette to the ground. I watched the ice extinguish it for a moment. “Thanks, Finn.”
“This is what I’m here for. I just didn’t expect to have such an in-depth Saturday discussion outside of a confessional. I’m supposed to be off today, dammit. Are we done?”
“For today, we’re done.”
“Good.” He lined his fingers up on the football’s laces again. “Now, you think your black lungs can still go long, past that tree on the left?”
“Never mind if I can get there. Do you think your rusty arm can throw it there?”
“Kid, there isn’t an arm like mine in the entire diocese. Just get near the pine tree and look up.”
I pulled my navy fleece cap down tight, rubbed my bare hands together and started kicking through the snow and wind, past coffee sippers and young sledders. Approaching the tree, I turned back and looked to the sky. The football was twisting, descending in a perfect spiral inches ahead of me. Before it reached the ground, I dove, arms outstretched and hands open. When the ball touched my fingertips, it bounced off and fell to the snow before my face mashed into the hard, cold ground. Immobile and atop snow, I heard faint cheers through my covered ears as random onlookers applauded my efforts. After the applause, I rolled over on my back and heard Finn in the distance.
“You see? Despite our best efforts, things don’t always fall the way we want them to.”
“Right,” I said, staring up into the light, falling snow.
“But it doesn’t mean we quit.”
“Nope,” I yelled back. “Just let me gain feeling again in my chest before going out for another, okay?”
I sat up to Finn’s laughter as an uprising of excited and angry children’s voices rose above it, floating up the main hill to the two of us.
“What’s going on down there,” I said to Finn, who was standing at a better vantage point than I was.
“Some of the kids have gathered around a little brawl. Looks like it could be a good one.”
“Finn,” I said, jogging toward him. “You see a red Hawks jacket in that mix?”
“No Hawks jacket,” he said, then let out a gasp of a laugh. “I do see a little boy in a floppy Bills ski cap, right in the middle of the scrum.”
“Mickey,” I said. “Dammit, c’mon. And stop laughing.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, still laughing as we made our way to the wooden stairway built into the side of the hill. “You’ll laugh too once you see the size of the other kid.”
I ran down the stairs, skipping every other step while holding the side railing to avoid a spill. When Finn and I hit the bottom, we tore toward the gathered circle and shouldered into the front. In the middle of it all was a yelling Mickey, arms flailing as Brendan pulled him backwards by his coattail. On the ground curled in the fetal position and covering his head was a boy a bit bigger than Brendan. Draped in a coat much like Brendan’s—except it was navy and read “Stars” on the back instead of “Hawks”—the poor kid laid sniffling and loudly whimpering. I burst through the front line, grabbed both Brendan and Mickey by their coat collars and dragged them out of the circle and away from the boy, who started to wail even louder once we left him alone.
“What’s going on down here?” I said. “Finn and I leave you two for five minutes and you’re starting fights?”
“But Uncle John, I—”
“No way, Brendan. You’re supposed to be watching after Mickey and instead, you’re slugging people? Is that kid on a rival hockey team?”
“He is, but I didn’t hit him,” said Brendan amid another loud wail from the circle.
“So why is that kid crying?” I said, confused. “What happened?”
“Mickey punched him in the stomach.”
“What?” I said, eyes wide open. The kid on the ground was at least twice the size of Mickey. “Mickey punched the kid once and he’s wailing like that?”
“No. After he fell down, Mick jumped on top of him and hit him in the face a bunch of times until I pulled him off.”
I looked down to Mickey, who stood staring at the tops of his boots.
“Why in the world would you pick a fight with a kid that big?”
“He started it,” said Mickey, still looking down. “When we got to the bottom of the hill, he saw Brendan’s coat and said the Hawks sucked.”
“That’s why you hit him?”
“Well,” he said, kicking some snow with his boot, “then he made fun of my Bills hat. He said it looked like it’s from the eighties.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Brendan, where were you when this was all happening?”
“Over there. I heard him say the Hawks sucked, but I ignored him and kept walking. I scored three goals against the Stars earlier this season,” he said. “Then I heard some yelling, turned around and saw that kid bawling like a baby. Mickey took him down pretty fast, and I tried to drag him out as fast as I could.”
Mickey looked up and exhaled.
“I’m sorry, Uncle John. Should I go apologize to that kid?”
I looked to the circle. The kid had risen under the taunts and laughter of red-faced tweeners in Columbias and Carhardts. To have Mickey approach him would be embarrassing, even more so than getting hammered by a kid half his size. I kept him away until the blubbering kid fled the scene—then felt an odd pride simmering inside me. Mickey defended his older brother. He beat up a kid twice his size. Still, when I looked down at my nephew, I kept that pride from swelling to my face.
“No, no,” I said. “Just grab your sleds and get up the stairs. Now.”
When the boys were safely in front of me, I turned back to Finn. He didn’t even try to hold back his laughter.
“I say we keep the Buffalo Brawler and his floppy hat off the hill before someone claims to be that kid’s parent. Deal?”
“Smart thinking, Johnny,” he said. “Smart thinking.”
We all sat on a bench to the left of the Ridge’s old toboggan chutes, recently repaired after years of neglect. Brendan and Mickey were on the inside; Finn and I took the outsides. The boys’ sleds were propped against the ends of the bench, dripping with wet snow. The day’s crowd had thinned out, leaving a spattering of children sledding and a few couples drinking hot chocolate outdoors with the sun dipping low on the downtown horizon. The four of us each had a hot cup and watched the steam drift out their sipping holes and up into the cold afternoon air.
“So we’re all in agreement,” I said. “We will not speak of Mickey’s little altercation today around Meg?”
“What’s an al-tar-ca-tion?” said Mickey.
“It’s when you have a disagreement with someone and punch that someone—repeatedly,” I said. “You’re lucky that kid’s parents were nowhere to be found.”
“But, Uncle John, I—”
“Enough, Mick. And I don’t care what he said. You can’t just go around punching people. What’s a little kid like you ever going to become if you keep swinging like that?”
“A Gold Gloves boxer,” said Finn. He mumbled it low enough for the bundled, snow-drenched boys not to hear, their ears now covered with different, non-descript dry ski hats. I bit the inside of my mouth and tried not to laugh at the thought of “Irish” Mickey Nolan.
Finn sat up to speak louder. “Your uncle’s right, Mick. Remember what I said before we got here? This is a day to be with our neighbors. And you don’t hit your neighbors. You help them.”
“Okay,” said Mickey. “I’m real sorry.”
“Good,” I said, then thought of him mercilessly pummeling that bigger kid. I had to take a deep breath to hold in my inflated pride.
“Uncle John,” said Brendan, “you and my mom used to come here all the time when you were kids, right?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Your grandpa used to send us down those old chutes over there on the toboggan, the same one strapped to my car. We’d stay out here for hours, freezing and laughing while your grandma snapped her camera. Your mom probably has a bunch of those pictures around your house.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Mickey. “You’re wearing a hat like mine.”
“Not like yours, Mick. It is yours,” I said of the fluffy royal blue and red ski cap now hidden in the car. “That Bills hat used to be mine.”
“So it is from the eighties?”
“Oh. Do you want it back?”
“No,” I said, laughing. “You fought for it, so now it’s yours.”
I turned away from Mickey and leaned back on the bench to look out at the city skyline. I thought more about those days past.
“After we were nice and frozen, we’d go into that building over there,” I said, pointing to the hilltop lodge. “We’d sit by the fireplace. They used to have an old piano in there, remember Finn?”
“How could I forget? You and Meg made me play songs on it. You both would jump up and down, singing at the top of your lungs. You two were a spectacle.”
“But it was fun, right?”
“Of course it was. You boys should have seen your mother back then. She was quite a little singer.”
“She still sings sometimes,” said Brendan. “She’s been singing that song Mickey loves, by Neil Young.”
“Long May You Run,” said Mickey. “That’s my new favorite song, Uncle John.”
“I think it’s your mom’s favorite, too. Maybe you should spend a little more time listening to Neil. Might mellow you out a bit.”
We all laughed and went back to sipping our drinks and gazing at the skyline. After a few minutes, it was time to leave.
“You guys want to head out of here?” I said. “I think we should call it a day.”
“Can we do one more thing before we leave?” said Brendan.
“Can we take the toboggan off the car and take it for a run? Please?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot about the toboggan,” I said. “Sure, let’s go get it.”
We drained the last of our hot chocolate, untied the toboggan from the luggage rack and dragged it up the steps to the top of the chute. A few brave souls were still gliding through the snow, leaving a wide vacant expanse to openly navigate. After I set the toboggan down for the boys, I backed off and let them mount it. Once Brendan and Mickey were settled in, they looked back at me as I stood off to the side.
“Are you coming or not?” said Brendan.
“Me?” I wondered. “You want me on that thing, too?”
“Sure,” he said. “You can show us how you used to ride. Plus, you can stop Mickey if he tries to start another brawl at the bottom.”
“I already said I’m sorry,” yelled Mickey.
“Alright, alright. Settle down,” I said. “I’m in.”
I climbed in last to put the bulk of our weight at the back, with Mickey directly in front of me, then Brendan at the front of the toboggan. He grasped the front ropes while I pushed us to the edge and tipped us down the chute. After gliding down the chute’s steel track, we went flying through the snow, kicking up flakes with Mickey and Brendan howling. Faster and faster, wind numbed our faces as we slid past kids with sleds, teenagers with snowboards. Finally, we glided to a stop at the level bottom. When I climbed out, I looked back up the hill at Finn and raised my arms. After we were all off and standing in snow a foot high up our legs, Brendan looked up at me.
“That was awesome. Just like when you were a kid, right?”
Clutching the toboggan rope to drag it back up the hill, I laughed again.
“I think this was better,” I said. “Much better.”
(Interested in purchasing When the Lights Go Out? Get it here.)