Friday, December 2, 2016
"When the Lights Go Out" - Chapter Five
(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.)