John’s Last Hurrah

The boy sat next to his mother on a charter bus headed to a Cincinnati Reds game. The open windows blew sticky air past his nose, but he could still smell beer. The grownups passed around cans and guzzled. Voices grew louder and ran over the top of each other. The boy wanted to cover his ears but didn’t. He’d heard an aunt tell his mother that he was way too sensitive.

A balding man stood up near the rear of the bus. His gut bulged over white polyester pants. Sweat stains circled under his armpits. He clenched the soggy butt end of a cigar between two sausage fingers. He shouted, “Pull the bus over! I gotta pee!”

Someone cried, “Hang it out the window, John!” John bellowed with laughter. He pulled the nearest window down as far as it would go and pretended to do just that.

A few weeks passed. The boy couldn’t remember much about the baseball game. Maybe Johnny Bench had hit a home run. The grownups drank at the stadium till their speech slurred. One aunt fell into another man’s lap when she stood and waved to get a hot dog vendor’s attention. John shouted, “Ya dumb cocksucker!” at an umpire after he called a runner out at second base.

His mother talked to Aunt Martha on the phone one evening after supper. Mom said, “So we’ll meet at your house and then head to the hospital. How’s John doing? Uh huh. All right.”

The boy’s mother hung up, turned to him and said, “I’m going to a prayer meeting at the hospital. There are snacks in the bread box. Keep an eye on your brother.”

Mom came back two hours later. Her eyes had a peaceful glow. She told the boy, “Well, we prayed over him. I could feel God’s love flowing from me to John.”

“Is he getting better?” the boy asked.

“He does for a while after we lay hands on him, then the cancer comes back and gets worse. We’re going to come more often,” she said.

Mom went the next week on the same night. The boy and his brother drank milk and ate Oreos, wrestled on the carpet, and watched “Gunsmoke”. Mom trudged in an hour late. Lines etched her brows. She took her time shrugging off her coat and hanging it in the closet. The boy waited. He could tell something had happened.

She addressed the closet door when she said, “John’s dying. He knows it and he’s scared. I guess it’s God’s will.”

“How do you know he’s–“

Mom cut him off: “It isn’t hard to tell.”

The boy babysat his brother while his mother attended the funeral. She checked her lipstick twice in her pocket mirror before walking out the door. Her rosary tangled with the keys as she pulled them out of her purse. When she came home, her face was smooth and untroubled. But she said, “I just don’t know what Jocelyn’s going to do without John.”

The boy grew up and became a sixty-year-old man who called his mother every Friday.  They talked about the weather, books, politics. One day she said without preamble, “You know Jocelyn, John’s wife? She passed away last week. I didn’t know anything about it till your Aunt Martha called and told me. She lived alone all those years, never remarried.

“She must have really loved John,” he ventured.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Martha told me that she’d been getting along fine, but she woke up one morning with a pain in her belly. It got so bad she drove herself to emergency. She never left the hospital.  She hung in there all those years without John…and then went just like that.”

The man said a prayer that night.  He felt God’s love flowing toward Jocelyn and John.  He hoped it would do them some good this time.

Late Night at the Donut Shop

We cleared stale donuts from the display shelves and threw the discards into empty flour bags.  I stuck my head out the back door to check for bears before I threw them away.  Raiders from nearby woods marauded late at night to ransack our dumpster.  We put out fresh cake donuts (the yeast donuts still rose on trays in the incubator) and dealt with a rush of  2:00 drunks.  The bars had just closed, and our staggering, bleary, mush-mouthed clientele wanted coffee to counter the booze and treats to sweeten the bitterness of oncoming hangovers.  The shop cleared around 3, and Katie, the night manager, called a break.

She lit a cigarette at her table in the corner and stared out the window.  Harry, the lead baker, kept her company but didn’t eat a mid shift meal. Anyone who sat with her could smoke, drink coffee or eat a donut, but  sandwiches, fruit, and microwaved left overs were forbidden. She couldn’t stand to watch people eat anything but candy and breakfast food as her father had abused his little girl every night as she struggled to choke down her suppers.

I took a seat at a booth with JoJo, and she talked about her boyfriend, her muscle car, and her obsession with the band, “White Snake”.  She noted that I drove a beat up Mazda and wondered about the virility of a man who owned a rusty beater that wheezed when it climbed up a gentle incline.  I told her that I couldn’t stand to listen to another White Snake song, and that the band members were nothing but Led Zeppelin wannabes.  She threatened to punch me, and our nightly ritual came to a close.

A grizzled man wearing an old coat slumped through the door and sat at the booth at my back.  After a few minutes we heard him moan.  I turned to look and saw him clutching his chest.  He gritted his teeth, squeezed his eyes tight shut and moaned again.  I said, “Hey, are you all right?”

He slumped to the side, turned his head so that he could look me in the eye and groaned, “My heart…”

JoJo jumped up to sit beside him and held his hand.  I  rushed to the office and called an ambulance.  I saw the stricken man sitting more upright when I returned, and he smiled sadly as he whispered his life’s sad story in JoJo’s ear.  She patted his shoulder.

EMTs arrived a few minutes later, and the lead guy rolled his eyes when he saw the victim.  He said, “Hey Charlie, how’s it goin’ tonight?”

Charlie pointed to his chest.  The EMT said, “Another heart attack Charlie?  Third time this week, isn’t it?”  One medic leaned idly against a booth, and the lead slowly pulled a stethoscope out of his bag.  He gave Charlie a once over and said, “You’re fine.  Just like always.”  The medic turned to me and said, “He’ll live to 100, just you bet.”

Charlie hurried out as soon as the EMTs had packed up and gone.  JoJo and I finished our coffees and trudged back to the kitchen.  We glazed the yeast and filled the cream donuts.  JoJo kept dashing out for cigarette breaks, and I cursed when I dropped a pan of chocolate icing on the floor.  We worked on the specialty donuts and the eclairs around 6 a.m., and got into a fight about how long I’d taken to do my share of the work.  JoJo repeated her claim that she did most while I lagged behind.  I told her to work another shift if she didn’t like mine.

We glowered at each other as we punched out and went our separate ways.  Charlie was the real target, but he was long gone.

The Wine Lady


I saw a woman on a sidewalk near the gallery at Crealde School of Art.  She reigned over a court of listeners, and a fellow Crealde teacher stood in the crowd.  I joined my colleague and soon realized that the lady holding forth was drunk and perhaps crazy.  She slurred her words as she ranted on about a sculptor who had molested her in his studio.  I didn’t doubt her story but wondered why she felt compelled to share it with a group of random strangers.  I began to edge away, but my colleague grabbed my arm, held on tight and said, “You’re not going anywhere.”  If she was trapped listening to the wine lady, then I was trapped too.

I didn’t know that the woman was a regular at art openings all over Orlando, but soon encountered her several times.  She usually held a plastic cup of red as she retold her story.  She had been an art student, and apprentice of sorts, an innocent young woman raped by a sculptor who had volunteered to be her mentor.  She fled, quit art school, and returned home.  Now she felt compelled to attend art events, to drink until she achieved a sloppy state of semi-coherence, and thence to recite the events leading to her downfall.



I joined an artist’s co-op, and we held open houses once or twice a year.  I got to observe a lot of odd behavior in the art crowd in Orlando.  Some folks would come for the wine and hors d’oeuvres and set up private parties in the less frequented corners of our studio warehouse.  Some folks came view to what they considered to be a freak show.  They’d sneer at the artwork and make snickering jokes that questioned the sanity and talent of the exhibiting artists.  Everyone appeared to have an expert opinion regardless of their actual experience working in visual arts.

The wine lady showed up one night and stood in the doorway of my studio.  She had  already lost the ability to keep her internal monologue private.  She scanned me and said, “Well, he’s pretty good looking but putting on a little weight.  I wonder if he likes his wine too much.”

I greeted her to interrupt her appraisal, and she wandered over to my refreshment table.  My 14 year old daughter came in to say hello, and the wine lady targeted her.  She began to warn Annie that men were animals.  And then the wine lady started to launch her standard tale of woe.  I cut her off with a few sharp words and told my daughter to go find her mother.

A few years later I saw the woman walking along Aloma Avenue in Winter Park.  She marched at a brisk pace, gestured with her arms, and argued loudly with phantoms.

Several years passed.  My life grew complicated and more difficult and I attended fewer and fewer openings.  I moved my studio home to escape the drama I found whenever I joined artist groups.  I associated with other artists less frequently.  I had grown tired of the collective jealousy, political maneuvering, and madness.

I recently decided to give the art world another chance and went to an opening at Crealde.  I spotted the wine lady hovering near the refreshment table.  I felt surprised that she was still alive.  I listened to her story once more and didn’t dodge off to another room.   I nodded along to her familiar rant, and the intervening years seemed to peel away.

I felt more sympathy for her.  It doesn’t take much to derail a life, and I respected her ability to survive.  And I admired her persistence.  It takes a lot of stamina to hold onto a grudge for a couple decades and to persistently retell a sad tale of trauma.  I doubt that I could manage that.

Perhaps the wine lady is a latter day, wine-soaked Jonah preaching the evils of the male gender.  Who am I to judge her judgments?



Don’t Mess With Gramps

In the 1930s, my grandfather lived down the street from a beer garden.  He wasn’t a teetotaler and didn’t mind if others had a good time, but grew tired of the disruption of hooting and hollering drunks and the debris they left behind.  One summer night, a car full of women pulled up in front of his house.  He sat on his porch smoking a cigarette and heard their drunken conversation as they got out.  He was hidden in darkness, and the women had no idea they had an audience.  One lifted her skirt, squatted down and left a deposit on the lawn.  They laughed as they tottered away to top off their evening at the beer garden.  Grandpa fetched a shovel from his garage after they had gone, scooped up the pile and deposited it on the back seat of the ladies’ sedan.  A few hours later he heard a car door slam followed by screeching, cursing and crying.

Grandpa and Grandma rented for many years before Grandpa’s business began to generate a comfortable income.  Grandpa liked to fix things and to garden, and he left every house in better shape than he found it.  One time he put new tile down in the kitchen.  The landlord came by for the rent, saw the improvement, complimented Grandpa and thanked him.  A month later he evicted them.  My grandfather figured out that the landlord wanted to use the gleaming kitchen floor as an enticement to lure renters willing to pay more.  Grandpa moved his family out to a new location, but before turning in the keys he tore up the tiles and left the broken bits for the landlord to clean up.

Grandpa eventually bought a house on Pritz Avenue.  Ten years later, the city of Dayton put an east/west highway through the town, and bought out the place through eminent domain.  Grandpa got less than the worth of the house, but made do with a story-and-a-half he purchased a mile away in Belmont.  The new house sat on a corner, and Grandpa found tire tracks running across his lawn on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  Some motorists liked to cut the corner.  Punks in a hot rod made a point of churning deep ruts into his lawn one night.  Grandpa began to collect stones about the size of bowling balls.  When he had ten or so, he placed them at intervals at the edge of his lawn along the corner where cars cut through.  He painted them white to give the wayward drivers fair warning, but took some satisfaction when he heard tires blow and axles grind late at night.  Word eventually spread, and Grandpa’s lawn went untouched.

My Grandpa’s shop sold and installed Venetian blinds, curtains and valances.  One day during the beginning of a hectic holiday season, a woman wearing a fur coat and pearl earrings came up to the counter and gave Grandpa a list of demands.  Her house had to be redecorated before Christmas, and Grandpa must put aside his other jobs and give her preferential treatment.  She was an important person.  Grandpa told her that she’d have to wait her turn, that he wouldn’t bump other orders.  She exclaimed, “But my family is coming to town and I need this!”  Grandpa put down his pen and pushed aside her order form, pointed to the displays in the showroom and said, “Lady, there isn’t a single thing in this store that you actually need.



A Lack of Privacy

I rented an apartment in 1981 with two friends.  It was on the second floor of an old Victorian wood frame house in east Dayton.  I had just dropped out of college and worked at Godfather’s Pizza to support myself.  Dave was a college friend who moved out for a number of awkward reasons after a few months.  My remaining roommate Jack had worked with me at the restaurant.  Now he attended a nursing school at nearby Miami Valley Hospital.

The neighborhood featured a run down cluster of tightly packed houses with dirt patch back yards often patrolled by underfed Dobermans and German Shepherds.  Anything nice left in view of the folks around us eventually disappeared.  Someone had spray painted graffiti on the stained brick wall of an old warehouse a few blocks down the street.  The writer shared the following two thoughts:  “Society is a carnivorous flower.” and “Help!  I’m trapped in Dayton!”.

Our street had a lot of rentals occupied by nursing students, and the dump next door housed a few of Jack’s classmates on the second floor.  One night Patty, Jack’s girlfriend, came over, and the three of us worked on a spaghetti dinner.  Jack was exhausted and fell asleep with his head on his forearms at the kitchen table.  Patty and I were friends, and we told stories and laughed as we drank wine, stirred the sauce and boiled pasta.  We woke Jack up when everything was ready, and the three of us had a pleasant meal.  A few days later Jack took me aside and wanted to know what had happened while he was asleep on the night of our dinner with Patty.  He explained, after I asserted that I had not made a move on his girlfriend, that the nursing students next door had watched me and Patty through the kitchen windows “having a real good time” while he slumbered on.  I had always been straight with Jack, and he believed me when I told him that I was not gunning for Patty.  I took note, however, that a window facing west could be a source of gossip passed around the nursing program.

About six months later the tables turned.  A warm spring forced our neighbors to open their windows, and I overheard a loud argument among the spies next door:

“Mary!  Your boyfriend stole from us.  He broke in and took garble garble garble.”

“Ronnie wouldn’t do that!   He loves me!”

“Oh for God’s sake, Mary.  He’s a druggy.  Of course he broke in.”

“He didn’t break in.  He has a key.”

“You gave him a key?!”

“Why not?  He’s my boyfriend and he loves me!”

“Jesus Christ!  You’re going to go over there and get our things back.”

“I can’t accuse him of stealing.  And like I said, he wouldn’t do that.”

“Well if you won’t do it we will.”

“No, no.  You don’t understand!”

“Oh, we understand.  And if we can’t get our things back you owe us some money.”

(Incoherent wailing followed by slamming doors.)

A few weeks later a house on the other side had a loud party.  I heard some glass breaking and went to a window on the east side of our apartment to investigate.  I looked down at the gap between the buildings and saw two men standing with their backs turned to me.  A broken bottle was shattered next to a scruffy man wearing a torn army jacket.  The other guy still held onto his bottle and took an occasional pull.  They were pissing up against the side of the party house.  One man slurred to the other, “Were you in ‘Nam?”  The other guy said, “Oh man, I can’t talk about that.”