Wednesday, November 23, 2016
"When the Lights Go Out" - Chapter Four
(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.)