Friday, December 9, 2016
"When the Lights Go Out" - Chapter Six
(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.)