Transistor Radio

I am partial to most types of music but I’m especially drawn to the music of my youth. That good old rock and roll music of the ’50’s and ’60’s. While browsing in a bookstore recently “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke came on over the loud speakers and became the inspiration for this story.

In 1959 in Minneapolis radio station KDWB joined longtime stalwart WDGY as a second station in the city playing rock and roll music. For years afterward they competed with each other offering gifts and promotions, vying for the potentially lucrative teenage audience. Tommy Langston didn’t care about any of that. He just liked the music and would switch stations all day long in an effort to bypass those bothersome commercials and get to the real music. That good old rock and roll music. He was kind of addicted. He carried his Silvertone transistor radio with him everywhere he went. It was in a brown leather case that he could strap to his three speed black Raleigh bicycle as he rode around his neighborhood blasting out the latest tunes. He carried it with him during the day, the tiny speaker pressed to his ear, singing along to Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. He put the radio next to his head at night and fell asleep to Gene Vincent, Sam Cooke and the Shirelles. He listened so much that his mother finally told him that she was going to limit the amount of batteries she’d give him for his radio. That was fine with him. He’d just get a job and that set the course for a summer that he would remember for the rest of his life.
Tommy was twelve years old had been cutting his parent’s lawn for past two years now, ever since they’d moved into the neighborhood. He enjoyed it and did a pretty good job of it, if he did say so himself. They paid him two dollars and twenty five cents. The neighborhood he lived in was a relatively new housing development in the first tier of suburbs spreading south and west from Minneapolis. The lots were roughly eighty feet by one hundred feet usually with a two story house and attached double car garage plopped in the middle. School had recently ended and the grass cutting season was under way. The next day he started going door to door and by the time the afternoon was over he had three jobs lined up. One up the hill on his block with Mrs. Everson, a nice old lady whose husband had passed away some years back. One on the street behind him and down at the end of the block with Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson, an elderly couple whose yard was very tidy and filled with flower gardens. Finally, the last one was two blocks away down at the end of a cul-de-sac with a family new to the area, Mr. and Mrs. Rose and their two kids. All of the people he worked for let him use their own lawn mowers, so that was good, he could just ride his bike over and cut the grass. He started the following day with Mrs. Evenson and within a week had made enough money to keep him in batteries for the rest of the summer.
Each of his customer’s treated him well. Mrs. Everson always made sure he got a glass of Tang after he finished. Usually some cookies too. Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson were a kindly old couple and usually were working in the yard themselves while he cut the grass. Mr. Sorenson even took time to show him how to perform basic garden maintenance like weeding, edging and dead-heading, all of which Tommy enjoyed. Mr. Sorenson also paid him extra for the additional work even though Tommy told him he didn’t have to. “Good pay for good work,” Mr. Sorenson told him, so Tommy gladly took the extra cash. Then there was Mr. Rose. He was as different from his other two customers as night and day. While Mrs. Everson and the Sorenson’s were nice and what Tommy would consider normal run-of-the-mill adults, Mr. Rose was very different. For example, one day shortly after he’d been hired Tommy had finished the lawn and had used the garden hose to clean off the mower. He was getting ready to go up to the front door to get paid when Mr. Rose came out to meet him. He had a bottle of beer in his hand. “Hey there, Tommy my boy,” he said with a big smile and a flourish of his arm. “All finished I see.”
“Yes, sir, I am,” Tommy said cautiously. Mr. Rose seemed a little too happy. A little too friendly. All of the adults Tommy knew treated kids with a diffident manner. Young people in their place, adults in their own place, his Auntie June always said. His Uncle Simon was more succinct. Seen but not heard, was the phrase he often used if Tommy and his siblings made too much noise. Mr. Rose was being too forward, something Tommy was not used to. Looking more closely he realized Mr. Rose was drunk. It was only 1:00 pm in the afternoon. Fortunately, at that time Mrs. Rose came out and paid him and Tommy grabbed his bike. As he rode off he could hear Mr. and Mrs. Rose yelling at each other. He pedaled faster to get a way.
To others idly watching, Tommy’s life was the uncomplicated world of a twelve year old. On one level he had his transistor radio and his rock and roll music. He enjoyed riding his bicycle. He had friends. He enjoyed sports. He was a kid on the verge of becoming a young adult. But life is complicated and usually more is going on than what it may seem like on the surface, and that was the case with Tommy and his family. His parents had separated six months previously, just before Christmas. His father had moved out leaving Tommy’s mother to care for him and his younger brother and two younger sisters. With his father gone the house had dramatically changed. There had been a depressing quiet that was both disconcerting and uncomfortable. Especially in the first few months. No one quite knew what to make of their new situation. Everyone was distant and distracted. Even Tommy’s mom. But over time they all starting to get used to their father being gone. The kids were young and resilient, and their mother started doing all she could to keep everyone’s spirits up.
She sat down with Tommy one evening after dinner a few weeks into the summer and asked him about the three lawns he was cutting. About his ‘customers’ as she called them. “Tell me about them,” she said, sitting him down at the kitchen table where she lit a cigarette and took a sip of coffee. “Are they nice?”
They were having these little chats more and more often now that his father was gone. Staying connected. Tommy kind of liked it. Made him feel secure. “Well, first of all there’s Mrs. Everson. She’s kind of quiet, but pretty nice, I guess.”
“I heard she used to teach English.”
“Yeah, she did. Over at Holy Trinity, that Catholic girls high school.”
Tommy’s mom nodded, “She lives alone, doesn’t she? I heard her husband died a while ago.”
“Yeah, she’s all by herself, but seems fine. Not lonely or anything. Most of the time I’m there she’s sitting in the backyard reading.”
“I think it was around five years ago that her husband died. That’s what I heard anyway.” Tommy’s mom enjoyed these conversations with him. She worked all day as a receptionist at the headquarters of a national hotel chain. She started the job after Tommy’s dad had left. She was usually pretty rung out when she got home. She took a sip of coffee and another drag off her cigarette. “I’ve never met her,” she added, blowing smoke away from her son.
“She’s pretty quiet. I think she’s writing a book. I heard her talking about it on the phone once when I went to the door to get paid.”
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop, Tommy,” she admonished him. “That’s not polite.”
Tommy’s mom was forever monitoring how he acted. So did his grandmother . So did his Auntie June who had started coming by during the day to watch over the household while his mom was at work. Sometimes Tommy felt that he was unfairly surrounded by strong willed, assertive women. In the long run, though, if he were to be honest with himself, it was alright. They made him feel cared for. “Yeah, I know, mom. I couldn’t help it.” She gave him a stern look, meaning, ‘Just don’t let it happen again.’ Tommy got what the point was. He was used to being admonished by his mom and took it in stride. “I won’t mom, I promise,” he said, attempting to reassure her.
She snubbed out her cigarette, went into the laundry room and brought out a armful of clothes fresh out of the drier. “Here, help me fold these.” Tommy got up to help. They worked at the kitchen table. It was round with a Formica top. Perfect for folding. “Tell me about Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson. I see them at the grocery store. They seem like good people.”
“Oh, they are. Mr. Sorenson’s great. He’s teaching me about gardening.”
“Like what?” she asked with a raised inflection in her voice wanting her son to know she was interested in what he was doing.
“Well, he showed me the difference between weeds and what he called good plants.” He made a quotes sign with his hands. His mom laughed.
“So what are good plants?” She laughed again, kind of gently, encouraging him.
Tommy had to remind himself he wasn’t being quizzed like in school. He wasn’t the best student. Not by a long shot. His mom was genuinely interested. “He said there are annuals and perennials. Annuals are like pansies and geraniums and you plant them every year. Perennials come back year after year.”
“Like the peonies in the backyard?” she asked.
Tommy thought about it and then answered, “Yeah, I guess, like them.”
His mother sighed, “I love those peonies. Did I tell you they came from grandma and grandpa’s place in Truman?”
Tommy laughed, “Yeah, mom, about a hundred million times.” He glanced at her, busily folding a pair of his brothers blue jeans. She was quiet for a few moments lost in thought. Lost in good memories maybe of when she was young and growing up in a small town in southern Minnesota. Back then she had her whole life in front of her. She had dreams she hoped would come true. Now, things were changed. Life did not work out the way she’d planned. She shook her shoulders once and then smiled at Tommy, “Well, it sounds as if you like Mr. Sorenson a lot.”
“I do. It’s fun to work in his yard. It always looks so nice when I’m done.”
She nodded and was quiet again. “Let’s take a break.” She went to the stove and poured another cup of coffee. Then she went to the refrigerator and poured a small glass of milk for Tommy and sat down at the table, pushing a pile of unfolded laundry aside. She opened up her cigarettes and shook one out, lighting it with a Zippo lighter. She seemed to relax, sipping her coffee and smoking. Tommy took a sip of milk and then picked up the pack of cigarettes and sniffed it. The brand were Pall Malls and they didn’t have a filter. They smelled good to him. His mother took the pack from his hands. “Don’t start smoking, young man,” she gave him that hard look again, “It’s not good for you.”
“Why do you do it, then?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t stepping over that invisible boundary between being rude and honest curiosity.
She looked off into the distance. “Why do I do a lot of things?” she answered somewhat cryptically, like she was talking to herself. Then she shook her head, like she had just come back from somewhere far away, to the here and now, the real world. She smiled again, “Anyway, tell me about Mr. Rose.”
Mr. Rose was the one customer of his who made him kind of uncomfortable. “I don’t like him very much.”
“Why’s that?” His mom focused in on him. She seemed to have sort of a built in motherly radar up.
Tommy was hesitant. He wasn’t sure if he should tell her about Mr. Rose and his drinking. He looked at his mom and she encouraged him to continue. “Well, just that about every time I’m finished and go to him to get paid…” he paused, unsure of how to continue.
“Go ahead,” his mom said.
Tommy sighed and blurted out, “I think he drinks. He acts drunk sometimes.” Tommy knew enough about drinking because his parents drank. Not a lot, he didn’t think, but they did. You could call it social drinking. A martini before dinner was fairly common for his folks when his dad was living at home. His parents had parties where drinks were served. People got happy and laughed a lot, but Tommy had never seen anyone really drunk. But Mr. Rose seemed different. First of all, he seemed to drink all the time. At least he did when Tommy was over, which was usually in the middle of the day and, to him, that didn’t seem right. Also, sometimes Tommy would hear him yelling at his wife or his kids, mean sounding yelling, slurring his words. It kind of scared him but he didn’t want to say that to his mom. He wanted to keep his job. He enjoyed having the money he was making.
“Do you want me to talk to him?”
“Mom, no,” he exclaimed. “Don’t do that. I can handle it.” He looked at her, pleading. “Really, it’s Ok.”
She watched him for a few moments, thinking. Then made her decision. “Alright, then. Just let me know if you need me to step in.”
“Ok, mom, I will.” Tommy smiled, relieved. He liked that she gave him credit to watch out for himself. It was something she was doing more often in the days since his dad had left. It made him feel grown up.
They chatted some more as they finished folding the laundry. Then Tommy went down to the basement where his younger brother, Steve, was watching The Andy Griffith Show on TV. Tommy and Steve got along pretty well. Steve was two years younger and had his own group of friends that he hung out with. Susan and Mary, his younger sisters were there also. This fall they would be going into first and third grade. Tommy put up with them as best as he could. All the kids had become withdrawn when their dad had left. But over time things had changed for the good. Their mom had been taking time to talk to each of them like she had just done with Tommy and, interestingly, the family seemed closer than ever these days. Tommy noticed that they didn’t fight between themselves as much as they used to. It was weird, but kind of nice. He had settled in with the show when the phone rang upstairs. Then his mom called down, “Tommy. Phone.”
“Who is it?”
“Ok. I’ll be right there.”
Tommy hiked up the stairs to the small table by the front door where the phone was located and picked up the receiver. “Hey, Kirk. What’s up?”
Kirk and Tommy had been friends for the past two years, ever since Tommy’s family had moved to the neighborhood. “Well, I’ve got ’em,” Kirk said. “I’ll meet you tomorrow in the woods.”
“Great.” Tommy smiled into the phone. “What kind?”
“Kools. You know, the menthol kind.”
“Fantastic. We haven’t had them before, have we?”
“Naw. My mom smokes ’em. That’s why they send ’em to us.
Promotional packs of five cigarettes were often mailed out to households by cigarette companies. Kirk’s mom and dad smoked a lot and always were getting them. For the past few months Kirk had been keeping a look out for those free packs and swiping them every once in a while for he and Tommy to smoke. His mother never suspected a thing.
“I’ve got to cut the Sorenson’s lawn tomorrow morning. I’ll meet you after. Around noon.”
After they hung up Tommy went upstairs to the room he shared with his brother. Steve was still watching television in the basement. Tommy turned his radio on and lay down on his bed. ‘Runaround Sue’ by Dion and the Belmonts came on. He loved that song. He closed his eyes and got lost in the music, only feeling slightly guilty about sneaking smokes with Kirk. What the heck, he thought to himself. His mom didn’t need to know everything about his life. Did she?
About a mile north of the housing development where Tommy and his family lived was a lake. On the west side of the lake was a swamp and in the middle of the swamp was a low hill covered with a grove of oak, maple and poplar trees that the boys in the area referred to as The Woods. Tommy met Kirk there just after noon the next day. They lit up their cigarettes and sat back, each against the trunk of a tree.
“Man, this tastes great,” Tommy exclaimed, “Like chewing spearmint gum.”
“I know,” Kirk responded. “Kools are great. Maybe we should try to buy a pack.”
Buying a pack of cigarettes was considered a big mark of maturity with the gang of boys Tommy and Kirk ran around with. They were always planning how to do it. A gas station a few miles away up on the highway seemed the most likely candidate. Today, however, their conversation took a different turn. “Say, I heard Pam Longfellow was asking about you,” Kirk said. “Linda told me.” Linda was Kirk’s girlfriend. “Looks like you might get yourself a little sweetie after all.” He laughed and nudged Tommy with his elbow. “The man of the hour but he’s never been kissed,” Kirk joked. Tommy’s ears burned and he slugged Kirk hard in the arm. Soon the cigarettes were forgotten as the two friends tussled among the leaves and dirt debris on the floor of the forest.
Thinking about girls ran very high in the areas of interest in Tommy’s life. This fall he and his friends would be entering seventh grade. They had heard all kinds of stories about school dances on Friday nights and make out parties on Saturday nights. Though the interest was there, just the thought of dancing with a girl was enough to send Tommy’s emotions into a tail-spin, let alone kissing one. There was a lot of pressure from his pals to get a girl friend. He was very shy around girls and the pressure of his peers was sometimes more than he could bear. Sometimes he just wished he could forget the whole thing and do nothing but mow lawns and listen to his radio. It would sure make life easier but he did have to admit that Pam Longfellow was someone he was kind of attracted to. She was tall and had big brown eyes and long dark hair. She even had smiled at him once or twice in the last few days toward the end of sixth grade. There might be something to what Kirk was talking about.
After they quit wrestling and rolling around on the ground they shook themselves off and each took a minute to comb their hair. Tommy used Brylcreem hair product and was forever trying to keep a wave in his hair with duck-tails combed back on the sides. When he was sure everything was in place, he pocketed his comb and had another cigarette from the pack Kirk handed him. He couldn’t believe how much he liked the taste. He was thinking about Pam Longfellow when Kirk broke in on this thoughts. “My folks are having a party this Saturday night. Want to come over?”
“Is there going to be any booze there?”
Kirk laughed. “Man, you know my parents. There’ll be gallons and gallons.”
“I’ll be there.”
The two friends had been sampling booze from Kirk’s parent’s liquor cabinet ever since last New Year’s Eve, just after Tommy’s dad had left home. Kirk’s parents had a party at least once a month. It was a chance for the two friends to try out different types of alcohol. So far their favorite drink was gin and tonic, probably because it tasted so much like 7UP. They didn’t drink much, just enough to get a warm feeling and they never even came close to getting drunk. Now, especially with Mr. Rose’s behavior fresh in his mind, Tommy wasn’t sure he was excited to even try alcohol anymore. But he figured he’d do it anyway. Kirk was always game and Tommy didn’t want to disappoint his friend. So when next Friday rolled around he went to the party and the evening passed without an incident. Tommy was glad for that. He managed to only have a few sips of some of some bourbon whiskey left out on the counter. He didn’t like it at all.
As the summer progressed, Tommy realized that he was not only enjoying earning money, but he was also enjoying the work of cutting lawns. He liked being outside. He like the physical labor. He even was starting to like each of his customers. Mrs. Everson had a little patio in her back yard. It was paved with red bricks and she had a wrought iron table on it with an umbrella and four chairs. The wrought iron was painted white. As the freshness of June transformed itself into the deep greens of July, Mrs. Everson took to spending time out on her patio in the shade of the umbrella writing at her table. “Come over here, Tommy,” she said one day when he had finished mowing and was getting ready to get paid. “Let me read you something.”
Tommy came over and sat down. She pushed a glass of ice cold Tang over to him. “What’s up?” he asked, thanking her for tasty orange beverage and taking a welcoming drink.
“I’ve been writing a story about the history of my family. Let me read a part of it to you.”
Tommy sat back and listened. He was slightly uncomfortable because he was not a very good student in school and usually if he was being read to it was by a teacher and there was usually a quiz involved at some point afterwards. But he soon forgot about all that. Very quickly he became lost in Mrs. Everson’s story. Her grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Germany just after the Civil War. They had eventually settled in southeastern Nebraska and became farmers. Their story was one of hard work and perseverance though wind storms, drought, insect plagues and wild fires. What Mrs. Everson read was the beginning of a chapter that had to do with the grandmother and her daughters, one of which was Mrs. Everson’s mother, setting up a sort of inn for travelers to stop at and stay overnight. He was fascinated.
“What do you think?” she asked when she was done reading. The story had taken only about five minutes but Tommy felt he could have listened forever.
“I liked it. Especially the part about her husband having a team of horses haul logs from the river bank to build the new inn. That was pretty cool.”
Mrs. Everson sat back and removed her glass and smiled, rubbing her eyes. “Have you ever heard the term ‘Salt of the Earth’?” Tommy shook his head, No. “It means incredibly hard working people. Honest, truthful and trustworthy. That’s what my grandparents were.” She then showed him a photograph. “Here they are. Frederick and Helen Reisman.”
Tommy carefully took the old photo and looked at it. It was a faded, sepia tone picture of two old people standing in front of a wood frame farm house. Their clothes were worn and their expressions were serious. Yet they looked both strong and healthy, like they could definitely take care of themselves. “Did they live in Nebraska their whole lives?” he asked, mainly to say something, although he was very touched that Mrs. Everson had thought enough of him to share her story with him.
“Yes. They died on that farm. It’s down near the town of Beatrice on the Little Blue River. They are buried in the town’s cemetery. I go down there every year or two, just to visit their grave and the site of their farmhouse. Someone tore it down years ago to make room to plant more corn. Granny Helen was like a second mother to me. My mother was born on that farm in 1873.” She stopped and was quiet then, looking off across the yard. Maybe as far as Nebraska, maybe further. Tommy just sat with her, feeling comfortable in the presence of this nice, friendly old lady. He was getting to enjoy being at her place and cutting her lawn. For the rest of the summer after he’d finished his work, she would sit him down and read him some of her story. He would sip Tang as he listened, occasionally asking questions, learning about a part of his nation’s history he never had even thought about before. He hadn’t realized that learning could be so interesting.
The same was true with Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson. The longer he worked for them, the more he enjoyed it. In addition to Mr. Sorenson teaching him about gardening, Mrs. Sorenson was teaching him about birds and bird watching. It all started one day in early July.
“Come here, Tommy. Come quick.” She motioned to him when he showed up ready to cut the grass.
“What’s up?” He jogged over to the corner of the backyard where she was standing with a pair of binoculars.
“Look over there.” She pointed to a bird house on a post in the middle of a field out past the back yard.
Tommy looked but didn’t see anything. “What am I looking for?” he asked.
Mrs. Sorenson gave him her binoculars. “Here,” she was really excited. “Look through these. Look at the bird house.” Tommy did as he was told. He had to focus them first and when he did he saw what she was so fired up about. “Do you see them?” she asked. “Bluebirds”
He did. He saw them. A bird beautifully deep sky blue in color with a rusty, reddish breast. “I can see them,” he exclaimed. “Well, one anyway.”
“That’s right. Keep watching. There’s a pair of them. They’re busy flying back and forth. They have babies in there. They’re feeding their young.” Mrs. Sorenson was almost dancing, she was so happy. “Mr. Sorenson put up the bird house last year. This is the first year we’ve had customers.” She was more animated than he’d ever seen her. Or seen any adult, really, for that matter.
Tommy caught the excitement. “Cool.” Was all he could think to say, but it really was pretty neat. He’d never seen bluebirds before. He and Mrs. Sorenson spent nearly an hour trading off the binoculars and watching the parents feeding their young. Finally Mr. Sorenson came out and made him get to work cutting the grass.
“Won’t I scare the birds?” he asked, concerned, looking at Mrs. Sorenson.
“A little. But don’t worry. They’re pretty used to us by now. They’ve been around for nearly two months. I just never thought to point them out to you before.”
“Well, I’m glad you showed them to me,” was all Tommy could think to say. “They’re very cool.” And he went off to cut the grass, watching the bird house and the activity around it while he worked. He never even noticed Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson watching him, smiling to each other.
Mr. Rose was another matter. Over the course of the summer Tommy had become very uncomfortable with the guy’s drinking which he seemed to do all the time. He might have just quit the job except that he liked Mrs. Rose and he especially liked the Rose’s two kids, both boys, aged nine and seven. William, who went by Willie and John, who went by the name Jessie, were lots of fun.
“They look up to you, you know,” Mrs. Rose told him once. “You’re like an older brother to them.”
Which was fine with Tommy. He was used to little kids because of his brother Steve and his two sisters. After Willie and Jessie got used to him being around, Tommy had taken to playing catch with the brothers when he was done cutting the grass. He did other things with them too, like flying balsam wood gliders, playing marbles and shooting baskets just to name a few. The more he got to know the brothers, the more he liked them. “Why do you call yourself Jessie?” he asked John once.
“Because of Jessie James, the outlaw,” he answered in all earnestness. “He’s my hero.”
Tommy laughed. “Good for you. It’s good to have a hero,” he said, thinking back to the Robin Hood phase he’d gone through when he was about Jessie’s age. Then he added, “I’ve seen his grave, you know. Jessie James’. It’s in Missouri. Do you know where Missouri is?” Which was true. He’d seen it on a family vacation a few years back. Jessie shook his head, No, eyes wide. “It’s pretty cool,” Tommy continued, “Maybe your parents can take you there sometime.”
The brothers were lots of fun for Tommy. Mrs. Rose was nice too. Always giving him lemonade after he’d done his work. The boys usually wanted to play and lately Tommy was enjoying teaching Willie how to play chess. They’d sit in the grass in the shade in the back yard with Mrs. Rose watching from her kitchen window and Jessie restlessly pacing on the grass beside them, talking about bank robbers and the old west.
One day Mrs. Rose took him aside. “I have a question for you, Tommy. Would you be willing to babysit Willie and Jessie occasionally? Mr. Rose and I like to go out sometimes and our regular sitter isn’t always available. We’ll pay you fifty cents an hour.”
“Sure,” Tommy beamed. “Love to.” And just like that he had more money coming in.
But Mr. Rose was still an issue. When he was drinking he was too friendly with Tommy, always putting his arm around his shoulder and making sick jokes. It turned out he taught geology at the University of Minnesota and had a block of time off during the summer. Sometimes he wasn’t there and those were the times Tommy liked the most. He was torn. He didn’t like Mr. Rose, but he liked Mrs. Rose and the kids a lot. He decided to stick it out and keep cutting the grass. Besides, with the extra job babysitting, he’d have more money, and that was a good deal in his book.
He filled his mom in on how the jobs were progressing one evening in late July. The day had been hot and muggy with oppressive heat. Earlier Auntie June had taken Tommy’s brother and two sisters down to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to go swimming and cool off. Now they were all downstairs in the cool basement watching television. “Let’s go sit out back in the shade,” Tommy’s mom said. “It’s cooler out there.” The one floor fan in the house wasn’t doing much to give any relief to the heat. Outside was a good place to be.
“Sure, mom. That’d be good.”
They went out back each unfolding an aluminum lawn chair and sat down in the cool grass under a young birch tree. A light breeze from the south felt refreshing on their skin. They sat facing out into the yard which was on the east side of the house and was cooling off from the heat of the day.
“So how are your lawn jobs working out? You still enjoy them?” his mom asked. They hadn’t had a nice chat for a while.
He filled his mom in on his customers. “Mrs. Everson is writing a book about her ancestors. Mostly about her grandparents and she reads to me out of it every time I go over there. It’s pretty interesting.”
Tommy’s mom nodded and smiled. She liked that her son was interested in something other than his radio and rock and roll music. “What’s she call the book?”
“I think she’s thinking of calling it ‘Salt of the Earth’.” Tommy looked at his mom. “Do you know what that means.”
She laughed. “Yes, I do. I think of my parents, your grandparents, that way.”
And they talked a bit about Tommy’s grandma and grandpa and what it was like for Tommy’s mom to grow up in a small town in southern Minnesota and all the good memoires she had. When the conversation ran out, she asked about the Sorenson’s.
“I saw Mrs. Sorenson at the grocery store. She told me about you and her watching those baby bluebirds.”
“It was really cool, mom.” Tommy became very excited. “The babies left the nest box about a month ago. One day they were there and the next they were gone, is what Mrs. Sorenson said.”
Tommy’s mom smiled. “Sounds like this has been a pretty good summer for you. New experiences and all.”
“It’s been great, mom. I’m making a lot of money. I’m saving to buy a car,” he added and gave his mom a look out of the corner his eye.
She gave him a stern look back. “We’ll talk about it later, young man,” was all she said.
Tommy nodded, happy that at least she didn’t say No.
They sat back, resting and enjoying the cool of the evening. Tommy went inside and came back with a glass of Kool-Aid loaded with ice. He brought his mom a glass of ice tea. She thanked him and lit a cigarette which Tommy had to admit looked and smelled good. He’d have to hit up Kirk for a smoke tomorrow. His thoughts were interrupted by his mom. “So how’s it going with Mr. Rose?” Tommy looked over at her. She had her eyes closed and had her head resting on the back of her chair. She seemed very comfortable and at ease. He didn’t want to worry her.
“It’s going good, mom. I don’t see him much anymore. It’s mostly Mrs. Rose and the two kids. I like them all a lot.” He was quiet for a moment. “You really don’t have to worry.”
Tommy honestly hadn’t had much trouble lately with Mr. Rose. He’d baby sat a few times and everything had gone fine. Mr. Rose had been pretty drunk at the end of those evenings, but Tommy had only had to deal with Mrs. Rose. She was the one to pay him and seemed eager for him to get out the door and go home. Once, when he was outside walking to his bike he heard them start fighting. Words raised in anger. He hurried away on his bicycle wondering if their yelling was going to wake up Willie and Jessie. He got home that night, checked in with his mom, and quietly crawled into bed. He’d bought an ear-plug listening device for his radio so he could listen in bed without bothering Steve. The last song he remembered before he fell asleep was ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon. When his mom checked in on him later before she went to bed, Tommy was smiling in his sleep. She turned his radio off, brushed his hair off his forehead, and went to bed herself, happy that her oldest boy seemed to be having a pretty good summer.
If you asked Tommy about it he would tell you that, Yes, he was having a pretty good summer. Good enough that was, until his mom told him that his dad was coming over for a visit. It was about a week after they had been talking in the back yard, the first week of August, and Immediately when he heard the news his anxiety level with up off the charts. He actually started perspiring he was so nervous.
“By why? Mom,” he asked trying not to sound whiney. They had just finished dinner and were sitting around the kitchen table. “Why can’t we just go on like now?”
She gave him a look. “Because I told you so, that’s why.” It was a sharp response and got the point across. Tommy actually flinched. She backed off a notch and softened her tone, making eye contact with them all. “Look, your father and I made an agreement that when he left he would try to come back occasionally to visit each of you.” She sighed, “I know he hasn’t been too good about it, but he wants to come over this Saturday around 1:00 pm. He’ll see you, Tommy, first, then Steve, then the girls.”
Tommy realized he had to be a man about this. Try to set an example for his brother and sisters. He knew his mom was counting on him. “Ok,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “It’ll be good to see him.” He didn’t add the rest of what he was thinking which was ‘I guess.’ His mom smiled at him, letting him know she appreciated that he was willing to try.
To make matters worse, Saturday dawned cloudy and by the time it was 1:00 pm it had been raining all morning. Tommy was in the garage cleaning up his bike listening to his radio when his dad showed up. He was driving a new looking, shining little red sports car. Tommy had never seen it before. His dad got out and hurried into the garage shaking the rain from his jacket. Tommy’s dad was a tall, good looking man with a trim, athletic build. His dark hair was showing flecks of grey through his severe buzz cut hair style. His wore his clothes well, and today had on pressed khaki pants, wing tip shoes and a crisp, blue, dress shirt. He smiled when he entered the garage as he approached Tommy.
“Hey there, sport, good to see you.” He stuck out his right hand and with the other slapped Tommy on the shoulder. He had to admit, it felt good to see his dad.
“Good to see you, too,” he said, shaking his dad’s hand was then quiet, wondering what else he could say.
The big problem Tommy had with his dad was the same problem he had with all adults. He didn’t know how to talk with them. Over the twelve years of his life he had been taught to ‘be seen and not heard’ by everyone from his mom and dad, to his aunt and uncle, to his grandparents, parent’s friends, teachers at school and teachers at Sunday school. He had seen the universal ‘quiet sign’ of the forefinger pressed up against pursed lips more times than he could count. He had eventually learned to become comfortable with doing everything he could to keep quiet and stay out of the way of adults. He avoided getting into trouble that way. But in the months after his dad had left, Tommy found himself drawn into more conversations with adults than ever before. Like his chats with his mom and talking to various of the customers of his little lawn mowing business. Which was fine. It was kind of fun and sort of a learning experience for him. Made him feel older. More grown up. But now he was faced with having a conversation with his dad, someone he was just not used to talking with. It really was uncomfortable.
“What have you been up to this summer?” his dad asked pleasantly, trying to be nice and congenial. “Your mom told me you’re cutting lawns.” He walked over to the power lawn mower parked along the side wall of the garage. “Using the old LawnBoy?” He said it almost reverently. The light green LawnBoy was the type of lawnmower his dad favored when it came to grass cutting machines.
“Naw…they let me use theirs,” Tommy answered, knowing he should say more, but he was feeling more and more out of sorts. He glanced out past the garage, out to the street, as if looking for some way to escape. It had quit raining and the sun was starting to poke out through the clouds. He felt like going for a long bike ride. He was actually sweating. He wiped his brow. “I’m making good money”, he finally blurted out. “I’m saving some of it to buy a car when I turn sixteen.” He was trying to find some common ground. His dad loved cars and driving.
“Well, it’s good to plan ahead,” his dad said as he looked back to his car in the drive way. “How do you like my new Austin Healy? It’s a 3000.”
“It’s nice, dad.” Tommy had nothing else to add.
What little Tommy knew about his dad was that he was a friendly, popular guy. He worked in middle management for a large local company known for manufacturing various devices used to control heating and cooling in homes and office buildings. His job required him to be on the road a lot visiting various of the company’s branch offices throughout the country. He sometimes even traveled to Europe. Tommy had overheard his mom fighting with his dad about how much he was away. He figured it was probably one of the reasons his dad had moved out.
They patched together a stilted conversation for a few minutes more. Finally his dad said, “Tommy, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Tommy quickly became alert. “What’s up?” He felt a sense of foreboding.
“Your mom and I are going to get a divorce,” he said without any preamble. He looked Tommy in the eye, “I’ve met someone who I care about very much. We are going to get married when the divorce is finalized.”
Tommy’s heart rate sped up. Sweat broke out all over his body. He felt nauseous. He felt like he was going to be sick to his stomach. All he could think of to do was to ask, “Why?”
His dad just looked at him as a tear formed and then fell down his son’s cheek. “It’s just the way it has to be. You’re too young to understand now, but maybe you will when you get older,” he reached out his arm to put it around Tommy’s shoulder. “It’s just that I don’t love your mom anymore. I’ve found someone else.”
“What about us?” Tommy asked, shrugging the arm off. He heard the urgent, pleading tone in his voice. It sounded childish but he didn’t care. He was feeling like his world was spinning out of control. “What’s going to happen to us? Are we going to have to move? What about school and my friends.” He spit his words out in a rush. His throat was closing up. He felt queasy and ill.
“No, son,” his dad’s voice was calm and reasonable. “You and your mom and Steve and the girls will stay in the house. I’ll see to that,” he said firmly. “I’ll try to make it so it won’t be too hard on you all and that things won’t change too much.”
If Tommy was better equipped to express himself he would have probably asked a lot more questions. He would have probably pleaded with his dad to stay. He would have probably told him how much he missed him and how hard it was living in the house with him gone. How hard it was dealing with the emptiness he felt inside. How sad his mom was. How sad his brother and sisters were. How much he wished things could go back to the way they were when home felt secure and he felt safe and protected by his parents. But his dad’s words hung in the air like a bad dream that wouldn’t go away. A nightmare. They solidified the fact that his parent’s separation and split up was for real and final. His dad was never coming back. Tommy’s life and that of his brother and sisters and his mom would change forever. And there was nothing he could do about it. His emotions welled up inside of him. He felt a rage unlike anything he’d ever felt before. His mind went red with fury. Well, there was one thing. There was certainly one big thing he could do about it. He clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it into his father’s chest, who, caught off guard, stumbled back a few steps gasping for breath. “I hate you,” he screamed, all of his emotions coming out in a rush. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” he yelled some more. He barely registered the stunned expression on his dad’s face. He grabbed his bike and jumped on it, shifted into first gear and flew out of the garage, out onto the street and down the hill. He had no idea where he was going. He just wanted to get away. Fast. It was all just too much.
He eventually found his way to The Woods. No one was in the spot where he and Kirk usually hung out. It was peaceful and quiet and he appreciated the solitude. In some brush behind a tree the boys had hidden a coffee can where they kept their cigarettes. Tommy opened it up and took out a pack of Kools, shook out a cigarette, grabbed a book of matches and lit up. Then he put everything away and stashed the can. He sat back against the tree smoking and going over the events of what had happened in the garage with his dad. God, what a mess, he thought to himself. I’m for sure in deep trouble now. Maybe I should just run away.
The afternoon slowly passed. Tommy watched the sun through the leaves of the trees as it moved across the sky. His radio had been strapped to his bike so he listened to it, smoked the occasional cigarette and contemplated his fate. To him his future looked grim. He figured his mom would ground him for the rest of his life. Who knew what his father was thinking? He was wondering if he really could ever go home again when a movement through the trees off to his left caught his attention. He turned. What the heck? It was his little brother Steve. Tommy stood up. “Hey. What are you doing here?” He tried to sound angry but didn’t have it in him. Truth be told, it was kind of nice to see him. The two brothers got along pretty well.
“Mom sent me out looking for you,” Steve said, looking around. “Nice place you have here.”
In spite of everything that had happened so far that day, Tommy had to laugh. “Yeah, it is. How’d you find me, anyway?”
Now it was Steve’s turn to laugh. “Everyone knows about this place. I’ve just never been before.”
“Geez,” Tommy sat down, shaking his head. “Nothing’s like it seems anymore.”
“You mean mom and dad?” Steve asked. Even though he was young, Steve seemed to catch on pretty quick.
“Yeah.” Tommy paused for a long time. “Am I in trouble?” he finally asked.
Steve laughed, “No, not really, but dad sure is. You should have heard the fight they had.”
And Steve proceeded to tell Tommy about how mad their mom was that their dad had told Tommy about the divorce. Apparently it was something she wanted to do with their dad with all the kids together. All at the same time. She chewed out their dad and then told him to leave. She didn’t even care so much about the slugging as much as getting Tommy home. “I think she’ll punish you, but I don’t think she’s all that mad at you.” He stopped and chuckled a little. “But, boy, was she ever ticked off at dad.”
Tommy took a few minutes to let it all sink in. The main thing he had been thinking about was the consequences he’d face after hitting his dad, and now Steve was saying that from their mom’s perspective, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Well, it certainly was confusing, that’s all Tommy had to say for himself. But it looked like he might get out of this only slightly scathed. That was Ok. He started to relax. In the background the radio played a steady stream of good old rock and roll music. Tommy and Steve sat there for a while longer, just chatting and listening to the radio. Finally Tommy stood up and dusted off the seat of his jeans. “Well, we’d better head out.”
“Yep. Time to face the music.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Tommy laughed a little at his brother’s attempt at a joke. Then the two of them walked their bikes through the woods and out to the road. They jumped on them and headed home, songs from the little transistor radio now a background to the thoughts circling through Tommy’s brain like a twisting tornado, roaring across the land, destroying everything in its path.
At the end of the day all he could say was that he wished he understood adults better. That was the thought that stayed in his brain after he got home, got chewed out by his mom and then got hugged by her before she sent him to his room to ‘think about what he’d done’ as if he hadn’t already done that all afternoon. When she called him down to dinner she put the incident into perspective by telling her children that ‘yes, your dad and I are going to get a divorce, but I’, and she emphasized “I”, ‘will do everything I can to make sure things around here proceed as normal as possible’. And that was pretty much that. They all sat around talking way past dessert and it was kind of nice, the way the family seemed to be pulling together. Really nice. Afterward Tommy’s mom pulled him aside. “Now more slugging, Ok?” She said. And Tommy assured her he wouldn’t do that again. She still grounded him for a week, though, except for when he had to go out and cut his customer’s lawns. Which all in all he felt was more than fair. When he went upstairs to listen to some music a little while later on he could have sworn she had a tiny smile on her face.
Summer symbolically ended around the first week of September with Labor Day on Monday and everyone going back to school on Tuesday. Kirk’s parents were going to throw a big party the Saturday night before and everyone in the neighborhood was invited. It was pot luck, bring your own everything and the police even agreed to provide barriers to close off the street that ran in front of Kirk’s parent’s house to accommodate the anticipated crowd. The week leading up to the party was very hot and humid. Temperatures were in the low nineties and the dew points hovered around seventy degrees making for a muggy, uncomfortable week weather-wise. Mrs. Everson’s lawn was starting to burn out, so Tommy made it a point to go over on days he didn’t mow to check to see if he needed to water and run her sprinkler. She appreciated him doing that. “Aren’t you a thoughtful young man,” she said more than once, causing him to get red and blush with embarrassment. “Yes, ma’am,” was all he could think to say, still having trouble carrying on a conversation with an adult. Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson had a cabin about two hours drive north of the city located right in the middle of lake country. When they were gone they entrusted Tommy with the care of the lawn, weeding the gardens and making sure Mrs. Sorenson’s many bird feeders were kept clean and full. When he told his mom about the extra responsibility she smiled and gave him a brief hug. The blow up over the visit with his dad had weathered a course of its own. There was kind of a mutual agreement between Tommy and his mom that what was done was done and it was time to move on. He felt just fine with that. Over at the Rose’s it seemed that Mr. Rose was apparently gone from the picture. He never saw the man. His car was never there whenever Tommy came to cut the grass. One day he got up the courage to ask about it. “Where’s Mr. Rose? I don’t see him around much.” Mrs. Rose looked both sad and relieved. “He’s gone away for a rest,” she said. “He became over worked at the college and needed to go away for a while.” She seemed to want to let it go at that. Tommy was glad to oblige. He still took care of the boys occasionally, though. Every now and then Mrs. Rose went out with some of her friends, or ‘girl friends’ as she called them. When she did that she always came home smiling. Not drunk or anything, just in a good mood. Seeing her happy made Tommy happy. He liked Mrs. Rose and her two boys a lot and always made sure he spent some extra time with Willie and Jessie when he’d finished cutting the grass.
On the Friday night before the day of the party a huge storm rolled through. Thunder and lightning filled the sky and some hail even fell. But Saturday morning dawned clear and bright. The storm has scoured out the heat and humidity and the air felt clean and fresh. It was going to be perfect weather for the party. During the day Tommy cut Mrs. Everson’s lawn and then his own lawn. Since it was Saturday his mom didn’t have to work. She ran errands to the grocery store, drug store, dry goods store and the like. Steve and the girls played together in the back yard. Steve supervised building a fort out of some old card board boxes and the girls even brought out a bunch of their Barbie dolls and played in the fort with them, much to Steve’s chagrin. Then Steve and Tommy played catch, tossing the baseball back and forth while the girls played nearby. From inside their mom put away groceries and watched occasionally from the kitchen window marveling at how well the kids were doing in spite of their father being gone. Then she sighed to herself, poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the table with a newspaper in front of her, not even seeing the page, thoughts turned inward. After a moment she shook her head, clearing away any negative images from her mind. Even though life didn’t turn out like she’d planned, she was intent of making the best of it. She called the kids inside for some Kool-Aid. It was still hot out and she didn’t want them to get dehydrated.
“Are you going to Kirk’s parent’s party tonight?” She asked Tommy.
“Yeah, I am, if it’s Ok with you.”
“It is. Just make sure you’re home by 10:00 pm. That’s curfew, you know.”
He didn’t even try to argue with her. Usually he had to be home by 9:00. The free hour was golden to him. “Thanks, mom,” he grinned and looked at Steve. “You going?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe. I might just stay here and watch TV. Red Skelton’s on.”
Tommy grinned. They both liked Red Skelton. He made them laugh and he could understand Steve wanting stay home. Even though they’d had the television for a few years, it was still sort of new to them. “Well, I’m going to the party. Kirk wants me to help out.” Which was an outright lie, but sounded good. Later he wondered why he even said it.
“I’m just going to stay here with Steve and the girls,” his mom said. “So you be good, you hear?”
“Yes, mom,” Tommy assured her, just happy to be able to go and stay out somewhat later than normal. His mom was giving him more freedom as the summer progressed. She said it was because he was being so responsible. Tommy gladly accepted his mom’s growing confidence in him, feeling like he was not only getting a little older but also growing up some. Her increased trust in him felt good.
After dinner Tommy checked his hair in the mirror, said good-bye to his mom, got on his bike and headed over to The Woods. The plan was to meet Kirk there. On the way over he had his radio on listening to The Shirelles, the Everly Brothers and all sorts of other good old rock and roll. The music put him in a good mood. By the time he got to the clearing in The Woods he was humming to himself, singing along to Freddy Cannon and a song called ‘Palisades Park’. Kirk was there along with a lot of their friends from the neighborhood. They all sat around for a while smoking cigarettes, talking and giving each other a hard time. Everyone’s spirits were high despite the fact that on Tuesday they’d have to go back to school. The general consensus among the boys was that getting to meet new girls in junior high outweighed having to sit in stuffy classrooms all day long. After the freedom of being able to be outside all summer the boys were tan and in good shape. Life really was pretty good. So if life was so good, why did what happen later on have to happen at all? Tommy asked himself that question over and over again in the days after the party.
Around 7:30 pm Kirk stood up. “Let’s hit the road boys. There’s a party goin’ on.”
Tommy laughed at the reference to a Sam Cooke song. “I’m with you. Let’s go.”
The whole crew of boys rolled out, racing down the path to the road and then over the winding, curving, hilly streets of the development to Kirk’s parent’s house. They parked their bikes behind the garage and went walking around taking in the scene. Whatever Tommy may have expected, he sure wasn’t prepared for what he saw. There must have been two hundred people milling around. Scattered down the street were about ten charcoal grills smoking with hamburgers, hot dog and steaks, manned by guys wearing chef’s aprons, some even wearing a chef’s hat. Everywhere he looked there were coolers of pop and beer. One of the houses on the block had set up a radio on a table in the garage and had it turned to one of the stations Tommy listened to and people were dancing in the driveway. It was like a carnival without the rides, just happy people blowing off steam. Shouts and laughter filled the air. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. The gang of boys split up and started wandering around. A lot of them were looking for girls. Kirk punched Tommy in the arm. “Come on with me,” he said. “Let’s go inside where the good stuff is.”
Tommy was still gazing at the huge crowd of party goers and didn’t grasp the significance of what Kirk was getting at. Guys were dressed in madras shorts and short sleeve dress shirts colored either white or light blue. Women were wearing trim shorts or slacks with sleeveless tops in every color under the rainbow with yellow and red being the most predominant. Perfume wafted through the air and mixed with the aroma of cigarettes. Tommy wished he had the nerve to light up. Kirk waved his hand in front of his face. “Are you with me, man? Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s go,” he motioned, waving his arm. “The kitchen is where the booze is.”
This was the point in the evening where Tommy could have said No. He could have just walked away. He could have maybe even found a quiet spot, bummed a smoke from someone and had a contemplative cigarette. But he didn’t. For some reason he just said, “Sure. Why not?”
They snuck around the back of the house and went in through a sliding glass door that lead to the living room. The house was filled with people, all smoking and drinking and laughing. They was a record player on blaring big band music that added to the noise and chaos. No one paid them the slightest attention as they walked through the living room, took a right, and went into the kitchen. On the counter stood a lineup of bottles of booze unlike anything Tommy had ever seen before. Bottles of whiskey, vodka and gin. Scotch and various bottles of wine. Kirk nudged Tommy. “What do ya’ think? Pretty cool, huh?”
Tommy felt dazed. Completely out of it. Maybe it was the party like atmosphere, the music, the laughter and the crush of all the people around him, but he felt like he wasn’t even himself anymore. In his mind flashed visions of the entire summer: the lawns he’d cut, the conversations he’d had with Mrs. Everson, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson and Mrs. Rose and Willie and Jessie. He saw the bluebirds he’d watched with Mrs. Sorenson and the pretty flowers he’d helped Mr. Sorenson take care of. He heard Mrs. Everson reading to him from the book she was writing. He saw himself playing chess with Willie. He even saw himself slugging his dad. He saw how different he was now compared to the beginning of the summer. He saw himself growing up and getting older, more mature. He saw himself becoming more responsible. He saw his mom counting on him more and more. He saw it all in the blink of an eye, and just as quick, he blinked it all away. He gave Kirk a game smile.”It looks great, man,” he said, deciding to be reckless and take a chance, just for the heck of it. “Let’s have some.”
Kirk was pretty adept at mixing drinks. He waited until no one was around and then quickly poured a glass of coke and splashed some whiskey into it. “Here,” he said handing it to Tommy, “Try this.”
Tommy took a sip. It didn’t taste too bad. In fact, it tasted just like coke. “Tastes good,” he said, and took a larger drink.
Kirk laughed. “I just gave you a little bit.” He poured a drink for himself. “Let’s go for a walk.”
And that’s how the evening went. They walked around outside watching the party and everything that was going on and when their drinks were done, they’d head back to the kitchen, get more coke and whiskey and head out to walk around some more. What Tommy didn’t realize, though, was that with each subsequent drink Kirk was putting more and more whiskey in with the coke. The sun set and the sky turned from twilight to dark. By the time Tommy was supposed to go home it was pitch black out and he was so tipsy that he was having trouble standing up.
Kirk chuckled as he helped Tommy to his bike. They had moved it to the driveway. “Here you go, man. Ride carefully, now.”
Tommy was carefully trying to straddle his bicycle seat. The world was sort of spinning, tilting a little. But he felt wonderful. Felt happy. Felt like he could ride home with no problem at all. “Man, I feel so good,” he smiled at Kirk and draped his arm over his friend’s shoulder. “I’ve had a great time.”
Kirk, who was a little drunk himself, focused on steadying Tommy’s bike. “Best time ever, buddy,” he agreed. Then asked, “You all set, man?” Tommy nodded. “Then here you go.”
He gave the bike a shove, which meant Tommy had to navigate down the driveway, then take a left and go down the street. He made it down the driveway just fine, dodging people and laughing as he rode. And he made it down the street just fine, too, building up speed and dodging more people along the way. But by the time he got to the end of the block things started to go badly. The world started spinning faster and faster as he hit a slight downhill which soon turned into a steeper hill. He tried to steer straight but he was losing control. His front wheel was wobbling and he glued his eyes to it as if willing it to straighten out. At the bottom of the hill he was supposed to turn right but by then he was out of control. He never even came close to making the corner. At high speed he flew into the intersection, heart pounding and adrenaline pumping. He looked up in time to see a car barreling down upon him from the right, headlights blinding him. He tried to hit the brakes but his hands didn’t seem to want to grip the handles. He screamed No just as the car hit him catapulting him into the air, it’s brakes screeching and horn blaring like a banshee. The last thing he remembered was seeing his transistor radio spinning just out of his reach, over and over into the night, and then the world around him suddenly going dark.
When he came to he was in a bed that definitely wasn’t his. There was stringent, antiseptic aroma in the air and unfamiliar sounds all around. It was a hospital room. His mom was asleep in a chair next to his bed. As if prompted by some hidden motherly intuition, she woke up and let out a muffled yelp. She moved to him and gave him a big hug. “Oh, Tommy,” she said, choking up. “Whatever were you thinking.” And with that she broke down sobbing.
Tommy was in the hospital all day Sunday under observation. He’d suffered a mild concussion and broken his right ankle. He came home on Monday morning, got settled and later was surprised by the steady stream of visitors that started stopping by that afternoon. Mrs. Everson came by with a book for him to read. “I thought you might enjoy this,” she said, sitting primly in a chair by the bed his mom had made up for him on the couch in the living room. “The author is Jack London. He wrote about living in Alaska during the gold rush era around the turn of the century. This is a book of short stories of his. I used to teach about him in my English class.”
Tommy took the book gratefully. He’d heard a little about Jack London from his sixth grade teacher. He was genuinely touched by Mrs. Everson’s unexpected thoughtfulness. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Everson. That’s really nice of you,” he exclaimed. It was a touching gesture on her part. Tommy’s appreciation of the kindly old lady, which was already high, went up even higher.
After Mrs. Everson left, Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson stopped by. “Here you go, dear, Mrs. Sorenson said, handing him a shopping bag. He opened it and inside were a pair of binoculars and a book entitled, ‘Common Backyard Birds.’ “I thought you’d enjoy these,” she said with a smile. “When you get better you can come over and we can bird watch together.” Tommy could only nod his thanks, he was so taken aback. Finally he blurted out, “This is just great.” He then grinned and added, “I can’t wait to come over and watch birds with you.” Mrs. Sorenson patted him on the shoulder in an act of kindness and smiled at him. “We’re looking forward to seeing you get better.” They only stayed long enough to fill him in on the bird situation in the yard, and how the flowers in the gardens were doing. Tommy was surprised at how much he appreciated hearing the news. As they rose to leave Mr. Sorenson asked how long he was going to be laid up.
“For a while, I guess,” he responded. “I’ll miss the beginning of school.”
“I’ll bet you won’t mind that,” Mr. Sorenson joked and was quickly admonished by his wife.
“Don’t you listen to him, Tommy. You get better and get back to school.”
After they left, Mrs. Rose came by. “How are you feeling?” she asked, her expression full of concern.
“I’m Ok.” He pointed to his head which was wrapped with a bandage. “I’ve got a mild concussion. That’s why they wanted me to stay at the hospital yesterday.” He pointed to his right leg which had a cast on it. “I also broke my ankle when the car hit me.” He pointed to a pair of crutches propped by the couch, “I’ve got to get used to these to walk around.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t hurt any worse.”
Tommy sighed, “Yeah, that’s what my mom says.”
After a few minutes she got up to leave. “Willie and Jessie say ‘Hi’.”
“Say ‘Hi’ back to them,” Tommy said, touched that the boys had thought about him.”Tell Willie to get ready for some chess matches when I get better.”
What Tommy had told Mrs. Rose about his injuries was true. He was also scrapped up pretty badly on his arms and legs. The concussion was what concerned the doctors the most. The way it was told to him by his mom, who got the story for the police, was that when the car hit Tommy it broke his ankle. He then bounced up over the hood, hit the windshield with his head and rolled off the back of the car into the street. Fortunately there were no other cars behind him. He might have been run over and killed. Tommy had shivered at the thought when she told him.
Tommy’s mom was with him almost constantly throughout his stay in the hospital. Between visits from the doctors, the nurses and people just stopping by out of curiosity, they didn’t get a chance to talk much. The accident had made the news. Tommy was semi-famous in a way he loath to accept. He was honestly embarrassed and chagrined by the whole thing.
It felt good to be home resting on the couch. After his visitors had left for the day his mom sat down next to him wanting to talk about Saturday night.
“I still don’t know what you were thinking,” she said, her voice full of disappointment. “Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?”
Tommy had given that night a lot of thought. Unfortunately he didn’t have a good answer. Which wouldn’t do for his mom. He knew that. “I really don’t know, mom. Something just came over me. Once I started drinking the drinks, I just couldn’t stop.” He didn’t tell her that he didn’t stop because the initial feeling of inner warmth and well being was a feeling he really liked. He didn’t think that would go over too well with her.
“Well, all I can say is that I am very disappointed in you, young man. Extremely disappointed.” Tommy knew his mom cared deeply about him and right now she was mad but there was something more. He could tell. Her look was one he’d never seen before. It was a look of sadness. Sadness directed toward him. He’d let her down, and he felt horrible about that.
“I’m so sorry, mom. I’ll never do anything like that again.”
“I wish I could believe you.” She stopped and looked hard at him. “You know I need to count on you to help out more now that you father is gone. I have to be able to trust you.”
Tommy took in her words. He tried to understand what she was saying. He got the feeling that he couldn’t just write off his actions as the experimentations of a stupid kid. He was getting older and with that came more responsibilities. He was going to have to make more of an effort to toe the line. To be more mature. To act more adult. “I’ll do my best, mom. I don’t want to disappoint you again.”
She rose from the chair and came to his side and gave him a hug. “I know, Tommy. I just have to be able to trust you, Ok?”
He stiffly put an arm around his mom’s shoulder. “I promise I won’t do anything like that again, mom,” he said. “Really. I Promise.” In the back of his mind, he really wanted to believe it.
She stood up, brushed her hand over his forehead and bent to give him a kiss on his cheek. “I know you will.” She smiled at him. “You rest now. Call me if you need me.” Then she walked out of the living room and went through the door into the kitchen.
Tommy lay back feeling exhausted. Outside the sun was setting to the west. The day had been pretty hectic for him and it was nice to lay back and close his eyes and just rest. Which he did. When he awoke it was dark out. Someone had turned on the lamp on the table by the couch. There was also a vase full of flowers next to him. He stretched over to see who sent it. On the card was the simple word, ‘Sorry’. It was signed by Kirk. Tommy figured Kirk’s parents had sent them but he appreciated the gesture. He lay back again. What a summer it had been. So much had happened. He felt he was a different person from who he had been when the summer began. He’d had a job and he’d earned money. He’d sort of made friends with the adults he worked for. He’d punched his dad, the thought of which, once repugnant, now made him smile. He’d gotten drunk and almost killed himself. Man, he thought to himself, it was a lot to take in. And to top it off, junior high was starting. Life was getting complicated but he figured he’d learn how to deal with that as time went on. Learn how to handle getting older and acting more grown up. People like his mom were expecting it of him and now he was expecting it of himself.
But right now he was just tired. On the table by his head his mom had left his transistor radio. It was scrapped up from the accident but it still worked. Tommy turned it on, kept the volume low, and closed his eyes, listening to that good old rock and roll music that he liked so much. Ben E. King was singing ‘Stand By Me’. He rested in the quiet room envisioning riding his bike down a long, cool, tree lined country road, out to a place he’d never seen before. A place where not much was going on and where life was simple. A place where for only a little while he could feel like he could be young again and just be a kid.


They Say It Gets Better

The front desk in the story is like the one where I used to work. Everything else is made up based on thinking about how people are usually way different then we first make them out to be. For better or worse.

The name tag worn by the guy at the guard desk read Dan. His job was to check the ID badges of the employees as they entered the huge office building through the revolving doors from the parking ramp. All day long during his eight hour shift he eye-balled everyone that passed by, checking to see if the photo on the badge matched the person wearing it. His eyes were steel gray and they never seemed to stop moving, missing nothing. His hair was buzz cut so close that his scalp shone through. His blue uniform strained against his protruding belly. His gun belt was thick and black and the revolver seemed too big for its holster. He looked to be about fifty years old.
Dan never smiled. He rarely spoke and he seemed like the kind of guy you just wanted to avoid at all possible costs. So when tall, thin, haggard looking Jeremy Larson tried to walk by without his badge and Dan stopped him, who knew what was going to happen.
“Just a second, there, buddy.” Dan spat out aggressively. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Jeremy paused, confused, acting like he had no idea where he was. “What?” The question squeaked out.
“Your ID badge, pal. Where is it?”
Jeremy looked down at his shirt pocket where his badge was normally clipped. “Sorry. I must have forgotten it”
“You can’t go in, then. Rules are rules.”
Jeremy looked around, suddenly very distraught, like he didn’t know where he was. His eyes watered up. Then he dropped his briefcase, put his head on the counter and started to cry.
Dan was taken back. This just didn’t happen. People passing by glanced at the scene unfolding but just kept walking, clearly embarrassed for Jeremy but not wanting to do anything about it. Dan quickly took over. He called his boss, asked for an assitant, and then hurried around to where Jeremy was hunched over, all the while his eyes never missing a face or a badge passing by. He put his arm over Jeremy’s shoulder, picked up his briefcase and carefully moved him away to a quiet corner beyond the counter.
“Take over for me,” Dan said to the assistant when she showed up. “I’m going to take this guy for some coffee.” As he started walking away with Jeremy, Dan’s demeanor changed. “What’s the matter, man?” He asked compassionately. “What’s going on?”
Jeremy was clearly very shook up, but was able to softly articulate, “My wife passed away a month ago and I thought I was ready to go back to work. Guess not.” He added, with a weak smile of embarrassment.
Dan walked slowly beside him, arm still around Jeremy’s shoulder. All around them people hurried by, only a few giving the odd looking couple slowly making their way down the crowded hallway a passing glance. Dan’s eyes softened. He slowed his steps and ducked his head close to Jeremy’s ear. He almost whispered, “Hey, man, I understand. I lost my wife ten years ago. It’s still painful.”
Jeremy looked up at the big guard, searching his face. “Does it ever get better?” he asked, a hopeful expression in his voice.
Dan looked at him, taking his time with what he wanted to say. He felt for the guy. Felt an affinity with him and wanted to give him a sense of hope. “It does,” he said, quietly, and then added, “It’s hard, especially those first months, like you’re now finding out. But you know what? If you’re lucky, you eventually learn to live with it. It does get better with time.”
“You know, that’s what people tell me. But I don’t know if I believe them. I loved her so much.”
Dan slowed his pace and then turned Jeremy so they were facing each other. “You’ll find a way, man. You’ll have to.” Then he added. “For me it helped when I thought about what it was my wife would have wanted me to do. She would have wanted me to go back to work. You know, get out in the world and keep living.”
Jeremy snuffled back his tears. “Really?”
“Yeah. It helped me a lot to think like that.”
They continued walking down the hall. Jeremy seemed a little more comforted by Dan’s words. By the time they got to the break room, he seemed more in control of himself. “Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your patience with me.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said as they found two chairs and sat down. “It’s hard, I know it is. Believe me, you just have to have a little faith. It can work out.”
Jeremy smiled with a sense of relief. “I hope so. It’s been hell so far.”
Dan went for some coffee and they sat for a long time talking. Jeremy seemed to calm down and start to come to grips a little bit more with himself and the death of his wife. Dan was happy to see that. He wanted things to get better for the guy. But all the time they were sitting together he never let on the depth of the sadness he still felt. In fact it had been ten years, two months and seventeen days since his wife had died. The pain was still there. The loss still intense. The love not diminished. He was out in the world. He was working. Doing the things he should be doing. All those years that had gone by since her death and he was still waiting. He was still trying to heal. And, despite what he had told Jeremy, the truth of the matter was that for him, it really wasn’t getting any better.

The Kid From Arizona

This story is a condensed version of a long ‘novel’ I wrote in the early 2000’s. It’s based on a trip my brother and some friends of ours took to Denver in 1969.

Dan sat outside in the sun on the top step enjoying the quiet of the late afternoon. He’d just come home from work and it was nice to just relax and not have to deal with the noise from the lawnmower he used for the yards he took care of. He sipped a glass of ice water and looked out across the street to the west. He and three friends had been renting the bottom floor of this duplex in south Minneapolis for just a few months but already he felt like it was home. This area of the city was filled with mature elm trees and the big houses mostly had been built just after the turn of the century. A block down the street to his left was Lake of the Isles which was connected by a channel to both Lake Calhoun on one end and Bryant Lake on the other. There were parks all around, and walking paths, too. It was a great place for a nineteen year old to live in the summer of 1969.
He wasn’t thinking of anything much, just humming a tune in his head and idly watching a rabbit hop across the yard, when he heard a loud, muffler less roar of a car. He knew right away that it belonged to his friend and roommate, Tim, who pulled up to the curb in front of the house, parked and turned off the engine. Dan got up and walked down the steps and out to the street to greet his friend.
“Hey, man, what’s goin’ on?”
Tim got out of the car frowning. “I’ve got some bad news.” He walked over to where Dan stood and put a hand on his shoulder. “Michael’s dead.”
Dan slumped against the car. “What happened?” He was dumbfounded.
“He hung himself. In his bedroom. I got a letter from his mom.” Tim’s voice was quiet, unbelieving. He shook his head and led Dan over to the grass where they sat down. ” I just don’t get it. The last letter I got from him everything sounded fine. He seemed happy. He was looking forward to taking some art classes in school.”
Dan interrupted him. “What about his dad? How was he doing with that?”
“Not so good. His mom said he was still having trouble getting over his dad’s death.”
Nobody close to them had ever died before and they were unprepared to deal with the impact that losing a loved one had on those left behind. Trying to come to terms with the news, the two of them sat quietly, then, thinking back to the time less than two months earlier when they first met Michael. It was during the last week in June in Denver. Dan and Tim had driven there to see an open air concert in Mile High Stadium. After two days on the road, they chugged into town around noon and parked in a huge parking lot about a mile from downtown. There were young people all over the place, most of them heading toward the center of Denver, so they followed. Soon they came to a big park located right in the middle of downtown. It was a huge grassy area measuring one city block by two city blocks. There were groves of trees along the edge on one side and they walked over and sat down in the shade, taking in the scene.
“What’d ya’ think? Tim asked, watching the crowd. “Far out, huh?”
“Yeah.” Said Dan. Nearly speechless. “Amazing.”
The scene before them was unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. There had to have been over a thousand people milling around and more coming into the park all the time. Most of the guys had long hair, like Dan and Tim, and a lot of the girls wore granny dress. Incense filled the air, mixing with the scent of patchouli and pot. People threw Frisbees and played guitars and wooden flutes. Everyone was smiling and happy and the mood was mellow. It was like a scene out of a magazine, or a movie, or something you’d see on television. It was certainly like nothing Dan and Tim had ever experienced back home in Minneapolis.
Dan looked over at Tim, who had a big smile on his face. “Man, this is outta sight,” he exclaimed, and ran over to get a Frisbee that had landed near them. He tossed it back to a guy wearing a black flat brimmed hat with silver conchos on it. The guy flashed Tim the peace sign. Tim waved and settled back down. “Man, I can get into this.”
They laid back in the grass, enjoying the day. The sky was a clear blue and the air was warm and dry. The shade from the trees was welcome from the hot sun that was beating down relentlessly. Tim had lit up a joint and the two of them were smoking and chatting quietly when they noticed that a young guy had sat down near them.
“Come on over and join us,” Tim said, smiling. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Dan grimaced. Tim was always overly friendly when he was high. But the kid looked innocent enough. “Yeah, have a seat,” he said, encouraging him and waved his hand over the expanse of grass.
“We’ve got room for ya’.” Dan laughed, thinking he was funnier than he actually was.
But the kid didn’t seem to mind. He came over and sat down. “What’s your name?” Tim asked, handing the joint over.
“Thanks,” the kid said, taking it. “My name’s Michael.” He took a hit, held the smoke in and then blew it out, coughing a little. “Where’re you all from?” He asked with a shy but friendly smile. “I’m from Arizona.” There was something about the kid that put both Dan and Tim at ease.
Tim spoke first. “We’re from Minnesota. Minneapolis. You know, the City of Lakes.” He laughed and held out his hand. “Pleased to meet ya’.”
Michael sat down and made himself comfortable. They were still in the shade, away from the heat of the day and the grass felt cool underneath them. The kid was slight and slender, and, unlike most of the guys around in the park, he had short, dark hair that fell in bangs over his forehead. He wore blue jeans, a slightly tattered white tee shirt and black tennis shoes. He looked as normal as normal could be except that he carried his belongings in what looked to be a potato sack. He was shy but friendly. “You guys looking forward to the concert tonight?”
“Yeah. Can’t wait to see Creedence Clearwater,” Tim said. He was a huge fan.
“Me, too. I love those guys.” And Tim smiled, happy to a found a kindred spirit.
The three of them passed the afternoon relaxing in the shade and talking. It may have been the pot, but the more they talked, the more comfortable they became with each other. They were all in a good mood. Tim would jump up every now and then to chase a loose Frisbee that occasionally sailed by. Dan laughed a lot and was happy and relaxed. For him it was nice to be in a different city and have a change of scene. He hadn’t really had a break from his work for over a year. He felt himself calming down, enjoying the day and the company of the kid from Arizona. From his vantage point, if he looked west, there was a great view of the Rocky Mountains. There was something about their presence that made him feel calm.
Michael was also in a good mood. He filled them in on his trip to Denver. “Man, hitch hiking sucks. I caught a ride with a trucker north of Flagstaff who has just dropped acid.” Michael laughed and shook his head. “Man that was one crazy ride.”
“How long it take you to get here?” Tim asked.
“Three days, two nights. Slept in the desert outside of Grand Junction last night. Had a tarantula try to crawl into my sleeping bag.”
Why this seemed funny, god only knew, but Tim and Dan burst out laughing. After a moment so did Michael. “I’m not crazy about spiders.” He said, laughing some more. “But they’re way better than rattlesnakes.” And they all burst out laughing again. The conversation rambled on and on like that, and the longer they talked, the closer they became.
After a few hours the guys got thirsty. Dan volunteered to go to a diner they had passed on their way in a few blocks from where they were sitting. He wandered off west into the late afternoon sun, found the diner and brought back three huge containers of lemonade. Sitting down, he noticed right away something was wrong. Michael was crying. Tim looked nervous. Dan was concerned. Dealing with feelings was not something either of them was comfortable with.
“What’s going on?” He asked, looking at Michael, whose face was red and his eyes filled with tears. “Michael, man, what’s wrong?”
Michael looked up, took a moment to collect himself, and told them his story: He was seventeen and between his junior and senior year in high school. He was an only child, and lived in a nice suburban home with his mother. All of this seemed normal from Dan’s point of view. But the big issue for Michael, and the reason he had broken down, was that his father has recently been killed in the war in Vietnam. Michael’s father was a general and was in Vietnam on a fact finding mission, flying over what was considered a ‘safe’ area, when the plane he was in was shot down. The pilot and engineer were also killed. It had happened in mid May.
Dan and Tim looked at each other. What could they say? Michael’s pain and obvious need for consolation was evident, but neither of them knew what to do. They hadn’t been raised to feel comfortable with extreme emotions. Finally Dan scooted over next to Michael and did the only thing he could think of. He put his arm around his new found friend and just sat with him. Surprisingly he found that It didn’t feel too uncomfortable or weird.
After a few minutes Michael settled down. “Sorry, about that,” he said, wiping tears from his eyes. It just gets to me every now and then.”
Dan tried to be compassionate. “Don’t worry about it, man. It’ll be OK.” Whatever that meant, Dan didn’t know, but it sounded like the right thing to say. “The war sucks, man.”
“I appreciate it.” Michael was trying to get himself under control.
“Have some lemonade,” Tim said, handing over a container.
Michael took it gratefully, and they all just sat there for a while. Finally, Michael said, “Hey, I’ve got some mescaline. You guys want some?”
So the moment passed. But something had happened than had drawn them even closer together. They had shared feelings that were deep and personal, and although they hadn’t really analyzed what had happened, the fact remained that it had happened. And that it was something none of them had experienced before. They felt closer because of it.
Tim was more than happy to share a tab of mescaline with Michael. Dan declined, thinking they still might go to the evening concert. But it turned out that wasn’t going to happen. What happened was that the police raided the park. They showed up around 7:00 pm in force and moved through the entire area forcing everyone to get moving. Some were even on horses. So the three friends plus about five hundred other young people ended up being herded like cattle onto the streets of downtown Denver. Things were a bit tricky with Tim and Michael still being high. When Dan suggested that they go to the concert, the other two just started laughing. But after Michael’s revelation earlier about his father, Dan felt that the laughter was a pretty good thing. They could go to the concert the next night. When he brought it up to the other two, they didn’t seem to mind at all.
They walked up and down the streets for hours and found if they stayed moving the cops wouldn’t give them too hard a time. They enjoyed meeting people from all over the country. They heard that Denver was in the midst of a summer of race riots, and that the police were more concerned about blacks rioting than a bunch of long hair, peaceful and sometimes stoned hippies. Even though they felt bad that the blacks were getting hassled, at least the cops weren’t all that focused on the hippies wandering the streets. That was fine with them.
They spent the next two days together. Even though Michael had opened up to Dan and Tim about the death of his father, the guys didn’t really talk much about it again. Michael seemed happy to just be with the two others and to be included in what was going on. He seemed to enjoy the security of the two older guys. And, frankly, talking about feelings and deep issues wasn’t something neither Dan nor Tim were good at. They were good at taking care of Michael, though. They made sure he got enough to eat and got as much sleep as you could expect given they were living a day to day, hour to hour existence.
Friday night they snuck back to the park around midnight and slept deep in a grove of pine trees. They could hear other people nearby, but weren’t bothered by anyone. They slept relatively peacefully. The next day, they hung around the park again. The cops didn’t seem to mind people being out there in the daylight. In the early afternoon they made their way to Mile High Stadium and stood in line for the concert that evening. From home Dan had brought an assortment of colored class beads that he spread out on an old blanket he’d found. He passed the afternoon stringing necklaces and selling them to people walking by. Tim and Michael wandered around checking out the crowd. There had been some problems the night before with a few hundred of the concert goers trying to crash the gate, but today everyone seemed pretty mellow.
“There’s got to be five or ten thousand people around here.” Tim said as he came back sat down next to Dan. “Lots of great lookin’ hippy chicks.” He smiled and turned his face to the sun, closing his eyes. “What a day.”
“How’s business?” Michael asked, indicating the beaded necklaces Dan had spread out.
“Great. I’ve made around twenty dollars.” At a dollar strand, business was brisk.
Michael had become very comfortable being with Dan and Tim. They had been together for nearly a day and a bond of sorts had formed between them. “I want to thank you guys for putting up with me.” Michael said, out of the blue just after three girls in peasant skirts had each bought beads. “It means a lot to me.
“No problem, man.” Tim said. He indicated his thumb toward Dan. “Dan, there, kind of gets it.”
“What do you mean?”
Tim gave Dan a look like, Go ahead, tell him.
Dan took a breath. This wasn’t something that he like to talk about. “Well, it has to do with my father. He split from my mom four years ago. I don’t see him too much. He got married and moved to Seattle.”
Michael nodded. “It’s got to be rough.”
“It is. But not like you.” Dan hastened to add. “At least I see him occasionally.”
But Michael seemed comforted, somehow, that there was someone in sort of the same situation that he was in. Then, thinking about his dad, he asked, “What are you guys going to do about the war?”
Dan and Tim looked at each other. The war in Vietnam was something the guys and their friends back home talked about a lot. They had registered with the Selective Service when they had turned eighteen. But they both felt strongly about not wanting to go to war. Dan spoke up. “Well, we aren’t in college so we don’t have our student deferments. There’s talk of a draft lottery starting up in December. We’ll both be eligible for it. Who knows what will happen? With luck we’ll get high numbers and not have to go in.”
“You could enlist.” Michael suggested.
Dan shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Killing is not for us.” Tim said. Then, thinking he might have offended Michael, added. “Sorry, man.”
Michael nodded. “I get ya’. If my dad wasn’t in the military, he’d still be alive. Still be with me and my mom.”
Dan put his hand on Michael’s shoulder. “It’ll be OK.” He really felt sorry for his new friend.
Michael gave a weak smile. “I hope so.”
After a few minutes they all gave a collective shrug and the mood shifted to a lighter vain. This was a weekend to forget about war and the decisions they would soon have to make if they got drafted. December and the lottery was still a ways off. It was too nice of a day to get too far down.
The day grew hot, at least into mid-nineties. They passed the afternoon in the sun, talking to people, making trips to the gas station across the street from the stadium for water and generally getting excited for the upcoming concert. But more than that the bond between the three of them continued to grow. They were sharing aspects of their lives, like death and abandonment, that they hadn’t really done before with anyone else before. At least not in the context of talking about it among friends. And although they were inexperienced talking about those things, there was something about Dan and Tim that drew Michael in and there was something about Michael that made Dan and Tim feel that taking care of him and watching out for him was the right thing to do. A level of trust and commitment had developed between all of them and it was deepening the longer they were together.
The gates opened at 6 pm and the crowd pushed through in a fairly orderly fashion. The three friends quickly found good seats twenty rows back from the edge of the field to the right of home plate and settled in. The stage was set up in the infield and the first band was scheduled to play at 7:00 pm. Michael had another tab of mescaline that he split with Tim. Dan shared a few joints with different people sitting around them. By the time the first band played, all three of them were in mellow moods. They second band that played was called ‘Poco’ and the guys liked their country/rock sound. One of the members had been in ‘Buffalo Springfield’, a band all three of them had liked. When their set was finished there was a commotion way out to their right behind the right field bleachers. Gate crashers were trying to get in and the police had fired teargas canisters to try to disperse them. Unfortunately, a light breeze caught the gas and it filtered into the stadium and down the first base line, covering the crowd inside. People freaked out and ran onto the field, Dan and Tim and Michael joining them. Dan spotted the next scheduled performer and ran up next to him. Tim Buckley was a favorite singer/songwriter of Dan’s and when he asked him for his autograph the singer graciously agreed.
“Thanks. Have a good concert.” It was all Dan could think of saying after Buckley had handed him his autograph. Dan felt a little foolish. He then remembered his beads and fished out a strand and handed it over. “Here. This is for you. Thanks for all your music.”
Buckley took the stand and put it on. “Thanks, man. I Hope I get a chance to play,” he said, smiling, indicating the tear gas still floating into the now empty stands behind them.
Dan waved goodbye and went off in search of Tim and Michael feeling as if life could not get any better.
He meet up with his two friends a few minutes later and told them about his encounter with Tim Buckley. They were impressed. “Way to go.” Tim enthused and slapped Dan on the back. “We had something cool happen too. We meet a couple of girls who invited us to their hotel room for a party after the concert.” He indicated with his thumb the direction of the Holiday Inn located only a block from the stadium. “They’re from Wyoming. Freddie and Linda. They seemed really nice.” Tim then gave Michael a shove. “Casanova here, really dug Freddie.” Michael blushed but didn’t say anything. Dan could tell he was enjoying Tim kidding around with him. It made Dan feel good to see it.
After the tear gas cleared, the crowd moved back into their seats and the rest of the concert went off without a hitch. Tim Buckley was great, playing four songs. It was just him on twelve-string guitar and an accompanist on electric guitar. He put the everyone in a very mellow mood. Then Johnny Winter played and he rocked the crowd. At one point the wind came up and blew his black cowboy hat off, leaving his long, white hair streaming behind him. Then Creedence Clearwater Revival closed the concert, putting everyone in a party mood, on their feet and dancing and singing to every song. They made Tim especially happy, because he loved Creedence and mistakenly thought they had played the night before. Michael told them that if he could be anything in the world it would be the drummer for Creedence.
“I love the simple beat he plays,” Michael said dancing and air drumming to ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’. He was relaxed and in a great mood. Dan loved seeing him so happy.
After the concert ended, they followed the flow of the crowd streaming out of the stadium and went in search of Freddie and Linda. The mescaline had really kicked in by then, so Dan had all he could do to keep track of his friends, who seemed interested in everything they saw and were forever wandering off. They finally made it to the hotel. Apparently everyone staying there had invited people to meet them because there were hundreds of young people milling around the entrance. When Dan tried to push through the crowd and get inside, he was told by a big security guy that only people with keys who were registered could get in. Dan relayed the news to Tim and Michael who didn’t seem to mind and seemed to had forgotten the earlier encounter with the two girls.
He corralled his two friends and they wandered the streets until they finally ended up in a huge parking lot about a mile from the stadium where they found an abandoned car. It was nearly three in the morning and they were all exhausted. The climbed into the car, made themselves as comfortable as they could and fell asleep. They were awakened just after dawn by the taping of a policeman’s Billy club on the windshield.
“Time to go,” fella’s he said. “You can’t stay here.” He was roly-poly kind of guy who was pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
“We’re on our way.” Dan said, grateful they weren’t going to get hassled. They crawled out of the car and headed back toward the stadium, feeling every bit the effects of the chemicals they’d ingested in the past twenty four hours.
Sunday’s concert started at noon. They figured they had four or five hours to kill so they found some shade near the gas station they’d got water from the day before and sat down, resting and talking quietly amongst themselves. They were all very tired and had no energy at all.
“I’m not sure I’m up for this,” Michael said, indicating the stadium. “Last night just about did me in.”
“I know. But I had a great time,” Tim said, smiled. “I loved hearing Creedence.” Michael smiled in agreement and gave a little air drum solo before laying back in the grass and closing his eyes.
Dan concurred. For him, seeing Tim Buckley was a dream come true. “And today we get to see Hendrix.” Seeing Jimi Hendrix was beyond cool. Hendrix was like a god. All of the young people idolized him.
But there was somber mood that was now hanging over them. They knew that their time together was coming to an end. Dan and Tim were planning to leave after the concert and drive straight through to Minneapolis. Tim had his job as a dishwasher waiting for him and Dan needed to get caught up with his lawn service. Michael, too, needed to get home. As much as he had enjoyed getting away he realized he should get back to his mom. Dan and Tim agreed.
“You’re all she’s got, man.” Dan said. “You can help each other get through this.”
Michael agreed. “Yeah, I know.” He paused, then asked, “Can we stay in touch?”
“Sure,” Tim said. “I’ve got some paper here somewhere.”
So they exchanged phone numbers and addresses. Dan and Tim pooled their money to buy Michael a bus ticket home.
They were able to rally their energy and make it to the concert. The event organizers opened a gate in the outfield and allowed anyone without a ticket to enter for free. The three friends took them up on their offer and joined hundreds of other young people in the bleachers in the outfield. Hendrix blew everyone away. Even the cops that paroled the stadium seemed to feel they were witnessing a rare event. By the time the last notes of ‘Voodoo Chile’ died away there was an mellow but excited air around Mile High Stadium. The three friends felt the music only heightened the bond they felt between themselves. And, for once, Michael and Tim didn’t do any mescaline. They all three only smoked a little pot, sort of in celebration, like a last good bye.
They finally did say ‘goodbye’ later that day in the early evening. They had walked a few miles back toward downtown with Michael to the bus station, bought his ticket, and even paid money so he could call his mom to tell her everything was alright.
Their final good bye was more sad than awkward.
“Well, this is it.” Tim said, giving Michael a brief hug. “We’ll stay in touch, OK?”
“I’d like that,” Michael. “You guys have been great.”
“You, too.” Dan said, giving Michael a big hug. And then…”Take care.”
There really wasn’t much more to say after that. They all knew something special had happened over the past few days, they just had no way of articulating it. And that was OK. Michael gave his two friends a final wave and got on the bus. In a few minutes he was gone, continuing to wave to them from the window as bus pulled out of sight, heading southwest to Arizona.
It didn’t seem possible that now, less than two months later, Michael was dead, gone for good.
“What did his mom say in the letter?” Dan asked, still sitting in the grass outside their duplex.
“Not much. She was sad, of course. They’d had the funeral a few weeks ago. Not many people showed up. Just some family, mainly. She found my return address on one of my letters when she was going through his things.” Tim shrugged. “She was quiet. Said she was going to move to Los Angeles to live with her sister. She sent her phone number, which we already have. That was about it”
“Too bad we didn’t know. Maybe we could have gone to the funeral.”
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. With work and all, it would have been hard to get away.”
“But we should have been there.” Dan said emphatically. Then, thinking of how few people had attended, added, “At least to say goodbye.”
But really, in his heart, he knew that Tim was right. They really couldn’t have gotten away. But, more than that, would they really have gone? After all, they’d only known Michael for a few days. Sure, they had shared something special, but that time was now past. Both Tim and Dan had moved on. In a few more weeks was another music festival they were thinking of trying to get to in Woodstock, New York. They had the rest of their lives in front of them. Michael’s death was a reminder that it could be snuffed out in an instant. Not for once did they think about Why Michael had hung himself, only that he was now dead and gone. For Michael, his life was fleeting and Dan and Tim had been a small part of it. They had shared a little of Michael’s life, but had not had enough impact to change a course of events that were probably in place long before all three had met earlier that summer in Denver. It was just the way it was, unfortunate but true.
They sat quietly, pondering their memories, thinking about Michael and how much they had really liked him. After a few minutes Tim got up and stretched. “Well, we should probably head inside and get something to eat.”
Dan sat still for a few moments, gazing off at the trees across the street, still thinking about Michael and what a sweet, shy kid he was. “Maybe we should call his mom, you know, and offer our condolences,” he said to Tim.
Tim was walking up the sidewalk to the house. “Yeah, maybe we should,” not sounded too convincing. Then he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. There was something about the look on Dan’s face. “You’d like that, right?” he asked.
“Well, I think his mom would like that,” Dan answered, getting up and following after his friend. “I think she’d like that a lot.”
So they thought about, and then talked about it, and later after dinner that’s what they did. They called Michael’s mom and relived with her, for a few minutes, that time in Denver, when they hung out with her son, and became friends. They ended up talking longer than they had expected. Michael’s mom, whose name was Sue, had a lot of questions about what her son had been like in Denver and Tim and Dan filled her in.
She liked hearing that he had been happy. They could almost hear her smiling on the phone. She liked hearing about his air drumming. “He loved the drums,” she said. “I was going to buy him a set for his birthday.” Then she became quiet for a moment. Dan and Tim started getting nervous thinking she would break down, but she seemed like a very strong lady. She took a deep breath and went on about how much Michael had enjoyed his time with them.
They talked for nearly a half an hour. It was a good conversation. Michael’s mom got to relieve with them a brief moment of her son’s life and have some happy thoughts, and Dan and Tim got a chance to share something with her that was special to them as well. They realized that they had made a little bit of an impact in Michael’s life after all. They had given him friendship and made him happy for a few days. And that was a good thing.
When they finally said goodbye to Sue they knew in their hearts that calling her had been the right thing to do. They felt a little older, and a little wiser. They went outside and sat on the steps looking west. The more they thought about it, the more they came to realize that the memory of Michael and the impact he’d had on them would last not just for a few weeks, or until the end of the summer, but just maybe for the rest of their lives.
The sun was down and the evening twilight was cool and refreshing.
“What do you think?” Tim asked. “Feel better that we called her.”
“Yeah, I do.” Dan said. “I think Sue appreciated it. She seemed like a nice person.”
“Well, Michael was pretty nice, you know. He probably got it from her.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Then shook his head, “That Michael…He was something else.”
“He was. I don’t think I’ll never forget him.”
“Me neither.” They were quiet, then, for a few moments, lost in their own thoughts. Then Dan stood up and clapped Tim on the back. “Hey man, let’s take that car of yours for a spin around the lake. We need to decide if we’re going to Woodstock.”
And they walked down the sidewalk to Tim’s car. The sky was dotted with stars and a fresh breeze was blowing from the south. They had the rest of their lives in front of them. Some of it would be good, some of it bad. They weren’t ready for the summer to be over just yet.