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I hate shopping. We stop at a splashy fountain in the center of the mall. A few people on the second tier looking down. The noise is too much. Barnes & Noble books would be a good escape, the only place I’d want to spend time, but this lousy mall doesn’t have one. Pam sees a sign, Euphoria Nail Care, and decides her toenails and fingernails need some touch-up work. Plus she wants to get a blouse and a few other things. To have some fun, I say, “Across the street there’s Immortal Ink, a tatt shop. Hey, get some immortal artwork while you’re at it.”
“You first,” she says.
“I think a spider crawling out of your nose would be beautiful.”
We’re both laughing.
“I’m taking off,” I say. “Phone me when you’re ready for a pick-up.”
“Meanwhile, you’ll drive through your old neighborhood, past the school where the nuns tortured you—”
“Right, and now it’s you torturing me.”
Our back-and-forth is an old game, and Pam wins with—“I hope you have your phone turned on.”
My hand goes to the bullet hole in my heart. “Ya got me.” I often forget to charge my phone or turn it on. Drives her and my son crazy.
Out in the parking lot, I notice a new Robert Redford film is at the Cinemax. Years ago, when my son was about two years old, we went to a drive-in to see “Jeremiah Johnson.” Pam and I thought he was asleep in the back seat, then discovered he was wide-eyed and watching. A friend tells me this new film is pretty good. So I walk to the ticket office to see what the show times are.
We’re in my hometown for the first time since my mother died, nine years ago, staying at a motel near the mall. We’re midpoint between Maine and Virginia where we live now. Too close to my old haunts to resist a stop. We had driven up to Portland to help Pam’s sister who is recovering from knee surgery. Pam is a certified Pilates instructor. And she has more than a few books about Zen and meditation. So she tells me that this town triggers too much bad footage from my past. I need to be more focused on the present, the moment. When we were at the mall she hits me with “Nostalgia is an old man’s disease.” After all these years, she still cracks me up. I tell her I’m not that old or that nostalgic. But I wouldn’t mind finding out what happened to a few classmates. There happens to be a high school reunion this evening at the Sea Breeze Hotel. Pam grew up in Chicago and has never been to a reunion—no interest. I found out about mine from Vic, an old buddy. He said he was going and I should too. But I still haven’t made up my mind. Not that simple. I was a complete jerk in high school—often in detention for mouthing off to teachers, cutting classes, fights etc. I wasn’t a jock or a bookworm and didn’t have many friends. One guy I hung out with got arrested years later for robbing a liquor store and went to prison. If I hadn’t gotten out of Dodge, and off to college thanks to my parents pushing, the same might have happened to me.
I pull out of the parking lot onto Broad Street. It’s sunny and unusually warm for October. The Mohegan Pharmacy is now Hangers Dry Cleaners. Just up the road is Jennings Park with the old basketball court, plus a new spiral slide, monkey bars, three swings sets, and two seesaws. A black Lab on a leash is pulling a small woman, Pam’s size, around the park. Toward the Mountain Avenue neighborhood where I grew up, I see this guy wearing only shorts dragging a cross with small, nearly hidden wheels. I slow down. The cross is huge, maybe ten by six feet and made out of thick timbers. The guy has long hair and a full beard, his bare back shiny with sweat. Very Jesus-looking, he’s working hard against the hill.
A blue Ford convertible with three teenagers comes from the opposite direction and slows down. I hear them laugh and yell, “Go, Jesus, go!” The driver flips me off and speeds away. Hot-wired teens. But I wonder what that guy with the cross is up to? Some kind of Bible nut? Atoning for his sins? He shrinks in my rearview and makes me forget where I’m going. At the last minute, I turn onto Vauxhall Street past Cohen’s cornfields—no longer rows of corn, now rows of condos. Hang a right on Evergreen Lane, the lane flanked by new houses instead of juniper and spruce. Finally, at 47 Phillips Street, I pull to the roadside.
The house isn’t white anymore. The front porch, once open, is enclosed. And Barnesi’s woods at the bottom of the hill is a used car lot, the pond filled in where hockey often kept me after school in the winter. A man with hair as gray as mine comes down the walkway, glances at this idling car, and slowly shrinks down the hill. The house to my right needs paint and yard work, not at all like it was when Mr. Combs lived there. I used to mow his lawn. He was generous and paid well. He watched me work from his rocking chair on the back porch, a full glass of amber whiskey in hand. Makes me think of Li Po:
Oh how he loved his drink!
And now he’s dust
Under the breathing pines.
Not a shade of attachment in that voice. But me, I’d love to cross the street, knock on the door, even pay to look through the house I grew up in, get closer—but to what? I can see my mother with a long neck can watering her geraniums in boxes hung from the porch railings. My father squats in our driveway with a catcher’s mitt to help me with my Little League curve ball, knuckle, and drop. Empty road. The scrape of red leaves blowing past on the asphalt. If I don’t leave now, a crow might caw from the tall backyard oak no longer there. Get the hell out of here, I tell myself.
Next ritual stop is the cemetery. Easy to find my parents’ graves because they are next to a tall statue of our Blessed Mother, her arms extended. With the cross-dragging guy still in mind, I look down at two flat granite stones deeply carved with my mother’s and father’s names and dates. When my parents were buried, everything in front of me was an empty field all the way to the south wall. Now it’s full of upright stones, a columbarium, and two mausoleums. Again I look down on their names. I squat, clear away the leaves and dead grass and find myself apologizing for the hell I put them through in my teen years, that time they had to come get me at the police station. “Mom, Dad, I’m sorry, really sorry. You did so much for me.” And I begin to expound, as if to one of my classes, about recent studies on the teenage brain and how it’s like a powerful new car but with shitty brakes. Then I notice a young blond woman in black watching me talk to myself. She’s four rows away, to the right, looking at me with a frown, then a frozen smile.
Down Center Street past the high school and the long brick building that was once a box factory. What it is now I have no clue. I slow past Dick’s Diner, a place where we used to hang out. A fistfight in that parking lot cost me a few trips to the dentist. Cost my parents I should say. But if somebody gave you any shit, you couldn’t back down, or you’d hear chick chick chick in the hallways between classes, become a target for bullies. The diner’s been razed, replaced by a larger building with an entrance portico, and a prominent sign that reads “Family Care: Bruce Bennett, M.D.” Glad to see the diner gone, but the bad memory won’t quit. Pam tells me to work on these things, get better control of my monkey mind.
I want to get to State Street, once the commercial center that’s been turned into a ghost town by the sprawling mall where I left Pam. A quick look at St. Mary’s Church and the boarded-up school where the slap-happy nuns pounded math, grammar, and the Baltimore Catechism into us. What would the nuns have to say about that cross dragger on Broad Street? Wondering, I drive slowly past two closed theaters where my father used to take me to matinee cowboy movies. Sevards, Benoits, and Sears—all gone, buildings empty. By the train station, there’s a brick-and-mortar storefront where once upon a time you could buy books, magazines, and newspapers. Now the sign says, “Jim’s Guns & Pawn.” Too depressing. Somebody told me Jim Seele owns it. A weird kid, he was in my woodworking shop class. In the required shower after gym class, Punky Rolls, a bully, noticed that Jim had a micro wiener and started calling him Needledick the Bugfucker. Poor Jim. Hey, here comes Needledick, guys would yell. But at least now Jim can boast a genuine six-shooter. And a lot more. I doubt he’ll be at the reunion tonight. Or maybe he’ll arrive with guns blazing. Pam is right. What the fuck am I doing? Maybe a beer will put me in a better mood.
Low Tide Pub is the dim place I remembered, a few after-work guys at the bar hunched over beer mugs, swiveling on their stools for an over-the-shoulder look at the intruder, then back to the college football game on the big flat screen. A wall of framed photos of local football players who went to U-Conn, two or three making it to the NFL. Red vinyl booths along the wall. At the bar, I stool up next to a guy who says, “Hey, man, how goes it?”
“Not bad, and you?”
“I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“Twenty years ago you would have. I was a regular.”
“You gotta go where the jobs are.”
“So you grew up here?”
“I did. And you?”
He tells me he’s from Rhode Island. The bartender says, “What can I get for you?” Tall, he’s got thin lips and curly dark hair down to his shoulders.
“A Sam Adams, if you’ve got it.”
“Years ago when I came in here, there were only a few labels.”
“I know,” he says. “Now we even got craft brew for the younger generation.”
When he steps away to the pull the Adams tap, my stool buddy is quiet for a moment. He has a shiny baldhead, a salt-and-pepper beard, and ski-jump nose. He says he grew up in Woonsocket and asks if I’ve ever been there. Then he goes on about it historically being 70 percent French Canadian and how workers came down from Quebec during the Great Depression and got the textile mills going again.
I ask if he’s French.
“I am. André Girard.” He extends his hand. “Call me Andy.”
I tell him my name and ask if he speaks French.
“Not well,” he says. “Not much chance to use it anymore. You know—use it or lose it.”
I laugh and tell him I know only one phrase. “I’ll test your French.”
“Go for it,” he says.
“How do you say, ‘Kiss my ass’?”
“That’s easy. Baises mon cul.”
We both cackle. The bartender sets down my Sam. I ask Andy what he’s drinking. He says Jack on the Rocks, so I tell the bar guy to put it on my tab. Before he goes for Andy’s drink, I ask if he knows what happened to Froggy, the previous owner of this place.
“Oh, man. He was a great guy, funny as hell.”
“You said ‘was’.”
“Sorry . . . he died about three years ago. Sold this place to Frank Zito before he passed.”
While the bar guy is gone, I ask Andy if he knew Froggy.
“The most entertaining bartender I’ve ever known. Had a bottomless collection of good jokes.”
I can still see Froggy’s great facial expressions, hear his voice imitations, even remember some of his jokes. Just a few swallows of Sam and I’m already in a better mood. I’m wondering how long before Pam will call and whether or not I should order another beer.
Andy asks me what I’m doing in town. I tell him about Portland, Pam’s sister, and that this is a good midpoint place to stop on our way back to Virginia. Then I mention the high school class reunion.
“You should go,” he says. “They’re fun. I went to mine a few years ago. Talked to a couple girls I used to date. I could barely recognize one of them, and they couldn’t recognize me. But going back to your hometown for a visit is really a renewing experience.”
A renewing experience?
The bartender comes back with Andy’s Jack on he Rocks and I tell him I’ve got another question.
“Go for it,” he says.
So I tell them about seeing the Jesus guy dragging a big cross up Broad Street.
The bartender laughs. “That guy is a wacko. Actually there are two cross draggers.”
Andy says, “Right, not long ago the newspaper did a story on them.”
“Some evangelical church wants to remind you that Jesus should constantly be in your life. But I’m sure the real motive is to multiply members.”
Andy says, “Hey, I’ve got nothing against Jesus, but would a normal person want to go to a church like that?”
The bartender says, “I’m with you. The guy dragging that cross could cause accidents, distract drivers. That’s why the city passed an ordinance that they can’t drag those crosses everywhere. Lots of streets and places are off limits.”
Andy looks at me and says, “Do you have any religious leanings?”
Just when this is getting interesting, my phone goes off. I tell Pam I’ll be about ten minutes.
The Sea Breeze isn’t a big hotel. In fact it’s old and wooden, two stories. The ballroom and restaurant are where the money comes in. Weddings, and now this class reunion because Harry, the owner, was in school with us too. He lived in the fifth ward, the money section of town, and was a pompous phony. Collecting friends was the name of his game. For me, being unpopular was actually flattering when I compared myself to Harry.
The small parking lot by the porch entrance is full, so I drive around the block. On the other side, the car ahead of us pulls into a spot reserved for the Handicapped, and out jumps an attractive young woman in a green pants suit. My son’s line is that half the people with Handicapped permits are simply obese.
I say, “What the hell! She doesn’t look handicapped to me.”
After a moment, Pam says, “Well, maybe she can’t achieve an orgasm.”
We laugh. Pam always puts me in a good mood. Sam Adams too.
We finally get a parking place and walk back to the hotel. Most everyone has already arrived. Through the front window you can see a crowd inside. On the empty wooden porch at the front door are two greeters. I immediately recognize Glady Fay and she recognizes me, gives me a hug. I introduce Pam.
Then I turn to the guy. Oh Jesus. I haven’t seen him since our fistfight outside Dick’s Diner. And he’s a greeter? He extends his hand. I take it and squeeze hard. “Hey there, Punky.”
He says, “They call me Charles nowadays.”
His tone of voice gets to me. “Really?” I still have a tight grip on his hand and make a fist with my left. “Let’s see. Charles? Does that mean you’re no longer an asshole?”
“Hey, let up, I’ve got arthritis in that hand.”
I shoved his hand away. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“You sucker punched me outside Dick’s Diner one night.”
A faint smile disappears from his slabby face.
“I wouldn’t smile if I were you. I work out three times a week, and hit the heavy bag too. Now you, Punky”—I poke his stomach—“you’re a beer belly on legs.” I point to the parking low below. “Maybe we should go down there and have a rematch.”
Pam clears her throat and nudges me.
He says, “I’m not like that anymore.”
That look on his face. After all these years, I’d love to punch him again. Instead, I say, “C’mon, Pam, let’s get the hell out of here.”
Going down the stairs, I hear Punky say, “Hey, what’s wit him?”
I’m driving west. The sun’s low, bright red, getting lost in the trees, a few clouds melting into pink. The car is stuffy with a punishing silence. I crank down the window. The cross dragger comes to mind. After a few minutes, Pam says, “Concentrate on breathing. Nothing else.”
“I know. I’ve got a bad case of the uglies.”
“You do. We’ll go to a nice place for dinner, and start rehab.”
“I know a good Italian restaurant still in business,” I say.
“I like that. We’ll start your treatment with a glass of wine.” She gives me a wink.
“Then the Redford movie I told you about.”
“And tomorrow we head for home,” she says.
“Classical music and jazz along the way.”
“But for now . . . now. And promise me something.”
“Forget what just happened.”
I take a deep breath. “I promise. I’ll try.”
“It’s all about practice,” Pam says. “Everyday, all day.”
The sky continues to change color, now less red, more like the dying embers in a fireplace.
Copyright 2021 Peter Mukuck
Peter Makuck’s many books include Wins and Losses: Stories (Syracuse, 2016).