We sat on the front steps, the concrete cracked and slowly sank beneath us. I felt precisely like the bottom step. How many generations would have to sit here long enough for the earth to swallow them whole? We burned daylight and broke hundreds of days on those steps just shooting the shit and nursing new and old wounds.
The Cravens kept an old Igloo cooler on the lawn to the left of the path. It was covered with graffiti and stickers, union stickers from Local 638 and Local 806, but mostly it was from heavy metal bands and one Wu W. The cooler was always stocked, the selection would vary depending on who refilled it. Beside the cooler on the yellow patched grass was a bottle of Tullamore Dew and a metal dog bowl with C. HILL engraved on it. We passed the bottle around and took swigs as we conversed. Cookie’s bowl was filled with a little beer.
My mind was heavy. In the middle of the best times, in the shortest pause between exchanges in a conversation, in the arms of a great woman the heaviness would present itself, weighed down by my own shortcomings and insecurities, by my own mistakes and fumbles, by the inability to say the right thing at the right time, by the thought of having done something shitty to someone who mattered more than I had initially known. Weighed down by my father’s devastation, by my mother’s absence, and the hate that burrowed a void within me which continued to grow at an alarming rate. Expectations voraciously ate away at me. All of this has made me want to leave this town without a trace. To commit the ultimate Irish.
I couldn’t do that to the only people I considered family. That wouldn’t be right. I had something I had to say to my friends. I needed to get it off my chest. I had a plan that I anticipated that they would not be supportive of. I knew they would not be on board which was why I had hesitated speaking about it with them. I made a decision which I already knew they would try to protest or tell me all the cons to dissuade me from enlisting in the service. I was fully aware of their varying views on country and duty, and regardless of any love or distrust for our government, a distrust for any government really, I felt it was separate and my decision alone. I wanted to do something. I wanted to commit to something I viewed as honorable. I felt obligated to share with them what I had decided to do with my future, but that decision wasn’t up for discussion, it was not a democracy. There was going to be no vote. I was leaving.
I would have preferred for them to be excited for me. The truth was that I was thrilled at the prospect of leaving but not with telling them. We all knew each other too well. They were not going to get it. They should be happy for me but they wouldn’t be. It was fine though, they were entitled to feel whatever they felt. If they only knew how unhappy I’ve been here then maybe they would understand, if they only knew how miserable this place made me, maybe then they would encourage me to board that destroyer.
I had my fill of New York City. I was over Whitestone, I was over Queens. The things I didn’t want to change were changing and the things I wished would change stayed the same. Maybe I just needed some distance to appreciate my home again. This might be just another mistake in a long history of making bad decisions. I might realise the moment I leave the borough it was the wrong decision. How would I know if I don’t ever leave my comfort zone? It might be a regrettable action, especially if a war breaks out and I don’t make it home. You could get killed anywhere, you could get killed crossing the street, maybe that was what I really wanted. I wanted to see more than the bar, I wanted to talk about more than just my pension and what I’m going to do when I retire.
I wanted to feel something different than sadness. Self aware and self conscious, I knew that I was not growing here, instead I was stagnant and drowning in monotony, becoming more jaded by the hour. If I saw another part of the world or spent time alone, away from everything then maybe it would affect me or change my perception, maybe it would make me more appreciative and less contemptuous. The hard truth was that it was harder and harder to go home everyday and see my father’s mental and physical state declining, with no signs of improvement. No one knew how bad he really was, except for Maeve. They might have had ideas but Maeve knew the bitter truth.
Ozzy was talking about a girl he liked but I was distracted and barely listening to him. He had talked about her for years so I knew of her. She was a cute, short dark haired girl he never tried to talk to but always kept tabs on. He would say he would when he was ready, when the time was right, but the time would never be right because he felt he was not good enough. I understood that sentiment. Her name was Polly and last he heard she was still working at one of the big corporate book stores.
“Hey guys, so I am going to be leaving,” I said. “Throw me another beer, please.”
“Leaving?” asked Viggo, he dug through the ice in the cooler and pulled me out a beer.
“Where the fuck are you going?” asked Ozzy, puzzled.
“I’m enlisting in the Navy.”
“Yeah, right,” said Viggo.
“Word. That’s cool, I joined the Marines.” The funny thing was that I thought Ozzy would make a great soldier. He was good at anything he did, a fast learner, with a lot of heart.
“Well, I think that’s great, Colm? Cheers, bro.” said Martin.
“Thanks. I met with a recruiter. I told him I was really interested and I’ve thought it over and I want to do this. I have my paperwork ready. I’m going to go this week and finalize it. He called a few times to see if I had decided anything but I was at work and you know my father doesn’t answer the phone.”
“Why do you want to leave?” asked Ozzy.
“Why do I want to stay?”
“What the fuck are you going to do in the Navy? Swab the deck. Peel potatoes,” Ozzy said, his face reddened. “I’m not going to fucking cheers that.”
“You’re probably going to hate it, man,” said Viggo.
“I hate it here. So what’s the difference?”
“No, you don’t. Don’t say that,” said Ozzy.
“Look, Oz, don’t take it so personal. It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing with any of you. I just need to change it up. I just need to get away. What am I doing? If I don’t like it in four years I’m back painting bridges until I’m dead. But I can get the fuck out of here, maybe I can get a degree, and who knows I could become an officer, and see the world on a fucking destroyer. A fucking destroyer, bro. That shit sounds epic to me. That doesn’t seem more enticing than inhaling epoxy and xylene everyday, and washing paint off of my face with thinner? I don’t know, maybe it’s a dumb move but if I don’t go I know I will regret it. I want an American Flag and trumpets at my funeral. But like I said, if I don’t like it I’m out in four. If I like it, I will make it a career.”
“I understand, bro,” said Martin, “You don’t have it easy.”
“We’ll get you into 638 and you’ll be golden. No more painting,” said Ozzy.
“I mean that would be awesome if we worked together. But I get why you’d want to leave,” said Martin.
“You could take the FD test next time it comes around. You have enough time to get your associate’s before the test comes back around,” said Viggo.
“It’s not that. I like painting bridges. It’s not the job that is the problem, it’s the rate at which the cost of living is increasing. It doesn’t matter what I do here, it won’t be enough. I’d stay a bridge painter if I wasn’t leaving, but I am leaving. Bridge painter, steamfitter, firefighter, electrician, ironworker, carpenter, sani, those are all fine professions, I’m not shitting on them, just if you have no foundation, it’s not enough to survive here anymore.” It would grow tougher for the blue collar to survive in this city. “I won’t be able to afford to stay here and honestly I don’t feel like I should stay here. We all have different situations. You guys are in line to have something. Nothing is coming to me and that’s fine too, I don’t want a hand out. I have nothing and probably will never have anything here. Here. But this is not, like, poor Colm. There is a good opportunity to try to change or redirect my life. I have to take it. I need perspective. I’d like to become an officer.”
“Does Maeve Know?” asked Martin. “She’s going to be crushed. You know that, right?”
“She may have an idea. I have mentioned it to her in the past. We haven’t been talking lately so no. She doesn’t know I made a decision. What does it matter? It’s better for her if I leave.” I didn’t want to say that I was with Maeve that morning, and it didn’t matter because I didn’t mention it to her.
“Bullshit. I call bullshit. Give it up already. You’ve been in love with her for fucking ages,” said Ozzy.
“This is not about her. Again, this is a choice I’m making to change the fate of my life. I request a change of scenery and if that indirectly affects her, well, then I apologize for that. But I’m leaving.”
“You’re leaving. That’s it. I’m Colm and I’m in the Navy now. Bye guys,” Ozzy said, mocking me, giving a flimsy wave.
“Maeve will not be happy if you leave,” said Martin.
“I can tell you this. She won’t be happy if I stay.”
“I think you’re wrong about that. I think she will be just fine.”
Ozzy agreed with his brother and that was something that rarely occurred.
“If I were to stay and somehow things worked out, it still wouldn’t be enough. I will never be able to give her what she wants, to give her what she deserves. I know it’s not a reality to think I could. Is happiness even achievable? And if it is, can it sustain?”
“You make it seem like she is only about money?”
“I’m not saying that she is. It’s just about survival. It has nothing to do with love. I know that she loves me and I know that I love her. But it’s not enough. I know that. Things might be good for a while then comes the children, and then life goals that society dictates, then comes the fighting over bills. Fighting over money. All the added stress ruins the relationship and then she won’t even be able to look at me the same anymore. She’ll grow to resent me and fall out of love with me as fast as she fell in love with me. I love her enough that I am willing to leave her behind for her benefit. I’m forcing her hand. I can’t have her look at me the way my mother looked at my father. I can’t live with that. That can never happen.”
“Well, I still think you’re wrong,” said Martin. “But I understand your point.”
“Extremely wrong,” said Ozzy. “I hope you get a less than honorable discharge.”
“Thanks. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. I saw my parents morph into strangers and then dissolve. It was evident in their body language, it sure as fuck was obvious in the way they spoke to one another. I don’t want to be my father and have the only thing that matters to me in my life walk out the door in search of something better. In the long run letting her go is the best thing I could do for her. I am trying to be a good man. Why can’t you just hold your peace and be happy for me. For fuck’s sake, slainte.” I was getting aggravated. I took the bottle, pulled a swig from it and passed it. We each knocked it back.
“Land ho,” Ozzy called out. “Look who it is. Blair.”
Blair Ramos was Martin’s girlfriend. The only problem was Blair didn’t always know that. It might have been that they had broken up and Martin just didn’t acknowledge that. Either way, there was a major miscommunication. They started dating in Junior High and fought and broke up every other day since then. It was messier than an abattoir. The relationship itself was syphilitic. Blair had pulled up on the other corner in her car, a banged up red Civic that her parents footed the bill for. I don’t know if she parked away from us because there was a spot or because she wanted to avoid interaction with us. Forgive us. We weren’t always so civil. Martin took two shots quickly, back to back, rose to his feet, placed the bottle down next to Cookie’s dog bowl, and hurried off to see Blair. She awaited him with the car on, and some hip hop coming through the windows. It was muffled but I could hear that it was Ice Cube’s Today Was A Good Day. I loved that song and The Isley Brothers sample of Footsteps In The Dark, an apropos song, which I would have never known if it wasn’t for the Craven’s record collection.
Viggo picked up the torch, raised it and toasted, “A drink to loose woman. My personal favorite.”
“So that’s happening again. You give me shit for trying to change a situation but it’s ok for him to keep making the same mistakes.” I shook my head. Martin was a bigger man than the rest of us. I didn’t want to be my father and in this respect, I didn’t want to be Martin either. None of us envied their love lives.
“Blair, huh,” said Viggo. “She’s back in the picture? I thought I saw her car on the block recently.”
“Yeah. They’ve been hanging out again. I fucking hate when she comes over the house I have to be nice, of course, Martin feels bad for her and that was what got them talking again. And that is why they are over there talking in her new Honda. She is fake.”
“Fake and naughty. I’m into it,” said Viggo, laughing.
“I’ll never understand,” said Ozzy.
“What the fuck is she doing here, man. For real.”
“I wish I knew. Martin can’t kick her, bro. He has a problem. He’s holding on to some romanticized bullshit. I kind of want to bang her myself to see what the fuck is so special that she has Martin this whipped.”
“I think you have a good shot,” said Viggo, cracking up. I always thought Viggo had slept with Blair. It was a hunch. A good one. I’ve caught Blair looking at him over the years.
“Maybe I could. Who knows. I know Martin would never speak to me again if I did so forget that. She apparently just had a surgery or some shit like a week or two ago. A procedure to remove something. I don’t even listen to him when he talks about her anymore. I tune him out.”
“What did she say she had removed?” asked Viggo, who seemed to be thinking about something more than he was sharing. “A baby?”
“Nah. No baby.”
“It wasn’t a baby?”
“I would have remembered if he said it was a baby. It was something else.”
“Whatever she told your brother then that’s what it was.”
“Yo. Was it his? How do you know about it?” Ozzy asked.
I asked if it was Viggo’s.
“What? It was definitely not mine or his. Lower your voice, Ozzy. You’re fucking yelling. Calm down,” pleaded Viggo, who was honestly concerned about Martin hearing us talking, he violently hit his lips with his index findex.
“I don’t give a fuck who hears me. How do you know about this shit?”
“Maybe it’s better for everyone involved and those not really involved if I keep my mouth shut.”
“And maybe it’s better if he found out.”
“Sometimes you’re better off not knowing,” I said.
“Shut the fuck up, Seaman,” Ozzy snapped. “What do you know and how? Let’s have it, Viggo.”
“Alright. I slept with Blair’s friend Sabrina, you know, the one that lives over by Optimo. You know her? She’s supposed to be Blair’s home girl, her best friend and all but she talked a ton of shit about her. She talked so much. It’s kind of annoying. She told me a bunch of crazy shit about people I couldn’t care less about. I only hung out with her like two, three times tops, I barely said a word. She doesn’t shut the fuck up. I really don’t want to be involved. Maybe it’s not even true. I don’t care if it gets back to Sabrina or Blair that I said something. I just don’t want that kind of hurt on Martin coming from me. But it was and it was not his.”
“Martin needs to get his shit together. This should be it. Wildflower, enough is enough.” Ozzy took a shot and sang, “Am I a good man?”
We all chimed in and sang the rest together, “ Am I a fool? Am I weak? Or am I just playing it cool? I have a woman and I know she’s no good.” Whiskey does this kind of shit to you.
Mr. Craven had an extensive record collection in the basement. A place we spent hours fucking around and a good place to bring girls back to hang. There was a pock marked dart board. A regulation pool table that needed to be refelted. An old television squatted on the floor with a few outdated video game consoles in front of a tangled web of wires and remotes.
Video game systems are condemned to short lifespans. Nintendo NES was a wrap after ten years. Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, they dropped respectively in ‘91 and ‘89 and would not make it into the 21st century. Collectively their time in North America was numbered, they would not make it to their thirties before being discontinued. Playstation had joined the party and who knew how long it would stay. It was only a matter of time before the next thing overshadowed it.
A table and chairs that always needed to be cleaned were down there for as long as I’ve known them. Some old pictures hung on the walls and usually an overflowing laundry basket was found on the floor. The best thing in the Craven’s basement was the record player. A Pioneer turntable sat immortal on an old stand, it had a beautiful wood finish and was birthed sometime in the late seventies. Mr. Craven always had music playing. He encouraged us to listen to the records in his absence, emphasizing real music, as long as we respected the records and didn’t scratch them. Always place the needle on the lead-in. It didn’t matter if it was a weeknight and he had to be up early he never told us to turn down the music. He was more concerned that we put the record back into the proper sleeve and back on to the shelf. Mr. Craven had shelves that spanned the entire side wall of the basement. His collection had everything from his favorite bands Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy to The Beatles and Vanilla Fudge.
He was rock n’ roll but also loved other genres though he was a sucker for soul music. There were certain songs that if I heard them it immediately triggered a nostalgic feeling for that basement. He played these singles over and over, songs like You’re A Big Girl Now by The Stylistics and Am I A Good Man by Them Two. The latter became a song that we all genuinely loved and a thing we shared as we all related to it at some point in our youth.
Martin’s relationship with Blair was a mess. While the rest of us made our own messes. It was all part of the process, learning and growing. There will always be an internal struggle of good versus bad as long as you want to be a good and decent human being. There is no struggle if you don’t care about anything. Despite the bad things we did, with all the drunken and crass behavior, and the penchant for violence we were good hearted kids trying to become good natured men. I am aware it would be debatable, depending on the vantage point, but I knew we always meant well.