December’s Issue 112 brings you stormy holidays, an ex-president, and a man reminiscing lost innocence. Kick back and let the stories of Hobie Anthony, F.W. Brant, Mike Whitney, and Tom DePoto take you on a magical journey. Save room for seconds for this issue’s Editor’s Pick for “Must Read Twice” by F.W. Brant, because we’ve all been there.
I was never able to pull off riding an atom through a super collider with a nose full of cocaine and a drink in my hand. I wanted to be a bullet, zooming through the city, hitting all of the bull’s eyes in a single evening.
Want. Wanted. Wanting.
I was little more than a sucker-dart shot from a spring-action toy gun, hitting the refrigerator, flopping to the floor, waking up on the sidewalk or in the stairwell.
“Thump, thump, thump” goes a skull on the steps.
Particle physics failed me, along with my liver, and a psyche sadly born lacking Bukowski’s famous endurance.
I never made it to light speed, or even close. Collisions, though. There were collisions and revisions, rewritings of mistakes better forgotten. Not as bleak as Carver, nor as destructive as Hemingway, but still waiting for that one chance to smash and rip a hole in fabric of space and time, deep underground in the laboratory of a mad scientist.
Hobie writes from Portland, Oregon, where he’s pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree and rides his bike in the rain.
Love at the Five and Dime
My mom used to take us to the five-and-dime stores strewn throughout the area where I grew up. Woolworth was the most famous of these stores that we called “five and tens.” You don’t see them that much anymore, especially in urban areas. You can still find the occasional general store in rural New England. For the most part, though, these small mom-and-pop operations are long gone, replaced by the convenience store/gas station combo or by the discount department store chain. Priced out of existence. Economic progress, they call it.
One of my favorite five-and-dimes was an independently owned place located about a twenty-minute walk from school. Man, I must have been around eight or nine when my mom first started letting me go there after school with my friends. I don’t even remember the name of the place anymore. I know it’s not there today. But I remember it like it was yesterday.
You’d walk into the dimly lit store and an old cowbell would ring. The wooden floors would creak as you walked toward the comic book and magazine racks. Bins filled with toys, knick-knacks, candy bars, and gum lined the aisles. But the coolest part, at least for me, was the small lunch counter. There were seven or eight of those old padded stools bolted to the floor in front, and they’d squeak loudly as you sat down and spun around to face the counter.
A group of us would head over there a couple of days a week after school. Mr. Miller, the owner, would always greet us with a friendly smile, and we’d sit and order up an after-school snack. I’d always have the same thing: chocolate milk shake. Only cost a quarter back then. I didn’t always have a spare quarter on me, but when I was short on funds, Mr. Miller would always say something like, “Don’t worry about it, Frank. You can pay me back next time.” He was great guy, maybe in his sixties. He ran the place with his wife, and while he manned the lunch counter, she would tend to the register up front.
Among our group of after-school five-and-dimers was Elaine or “Laney” as we knew her. Whenever we went to the five-and-dime after school, I would try to sit next to her at the counter. She and I hardly said two words to one another during school, but somehow after school at the five-and-dime, we would talk about all sorts of stuff. Kid stuff: school, family, TV shows—whatever. Those fifteen minutes next to Laney at that lunch counter talking and drinking our milk shakes was heaven.
Outside the five-and-dime, we’d pretty much split up. I lived in a completely different direction from Laney, so that was the last I’d see of her until the next day at school, when we’d ignore one another until the next time we went to the five-and-dime. Laney was my first real crush. Looking back, I suspect she never had similar feelings for me. And maybe I sensed that from her, because for whatever reason, I never pursued anything beyond that.
So it went for the next few years. Gradually, our group’s interest in socializing after school at the five-and-dime waned. Two or three days a week became two or three days a month. Our group got smaller and smaller. By high school, the group was non-existent. Everyone had new friends in different social circles. I guess that’s just the way things go for kids. The innocence of our youth was lost to peer pressure and thoughts of the future. I’d still see Laney from time to time in the hallways. Sometimes we’d exchange nods, but that was pretty much it. Whatever feelings I had for her dissipated through the years.
During my senior year in high school, I got a job working produce at the supermarket across the street and up a ways from the old five-and-dime. One Saturday afternoon after work, I decided to check out the old place. I hadn’t been in there in years, so I thought it might be fun to see if anything had changed. To my surprise, that old cowbell still rung out when I walked in and as I quickly scanned the inside of the store, I was delighted to see how little the place had changed. The layout was pretty much how I remembered it but smaller; age does that to a person’s perspective. That same lunch counter was still there, along with those same padded stools.
I expected to see Mr. Miller’s smiling face beaming back at me but instead, the person behind the counter was someone I’d never expected to see: Laney. She flashed a broad grin at me as I approached the counter.
“Frank!” She sounded as surprised as I felt. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Laney,” I said, taking a seat on one of the old padded stools. “I’m working across the street at the supermarket. Produce department. I didn’t know you worked here.”
“Yeah, about four months now.”
“Man,” she said. “Remember how we used to all come in here as kids?”
“I’d almost forgotten about it.” I was lying through my teeth. “Where’s Mr. Miller?”
“He died a few years ago,” she responded somberly. “Mrs. Miller ended up selling the place and moving to Florida. The new owner is hardly ever here. Just me and four part-time kids.”
“Does it get busy?” I was the only customer in the store.
“Not like it used to,” she said. “But I like working here. It’s laid back, you know?”
“Yeah. That’s cool, too.”
“So,” she said. “You wanna milk shake or something?”
“I’d love one,” I laughed.
Using what looked to be the same old blender and stainless steel mixing cup, Laney made my shake. Watching her, the smell of chocolate syrup filling my nose, those old familiar feelings came flooding back. Before we knew it, we were chatting away like kids again, falling into easy conversation about school, family, and TV shows. Except now, it was all about our expectations and anxieties concerning college. I would be staying close to home, attending a State university, while Laney was headed off for Stanford. Her first time living that far from home, it was too good to pass up with all the grants and scholarships they were offering.
She talked about how much pressure she felt, how nervous she was. I just listened to the sound of her voice, nodding occasionally as I sipped my milk shake. There wasn’t much advice I could offer — only an ear. Perhaps she hadn’t vented in quite some time or maybe, in some small way, I offered comfort. At least I’d like to think that was the case. She talked about how difficult it was going to be on her relationship with her boyfriend, who would be staying behind and going to a local college. She hated to leave him, but hoped they could keep up a long-distance relationship. We all know how that usually goes, right? Again, I didn’t have much to say. I just listened.
Before long, I slurped the last of my milk shake and glanced up at the board where the price was listed as $1.49. I smiled, feeling foolish thinking that it’d still be a quarter. As I reached for my wallet, Laney stopped me.
“No, Frank. It’s on me. Man, I’ve always wanted to say that!” We both burst out laughing, and all was right with the world—at least for that one brief moment.
The store’s phone rang and Laney went to answer it. From her tone, I could tell it was her boyfriend. I smiled at her one more time as I put my jacket back on, but she was too wrapped up in her conversation to notice. I got up from my stool and gave Laney a quick wave goodbye. She nodded back at me.
“Hey, Frank!” she called out just as I’d reached the door.
I turned to see her cupping her hand over the telephone’s mouthpiece. “It was nice to see you again.”
I smiled at her one last time then left the five-and-dime behind me.
That was the last time we ever talked. We didn’t stay in touch, and I’ve never attended a high school reunion. Sometimes I still think about Laney. I imagine how she probably became a pediatrician like she always wanted. She was one of those people who had so much energy and drive that success was never a question.
Twenty five years later, I stumbled across an old cassette of a live concert by Nanci Griffith. I’ve always loved her gift of storytelling through music. As it blared out on my car stereo, one song haunted me: Love at the Five and Dime. I was overwhelmed. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was exactly like I’d felt when I was a little kid sitting next to Laney at the five-and-dime, and again when we were seniors in high school chatting at that same store.
I struggled to discern the nature of those feelings for a few days following that. Sometimes, it’s good to let these things sink in for a period of time before you try to figure them out. I don’t think it had anything to do with an old crush or the inability to realize what might have been. I think it was more about recapturing a sense of lost innocence—a feeling. No matter how you might try, you can never go back to that innocence. I guess you might call it nostalgia or even romance. Or maybe it’s just that I’m growing older, and as I watch my kids grow up, I realize that they’re just now beginning to experience the joys and perils of innocence, soon to be lost.
And I know that there’s this brief time frame, within the innocence of childhood, when coming of age is the most beautiful part of life.
They’d sing, dance a little closer to me
Dance a little closer now
Dance a little closer tonight
Dance a little closer to me
It’s closing time
And love’s on sale tonight at this five and dime
F.W. writes from New Hampshire, where he plays with electronics by day and scribbles memoirs by night.
Mike WhitneyChristmas–1989 Ravenna, Ohio 2:13 P.M.
My sister’s boy, seven-year-old Bobby, started screaming when the wind ratcheted up. The ten of us gathered in the cellar as the funnel cloud headed straight for our house. The last thing I saw as I headed down the stairs was Gramps’ old Chrysler Imperial rotating slowly in the driveway, inches off the ground. The train sound made by the wind increased. As I slammed the door behind me, I saw the shiny black sedan lift like a helicopter and disappear.
The noise downstairs was nearly as loud. We heard the roof go with an explosion of ripping metal and snapping wood. Floorboards, joists and sub flooring above us were ripped up, revealing a clear sky that flickered and darkened then turned gray with dust. We smelled natural gas from where the kitchen had been. Silence settled over the basement as the wind moved off and shock deepened. Bobby sniffled and sobbed quietly then he, too, went silent.
As I climbed the still-intact stairs to assess the damage, a sense of dread like I’d never known rose in my stomach. I heard a distant choir singing We Wish You A Merry Christmas. It was Bobby’s new cassette player sitting on the unscathed coffee table in the empty space where our living room had been. All the trees and neat little houses that once lined the block were gone — even our own — right down to the foundation.
I smiled and felt my eyes watering. It was a miracle we were alive. As my, wife and children and other family members came out to look, I motioned them to me and we stared at each other silently. Then we hugged, thanking God for letting us live.
That was many Christmases ago. Today the houses on our street look pretty much the same again. And even though we aren’t much at singing together, before we open the gifts, we always join hands and softly lift our voices together in a heartfelt rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.Good tidings we bring to you and your kin; Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Mike writes from North Carolina, where he strums his guitar here for your pleasure.
I’m sorry to hear that you and Jeff are breaking up. Although I never met the young man, from the things you had told me about him when you moved into his apartment, I thought I could grow to like him. But as you say, disillusionment can be devastating.
To answer your question — was I ever disillusioned with your mother — no. Not ever. She is as near perfect a human being as there is. My only surprise is that she’s agreed to stay with me through all these years.
I was disillusioned once, if that’s the proper word, several years ago. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this story, but it was one of those spring days where the earth begins to smell warm again. It was the year we had all the snow. And on this particular day, a Monday, I made my weekly trip to the library to get a fresh stack of books. (I always wished you’d acquire my love of reading, but I’m just as glad you’ve found your passion in architecture. I guess we’re similar in that I like to read books, while you read buildings. The only difference is I can carry mine under my arm.)
Anyway, the weather was so nice this day, the sky as blue as it can get in Jersey, I headed across the street to the park. You remember the tiny park across from the library, don’t you? With its two green, wooden benches, the flagpole and the large rock bearing the names of the town’s deceased veterans? I thought it would be nice to sit and read there for a while, under the warming sun. Your mother was at a Woman’s Club luncheon, if I remember. I had just taken out Existential Hypnotherapy I think, and was curious to see how abstract philosophy and suggestive psychology could work together. I sat on one of the benches, and a man who must have had the same notion sat on the other. He wore a heavy dark topcoat, no hat. His collar was turned up and he seemed buried in his book, as I hoped soon to be in mine.
After a few pages, I heard the man mutter, then say, “God damned editors.” His voice sounded like a car driving backwards on gravel, but it was familiar. “Damn them,” he said again. I looked over at him just as he lifted his head and looked at me. It was Richard Nixon.
Ever since he’d moved into town there had been rumors of Nixon sightings at the Shop-Rite and some of the restaurants in town. Until today, though, I’d never seen him. Once, almost. At Valentino’s. Your mother and I were having dinner there when the owner, Mario, ever-attentive Mario, came to our table all excited and said, “Signore, Mr. President is dining with us tonight!” I tried to get a glimpse of Mr. Nixon as we were leaving, but he’d departed before us.
“I’m sorry,” he said now outside the library. “I didn’t mean to bother you.” The president, a man I had reviled years ago, was speaking to me.
“That’s quite alright,” I said. Then curiosity got the better of me. “Is something wrong?”
“These are the galleys for my latest memoirs,” he said, rifling the pages. “And the god-damned editors think they know more about my life than I do. Minor details. But just the same, it’s my life, you know, I lived it.” He closed the book on his life, his jowls trembling. “It’s so hard to get the truth out. Most people only know what they’ve read about me. And a lot of people detest me.”
He looked over at me and I tried to avoid his glance.
“I guess you’re one of them,” he said. “Oh, don’t feel bad about it. I’d detest me too if I believed what I read.”
He paused here for a moment and looked desperate for words of apology for some undefined offense. Then he continued in that famous downbeat voice:
“I may have done a thing or two wrong, but I’m not a bad person. Just ask my girls. Thank God I had them during the Watergate days, as they came to be called. They stood close by my side, Julie and Trish. Two wonderful girls. Wonderful. I don’t know how they put up with the whole mess. And Pat.”
I could hear the tears in his throat.
“I was sorry to hear about Mrs. Nixon,” I said. It was true. As intensely as I disliked her husband, I had nothing bad to say about Pat Nixon. She seemed to be a genuinely good woman.
“Were you one of the people who sent flowers when she died?”
I shook my head no, realizing as he said it that it would have been a very generous thing to do.
“That’s alright,” he went on. “Thousands of people did. Everyone loved Pat. All around the world, everywhere we went, Pat was loved.” He dropped his head. “I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss her. She was the only reason I didn’t kill myself at the end of my presidency. Couldn’t bear to leave all that shame on her. When the entire nation turned against me, even my closest, trusted advisers started talking behind my back, Pat was my only friend. The only one I could turn to. Pat and the girls. I wish they lived closer.”
He lifted his head and looked at me again, like we were old friends spending an afternoon together. He felt the need to talk.
“I see my grandchildren, I love them,” he said. “But I don’t get to see them often enough. You know, I just became a grandfather again two months ago. But how could you know that.” He waved his hand as if tossing a ball. “Pat and I adopted a Vietnamese girl during the war. Bet you didn’t know that. Never told the press. Didn’t know what kind of a field day they could have with that tidbit. Wonderful girl. Sad story about her family, though. Anyway, Pat and I raised her like she was our own. Sent her off to private school when the media attention became really bad. Had to protect her, you know, after all she’d been through. But now she’s happily married to a California businessman and just gave birth to a girl.”
He showed me a picture of a beautiful, dark-haired newborn.
“She looks absolutely precious, Mr. President,” I said.
“Thank you.” He put the picture back in his wallet. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. It was a pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand and I grabbed it with both of mine like I was grabbing history and shook it. He picked up his manuscript, left the park and headed into Roscoe’s Deli. Awed still, I followed. After a moment I saw him emerge with a pack of cigarettes. Odd, I thought, I never knew he smoked.
I went into Roscoe’s, still in a bit of a daze over this chance encounter and hoping to find someone else who was equally as bowled over as I was. There was a young woman behind the counter.
“Do you know who was just in here?” I asked.
“Do you know who was just in here and bought a pack of cigarettes? Richard Milhaus Nixon!”
“That wasn’t him,” the girl said. “That’s Ed Donnelly. He’s been impersonating the president so long, he’s starting to think that’s who he really is.”
Well, Lilly, you may think that’s a cute story about how an old man got fooled one day. But there’s more.
I looked for Ed Donnelly outside the library for the next couple of weeks. Never saw him again, and I soon forgot the whole incident. But then about two years later, Mr. Nixon died of a stroke, remember? I thought fleetingly of Ed Donnelly, then watched the televised news coverage like everyone else. I found some amusement in the pampered broadcasters as they tiptoed around their praise for the late president. Most of them made their careers by ensuring his downfall. Now they couldn’t gloat about his death, instead they had to find good things to say.
I watched as the plane carrying his body landed in California. His daughters Trish and Julie, along with their husbands, children and a small military honor guard stood clustered on the rainy tarmac. They looked so small, just the handful of them to greet the body of a president. And to my amazement, tears started to flow. Your mother looked at me and said, “I thought you couldn’t stand the man?”
“I thought so. But it was the president I couldn’t stand. He was a loving husband and father, you know. Really loved his wife Pat, and his girls, and his grandchildren, too.”
She looked at me with complete befuddlement.
Well, that’s my tale for the day. Write back when you get the chance. Your mother sends her love.Love, Dad
Tom writes from New Jersey, where he’s a newspaper journalist and blogs fantastic photography at http://web.mac.com/tomdepoto .